Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Headcoverings, Part 3: What the Text Says

What follows is my reading of the text. At this point all I’m doing is trying to pull out of the text what is obviously in there. While I’m sure I will read some of my own opinions into the text, I’m trying to refrain from that until later. I hope all will be able to agree that what I point out here actually is in there.

2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you. 3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.
1 Corinthians 11:2-3 RSV
In verse 2, Paul commends the Corinthians for their faithfulness to the traditions that he had passed on to them. However, in verse 3 Paul moves beyond his commendations of past adherence and gives another tradition that the Corinthians should be faithful to follow. In a sense he seems to be saying, “I’m glad that you’ve always followed the traditions that I passed on to you, but now I’ve got another I want you to follow.”

This new tradition is rooted in the headship of Christ, as head (or governor) of man, and in the headship of God, as head (or governor) of Christ. Just as Christ is governed by God and man is governed by Christ, so man is the head (or governor) of woman. This is the theological reality behind the tradition that Paul is about to recommend (by way of command) to the church in Corinth.

4 Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head -- it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil.
1 Corinthians 11:4-6 RSV
In verses 4-6 then, Paul gives the Corinthians the tradition that he is handing down, namely, that when men pray they ought not cover their heads, but when women pray they ought to cover their heads. I find it interesting that Paul appears to be establishing a culture of shame in these verses in order to help establish this tradition. He uses words like “dishonors” and “disgraceful” to in order to show the strength of his requirement.

While I stated that I want to avoid interpretation in this post, I’m not likely to return to this, so I’m going to point out one thing by way of inference about Paul’s argument. It appears that for the church in Corinth Paul’s “shame” statements were not necessarily true. That is, for a man to pray with his head covered or for a woman to pray with her head uncovered was not disgraceful before Paul wrote to them. The tradition does not appear to be well established and this culture of shame was not that strong. So Paul has to draw parallels from their culture to show them just how disgraceful it is for a woman to pray without her head covered. It’s like she has short hair or worse it is like she has shaved her head! Take it or leave it, that’s what I think is going on in verse 4-6.

7 For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.) 10 That is why a woman ought to have a veil [authority] on her head, because of the angels.
1 Corinthians 11:7-10 RSV
Now that Paul has established the tradition and strengthened it by making it shameful to discard the tradition, he moves into the theological underpinnings of the tradition in verses 7-10. Behind any worthy tradition lies a weighty theological truth. If there is no theology behind any given tradition, then the tradition is merely the tradition of men and should be avoided. But such is not the case with this tradition. This tradition is founded in the nature of manhood and womanhood.

The reason a man ought not cover his head is first because he is the “image and glory of God.” On the other hand, the woman is the “glory of man” and was “created for man.” It may be difficult to see how Paul’s logic is working here unless you see that the negative statements concerning the essence of man are related to the negative statement about men wearing a head covering. In other words, a man ought not cover his head because he 1) is the image and glory of God, 2) he was not made from woman, 3) he was not made for woman.

On the other hand, the woman ought to cover her head because she 1) is the “glory of man,” 2) was made “from man,” 3) was made “for man.” In fact, Paul calls the symbolic covering that the tradition requires “authority.” That is, the wearing of a headcovering demonstrates that she is under authority another’s authority. As the “glory of man” and being created “for man” she is to show visibly this reality when she prays.

After establishing the theological truths behind the tradition, Paul gives one more reason for why a woman ought to cover her head, namely, “because of the angels.” This term has baffled interpreters for centuries and I have agreed to forgo adding my interpretation as much as possible in this post, but I think I’ve come up with a good explanation for this statement, so come back soon.

11 (Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.)
1 Corinthians 11:11-12 RSV
In verse 11 and 12 Paul balances the scales. Even though the tradition is bound up in the essence of who men and women are and what they were created for, he feels the need to point out the great dependence men now have of women. That is, though woman was once created from man, now men are formed inside the wombs of women. We are not “independent” of each other. We are fully dependent upon each other (it is not good for man to be alone). The use of the conjunction “nevertheless” shows that despite the tradition and its theological underpinnings, Paul wants both men and women to see that they are equal before God.

13 Judge for yourselves; is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her pride? For her hair is given to her for a covering.
1 Corinthians 11:13-15 RSV
Paul’s final appeal in 13-15 is to the conscience of the Corinthians. Since nature itself testifies that long hair is the glory of women and it is a disgrace for men to let their hair grow long, therefore, a woman ought to cover her head. Sure makes one wonder how all these pictures of Jesus have appeared with him wearing long hair. Beard? Yes. Long hair? No.

16 If any one is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God.
1 Corinthians 11:16 RSV
Paul’s last word in establishing this tradition in Corinth is to the tradition of the church universally. This is not a Jewish thing. This is not an Egyptian thing. This is not a Greek thing. This is not a Roman thing. This is the universal tradition of the churches and the church in Corinth must get with the program. By the way, Corinth really struggled with these issues. In 1 Corinthians 14:34-38 Paul instructs the Corinthians to keep their women quiet in the churches. Here he again uses what I’ve referred to as “culture of shame” language. But adds at the end:

37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.
1 Corinthians 14:37-38 ESV
So, not only are the traditions and teachings that Paul is passing down universal, but they are the command of the Lord. There really should not be any “contention” (11:16) over these things. Well, hopefully we at least get the benefit of the doubt here. Not only are we far removed from those early times, but we have a basic language barrier as well.

Lord willing, I will address Paul’s ground clause “because of the angels” soon.

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