Response to Brent Sharp’s Second Article
William Stewart | Kingston, Ontario, Canada
Our brother is adamant that prior to the 20th century, nowhere in all of “Christendom” (in fact, he said “in the entire universe”) was there any interpretation on Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 11 except that women should have long hair and be covered in worship and men should have short hair and bare heads in worship. I commend his zeal, but his claim is indefensible. He cites several 17th through 19th century commentators who agree with his position, but that is hardly proof that no one in almost two thousand years has believed something different on the topic. His claim and his evidence are disproportionate.
Understanding Paul’s “no such custom” statement in verse 16 is important. Brother Sharp’s explanation is the church does not have a custom of women not having their heads covered in the assembly. If the universal practice of the church is that women must wear head coverings in the assembly, would it not have been more prudent for the apostle to state such rather than use a messy double negative? We have no such custom of people not doing this. The apostle said the church does not have a custom (Greek, sunetheia, a habit or routine) of women wearing head coverings – it was not a universal command. In fact, despite our brother’s claims, there is no commandment anywhere in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 11 included) for women to wear a head covering in the assembly. The multiple arguments Brent refers to in our text are support of the universal truth which the text is truly about – the distinct roles of men and women. 1 Corinthians 11 no more commands head coverings than 1 Corinthians 16 commands us to kiss one another, or John 13 commands us to engage in foot washings.
Brother Sharp stresses that when Paul gives instructions which are not binding, he will specifically state so, and furthermore, will distinguish his words from those given by inspiration. If our brother’s observation is true, then the command to greet one another with a holy kiss is binding today (1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; Romans 16:16). In no “holy kiss” text does Paul identify the practice as his unbinding uninspired instruction. Using our brother’s reasoning, he must conclude that the holy kiss was not a societal custom but a universal divine commandment. Does our brother impose the holy kiss on brethren? If not, why not?
Based on Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1, our brother says the word “nature” refers to “God’s created order,” and thus surmises that it is inherently wrong for men to have long hair. I am curious, did the Gentiles by “God’s created order” do the things in the Law (Romans 2:27)? Did God not spare the Jews because of their innate essence (Romans 11:21) or was it against “God’s created order” to receive the Gentiles (Romans 11:24)? Are we inherently children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3)? Each of these texts uses the same Greek word for “nature.” The issue is not as easy as saying the word nature refers to “God’s created order.” We have noted the Nazirite vow which required a man to have long hair (Numbers 6:1-5). Our brother calls this an exception. Did God violate His own “created order,” commanding men to do what He had already deemed sinful? In Romans 1, the word nature certainly refers to inherent design, but such is not the case in the other texts mentioned above, nor in 1 Corinthians 11:14. Commenting on the word nature in Ephesians 2:3, C.G. Caldwell stated: “…the word nature (phusei) refers to one’s acquired nature through habitual regular practice. For example, Paul said, ‘Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?’ (1 Cor. 11:14). Such instruction is not the result of genetics but of social acceptance and practice.”
In 1 Corinthians 11:14, Paul urged the Corinthians to consider what was the accepted practice in their culture. It was socially acceptable for women to have long hair and men to have short hair. Why? Because God had inherently and universally made it so? No, because that was their common practice. Now, does that mean any social custom is OK? No, if it violates God’s law, then it is wrong, regardless how widespread a practice might be. But there is no commandment of God condemning long hair on men or short hair on women.
Our brother dismissed evidence that there is no universal or inherent link between head coverings and submission, and then mockingly asked if we could ditch the use of unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine in the Lord’s Supper for the same reason. The difference is this: God commanded the use of unleavened bread and fruit of the vine for the Lord’s Supper, He has not commanded women to wear head coverings in the assembly of the saints. He ignored evidence presented of men serving before the Lord with their heads covered (Exodus 28:3-4; 29:9), which he says is inherently sinful. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul acknowledged a custom and urged the Corinthians to recognize that violating the custom would bring dishonour to them. However, he made it clear regarding the covering and uncovering of heads and the length of hair, the Lord’s church has “no such custom.”
Allow me to close with this observation: even if 1 Corinthians 11 were a command for women to wear head coverings, it would not be fulfilled in the assembly of the saints. The women in the context are praying and prophesying (verse 5). In 1 Corinthians 14:34, the apostle said women were to keep silent in the churches, that is, they were not permitted to pray or prophecy in the assembly. Logic dictates Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 cannot be about the assembly of the saints.
Works Cited Caldwell, C.G. “Colly,” Ephesians, Truth Commentary Series, p. 73.