Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


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Humiliating head coverings

Daniel B Wallace thinks we should abide by the principle rather than the practice. I wonder why we can’t do both.

New Testament scholar Daniel B Wallace has written an article, ‘What is the Head Covering in 1 Cor 11:2-16 and Does it Apply to Us Today?’ Since head coverings have been on my mind lately, I’m going to venture some brief comments:

I find his summary of the exegetical arguments good—but his reasons for shifting from view #3 to view #4 very puzzling. Reading only slightly between the lines, I get the impression that he is motivated by the fact that wearing a head covering is unbearably awkward for the women he knows. He uses the word “humiliating”—the sort of word we tend to reserve for being publicly exposed in some way, like having your skirt blow up while not wearing undies. Why did he choose such an extreme description? What is it about these churches that makes it humiliating for women to wear head coverings, rather than merely odd or quirky or even embarrassing?

I think his analogy to the Lord’s Supper is as instructive here as it is awkward for his position. It seems to me that a church which has difficulty accepting the logic of “do what Jesus said to do as closely as you can” when it comes to wine, and thinks grape juice is an acceptable substitute, is a church in need of reforming. There is a sin issue there that needs to be fixed, and while God is forbearing with people obeying him badly as they work through learning to obey him better, at some point they either submit, or they harden their hearts.

The same thing seems to be true of a church that makes it literally humiliating for women to wear head coverings. If that’s the church atmosphere, the church needs to be reformed—even if it so happens that we are wrong about wearing head coverings! So I think Wallace’s view #4 is an awkward compromise position. It is legitimate inasmuch as his point about the spirit of the command is a good one. But it is totally illegitimate inasmuch as the way to resolve that issue is not to invent some new, non-scriptural practice for obeying the principle of indicating headship—one that satisfies our cultural sensibilities—but rather to reform our cultural sensibilities to the scriptural practice given for obeying the principle.

This becomes fairly obvious when you notice that women across dozens of countries and nineteen centuries’ worth of different cultural sensibilities managed to obey 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 straightforwardly. What makes our sensibilities so precious that the practice has to change for them?

12 comments

  1. Andrew Duncanson

    Our culture repudiates the complementary, natural, God-given blessing of sexuality. It began with slackness and ignorance regarding coverings; a blurring of gender distinctions and the roles they represent. As feminism took hold of the west, this Scriptural infidelity spawned into the ordination of women. Should we really be surprised by the numbers of professing Christians now advocating for homosexuality and transgenderism?

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    True story.

    That said, it wasn’t just feminism. It was a confluence of factors that came together after World War 2. The Hippy Movement had a lot of influence. Pop music was surprisingly important, along with more academic developments in the arts. These opened the door at a conceptual level for a new generation to accept a very different kind of worldview, where meaning is constructed from the bottom up, rather than imposed from the top down. That led to the sexual revolution, which opened the door to abortion laws—something I think was a turning point in terms of God’s plan for our culture. Once that happened judgment was basically inevitable, and we’re seeing exactly that now. Look at Romans 1 and then look at where we are.

    The church definitely should have done more, but of course, it was severely weakened within by higher criticism—the same basic ideas that were reshaping society were also reshaping many professing Christians’ view of Scripture. So we had a battle on two fronts. There was the enemy at the gates, but then there were the wolves prancing through the sheep-pen snacking on the congregation.

    More shepherds with shotguns is what we need right now.

  3. Andrew Duncanson

    If one does not heed Paul’s instructions because of “humiliating” consequences, how will that person feel about bringing the Gospel of the aroma of death to a perishing and spiritually hostile world? (2 Corinthians 2:16). I suppose they wouldn’t.

  4. David White

    Well, if I had to venture a guess, I would suggest that maybe Dan is taking v.6 (“it is disgraceful…”) and v.14 (both “it is a disgrace” and “it is her glory”) and asking “by what standards is it disgraceful or glorious? Who perceives that disgrace and glory?”

    God? Perhaps. But in the context of these verses Paul is asking people to render the judgement, not appealing primarily to divine scrutiny. So things are disgraceful and humiliating, or else glorious when perceived by other people.

    So are the “other people” just those in the church? Perhaps. In that case your point might hold, Bnonn. But could it be that Paul is appealing to the larger culture? That even the Corinthians would perceive a woman with a shaved head or a man with long hair as disgraceful, and a woman with long hair as glorified?

    If that is true, then Dan Wallace’s argument has legs. The display of wifely submission should be recognizable to the larger culture, not just the church subculture. And if (he might argue) headcoverings no longer convey “submission” but instead “beat down and dominated”, then something else culturally appropriate should be used instead. (And so he suggests modest clothing).

