The head covering: ordinance or custom 2

By John Hooper

Changing times

If we look once again at the early verses of the chapter we are able to see now the sharp contrast between the two words the apostle uses. We see there that he is not teaching the church mere habits and customs, rather he is teaching believers the way of Christ (v. 1). He is giving them ordinances (v. 2). Church order and practices are not derived from social convention or the culture of the time and place in which believers happen to live. They are the ordinances of Christ and are based on the doctrines of Christ. This implies, firstly, that we need to recognise a distinction between the social conventions of those times regarding the wearing of the veil and the teaching being given here about a church ordinance. I am sure that too often we allow our thinking to be distracted by the cultural practice of first century Corinth rather than staying focussed on Scripture. Such a distraction leads us only to confusion and a departure from the ways of Christ. Secondly, unlike social conventions the ordinances of Christ are not subject to variation or change. They are to be kept, held fast to, taught and passed on, not contended with or argued away. Our calling before God is to obey, to put those ordinances into practice, including the covering and uncovering of the head, and to teach them to our children.

But what has happened over the past fifty years? Generally in society the head-covering as an item of dress, whether for men or for women, has fallen out of fashion. These days very few people wear a hat as a matter of course, except perhaps to protect themselves from the weather. There has been a cultural change so that something that was once quite commonplace and customary – a man and woman walking down the street fully hatted – now can look rather quaint and out-dated.

And what has happened in the churches? I am sure that a hundred years ago most preaching on 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 would have upheld the doctrine of headship and applied the passage with exhortations to head covering, just as do the older and more reliable commentaries from spiritually better times, such as those of Calvin and Gill. Even in the early 1970s it was possible to see on Songs of Praise the majority of women with their heads covered. But already a change was well under way. The middle years of the twentieth century marked the beginning of a decline in head covering that today is almost complete. Even in circles where the practice was continued in the pew it was rarely if ever taught from the pulpit. It was no longer transmitted. In its place a new and uncertain sound was being heard. Novel cultural interpretations of Holy Scripture were becoming popular, interpretations that were more akin to that of liberal thinking, denying parts of the Bible their relevancy for our time and place in the world. Preaching on 1 Corinthians 11 was now likely to interpret it in such a way as to reject head covering as something no longer relevant to our modern times.

As a consequence, where the practice did continue in use its underlying spiritual significance was often forgotten and increasingly denied. The motive was now very different. Instead of a Christian ordinance founded on Scripture, head covering had become merely an extension of social custom or even just a fashion accessory with increasingly excessive displays of millenary (cf. 1 Tim. 2:9). With this came the danger of hypocrisy as Christian women wore the symbol of submission on their heads without understanding its true meaning or working it out in their lives. All in all, the days of the head covering were numbered. Social customs change, and if this was just one more social custom then it too could be changed and even jettisoned altogether.

During my childhood a sister coming into a worship service without her head covered was most conspicuous and caused a degree of offence, especially among the older members of the congregation. But with tolerance shown by church leaders other women adopted the same behaviour and the practice increased with few voices being raised against it. The trend spread like a contagion and found its way into churches of every kind, whether mainline denominations, Brethren assemblies, evangelical fellowships or Reformed churches. Few were to remain unaffected. The time has now come when it is the usual practice for women not to wear a head covering in church, and we have grown accustomed to it. It has become customary, encouraged by the drift toward informal worship styles, casual dress, and a general liberalisation of women’s roles in the churches. Having absorbed the “ethos” of the world we have adopted its customs and social conventions so that now all, whether male or female, appear in the house of God without a head covering. But the judgment of the apostle Paul and the New Testament churches is clear: “we have no such custom.” The ethos of this world puts us at variance with the Word of God and the ordinances of Christ.

A need for repentance

We may never interpret 1 Corinthians 11 culturally. That is because the principles of headship established by the apostle in verse 3, beginning with the headship of Christ, extend far beyond Corinth and the first century AD. Hence the practice of head-covering too was intended for “all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:2). When it is faithfully kept every believer in every local church is declaring in their worship, “Christ is our head and we are subject to Him alone, to His authority, His rule, His Word, and His Spirit.” It is not a custom, it is an ordinance for us to keep, demonstrating clearly and effectively a local church’s united submission to the rule of Christ.

Fifty years ago keeping the ordinance was easy because there was no conflict with social convention, but today there is and the pressures to conform are immense. Our faithfulness to the Lord and His word have been put to the test and we have failed. Now, by and large, it is the sister who does cover her head who is conspicuous, and for that she has our respect. But this highlights a difficulty because the emphasis is always on the woman. The woman must cover her head; the woman must be subject; the woman must make the public display while the man does not really need to do anything at all. But the passage comes to our aid because the emphasis is on neither the woman nor the man but on Christ, the Head. The main point, the one doctrinal principle that the Spirit of God is teaching us here and that we need to understand and honour, is headship, and that is why the passage begins with our Lord Jesus Christ (v. 3).

Paul is in fact being very fair in giving believing men and women almost equal attention. The ordinance is the covering of the head by women and the uncovering of the head by men. The symbolism is significant and both men and women together must keep it because by it both equally are confessing Christ to be their Head. No other act or symbol will suffice. It is an ordinance designed specifically to express the principle of headship, and hence it pertains to the head.

In conclusion, then, we do not believe it was the purpose of the Spirit of God to teach the church at Corinth a custom, a social convention, or a cultural practice that could and would be changed as the fashion of the world changed. He was teaching her something with deep and lasting spiritual significance. It was something for her to keep; something she was to hold fast to; something she was to teach others in very different cultures and in very different times. It was something that was to be handed on unchanged to succeeding generations, even to churches in Great Britain twenty centuries later. Indeed, it was something that would be written into the very pages of sacred Scripture as authoritative for the church of all ages. The Spirit was giving her an ordinance.

But what have we and our fathers done with this ordinance? Have we kept it? Have we held fast to it? Have we followed the apostle in it, even as he followed Christ? And have we taught it to our children? No, we have neglected it, we have been unfaithful to it, and finally we have let it go altogether. In repentance we need to reflect prayerfully on what we have done, seek forgiveness and return to the ways of Christ. We have not abandoned some ancient and irrelevant eastern custom, we have abandoned an ordinance of God and that is a very different matter.

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