Someone asks, “I am currently studying 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and its command that women remain veiled at public worship but that men appear unveiled. Do you have any thoughts on that?”
When I was growing up in North Alabama in the 1950’s, many preachers in Churches of Christ taught that this text required the sisters to wear a “covering” on their head whenever they went to “church.” If asked why, they would explain that it was a symbol of their submission to men, or at least to their husband (if they had one). Considerable study through the years since has led me to conclude that Paul’s intended message was almost exactly opposite this view on which I was raised.
Rather than laying down a (1) universal rule that (2) silent women are to manifest a symbol of (3) submission in the assembly, I believe that Paul is telling (1) these particular Greek females who (2) pray or prophesy aloud in church meetings to wear a visible “badge” of their (3) authority to do so. If anyone should query, “Why are you women speaking aloud in this way?” these women’s veil would say, in effect, “I am acting under divine guidance, not presumptuously, and so I wear this symbol of authority to do what I am doing.”
Ezekiel 13:17-21 also discusses prophetesses who wore “veils” as part of their “uniform,” although in that case they were false prophetesses. It is likely that some Jewish or other ancient near-eastern custom lay behind this passage and 1 Corinthians 11, which was known to the original readers but not to us.
Paul’s underlying concern seems to be that Christians exercise freedom and equality in Christ in a manner considerate of local customs, so as not to hinder the gospel’s spread among the general population. Given that concern, one wonders what Paul would say if he wrote a letter to an American church today, where the public is accustomed to women mayors, judges, governors and heads of business — and where church is often the only exception to that rule.