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.]