Is It Proper For A Woman To Pray To God With Her Head Unveiled?
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Often when I am inviting someone to church who is not used to going to church or who hasn’t gone to church in quite some time, I am met with two questions. The first is “Will they judge me?” which we will have to deal with another time. The second is “What should I wear? I wonder if you’ve ever heard those questions. Here’s a story I heard from the sister-in-law of dear Dr. Peter Webster this past week: “Ever since we met at Zion youth group my first memory of Peter is one that has never left my mind. It occurred when the group was going into the sanctuary to join an evening service. I was concerned that I was not wearing a hat, Peter came up to me with a big smile and said, as I recall, “Are you here to worship God or wear a hat?” At that moment the old tradition that ‘women must wear a hat in church’ versus the importance of going to praise and worship God became clear, and into church I went - free to worship, not chained to a tradition.”
We’re in a new section of the letter here, and Paul will spend the next four chapters talking about the church as it is gathered together to worship. The question is “What constitutes right and good and well-ordered worship?” This section in chapter 11 is considered one of the most difficult to understand and to interpret, and it has been interpreted in many different ways to many different ends. I think it’s important though to keep in mind as we approach the passage what the underlying context is in terms of what Paul is trying to say about our worship together.
The passage can seem jarring. It might make people think of Paul as a misogynist even, and dismiss everything else he says. Is he trying to enforce something here on women? Is Paul telling the church in Corinth that women must be kept in their place? Is he saying that women who don’t comply should be made to shave their heads? Is Paul arguing that women should be subordinate to men? It’s a difficult passage and I must thank Dr. Cynthia Westfall for her help through a seminar on this passage she gave at the South Africa Theological Seminary. What exactly is going on here and what does this passage have to say to our hearts through God’s Spirit more than 2,000 years later? Let’s ask for God’s help as we look at God’s word for us this morning.
Someone has said that throughout this section of the letter, Paul is concerned for “the Corinthians to conduct themselves in worship in a manner that is orderly, dignified, motivated by love, and conducive to the common good.” Let all that you do be done in love, has been our theme through these weeks. In some ways it comes back to the “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.” There is so much room for interpretation here because the exact situation which Paul is addressing is unknown. The word that is translated veil here also means covering – does it mean a veil or does it have to do with having one’s hair up? The word head is used throughout. Does it mean source? Does it mean authority? Does it mean head?
Let’s start at the beginning though. Paul starts with a word of commendation. He’s not coming in here all heavy handed (though he will next week when we look at what he has to say about how the Corinthians are gathering around the Lord’s Table – there he’s coming in very heavy handed indeed). “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.” “Good job!” in other words. It might be that Paul is making an argument here from the lesser to the greater, that whole “How much more” kind of line of thought we hear Jesus use. This issue is lesser but it nevertheless needs to be addressed.
I don’t believe that Paul is trying to lay down some sort of hierarchical ordering here of male/female relationships and roles. Throughout the letter, Paul is writing of unity and love and he’s seeking the erasure of social hierarchy in the church that would make some feel more than and others less than. He’s talking about what happens in worship. Note too what he’s saying happens in worship. Women are praying and prophesying -praying and bringing a word from God. The issue is arising because of what is being worn. Or not being worn. Or how hair is being worn.
We’re not sure but here’s some of the cultural background. High ranking Roman citizens would often bring their wives to banquets. Their wives would wear their hair down and elaborately styled. It was a mark of aristocracy. It was common practice for Roman men of means to drape something over their heads when they were praying or worshipping – again a mark of distinction. It was also common practice for married women to wear veils as a mark of modesty and respect. Women who were slaves or prostitutes did not. We don’t know, as I said, what the situation was in Corinth. Were wives feeling that their newfound freedom in Christ meant that they did not have to adhere to standards of modesty in worship? Did the well born and respectable people of the congregations prevent slaves and freewomen (and how much of an ex-slave identity might a freewoman carry?) from wearing veils because they wanted to reinforce social distinctions – veils were only for respectable married women? Was this then bringing shame onto women's’ heads who were made to feel less than?
No matter what the situation was, in the context of the letter we can see how this passage can be read as being about not bringing shame. Paul starts by saying “Let us understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.” Again here this we must consider what is meant by head here – the meanings range from head to authority to source. This was a culture that valued origins. The family that you came from, the tribe that you came from, the family that you were a part of was a big deal. Paul takes things back to creation where there was an ordering of things by God. It doesn’t seem to me that we should be looking at the idea of head through the lens of a hierarchy or chain of command. Did Jesus lay aside his majesty as the song goes? Is Christ not equal to God within the Trinity? Is there not a mutuality of love and fellowship within the three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Do we talk about the Father sending the Son and the Holy Spirit? Absolutely yes. Functionally speaking they have different jobs to do, much like functionally speaking, men and women have different jobs to do when it comes to fulfilling the creation mandate. Christ is the head of every man, the husband is the head of the wife – not denoting superiority and inferiority any more than there is superior and inferiority within the Trinity itself, but an order in creation that includes distinctions between males and females (not to overstate the obvious). Much of what we read in 1 Corinthians is about the delineation of differences that would threaten to separate us into factions – particularly factions that are based on socio-economic or spiritual hierarchy. I don’t think Paul is looking to create a hierarchy here based on gender. We all have our source in God and have been created in God’s image.
