Biblical (and Unbiblical) Teaching on the History of Head Coverings-pt.2

My previous post on the teaching of head-coverings generated a few responses. At the outset, I want to say that I realize that there are many dear, faithful, Christians who believe wholeheartedly in a woman wearing a head-covering during worship. They are dear people and faithful to the Lord. I am thankful for them. These posts are not directed to any one person, but are meant to clarify, what I believe to be, an erroneous understanding of this passage to such an extent that it is defrauding some of their prize of knowing Christ (Colossians 2:16-23). In an effort to attempting to correct an incorrect teaching, I have written these posts. And, judging by the statistics of the last post, I was right. Of all the blog posts I have written, the last one was, by far, the most read. I have received almost no responses, but that is okay. One response was made by a brother whom I know and I want to address that, because I believe it might help others.

This brother’s statement was that church history contradicted my conclusion that a head covering was not commended by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16. I want to respond to that comment in a full post because I believe it demonstrates a major problem in the thinking of many. The statement that was made was, “I am not dogmatic on head coverings, however, church history would run counter to your conclusion. Traditionally, women have always worn head coverings until very recently — and that really only in the western world.”

THE ROLE OF CHURCH HISTORY

First, I want to address the fact that women have always worn head coverings until very recently. It is true, as you read through some historical information, that head-coverings were common. However, going about your life without a head-covering was common also. Michael Marlowe has a decent summary of Greek, Roman, and Jewish practices concerning these things here. It would appear that head-coverings were worn by both men and women in public, private, and religious processions. It would also appear that head coverings were also not worn by both men and women in public, private, and religious processions. However, that is pagan life. That does not determine the meaning of Scripture. Best to say that the customs, traditions, of the town of Corinth, at least of many, was to be covered from the head down to below the shoulders, and in some cases, more. They also wore headbands, hats, and scarfs as well, just like today. Many women wore their hair in a braid and “bun.” They often adorned their hair with items such as coins, jewels, and other valuable items (see 1 Timothy 2:9). So, just like today, you have a mixture of practices that come together in the church at Corinth.

Second, as far as church history is concerned, it appears that the confusion over head-coverings also continued. One of the more direct writings on this is Tertullian’s On The Veiling of Virgins. This long letter written around 200 A.D. addresses the practice, and reason, for women to wear a veil (which was not a doily, but an actual veil that included covering everywhere long hair would go). His conclusions are that every woman, married, widowed, unmarried, should have a veil. He wrote,

“It remains likewise that we turn to (the virgins) themselves, to induce them to accept these (suggestions) the more willingly. I pray you, be you mother, or sister, or virgin-daughter—-let me address you according to the names proper to your years—-veil your head: if a mother, for your sons’ sakes; if a sister, for your brethren’s sakes; if a daughter for your fathers’ sakes. All ages are perilled in your person.” Chapter XVI

His conclusions, then, are that a veil aids in modesty for every woman, married or single, during worship and out of worship. It is to be worn at all times, and the more it covers the better. He wrote,

"The region of the veil is co-extensive with the space covered by the hair when unbound; in order that the necks too may be encircled. For it is they which must be subjected, for the sake of which "power" ought to be "had on the head: "the veil is their yoke. [4] Arabia’s heathen females will be your judges, who cover not only the head, but the face also, so entirely, that they are content, with one eye free, to enjoy rather half the light than to prostitute the entire face. A female would rather see than be seen.” Chapter XVII

Thus, according to Tertullian, the veil should reach as far as the hair would go when “unbound.” In fact, he invokes Arabian women as the judges over Christian women in this practice thereby saying that the Arabian women are more modest in their dress than the women in the church.

Therefore, to be consistent, women who believe that they are required to wear a veil, or doily, or something, should, according to the authority of Tertullian, extend that veil to her shoulders and even over portions of the face all day long. To Tertullian, to have your face visible (this is not during worship, mind you) is to “prostitute the entire face.”

