Head Coverings Re-Examined

Dr. Sam Storms writes:

One of the more important books released in 2017 is Andy Naselli’s, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Presbyterian & Reformed). What follows is one example of why I so greatly appreciate Andy’s book.

In his chapter on the role in interpretation of the historical and cultural context of a biblical passage, Andy addresses the problem of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and its description of women wearing head coverings or veils while engaged in public worship. Should women do so today? Some say Yes, but most say No. Andy appeals to the research of Bruce Winter to help us in the process. Here is what he says:

What does it mean for a wife or woman to cover her head? What did that communicate in the Greco-Roman culture of Paul’s day? If you can’t answer those questions, then I don’t think you can accurately understand this passage.

This is a very controversial text on several levels. The most helpful insights I have read are by Bruce Winter, a historian and New Testament scholar who is an expert on the first-century historical-cultural context of Christianity in the Greco-Roman world. He has focused on 1 Corinthians for about three decades, and I’m not aware of anyone who has probed as penetratingly into that letter’s historical-cultural context. Here’s basically what Winter argues:

1. During religious ceremonies, pagan Roman men with a high social status pulled their togas over their heads when they led by praying or offering sacrifices. So Paul commanded Christian men not to cover their heads during their times of corporate worship like the socially elite pagans did.

2. A woman’s covering her head socially indicated that she was married. The thin head scarf or head covering symbolized a married woman’s modesty and chastity and submission to her husband. It was one way in which a wife honored her husband. The Greek word gune can mean “woman” or “wife,” depending on the context, and in this passage it refers specifically to the wife in vv. 3, 5, 6, 10, and 13. (The ESV translates it as “wife” in those verses, unlike the NIV, which translates it “woman.”)

3. A new kind of wife was emerging at this time in the Roman world – one who rebelled against the cultural milieu that allowed husbands but not wives to be sexually promiscuous. One way in which such wives would flaunt that freedom was by removing their veils. So a Christian wife should not deliberately remove her veil while praying or prophesying during a time of corporate worship because that would contentiously identify her with these other promiscuous women.

Not everyone agrees with Winter on this, but I think that he has made the most persuasive case based on the historical-cultural context. Regardless of whether you agree with Winter, my point is that you must engage the historical-cultural context of this passage in order to accurately interpret and apply it.

If Naselli, following Winter, is correct in the way he interprets this passage (and I believe he is), then we need not conclude that Paul is mandating for every culture in every century that women pray, prophesy, and worship with their heads covered. Needless to say, what the head-covering meant for women in first-century Corinth is not what it would mean or communicate today.
[Naselli provides the bibliographical information where you can study this issue more extensively: Bruce W. Winter, “Veiled Men and Wives and Christian Contentiousness (1 Corinthians 11:2–16),” in After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 121–41; Winter, “The Appearance of Unveiled Wives in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16,” in Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 77–96. See also Wayne Grudem, “Egalitarian Claim 9.2: Head Coverings,” in Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth: An Analysis of More Than One Hundred Disputed Questions (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 332–39.]

Head Coverings and Consistency

Benjamin L. Merkle serves as professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He is the author or co-author of numerous books, including Why Elders? A Biblical and Practical Guide for Church Members (Kregel, 2009) and 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Kregel, 2007). In an article entitled “Should Women Wear Head Coverings?” he writes:

Many complementarians build their case for rejecting women elders/pastors on Paul’s argument from creation in 1 Timothy 2:13–14. Paul’s prohibition cannot be culturally limited, they argue, since the apostle doesn’t argue from culture but from creation. He argues from the order of creation (“For Adam was formed first, then Eve”) and from the order of accountability in creation (“Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived”). Based on Paul’s inspired reasoning, then, complementarians conclude women may not “teach or have authority over men” (v. 12) in the context of the local church.

But can’t this reasoning also be applied to 1 Corinthians 11:8–9, where Paul makes a similar argument from creation to bolster his position? In the context of 1 Corinthians 11, he demonstrates that women need to have their heads covered while praying or prophesying. To prove his point, he argues from creation, saying that the woman was created from man (“For man was not made from woman, but woman from man”) and for man (“Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man”). Isn’t it inconsistent to reject Paul’s appeal for women to wear head coverings while affirming his command for women not to teach or have authority over men, since in both contexts Paul uses virtually the same (creation-related) reasoning?

This apparent inconsistency is raised by Craig Keener when he writes, “Although many churches would use arguments [from the order of creation] to demand the subordination of women in all cultures, very few accept Paul’s arguments [in 1 Cor. 11] as valid for covering women’s heads in all cultures. . . . We take the argument as transculturally applicable in one case [1 Tim. 2], but not so in the other [1 Cor. 11]. This seems very strange indeed.”

A closer examination of the two texts, however, shows it’s consistent to reject the need for women to wear head coverings (1 Cor. 11) while affirming they are not to teach or have authority over men (1 Tim. 2). The reason for this distinction is that in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul only indirectly uses the argument from creation to affirm head coverings for women. The direct application of his reasoning is to show that creation affirms gender and role distinctions between men and women. Therefore, Paul’s argument from creation which demonstrates men and women are distinct cannot be culturally relegated. The application of this principle (i.e., head coverings), then, can and does change with culture. In contrast, the argument from creation in 1 Timothy 2 applies directly to Paul’s prohibition, and therefore is not culturally conditioned. Continue reading