Veils: Custom or Command?
In the eleventh chapter of the Corinthian letter Paul will address the subject of the use of veils in that church. The issue for the Corinthians was not simply the idea of proper dress code; the true issue was the importance of what the wearing of the veil represented in their society, and what message they were giving by their use of these veils.
There are some places where the use of veils is still an issue today (Caribbean churches), but for most of us this chapter helps us learn about the proper way to discern between customs and commands.
In those times there were a variety of customs regarding head coverings – Jewish women did, Jewish men didn't; Roman men did in their pagan worship, Greek men did not. Varying customs were brought into the church and the question of what was proper became an issue of contention.
In the following verses Paul responds to questions about this issue by stating that the solution to their disagreement is found in Christian "orderliness." His argument is that Christian worship is orderly and should be guided by the natural order already inherent in the creation. The problem was not the wearing or not wearing of veils, but their view of what was orderly.
Vs. 1 – Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.
This verse belongs to chapter 10 as a summary statement of what he has said about freedom and the responsibility of freedom; that the brethren should follow his lead in this.
Vs. 2-3 – Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.
He begins to deal with the subject of veils. He praises them for their perseverance in his teaching and examples. A compliment to establish a point where he will add more teaching with the hope they will respond in similar fashion.
This teaching has to do with relationships.
- A woman is in subjection to her husband, his leadership is modified because of his own subordination to Christ, and even Jesus voluntarily submitted His life to God.
- The point is that there is an order divinely established between woman, man, Christ and God. This divine model is the pattern which he will use to solve the disorder in the church created by the issue of veils.
Vs. 4 – Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head.
The veil was a sign of submission to another person in the thinking of that culture. A Christian man therefore, was not to pray with his head covered because it would disgrace or dishonor his "head," Jesus Christ. The reason for this was that only Christ was head over man in worship, no other man or institution. His uncovered head signified this fact.
Vs. 5-6 – But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head.
A Christian woman, however, who prayed with her head uncovered dishonors her head which is her husband. In Paul's day it meant she repudiated his leadership. To do this was shocking in those days (being unveiled in public), and Paul compares it to being completely shaved, which was a sign of prostitution or unchastity.
Now, at this point we enter into the discussion about whether or not women should lead prayer in worship, but let's leave that aside for a minute and review what Paul is saying to these first century people about the use of veils:
- There exists a natural order, divinely appointed in creation.
- What we do in our worship of God ought to reflect that natural order to be considered decent and proper.
- In practical terms then, men should pray without head-covering to reflect their leadership, Jesus Christ; women ought to pray with their heads covered in order to reflect their leadership, their husbands (or fathers for single women).
With regards to women praying and prophesying, note that he doesn't say leading in prayer or teaching; simply praying and prophesying in general terms. The instructions for public worship will only begin later in the chapter.
At this point, Paul is talking about those times when it is proper for women to prophesy and pray. Women are not restricted from prophesying and prayer – only doing so in public assembly. I Corinthians 14:34-36 clarifies that this would not be in public assemblies so Paul is talking about other occasions where women were to pray and prophesy – they were to wear the head-covering.
- In the mixed, public assembly, their silence was their sign of submission while the men prayed and prophesied.
- At home, or women's gatherings or other instances where they could prophesy or pray, they wore the head-covering to signify their submission and respect.
The point, however, was not about veils, it was about how one did things in order to convey an attitude of respect and submission to God. These were not men's inventions but rather instructions from God.
Now that he has explained what they should do and why, he goes on to give the Divine reasoning behind this teaching.
Vs. 7-10 – For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman's sake, but woman for the man's sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.
Man's glory is that he is created first and to pray uncovered is to reflect that glory.
Both men and women are created equally in the image of God, but man's glory is that he was created first, not better. Woman's glory is that the human race continues through her. To recognize their glory is to recognize God and what God has done, not what man has done. Man did not create himself nor did he have any say in the order of creation.
