Head Coverings in Worship
|Reformed Practice - Male/Female Roles|
Page 1 of 3
No Such Custom
The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, also called the perspicuity of Scripture, teaches that the meaning of a text is not hidden by unknown elements, but can clearly be understood by the ordinary reader. This is consistent with our Reformed heritage that has always taught that ordinary people who come to the Word of God in faith and humility, will be able to understand what the Bible teaches, even if some passages are more difficult. During the Dark Ages, the Roman Catholic Church wanted to keep the elements of understanding the Word within the confines of the Magisterium, Papacy, and Church dogma. They wrongfully insisted that to rightly understand what a particular text meant, you must abandon the text and seek its understanding through Mother Rome, who alone could decide the meaning of the Bible. The Reformers flatly rejected that any outside element could interpret Holy Writ. Our forbearer’s taught that all one needed was a Bible, a ready mind, and a willing heart, aided by the power of the Holy Spirit. Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) was not just a rallying cry for our forefathers, it was the very axiom for understanding the Scriptures. Perspicuity, or the clarity of scripture remains a key element in comprehending the Word of God. When we deviate from this foundational principle, and allow outside elements (dogma, current culture, history, or circumstance) to muddy the waters of perspicuity, the grip on once tightly held beliefs begins to loosen, and before long, we are charting new territory based on interpretive elements found outside the Word of God.
In the last 100 years, a 2000 year old doctrine, has been all but removed from most Reformed churches, by a single controlling element- culture. The doctrine abandoned was the use of head coverings in public worship.
The fact remains that even 50 years ago, it mattered very little what Church you attended (Baptist, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, or Reformed), all women wore a head covering in public worship. Yet today there are hardly any congregations in Western Culture that practice this with any degree of consistency, if they practice it at all. When you ask the question “Why don’t you believe wearing a head covering is biblical?”, you are met with a uniform answer, “Because it was a cultural practice, and our culture no longer requires a head covering.” The question must be answered then, are head coverings cultural, or are they a requirement for corporate worship? This short paper will attempt to answer that question.
I want to begin at the end. Often, when this subject is discussed, the greatest weight of argument is found at the end of Paul’s writing on 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. It is verse 16 that everyone seems to remember. So we will begin there.
“But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16).
After 15 verses of sound argument, many people think that Paul quite happily contradicted himself in reference to head coverings. Is this what he was doing? Was he saying in the prior 15 verses, “Women should wear head coverings in public worship”, and then turn an about-face and say, “But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God”? Paul is far too much of a logician to do such a thing.
The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, brings to an end the first of two ordinancesin this chapter by insisting that if any in the Corinthian Church have a disagreement with the ordinance of head coverings, the greater Church of Christ does not. By these words, he is insisting that strife over this practice, while it was very real in Corinth, is unheard of in all other Churches at that time.
“Contentious” in the Greek is the word philoneikos, which is a compound of philos “love”, and nikos, “strife”. It literally means, “to be fond of strife”. At this point, some will say, “See, Paul is saying that to insist that a woman wear a head covering in the Church is to engender strife in the Church.” This however is not the case. Paul is arguing for the exact opposite. He is saying, “Those that argue against the ordinance are the ones engendering strife.” If we can put it another way, he is saying, “If anyone is fond of strife over not wearing head coverings, he stands alone in this, as all the other Churches use head covering in public worship.” If he was not saying this, then why did he waste so much ink, and laborious thought in the last 15 verses? Why did he tell the Corinthians to keep the ordinances (Holy Supper and Head Coverings) delivered to them if he was saying at the end of it all, “don’t keep them.” It makes no exegetical sense whatsoever and is against sound reasoning. No other Church that Paul knew of was having a problem with this doctrine besides Corinth.
Have you ever wondered why the use of head coverings has been the common and undisputed practice of the Church for 2000 years in every denomination we could mention? It is because the interpretation given above is the uniform understanding of this passage through all of Christian history. Here are a few quotes from some of our forefathers on verse 16.
Early Church Father Chrysostom. Homily 26 On the Veiling of Women.
Scottish Divine David Dickson
Westminster Divine, Mathew Poole
we have no such custom, nor the churches of God;
Geneva Notes on the Bible
The point of these early quotes (which are only a sampling) is to prove the uniform understanding of Paul’s conclusion on the matter before he moves on to Holy Supper. No forefather ever contended that Paul was saying, “But we have no such head covering customs in the Church.” By removing the argument that Paul was saying that a woman does not need to wear a head covering based on verse 16, allows for us to look at the proper meaning of the previous 15 verses. It is clear that Paul was saying “If you contend that the practice of head coverings is not an ordinance of God, you stand alone in the Churches of Christ.”