No Such Custom Part 1

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 philoslove”, 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.”

The Cultural Element Removed

Spurgeon once said, “We shall not adjust our Bible to the age; but before we have done with it, by God’s grace, we shall adjust the age to the Bible” (“The Preacher’s Power, and the Conditions of Obtaining it”, in An All-round Ministry, p. 318.).

One hundred years ago there was still no contention in the Church over the ordinance of head coverings. Now there is. What happened? The Church began to adjust the Bible to the age. Post World War I Christianity looks very different that what it looked like previously. As the somber mood of World War I replaced the frivolity of the turn of the century, women replaced men in factories as their husbands and sons defended freedom. This event, coupled with the rising movement of feminism in general society led to a slow but steady deterioration between distinctions among the sexes. Is it coincidence that head coverings in Churches began to decrease at the same time feminism began its rise? Add to this mix, the paradigm shift in theology as European Enlightenment Rationalism became prominent in many seminaries across the continent, and you get the perfect recipe for change. And not reformational change either, but libertarian. No longer was the Bible a book above reproach after the Great War, but now it was being questioned as to its authenticity, veracity, and authority. The Bible was scrutinized and analyzed with tools once foreign to the Church, rationalism and cultural influences. The Bible soon became a wax nose to be manipulated and conformed to the higher thought of enlightened scholars, all of which were bent on removing God from society.

During this time in history a novel idea was set before the Church about head coverings. For the first time, perspicuity took a back seat to human critical analysis, cultural influences, and authorial background and intent. Sola Scriptura had been replaced. In the case of head coverings, even though Paul never makes any reference to the culture of the day in the chapter before us, the understanding of Corinthian culture becomes the controlling element of the text. Therein lies the rub. When we allow closely held beliefs to be determined by historical/cultural circumstances, we do something to the very nature of plenary, verbal, inspiration.  In rhetoric, an illustration can support an argument, but it can never be the argument. Likewise, a text can have cultural or historical elements in it, but this never alters the doctrine. The doctrine (which is the argument) is immovable, though times and circumstances change (the illustration).

R.C. Sproul speaks clearly to this subject,

It is one thing to seek a more lucid understanding of the biblical content by investigating the cultural situation of the first century; it is quite another to interpret the New Testament as if it were merely an echo of the first-century culture. To do so would be to fail to account for the serious conflict the church experienced as it confronted the first-century world. Christians were not thrown to the lions for their penchant for conformity.

Some very subtle means of relativizing the text occur when we read into the text cultural considerations that ought not to be there. For example, with respect to the hair-covering issue in Corinth, numerous commentators on the Epistle point out that the local sign of the prostitute in Corinth was the uncovered head. Therefore, the argument runs, the reason why Paul wanted women to cover their heads was to avoid a scandalous appearance of Christian women in the external guise of prostitutes.

Later he goes on to say,

What is wrong with this kind of speculation? The basic problem here is that our reconstructed knowledge of first-century Corinth has led us to supply Paul with a rationale that is foreign to the one he gives himself. In a word, we are not only putting words into the apostle’s mouth, but we are ignoring words that are there. If Paul merely told women in Corinth to cover their heads and gave no rationale for such instruction, we would be strongly inclined to supply it via our cultural knowledge. In this case, however, Paul provides a rationale which is based on an appeal to creation, not to the custom of Corinthian harlots. We must be careful not to let our zeal for knowledge of the culture obscure what is actually said. To subordinate Paul’s stated reason to our speculatively conceived reason is to slander the apostle and turn exegesis into eisogesis.

The creation ordinances are indicators of the transcultural principle. If any biblical principles transcend local customary limits, they are the appeals drawn from creation. I hope the answer is obvious.

Dr. Sproul is keeping the clarity of scripture in view over any other possible controlling element. So let us keep this in mind as we look at the subject of head coverings, beginning at the first verse,

Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.

Click here for Part-2


10 Responses

  1. Pastor Lewis,

    First I want to thank you for covering this subject which has been long neglected in the church in our times.

    But I want to share some Ancient and Early Reformed thoughts upon the subject. You seem to take the opinion that head coverings are only required during public worship and thought a minority has held to that position the majority of Ancient and Early Reformed thoughts on the head coverings was that it was required outside the worship as much as in worship which is the position that I hold to. Our forefathers taught that Paul was not instituting a new custom but telling the Corinthians who were confused on the egalitarian view of men and women that thought men and women are equal spiritually, temporally God has set headship of man over women. See the Corinthians thoughts that headship was over in the church so the women were coming in off the street and removing their veils before worshiping. Paul tells them no it is not over temporally, headship and modesty are still required and they are based on the moral order of creation and nature. This is why women in the Old Testament are shown to bear a head covering, Rebekah, Shulamite women, Tamar, etc. This is also why it was said that removing the veil was a sign of nakedness.

