No Other Custom

“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16: 11)

The Basket Case Chronicles #124

“Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered” (1 Cor. 11:4-5).

This section of Corinthians has been the scene of much contention, and so we will try to work through it slowly and methodically. As for the contention—we have no other custom, and neither do the the churches of God.

We will make some particular observations, but will not put them together in a larger whole until later. First, we shouldn’t be precise on the head covering, but imprecise on the occasion of it. The occasion for covering or uncovering the head is during the course of prayer or prophecy on the part of that individual. While praying or prophesying, a man dishonors Christ if his head is covered. While praying or prophesying, a woman dishonors her head (her husband) if she does so while uncovered. These respective heads (Christ and husband, respectively) have just been defined in v. 3.

Secondly, this is clearly in the context of public worship. Paul is talking about the custom of the churches (v. 16). This makes it plain that the restriction the apostle places on women speaking in church later in this letter is not an absolute restriction (1 Cor. 14: 34-35). She clearly may pray or prophesy in church, provided she does so in the way that the apostle stipulates will publicly honors her husband. Since prophecies have ceased, women may no longer prophesy in church for the same reason that the men cannot. Running the sail up the mast doesn’t make the wind blow.

Third, a question that will arise later is one that asks whether this prohibited covering for men and mandatory covering for women is artificial (hats and veils) or natural (hair), or both. Whichever it is, we begin to see here that it has something to do with hair. The verb used here means to cut the hair close. It is was what Paul did with regard to his Nazarite vow (Acts 18:18), and a related form applies to the shearing of sheep (Acts 8:32). So Paul is saying that if a woman goes with an uncovered head, she might as well go the entire distance and shave her head. It is commonly said (but I have not yet been able to find an ancient source for it) that the temple prostitutes at Corinth used to shave their heads. But clearly, doing something like this meant higher levels of shame.

And last, the restrictions that are placed on the time of praying or prophesying clearly have some impact on our behavior at other times. The time of praying affects the whole worship service, which affects public demeanor outside the church. We may limit the initial point of this instruction without trying to limit what obedience to this requirement will entail. In other words, if a woman has to have long hair by the time she prays in church, she probably ought to have that long hair a bit earlier in the service too.

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40 thoughts on “No Other Custom

  1. The head covering is clearly more than just hair otherwise verse 6 would be nonsensical: “For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short.” Hair and covering are not interchangeable.

    If this is true then wouldn’t the most straight forward application of this be for married women to cover their heads while praying in the context of Sunday worship?

    How else do you get around this conclusion?

  2. I have several friends that cover and have myself always been curious about this passage. I am grateful you are choosing to discuss it and I look forward to reading your teaching on it. :)

  3. Kyle, not to run ahead, but the reading could be if a woman has hair too short to provide a covering, then she might as well go ahead and cut it all off.

  4. “As for the contention—we have no other custom, and neither do the the churches of God.”

    Note to self: Do not be enjoying a glass of wine at the moment of reading this, for soon thereafter the wine will have less than a delicate nose.

  5. Did I miss The 20th Century’s Great Ecumenical Council on Worship? Because after 1900 years of church squabbles, differences, inquisitions and excommunications, the whole professing church of the 20th century came together in theological agreement. All professing Christian faiths and denominations have come together in agreement about changing they way they worship. From the farthest left liberal tolerant denominations, to the most restrictive and staunch conservative church’s, all have embraced and agreed upon changing the way they approach the Christian God in worship. Each of these professing denominations has theologically, radically and visually changed their approach and appearance to God on the Lord’s day worship service. And all this just within the past two generations of believers. But here’s something even more amazing, it’s been done without councils, interdenominational convocations, without studies, without books written, and it has all come from the men leading the church in worship. It has absolutely nothing to do with salvation, but everything to do about honoring God the way He proscribes. When the church decided to remove this symbol in worship, the ramifications for our society are imaging.

  6. Mr. Perry,

    I recommend a book regarding worship (that you may already know). It is an illuminating treatise: The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship
    Jeffrey J. Meyers (Author)

  7. Fantastic book, and I just finished looking things over a second time this morning. And this was why. A whole book about worship, and nothing about this symbol! The man as head, yes. Women can’t be ministers etc etc. But nothing about this symbol which is the whole point of the first half of 1 Cor 11. How can a whole book about worship be written, and the one symbol the church has understood and worn in worship for 1900 years is not mentioned? If I missed something please tell me. Here’s a quote from the book, “changing the way one worships means changing one’s confession of God. The way one worships one’s god corresponds to what one thinks of that god. You cannot separate form and content.” And yet, the covering is not addressed? Theres plenty about how a man should robe himself, but this vestment is off the table. How can that be?????? RFB, why are “leading” reformed ministers all over the board on this one? Let me give you a few examples without names.
    1. A woman does not have to wear a hat in worship because it has to do with the heart. A man however, can’t wear a hat.
    2. A woman did wear a hat during that period when she also prophesied, But that was only for that special dispensation of time prior to the cannon’s completion. It’s no longer applicable.
    3. It was cultural because of the Corinthian prostitutes, and not necessary for us. (I wonder who found that address book?)
    4. It’s so simple, it’s right there, it’s a woman’s long hair!
    5. It’s not necessary because that would be pharisaical to require it, and were not going back to that system.

