Question:

I am a Christian wife and mother. First of all I would like to thank you for your excellent web site, which I just found this morning. I look forward to reading many more of the articles. My question at this moment, though, pertains to the teaching of I Corinthians 11. I was raised in the modern Mennonite church, which, though it no longer practices head covering, echoes with the memory of generations of our mothers obedient to the teaching. My grandmother covered her head until she died. My mother and her sisters gave up the practice sometime in early adulthood. In my own early adulthood, I became dissatisfied with the unclear teachings of the Mennonite church on such pertinent issues as salvation and repentance. My search for truth led me to be baptized with the church of Christ when I was nineteen. I was baptized with an absolute commitment to follow Jesus and obey the scriptures no matter what the cost.

After a few years I started to wonder why the teaching of I Corinthians 11 did not seem to be accepted in the church with the same sobriety as other scriptures. Yet, as a young single woman I lacked the courage to take on the traditions and accepted the explanations offered to me. In the last few years, though, I have been convicted about other areas of disobedience (as I see it) among the sisterhood. I have been personally convicted about modesty (I Timothy 2:9) and about my role in the home (Titus 2:3-5). I made some radical changes in my manner of dress and in the focus of my life's work which have made a wonderful difference in our family life.

Through all this, I decided to re-address the head-covering question. I decided to study the matter seriously and obey not matter how difficult. As I studied, it became obvious to me that the arguments against the practice were more than anything excuses, and that the core issue was a lack of subjection to the scriptures. Since I pray to God frequently throughout the day, and could not find evidence in the text of the reference being only to corporate worship, I decided to wear the covering all the time. I have been doing so for about eight months, and it has been quite challenging. I have faced criticism from both inside and outside the church. My husband does not have a strong conviction either way. He says that I should do what I believe is right and has always been very supportive in that. I know, though, that he likes the way that I look more without it, so I have always tried to spend some time without the covering for him.

Recently I have found it more and more difficult to be consistent and have wondered if I am adding an unnecessary burden to myself. For example, it does not seem right to forgo prayer if I am lying in bed or for some other reason lack the covering. So, then, if it is ok to pray in my heart then, why not when I am washing the dishes or teaching the children? I have also found it increasingly challenging in social situations, particularly without the support of other Christian women who are doing the same. I have read and re-read the passage and surrounding scriptures, but do not find clarity. I have also read numerous articles and find that some seem to assume the passage refers to corporate worship and others apply it to any prayer at all. I was very encouraged to find a church of Christ that teaches obedience to this command and would love to visit your church if my husband and I are ever out that way.

And I suppose in summary, my basic question is this: How can we know to what context the teaching applies? With greater understanding of the original language is there some break in the text or other evidence that would link those passages with those that follow about when the church is gathered together? Is there some evidence to indicate that it refers to public rather than private prayer? And finally, how do the women of your church practice this scripture?


Answer:

Context for any passage is established by looking at the passages and topics both before and after the topic at hand. Just as we don't always stick to a single topic and a single situation in a conversation, neither does a letter. However, generally within a single topic the application is consistent.

Moving back to chapter 10, Paul addresses:

  • The ever present danger of sin (I Corinthians 10:1-13)
  • The danger of idolatry (I Corinthians 10:14-22)
  • The need to consider others in our decisions (I Corinthians 10:23-11:1)
  • The need to show submission (I Corinthians 11:2-16)
  • The misuse of the Lord Supper (I Corinthians 11:17-34)

Both the need to be watchful against sin and our need to consider others were both topics which involved daily life, but the topic in between concerning idolatry focused on not blending idolatry with Christian worship. We have no problem following the threads of thought because the topics change. Thus, just because the topic which follows the discussion on submission and head covering is the public worship (the Lord's Supper), it does not follow that submission and head covering is only dealing with public worship. In fact, we can see that Paul is addressing two independent ideas both of which deal with following the traditions delivered. The first topic, that of submission and head covering, is something Paul finds praiseworthy among the Corinthians. "Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you" (I Corinthians 11:2). The second topic, concerning the Lord's Supper, is something that Paul finds unpraiseworthy. "Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse" (I Corinthians 11:17). This shift means the application does not necessarily apply to the same situation.

As you read I Corinthians 11:3-16, you will note that the arguments used are applicable to life in general and not limited to just the worship assembly. The command deals with prayer and prophesy (I Corinthians 11:4-5). However, if we are only addressing prayer and prophesy in the worship service, then we have a problem. A few chapters later, Paul states very clearly that women are not allowed to speak in the worship service (I Corinthians 14:34-38). Even with a head covering, a woman could not prophesy or lead a prayer in a worship service. Therefore, we must conclude that the command in I Corinthians 11:3-16 is not about the public worship, but other aspects of life where a woman can pray or prophesy.

Now we know that prophesy has ended (I Corinthians 13:8-13), but prayer has not. So the command is still applicable today. The only thing Paul states is required is that during prayer, a man is to keep his head uncovered and a woman is to cover her head. The command does not apply to other times in life.

Many woman that I know wear a covering continuously during worship and not just during the times of prayer for the simple expedience of not having to put it on and take it off so many times (which messes up the hair). I know of some women that just leave a covering on all the time so they can pray at a moments notice if they feel like it. Others, such as my own wife, generally don't wear a covering but keep one handy so they can pray without violating the command. There have been a few times when my wife has been caught without a covering, but she makes use of a napkin or something else nearby when she must. It is not seen as an inconvenience. It is just something she does as she prepares her mind to pray.

Not everyone in La Vista practices head covering. I do teach about it once in a while. There are several ladies who do practice it, but there are others who do not. One thing I consider important is that it isn't something that can be forced. The head covering is a sign of willing submission. A woman forced to wear a head covering is not being submissive because she has something on her head. Thus, it is something that is encouraged, but it also must be something the woman chooses to do.