In my last post we discussed how to understand the challenging passage in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. We ended our discussion with some different interpretations of Paul’s reference to angels and authority. In this post we’ll continue our discussion by examining whether Paul, in verse 13 was talking about long hair or an additional head covering for women to wear in gathered worship. Whatever the practice to which Paul is referring, it seems to draw upon commonly held traditions in the 1st century Near Eastern world. Did women in the 1st century cover their heads? And if so, what did it signify? I now turn to research by other scholars who have written about this practice.

Two authors whose work is readily accessible online are Michael Marlowe and Dan Wallace. (I know there are many scholarly works not available on the internet, but online works are the most accessible to you as readers and these articles concur with what I have read in other books.) The data for women’s practice from the 1st century, including Roman, Greek and Jewish culture, is mixed. Michael Marlowe has assembled data on practices of head covering in his article “Headcovering Customs of the Ancient World”, telling of the variety of practices at the time and the uncertainty of determining a normative practice. Some women covered their heads and some women didn’t without being considered scandalous. In his article “What is the Head Covering in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and Does It Apply to Us Today?” Dan Wallace writes that both the passage and the record of ancient practices are unclear. Most scholars agree that honorable women in the 1st century CE either bound their hair or covered it with some sort of veil. And most agree that loose hair or a shorn head were identifying marks of prostitutes. Bruce Winter, whom Michael Marlowe includes in his extensive bibliography, concludes that married women wore veils to symbolize their husband’s place of authority over them. (Bruce Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2003, pp. 77-96.)

Some scholars cite evidence of 1st century Christian women following in the practices of mystery cults, declaring their equality with loose hair, or declaring that they belong to God. Paul may be saying in this passage that doing so was dangerously unclear: women with loose hair may have been trying to signal equality of personhood and devotion to God, but what they succeeded in doing was to signal loose morals, sexual availability and/or that Christianity was another mystery cult. (Ruth Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987, p.77) This data on loose hair indicating loose morals and Paul’s reference to “authority on their heads” indicates that two ideas were conveyed by how women dress their heads: propriety and gender roles.

It is worth noting here that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is the only passage in the New Testament which tells women to “cover” their heads. In 1 Timothy 2, Paul tells the women of Ephesus not to put elaborate braids or gold in their hair, but that means their hair is visible. He doesn’t tell them to cover their heads, just to avoid showiness in their hairdos!

Yet Marlowe and Wallace go in two different directions on the application of this passage for today. Marlowe says the variation in ancient practices (with some departing from the use of a head covering) came from pressures in the culture both in conservative and liberal directions. In other words, there were people advocating for historic practices of head covering and an ancient women’s liberation movement simultaneously advocating to discard head coverings for women alongside procuring other increased rights for women. He concludes in another article (The Woman’s Headcovering) that Paul was advocating for a distinctive Christian practice more in line with the historic practice, and that we should too. Marlowe asserts that we should be willing to stand out and live biblically – even if that includes women covering their heads with a head covering.

Dan Wallace argues that wearing a head covering (or coiffing her hair in a bound fashion as in 1 Timothy 2) in the 1st century would have signaled to the surrounding community that the woman was respectable, whether she was married or single. She would be signaling that she was not loose sexually, as much as she was acknowledging her male head. This would have brought her honor, as well as bringing honor to her head. She also would not be standing out significantly from other women. She would be clearly dressing as a woman and dressing modestly, but not drawing significant attention to either one, because many other women would be dressed the same way in public life. Wallace argues that for Western women to wear a head covering now would be humiliating rather than bringing her honor, and asking them to stand out far more than what Paul was asking of ancient women. He believes that much of the point of the passage is that Paul would not desire to bring shame on either women or their heads. Paul’s language of glory and dishonor support the idea that this practice he instructs is commonly understood as affirming. Paul moves from finding his support in creation events to appealing to their natural sense of what is right and wrong. The Corinthian congregation knew the practices he was writing about because these were not culturally remote practices for them.

