Response to A Custom, Not A Command

By Brent Sharp | Arkansas, USA

To begin with, let’s fix the opening line: The apostle Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 11 concerning head coverings has been variably interpreted by our brethren since the turn of the 20th century. Prior to the turn of the 20th century brethren were united on Paul’s admonitions for women to have long hair and coverings in worship, and men to have short hair and bare heads in worship. In fact, nowhere in what we might broadly call “Christendom” was there any variable interpretation as to whether women should have their heads covered in the assembly for almost two thousand years.

Brethren who oppose Paul’s teaching on women’s headdress in I Corinthians 11 make much hay of the word “custom” appearing in verse 16. As we previously saw, the custom Paul is referring to is allowing women with short hair and no covering (and men with long hair and a covering), and that Paul’s plain, divinely inspired statement was that no church, anywhere in the entire universe, allowed that to go on in the assembly. The Corinthian custom of feminine rebellion through bear headedness is what the Holy Spirit is referring to by use of the word “custom”.

As for the context: Paul presents multiple arguments for the commands he relays from God in verses 2-16. First, he states that the command on a hierarchy of the Father to Christ to man to woman (verse 3). This is a universal truth, it is in no way consistent with the context to make this a local custom. In verse 7 Paul tells us another reason for these rules; the man is the image and glory of God; the woman is the image and glory of man. This is a universal truth, it is in no way consistent with the context to make this a local custom. In verse 10 Paul stresses that a woman should have a symbol of being in submission on her head “because of the angels.” I am uncertain as to the exact meaning of this verse; nevertheless there is no indication that it is in any way limited to Corinth; this too is a universal principle. In verse 14 Paul states that “nature” teaches us the difference between male and female hair length. This is a universal truth, it is in no way consistent with the context to make this a local custom.

As to women wearing the head covering as etiquette, we have now reduced Paul to Ms. Manners. This is, frankly, absurd. This is also a purely modern invention. The covering was, and is, a divinely commanded article of clothing demonstrating feminine submission (see Adam Clarke; Albert Barnes; Jameson, Faucet and Brown; Dummelow; Matthew Henry; Johann Peter Lange; Matthew Poole; Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges; Lipscomb, etc.). Paul did not tell the Corinthians to make sure they used proper etiquette because the woman was created for the man. Such a line of argumentation reduces the entire passage to nonsense.

Next we apparently have to deal with the idea of “apostolic recommendations.” Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians to be able to understand his command by using their own judgement does not reduce four direct commands to take ‘em or leave ‘em “recommendations.” The idea that Paul makes arguments based on the order of creation, on the inherent nature of the sexes, that he says to disobey the commands he is giving is “shameful” and that a woman who disobeys should have her head shaved…. The statement that this is just a “recommendation” displays a disturbingly flippant attitude towards divine authority. Paul is an apostle of Christ, he gives four direct commands, he explains multiple reasons for those commands, he is speaking by direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and we are supposed to believe it’s just a “recommendation” and we don’t have to do it if we don’t want to. That is not exegesis, it is high-handed rebellion.

Please note as well, when Paul gives instructions which are not binding insofar as sin is concerned (marriage in I Corinthians 7) he specifically states that is what he is doing, and further clarifies the matter by saying he is speaking on his own account and not according to divine inspiration in that matter. In the passage we are studying, however, Paul is speaking by direct inspiration and is giving specific commands as ordered by the Holy Spirit.

The word “nature” in this passage is the same word, used in the same way, as his condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1 (see Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words, in addition to the various scholars listed above). When Paul said the homosexuals were doing that which was against “nature” in Romans 1 he meant that their actions were a violation of God’s created order. The same is true of short haired women and long haired men in I Corinthians 11. As to the Nazirite, the long hair of a Nazirite man was a symbol of humility before God, and was an exception to how other men were wearing their hair (See Albert Barnes, Numbers and I Corinthians commentaries; Adam Clarke commentary I Cor. 11:10). This does raise the question as well, would it be acceptable for a man to have hair to his waist, wear a ten gallon cowboy hat, and wait on the Lord’s Table? Remember, don’t bind your customs and recommendations on others! Or are we just concerned about the “etiquette” involved?

Next Brother Stewart argues that since different people have used head coverings for different reasons in different times and places we may dispense with it if we see fit. Perhaps we could apply this to the Lord’s Supper as well? After all, people have eaten unleavened bread for many different reasons in different times and places, and the Lord’s Supper is in this immediate context as well, so maybe that’s just a matter of etiquette, and as long as we “remember the principle” we can dispense with actual unleavened bread if we see fit? And certainly men have drunk the fruit of the vine for many different reasons in many different locations in many different times, so as long as we “observe the principle” certainly we can dispense with the necessity of actually using the fruit of the vine? After all, that admonition is right here in the same context where some would have us believe Paul is just making recommendations. Now we are certain Brother Stewart doesn’t actually believe such, but unfortunately he’s left himself without a leg to stand on against such nonsense by his argumentation on the immediately preceding passage

Brother Stewart’s entire argument depends on the fallacious assertion that the word “custom” in verse 16 refers to women wearing a head covering; as we have seen that is the opposite of the truth. When Paul said “we have no such custom” he was referring to the fact that the universal practice of every church in the world at that time, other than Corinth, was that women were to be covered, and no church other than Corinth practiced the degraded custom of allowing their women to be uncovered (Mike Willis, commentary I Corinthians). God, through Paul, commands the covering and gives multiple reason for its necessity; unfortunately most of the church has departed from this command and now makes the command of God of no effect by their custom.

It would also be well to note that this is a very new doctrine. Prior to the 20th century the universal practice of all who claimed Christianity was to have women covered in worship, and all referred to Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians as the authority for this doctrine (Chrysostom, Calvin, etc.) Perhaps we should note that one of the main arguments brethren have held against instrumental music over the years is that it is an innovation which did not appear in worship services until the 7th century. Now I hold that this is, in fact, a legitimate and sound argument against instrumental music; I fail to see, however, how it can be made in good faith by men who defend an innovation in worship that “did not appear until the late 19th century, and was not widely accepted until the middle of the 20th century. I do not ask that brethren abandon the aforementioned argument against instrumental music; rather I find I must insist that we apply the same standard to our own practices concerning God’s commands in I Corinthians 11. “Men with long hair and women with short hair is a matter of decorum, not sin” is the modernistic teaching of men; “14 Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?15 But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering” is the direct command of God given through his apostle. I know which I choose.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply