As some of you know, I have become persuaded over the past year that the head-covering of women during worship which Paul commands in 1 Corinthians 11 was not merely a 1st century cultural standard but is still binding today. This is due to the fact that Paul’s primary argument in vv. 3-13 is from male headship and order of creation (he does argue from culture in 13-15, but this is secondary).
An egalitarian who advocates for women in the pastorate or denies male headship in marriage will clearly disagree with my exegesis. However, I take issue with complementarians who say that Paul’s command in this case was only culturally binding. The arguments (almost verbatim in some instances) that the apostle uses elsewhere for a male-only pastorate and male headship in marriage are the same with which he also argues for head-covering.
So concerning male headship in marriage, Paul says in Eph. 5:22-23, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.” So Paul is saying that the husband-wife relationship is analogous to and a typological picture of Christ and the church. Husband = head of the wife; Christ = head of the church, a standard complementarian view of marriage.
Now let’s look at 1 Cor. 11:3, Paul’s preface to his command to wear a head-covering (or not wear one if you’re a man), “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” Interestingly, whereas Paul said in Eph 5 that Christ is the head of the church, he nuances his argument here to say that Christ is the head of every (redeemed) husband, so there is a three-tiered structure of authority. Husband = head of the woman; Christ = head of the husband; and God the Father = head of Christ. Essentially, Paul’s argument for women’s submission in marriage and his argument for head covering is one and the same. This pattern is followed in v. 7, “For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.” Man = image and glory of God; woman = glory of man. (Paul doesn’t mean by this that woman are not made in the image of God also).
But let’s compare another common complementarian interpretation, this time regarding female pastors. Paul instructed Timothy in 1 Tim. 2:12-14, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” Paul first points to the order of creation (Adam first, then Eve) as one the reasons why a women can exercise authority over a man. For Paul, the creation order of man and woman establishes the order of authority between them.
Now look back at 1 Cor. 11: 8-9: “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.” Here, Paul supports his command to cover with the order of creation, just as he did with a male-only pastorate. Woman came from man; Adam was formed first, and Eve was God’s good gift to Adam for the purpose of being a helper fit for him. Therefore a woman is to have a sign of authority on her head, just as a woman is not to have authority over a man.
So, simply put, I do not think that we can just chop 1 Cor. 11 up to a cultural practice and do justice to the text. It could be and is argued that what Paul is against here in 1 Cor. 11 is the cultural impropriety of an uncovered women or a covered man, which results in gender confusion and cultural shame, thus giving the faith a bad name. But could not the same argument be made for female pastors and egalitarian marriage; would not those things have been quite scandalous in the 1st century world? In some situations, the particular expression (head covering) is bound up together with the principle (male headship), so much so that to denude the principle of its God-given expression actually subtly subverts the principle. There are instances in which we are not still bound to replicate certain expressions of biblical principles; but where we are not bound it is because scripture does not bind us. But in this case, Paul gives multiple and clear connections from male headship and creation order to head covering.
If you’re a complementarian like myself, you can argue that head covering was a 1st century cultural practice that is not binding today, but just know that that cuts against your exegesis elsewhere. Indirectly related to this issue is one that is much more important and contested today: homosexuality. It is argued by many that homosexuality is only condemned in the Bible because it was culturally unacceptable at the time of the writing of the Old and New testaments, but the Biblical writers condemn it essentially the same way that they disapprove of female pastors, marital egalitarianism, and…..a woman with head uncovered in worship (and man with head covered), they argue against all these things by pointing to God’s good created order as the standard; they do point to culture but not primarily.