Tuesday, September 23, 2014

1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Headcoverings, and Historical Doctrine

Every Christian should admit that Paul gives a lot of verses, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, to the subject of dress, among others in the New Testament, but especially to headcoverings.  We should know our position on headcoverings.  I’ve written a book, yet to be published on dress.  I want it out and promise you, Lord-willing, that I’ll work on getting it out for the light of day.  I am very, very thorough in that book on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.  How could I write a book on dress and leave it out? I have to admit though, the reason I’m writing this post is because one particular commenter brings it up almost every time he’s here, and he’s become antagonistic about it.  So the squeaky wheel does get the oil.  I am getting private communications from him in which he calls me a hypocrite because I believe in historical doctrine and yet headcoverings are historical doctrine.  He’s essentially calling me out, especially with the ad hominem.

Am I really taking the position I do on headcoverings, because I’m worldly and won’t take a stand, because I’m too afraid?  I should consider that.  I do.  The conscience works two ways.  It accuses and excuses.  We not only want it to accuse, but also to excuse.  When it accuses, when it is supposed excuse, then we have an unscriptural scruple.  This will tend toward a malfunctioning conscience. We don’t want that either.

So when people attempt to arouse my conscience by feeding it with a standard, they can also damage my conscience.  I don’t want that either.  I’ve said I’m fine with the women of other churches, even our own church, wearing headcoverings, because there isn’t anything wrong with it, but they can’t cause division in our church and try to guilt our people into wearing them, when we don’t teach that. Then it becomes a problem.

To start, we should deal with scripture.  The Bible is the sole and final authority for faith and practice.  We rely on it for our position.  Yes, I believe our doctrine should be historical.  That doesn’t mean that it must be the majority historical position, the one most mentioned, as if we’re looking for votes for our position.  I would be fearful if I couldn’t find my position believed by anyone before me.

But this post will be historical, and I hope this ends the accusations and name-calling and challenges. I’m sure others take other positions.  I know that.  However, this is the position that I believe. Perhaps a little of my own history might help to start.  I never heard of wearing headcoverings for women growing up, never encountered a person who took this position.  Then my family moved to Wisconsin and the women of the church we joined wore headcoverings on Sunday mornings.  It wasn’t required.  It wasn’t a church discipline issue.  Actually, the church itself didn’t even take the position, that I knew, but the president of the local Bible college required the female students and wives of male married students to wear them only on Sunday morning.  It was never explained why we were doing that.   At some point I encountered 1 Corinthians 11 and, I guess, I surmised that must be the passage from which that came, but I do not remember one person teaching on it.  Ever.  Maybe you had a similar experience in your upbringing.  I don’t know.

I didn’t ever see another church practicing headcovering teaching.  Since I started pastoring, I’ve heard there are some.  I’ve listened to their teaching.  I’ve listened to Amish or Mennonite teaching on this.  I’m certainly open to changing if it is scriptural.  However, I’m in a situation where I need to be convinced of it, not keep it as a position because I already held it.  I’m not going to lead a church in this unless I’m convinced.  Do I think I could become convinced?  It is unlikely now, because I’ve invested a lot of time in thinking and studying about it and am still unconvinced.  I believe my present position, which is not a wearing headcovering position.

The recent challenge is mainly historical.   I’ve listened and read about history.  I know churches have practiced this.  I know a lot of churches have.  I know that you’ll find the headcovering position in the patristics.  That makes total sense to me.  You’ll find it among Roman Catholics and Protestants and even Baptists.  People did practice headcoverings, I believe.  That is a historical practice.  Is not wearing them a historical practice?  Again, the main if not exclusive question is, is it scriptural?  But let’s go to, is it historical?  I’m not avoiding that.

My view is a cultural or customary position on headcoverings.  I don’t think the headcovering was hair.  I think hair length for women is taught, but Paul is teaching about wearing something that distinguishes women from men in their authority.  I believe the passage is teaching that the women of the church at Corinth needed to wear the symbol of submission to male authority.  I also believe that can be practiced with other than a headcovering, but through some other symbol.  I have taught that having the symbol is important.  Symbols, by the way, should symbolize.  There does in fact need to be symbolism, a symbol, at least one, but I don’t believe headcovering does that any more.  It isn’t customary any longer, which is why I never encountered it growing up.  Now, my antagonists might say that was because of widespread apostasy or rebellion on the teaching.  I don’t think so.  However, I believe the passage itself is teaching cultural or customary teaching and I also see this in history.

