Tuesday, July 8, 2014

1 Corinthians 11: Principle versus Practice

1 Cor 11:2-16 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 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. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. 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. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.   Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nain ture itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

The use of head-covering for women in church services has been a common practice of the churches from the first century until the 20th century. Today, in some more traditional and conservative denominations the womenfolk still put on some kind of head-covering (usually a scarf) in church services, in keeping with Paul's instruction given to the Corinthians: "For this reason, and because the angels are watching, a woman should wear a covering on her head to show she is under authority" (v.10, NLT).

Some bible teachers argue that this practice is still valid for churches today because Paul gives a spiritual justification for the practice, viz., "because of the angels." In other words, this practice of head-covering is necessary because of the presence of angels surrounding a church when it gathers to worship. This symbol of subordination of the woman to male authority is not done for human but angelic observers. The justification for this practice is spiritual, not cultural. And since angels are still around, the argument goes, the practice of head-covering should continue.

On the other hands, there are bible teachers who argue that it's the principle of subordination that is more important than the manner it is expressed. The angelic observers are watching, not necessary at the outward expression of it, but at the inner heart attitude of subordination of the woman to her husband. It's just so happens that in the first century church, head-covering was the appropriate symbol of submission to male authority. But for 21st century churches, the symbol of a wife's submission to the husband's headship may take on different forms. So, it's the principle that we should observe, rather than the practice.

Like so many other practices in the NT (modes of water baptism, the Lord's Supper, lifting up of hands in prayer, laying on of hands to pray for the sick, leadership structures, etc), churches are not in 100% agreement about when to observe keep the practices and when to keep the principles only. In some cases, the emphasis is on the spiritual principle (wafer for bread, and grape juice for wine in the Lord's Supper) and in others the emphasis is on the practice (immersion for water baptism).

Personally, I believe the principle ultimately must take precedence over the practice. For example, while I believe water baptism should normally be by immersion as a matter of practice, there will be situation when I would forgo the practice to keep the principle. I remember on one occasion many years ago, at one Alpha session inside a high-security prison, after praying for 4 inmates to be filled with the Holy Spirit, one of them suddenly turned to me and said, "Pastor, can you baptize me?" Before I knew how to answer, the other 3 inmates also joined in, "Yes, pastor, we also want to be baptised." There was no baptismal pool in that prison. We were all seated on hard concrete floor and the only source of water from a tap nearby. So, after checking with the other helpers, I borrowed the plastic mug from the inmates, collected some water from the tap and started scooping the water from the mug to baptize all four inmates in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. It was a glorious event.

In this particular case, the practice was modified but the principle was kept. I didn't think that the only mode for baptism is immersion. If I would not adapt the form to fit the function, I wouldn't have baptized any of them. So, for me at that point in time, the principle took precedence over the practice.

While I may not mandate that all womenfolk attending church services to have some kind of head-covering, nevertheless, I think it's a good practice "for the sake of the angels" as I don't see any other alternative expression of this symbol nowadays. In our days when the world is increasingly rejecting many divine patterns and order for the family, this head-covering symbol of authority may be essential to remind us that God's order for the gender is being guarded by angelic observers.

Father, grant us wisdom to know which practices are good and which are mandatory. In Jesus' name. Amen.


  1. Thanks Pastor for posting this. I think the only thing I'd like to emphasize (and you may agree) is that in your prison situation there was no water pool available. However, if there were a pool available to you and you instead chose to 'baptize' in a different way, would you agree that that is wrong? Let me ask you to clarify another way: are you saying that we should keep the given Scriptural symbol unless there are extenuating circumstances that prohibit us? Or are you saying that even if that symbol is available to us, we have the liberty to change it?

    I wrote some concerns about symbol replacement here: http://www.headcoveringmovement.com/articles/can-we-symbolize-our-roles-using-a-different-symbol

    1. Hi Jeremy, I'm inclined to agree with you. Your article is interesting. This issue of head-covering has not come up in most churches here in Singapore. No one is pushing for it. But when they do, I'm in full agreement we should follow the practice, not just the principle. Thanks for your input. CM


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