1 Corinthians 11:2-16 – The Veiling of Men and Unveiling of Women

Nero as Priest

William M. Ramsay on cites Dio Chrysostom to the effect that the custom of women going veiled in Tarsus was an oriental and non-Greek custom, Paul is merely reflecting his own (Jewish) background by requiring women wear head coverings (The Cities of St. Paul, 201-5).  Because of the popularity of Ramsey’s works on Paul, this theory is often repeated in modern commentaries, but it seems odd that Paul would impose this one Jewish custom on congregations when he frees them from so many other Jewish customs.

The application of this rather obscure command is usually some vague platitude that women should be dressed modestly.  If the culture includes head coverings in this then the woman ought to not offend the culture.  No one ever points out that if this is the true application, then a woman visiting a culture which is comfortable with public nudity is free to “fit right in” when they visit the beach!

I seriously doubt that modesty is the issue Paul is trying to get at in 1 Corinthians 11.  There is clear evidence in the Greco-Roman world of prostitutes wearing head coverings.  There are several artistic representations of groups of women with or without head coverings.  There is simply no evidence that head coverings were universal in the Greco-Roman world!

Based on his study of Roman statues, D. W. J. Gill has argued that it was a Roman convention to cover the head while praying or offering a libation.  There are two well know statues from Corinth, one of Nero and one of Augustus with their heads veiled.  It was the leader of a prayer or sacrifice that would cover their heads, the congregation (if any) would not necessarily do so.  Gill argues that the social elite in Corinth also practiced head covering while praying or participating in a sacrifice.  Since the passage seems to cover the whole congregation, though, perhaps it is only the prophets who are speaking in the congregation that are covering their heads while prophesying (in 14:29 only two or three ought prophesy.)

The problem in Corinth is that the Christians are (continuing) to take their cues for worship from the pagan world.  They are worshiping in the same way that they would have in a pagan rite, Paul is rejecting this mixing of the world with the Church.

If the problem that is at the heart of the veiling of men / unveiling of women is taking worship cues from the pagan world, then there is a most serious application possible.  How far we want to take this application is quite controversial, from the mega-church movement to modern praise and worship services, it is possible that the American church has taken its cues from the pagan world rather than from the Bible.  The modern American church seems to be following MTV rather than the NIV.

There is always a tension between cultural relevancy for the sake of evangelism and participating in the world because we enjoy it.  It is possible that is what was happening in Corinth.  The members of the church of Corinth were routinely acting like the world without taking into consideration how their new Christian world view speaks to a practice (sexual mores, lawsuits, feasts and banquets at temples, etc.)

The veiling of women / men may seem like a minor problem to use (“it’s just cultural”) but that misses the whole point.  If these people were indistinguishable from the world in their worship, how were they going to effectively evangelize their culture?

Bibliography:

D. W. J. Gill, “The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” Tyndale Bulletin 41 (1990): 246-60.
C. T. Thompson, “Hairstyles, Headcoverings, and St. Paul: Portraits from Roman Corinth” BA (1988): 99-115.

5 thoughts on “1 Corinthians 11:2-16 – The Veiling of Men and Unveiling of Women

  1. I’ve always been a bit confused about this passage, thinking just as you said, P Long, “it seems odd that Paul would impose this one Jewish custom on congregations when he frees them from so many other Jewish customs.” I’m guilty of just dismissing 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 as a call for women to dress modestly. Polhill described it as the most obscure passage in 1 Corinthians, “evidenced by the vast diversity of interpretations in the scholarly literature.” (Polhill, 244). However, your explanation brings a lot of light to the passage: “The problem in Corinth is that the Christians are (continuing) to take their cues for worship from the pagan world.” If this is true, it holds a lot of implications for us today. It’s pretty obvious that churches draw a lot of practices and culture from the society we live in. In and of itself, I have a hard time believing that it this necessarily bad. But it can become dangerous… the style of worship, presentation, even church buildings are designed and influenced by the culture in which we live. It’s that difficult line between being relevant in a way that reaches people with the gospel, and being so relevant that you lose the gospel message in order to reach more and more people.

