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