A gracEmail subscriber asks about Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians that women be veiled in public worship (1 Cor. 11:2-16).
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When I was growing up in the Churches of Christ in North Alabama in the1950’s, many preachers taught and many women believed that this text required the sisters to wear a hat or veil on their head whenever they were “in church.” If asked why, these Christian women would explain that it was a symbol of their submission to men, or at least to their husband if they had one. On the other hand, these particular sisters never said a word aloud “in church” (except as part of congregational singing), based on the non-contextual reading of another verse found in 1 Corinthians 14. Ongoing study through the years since has led me to conclude that Paul’s intended message was almost exactly opposite to the above — in more ways than one.
Paul’s instruction is not to women in general but to those who are publicly praying or prophesying (1 Cor. 11:5). The significance of their head-dress is stated in verse 10 — it is “a symbol of authority.” Rather than laying down a universal rule that silent women are to wear a symbol of submission in the assembly, Paul is telling these particular Greek females, when they pray or prophesy aloud in church meetings, to wear a covering as a badge indicating their divine authority to do so. If anyone should question their public ministry of praying and prophesying aloud in the church assembly, their covering would say in effect: “I am acting under divine guidance, gifted by the Spirit of God, not behaving presumptuously, and so I wear this symbol of authority to do what I am doing.”
Paul’s dual concerns at Corinth are that believers freely exercise their callings in Christ, and that they do so in a manner considerate of local customs, so as not to hinder the gospel’s spread among the general population. Both principles remain applicable today. God has poured out his Spirit on his sons and daughters alike so that all may serve him based on giftedness and opportunity (1 Cor. 1:4-9; 12:4-13). And we are to do this in a spirit of gentleness and reverence, mindful of the culture in which we live so that the gospel might not be hindered but have its full course (1 Cor. 9:20-23).