The head covering: ordinance or custom 1

By John Hooper

We recognise that sincere believers differ in their understanding of 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, and we have no wish to judge others over this matter. Our great need is always to see clearly what Scripture teaches. What follows is a worthy contribution to our understanding of this important subject – Ed.

There was a time when the early part of First Corinthians 11 was well understood and not particularly controversial, but sadly that is not now the case. There has been a marked change, especially during the lifetime of the present writer, to the point where it has become a passage clouded by disagreement and controversy. But does it need to be this way? Without looking at all the arguments, I believe our understanding of the passage can be greatly helped by focusing on two crucial words, the first appearing at the beginning in verse 2, and the second at the end in verse 16. They are the words “ordinances” and “custom.”

Transmitted truth

The inspired apostle begins this part of his letter to the Corinthians with words of praise, commending them for remembering the things he has taught them and for keeping “the ordinances, as I delivered them to you” (verse 2). In the Greek the word translated as “ordinances” is paradosis, a word the translators of the Authorised Version usually render “tradition,” as in Mark 7:8. There we read, “laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men.” Or in Colossians 2:8, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men … and not after Christ.” In both these verses paradosis carries a negative sense, as it does in most other passages where it is used, but that is not always the case. In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Paul exhorts the brethren to “stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” And in the next chapter he commands them to withdraw themselves from “every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us” (3:6).

But common to all these texts is the idea that instruction and practices have been transmitted from one person to another, handed down from teacher to student, apostle to “brethren,” or one generation to the next. We find the same principle elsewhere in First Corinthians, though in slightly different language: “For I received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you” (11:23), and “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received” (15:3).

So paradosis can be thought of in a bad sense or in a good sense: it can mean the traditions of men or the traditions of Christ as transmitted through His apostles. But however the word is used the basic meaning is the same: that of a teaching or practice being handed unchanged from one to another. The doctrines and ordinances received by the apostles from the Lord Himself, those apostles taught faithfully to others so that they in turn might pass them on unchanged to those who heard them and would follow them (cf 2 Timothy 2:2). “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ,” the chapter begins. This is the true “apostolic succession.” Insofar as the Corinthian believers were doing this, the apostle says, they were keeping the ordinances. The word “keep” (verse 2) is a strong word conveying the idea that they were holding fast to all that Paul had taught them.

An unknown custom

Having laid down this principle the apostle then goes on to apply it to a number of issues and practices in the church at Corinth that were not conducive to good order. In the latter part of the chapter Paul deals with the Lord’s Table, but here he is concerned with something else: “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God” (verse 3).

Immediately following this bold, foundational statement of doctrine the apostle follows his usual pattern and moves to the practical application, in this case the subject of head covering. In their gatherings for the worship of God the Corinthian men were to have their heads uncovered while the women were to have theirs covered, both thereby giving visible expression to the principle of headship expressed in verse 3. On this point there is generally little or no dispute. The differences arise over whether this was a practice intended for every church in every age, or was it just for believers in first-century Corinth? In other words, was it an ordinance or was it something less?

Before we try to answer the question it would be helpful to look further down the passage. In verse 16 Paul raises the possibility of there being someone in the church who might “seem to be contentious.” Whether he had a particular individual in mind is hard to say, but certainly he considers it possible that someone might want to contend with his teaching, arguing against the point rather than submitting to it. For whatever reason, such a one would refuse to practise the covering or uncovering of their head. It is possible that already in the church there was a contentious element promoting this view, and that this prompted the apostle to introduce the subject in the way that he does: “But I would have you know” (verse 3). The apostle’s immediate and sharp response pre-empts any debate as he declares simply, “we have no such custom” (verse 16). He leaves no room for argument. There can be no contention. In their corporate gatherings the men are to uncover their heads and the women are to cover theirs, demonstrating before God and the angels of heaven their submission to the headship of Christ.

The word “custom” (Gk. = ethos) in verse 16 is very different from the word “ordinance” used in verse 3. It is a word that, from its derivation and usage in the New Testament, we understand to mean something that is common or usual practice, a habit, or that which is customary. There is a well-known example of its use in Pilate’s address to the Jews when, concerning Christ, he said, “I find in him no fault at all. But ye have a custom, that I should release unto you one at the passover…” (John 18:38,39; cf parallel passages). Where this custom came from we do not know but we can be certain that it was not one prescribed by the law of God. It was a practice adopted during Roman rule and which, with regular usage, had become a habit, a custom. In the Book of Acts the word is used five times in reference to the customs of the Jews (Acts 6:14; 16:21; 21:21; 26:3; 2:17).

Two other English words used to translate the same Greek word are “manner” and the now obsolete word “wont.” The Saviour’s burial was with spices after “the manner of the Jews” (John 19:40). At Thessalonica Paul went into the synagogue to reason with the Jews from the Scriptures “as his manner was” (Acts 17:2). The writer to the Hebrews encourages us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together “as the manner of some is” (Heb. 10:25). When crowds followed the Lord he taught them “as he was wont” (Mark 10:1), or as we would be more likely to say today, “as he was accustomed.” Again, after the last supper Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, “as he was wont” (Luke 22:39). Using the same word as the one we find in all these passages, Paul describes the practice of the women not covering their heads in worship and of the men having theirs covered, as a custom. Whether it had already become customary or was in danger of doing so matters little. The point is that it was a custom unknown to him or to the churches of God (verse 16). It had not been given by Christ, and hence it had not been transmitted from Him. It was not being handed down by His apostles. In fact, it was a custom that was quite opposed to both the ordinance and the doctrine that the ordinance was given to reflect.

(To be continued)

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