Response to Hats, Hair and Harridans

By William J. Stewart | Ontario, Canada

When brethren come together, we see a variety of greetings. Many offer a good strong handshake; some might exchange a delightful and cheery “Hello;” others may even share a warm hug. But where is the “holy kiss”? The apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” In fact, we find the same thing in 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. Why have we exchanged holy kisses for holy hugs, handshakes and hellos?

On the same night Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper with His apostles He also washed their feet. After He finished, He said,

“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:12-15).

When was the last time you washed a brother’s feet or vice versa? Why are we not washing one another’s feet? Jesus commanded it!

I trust our brethren in Amarillo, Lagos, Florence, and elsewhere demonstrate love for one another both in their greetings and through acts of service. That said, I doubt they are doing so with holy kisses and foot washings. The universal applicability of the Corinthian letter which our esteemed brother mentioned in his article (which is true of the New Testament as a whole) does not enjoin adherents to maintain societal practices or arrangements. We understand the principle behind the “holy kiss” – the warmth and comradery of brotherhood. We grasp the reason behind the foot washing – service to one another. However, in neither case is it necessary to enforce for ritual sake practices which are rooted in Jewish culture and an age of dirt roads and open sandals.

I share my esteemed brother’s concern about men wearing ball caps (with or without logos) or ten-gallon Stetson hats while serving in the assembly, though not for the same reason. He condemns such as a violation of God’s law, transgressions of 1 Corinthians 11. Conversely, I believe it to be in poor taste, flying in the face of acceptable cultural expectations for such an assembly. The same is true for the eligible elder candidate with long hair and the bare-headed or short-haired ladies mentioned. These are all cultural or personal sensitivities, not Divinely legislated clothing and grooming practices.

The text certainly has “a strong emphasis on maintaining the proper role” of men and women. In fact, this is the principle established in the text. The covering or uncovering of the head is an application of the principle (like the foot washing and holy kiss mentioned above). Several other texts speak about the role of men and women (1 Corinthians 14, Ephesians 5, 1 Timothy 2, Titus 2, and 1 Peter 3) but none of them mention the need for women to cover their heads to properly reflect their relationship to men or to the Lord. That is not conclusive evidence of this being a custom rather than a command, but it is curious that 1 Corinthians 11 is the only time the covering is mentioned despite the roles of men and women being discussed multiple times.

Our brother would have us believe the instruction of 1 Corinthians 11 requires women to wear a covering in our worship assemblies. Please note verses 5, “…every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…” Paul is not talking about women listening to men pray or prophesy – the woman in question is praying or prophesying. However, in 1 Corinthians 14:34, the same apostle wrote to the same Corinthian church, “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.” Women are not permitted to pray or prophesy in the assembly. This text is not about women covering their heads in an assembly of the church.

We’re told for eighteen centuries basically no one “…who claimed to be Christians disputed this matter.” That is an exceptionally broad statement. Does our brother have access to written records from every quarter of the world in every century between then and now to support his claim? Even if all Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants imposed the head covering on women in worship assemblies for eighteen centuries, they have failed in their application of the text. Again, it is not about the assembly.

Our brother aptly pointed out the inconsistency of those who excuse women from wearing the covering, reasoning it is a custom, but still bind short hair and no covering on men. He’s right, it is inconsistent. I am one of the few my esteemed opponent says will “…at least excuse men along with women from adhering to this…” I do not expect my brethren to wash feet, but I do expect them to serve one another. I do not expect my brethren to wear coverings or have a certain length of hair, but I do expect them to adhere to distinct roles which God has given to men and women.

What custom did the apostles and the churches of God not have (verse 16)? Our brother says it is “…the abhorrent Corinthian practice of having women appear uncovered…” and that Paul was “…explaining that no other church anywhere in the world allowed their women to behave in such a fashion.” He affirms the instruction for women to be covered was spoken universally by the apostles and given to all the churches of God, and cites Mike Willis (Commentary on 1 Corinthians, p. 308) as a hostile witness to that end. But where is the biblical evidence showing such a command was given universally and proclaimed by all the apostles? There is no instruction about the covering in the New Testament except what Paul wrote to Corinth.

If the “no such custom” of verse 16 is women not having their heads covered, it essentially makes Paul’s statement a double negative – “we do not not do this.” Neither Paul nor the Spirit are so convoluted in the presentation of truth. And yet an impressive list of commentators are cited in support of this muddled explanation. Many commentators agreeing on a position does not make it biblically correct. Nineteenth century commentator B.W. Johnson observed of verse 16, the “…no such custom… refers to covering the head, etc. The lesson of this whole passage is that we must not defy existing social usages in such a way as to bring reproach on the church” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Our brother warned us about the “first-wave feminism” of Johnson and others like him, for not only did he identify the head covering as a custom, but he also advocated for deaconesses in the local church. That said, if our brother can unapologetically support his claims with denominational preachers who were either unable or unwilling to teach truth about salvation, then I will also freely quote a man who admittedly went beyond the scope of Scripture about deaconesses, but who obviously had a better handle on truth than his denominational counterparts. The pursuit of the perfect commentator will always leave us disappointed.

Sadly, our brother had little to say about the text itself or the greater context in which it is found. Instead he hung his hat on a perceived feminist agenda as the reason for brethren permitting women to worship God with uncovered heads. A plain reading of the text reveals the principle of headship (verse 3) with a contextual application (verses 4-5) which has unfortunately been misconstrued as Divine legislation about coverings within the assembly. Did Paul command in verse 5 (women praying and prophesying in the assembly with covered heads) what he would later forbid in 1 Corinthians 14:34? There are several statements in the text (“if” clauses, “judge among yourselves,” and the appeal to nature) which indicate this is not a Divine command but a matter of reason and judgment. The custom of the covering is not the discovery of a new meaning of 1 Corinthians 11:16, it is the result of sound and careful Bible study. It does not undo fourteen verses of teaching – it accounts for the content of the text and the greater context which focuses on the compromise between Christian liberties and the need to not cause offenses (6:12; 8:1, 9; 9:19-22; 10:23-24; 10:32-11:1). The principle of headship is still binding, just as principles of brotherhood and Christian service are binding today, but the cultural applications of these principles (the washing of feet, holy kisses, hair length and head coverings) were never introduced as the Divinely decreed method (and only way) to fulfill these principles. The Scriptures do not bind head coverings on women.

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