    RFB, why can the church parse and type out the plagues of Egypt, but now 1 Cor 11 is in complete confusion? 1900 years of teaching and practice cast aside. The ministers of the church did it again. Sat back and watched Eve in the sanctuary mess with a symbol. It’s their responsibility and fault. Our culture now reflects how we worship. I know I sound like I’m pounding the pulpit, but it is with sadness. It’s about honoring God before His angles. By the way, yes He knows every heart, but the other thousands and thousands don’t. It’s so disrespectful to come before our Lord, without Man’s glory covered!

  8. RFB, just so you know, I want to stand on the teaching of our spiritual fathers, as all the current and “very godly” reformed men like Doug have taught me. When visiting moscow, my wife has not worn a hat. We arrived early for the first time, and sat back in the car. She noticed and said, “Steve, I’ll stick out like a sore thumb.” I replied, “I understand”. So please pardon my vitriolic passion in these blog posts.

  9. Mr. Perry,

    If I am understanding you correctly, it is the custom in your home congregation for the women to wear hats as part of worship? But she was made uncomfortable by a congregation full of women who didn’t wear hats?

    Or is it the other way around?

  10. Mr. Perry,

    I did not perceive your response as vitriol; more like frustration. As someone whose first exposure to evangelical Christianity was the heyday of the So. CA “Jesus People” movement of the early 70’s, I think that I somewhat understand the angst. I know that God can draw straight with crooked lines, and it seems as if the [Jesus People] vehicle has been used by God to bring many sons to glory, despite the fact it sometimes looks like Ken Kesey’s bus. I am also sanguine about the less than salubrious effects of the “we don’t need no steenkin sound words” rejection of church history and tradition that has accompanied modern evangelical practice. As someone else said, there are more words used in ordering a latte than their are in many of their hymns. Another part of the dynamic in play is the consistent trend toward limp-wristedness in the ministry, and so it creates a suspicion of capitulation to feminism when one sees a failure to confront this type of issue. I do not have that fear of Pastor Wilson, and I have full confidence that he will try to address the issue scripturally and comprehensively, and will be unafraid to go wherever that leads. He has already displayed that he is unafraid of the green kryptonite of the racism ad hominem, and so this would just be another color, pink kryptonite as it were.

  11. Steve ince you seem to be versed in church history, perhaps you can give some examples of famouse church fathers of previous eras and their teaching on the subject.

    On a semi related topic, I don’t believe that the prohibition fothe Jews entering the promised land during Moses time applied to women. Numbers 27: 1-7 Joshua 17:3-4. How could these women be in both places if the Divine punishment applied to women?

  12. Hey brother, I just wrote an article today that deals with the Corinthian temple prostitutes if it interests you. http://www.headcoveringmovement.com/articles/is-head-covering-cultural-what-about-the-corinthian-prostitutes

    I know we arrive at different conclusions but thanks for encouraging the study and thought of this passage. It’s neglected and my hope is many people linger on this section (1 Cor 11:2-16) to give it the time it deserves.

  13. Hello Arwen. A number of families in our congregation, including the Pastor practice this tradition, but most do not. Mostly just us older folks. The principal of love comes first. But no one who does is looked at as the party of the circumcision, not knowing the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith. Which is not to say that we would have been treated that way in Moscow either. We have always been treated with brotherly love and kindness. But if no one practices this during worship, I hope you can understand how a woman could get sore thumb syndrome.

  14. RFB, as much as I’m indebted to Doug and his teaching, what’s wrong with the way the historical church has “scripturally and comprehensively” addressed this issue? We are not talking about some obscure patristic practice. Doug seems be in N.T. Writes exegetical row boat on this one. He already is pressing a primary understanding of marriage into the text, which is not there. This is an unhistorical interpretation. Paul is not praising married Corinthians for following this tradition. Ask yourself, did these principles of headship, authority and glory apply before Eve was brought to Adam (prior to marriage)? The covering reflects acknowledgement of God’s edenic Man/Woman authority structure in the sanctuary first. Adam received the word of God first, and is responsible for the sanctuary. Christ wants us to acknowledge all these principles, by this visible creed of creation, when we come to dine with Him. On this issue of worship, ministers have lost control of God’s household, and our society is reflecting the same.