For history, yes, I refer to the Westminster Confession, and that bothers some.  Sometimes you just can’t win in this.  Someone wants history.  You refer to the Westminster Confession, and they say, “You’re Baptist,” so why are you referring to Protestants?   I’ve written on this other occasions and I’ve said that Baptists agreed with these confessions many times and only differentiated themselves from them with shorter statements.  I’m not going to cover that ground again.  My purpose is to show that this teaching was around.

I believe that the authors of the Westminster Confession taught that churches were not regulated to cover heads for worship, but that customary sign for women in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 11 revealed unalterable moral principles—submission, authority, designed gender distinction, and proper dress—always to be observed in worship, which is quite different from saying that the customary symbolism itself is unalterable.  They taught that the symbol was cultural or customary.  Wearing headcoverings escapes the regulations for worship as listed by these men, only silence on headcoverings from them. Then the statements of the men indicate that they saw headcoverings as cultural or customary.

One, George Gillespie (1613-1648) discusses three kinds of signs—natural, customary, and voluntary—headcoverings among the customary signs, writing (A Dispute Against English Popish Ceremonies, Naphtali Press, pp. 247-248);

Customable signs; and so the uncovering of the head, which of old was a sign of preeminence, has, through custom, become a sign of subjection.

Two, Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), another of these Westminster divines, writes (The Divine Right of Church Government and Excommunication, Still Waters Revival Books, pp. 89-90):

The Jews to this day, as of old, used not uncovering the head as a sign of honor:  But by the contrary, covering was a sign of honor. If therefore the Jews, being made a visible Church, shall receive the Lord’s Supper, and pray and prophesy with covered heads, men would judge it no dishonoring of their head, or not of disrespect of the Ordinances of God. Though Paul having regard to a national custom, did so esteem it.

Three, Daniel Cawdrey (1588-1664) and Herbert Palmer (1601-1647), two other divines of the Westminster Confession, in The Christian Sabbath Vindicated (1652, second part, p. 463), write:

First, variable, or temporary, which were such injunctions as were prescribed, either for some special ends, as that law for abstaining from blood, and things strangled, Acts 15:1 for avoiding offense to the Jews, or to some special nations, or persons, as agreeable to the customs of those places and times, as that of women being vailed in the Congregations, and some other the like.  Second, invariable and perpetual. . . .

Four, Scottish Covenanter, James Durham (1622-1658), in The Dying Man’s Testament of the Church of Scotland (1680), taught headcovering not a universal principle of regulated worship, but a customable sign:

For no offense whatsoever should men forbear a necessary duty, or commit anything which is materially sinful. . . .  Yet in other things . . . , if the matter is of light concernment in itself, as how men’s gestures are in their walking (suppose in walking softly, or quickly, with cloak or without) men ought to do, or abstain, as may prevent the construction of pride, lightness, etc., or give occasion to others in any of these.  Of such sort was women’s praying with their heads uncovered amongst the Corinthians, it being taken then for an evil sign.

Five, in 1536 John Calvin says in The Institutes of Christian Religion (Westminster Press, p. 1207):

[T]hat women should go out in public with uncovered heads (1 Cor. 11:5). . . . because [God] did not will in outward discipline and ceremonies what we ought to do (because he foresaw that this depended upon the state of the times, and he did not deem one form suitable for all ages). . . .

Calvin used headcoverings on women as a specific example of an outward discipline that as a form depended upon the state of the times.  In other words, it was a cultural issue.  The moral principle should be obeyed in the appropriate form.

And, six, the notes of the Geneva Bible (published in 1599), which were written by Beza, read concerning 1 Corinthians 11:4:

[Paul] gathers that if men do either pray or preach in public assemblies having their heads covered (which was then a sign of subjection), they robbed themselves of their dignity, against God’s ordinance.  It appears that this was a political law serving only for the circumstance that Paul lived in, by this reason, because in these our days for a man to speak bareheaded in an assembly is a sign of subjection.

