Sunday, June 23, 2013

Daniel Wallace's Rejection of the Literal Head Covering

Daniel Wallace, who is best known for his textual criticism of the Bible, has also written on the subject of the woman's head covering.  I don't want to discuss his whole article but some parts of it stand out.  He makes a good point about the long hair interpretation as the covering:

To argue, then, that long hair is the woman’s head covering seems to miss the very point of the function of the head covering and of the long hair: one shows her submission while the other shows her glory. Both of these are contrasted with an uncovered head while praying or prophesying, or a shaved head at any time: such would speak of the woman’s humiliation and shame.

I'd only object that I don't think the covering can show an inner subjective state such as submission, so I'd put it differently:  "one shows her subordinate position in the Creation order of headship while the other shows her glory"  ---  it is a shame to her to be without the added head covering as well as to be without her long hair.   

Now he goes on to support very well the view I advocate here, the real head covering.  

Real Head Covering, Applicable Today

The argument that a real head covering is in view and that such is applicable today is, in some respects, the easiest view to defend exegetically and the hardest to swallow practically. Since it is never safe to abandon one’s conscience regarding the truth of Scripture, I held to this view up until recently. Quite frankly, I did not like it (it is very unpopular today). But I could not, in good conscience, disregard it. Essentially, this view assumes three things: (1) that a real head covering is in view;4 (2) that Paul’s argument has a greater foundation than mere convention; and (3) that the head covering itself is an essential part of his viewpoint. Note the following arguments in support of this.
  • ◦Verse 2 (paradivdwmi, paradovsi") indicates that Paul’s instruction is part of the traditional package of doctrine that he was passing on to the Church (see discussion above, under ‘no applicability view’). But Paul here does not give any details of the instruction. That is picked up in the rest of the passage.
  • ◦Verses 3-9 base this instruction on a theological hierarchy and on creation. God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of the man, the man is the head of the woman. It is important to note that Paul is in no way arguing for the ontological inferiority of the woman to the man, for he roots his convictions in the Godhead. Christ is only functionally subordinate to the Father, not ontologically subordinate.5 The wife, too, is functionally subordinate to the husband, but in no way ontologically inferior (vv 11-12).
  • ◦Verse 10 bases the woman’s symbol of subordination on a fine point of angelology (one that escapes us today, though conjectures abound).
  • ◦Verses 13-15 roughly constitute an argument from nature.
  • ◦Verse 16 is an argument from the collective wisdom of the church universal, for Christians elsewhere have no other practice.
Thus, the argument is a general theological conviction (as opposed to a mere sociological convention), though growing out of several key doctrines: (1) Nascent trinitarianism, (2) creation, (3) angelology, (4) general revelation, and (5) church practice. Thus, for Paul, disobedience to his instructions about the head covering smacked of a deficient angelology, defective anthropology and and ecclesiology, and a destructive trinitarianism, and ran aground on the rocks of general revelation. Further, to focus on v 16 as the sole basis (as the ‘no applicability’ view does) is to slide right through the heart of this pericope without observing anything.

This is a good argument for the actual head covering overall.

However, to say that this is "the easiest view to defend exegetically" is pretty much to say that it is the correct view and yet he no longer accepts it.   But on what grounds?  He's quite right that this position is hard to swallow practically, that it's quite unpopular -- it's clear he'd rather not have to defend it, but could he let himself abandon it for such reasons?

One thing remains: a critique of the real head covering as the normative symbol today.

The Meaningful Symbol View

This view adopts the exegesis of the real head-covering view with one exception. It does not regard a real head covering as essential to the view. This is the view that I currently adopt. In essence, it is based on an understanding of the role of head coverings in the ancient world vs. the modern world. In the ancient world head coverings were apparently in vogue in some parts of the Graeco-Roman empire. Some groups expected the men to wear head coverings; others expected women to wear them. Still others felt that such were optional for both men and women. It is not important to determine which group did what. The important thing to note is that the early church adopted a convention already in use in society and gave it a distinctively Christian hue. That Paul could say that no other churches had any other practice may well indicate how easily such a practice could be adopted. This finds parallels with baptism in Israel. The Pharisees did not ask John, “What are you doing?” Instead, they asked, “Why are you doing this?” They understood baptism (even though John’s baptism was apparently the first to be other-baptism rather than self-baptism); what they didn’t understand was John’s authority and what his baptism symbolized. In a similar way, the early church practice of requiring the women to wear a head covering when praying or prophesying6 would not have been viewed as an unusual request. In the cosmopolitan cities of Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece, no one would feel out of place. Head coverings were everywhere. When a woman wore one in the church, she was showing her subordination to her husband, but was not out of place with society. One could easily imagine a woman walking down the street to the worship service with a head covering on without being noticed.

