A Custom, Not A Command
By William J. Stewart | Ontario, Canada
The apostle Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 11 concerning head coverings has been variably interpreted by our brethren. Folks differ on what the covering is, on when the covering is to be worn, and on whether it is binding today or not. Herein I affirm the wearing of an artificial head covering is a matter of custom, not a command.
We need to begin our discussion with the apostle’s conclusion – “…we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” (v 16). This word rendered “custom” (Greek “sunetheia”) appears just twice in the New Testament, here in our text and also in John 18:39. In John 18, Pilate spoke of the common practice (not a binding law) for a prisoner to be released to the Jewish people at Passover. This is very different from the word ethos used in Acts 6:14 and elsewhere, “…the customs which Moses delivered…” The former is a habit or routine, the latter is a statute or commandment. Paul plainly identifies the wearing of head coverings as a custom. It is a cultural practice, not a divine commandment.
The apostle encouraged the Corinthian women to wear the head covering, of that there is no doubt. However, his candid affirmation that “…we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” sets the rationale for his instruction in the realm of social etiquette rather than obedience to a divine decree. There may be reasons for a woman to wear a head covering in certain places and at certain times, but it remains a matter of custom, and a custom which does not belong to the church as a whole.
Setting the Context
We stress the importance of context, and rightly so. A text void of its context is easily misunderstood and misapplied. We must consider the greater context to which this instruction belongs. There is a principle woven through the middle portion 1 Corinthians dealing with the use of one’s liberty. Just because we have the right to do something doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do (6:12; 8:9; 10:23-24). Equally, though we receive sound and timely advice (perhaps even from an apostle), it is not sinful to do otherwise (7:25-28, 35-38). To demonstrate this principle about our freedoms and their willful restraint, Paul looks at various examples in the context: marriage (ch. 7), meats offered to idols (ch. 8, 10), the rights of an evangelist (ch. 9), and the wearing of head coverings (ch. 11); all demonstrating the saying, “…I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-22).
Immediately preceding Paul’s discourse about head coverings, we find this:
“Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:32-11:1).
This willingness to set the concerns of others above our own freedoms is Paul’s lead into the discussion of the head covering. There is no liberty with divine mandates, but there is a choice regarding the head covering, for it was an apostolic recommendation.
Judge Among Yourselves
In verses 13-15, Paul wrote:
“Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering.”
Paul asked the Corinthians to employ their own ability to make a rational, common sense observation. The Greek word rendered “judge” in our text appears in Romans 14:5, “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike,” and is elsewhere rendered determined, decided, etc.. Paul encouraged the Corinthians to decide among themselves what was proper, comely (KJV) or appropriate (WEB).
How were they to determine what was proper regarding head coverings and hair length? Paul counselled them to let nature be their teacher. We must be careful how we understand this term “nature.” It does not refer to what is inherent or necessarily imposed by God. The same Greek word (phusis) is used in Ephesians 2:3, which says we “…were by nature children of wrath…” Wickedness is not an innate attribute of humanity – God did not create vessels of wrath. Wickedness is an acquired trait, learned by exposure and experience, and then acted upon habitually, or as Thayer says “…by long habit has become nature.”
What does nature teach us about hair length? He writes, “…if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him … but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her…” (11:14-15). This was Paul’s observation of what “by long habit” was the accepted normal, not a universal law. The Nazirite vow required adherents to not cut their hair for a time, and then at the end of the vow, to shave the head (Numbers 6:5, 18-19). The vow could be taken by either a man or a woman (v 2), which resulted in men having long hair and women being shorn. If either of these were inherently sinful, every Nazirite sinned, and did so at the Lord’s command. Acceptable hair length is a societal issue, not a Scriptural issue. Men with long hair and women with short hair is a matter of decorum, not sin. Christians should understand that to have a good influence in our communities (to “be all things to all men”), we should abide by societal customs which do not violate God’s word.
A Symbol Of Authority
The woman’s covering is identified as “a symbol of authority” (v 10). A woman’s submission to her husband is a universal truth (v 3; cf. Genesis 3:16; Ephesians 5:23; 1 Peter 3:1, 5-6), but the covering is not a universal symbol of her submission. In other times and places the covering was a symbol of prostitution (Genesis 38:13-15, 19), of mourning and weeping (2 Samuel 15:30; 19:4; Esther 6:12) or of false prophecy and divination (Ezekiel 13:17-23). The covering may have served as a symbol of a woman’s submission to her husband in first century Greek or Roman culture, but the covering is not a universal sign synonymous with a woman’s subjection to her husband. No such command existed in the age of the patriarchs, nor under the Mosaic Law, neither was it a subject of orthodoxy among the churches in Paul’s day (v 16).
Covered Or Uncovered?
The instruction of 1 Corinthians 11:4-7 must be understood in light of these facts:
- The greater context deals with having consideration for others in our conduct.
- Hair length and coverings differ based on time and culture.
- Paul stated he is dealing with a custom, not a doctrine of the church.
Paul stated it is a dishonor for a man to pray or prophesy with his head covered (v 4, 7). This is a cultural observation, not a universal truth. Aaron and his sons wore turbans or hats when they served before the Lord (Exodus 28:3-4; 29:9), and it brought no dishonor to them or the Lord. In western culture, it is considered disrespectful for a man to wear a hat indoors (though such is changing). If a man wears a hat indoors, it may result in disapproval or rebuke. He brings dishonor to his head.
Paul continues, “…every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…” (v 5). The application is the same. If cultural expectation is for a woman to be covered, then she should be covered (ie. Middle Eastern culture), lest she dishonor her head (herself and her husband’s authority). Ignoring such a custom would bring disdain rather than an opportunity to influence others for good (to be all things to all men).
The “if” of verse 6 is important, “…if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.” Paul is not citing a divine law; the ‘if” appeals to cultural standards (v 13-15). This is not a universal statement of divine instruction, rather it calls upon brethren to fit in with local customs.
As much as we are able, we should minimize hindrances to our influence for the gospel’s sake. That is Paul’s focus in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 and in the greater context. As we are able, we should abide by the customs of the culture we are in. Seeking to make this text a universal law requiring women in all places and in all ages to have long hair with artificial coverings and men to have short uncovered hair stretches the text beyond the apostle’s intent.
Thayer, Joseph, “Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament”.