I could point you to far more historical material than this, supporting the view that I believe, but this surely establishes it as historical with six witnesses.  I mean it when I say there are many more.

In 1 Corinthians 11:16, Paul infers the woman's headcovering in worship was a “custom,” that is, they had no such custom of women praying unto God uncovered (1 Corinthians 11:13). Paul asks the question in 1 Corinthians 11:13: “is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?”  He answers that question in 1 Corinthians 11:16: “We have no such custom.”  The only other usage of this Greek word for “custom” (sunetheia) in the textus receptus is in John 18:39, where it refers to the “custom” of the Jews to release one prisoner at the time of the Passover (obviously a national custom for the nation of the Jews, just like the covered head for women was a national custom among the nations and societies of the Greeks).   Paul refers to headcovering as a “custom,” which is not the same thing as a scripturally regulated act or practice of worship.

Hopefully this settles this issue.  I think the above is overwhelming.  Maybe I'll get an apology.


d4v34x said...

Bro. B., I think the issue between you and that particular commenter gets at the heart of the point Ben and I were trying to make to you a few weeks back, i.e. that you were not being consistent with your separation paradigm.

JG teaches that God commands that women wear head coverings in public worship. You and I understand that he says "Thus hath God said" when God has actually said no such thing. It's different from people who wear it out of personal conviction but cause no ripples about it. He preaches those who do not do so are in sin.

JG is confronting what he sees as an apostasy of head coverings. You know he is wrong. You should be as separated from him as you are from me on the translation issue.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi D4,

Thanks for comment. I agree with you in principle, but that's not what it looks like on the ground. You start by giving people an opportunity to grow, not just cut them off. I would be that way with anyone, including you. And Ben. And, of course, we would talk about it from scripture and be patient (with all men) -- supporting and strengthening and warning. But we don't start with, you believe and practice differently, so we're going to cut you off. Sheer proximity will result in not fellowshiping with everyone. But for someone who comes into our church, we want him to come there, and as long as he doesn't cause division, he can stay. What will happen afterwards will determine a lot, but we're not ignoring that doctrine. It's likely that it won't last if the women are wearing headcoverings, because it will cause division in our church.

And then there are those that just cut you off and they don't even say anything, leaving you to guess. That is the cold shoulder style that I experienced at a certain blog recently. That is the separation of fundamentalism. And, by the way, certain segments of conservative evangelicalism do the same. If I were to the left of them and vastly different and pushing that, they would allow me, even be nice to me. Differ from the right, and you are given the cold shoulder. Easy to see.

d4v34x said...

Hi Kent,

I think that helps me understand where you are at. And of course, individuals interested in joining your assembly is a different animal from a church across town with a long established practice with which you cannot agree.

I think for some reason I thought this particular commenter lived in the British Isles. I didn't pick up that he was in your general vicinity until I went back and reread the comments from June.

I hope you and he can come to a resolution.

Kent Brandenburg said...

He's not in our area. I think he's a least 2/3 of the country away. I believe that he in fact wants to be in fellowship, just that this one thing bugs him and so the challenge is coming from his side. I'm not opposed to headcoverings is my initial reaction, because I see it as a customary and not a scriptural regulation. I don't see wearing it as a violation of God's Word, but, yes, the belief could result in separation.

Do you think I'm wrong on the cold shoulder technique? I've seen it again and again from fundamentalism and conservative evangelicals who have fundamentalist instincts. The cold shoulder seems to be like a tantrum or a mean girl thing where the rest of the girls aren't talking to the one girl. That would make me a girl in the metaphor, but I'm not the one giving the cold shoulder.

Kent Brandenburg said...

One more thing, I thought of this after I moved on. I see the cold shoulder as a style of the church growth movement too. A Rick Warren would choose a music style and then say that those who have a more conservative style might need to "move on." If you are going to make an omelet, you've got to break a few eggs. I can give you many specific examples of it.

Cold shoulder isn't the only strategy. Others are equally bad without practicing biblical separation, going through the loving motions that one does if he cares for someone else.

d4v34x said...