  15. Robert, If you are simply asking for some historical proof of what the church has taught and practiced, it’s too much. But better yet, how about going to Grandma (as long as she’s 80 or so). Take a look (any denomination will do) at pictures of worship back in the 40’s and earlier, and compare it with today. I’m not trying to be funny, but a picture can tell it all.

  16. Mr. Perry,

    I do not want to answer for Pastor Wilson, but I will posit that Paul uses the word “wife” six times from verse 2 through 16 of chapter 11. I think that it is at least reasonable to think that 6 references to wife means that he is speaking about wives. I am not arguing your greater points about changes in the church, just exploring your comment regarding Paul and “married Corinthians”.

  17. RFB, sorry, I’m not following you? Wife has never been used in any translation of the bible in 1 Cor 11? KJV, NKJV, ASV, NASV, NIV, RV, RSV, and the list goes on an on. I’m not a scholar, but throughout the churches history, it has never been translated wife. Is there something new that I’ve missed? Are we talking about 1 Cor 11?

  18. Mr. Perry,

    I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to make accuracy determinations about most translations, so I will have to defer to those who are and can. Nonetheless, the side-note from the above link (of the translation that Pastor Wilson linked) says: “Greek gunē. This term may refer to a woman or a wife, depending on the context.” Now this is either true or false, and arguendo, if true, then there is some objectively reasonable basis to think that Paul meant wife.

  19. In response to Doug’s response to Kyle, this from http://www.headcoveringmovement.com/articles/is-a-womans-long-hair-her-covering:

    If long hair were the same as being covered according to Paul, what would be being uncovered? It would mean having short hair, right? The opposite of covered is uncovered and the opposite of long hair is short hair. So if that’s what Paul had in mind, let’s do some word replacement in verse 6. Where we see the word “cover her head”, let’s replace that with “have long hair”.

    For if a woman does not [have long hair], let her also have her hair cut off (v.6a NASB)

    For if a wife will not [have long hair], then she should cut her hair short (v.6a ESV)

    If you refuse to have long hair, you should cut your hair short? You’d already have short hair! This argument wouldn’t make sense.

    Some then object to the ESV rendering of “cut short”. They would understand “cut off” (NASB) as a synonym for shaved making this argument less nonsensical. Paul’s argument would then be transformed into “if a woman has short hair, she should shave it all off”. The problem with this argument is “cut off” cannot mean shaved in this context.

    The Greek word translated “cut off” is keirō. This word is used again later in this very same passage and it’s differentiated from “shaved” which is the Greek word xuraō.

    Here’s what it says: “…disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off (keirō) or her head shaved (xuraō)…”. Did you catch it? He said “or” shaved. So while “cut off” (keirō) can be used to describe a shaved head, Paul couldn’t have had this in mind here*. If we were to understand it that way his argument becomes ”…disgraceful for a woman to have her hair [shaved] or her head shaved…”. Shaved or shaved? Once again this just wouldn’t make sense.

  20. I’m thinking that the covering and the long hair must be different things, if only because there are certain women for whom growing sufficiently long hair is a genetic impossibility.

    Admitting that long hair and a covering are different also enables us to not ask at all the question of “how long is long?”

  21. ON the other hand, the very next verses say this:

    15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

    I’ve always understood this to mean that if anyone is inclined to be contentious about whether women cover their heads or no, and to make it a source of division, that there is no consistent practice among the church and the entire issue is adiaphora.

  22. RFB,

    You rightly say that should consider the context to determine if we should use ‘woman’ or ‘wife’ in this passage. I would argue that verses two and three are clearly referring to the entire congregation and refers to all men and women not just those who are married. The passage closes in verses 13 to 15 with another reference to all men and women who are by nature men and women. Secondary context would be the reference to angels in verse ten and the reference to custom in verse 16.

    AND even if we restrict the teaching to only married men and women it still does not address the question that Steve asked about why the shift was made in the 20th century?

    In the Lamb,

    John

  23. Mr. Stoos,

    I think that my statement was not clear. I do agree with the premise of context, but that was not my quote, that was the quote of the translators as a side note. This is their quote: “Greek gunē. This term may refer to a woman or a wife, depending on the context.”
    Based upon that, it appears that the editors/translators of the ESV see the aforementioned uses of the word gunē to be in the context of a wife. Their quote, not mine.

  24. Regarding the shift made in the 20th century, I could guess and venture an opinion, but I lack the knowledge to support an opinion. I can get into enough trouble with what I know, so I try to avoid the much greater chasm of my ignorance. The first step off that edge is a thriller.

