June 13, 2016

Interpreting 1 Corinthians 11's First Half

When I first learned about Christian Headcovering - I had a few simple questions:
Who does it apply to?
What are they asked to do?
Why are they asked to do it?
When are they asked to do it?
Where are they asked to do it?
How are they asked to do it?

So I thought I'd do a little homework and answer those questions:

Who ...

Depending on your Bible translation, it either applies to men and women, husbands and wives, men and their wives, women and their husbands or men in general or women in general. (1 Corinthians 11:3, 10, 14-15) It can be expanded so that it applies to single daughters and widows as well, if your theological framework permits it. It's also worth nothing that the 'who' the letter is written to are the men and women of the Corinthian church in Roman-controlled Greece in roughly 55 A.D.

What ...

There are a few possible 'whats' that the verse is asking for - first and foremost, that women wear a head covering and that men refrain from wearing a head covering. Secondly, that women wear long hairstyles and that men wear short hairstyles.

Why ...

The man is the image and glory of God, whereas the woman is the glory of man. (Vs. 7)
While Paul fails to mention that women are also the image of God, the distinction here is in what it means to be the 'glory' of God and the 'glory' of man. The phrase 'glory of God' appears in the translation I'm using fourteen times whereas "glory of man" appears just once. There's not a lot of context clues about what Paul means here by glory. I always thought how strange it must be that God's glory can be threatened or overshadowed by man's glory and her long flowing tresses that it was ordered that women ought to cover their heads. Is the purpose to just cover the top of their heads? Then wouldn't the rest of their hair still be showing? Or is the point to hide all of her long hair? Maybe the rest of the verses will shed some light on this.
For man did not come from woman, but woman from man;  neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. (Vs. 8-9)
Technically, Paul's right. In Genesis 2, the first woman came from the first man, the first woman was created for the first man. But that's not what happened in Genesis 1 - where both man and woman were created at the same time, it doesn't state that woman came from man or that woman was made from man - in fact, it states that both man and woman were made in the image of God. If we're going to read this and say: "Well, all men are like Adam and all women are like Eve, then all men are supposed to be farmers and all women are supposed to be helpers, all women are easily deceived and all men choose to be disobedient." That's gender stereotyping - in any other book, we'd think about any number of men and women we know who don't fit the bill and realize that the stereotype is wrong. When it comes to the Bible, we think of how many men and women we know who don't fit the qualifications and decide that man or that woman is wrong for being so unbiblical.
It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. (Vs 10)
Depending on your Bible translation, this verse might look really different, it might include the words "sign of" or "symbol of", it might mention that the authority is that of the woman's husband over his wife or the authority is her own, the word 'authority' might be 'power', it's a verse that might use 'wife' instead of 'woman' or even 'messenger' instead of 'angel'. Some even come outright and say that women should wear veils.
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. (Vs 11-12)
To me, the logic doesn't follow. (1.) God made man first, God made woman from man. God made woman for the man. (2) The man is the glory of God, the woman is the glory of man. (3) That's why a woman ought to cover her head as a sign of the authority that the man has over her. (4) But men and women aren't independent, all men are born of women, and everything comes from God. It just sounds as if odd for Paul to build on two thoughts, only to contradict it or weaken it somehow. If (3) is interpreted as 'That's why a woman ought to wear a crown as a symbol of her own authority' then (4) would make more sense, reminding them that even though women have their own authority, they aren't independent from men any more than men are from women, seeing as how all men now come from / are born from women - but everything ultimately comes from God - men and women, image and glory. The thing is - the whole section doesn't make that much sense. If I were to ask "Why must I wear a mortarboard?" I could easily be reminded: "It's the traditional hat worn by students at their graduation ceremony." If I were to ask "Why must I wear a hard hat?" It's easy to note: "It's to protect your head from injury at a construction site as well as the law." But when it comes to wearing a head covering - these verses don't really say as much: "Why must I wear a head covering?" God made man first, and then woman." "God made woman from man." "God made woman to help man." "Man is the glory of God, woman is the glory of man." "It's a sign or symbol of authority, because of the angels." "but women and men aren't independent." "Everything comes from God." The thing is - while a sign or symbol is the closest to an answer - it's also the strangest. Christianity isn't a religion of symbolism. Particularly my branch of Christianity. We don't celebrate Lent, we don't do anything for Pentecost, we limit candles to the Advent Wreath, don't have images or other artwork. It seems odd to latch onto this one symbol when we've done away with pretty much all other ones. Of course, the words 'sign or symbol' aren't in the original Greek - the closest translation is "that's why the woman ought to have power on her head, because of the angels". Which seems to be an odd way to say that women must wear head coverings in submission to their husbands having authority over them. The emphasis is that women wear a head covering, there is not as much discussion on reasons why men ought not wear head coverings. The thing is - the Bible is androcentric. It's norm is to use masculine language and to speak to men and of men. There's not a lot of places where it speaks to women - and when it does, it's more along the lines of "I also want the women ..." "Likewise, teach the older women" Women are indirectly addressed the few times they are referred to. So what's the point in this passage - are men being addressed, or women?