    This is the position of much of the early church and much of our Reformed forefathers. Men such as Tertullian, Hippolytus, Chrysostom, John Calvin, John Knox, George Gillespie, James Durham, and William Ames. Many more can be quoted.. But here are the words of the puritan Reverand William Ames which he calls the head covering a civil order of decency.

    William Ames wrote in his work titled “A fresh suit against human ceremonies” :

    “The veil was not appropriated unto God’s worship; but a civil order of decency, required as well out of God’s worship as in it… it was no more religious, then women’s proper apparel, long garments, etc.

    Asked secondly, what it did signified? Answer was made, that is signified subjection to superior power, then a moral duty was propelled by it, modesty, shamefacedness, gravity, and care of not offending, are propelled by all apparel of modesty honest fashion.

    I never heard all modesty apparel called a mystical religious ceremony.

    Theophilact in Corinthian 11, makes a mans beard like and equal unto his covering in signification.

    Whether ask if the coverings, and uncoverings,were not instituted to be observed in God’s public worship? Answer that this indeed was required, in every grave meeting of men and women: but not primarily, and principally instituted for God’s worship. Paul surely did not institute them for new ceremonies, but only urged the Corinthians, not to neglect them, as being natural.”

    The Covenanter James Durham also had this to say in his commentary on the Song of Solomon which came highly commended by John Owen.

    “The last step is, ‘they took away my vail from me;’ the word that is rendered ‘vail,’ comes from a root that signifieth to subdue, it is that same word which we have, Psalm 144:2, ‘who subdues the people,’ &c. It hath a threefold use, 1. For decoration, as Isa. 3:23. 2. For a sign of modesty, pleaded for by the apostle, I Cor. 11:6. 3. And for a sign of women’s subjection to their own husbands; for which cause Rebekah puts on her vail, when she meets Isaac, Gen. 24:65. And therefore it is called power, as being the sign of the wife’s being under the power of her husband, I Cor. 11:10. Here her vail is the tenderness of her profession, whereby, in a decent, modest and humble way, she professed herself to be a believer, seeking after Christ Jesus, as one bearing the badge of subjection to him as her Husband.”

  2. Pastor Lewis,

    I am curious, would you also be covering the topic on what constitutes the head and how much should be veiled? Tertullian and Hippolytus seem to cover this area along with other church divines. Apparently it was the belief of the early church that even the face should be covered. This lasted even unto the time of Byzantium because the Muhammadans took the practice of face-covering from Christian Byzantium. Christian Byzantium was very careful in their views of modesty in public.

    Hippolytus (170-236 a.d.) states in Canon Seventeenth. “Of virgins, that they should cover their faces and their heads.”

    Tertullian (197-220 a.d.) states In the Veiling of Virgins “Let them know that the whole head constitutes “the woman.” Its limits and boundaries reach as far as the place where the robe begins. The region of the veil is co-extensive with the space covered by the hair when unbound; in order that the necks too may be encircled. For it is they which must be subjected, for the sake of which “power” ought to be “had on the head:” the veil is their yoke. Arabia’s heathen females will be your judges, who cover not only the head, but the face also, so entirely, that they are content, with one eye free, to enjoy rather half the light than to prostitute the entire face. A female would rather see than be seen. ”

    P.S. I apologize for the miss spellings in the previous message. It was late and I was extremely tired, and spell check does not tell the difference between though and thoughts.

    • Mikhael,

      I am not done reading the Early Fathers on the subject. This will take some time. You bring up some interesting points. However, in my reading thus far, I am not convinced that the covering is to be worn all the time. This comes from several quotes I hope to use from the Magisterial Reformers and the Puritans, but most importantly from the Word itself. I do see some arguing for this practice, but there are others who argue the other way. My intent is to reintroduce a forgotten practice into the Church, and this will take baby steps. I can certainly prove from Scripture the use of head coverings (let Scripture speak!) in worship, but I do not think the Word tells us anything beyond this.

      Kind regards,

      Pastor Lewis

  3. Great post.

    The headcovering is a sadly neglected ordinance.

