Head Coverings in Worship
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  No Such Custom     

      The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, also called the perspicuity of Scripture, teaches that the meaning of a text is not hidden by unknown elements, but can clearly be understood by the ordinary reader. This is consistent with our Reformed heritage that has always taught that ordinary people who come to the Word of God in faith and humility, will be able to understand what the Bible teaches, even if some passages are more difficult. During the Dark Ages, the Roman Catholic Church wanted to keep the elements of understanding the Word within the confines of the Magisterium, Papacy, and Church dogma. They wrongfully insisted that to rightly understand what a particular text meant, you must abandon the text and seek its understanding through Mother Rome, who alone could decide the meaning of the Bible. The Reformers flatly rejected that any outside element could interpret Holy Writ. Our forbearer’s taught that all one needed was a Bible, a ready mind, and a willing heart, aided by the power of the Holy Spirit. Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) was not just a rallying cry for our forefathers, it was the very axiom for understanding the Scriptures. Perspicuity, or the clarity of scripture remains a key element in comprehending the Word of God. When we deviate from this foundational principle, and allow outside elements (dogma, current culture, history, or circumstance) to muddy the waters of perspicuity, the grip on once tightly held beliefs begins to loosen, and before long, we are charting new territory based on interpretive elements found outside the Word of God.

In the last 100 years, a 2000 year old doctrine, has been all but removed from most Reformed churches, by a single controlling element- culture. The doctrine abandoned was the use of head coverings in public worship.

The fact remains that even 50 years ago, it mattered very little what Church you attended (Baptist, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, or Reformed), all women wore a head covering in public worship. Yet today there are hardly any congregations in Western Culture that practice this with any degree of consistency, if they practice it at all. When you ask the question “Why don’t you believe wearing a head covering is biblical?”, you are met with a uniform answer, “Because it was a cultural practice, and our culture no longer requires a head covering.” The question must be answered then, are head coverings cultural, or are they a requirement for corporate worship? This short paper will attempt to answer that question.


The Exposition

I want to begin at the end. Often, when this subject is discussed, the greatest weight of argument is found at the end of Paul’s writing on 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. It is verse 16 that everyone seems to remember. So we will begin there.

But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God(1 Corinthians 11:16).

After 15 verses of sound argument, many people think that Paul quite happily contradicted himself in reference to head coverings. Is this what he was doing? Was he saying in the prior 15 verses, “Women should wear head coverings in public worship”, and then turn an about-face and say, “But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God”? Paul is far too much of a logician to do such a thing.

The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, brings to an end the first of two ordinancesin this chapter by insisting that if any in the Corinthian Church have a disagreement with the ordinance of head coverings, the greater Church of Christ does not. By these words, he is insisting that strife over this practice, while it was very real in Corinth, is unheard of in all other Churches at that time.

“Contentious” in the Greek is the word philoneikos, which is a compound of philos “love”, and nikos, “strife”. It literally means, “to be fond of strife”. At this point, some will say, “See, Paul is saying that to insist that a woman wear a head covering in the Church is to engender strife in the Church.” This however is not the case. Paul is arguing for the exact opposite. He is saying, “Those that argue against the ordinance are the ones engendering strife.” If we can put it another way, he is saying, “If anyone is fond of strife over not wearing head coverings, he stands alone in this, as all the other Churches use head covering in public worship.” If he was not saying this, then why did he waste so much ink, and laborious thought in the last 15 verses? Why did he tell the Corinthians to keep the ordinances (Holy Supper and Head Coverings) delivered to them if he was saying at the end of it all, “don’t keep them.” It makes no exegetical sense whatsoever and is against sound reasoning. No other Church that Paul knew of was having a problem with this doctrine besides Corinth.

Have you ever wondered why the use of head coverings has been the common and undisputed practice of the Church for 2000 years in every denomination we could mention? It is because the interpretation given above is the uniform understanding of this passage through all of Christian history. Here are a few quotes from some of our forefathers on verse 16.

Early Church Father Chrysostom. Homily 26 On the Veiling of Women.

Thou seest that some obeyed, whom he praises; and others disobeyed, whom he corrects by what comes afterwards, saying, “Now if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom.” (ver. 16.) For if after some had done well but others disobeyed, he had included all in his accusation, he would both have made the one sort bolder, and have caused the others to become more remiss.

It is then contentiousness to oppose these things, and not any exercise of reason. Notwithstanding, even thus it is a measured sort of rebuke which he adopts, to fill them the more with self-reproach; which in truth rendered his saying the more severe. “For we,” saith he, “have no such custom,” so as to contend and to strive and to oppose ourselves. And he stopped not even here, but also added, “neither the Churches of God;” signifying that they resist and oppose themselves to the whole world by not yielding.

John Calvin

But if any man seem”. A contentious person is one whose humor inclines him to stir up disputes, and does not care what becomes of the truth. Of this description are all who, without any necessity, abolish good and useful customs — raise disputes respecting matters that are not doubtful — who do not yield to reasonings — who cannot endure that any one should be above them… For we must not always reckon as contentious the man who does not acquiesce in our decisions, or who ventures to contradict us; but when temper and obstinacy show themselves, let us then say with Paul, that contentions are at variance with the custom of the Church (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:16).

Scottish Divine David Dickson

If any perhaps should not bee moved by these Arguments, but should contend, the Apostle opposeth to their contentious Apologies, the received and established custome of the Jews, and the rest of the Churches: Other Churches have no such custome, that women should bee present at publick assemblies, with their heads uncovered, and the man with his head covered: Therefore your custome not agreeing with decency, either according to natural use, or of the Churches, is altogether unseemly (David Dickson’s Commentaries on the Epistles. Printed 1659. Chapter 11, Seventh Article Concerning Order and Decency).

Westminster Divine, Mathew Poole

We have no such custom, of woman’s praying or prophesying with their heads uncovered, or men’s praying or prophesying with their heads covered; or we have no such custom of contending these little frivolous things (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:16).

John Gill

That is, if anyone will not be satisfied with reasons given, for men’s praying and prophesying with their heads uncovered, and women’s praying and prophesying with their heads covered; but will go on to raise objections, and continue carping and cavilling, showing that they contend not for truth, but victory, can they but obtain it any way; for my part, as if the apostle should say, I shall not think it worth my while to continue the dispute any longer; enough has been said to satisfy any wise and good man, anyone that is serious, thoughtful, and modest; and shall only add,

we have no such custom, nor the churches of God;

meaning, either that men should appear covered, and women uncovered in public service, and which should have some weight with all those that have any regard to churches and their examples; or that men should be indulged in a captious and contentious spirit.

Adam Clarke

If any person sets himself up as a wrangler-puts himself forward as a defender of such points, that a woman may pray or teach with her head uncovered, and that a man may, without reproach, have long hair; let him know that we have no such custom as either, nor are they sanctioned by any of the Churches of God, whether among the Jews or the Gentiles (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:16).

Geneva Notes on the Bible

Against those who are stubbornly contentious we have to oppose this, that the churches of God are not contentious(Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:16).

The point of these early quotes (which are only a sampling) is to prove the uniform understanding of Paul’s conclusion on the matter before he moves on to Holy Supper. No forefather ever contended that Paul was saying, “But we have no such head covering customs in the Church.” By removing the argument that Paul was saying that a woman does not need to wear a head covering based on verse 16, allows for us to look at the proper meaning of the previous 15 verses. It is clear that Paul was saying “If you contend that the practice of head coverings is not an ordinance of God, you stand alone in the Churches of Christ.”