If we were to ask a cross section of people today what nature taught them about right and wrong ways for men and women to dress, we might get a wide diversity of opinions. We are aware of worldwide differences in standards of modesty. Within our own culture, hair length for men and women varies considerably. Most people would not view loose or bound hair as a particularly important expression of modesty for women. Freedom from stereotypical dress (long skirts, etc) has been received favorably by many, including by many practicing Christians. Even so, until very recently, for men and women to “cross-dress” was perceived to indicate some kind of discomfort with one’s gender, and public opinion was generally agreed that discomfort with one’s gender was not a symptom of sound mental or spiritual health. Most Christians would also advocate modesty for women in church and most public venues – clothing which covers thoroughly whatever is still considered our private parts. This varies from culture to culture, and has evolved considerably over time. I often wonder how reliably we would answer Paul’s invitation, “Judge for yourselves . . .” today. But perhaps the world of Paul was also more multicultural than we think. And the bottom line is that even without understanding the particulars of ancient practice, we can discern that Paul is instructing men and women to dress differently from one another.

Gender difference is a contentious topic. As I have taught on this and read the teaching of others on this passage, I realize that I approach the Scripture with some baggage about gender roles and differences. I am sure most of us do.. Our baggage makes it hard for us to read this passage objectively or with an open mind. Here in the 21st century Northeast, I feel surrounded by an environment that is hostile to the discussion of gender differences and roles. I often feel that those around me believe that a person’s gender should be fluid, determined by the person’s psyche alone and most definitely that there should be no limits on what a person can choose to accomplish or be. Any mention of gender differences or roles is perceived as a harmful prejudicial limit. I am sympathetic to that myself. Look back at my post on Home Economics or Shop for my thoughts on gender tracking in school. The Scripture however pushes back on our baggage. This passage says that men should dress as men, and women should dress as women, because of universal, historic, creation truths. We see in our discomfort the clash of individual self-determination and God’s creation order.

Regardless of our baggage, however, some biblical truths are clear. We are to dress in a way that does not bring undue attention to ourselves (1 Timothy 2 – we’ll cover this in more detail later) and in a way that clearly communicates our gender while also honoring our male heads. The specific application, however, is a little more murky. My personal application is to show my gender by wearing clothing my culture agrees to be women’s clothing. I also clip back my hair and dress modestly to honor my husband. I acknowledged my husband as head by changing my name in marriage, something which is a quiet way, in American culture, of saying that our roles are different. Some wives change their names and some do not, perhaps for the same reasons some wore head coverings in the 1st century and some did not. These are semiotic or symbolic, subtle, visual and cultural actions.

Those who know me at my church know that I believe that the Bible teaches submission of women to men in marriage and in the Church. I have taught women’s submission year after year, but always with the carefully articulated caveat that women are equal creatures, submitting themselves to their particular male heads in marriage and in the church because they are commanded to by God, not because they are ontologically inferior. Part of me feels vehemently that it is unfaithful to God’s Scriptures and harmful to humanity if my practice gives the mistaken impression that women are called to submit because they are inferior. I feel if I wore a head covering that many would assume that is what I believe and I would never get the chance to disabuse them of this terrible impression. In the 1st century, many people appreciated that Christianity held an elevated view of women relative to the surrounding cultures. (See Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1996, pp. 95-128, for his argument that the elevated status of women is one of the key reasons Christianity grew so quickly.) That is not true today. So many people in my surrounding culture find Christianity hateful from superficial and mistaken impressions that Christianity is bad for women. Therefore, in my era and my location in the liberal northeast, I feel strongly that it is better if my outward dress conveys equality most clearly, and that my signals of acceptance of my female role as a wife and in the church are more subtle.

Moreover, this passage is complex and in many ways unclear, and that makes me think the more loving way for me to apply it is to be subtle, choosing application that does not telegraph dogmatism and judgment. Unfortunately, in writing about this I may thwart my desire to respect varied opinions. I hope you will believe me when I express my deep concern for complementarian churches to view and treat women as equal heirs of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7) whether they practice head covering or not.

I think Paul has this concern, too, and cares about this potential misunderstanding of male headship and head coverings, because he tempers the passage with equalizing statements in verses 11 and 12, which I wrote about in early January – “in the Lord, however …” Paul cares to articulate clear teaching on both gender differences and on gender equality. He teaches male headship in marriage and church but he also teaches equality as creatures of God and fellow worshippers at church. That equality is exhibited in the fact that all men since Adam have been born through the womb and birth canal of a woman, their mothers. It is also a Genesis fact that both men and women are created by God and in His image. So Paul cares about exhibiting gender difference and roles, but he also cares about “curbing male pride,” to use words from a student many years ago. Therefore, he reminds the Corinthians that the human birth experience is an ongoing honor given to women by God and a validation of their equal nature.

Today’s passage raises the question about head covering for women in the present day, but it also taps into much larger topics of the meaning of headship for our lives as well as the idea of having been made to help. These are topics for another post.

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