Clashing Symbols: What Do We Do With Head Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11? image

Clashing Symbols: What Do We Do With Head Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11?

1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is not for the unwary. It jumps off the page as a spectacular curveball, even in a letter already full of pastorally tricky questions and detailed responses. With its well-known instruction that women should cover their heads while praying or prophesying, and its less well-known instruction that men should not, it is frequently used as a defeater argument against all sorts of hermeneutical approaches: we don’t do that, so why on earth should we do x, y or z? No text has given rise to the cultural/timeless fallacy more often, and few texts, I suspect, have so regularly confused new Christians, or so regularly encouraged older Christians to skip to the next section. So how do we read the passage, and how do we apply it today?

Lots of Christians respond in one of two ways. The first is to do exactly what it says, no matter what the surrounding culture tells you. Lots of churches have gone down this route historically, and a number of churches still do today: women should cover their heads when praying or prophesying (whether with long hair, a veil, a hat, a shawl, even a hoodie), to symbolise their submission to God and (if married) to their husbands, and men should not. Simple.
The second is to look askance at such an approach, and say: But That’s Just Silly. I mean, people in our world don’t do that. It looks weird, and stuffy, and unflattering, and legalistic, and the gospel is all about grace, don’t you know. Surely that’s one of those bits of the Bible that is “cultural”, isn’t it? I mean, there are some instructions we’re supposed to follow, and some which only applied then. This is one of those.
The second of these is more common, in my experience, but it’s also much more problematic. And the problem stems from the assumption that the Bible can be neatly divided up into “timeless” bits, which we still need to live by now, and “cultural” bits, which thankfully we don’t. For someone with a high view of Scripture, this assumption founders both on the way it treats such “cultural” passages (essentially, as irrelevant to the contemporary church), as well as in the hermeneutical naivety it displays towards the “timeless” ones (as if there are any statements in the Bible which are somehow free from a specific cultural context). The whole Bible is timeless, God-breathed and useful for teaching, even the bits about head coverings; the whole Bible is culturally conditioned and anchored in a particular time and place, even the bits about justification by faith and not works of the law. Splitting them into two distinct categories is impossible.
Having said that, I have a problem with the first response as well – but it is not that wearing head coverings is somehow outdated, silly, judgmental or legalistic. (Similar words are usually applied to anything that contemporary people don’t want to do; that does not necessarily mean they aren’t taught in Scripture.) My problem, rather, is that the process of symbolic translation has not been considered. Words have different meanings in different cultures, and so do physical symbols. And if the meaning of those physical symbols changes from one culture to another, then the question must be asked: do we preserve the sign, or the thing signified?
Let me use a very obvious example. Paul said in Romans 10:9 that anyone who confesses Iesous Kurios and believes in Jesus’ resurrection will be saved. When applying that today, we do not make new converts say the words Iesous Kurios, unless they are Greek, because in our language those words do not mean what they meant in Paul’s – we say “Jesus is Lord” instead. In doing this, we haven’t dishonoured Scripture. Far from it, actually: we have preserved the thing signified by changing the sign (which, in this case, happens to involve words). Repeating the words Iesous Kurios, to an English-speaker, would actually be less honouring to Scripture than translating them, because they would not carry any meaning within our culture.
Now, what happens if we think the same way about physical symbols and not just verbal ones? (I take it as read that physical symbols, like words, mean different things in different cultures; swapping sandals has nothing to do with contract-keeping where I live, and I’m told that the thumbs up is a sexual swear word in Southern Sardinia, though I’ve never been there to check.) Simple: we “translate” the physical symbol into our own culture, often without even thinking about it. So, for example, when we read the exhortation to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26; 1 Pet 5:14), we take the meaning of the physical symbol – an expression of familial love and affection that brothers and sisters would use – and translate it into symbols that exist within our own culture for familial love and affection. Most adult men in the UK do not kiss their brothers; we hug, or (if we’re more reserved) shake hands, instead. Adult men in France, on the other hand, do kiss their brothers. Adult Eskimos might rub noses, for all I know. So in each of those cultures, we greet one other in the church in the same way as we would greet our physical brothers and sisters. In doing so we are, unthinkingly perhaps, “translating” the sign to preserve the thing signified. And rightly so.
Back to 1 Corinthians 11, and we first need to ask the question: what did the physical symbols Paul is talking about represent in first century Greco-Roman culture? And although there are all sorts of suggestions, the most likely answers seem to be that the symbols in question – covered heads for women, uncovered heads for men – indicated three things: (1) that gender distinctions were preserved, with men looking like men and women looking like women; (2) that both sexes had appropriate regard for their “head” (so, men honoured Christ and women honoured their husbands); and (3) that married women were not sexually available. Within first century culture, the symbols Paul is talking about in this chapter “meant” some combination of those three things. And failing to dress this way risked bringing dishonour to others, distraction to the angels, and dishonour to God.
So, to live under the authority of God in Scripture requires symbolically translating Paul’s instructions into our own cultures. In much of the Middle East, that will mean doing exactly what Paul told the Corinthians to do: women covering their heads, and men not covering their heads. In the UK today, though, women use their attire to indicate femininity, honour for their husbands and sexual fidelity in different ways (so if my wife Rachel is praying or prophesying in a church meeting, she doesn’t have to look like she’s walked out of Pride and Prejudice, but she shouldn’t look like she’s walked out of Ibiza Uncovered, either.) And for men in my world, looking like Bob Marley doesn’t mean you’re undermining God-given gender distinctives; looking like Eddie Izzard, on the other hand, probably does. So in the church I’m part of, men can pray and prophesy if they’re wearing a cap or a hat – but not if they’re wearing lipstick or a dress.
Symbolic translation means changing the sign to preserve the thing signified. And if you’re not convinced we’re allowed to do that, then remember that a few hundred years ago, the title of this article would have been Clafhing fymbolf.

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