  4. I totally agree with you on this subject, but I was shocked/disappointed to read this in the 1599 Geneva Bible:

    “It appeareth that this was a political law serving only for the cir- cumstances of the time that Paul lived in, by this reason, because in these our days for a man to speak bareheaded in an assembly, is a sign of subjection.” The Geneva Bible (Whitehall: Tolle Lege Press, 2006), pg. 1179 11:4 fn2.

    Richard Bacon, though, has one of the best solutions for this—each time you read head, insert the word hair. It makes the reading of this sound almost non-sensical.

    • Hi Seth, nice to hear from you.

      1 Corinthians 11:4 “Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.” This is not speaking to woman’s head coverings, but to man using the prayer shawl. The complete quote:

      (a) By this he gathers that if men do either pray or preach in public assemblies having their heads covered (which was then a sign of subjection), they robbed themselves of their dignity, against God’s ordinance. (b) It appears, that this was a political law serving only for the circumstance of the time that Paul lived in, by this reason, because in these our days for a man to speak bareheaded in an assembly is a sign of subjection.

      The second error Paul was correcting was the male tendency to cover the head as per the “political law” of the land and not the ordinance mentioned in (a). “It appears, that this was a political law” is refering to the covering of a head by a man, which was not acccording to the ordinance Paul is delivering.

      Here is Calvin, on the same verse, clearing it up for us.

      “Every man praying Here there are two propositions. The first relates to the man, the other to the woman He says that the man commits an offense against Christ his head, if he prays or prophesies with his head covered. Why so? Because he is subject to Christ, with this understanding, that he is to hold the first place in the government of the house — for the father of the family is like a king in his own house. Hence the glory of God shines forth in him, in consequence of the authority with which he is invested. If he covers his head, he lets himself down from that preeminence which God had assigned to him, so as to be in subjection. Thus the honor of Christ is infringed upon.”

      The first part of the Geneva quote makes the second half understandable.

      “By this he gathers that if men do either pray or preach in public assemblies having their heads covered (which was then a sign of subjection), they robbed themselves of their dignity, against God’s ordinance.” So to do so, that is, to be covered, robbed the man of the blessing of God’s ordinance, which was to be uncovered. Therefore for Corinth to submit to the cultural ellement by wearing a head covering was to go against the injunction Paul was now giving. Thus it was corrective. IOW, “Don’t put something on your head, even if it is the practice of the day, as it robs you of your dignaty according to the Lord”. Then the second part of the quote becomes clear, “It appears, that this was a political law serving only for the circumstance of the time that Paul lived in, by this reason, because in these our days for a man to speak bareheaded in an assembly is a sign of subjection.” The cultural ellement, Paul is saying, needs to be replaced by the ordinance now delivered. The Genevan authors obeyed this injunction and preached uncovered, as do we.

  5. Jerrold, thank you for this. I look forward to future instalments. Question: what do you say to someone who says that the same passage speaks of women praying and prophecying? That does not happen anymore. Does this not suggest that Paul’s teaching here is relevant only to his time?

    • Jack,

      Most of the Reformers held to Calvin’s view here, as do I.

      “It may seem, however, to be superfluous for Paul to forbid the woman to prophesy with her head uncovered, while elsewhere he wholly prohibits women from speaking in the Church. (1 Timothy 2:12.)

      It would not, therefore, be allowable for them to prophesy even with a covering upon their head, and hence it follows that it is to no purpose that he argues here as to a covering. It may be replied, that the Apostle, by here condemning the one, does not commend the other. For when he reproves them for prophesying with their head uncovered, he at the same time does not give them permission to prophesy in some other way, but rather delays his condemnation of that vice to another passage, namely in 1 Corinthians 14. In this reply there is nothing amiss, though at the same time it might suit sufficiently well to say, that the Apostle requires women to show their modesty — not merely in a place in which the whole Church is assembled, but also in any more dignified assembly, either of matrons or of men, such as are sometimes convened in private houses.”

  6. Hi Pastor Lewis,

    It is the opinion some of your colleagues that the requirement of women to wear a head covering was relevant to that time – because of the pagan temple prostitutes at that time. Please see . You must realize that position is quite prevalent in the FRC circles?


    • Yes, it is prevalent. Now. In the history of our federation, and the much broader historical construct, it is novel. We are the generation that changed it. All I ask is that fair play be given to the position held for the past 2000 years on the subject. It is not a matter of salvation, but it is important still. Jim, what do you think of Dr. Sproul’s comments on the idea that to wear a head covering was relevant to that time – because of the pagan temple prostitutes at that time. His remarks are at the end of part 1.


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