    This is entirely guesswork – I’m just trying to construct another way to interpret his argument.

  5. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey David, the problem with your hypothetical is that Paul doesn’t leave us any doubt what he is appealing to; in 1 Cor 11:14 he explicitly says, “Does not nature itself teach…?”

    So apparently he is appealing to a kind of natural law, in the same way he did in Romans 1 where people exchanged natural impulses for unnatural ones.

  6. Henry

    Bnonn – I’d be interested in more posts on this topic since you’ve been considering it lately. I’d particularly be interested in your thoughts on how husbands should lead their wives on this matter in various circumstances, such as where the wife disagrees that the covering is required, and seems to be genuine, disagrees but doesn’t seem genuine in her biblical interpretation (i.e., results to the culture interpretation or the long hair interpretation but seems to be looking for an out rather than an honest interpretation), or at the extreme doesn’t seem to care about what the Bible has to say on the issue. I’d also be interested in your thoughts on whether the covering is required only in church or also at home during prayer.

    Best, Henry

  7. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Henry, I definitely plan to write more. But just to set your expectations, you should understand that I am a compulsive project-starter. Notice the glaring omission of “project finisher”. For example, I started learning Spanish a while back. Then I added Esperanto. Just the other day I added French. I’ll probably drop Esperanto. Who needs it. I have to work on http://www.whatthebible.com, which has been languishing for months. Then there’s my series on prelapsarian predation. That has another five or six articles to go. When it’s finished, I want to turn it into a book. I’m preaching through the gospel of John. Plus I have to make money at least every now and again. And spend time with my family.

    You see the problem :)

  8. Mrs Kirsty

    Here’s another angle – what about when a wife supports the wearing of head coverings, particularly during worship and prayer (personal and public), yet her husband is against the practice? Should a wife submit to her husband in all things, (as Scripture instructs wives to do) and not wear a head covering during worship, or should she wear a head covering … in defiance of their husband’s wishes? My thought is that that the former would be the best “compromise”, most loving response, perhaps wearing a head covering when in private, personal prayer, as her conscience dictates – and where no one else will see it and be offended. What do others think?

  9. Andrew Duncanson

    Mrs Kirsty,

    I think a comparison between Romans 13:1 and Acts 5:29 is relevant to your question. Scripture teaches us to submit ourselves to authorities, yet the Apostles chose to disobey the Sanhedrin. Analogously, though wives should submit themselves to the (fallible) authority of their husbands whenever possible, this should never cause us them to compromise on God’s direct and infallible commands.

    Also, the male headship described in 1 Corinthians 11 is not restricted to married men and women, since “every woman who prays or prophesies with uncovered head dishonours her head”.

    Therefore, in my opinion, even if a woman’s husband is (worryingly) opposed to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, she would still be wise to “obey God rather than men”.

  10. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer here.

    For instance, a woman whose husband will become very upset or offended if his wife wears a head covering will end up weighing the question differently to a woman whose husband disagrees with her but doesn’t see an issue in her following her conscience. A woman whose husband has directly said that he does not want her to wear a head covering will end up weighing the question differently to a woman whose husband is apathetic to the question. A woman whose husband is simply embarrassed by head coverings will end up weighing the question differently to a woman whose husband has a considered position that he can argue for, even if he is ultimately mistaken.

    My first impulse would be to ask whether the woman has spoken to her church eldership about the question. What is their own position on head coverings—indeed, do they have a considered position at all? Depending on their response, they may be able to help mediate the discussion between herself and her husband. Moreover, their authority in the church supersedes his, which may work to her favor. Of course I am by no means suggesting ambush tactics—indeed, if possible I think they should approach the eldership jointly. But how you finesse the situation will depend on the husband’s temperament and reasons.

    I confess I can’t think of any legitimate reasons a husband would have to prevent his wife from wearing a head covering. Even supposing he thought her exegesis was mistaken, clearly wearing a head covering is not forbidden, so why would he not simply let her follow her conscience? I think that question would be where I’d start in trying to come to agreement (of some kind) on the issue.

  11. Mrs Kirsty

    Hi Bnonn,

    What is the basis for your statement, “Moreover, their (the elders’) authority in the church supersedes his, which may work to her favour.”? Are you saying that a married woman is under the authority of the elders of her congregation, and that their authority over her supersedes that of her husband?

  12. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Mrs Kirsty, I was inferring it from the fact that both are under the authority of the church in matters of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. That cashes out differently in different churches, but however it ends up looking, it’s the foundational reason that churches have membership systems. When a person enters into membership, they enter into submission to the church’s authority. By the same token, if a person wishes to submit themselves to the authority of a particular church, they formalize that by becoming a member.

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