“Understanding the Covering”Categories: Sermons
In the adult class several weeks ago, we came to the first part of 1 Corinthians 11, which is famous for being one of the most difficult contexts in the entire New Testament. Of course, this was not news to me. I’d studied it and even preached on it before. As a result, when Doug bravely began exploring the context and comments began trickling in, I started composing my own comments.
However, after I reached about the fifth paragraph of those comments in my head, I realized that I was about to preach a sermon disguised as a Bible-class comment. Rather than holding forth, I suggested to Doug that it might be best if I simply preached a sermon on the subject. He agreed that such a sermon would be useful, so I slotted it into the next available preaching slot, which for me happened to be today. With this in mind, then, let’s return to this perilous context and see what we can learn about understanding the covering.
In this study, we first have to consider THE COMMANDMENT. It appears in 1 Corinthians 11:4-6. At first glance, this seems pretty straightforward. Men aren’t supposed to pray or prophesy with their heads covered, but women are. This text certainly mandates the covering for women in the Corinthian church and possibly for all women everywhere.
However, it’s obvious from considering the congregation this morning that most women here do not put an artificial covering on their heads in worship. Generally there are two arguments being made for this practice. First, Paul says in v. 15 that a woman’s hair is given to her for a covering, so hair is enough. Second, it’s clear from context that this is a commandment given to people in a particular culture, and because we don’t share the culture of the Corinthians, it doesn’t apply to us.
These are popular arguments, but there are problems with both of them. First, consider v. 6. There, Paul tells the Corinthian women that if they don’t adopt the covering, they might as well cut their hair short. From this, we can conclude that in Corinth, long-haired women still were expected to wear an artificial covering. Even today, long hair is not a reason to refuse to.
Second, we need to be very, very careful dismissing Biblical commandments on the basis of culture. As Jason observed in class that day, culture is the key that opens every door. Whatever you don’t like in the Bible—baptism, restrictions on divorce, the role of women in the church—you can dismiss on the basis of culture. This is not to say that the cultural argument is a bad argument. In fact, I think it’s correct. However, we must not reject commandments because of cultural differences without a very good reason.
From here, let’s turn to examining PAUL’S ARGUMENTS in this context. The first appears in 1 Corinthians 11:1-3, 7-10. In these texts, Paul is arguing from creation. Just as man was created for God, woman was created for man. As a result, there is a spiritual hierarchy: First God, then Christ, then husbands, then wives. Paul’s concern is that without some symbol of authority on their heads, some reminder of this hierarchy, women will imitate the angels who did not honor God’s authority and become rebels too.
Of course, this leaves open the question of whether the covering is Paul’s conclusion or simply a cultural application of that conclusion. As I’ve said, the first is the preferred interpretation. However, notice how strong this argument is. It is universal in scope. If the covering is demanded by this argument, we should expect to see the covering in all places and times. After all, the hierarchy that Paul lays out exists in all places and times.
The same thing is true of Paul’s second argument, the argument from nature. Look at 1 Corinthians 11:13-15. Logically, I think this is similar to the argument that Paul makes in Romans 1, where he describes same-sex intimacy as “unnatural”. We can tell that it’s against nature by comparing the anatomy of men and women. Clearly, nature intends men to be with women and women to be with men. In the same way, Paul is arguing that differences in anatomy ought to be reflected in appearance. Men shouldn’t adopt the hairstyles of women, nor women of men.
This too is a universal, since-the-creation, argument. If Paul is arguing specifically against long hair in men, we never should see men of God in the Bible with long hair. If, on the other hand, we do see men of God elsewhere in Scripture with long hair, then that’s evidence that Paul is speaking to a cultural context and not laying down a universal principle.
Thankfully for us, there is a way to test whether the covering and hair length are universal requirements or culture-specific applications. We can do that by considering THE WITNESS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT. If we see Old-Testament women covering themselves in worship, that shows that God intends the covering for everyone. On the other hand, if we don’t see the covering in the Old Testament, that’s evidence that the covering is culture-specific. The same thing holds true for long hair on men. Long-haired Old-Testament men show that Paul is only binding short hair on the Corinthians.
So then, what do we see about the covering in the Old Testament? Frankly, it’s kind of weird. Old-Testament women did cover themselves, but they didn’t do it as a prelude to worship. They did it as a prelude to intimacy. Look at Genesis 38:13-15. How does Tamar indicate her availability? She covers herself.
There is, by contrast, neither requirement to or example of Old-Testament women covering themselves to pray or prophesy. These women did honor the hierarchy of God-husband-wife, but they didn’t show it with the covering. We can conclude that the covering isn’t meant to be universal because it wasn’t universal in the Old Testament.
The same holds true for hair length. Look at Judges 13:3-5. Clearly, godly men in the Old Testament weren’t required to have short hair. In fact, Samson was required to have long hair, and cutting his hair short got him in all sorts of trouble! Hair length on men is a cultural issue too.
We have good reason, then, to confine both the covering and hair-length rules to the cultural context of first-century Corinth. However, we still must honor the principles of 1 Corinthians 11. Women still have to look and dress and act like women, not men. Men still have to look and dress and act like men, not women. Our cultural expression of these principles is different, but it still must exist.