 But if this were the case there wouldn't have been the problem with contentiousness in the church that there apparently was, which led Paul to provide such a lengthy argument for the covering giving so many different reasons for it.   This is just another of the many reasons the local customs of Corinth had nothing to do with Paul's teaching.  In essence Wallace has merely abandoned the unpopular literal head covering for the currently popular wishy-washy view I think was first espoused by Thomas Schreiner and picked up by so many in the Reformed camp, the idea that it was merely a culturally established symbol that could be exchanged for another in other cultural contexts.

Today, however, the situation is quite different, at least in the West. For a woman to wear a head covering7 would seem to be a distinctively humiliating experience. Many women--even biblically submissive wives--resist the notion precisely because they feel awkward and self-conscious. But the head covering in Paul’s day was intended only to display the woman’s subordination, not her humiliation. Today, ironically, to require a head covering for women in the worship service would be tantamount to asking them to shave their heads! The effect, therefore, would be just the opposite of what Paul intended. Thus, in attempting to fulfill the spirit of the apostle’s instruction, not just his words, some suitable substitute symbol needs to be found.

But the humiliation that is felt today is most likely the result of the feminist impulse that took away the head covering in the first place by defining it as a humiliating thing.   To make this the reason not to require a covering today is simply to give in to that same feminist mental set.   

Two questions remain. First, how can we justify a different symbol of authority on a woman’s head if the head covering is now a symbol of humiliation?

Of course if it is a symbol of humiliation because of the feminist climate of our time and place then this is a highly spurious concern.  In fact there is every reason to believe that the contentiousness in the early church that Paul was at such pains to answer concerned this very SAME humiliation, the humiliation of being made subordinate to the male sex.  We ALL feel this, all women in all times feel this.  It's part of our heritage from the Fall to feel this.   Christ gives an unprecedented freedom and respect to women that lifts the curse of the Fall, and after receiving such grace through Him it is especially hard to accept anything that seems to take us back to that curse, and this is most likely what some of the women in the Corinthian church were protesting.  The fact is, and Paul is trying hard to get this across, the head covering is not about the curse of the Fall, it's about the CREATED ORDER; not the essence of womanhood but the assigned role.  This may not make it more palatable for all of us, but it's not the same thing as being treated as an inferior.  In any case, I think Wallace has succumbed to his dislike of the literal head covering, its unpopularity, and allowed himself to accept a false understanding of this passage, and in so doing has capitulated to the feminist impulse that took away the head covering in the first place.  

Second, what symbol should we use?

First, the justification comes from several angles. (1) It is in keeping with the spirit of 1 Cor 11 and explicitly with two of Paul’s arguments (nature, convention). If forced to make a choice, it is wiser to take a view that is in keeping with the spirit of the text rather than the letter. (2) The broader spirit of Christianity is clearly against symbols for symbols’ sake. The NT writers do not seem to push ritual and symbol, but reality and substance. (3) The reason, I suspect, that head covering was implemented in the early church was simply that it was an already established societal convention that could be ‘baptized,’ so to speak.

But this is to impose on Paul something he does not express at all in his lengthy argument, and again, it does not take into account the contentiousness that had been raised in the church over the requirement.

That the symbol of head covering fit into Paul’s argument about the headship of God, Christ, and husband, is what seems to have suggested this particular symbol.   But even if the symbol loses some of its symbolism, the point needs to remain the same. (That is, whatever symbol a woman is to wear should indicate her submission to her husband and/or [if not married] the male leadership of the church.8)

Wallace seems here to be speaking rather slightingly of what is really the most important of Paul's arguments for the covering, which makes the head the focus of the whole instruction.  And he is also substituting a principle that is not in the passage itself, that he is making more important than the headship argument:   the woman's submission to her husband or other male authority.  Here is he doing what many do with this passage, requiring the subjective attitude of submissiveness on the woman's part.  But the passage speaks in objective rather than subjective terms, of woman's position in the Creation order, in the hierarchy of authority.  Other passages ask a submissive attitude, this one doesn't.  No, the objective order of headship is clearly the important thing in Paul's mind, and it makes sense that a visible token would better express an objective condition than a subjective one, because you can't guarantee an inner state with such certainty as the covering would then imply.

