Hats, Hair and Harridans
Brent Sharp | Arkansas, USA
Suppose you showed up for worship services one morning and discovered that your preacher was going to deliver his sermon while wearing a ball cap with the logo for his favorite football team, or automobile company, or some such on his head. Would you care? Suppose another of your members, who happens to be from West Texas, was waiting on the Lord’s table with a ten-gallon Stetson perched atop his head. What difference would that make? Suppose that the preacher put forward a man to be an elder, who seemed to be perfectly qualified from scripture… had long, flowing locks to his waist which the ladies of the congregation assured you were “beautiful”. Would that be a problem?
Now suppose you entered a congregation for worship on Sunday morning and every woman and girl in attendance was bare-headed, many of the women had haircuts indistinguishable from men, and a sizeable minority had buzz cuts that would be acceptable for enlisted men in the army. Would this be a problem? Well, the fact of the matter is that you are highly unlikely to encounter the former … but the latter is a fact of life for the overwhelming majority of professed churches of Christ throughout the United States. Why is this?
In the book of I Corinthians Paul addressed a number of disorders plaguing the church in Corinth. While this book was written to correct the excesses and contentions of Corinth, the letter itself is universally applicable to all local congregations, including the various local churches today. Paul’s instructions to Corinth are still applicable in Amarillo, Lagos, Florence, or anywhere else a congregation of Christians assembles to work and worship together (I Corinthians 1:2). Included in these instructions were some specific matters as to the conduct of each sex within worship, with a strong emphasis on maintaining the proper role of each, not only to preserve decorum, but to properly reflect our relationship with Christ and His Father.
In the first half of I Corinthians 11 Paul admonished the Corinthians, and instructs us, in four specific things. These are that women should pray with covered heads and have long hair, whereas men should pray with their heads uncovered and keep their hair short. For the first eighteen centuries after Paul penned this letter few, if any, who claimed to be Christians disputed this matter. It was universally accepted by Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants that this was the correct way to do things. Suddenly, however, in the 19th century we somehow discovered this was incorrect.
Today most brethren will tell you that Paul was simply addressing a local custom of Corinth…. Yet Paul nowhere calls his instructions to the Corinthian church a matter of custom, nor did anyone believe so until modern times, nor do serious lexicographers believe so today. Most who oppose the head covering for women will point out that the word custom appears in verse 16 this passage, after which they will assert that this refers to Paul’s instructions in the previous section, and then proclaim half the matter moot… that is, they will excuse women from their responsibilities in this passage while still binding Paul’s instructions to men. A few will at least excuse men along with women from adhering to this, although they are a small minority.
To properly apply the passage we must know to what Paul makes reference when he uses the word “custom.” The fact of the matter is Paul was referring to the abhorrent Corinthian practices of having women appear uncovered when he uses this term, and was explaining that no other church anywhere in the world allowed their women to behave in such a fashion. Every church in the first century other than Corinth was requiring their women to wear a covering. Even studious opponents of the veil, such as Mike Willis, acknowledge that the wearing of the veil was the universal practice of all the churches when Paul penned this letter (Commentary on I Corinthians, page 308). If we look at this seriously, from a lexicographer’s view, what does the passage actually say?
We have no such custom – We the apostles in the churches which we have elsewhere founded; or we have no such custom in Judea. The sense is, that it is contrary to custom there for women to appear in public unveiled. This custom, the apostle argues, ought to be allowed to have some influence on the church of Corinth, even though they should not be convinced by his reasoning. (Albert Barnes)
“But if any man seem to be contentious – If any person sets himself up as a wrangler – puts himself forward as a defender of such points, that a woman may pray or teach with her head uncovered, and that a man may, without reproach, have long hair; let him know that we have no such custom as either, nor are they sanctioned by any of the Churches of God, whether among the Jews or the Gentiles. (Adam Clarke)
See note on 1 Corinthians 8:7. The word has been interpreted  as referring to contention, ‘it is not our custom to be contentious,’ or  to the practice of permitting women to appear unveiled at the services of the Church. The latter yields the best sense. This appeal to the Churches must not be understood to imply that all Churches ought in all respects to have the same customs. But in a matter such as this, involving the position of women in Christian society, and their reputation in the world at large—a matter of no small importance—it were far wiser for the Corinthian Church to follow the universal practice of Christendom. Now if the false teacher resolves to be contentious, and maintains that it is allowable for women to pray and teach publicly in the church unveiled, we in Judea have no such custom, neither any of the churches of God.“ (James MacKnight on the Epistles)
See also Alford, Matthew Henry, Fausset (Pulpit Commentary), Lipscomb, McGarvey, etc. etc. etc.
At this point I should acknowledge that there has long been a minority opinion, championed by Chrysostom and Calvin, amongst others, that the custom of verse 16 is a practice of being contentious. While a minority of scholarly luminaries have taken this position, they likewise held that the veil was still universally binding and that the contentious person was still arguing about the head coverings and hair lengths despite Paul’s thorough teaching on the matter.
This is the crux of the problem for those who oppose the covering…. Their position is contrary to plain reading of the text, contrary to the Greek grammar (as seen above), and its existence is well nigh impossible to document prior to the latter half of the 19th century. Nowhere does Paul refer to the covering as a custom… this is a modern invention to excuse ignoring a direct command. What we need to understand, and admit, is that at the turn of the twentieth century many preachers affiliated with the restoration, or Stone-Campbell movement, saw themselves as progressives and advocated positions that would shock most members of the church of Christ today. The most adamant opponents of the head covering, who by and large were successful in winning the majority over to their position, were men who embraced and espoused what would later become known as first-wave feminism. These men advocated for deaconesses in the local church and women teaching Bible classes with men in attendance; some of them also advocated for women leading in various acts of worship such as prayer and song leading, and in a few cases even advocated for women preachers in the local churches. The ensuing split between the church of Christ and the Christian church has usually been framed as a matter of organization and to a lesser degree music, but the role of women played a sizable part as well. Even so, some of the feminist progressives continued with the church of Christ, for example Nichol, while others continued to be influential through their written works, such as McGarvey. The point to all this is that prior to the rise of first wave feminism in England and the United States no one questioned that women should wear a head covering in worship and keep their hair long. It was only after the rise of this movement, and the change of women’s role in society at large, that many brethren “discovered” a new meaning of I Corinthians 11:16 which allowed them to utterly annul the teaching of the preceding fourteen verses; a view without historical precedent, grammatical structure or logical consistency. The fact of the matter is that the term custom in verse 16 means the opposite of what the progressives have told us, and that the entire passage is still binding in all places today.