Of Silence and Head Covering -- By: Noel K. Weeks

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 35:1 (Fall 1972)
Article: Of Silence and Head Covering
Author: Noel K. Weeks

Of Silence and Head Covering

Noel Weeks

Paul’s teaching concerning covering of the head in 1 Cor 11:2–16 has been variously interpreted. In some circles the wearing of hats by Christian women has become a veritable test of orthodoxy; in others this passage has become the basis of the argument that the New Testament is conditioned by the mores of contemporary culture. As the modern confusion over the role of women in society influences the church, this passage will no doubt be made the basis for widely diverging views. There is a need therefore to seek to grasp the point of the apostle’s argument.

It is often asserted that Paul’s purpose was to make the church conform to local standards of decency. His teaching in this passage may have relevance for us in that the principle of seeking to avoid offense is applicable to us, but the specific details are not binding upon us. This interpretation of the whole passage finds no warrant in the text itself. In the previous chapter the apostle had argued against certain practices which could be misinterpreted within Corinthian society. In 14:23 he raises as an argument the effect that church behavior would have upon outsiders. In chapter 11 there is no such appeal. The argument consistently turns upon the created order. Being the created order, it is an order valid in all times and places.

It lies completely outside of my competence to judge whether veiling of the head by women was the universal practice among women in Paul’s day. Some evidence leads to the conclusion that it was not.1 For the argument here being considered to be valid

one would have to prove that it was a universal and not just a local Corinthian custom. For Paul is able to appeal to the uniform practice of the churches (11:16).

The strongest argument that may be raised for this position is that which appeals to Paul’s reference to “nature” in 11:14. Nature is taken to mean “the common sense of decency that is prevalent at a certain time.”2 Even if this be granted it does not prove that the whole passage deals with prevailing custom. At the most one could argue that Paul makes appeal to the way custom reflects an understanding of an order which is itself grounded in creation. If this be the case, the teaching respecting hair length is more than a matter of temporary custom. Even though refracted through the...

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