I seem to have this thing about hats. I like them, and own several. My wife and I might be on vacation, window shopping in the hot sun. We walk by a hat store–et voila! Another addition to the collection.
Problem is, though, I almost never wear them, because after a while they make my hair look dorky. Oh, well. At least when I do wear a hat, I know to take it off when entering a church. (In case you’re wondering, here’s a link to some rules of hat etiquette.)
Social customs like this persist long after their origins have become murky or have been forgotten altogether. But to this day, in parts of the U.S., it’s still considered disrespectful for men to keep their hats on in church, while it’s acceptable for women to leave theirs on.
If it’s difficult to identify the reasons for our own customs, imagine the puzzle of identifying the practices behind Paul’s confusing and controversial words about head coverings. Here’s a sample:
Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head. It is the same thing as having her head shaved. If a woman doesn’t cover her head, then she should have her hair cut off. If it is disgraceful for a woman to have short hair or to be shaved, then she should keep her head covered. A man shouldn’t have his head covered, because he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is man’s glory. Man didn’t have his origin from woman, but woman from man; and man wasn’t created for the sake of the woman, but the woman for the sake of the man. Because of this a woman should have authority over her head, because of the angels. (1 Cor 11:5-10, CEB)
To what situation was Paul responding? Apparently, some of the Christian women in Corinth were violating social norms regarding how the sexes should act in public. Note, importantly, that Paul does not chide these women for praying and prophesying in church — only for doing so with their heads “uncovered” in some fashion.
To what custom of head covering was Paul referring? Scholars speculate but disagree, and the plain fact is that there is no way to know for certain. But in the end, it may not matter much, because it’s possible to take the whole passage as representing yet one more instance of Corinthian Christians asserting their rights in socially disruptive ways, a topic which Paul has already addressed more than once in the letter.
It will take a couple of additional posts to sort out some of the issues surrounding the text and its application. Despite suspicions to the contrary, for example, Paul is not teaching male-dominance in this passage. We’ll take that up next time.