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Paul the Cultural Conservative

velo1One of the most difficult passages of Paul’s writings to interpret is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. In this passage, Paul commands Christian women who are praying or prophesying to cover their heads. At almost every turn, interpretative issues arise. Part of the problem is that we have very little understanding of cultural practices of the time that Paul is addressing. Then we must trace Paul’s argument, which seems obscure (e.g., “it is the same as if her head were shaven,” “because of the angels,” “does not nature itself…”). Because of these difficulties, applying the interpretation to our situation today is therefore even more difficult.

One of the interpretative questions of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 comes in the final verse of the paragraph, but I think the message is clear enough that it sheds light on the demeanor and outlook Christians should take on cultural practices in churches. Having laid out several reasons for the prophesying and praying women wear head coverings, Paul lays down one final reason that answers all the remaining objections: If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God (ESV).

Again, verse 16 can be taken a handful of different ways. Yet I believe Paul’s intent is to underscore that any professing believer who dared to “be contentious” or quarrelsome over Paul’s teaching, boldly allowing prophesying and praying women to be uncovered, is going up against the custom instituted by the apostles (“we have no such practice”), and, more than that, they are practicing something completely missing in other Christian assemblies. This too was enough for him to reject outright the cultural innovation (of permitting women praying and prophesying to be uncovered). Paul’s final argument for headcoverings is that the Corinthians should not be cultural innovators. They should respect the apostolic practice and the practice of other churches.

I’m not the only one who makes this point. Charles Hodge writes in his commentary,

Authority is the only end of controversy with such disturbers of the peace. The authority here adduced is that of the apostles and of the churches. The former was decisive, because the apostles were invested with authority not only to teach the gospel, but also to organize the church, and to decide everything relating to Christian ordinances and worship. The authority of the churches, although not coercive, was yet great. No man is justified, except on clearly scriptural grounds, and from the necessity of obeying God rather than man, to depart from the established usages of the church in matters of public concern. (1 Corinthians, 214).

John Chrysostom summarizes Paul this way:

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. However, even if the Corinthians were then contentious, yet now the whole world hath both received and kept this law. So great is the power of the Crucified.

Likewise, Ciampa and Rosner make similar observations:

Paul’s point is that our behaviors are not merely a matter of personal preferences … but are lived out in a community context, and so the well-being of the community (and of the other) must play an integral role in our decisions regarding the attitudes and postures we assume with respect to those around us (1 Corinthians, 540-41).

Matthew Henry put it this way:

It should be our concern, especially in Christian and religious assemblies, to make no breach upon the rules of natural decency.

Paul’s point is important. The cultural customs Christians find around them can be meaningful and important. They should not be people who treat traditional cultural mores and manners with contempt, especially those cultural manners that point to decorum and dignity. Manners matter to Christians. Culture matters to Christians. We should not be cultural innovators. We ought to respect what we have learned from our parents and the saints of ages past. Even if this text does not teach that women must wear veils, it does teach that our dress and decorum matters to God. We should not be people who “rock the boat” culturally. Of what Paul’s words to the Corinthians concerning women’s head coverings teach us, they
certainly teach us that.

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).