So a man should not pray with his head covered because it disgraces his head. We see the same thing even now when we see man take their hats off for a national anthem or prayer for that matter. It’s a mark of respect. For aristocratic women in Paul’s time, wearing their hair down (if that’s what’s being talked about here) was a mark of social distinction. For others, appearing in public unveiled was a mark of immodesty. Wearing a veil in public was a mark of modesty, a mark of good standing. Why wouldn’t every woman be wearing one in that case? Because if you were not seen in society as an honourable woman – a slave, a freewoman – you were not permitted to wear a veil. It showed the kind of woman you were, sometimes because you had no choice (and what kind of choice do enslaved people have over their own bodies?). Let the women in your corporate worship be veiled because to not wear a veil is bringing shame on them. If a woman is not to wear a veil, Paul says, let her head be shaved! This need not be read as Paul issuing a command for compulsory head shaving, but as Paul using hyperbole – If you’re not going to let her wear a veil and this is to her disgrace, she might as well just go ahead and shave her hair off and be disgraced that way! It’s the same kind of thing Paul did back in chapter 4 where he talked about the Corinthians already being kings and how he wished he and the other apostles were kings too rather than going through all these hardships and persecutions and reviling and so on.
The talk of created order is not to set up a hierarchy. It does set up a distinction. We read in Gen 1:27 after all that God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” God created us distinctively. What are we to do with this – “For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection (glory) of God, but woman is the glory of man.” We just heard from Genesis that we’re all made by God and in the image of God. In very man cultures through history, women’s hair is seen as an adornment. Men’s hair not so much, particularly for those like myself who find themselves follicly challenged (or whose foreheads are becoming five heads and so on and so on). Man is the reflection or glory of God. Woman is the reflection or glory of man. Woman is the glory of the glory, as someone has said. I hope all the men are nodding along with me. There is a distinction there. Man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Does this mean that women are lesser? Man was made from dirt! Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. Is this creating a hierarchy? Woman was created because God said that it was not good for man to be alone (as many men whose wives have left them to go out of town for a few days can attest, or as many men who are constantly asking where things are if you’re at all like me). In all seriousness, though we remember that God saw that it was not good for man to be alone (and this is not a call for everyone to be married as we heard two weeks ago, but rather a truth that we are not called to live life in the Lord on our own). God created a helper – not a subordinate but one in which assistance if offered from a position of strength. That word helper in Gen 2:27 is most often used in the OT to speak of God as in “Where shall my help come from? My help comes from the Lord.” There is in interdependence here – “… in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.” (11-12)
“For this reason, a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head…” To show that she is under male authority and needs to be put in her place yes? Except, as our NRSV Bible tells us helpfully, the original lacks “a symbol of.” For this reason, a woman should have authority on her head. Do not let her be shamed or a distraction because a woman’s long hair is her glory. Let her have authority on her head and be veiled or whatever our society’s definition of modest is.
Paul’s desire for the church is that worship together not be an occasion where lines are drawn and people divided into factions or separated into categories. Let no one be elevated or puffed up and let no one be denigrated. A recognition of the distinct roles of men and women, from the order of creation to how we do worship together – and we do take part in worship together, both praying and prophesying. A desire on Paul’s part that in worship together, no one is shamed. That women, as someone has said, should be afforded control, a mark of authority, over their own bodies, not that they be controlled by others, so that all of us might be able to exercise the fruit of the Spirit known as self-control.
What might all of this mean to us in 21st century Toronto and the various places from which we’re watching this? It’s important to remember part of Paul’s foundational goal of his letter here. We continue to see Paul writing against issues that cause division. Issues that make others feel less than or part of a group about whom we say “Oh yeah I guess them too.” Next week we’ll look at a group of people who were excluded from the family meal in different ways. Paul wanted to make sure that no one in the family felt overly elevated or denigrated. We’re talking right now about our corporate worship practices (for now and for the months to come as some of us might be participating in our worship services right now in our pajamas).
So what should I wear to church? Would it be ok to wear pajamas to church? Leisure wear is something that people wear outside the house after all. What does honour and modesty call for? What does love call for? What does limiting oneself for the sake of love potentially call for? What might get in the way of our worship? What might get in the way of others’ worship? There are obvious gender distinctions and we do well to acknowledge them. We don’t seek to erase them by all coming to church in shapeless smocks and hats. We are called to be mindful of cultural symbolic gender distinctions when it comes to how we are presenting ourselves at worship together. To this day a man praying with his head covered might be seen as a bit much, the ubiquity of baseball hats in our culture notwithstanding.
As we’re discerning the question that I said at the beginning is posed to me often, let us remember that even when it comes to what we wear, let all that we do be done in love. Let nothing be done to self-elevate or needlessly denigrate. Let us recognize the image of God in one another, knowing that we are all called to full participation in worship together as members of Christ’s body, we are not independent of each other and all things come from God. May this be true for each one of us. Amen.