If a person were to look at the practice of head coverings through the ages, you certainly would see murals, pictures, and reliefs from the early days of the church to around even the 1700’s with women whose heads were covered. However, as mentioned before, many were also uncovered. It was certainly a practice, custom, expectation, of many through the ages for women to cover their heads (but that was also for men as well). But, this was not just during worship. It was all the time. Further, there was much discussion for the kind and thickness of the veil as well. The assumption from all of this was that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11, teaches that a woman should cover herself with a physical covering, i.e. a hat, shawl, or linen of some sort, while praying or prophesying. So, even with church history with us, we still come down to, “What does the text mean?”

This brings me to my next point, which is far more important. I can summarize it this way:

Church history is not our hermeneutic.

That is, we cannot interpret the Scripture’s meaning by the practice of the early church, nor the latter church, or any church. We cannot interpret Scripture’s meaning by looking at the habits and practices of the church throughout the ages. The meaning of Scripture is determined by the Scripture. And, Scripture judges church history. What I have found is, unfortunately, some would rather rest in the works and teachings of the fathers and reformers (and excel in the knowledge of their writings), rather than wholeheartedly understand and believe the Scripture…and they do not realize it. They unwittingly act as if the Scripture is unclear and to be doubted and that we need extra-biblical revelation to understand it. I am not saying that we should not learn from the faithful teachers throughout the ages. However, no godly teacher would ever suggest that what he says/writes is on the same level as Scripture.

For example, many times when Paul wanted to teach on the responsibilities of man and woman he did not appeal to customs or practices for authority. He went back to God’s created design. He does this in 1 Corinthians 11:6-9. His appeal is to creation. He did not appeal to a custom for authority. He was actually trying to correct a custom, as a response to the Corinthians’ writing to him (1 Corinthians 7:1). There were some in the church carrying over the practice of the day of head-coverings. And, like today, many women find their entire sense of righteousness and propriety in her head-covering. Some also find it in their church membership, prayers, or singing in the choir. Paul is addressing the fact that some in the church were being factious over the head coverings and, head-coverings, along with other topics, were causing divisive confusion. A woman’s hat is not her true head, her husband, and man in general, is. So, the real question for a godly woman is not, “Where is your head-covering?” The real question is, "How is your heart?"

 

BIBLICAL EVIDENCE

Just glancing through the Bible looking for a statement about “head-covering” you will find very little. There are references to “turbans” (Exodus 28:39, 40, 42; 39:27-29), “veils” (Genesis 24:65-a better translation is “shawl”; Song of Solomon 4:1; 6:7-used in marriage settings), and in Isaiah 3:19-20 there is a reference to “veils” and “headdresses.” These were, no doubt, customary and not commendable as God says that He will, in the day of judgment, remove them along with other items of ornamentation that the women of Judah were coveting (see vv.22-26). Interestingly, in Genesis 38:12-19 the story of Tamar’s treachery contains the fact that since she sat by the road with her face covered, Judah thought she was a prostitute (v.15). Leviticus 13 contains teaching concerning those with skin disorders to be covered and uncovered accordingly. In Deuteronomy 22:5, a man is told to never wear a woman’s clothing thereby making clear distinctions between men and women (which I believe has some bearing upon 1 Corinthians 11). But, I have found no Old Testament instruction for women to veil themselves as a direction from God for worship. To be sure, a woman should have a designation of the fact that she recognizes authority over her (1 Corinthians 11:13-15). However, that is the desire of the heart and will of a godly woman (1 Peter 3:3-6; cf. 1 Timothy 2:9-15). Her submissive heart is demonstrated, not in her hat, but by her "chaste and respectful behavior" (1 Peter 3:2). As King Lemuel wrote, “Let her works praise her…” (Proverbs 31:31).

What does all of this mean? It means that Tertullian’s letter giving directions to virgins, widows, and married women in the churches, does not help us one way or another to interpret the passage. The practice may have been popular, but instructions for the practice of head-covering by the apostles for the women in the church is lacking. Further, as mentioned the other day, the more important issue is not the linen on the head or the upper body. The issue is whether or not a woman loves, submits to, and appreciates the authority (and responsibility) she is under.