  25. Doug, I think your statement that “this is clearly in the context of public worship” is unfounded.

    1 Corinthians 11 begins without a specific reference to “coming together”. Referring to churches only refers to communities — not necessarily to the public gathering of those communities. Verse 17 begins the discussion of what happens when the church actually gathers in a larger assembly.

    This “coming together” in the larger church gathering is also the explicit context of Paul’s prohibition of women speaking at all (1 Corinthians 14:26), and the women are told to be silent *ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ*. The “silence” referred to throughout chapter 14 is also one of absolute silence — not of submissiveness or humility or any such thing. So when it says women should be silent *in the churches*, *when you come together*, and *with no qualification*, I think it is best to understand Paul as saying, “Women are not to speak in church.” Given the context of church order, I would understand his words to be a reference to any *public* speaking in the church, such as he lists in 14:26 — songs, lessons, revelations, tongues, interpretations. These are all public usages, and Paul is speaking of them in the context of coming together ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ.

    The language of “coming together” or of ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ is totally absent before 1 Corinthians 11:17, which I think deserves an explanation. The best explanation for all of the evidence, as far as I can see, is that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, including the requirement that women wear coverings, is in the context of believers *not* “ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ” or “coming together”. Paul is speaking rather of smaller, informal gatherings, in which women may contribute to the group vocally, while they are prohibited from such contributions during the larger, more formal gatherings.

    I hope you’ll consider these things and I certainly look forward to your interaction with these ideas.

  26. Mr. Lohr,

    Not a leading question although it might sound like one: Do you think that head covering is obscure, or obscure because some want it that way? To echo Mr. Perry in a certain respect, what has been the practice of the historic church? Has head covering always been treated as obscure? I am asking this not just of you but of Pastor Wilson for the purposes of learning.

  27. Jeremy Gardiner:

    What then does one do with verse 15, where the apostle clearly states that a woman’s hair is given to her as a covering?

  28. Jeremy,

    The creational order is given in verse three and then Paul explains how this is demonstrated in worship, in verse nine he reminds us that we do it for the angels and then in verses 14 & 15 Paul says, that as would be expected we still see it in the creation.

    We have been asking why the major shift in the 20th Century and if you understand how upset folks in the feminist and homosexual activist communities are with the natural order you begin to see why. Sadly the Church gave up the authority of Genesis in the 18th & 19th Centuries and thus we have largely gone along because we have no real way to stand against such things if they are not contrary to God’s created order, which we can’t know if Genesis is not true.

  29. Arwin, see “henrybish”‘s post above (August 15, 2013). He linked to the article where I answered this objection.

    It’s a good question and I believe there are compelling reasons for not accepting long hair as woman’s only covering.

  30. Jeremy,

    Just in case you didn’t notice, Doug Wilson had a slight variation on the covering=long hair argument. See his comment at the top. I posted an excerpt of your article that responds that that variation. That was a good point to notice, quite unusual that the phrase occurs in the same passage! It’s almost as if the passage was written in such a way so as to preclude all of these modern arguments you interact with on your site. Very unusual.

    I currently think that if God wanted us to continue in our abandonment headcoverings then why has He not provided us with a good and reasonable interpretation of this passage that gives us a way out!?

  31. Because this is an area that I have not previously studied in-depth, and because I wanted to use some wayback machine perspective, I looked up John Calvin’s take on the issue. His comments seem to be clearly non-contemporary: “He is treating here of different ranks…She is subject, let her then wear a token of subjection…If women uncover their heads, not only Christ, but all the angels too, will be witnesses of the outrage.” Here is a link: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom39.xviii.i.html

  32. I then went to Matthew Henry. He starts by saying “…he lays the foundation for his reprehension by asserting the superiority of the man over the woman…not indeed with such dominion as Christ has over the kind or God has over the man Christ Jesus; but a superiority and headship he has, and the woman should be in subjection and not assume or usurp the man’s place. This is the situation in which God has placed her; and for that reason she should have a mind suited to her rank, and not do any thing that looks like an affectation of changing places.” Here is a link: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/henry/mhc6.iCor.xii.html
    It does seem that the appeals made by these men are not to culture but to creative order. They both also caution that this ranking does not authorize abuse of authority, but instead interdependence.

  33. RFB, the creational principles of Headship, Authority and Glory were in effect prior to man and woman becoming man and wife. That’s because Adam was given the responsibilities of priest in the sanctuary prior to the woman being created. We are to worship first and acknowledge those principles in the sanctuary. Worship first then comes the wedding. There are plenty of other places in scripture where women are admonished to obey their husbands and likewise husbands love their wives. But this is not about that. This covering is about acknowledging the creation principles, for men and women before god.

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