    Schliermacher is a good example of this. He focused on apologetics through the common ground of human experience rather than reason or revelation. But through this, he eventually lost the heart of the gospel in an effort to relate to the culture. This begs the question, “How much should a Christian “give away” in order to connect with a culture? Let’s face it, the gospel is the most exciting and beautiful thing in the world, but it is also the most offensive. The church cannot become so relevant that they turn from the gospel truth. May our hearts cry be that of Paul’s words in Galatians 6:14, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

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  2. I stumbled upon your blog and have really appreciated a few of your posts. So thank you.

    My question here is: what does it mean, then, to take cultural cues for worship?
    I heard of an African pastor whose culture offered a kind of sacrificial worship to their ancestors by pouring out their drinks into the ground. At the funeral (I think that’s what the context was), this pastor raised his cup up and then drank.

    My interpretation of that would be that the pastor took an African tradition and transformed it. This post makes me question whether he was taking cues on worship from his culture. You have to realise, of course, that we all take our cues for worship from our own cultures.

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    • Hello James – I agree that we cannot avoid our culture. In my cultural context (North America evangelicalism), I think we take our worship clues from pop music, but (I hope) we transform that style into something which is God-Honoring.

      I am fascinating by this story of the African pastor who attempted to transform an otherwise pagan ritual. You probably do not know, but I would love to hear the rest of the story. Did the witnesses understand what he did and why? Was that transformation successful?

      I think that is the big problem with the example I used in my own context – if we create a “worship experience” which is indistinguishable from a pop-concert, do people who are on the outside see the transformation of culture, or the exact same thing as their culture? The problem in Corinth I want to get at here is that the church did not seek to transform culture, but accepted it “as is” and be indistinguishable from the world.

      I also want to avoid pragmatism as the criteria for a successful transformation of culture (ie., did it work?) That is the easiest method for measuring success, but it is also the most dangerous!

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  3. It seems like a very fine line when it comes to taking cues for worship from our culture. On one side, we want to take cues form culture so we can bring people of our culture into the churches, on the other side, we want to be different than the world so that the world can see that being a Christian is different, in a good way. In all honesty, I would say that the modern church stands much to much on the “taking cues from the culture side”.
    One of the main issues with today’s church is our lack of authenticity. This is especially prevalent in our youth ministry. Kids come into youth group and see a bunch of people trying to be them, the kids sniff out how fake we are, then shut down and don’t listen to a thing we have to say. Churches need to be who they are, not who the church down the street is or what is being shown on MTV.
    Once churches begin to take on their own personal personalities, then the people in our culture will begin to accept them, and once that happens, the churches will continue to become new because of all the new personalities in the church.

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  4. It is hard to ignore this passage in 2nd Corinthians because of its strangeness from a Western’s viewpoint. Whenever I glanced over this portion my mind went right to the head-coverings found in Amish communities and some Mennonite areas without much thought of anything else. Now I see that this verse has some distinguishable meaning that I have always passed over such as when to contextualize and when not to conform it. “There is always a tension between cultural relevancy for the sake of evangelism and participating in the world because we enjoy it (PLong).” How much contextualization is done in ministry just because we like the things of the world or enjoy the way we feel doing them. How do we separate our worldly desires with the desires for ministry that God places in our hearts? When I think of a worldly desire in my own life I think of classic cars. There are tons of opportunities for ministries for using classic cars for ministry such as teaching fatherless kids how to work on cars or forming friendships at car shows. The problem is that I can get so “pulled in” with the classic car craze that I lose sight of the goal in the first-place, instead falling into idolatry and extreme materialism. I can go to a pagan Hindu temple a do half of the things that I would to a classic car like washing the statues, oiling their heads, and showcasing them to others. Is that Idolatry for the purpose of reaching people in the car show crowd?

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