No Such Custom- Part 2

Keep The Ordinances

Click here for Part-1

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

Most commentators believe this verse actually belongs to the preceding chapter, the closing arguments of the doctrinal outline set out in chapter 10, and not to chapter 11. Paul is moving now from doctrine to practice, from what is to be believed to what is to be done. Others argue that this verse is in its proper place because Paul is making a transition from one theme to another yet desires to keep uniformity of focus. Whichever be the case, there is something to be gained by looking at this verse for its abiding direction and instruction. Paul is exhorting the Corinthian Church to follow him as he follows Christ. In other words, he is not asking the Corinthians to do something that he does not do himself. The word “follower” in verse one in the Greek is mimetes, where you might recognize the English word mime. It means to imitate, or to copy. Paul has used this word before in this letter in 4:16 “Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me“. It goes without saying that Paul is asking for his example to be copied in doctrine, worship, and practice. He is in effect saying, “Do as I am doing. Follow my pattern, imitate me, as I imitate Christ.”

“Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.”


What first strikes the reader here is the word “remember”. We need to keep in mind that this was not the first letter Paul had written to Corinth. In chapter 5 verse 9 we read, “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators“. Paul had communicated to Corinth at least once before, how they were to conduct themselves in the Church. Here he is drawing them back to his original instruction to remember him in all things, and keep the ordinances as he delivered them the first time. So this is a review for the Church at Corinth. Evidently some paid close attention to Paul’s first instruction, and others did not. The result was while Paul was absent, some had challenged his teaching on several things, not the least of which was head coverings, and the observation of the Lord’s Supper. So Paul dovetail’s two more abuses in the Church, placing them both under the common heading of “ordinances”. In doing so, Paul emphasis is that these two subjects were precious to Paul because they were precious to Christ. Remember the logical chain in this chapter; “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ”.

Have you ever wondered why the subject of head coverings is mentioned in the same chapter as the Lord’s Supper? If this was a doctrine relegated to the sphere of liberty of conscience, as many contend, why not place it in the chapter on meat sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8)? It would seem to fit better in a chapter that states, “But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse” (verse 8). He could have said, “But head coverings commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we wear, are we the better; neither, if we wear not, are we the worse”. But he did not do this. The reason is self-evident by the word Paul uses in verse 2 of chapter 11, “ordinances”. Before we look further at the word ordinances, it would be good to look at some of the smaller words Paul uses in building up to it. Our purpose is not to be laborious, but rather to be exhaustive. Isaiah’s words are fitting, “Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little (Isaiah 28:9,10). Having previously removed the modern opinion that this was a mere Corinthian custom, we can build a case based on the parts, to prove the whole.

The apostle does not begin his instruction on head coverings with a reminder of some of the things he has already taught, but all of them. “[R]remember me in all things“, says Paul, the lesser, as well as the greater items of faith. This is best demonstrated by Paul’s choice of words mnaomai mou pas,Remember me in all things” (v.2). What stands out the most in this phrase is the emphasis on the totality of what has been delivered. The phrase in the Greek carries with it, “things individual as well as collective; each, every, any, and all the parts comprising the whole”. If this is the case, then this passage cannot be painted with the broad brush of male headship or ontological order but must be looked upon in all of its consummate parts. The directive is, “Remember even the details of the ordinances I am about to restate to you. Do not neglect the parts in relation to the whole.” True, this passage is about order and headship in the economy of the Church, but that truth must not be the altar upon which the details are sacrificed. This is more clearly demonstrated by the word “keep” in the same verse, “remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances”. Keep here in the original is a mariners term referring to the front of a ship. It literally means, “To hold back, from going away. To check a ship’s headway; to hold or head the ship.” Paul is saying here, “Do not forget even the small details when observing what I have delivered to you. By keeping the details, the Church maintains course and will sail straight.” We can begin to see now that this passage is dealing with more that an umbrella doctrine like male headship. It is dealing with a doctrine that is to be kept in its entirety without taking anything away from its parts. What then are we to remember in detail, and not neglect? What two things are we to keep without wavering? The same two things that the Church has kept for 2000 years, the ordinances of Holy Supper an head coverings. If we will take this chapter as an authority on one of these ordinances (Holy Supper), we must take them on both (head coverings).

The words “ordinances” and “delivered” in verse 2 are the noun and verb forms of the same Greek word, meaning “to ‘deliver” or “transmit”. Verse 2 could also read, “keep the deliveries, as I delivered them to you”. The verb form is also found in verse 23, “for I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread …”. The same verb form is also used when referring to the gospel in chapter 15:1-3 “I declare unto you the gospel … for I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received”. Head covering observance, Holy Supper, and the gospel are all apostolic ordinances given to the Church by Jesus Christ, transmitted from the apostles in both written form and by verbal declaration.

One of the main duties of the apostles of Jesus Christ, was to communicate to the Churches the commands of the Lord. Paul received the gospel directly, “the gospel which was preached of me is not after man, for I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ,”(Galatians 1:12). It is commonly believed that Paul received the substance of his apostolic message shortly after his conversion in Acts 9 when he, “went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus” (Galatians 1:17). What he learned in Christ’s school, he delivered to Corinth when he founded the church there as recorded in Acts 18:1,11 “After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth; … and he continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.” The other apostles received instruction about the gospel and the Lord’s supper before Christ died, and they probably received the head covering ordinance right after Jesus’ resurrection when he “through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen, … being seen of them forty days” (Acts 1:2,3) The reason for this assertion is Paul did not set up all the Churches of the known world, yet he contends in verse 16 that all other Churches observe the ordinance of head coverings except Corinth (See: No Such Custom-Part 1).

The word ordinances could also be accurately translated traditions. The translators of the Authorized Version chose the equally acceptable word ordinances, to steer away from the Roman Catholic doctrine of the equality of tradition with verbal, plenary inspiration. The word itself has to do with the body of precepts delivered either by word of mouth or in writing. They are doctrines of the Church, and must be both believed and obeyed as given from Christ Himself. Why is it we have no problem applying this understanding to the doctrine of Holy Supper, but we stumble over it when it comes to head coverings? Paul is saying here that they are both to be understood principally on the same foundation, that is divine injunction. In the case of Holy Supper, Paul will appeal to Christ’s own example as its foundation as an ordinance. When speaking about head coverings, Paul will appeal not to custom, but to 4 governing criteria: Christ’s headship (v.3), creation (v. 8,9), the angels (v. 10), and common sense (v. 14). In this way, Paul is establishing the ordinance upon proofs that have nothing to do with custom, and timeless principles which makes this ordinance as lasting and abiding as Holy Supper. To quote Sproul once more, “Nowhere does (Paul) give cultural reasons for his teaching, i.e. abusive practices of a pagan society that placed prostitutes with shorn heads in the temple. Paul points back to God’s established order in nature. Whenever a teaching in Scripture refers to ‘creation ordinances’, that teaching is binding for all cultures in all ages…” (From ‘Table Talk’ Devotional Guide for June 17-24, 1996, pp. 36-43.).

I hope we are beginning to see the exegetical grounds for the practice of head coverings. Next time, Lord willing, we will look at the 4 governing criteria of this ordinance.

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