I think the cold shoulder happens. Sometimes it might be more out of unwillingness to have an argument that will likely go unresolved due to solid doctrinal/practical commitments.

I've also seen it done due to lack of brotherly love (on the part of the blog) or trollishness on part of the commenter.

If you're talking about the DTBS blog though, my guess is they might have seen your post as spammish. I don't think you meant it as that so much as an offer to engage them in a matter you've thought and written lots about. Those links though in the post, though, red flags to some.

Chris Gable said...

Just out of curiosity, could you elaborate on why you don't see a connection between head coverings and what Paul goes on to say in verse 15 where he makes some sort of connection between long hair and "covering?" If it was just a custom, why do you think Paul made that connection? I know that wasn't the purpose of your article from a historical position...I'm just trying to connect all the dots in my head...

Kent Brandenburg said...


I'm on the road in NC. If anyone is in the Carrboro, Chapel Hill area, come to the last night of the meetings at Calvary Baptist Church on Main Street in Carrboro, 7:30pm.


I think it is good to give the benefit of the doubt, but usually someone says, don't really want you "advertising your blog" on our site -- let us choose to advertise Dan Phillips and Don Carson, men more like us, not you. But you're right. I'm engaging on the exact topic. I ask Snoeberger a question. Crickets. His prerogative. I do the same here sometimes out of busyness.


I believe 14,15 are parenthetic. I think that because he asks a question in v. 13 and answers it in v. 16. In between that he asks another question that indicates the whole idea of distinctions designed into the natural order by God, and that these Gentiles would have gotten that idea from God. Gentiles didn't have the law, but they had the law written in their hearts that informed them of these types of distinctions that would have tended toward a national custom.

That argument does give pause, I believe, bro, because headcovering/hair, both head coverings, one worn and the other grown, created by God, but I think in light of "custom," it is what I'm gathering.

Kent Brandenburg said...

By the way, anyone, this is another reason I give for the pant/skirt distinction. There must be a symbol. That must occur. Dan Wallace takes this identical position and says the application is women wearing dresses/skirts, and he's not even conservative. You'll see his article at bible.org. I'm not endorsing him, but I think it is a good argument.

Ken Lengel said...

Have a great service, I am outside of Charlotte, but Carrsboro is a few hours away.



Some good counterpoint here:


“Do you think you and I have sufficiently considered that we are always looked upon by angels, and that they desire to learn by us the wisdom of God? The reason why our sisters appear in the House of God with their heads covered is because of the angels. The apostle says that a woman is to have a covering upon her head, because of the angels, since the angels are present in the assembly, they mark every act of indecorum, and therefore everything is to be conducted with the decency and order in the presence of the angelic spirits.”
[Sermon on Ephesians 3:10, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 8, page 263.]
- Charles H. Spurgeon

John G
Newton, NC

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi John,

I wrote in this piece: " I’ve listened and read about history. I know churches have practiced this. I know a lot of churches have. I know that you’ll find the headcovering position in the patristics. That makes total sense to me. You’ll find it among Roman Catholics and Protestants and even Baptists. People did practice headcoverings, I believe. That is a historical practice."

I know people believed it. I think i said that too. But. Is my (our) position historical? These aren't far out examples I'm giving, and Spurgeon is mid to late 1800s. If there are several historical positions, you've got to make a choice, and then it comes down to what scripture says. I'm fine with counterpoints, but we can't make claims that someone is just ignoring history, when they are not. And usually, when we find out that's a false claim, we retract. You can argue here for your position. It's fine.

I didn't know you were in NC. You've probably said, but I do not remember that. I did a search in my emails and there was nothing from you I could find there. Maybe you have emailed me, but I couldn't find it, when I tried to communicate privately.

Anonymous said...

So, are you saying that the scriptures teach in this context that women can have short hair?

Kent Brandenburg said...



So are you saying that women should dress like a man?

Anonymous said...

No sir. A women dresses like a women and it is not "in the attire of a harlot" nor is it in "that which pertaineth to a man"

Kent Brandenburg said...


Thanks. Didn't know you were in Charlotte. I'm learning more about NC.


I was as close to saying that women should have short hair as you were to saying that women should dress like a man.

Anonymous said...