Ask Pastor Eric - Head Coverings, Women Speaking and Other Strange Biblical Commands

Note: This is the second in an ongoing series of videos where I try to answer your questions. Feel free to comment if you have one you'd like discussed in the future!

Question: Why are some commands, even in the New Testament, generally dismissed by modern Protestants - head coverings, women speaking in church, even greeting each other with a kiss?

Answer: So let me give a general answer first and then talk about some of those specific questions that you asked, Jim. The general principle that we need to bear in mind whenever we're interpreting the Bible is that while the Bible is for us and the Holy Spirit works to apply it to us, it is not addressed directly to us in the original text.

Instead, there is an original audience for Scripture, and it speaks directly to them in a way we have to figure out how to apply to our lives. The way I picture it is like there's this circle of application which involves the original audience of Scripture, and then there is this circle of our world that we live in, and we have to think about how those circles overlap when we think about applying the Scriptures.

What that means in practice is that there are times when we have to pay attention to the specific cultural context that Scripture is addressed to and to some work of translation in figuring out how that applies to our context today.

Let me try to walk through some of your specific examples and talk through this. For example, it is true in 1 Corinthians 11 that Paul instructs the Corinthian church, seemingly in answer to some issues or debates there, that men are to pray with their heads uncovered and women are to pray with their heads covered.

Now, a lot could be said about each of these texts, but when you read the context of that, it seems to be that there is some problem with some people in the church feeling that there is impropriety or some sort of scandalousness in one or both of those directions - that one is interesting because while the women having their heads covered part is emphasized by modern readers, the part about men is held as equal in the way Paul talks about it. 

But there's something going on in the Corinthians church that is causing this dispute because people feel like there is a social impropriety or a lack of respect for custom and tradition. Maybe it has to do with the surrounding culture and not being sensitive to the way that the culture has these norms around how men and women behave, maybe it has to do with the fact that the church in Corinth, as in most places, is a combination of Jewish and Gentile believers and that for some of those Christians there is this set of customs that another set of Christians isn't interested in and is violating and that's causing dissension and tension within the church. 

So Paul does give this answer to the Corinthian church that gives these commands for men to not have their heads covered and for women to have their heads covered in prayer. That can be strange to us, but it's worth recognizing that, given what we just said about context, what Paul is probably not saying is that those commands are to be applied in that way to us as Christians. However, what he is giving is a picture of a principle about how we ought to relate to the surrounding world and to each other, which is to say that we ought to be sensitive, inasmuch as we can within biblical obedience, to the norms and expectations of both our society and our fellow Christians and seek to be respectful and considerate of those norms and expectations.

That's a simple example of the principle that there's a sort of cultural context to consider. Then there are other cases that get a little more complicated or debatable in terms of how we think about applying them. So you mentioned Paul's comment - which is also from 1 Corinthians 14 - that women should remain silent in the the churches, they are not allowed to speak. That obviously raises a lot of questions in the modern world.

So there's two things to recognize about that. First of all, it is important when we read any text of Scripture in context. Let me go back to 1 Corinthians 11 and read you what Paul says about women having their head covered. He says, "But every wife who prays or prophesies with their head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven." Again, that's getting at those cultural things, but notice that he says it's what they do "while they pray and are prophesying." That's three chapters before what we just read about women not speaking in the church, and so however we interpret 1 Corinthians 14, just recognizing that context and being careful readers of the text means we need to acknowledge that when Paul says they aren't speaking, they are praying and are prophesying, so there's clearly some things that the women are doing that involve talking in the church, and so what he must be addressing is some specific issue.

Now, there's debate about how to understand and apply 1 Corinthians 14. Let me give you what I think is probably the majority understanding in the history of the church, which is that what Paul was prohibiting there was women teaching authoritatively in the church, which is to say, preaching. This is one of the texts that historially is why in many denominations you find only men are ordained as pastors.

That's a separate and much bigger issue that we're not going to get into as I try to answer this question because it would lead us far astray from the immediate discussion, but that's an example of how people read it. There are other people today who argue that was a specific command to the Corinthian church because of the fact that, perhaps, women in the ancient world lacked education or because there was something about social propriety in the dynamics of the church in Corinth, sort of like head coverings, that were causing those divisions. Again, that all leads into a larger question about how we think about ordination and gender in Scripture that I'm not going to dive into in this video.

But you can recognize how, if nothing else, that surface reading of the text - simply by paying attention to what surrounds it and its cultural setting tells us that we probably shouldn't - definitely shouldn't - be prohibiting women from speaking at all in the church, and in fact from 1 Corinthians 11 should be welcoming them speaking prophetically and engaging in prayer and other ministries of the church, regardless of how exactly you think chapter 14 fits.

One final note about all of that, about the text that I just mentioned and others that fit. You mentioned greeting one another with a holy kiss, for example, which also seems to be culturally conditioned - there are still places in the world, like some European countries, where it is common to greet one another warmly by kissing each others' cheeks or something like that, which is probably what Paul is describing. But if in our world a firm handshake and a smile meet that same set of criteria for what we're trying to do, it makes sense for us to do it that way. In fact, those general principles of being culturally sensitive mean we probably shouldn't just start walking up to people and kissing them.

More than that, it's worth noting that in all of these cases we are talking about single verses, which points to one other large principle in how we approach the Scripture. Not everything in the Bible is equally clear. One of the ways we recognize that is that there are things that the Bible discusses over and over in different ways and at different times and places. Our default should be to think the most about those things and seek the most certainty about those things, whereas things that only have a verse dedicated to them in one place in Scripture, while still Scripture and while still things for us to think about, are things that we should be much more cautious about dogmatic interpretations. 

I think all these verses are good examples of that - if you really take one of them and make it a capstone you're not willing to budge on or grant charity on, you're probably foolishly claiming a level of certainty that you can't actually have.