Again, Clement, Tertullian, and others may have simply elevated a custom or opinion (Romans 14:1f.) not based upon a clear understanding of Paul’s writings (thereby perpetuating confusion and unnecessary/ineffective restraint of the flesh (Colossians 2:20-23) which was not unusual for the day). It is obvious, as you read Tertullian, that his thinking is flavored with a spiritualistic hermeneutic, not a sound, historical/grammatical one. For example, to verify his hermeneutic, He wrote,

“Herein consists the defence of our opinion, in accordance with Scripture, in accordance with Nature, in accordance with Discipline. Scripture founds the law; Nature joins to attest it; Discipline exacts it. Which of these (three) does a custom rounded on (mere) opinion appear in behalf of? or what is the colour of the opposite view? [2] God’s is Scripture; God’s is Nature; God’s is Discipline. Whatever is contrary to these is not God’s. If Scripture is uncertain, Nature is manifest; and concerning Nature’s testimony Scripture cannot be uncertain.56 If there is a doubt about Nature, Discipline points out what is more sanctioned by God. [3] For nothing is to Him dearer than humility; nothing more acceptable than modesty; nothing more offensive than "glory" and the study of men-pleasing. Chatper XVI

CLOSING THOUGHTS

It is interesting that Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 follows a flow of thought. It appears that Paul is addressing a question that the Corinthian church had about women praying to God. We know this because Paul repeats their question in v.13. He writes, "Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?" Paul’s letter is a response to questions the Corinthians had for him (1 Corinthians 7:1). Thus, it appears that they wrote about a confusion concerning women praying with their head uncovered (He also, just as much, answers the question about men covering their heads during prayer and preaching). The answer is, no. A woman praying or prophesying should not do so without her head covered. He deals with their custom of wearing a head-covering, probably much like the Romans who did so in their pagan rituals, men and women alike [“Archaeological evidence from Rome itself to the Roman East is unambiguous, Oster urges, in depicting the “liturgical head covering” of men when they pray or use prophetic speech: “the practice of men covering their heads in the context of prayer and prophecy was a common pattern of Roman piety and widespread during the late Republic and early Empire. Since Corinth was a Roman colony, there should be little doubt that this aspect of Roman religious practice deserves greater attention by commentators than it was received.” [Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 823]. But, the fact that they had these coverings is superfluous to Paul. Why? Because nature itself, God’s design, certainly teaches us that a man with long hair is disgraceful toward Christ, his Head (and, all things originate from God-v.12). And, a woman without it is disgraceful toward her head, man. Please remember, Paul had to correct sexual sins in the church in Corinth, as well as sexual responsibilities and distinctions. This teaching is no different. That is why he is doing it here.

Finally, I need to make one plea. I realize that even Peter had a hard time understanding some of what Paul wrote (2 Peter 3:14-16). This is a more difficult passage. However, it is not difficult because Paul was unclear, since we know that his main thought was to verify that a man is the head of a woman, thus she should have a recognition of that authority over her by maintaining her long hair since that is why God gave it at creation in the first place. The lack of clarity comes in when we believe other sources of information with the faith that we are supposed to give to Scripture (1 Corinthians 1:2-5). We must not approach the Scripture

  • With the thought that other writings are equal to Scripture.
  • With doubt about its veracity.
  • With a sense of judgment over it.
  • With the idea that we can mold it however we want.

We must approach the Scripture with it as our authority-final authority; sufficient authority. It alone determines how we interpret it. It was given as a collection of books written by real men, in real time, with actual revelation from God, written in words on a page, and with absolute truthfulness in all that it contains. When we allow the teaching of men, however godly they might have been (or might be), to merge with the text, we end up clouding the issue. The confusion of inserting the thoughts of men into the pristine text of Scripture is a travesty and we must commit ourselves to the study of the text, and the text alone, for our understanding.

“Thus says the Lord, “Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest? “For My hand made all these things, Thus all these things came into being,” declares the Lord. “But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.” (Isaiah 66:1–2, NASB95)