"But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered." 1 Corinthians 11:5, 6
The question I would like to address here is not so much whether or not Christian women today should cover their heads in public worship. I would like to look at the hermeneutical question. If we decide that this practice is or is not obligatory today, the question is, Why or why not? What is the basis for that decision?
This question is important because it impacts how we understand the rest of Scripture. The fundamental question is, Do the instructions given to Christians in the first century apply to us? Or is there some basis for an exemption, such as the fact that we live in a different culture today? Upon what basis could we conclude that Christian women may worship God uncovered? Let's try a few suggested approaches.
1. A common explanation is that a woman's hair fulfills the requirement. "For her hair is given her for a covering." Verse 15. Is this explanation sound?
In verse 5 Paul says that for a woman to pray or prophesy without the required covering "is even all one as if she were shaven." The problem in Corinth was not that women were going around bald. The problem was that they were not wearing anything on their heads, which was as bad "as if" they were shaven. In verse 6 Paul says that "if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn." So it is clear that the hair is not the required covering.
It has always been the practice among the Christians with whom I have associated, that gentlemen take off their hats when they pray. The best explanation for this practice is 1 Corinthians 11:4. If hair is the covering Paul is talking about, then verse 4 would require a man to take off his hair when he prays. Nobody interprets the verse that way. The word "covered" is not in the Greek here. It could be translated, "Every man praying or prophesying, having anything on his head, puts to shame his head." If hair is even included in the definition of covering, then a man would have to be totally bald. So it is clear that the covering Paul is talking about does not include the hair.
The misunderstanding on this point is only a problem in the English language, which uses the same word in verses 5 and 6 as it does in verse 15. Hence some have concluded that a woman's hair fulfills the requirement of verses 5 and 6. The matter is immediately solved when one realizes that they are not the same original words. The word used in verses 5 and 6 is katakalupto, which means "to cover wholly, to veil, to hide." The word Paul used for covering in verse 15 is peribolaion, which is simply "something thrown around." Whereas katakalupto denotes a full covering with the intent of hiding that which is being covered, the emphasis of peribolaion is not so much on how much it covers, but on the fact that it is being worn. The requirement as stated in verses 5 and 6 is for a veil that adequately covers the head. The word used in verse 15 does not meet that requirement.
In verses 13-15 Paul uses an illustration from nature itself (hair) to make his point that we ought to know by nature that it is not proper for a woman to pray to God uncovered.
Certainly the Corinthian women did not believe that Paul wrote fifteen verses to them in such detail, using so many lines of argument, only to tell them that they ought to have hair on their heads when they pray. Neither have women around the world ever since then interpreted Paul's words in that way. It has been mostly in Western cultures and primarily during the last century or so that women have so commonly gone around with their heads uncovered. A direct correlation can be seen between the change of customs on this point and the general shift in people's views regarding the role of women.
I will close this point by quoting from the SDA Bible Commentary. "Paul does not mean that the women with long hair may dispense with the veil. Verse 6 shows clearly that the uncovered woman still has long hair, which Paul declares may as well be cut if she desires to dispense with the veil. He seems to contend that the long hair itself argues for the propriety of the veil."
2. A more common approach to this passage is to look for a principle that may be applied today in such a way as to free us from following the original instruction. Thus, the specific manner in which the principle was to be practiced in Paul's day does not necessarily carry over to Christians today. Let's think about this approach.
Are we sure we want to adopt this method of understanding of the Bible? If we do, what is to stop us from dismissing in this manner any instruction in the Bible?
When we examine the passage, we see that Paul gives several lines of supporting evidence for his instruction. Looking at the reasons he gives, we have to admit that not one of them is limited to the first century. He uses universal reasons, applicable to all humanity. If his arguments are still true today, would not his point continue to be valid?
A practice becoming prevalent is that of weighing the Word of God in the scales of popular social custom. The argument goes something like this: Paul told those women to cover their heads because it was the custom to do so back then. Customs are different today, so we can ignore this particular counsel. The hermeneutic here is: When God's Word says to do something, first find out if it is a currently popular thing to do, and if it is not, then you don't have to do it.
But nowhere does the Bible tell us to observe the customs and practices of the world. And certainly not when those customs go contrary to the teachings of the Bible. Obedience to God's Word is still necessary.
"Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen. . . . For the customs of the people are vain." Jeremiah 10:2, 3. In Leviticus 18:30 God calls the world's customs abominable. Jesus spoke out against "making the word of God of none effect through your tradition." Mark 7:13. The popular custom of the day has never been a rule for determining whether or not to obey God's Word.
Those who employ this method of interpreting our passage at hand do so under the assumption that it was a custom in Corinth for women to cover their heads. But we don't really have any evidence of that. The SDA Bible Commentary says, "Ancient sources fail to give us unequivocal testimony as to the custom in headdress in Corinth or elsewhere" (Vol. 6, p. 754). From the force of Paul's argument it seems evident that he was telling his readers to do something that was not the popular thing to do. That's why he needed to use so many lines of evidence to convince them.
Those who try to limit Paul's instructions to a geographical area have overlooked the fact that Paul addressed his epistle, not just to the Corinthians, but to "all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord." 1 Corinthians 1:2.
3. So, let's see if we can approach this passage another way. We need to stay consistent with sound methods of Bible study while attempting to explain the apparent non-issue that this practice seems to be today.
I'd like to suggest that Paul's instruction for women to cover their heads was not limited to the culture to which he was writing at the time. Yet, considering the fact that sincere Christians are so at ease with our current practice, it seems that this is not an issue that the Holy Spirit has been urgently pressing upon the church at large. Most people don't appear to be struggling against conviction on this point. So, if our current practice is at all acceptable, it is probably best to understand it as a concession on God's part to us.
Why would God concede on this point?
a. Because there are weightier matters that first demand our attention. The more emphasis the Bible gives to something, the more important it is. This duty is found in only one place in the New Testament. It, along with the holy kiss, ranks low on the priority list. We have been counseled against letting the dress question fill the mind (3SM 254). We have a lot more important issues, primarily spiritual matters, to come to grips with before we can deal with this one. Rashly imposing a head covering on women could contradict the whole spiritual experience that the covering was intended to represent.
b. Perhaps for the same reason God conceded several points to ancient Israel. When they craved flesh food in the wilderness, "He gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul" (Psalm 106:15). Their desire for a king was not in their best interest, but God granted their wishes (1 Samuel 8:22). The provision for divorce for any reason was made because of the hardness of their hearts (Matthew 19:8). When God's people resent His protecting wall of wise statutes, He removes it (Isaiah 5:5). It was largely for this reason that, after some time of unsuccessful promotion of the "reform dress" to Adventist women, God finally withdrew that requirement (4T 636-640). "Because that which was given as a blessing was turned into a curse, the burden of advocating the reform dress was removed" (EGW MS 167, 1897).
c. Simple coverings began to morph into extravagant Victorian hats that ministered to pride and vanity, losing the whole biblical purpose of the covering. "Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet: Therefore the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will discover their secret parts. In that day the Lord will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and . . . the bonnets, and . . . the hoods, and the vails . . ." (Isaiah 3:16ff).
In summary, women's head covering does not appear to be a pressing issue today. Not because culture and custom have changed so as to allow a different application of the principle. Not because we are free to interpret New Testament instruction according to our own rules and assumptions. But most likely because of a concession on God's part to us. His truth never changes. Yet at times He winks (Acts 17:30) at some minor points because we "cannot bear them now" (John 16:12).