Volume 13, Issue 6: Presbyterion
Head-coverings and Charity
With a title like this, I do have an obligation to save some people some timethe column is
not about the exegetical ins and outs of headcovering for women as Paul discusses it in 1 Corinthians 11. Another time perhaps. But the subject is a related one, and one on which the apostle Paulin the form of key principleshas a great deal to say.
At the same time, in the interests of full disclosure, it would probably be wise to show my exegetical cards. I do not believe that the requirements of the passage are culture bound, thus making obedience somehow optional. But I also do not believe that the passage requires women to have a hat, shawl, or cloth-covering while they worship. The disclosure is not the point of this, but is made simply to keep anyone from setting aside the point on the basis of imagined disagreement.
The goal of writing this is to address how saints with differing convictions on such a thing can get along so that they can do the necessary Bible study together. What should mixed churches do about the problem of saints with different sets of convictions on this issue? When the issue arises, it requires immediate attention of some sort because it is a question of conscience for many, and it is a question of conscience that arises on a weekly basis. With some points of difference between Christians, a family could attend a church for months before finding out if that difference existed in the congregation (e.g., infra or supralapsarianism). But this is the kind of issue, like what kind of music the church uses, which is manifest every week. It is what might be called a public
doctrine. And that means if the problem arises, it arises in full view of all the saints.
So suppose we have a typical American congregation of a conservative Reformed flavor. Suppose further that some of the families have come to a conviction that cloth headcoverings of some sort are required for the women. Opinions in the church are divided on the subject, and the elders of the church are discussing how to approach the problem. Do they abdicate and let everybody do whatever they want? Do they tell the headcoverers to go somewhere else? Do they tell the non-headcoverers
to go somewhere else? Or do they hope that Mrs. Schwartz will fix everything by glaring at the headcoverers until they quietly slip away?
Let me suggest a few other things for everyone to put on their heads, men and women both.
The first covering is that of love. Before we debate issues like this, we must take care to debate them the way Paul would require. Love can be rejected in different ways by different people, and not surprisingly, this topic gives us some samples.
Many modern Christians are offended at headcoverings for all the wrong reasons. They do not object for exegetical reasons; they object because they have imbibed more than a little of modern egalitarianism. This means they see women who are seeking to show their submission to their husbands through a headcovering as a threat, and they treat them as a personal threat, thus showing a distinct lack of love. If women who do not wear a headcovering respond defensively, angrily, belligerently, or rudely to those who do, then they are not responding in love. While I do not believe that Christian women need to wear such a covering, I believe it might be good for rude women to have to wear one for a few weeks.
But those who have come to this conviction can sin against charity in their own fashion. Since, in effect, this public act says that the wearer is being more obedient than those "others" who aren't, the one taking such a step has an enormous responsibility to be adorned with tender mercies, and this demeanor should be much more obvious than the headcovering is. The fact that the headcovering is intended to signify humility does not solve any problems automaticallyChristians have been tempted to be proud of their humility long before this.
Another covering for all to wear is nobility. The Jews in Thessalonica were more noble than the Jews in Berea because they searched the Scriptures with great eagerness, so see if what the apostles were teaching was true (Acts 17:11). Their nobility is seen in two aspects. The one usually pointed to is the fact that they studied the Bible to settle the question, and so far, good. But they also studied with eagernessprepared to change if the Scriptures required it. With our issue, this preparedness goes both ways. Those who wear headcoverings have to be eager to take them off if they discover their exegesis was mistaken. Those who do not wear them must be eager to put them on, if Scripture requires it.
A third covering is that of respect and honor for the convictions of others. Those who do not wear headcoverings need to know that headcovering for women in church did not originate with the Plymouth Brethren; it is an ancient practice in the Church. Further, there is at least one prima
facie reading of Paul that requires this practice. And those who do wear headcoverings (and the men who love them) need to understand that there are many who do not agree with this, who have not capitulated to egalitarian feminism, who have done capable exegetical work in 1 Corinthians 11, and who still do not agree.
With these coverings firmly in place, we will be in a good position to open the Word together.