As promised earlier, we want to take some of the blog posts this month to say a few things about the head covering discussed in the first part of I Corinthians 11.
Prefacing, let me say I realize we will not all agree on this. I also realize that likely few, if any of the things we notice will be new ideas about the chapter. (Perhaps they should not be new, anyway.)
For this initial post, I’d like to do two things. The first is a book recommendation. If you have not read “No Such Custom”, by Kevin Moore, I’d recommend doing so. Whether or not you reach the same conclusions as did Dr. Moore as he researched this difficult passage, you will find this book to be a well documented and valuable resource by one of our brothers as you do your own “thinking” about whether or not women should wear head coverings during worship today.
The second consideration is this. After much reading, on several different occasions in my life, on this topic, I’ve come to the conclusion that, whatever the coverings were ( and we will get to that a bit later), they were likely worn not just in worship, but all of the time women were outside their homes. There’s just a lot of evidence in historical writings to confirm that devout women, in at least some of the cultures of the early church were veiled all of the time, in public arenas, whether or not worship was occurring.
Notice some of these quotations taken from ancient writings and collected by Kevin Moore:
Among these is the convention regarding feminine attire, a convention which prescribes that women should be so arrayed and should so deport themselves when in the street that nobody could see any part of them, neither of the face nor of the rest of the body, and that they themselves might not see anything off the road . . . . while they have their faces covered as they walk. (Dio Chrysostom…contemporary of Paul…writing about Tarsus)
Woman and men are to go to church decently attired . . . . Let the woman observe this, further. Let her be entirely covered, unless she happens to be at home. For that style of dress is grave, and protects from being gazed at [sic]. And she will never fall, who puts before her eyes modesty, and her shawl; nor will she invite another to fall into sin by uncovering her face. For this is the wish of the Word, since it is becoming for her to pray veiled. (Clement of Alexandria…(A.D. 153-220)
For perhaps some one might here have doubt also, questioning with himself, what sort of crime it was that the woman should be uncovered, or that the man should be covered? What sort of crime then it is, learn now from hence. Symbols many and diverse have been given both to man and woman; to him of rule, to her of subjection: and among them this also, that she should be covered, while he hath his head bare. If now these be symbols, you see that both err, when they disturb the order and the disposition of God, and transgress their proper limits, both the man falling into the woman’s inferiority, and the woman rising up against the man, by her outward habiliments . . . . And tell me not this, that the error is but small. For first, it is great, even of itself: being as it is disobedience. Next, though it were small, it became great, because of the greatness of the things whereof it is a sign. However, that it is a great matter, is evident from its ministering so effectually to good order among mankind, the governor and the governed being regularly kept in their several places by it . . . . Well then: the man he compelleth not to be always uncovered, but when he prays only . . . But the woman he commands to be at all times covered . . . . He signifies that not at the time of prayer only, but also continually, she ought to be covered . . . . and establishing them both ways, from what was customary, and from their contraries . . . . It follows, that being covered is a mark of subjection and of power. For it induces her to look down, and be ashamed, and preserve entire her proper virtue . . . . His constant practice of stating commonly received reasons, he adopts also in this place, betaking himself to the common custom, and greatly abashing those who waited to be taught these things from him, which even from men’s ordinary practice they might have learned. For such things are not unknown even to Barbarians . . . . For if one ought not to have the head bare, but every where to carry about the token of subjection, much more is it becoming to exhibit the same in our deeds. (John Chrysostom…347-407, A.D. in his commentary on our passage.)
From these and many other citations from history, and from the context in I Corinthians, it seems likely to me that the head covering spoken of in I Corinthians 11 was not a covering Paul intended to be worn exclusively in worship. In fact, it seems to me that the problem in the Corinthian church was that they were taking off what was surely a recognized (in their culture) sign of their submission to their husbands and what was typically worn in all public places. It was, it appears, more the taking off of the covering for times of prayer and prophesying, than it was the failure to put it on for these times.
Next time: Clues from the text itself that perhaps this covering (veil) was worn all the time in the first century Corinthian culture, rather than being “put on” for the worship service as we often see done today. Feel free to post comments on the Digging Deep in God’s Word page and I will try to post all of your observations that are both kind and relevant. More next time!