Women praying uncovered are suggesting that they should be in man's place. This is shameful because it repudiates God's order and in that culture, the husband's position.
A woman should recognize her place in creation and reflect her belief and acceptance of this; the veil was that symbol at that time. The key is that Paul recognized that it was a cultural symbol of his day.
To shock society and shame her husband by refusing the veil would also offend angels who are themselves respectful of God's order and witnesses of men's affairs.
Vs. 11-12 – However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God.
He reminds them that man's authority does not mean independence. We are united biologically and submitted to one another spiritually. This order is not meant to create dominance or competition (sin is what does that). This order is meant to create mutual dependence and glory to God in reflecting the divine order.
Vs. 13-15 – Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.
Here Paul uses an example from nature to underscore his point. Some things are suggested by nature; for example, long hair on a man is un-natural but considered proper and beautiful on a woman.
- Natural because a woman's hair will grow longer than a man's in normal circumstances.
- Social custom supports and promotes this natural phenomena.
- Long hair on men has always been out of the ordinary (even Jews who did it, did it because of a vow, not because of style).
The point there is this: any social custom, such as the veil, which accentuates an idea suggested by nature, must be proper. In other words, social customs are ok if they reflect accurately what is natural and already in the Divine order.
Vs. 16 – But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.
All the churches at that time were following this custom and the reasoning behind it.
Paul says that they must respect customs that reflect Divine truth and order. The problem for us today is what to do when customs change, especially when we're caught in the middle of that change.
Some churches, even today, have female members wear head coverings because they feel that the instructions in this passage are binding for all time. Most do not because they believe that the teaching here is about custom not command.
Here are a few ideas on this passage that will help us when we have to discern between custom (cultural) and command (divine).
1. Customs change, commands never change
In the case of the Corinthians it was custom to wear the veil in order to show submission and respect. This was not invented by Apostles or commanded by God, it was already a custom that existed in many societies.
This custom was not in itself an eternal truth, it merely reflected an eternal truth in regards to the relationship of men and women before God. Since the custom accurately reflected the Divine truth, Paul commanded them not to change or rebel against the custom for fear of creating a bad witness.
With time, this custom changed as societies changed, and it no longer reflects eternal truth in our culture (i.e. the holy kiss was a custom then that reflected fellowship and unity; today, a hug and handshake. Footwashing – at that time a sign of welcome/submissive service; today, offering refreshments and a comfortable seat).
The command remains (to submit, to maintain the order of God, Christ, man, woman) but the customs that reflect this truth change.
We need to focus on ways to make sure we are keeping the command and not perpetuating meaningless customs, and that we don't violate the commands with customs that reflect disobedience.
2. Customs change slowly
I think the problem in Corinth was that those Christian women knew that they didn't need the veil to be submissive – this was a question of the heart and attitude (and still is). They wanted to run too far ahead of custom and in so doing created offenses.
We have the same problem today. A hundred years ago a woman who wore pants was on the edge, and if she wore pants to church then she was offensive. Today, customs have changed and we don't see either of these things as daring or offensive.
These customs changed slowly and I believe that it is not the role of Christians to be on the leading edge of these changes, but rather to adapt to them when they cause neither sensation nor offense. Of course, we should be leaders when it comes to doing what is right, opposing injustice etc., but when it comes to custom, I believe Paul teaches that we should go at the pace that does not cause offense.
This requires some in the church to have patience with the slow pace of change at times, and others to be tolerant when things don't remain as they were 50 years ago. Remember, we want to preserve commands not custom.
So Paul encourages the Corinthians to submit to those customs that reflect God's eternal truth as a way of honoring God and maintaining order in the church.
We do well to do the same while exercising patience and love toward one another as we experience the changes that are inevitable in every generation. We don't want to be ahead of the changes, but at the same time don't want to cling to meaningless customs and attitudes that only hinder the growth of the body.