I Corinthians 11:1-16
In early Christian meetings both men and women were allowed to address the congregation, in marked contrast to the Jewish synagogues. Paul was concerned, not because the women were engaging in a ‘masculine’ activity but because they were doing so in an inappropriate way – with uncovered heads (verses 4,5).
In Christ, men and women are equal in status; there is no difference between the sexes spiritually. Yet there is a world of difference biologically and socially, and in virtually all societies this is marked by differences in appearance. The normal everyday dress code in the eastern Mediterranean dictated that free men should not cover their heads; married women, on the other hand, covered their hair in order to honour their husbands and to indicate that they were not sexually available. A woman’s long hair was considered erotic; only prostitutes put their hair on public display. It was therefore as inappropriate for a woman engaging in public ministry in Corinth to let her hair down as it would be for her to appear on a platform today wearing a bikini.
A Christian man (unlike a Jew, who covers his head in God’s presence) worships bare-headed to symbolise his new status in Christ (II Corinthians 3:16-18). He is not a servant but a son, able to engage with God directly; to cover his head would dishonour the Saviour who has set him free (verse 7). But a woman showing her hair in first-century Corinth would draw attention to herself – and not in a good way. Christian women flouting this social convention would not only disgrace their husbands but also bring shame on the church. A church worship service cannot be an anarchic free-for-all where any and all behaviour is acceptable just because it carries a ‘Christian’ label. There is a sense in which no Christian meeting is ‘private’; the Jews believed that when God’s people met for worship, the angels were also present. If we are in heavenly company, we should conduct ourselves accordingly (verse 10). The woman’s head-covering, far from being a mark of subjugation, was her ‘licence’ to participate in the service on equal terms with the men without causing offence. The other alternative – to exclude women completely – is not acceptable because God has so ordained that the two sexes are interdependent (verses 11,12). Whether we like it or not, we need each other (and not only for procreation!).
There is a tacit assumption here that women will contribute to the worship service by praying and prophesying. But failure to observe the conventions of society (whatever they are) while doing so causes unnecessary distraction, when all our attention should be on Christ. Cultural gender markers vary from one culture to another, but they are not totally arbitrary. Men and women are different – a fact that is almost universally recognised. We should neither ignore the distinctions that God has made nor attempt to obliterate them. In modern Europe, women do not wear veils; but we still need to respect the conventions of our own society in our behaviour and in our manner of dress. Appearances do matter!