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?’ He elucidates four interpretations of this passage, of which I will quote the last two, and his own view:
(3) The head covering is a real head covering and the text is applicable today, in the same way as it was in Paul’s day. Within this view are two basic sub-views:
- The head covering is to be worn by all women in the church service.
- The head covering is to be worn by women in the church service only when praying or prophesying publicly.
(4) The head covering is a meaningful symbol in the ancient world that needs some sort of corresponding symbol today, but not necessarily a head covering. This also involves the same two sub-views as #3 above.
My own convictions are that that view 4 is correct. The sub-view within this that I adopt is the second one: women only need to wear some symbol when praying or prophesying publicly. Below is a brief interaction with the various views, including a critique of each.
Since head coverings have been on my mind lately, I’m going to venture some brief comments:
In his article he summarizes the exegetical arguments, and his summary is good—but his reasons for shifting from view #3 to view #4 are puzzling at best. 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?