June 8, 2015

The Believer's Freedom On Covering the Head in Worship

The other day, I was thinking about how so very many us are trained to think about the various books of the Bible in terms of chapter and verse. For example, John 3:16 is a verse that many know by heart - but fewer know that it occurs during Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus and just before the story of the woman at the well.

So I thought that it would be interesting to take a look at what's said before and after my favorite subject. The titles are the ones assigned by my translation.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13 = Warning from Israel's History
1 Corinthians 10:14-22 = Idol Feasts and the Lord's Supper
1 Corinthians 10:23-33 = The Believer's Freedom
1 Corinthians 11:1 = (section is either a continuation or not named)
1 Corinthians 11:2-16 = On Covering the Head in Worship
1 Corinthians 11:17-34 = Correcting an Abuse of the Lord's Supper
1 Corinthians 12:1-11 = Concerning Spiritual Gifts
1 Corinthians 12:12-31 = Unity and Diversity in the Body
1 Corinthians 12:32 = Love is Insensible
1 Corinthians 13:1-13 = (section is either a continuation or not named)

Taking this selection of the letter, the main points seem to cover issues with worshiping together. Head covering is sandwiched between two Lord's Supper verses - so let's look at Believer's Freedom and how it continued into Head Covering by getting rid of those annoying chapter and verse separations that wouldn't have existed the day this letter was read to the church:

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.

Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.

The Way, as Christianity was originally know, consisted almost entirely of Jewish men and women who came to believe in Jesus also. There's an indication that Paul himself took a Nazarite Vow - he didn't see himself as not Jewish. So it should not be a surprise that head covering went unsaid as the Jewish women would never not wear a head covering. How do I know? Numbers 5:18 describes a ceremony where the priest undoes a woman's hair. From that, it was concluded that a woman's hair must be up so that it can be undone. (Talmud - Ketuboth 72: MISHNAH. THESE ARE TO BE DIVORCED WITHOUT RECEIVING THEIR KETHUBAH: A WIFE WHO TRANSGRESSES THE LAW OF MOSES OR [ONE WHO TRANSGRESSES] JEWISH PRACTICE...AND WHAT [IS DEEMED TO BE A WIFE'S TRANSGRESSION AGAINST] JEWISH PRACTICE? GOING OUT WITH UNCOVERED HEAD > With hair loose or unbound. Kethubah, a pre-nup agrement. It guarantees the bride-pride / dowry to be returned upon divorce if it was honorable.)

Let's take a look at 'if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.' Is there a Bible verse to explain that?

When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her. - Deuteronomy 21:10-14

After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. - Numbers 5:18

Therefore the Lord will bring sores on the heads of the women of Zion;
the Lord will make their scalps bald.” ... instead of well-dressed hair, baldness; - Isaiah 3 (Judgement on Jerusalem and Judah)

From these verses, we can deduce that ancient Jewish women were raised in a society where having hair was to have honor, to have their honor challenge or cut or completely removed is the equivalent of being shamed. They were expected to bind up and cover their hair. We also have stories that point to head covering among Jewish women being the norm:

Historically speaking, women in the talmudic period likely did cover their hair, as is attested in several anecdotes in rabbinic literature. For example, Bava Kama (90a) relates an anecdote of a woman who brings a civil suit against a man who caused her to uncover her hair in public. The judge appears to side with the woman because the man violated a social norm. Another vignette in the Talmud describes a woman whose seven sons all served as High Priest. When asked how she merited such sons, she explained that even the walls of her home never saw her hair (Yoma 47a). The latter story is a story of extreme piety, surpassing any law or communal consensus; the former case may also relay a historical fact of practice and similarly does not necessarily reflect religious obligation.

There's just one problem: The Corinthian church is located in modern-day Greece. There may have been quite a few Jewish men and women attending a mostly Greek church - but this is where the problem is. We cannot prove that Greek women were accustomed to wearing head coverings and we cannot disprove it either. Various accounts and artworks show both realities to be true - which indicates that unlike the Jewish women whose husbands could divorce them for not wearing head coverings, Greek women had considerable freedom in that regard. 

Q: I have the right to do anything. I can eat whatever I want. I can do whatever I want. I can wear or not wear whatever suits me. Paul, we've got a problem. Some of the men and women are insisting that all women are supposed to wear a covering on their heads. Other men and women insist that they have the freedom not to. Some men want to wear something to show their submission to God. Others believe they ought not have anything between them and God. When we get together, we spend more time arguing between ourselves which group is right than we do praying or prophesying. Our church is on the brink of splitting up. We don't know how to make things right. Paul, do you have any advice?

A: No one should seek their own good, but the good of others... So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ...

Paul knew that he couldn't declare the head coverings as a tradition of the past, after all, the vast majority of the church was still Jewish and would have worn head coverings because it was Jewish practice - if he did, every single devout husband would be well within his rights to divorce his wife. But he also knew that the church was reaching out to communities further and further away from the center of Israel who would be totally unfamiliar with Isaiah, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. So we can be certain that there were at least some Jewish men and women around who could explain what Paul meant to the Greek men and women in this church. He also knew that he couldn't just say "Well, this is what Jewish women do and I want you to do it too." It just doesn't work that way, after all, the big circumcision question was resolved by deciding that gentile believers didn't have to become fully Jewish to be fully Christian.

Paul used honor / shame language. That was something that both cultures had in common. To the Greeks, it was like a zero-sum game: the quantity of honor won by one person was balanced exactly by the quantity of shame another person was given. To the Jews, it was just as important. The Greek women whose advocated for the end of head covering was shaming the Jewish women who wouldn't be caught dead without them. Now that they know it's important because honor is at stake - Paul has to explain why. 

At this point, I really wish we had number we could call to ask Paul all about this teaching. Or an e-mail address. Unfortunately we have the most confusing and most difficult passage to try to understand because a lot of background information, things that went unsaid, and whatever the original teaching on head covering was - the one one given in person - are completely gone. We do have a list of reasons which really deserve their own post at this point. 

A great many people say that an apostolic teaching delivered on his own authority (being greater than a pastor's) is binding upon all cultures and on all times. But there's this annoying little word that makes me wonder if that's so: if.

If it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

Bob. Pixie. Perm, Cropped. Finger wave. No longer is it a disgrace for women to wear their hair short. 'Bald is beautiful' is a common statement these days. In fact, we don't live in an honor / shame society either, so that distances us even further from the original intent of the passage. Let's look at the  same verse again:

If  it is not a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should not cover her head.

I wonder if Paul wrote it the way he did realizing that culture change. One day the people making the rules might have one custom, the next another. Christianity has endured the rise and fall of empires and kingdoms. Through most of it head covering persisted. It was made into a sumtuary law - a requirement of the state to be a good Christian woman. Eventually it became a fashion. But all fashions fade in their own time. I really don't think sending a "shame on you for disregarding sacred Scripture!" message is really going to bring back the practice. 

So whether you do something or don't do something or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether they are one of you, or are among you or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

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