That leads us to one of the other 'whats' - hair lengths.
 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. ... 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. (Vs 5-6, 14-15)
Disgrace, dishonor, glory - that's honor/shame language. Hair lengths are almost always cultural. The Romans, for example, viewed long hair as uncivilized, as the barbarians that raided them usually had long hair. Native Americans viewed long hair as honorable. For us, we don't really have a cultural attitude about how honorable or shameful certain lengths of hair is on men and on women. We have a number of short hairstyles for women that are fairly popular from pixie haircuts on younger women to short perms on older women. Long hair on men isn't all that odd either. Hair is just hair, nobody has the right to decide how anyone else must wear their hair or to change it on anyone else. The question here is more along this line: Does a 55 A.D. description of hair lengths define a universal standard?

When ...

There really isn't a specific 'when' given - however, most people read it into the context of 'when gathering together to worship at church or at church-like events' because some of the passages in the preceding and following chapters refer to being gathered together. Some point out that scripture says that we should pray without ceasing, so women should always wear head coverings and men should never wear hats.

Where ...

Same, really, church / church-like events - anywhere a congregation gathers where praying and/or prophesy takes place. More specifically, events that 'borrow' from the order of worship just as churches do. And those in the pray without ceasing camp say 'everywhere' is the best answer. So if a famous Christian musician starts off his concert with a prayer, takes up a love offering to be donated to charity, delivers a short message, and prays some more - that's reason enough to require women to wear head coverings on their long hair and forbid men from wearing hats on their short hair.

How ...

At least with communion, there's a 'how' and prayer, too - a 'how' it ought to be done. With this passage, you have to decide which what has what how - in terms of hair lengths, it's not easy to see that the 'how' is to see to it that men get short hair cuts regularly and women are to be permitted a only long hairstyles. In terms of wearing a headcovering, a veil, a hat, an item of some kind - there's really no specific type given. The best  guess comes from the idea that Paul uses the verb to command that women are to wear a head covering, by leaving the noun - a cover - up to the person to choose - anything is acceptable as long as it covers one's head (except hair). Some would rightly point out that towards the end, the passage says that a woman's hair (noun) is given to her for a covering (verb).

The thing is - it's open to interpretation. Whatever you already believe, you can interpret these verses to support your ideas about what they say. Whether you're for or against making women wear something, whether you're for or against certain hairstyles, whether you're for or against male headship and female submission - you can't go wrong. But that's the peril of these verses as well, not everyone will agree with you on what they mean or how to interpret them or how to apply them. Did Paul write them as a temporary solution to a Corinthian problem? Did Paul intend them as a trans-cultural, eternal commandment? Do they still apply the same way in 55 A.D. Corinth and 2016 America? What do we do with the honor/shame concept? What is an honorable hair length look like? How do we treat people with a shameful hair length? In a way - realling taking a close look just shows you how far out of context they can be taken. It's almost ridiculous - as if asking: "Does the Bible say that blue is a honorable color for a man's hair?" I don't think we're really meant to live as if the Bible is the play-book that tells us what to do and the rule-book that tells us what not to do. I don't think that God's threatened by a woman's hair, and that the rules that were necessary two millenia ago apply to us even now.

I know - church practice is usually one of the arguments - but that's hard one to make given that the rest of the New Testament doesn't discuss them. We don't have a lot of information about the head coverings used in ancient Israel, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. We know even less about why Paul wanted them in the first place. Sure enough, the tradition was carried on through the ages - helped by the rule being turned into a matter of law every now and then. It also didn't hurt that most societies generally wore hats anyway - after all, they didn't have access to the haircare products that sets us apart from them. Time changes, cultures change, attitudes change, and beliefs change. We're not a culture that's scandalized by a woman who walks around in public with her hair showing and uncovered. Why we feel the need to pretend to be one that does mystifies me. How that glorifies God just puzzles me.

My interpretation is that Paul understood that some believers were required to wear a covering and some believers were under no such obligation, he wrote this passage in a way to satisfy both - giving those who covered a better reason than the one they had known, but also allowing room to interpret a woman's hair as her covering and satisfy the requirements without being required to take on the cultural obligation of their sister's pre-existing traditions. For us, that means that if a woman feels she is required to wear a head covering, that's her choice, but women who do not feel that she is required to wear a head covering - that's what her hair is there for - as a covering in it's own right. It's optional. It only made it into the Bible because the question was how to satisfy Roman requirements about proper worship as Christians and not necessarily because it's some big secret to real, true god-honoring worship. When these verses are taken out of the historical and cultural context in which they were written, they're really easy to interpret however; but when anchored to it's time and place, there's far less reason to see as applicable to here and now - today even.

So I think I finally understand why there never really was an article about who, what, why, when, where, and how 1 Corinthians 11's first half really applies to - it's just far easier to leave it open to interpretation and declare yours to be the one, true interpretation than it is to recognize that nobody has a monopoly on sending a message from Scripture - that other interpretations are valid, because if other interpretations are valid, then yours loses it's power and you lose your power over others. 

No comments:

Post a Comment