(4) An analogy with the Lord’s Table might help. It is appropriate because there is much that is symbolic in the Eucharist and this celebration is also one of those traditions that Paul handed down (1 Cor 11:17ff.). The symbols of the wine and unleavened bread are taken directly from the Passover. In the first century the Passover involved the use of four mandatory cups of wine, lamb, bitter herbs, unleavened bread. The part of the meal that Jesus turned into the first Lord’s Supper was apparently the third cup of the Passover and the unleavened bread. The lack of leaven was an important symbol, for it represented Christ’s sinlessness. And, of course, real wine was used. Is it necessary for us today to use unleavened bread and real wine? Some churches make this a mandatory practice, others an optional one. Still others would be horrified if real wine were used. Few today have unleavened bread (saltine crackers do have some yeast in them). Should we pronounce an anathema on these folks because they have broken from the tradition--a tradition which has both historical and biblical antecedents? If the implementation of such an important tradition as the Lord’s Supper can be varied, then should not the much less important tradition of the specific role (and garb) of women be allowed some flexibility, too?

 This strikes me as a rather spurious comparison.  Removing the essential focus on the head is not the same thing as having different kinds of bread and wine.   It's more like substituting fruit and cheese for bread and wine.

And I have to protest the idea that the head covering is a "much less important" tradition.  We've MADE it less important, we've relegated it to complete obscurity as a matter of fact, but is that what Paul is doing when he writes fifteen verses and at least four arguments in favor of it and defines it as deriving from God's Creation Order? 

And again, it's about the head.  You can cover the head in a great variety of ways, there's no lack of flexibility in that regard, within the limit of playing down the glory of the female head, but just as it must be bread in some form and wine in some form at the Lord's supper it does have to be the female head that is covered.

Second, if the actual symbol used is not the issue, but what it represents is, what symbol should we use today? There can be no universal answer, simply because the ‘meaningful symbol’ approach is a recognition that conventions change. If we were to canonize one symbol--especially one not mentioned in the Bible--then we would be in danger of elevating oral tradition to the level of Scripture and of externalizing and trivializing the gospel. Having said that, each church needs to wrestle with an appropriate symbol for the present time. Quite frankly, if you (and your church) think that what I’ve suggested in this paper has validity, then the leadership of the church should probably do some creative brain-storming. I would like very much to hear from you!

But there simply is no symbol that could take the place of the head covering and that ought to be a clue that this is the wrong understanding of the text.   The others who take this same approach end up with a very vague recommendation of Whatever Seems Feminine.  Wallace goes on to compare it to the symbolism of wearing a ring and the wearing of modest dress.  

Seems to me it needs to be faced that this whole effort is toward wiggling out from under the clear meaning of the text, which he's pretty much affirmed above, that women are to cover our heads in church.   It's unpopular, we don't like it, but honesty compels us to recognize that it is what Paul meant.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

R. C. Sproul Advocates the Head Covering

Thanks to the website The Head Covering Movement, which I linked in the previous post, I found out that R. C. Sproul has a sermon on this subject, To Cover or Not to Cover in which he advocates that women wear a head covering in church.  The talk is available in MP3 for $2.00 and I couldn't find it anywhere else.  I didn't see a date on it so I don't know how recent it is. 

Sproul's taking this position ought to have an effect on some Christians who haven't found other advocates of the head covering convincing enough or authoritative enough.  Other preachers in the Reformed camp, such as John MacArthur and Alistair Begg, following Thomas Schreiner, have preached that Paul was merely supporting a local custom so that we are free to make use of whatever our own custom dictates, and these popular preachers would naturally have a lot of influence among Reformed Christians.  

Sproul answers this interpretation succinctly by pointing out that this is imposing an explanation on Paul that Paul himself didn't give, that Paul's main reason for the head covering is derived from Creation.

I'm sorry I didn't know about this talk until now.  I hope it might become well known and bring many to rethink this Biblical passage.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

New Website being launched: The Head Covering Movement

Just received an email from a Jeremy Gardiner about a website on this subject he's putting together, The Head Covering Movement.  It seems to be an effort to bring together the people who already share this point of view and try to reach out to the Church at large as well.