I’m going to venture some comments on this recent article by Benjamin L. Merkle at the Gospel Coalition.
Merkle rightly points out that evangelicals are inconsistent in how they treat Paul’s arguments from nature in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2. They take the latter argument, against women leadership, seriously; but they simultaneously dismiss the former argument, against women praying and prophesying with uncovered heads. I think he’s right about this inconsistency. Unfortunately, his efforts to defuse the tension are inept—to say the least.
I’m simply going to quote what I take to be Merkle’s central points, and illustrate how badly exegeted and/or reasoned they are.
Paul is not directly making the case that head coverings are needed for women when they pray or prophesy. He doesn’t say: “A woman must have her head covered when she prays or prophesies. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.” Instead, Paul uses the Genesis creation account to affirm his previous statement that “woman is the glory of man.”
But Paul’s point is to contrast the non-covering of a man’s head and the covering of a woman’s head. Therefore, for him to say, “A man ought not to cover his head” and then justify it with an argument from creation is rhetorically identical to saying, “A woman ought to cover her head” and justifying it the same way.
This kind of analysis, where a split hair is given a nose-job and made to look like a respectable distinction on which to build an argument, is simply mishandling the text of Scripture. It shows no sensitivity to the way language is used; to how rhetoric works. People with a tin ear shouldn’t undertake to share their opinions on the nuances of biblical texts. I’m not impressed by such weaseling.
To deal briefly with the supporting arguments:
The manner in which Paul introduces his discussion strongly suggests head coverings are not his main concern. In verse 3 he states, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”
Again, this is simply an incompetent reading of the text. Paul segues into head coverings by starting with the reason they are important. He wouldn’t have raised headship at all if he didn’t need to talk about head coverings. He is reminding his audience of this basic theological principle so as to have that foundation in place for his discussion.
Paul’s comparison of a woman who prays or prophesies without a head covering to a woman with a man’s haircut also signifies that the main issue at stake is gender and role distinctions, not merely a piece of cloth on one’s head.
If anything, this supports requiring head coverings; Paul draws a direct correlation between wearing a head covering and having long hair. If you won’t wear a head covering, you should cut your hair off. But if you think that’s a bad thing to do, then wear a covering!
Btw, I’m not convinced his point is entirely about gender distinctions here. I believe it is at least partly about the glory of the woman. He isn’t merely assuming that a woman wouldn’t cut her hair because it would make her look like a man, but because it would rob her of her glory. But since she cannot rightly “remove” her glory, she needs to cover it up when praying or prophesying—as a symbol of the authority she is under. Ie, she should not be flouting her glory as if it belonged to her, but rather she should respectful of the fact that it belongs to her husband by keeping it “contained”; keeping it “under submission”.
Notably, Merkle utterly ignores both the need for a symbol of authority, and also Paul’s cryptic comment about the angels. Yet both of these issues are clearly integral parts of Paul’s argument—so the entire enterprise of showing that head coverings are merely a cultural concern collapses without defusing these other reasons that he gives for requiring them.
Paul isn’t concerned with head coverings per se. Rather, he’s concerned with the meaning that wearing a head covering conveys.
This is just a non sequitur. The fact that a head covering is “passive” in itself, and Paul is actually concerned with what it represents, is utterly irrelevant—indeed, if anything, this again bolsters the argument for head coverings. This is like arguing that the NT isn’t concerned with water per se, but rather with what being immersed in it represents, and therefore it doesn’t matter if we baptize people.
Paul’s argument from nature, then, doesn’t directly prove women must wear head coverings but that the differences between men and women are part of God’s creational design.
This argument only goes through if you presuppose the exact point in dispute: namely that “Paul’s argument from nature, then, doesn’t directly prove women must wear head coverings but that the differences between men and women are part of God’s creational design”! Since Paul uses the argument from creation explicitly to justify wearing head coverings, it would seem the opposite conclusion is in fact straightforwardly taught in the text.
According to Paul, the wearing of head coverings wasn’t limited to the church at Corinth but was a custom in all the churches.
But the universality of the practice indicates that this is not a mere matter of Corinthian fashion; so again I am baffled as to why Merkle thinks this undermines the argument from creation rather than bolstering it.
A final comment: You might think I am being harsh here, but I disagree. It is obvious to anyone who stops for a moment to think about it that we wouldn’t even be having this discussion if third wave feminism hadn’t had such a radical effect on the church. The Gospel Coalition is trusted by millions of Christians for teaching the word of God. Yet here they are, publishing what can only be described as a hack job. We should hold them to a higher standard, just as God will judge teachers more strictly.