Did Paul admonish the women of Corinth to wear headcoverings because it was a “culturally appropriate expression…of femininity?”

Short answer: We have ZERO historical, hermeneutical, and contextual evidence for this. In this article, we will dwell mostly upon the history simply because Grudem and Piper get so much of it wrong.

Both John Piper and Wayne Grudem repeat falsehoods in their “Fifty Crucial Questions: An Overview of Central Concerns About Manhood and Womanhood.” My corrections to their claims will interrupt what they have written (in italics).

The key question here is whether Paul is saying that creation dictates a head covering or that creation dictates that we use culturally appropriate expressions of masculinity and femininity, which just happened to be a head covering for women in that setting.

There are historical problems with the above. For one, not all women of the day wore headcoverings (we have ancient pottery and paintings show that this is so.) Further, certain headcoverings were dedicated to particular professions, such as the mitre worn by prostitutes. In addition to this, as we discuss below, wedding rings existed.

Why would Paul choose the headcovering, which was not universally worn by women, instead of the iron wedding ring, which was not affiliated with sex work? Obviously, cultural appropriateness could have not been Paul’s criteria, and in fact, he does give a criteria: “because of the angels.”

Sadly, Piper and Grudem ignore the criteria Paul actually gives in favor of one that, historically, is not even true.

We think the latter is the case. The key verses are: “Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering” (1 Corinthians 11:13-15). How did nature teach that long hair dishonored a man and gave women a covering? Nature has not endowed women with more hair than men.

Nature HAS endowed women with more hair–men bald.

…On the other hand, nature dictates that men feel ashamed when they wear symbols of femininity. We could feel the force of this by asking the men of our churches, “Does not nature teach you not to wear a dress to church?” The teaching of nature is the natural inclination of men and women to feel shame when they abandon the culturally established symbols of masculinity or femininity. Nature does not teach what the symbols should be. When Paul says that a woman’s hair “is given to her for a covering” (v. 15), he means that nature has given woman the hair and the inclination to follow prevailing customs of displaying her femininity, which in this case included letting her hair grow long and drawing it up into a covering for her head. So Paul’s point in this passage is that the relationships of manhood and womanhood, which are rooted in the created order (1 Corinthians 11:7-9), should find appropriate cultural expression in the worship service.

As we can see, the whole “culturally established symbol” argument hinges upon the historically false notion that all women in Corinth (and presumably, the whole Christian world of the time) wore headcoverings and men did not. However, as we already pointed out, not all respectable women wore headcoverings. Further, men ALSO wore coverings. Here is a bust of Augustus Caesar.

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So, we can see that their whole cultural-applicability hypothesis is based upon ahistorical myths. For this reason, it should not surprise us that Grudem’s modern day application for 1 Cor 11 also does not hold water. Grudem writes, in short, women are obedient to 1 Cor 11 by wearing a wedding ring:

Today we obey the head covering commands for women in 1 Corinthians 11 by encouraging married women to wear whatever symbolizes being married in their own cultures. In modern American society, a married woman wears a wedding ring to give public evidence that she is married. Just as Paul was concerned that women in Corinth not throw off their veils and thereby dishonor their husbands by not acting like married women in the church services, so married women today should not hide their wedding rings or otherwise publicly dishonor their marriage when they come to church.

What is wrong with Grudem’s rationale? In short:

  1. Paul did not encourage “married women to wear whatever symbolizes being married.” He specifically commanded women to wear a covering AND for men not to cover. Paul said that we must not be contentious about this. Further, marriage, in fact, is never specifically mentioned in 1 Cor 11.
  2. “In modern American society, a married woman” AND man “wears a wedding ring to give public evidence that she” AND he “is married.” Therefore, a wedding ring cannot be a faithful replacement for a headcovering as there is no differentiation between men and women in the wearing of rings.
  3. The inference we may draw from Grudem’s thinking is that there was not an ancient Greek/Roman version of the wedding ring and, in fact, the veil acted as a ring. However, this is not even true. Wedding rings existed in both ancient Rome and Greece. And, unlike the modern practice in the west, only women wore a ring. Tertullian writes of the practice as being ancient in his own day (200 AD or so) in his Apology, Chapter 6. So, if a custom of women wearing rings, and men not doing so, already existed in the Roman world why wouldn’t Paul make an allowance for this in place of the headcovering if it was in fact permissible?
  4. As we already discussed above, it was not an universal ancient practice for married women to wear a headcovering anyway.

Conclusion. Writing about headcoverings makes my stomach churn. It is to me practically unbelievable that any intelligent man who has done honest research on the subject can make the plethora of false historical claims that the opponents of headcoverings devise. I mean, you’d think they base their history from watching Spartacus and Gladiator, and not spending a few minutes actually looking at ancient art or, heaven forbid, reading the historical research on the subject.

Why would people make such obvious historical errors? Perhaps God curses those that ignore such a plainly written commands such as those found in 1 Cor 11 with intellectual blindness. “Hey, you look outside the Bible to reinterpret Paul’s plain words?,” says God. “Then I will make it that you cannot even understand the history in which you exploit to ignore my ordinances.”

So, what can the example of Piper and Grudem teach us?

Many intelligent men can get obvious stuff wrong. Let’s not have our sacred cows. Our theological superheros are not perfect. Here, Grudem and Piper give millions of women a false sense of security that they are being obedient to God even though they do not cover. They will be accountable on judgment day for this.

Pray for our theologians. And, please, also pray for me.

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