Do women have to wear a veil in Church?
1 Corinthians 11,2-16 about women wearing the veil has become a classic source of muddled theological thinking. Let us examine the background.
Paul was writing to the Christian community at Corinth.
He had heard from some Christians who visited him in Ephesus, that there were uncontrolled scenes of trance and speaking in tongues during their prayer meetings. An impression of what took place can be gained from 1 Corinthians 14,1-33. It would seem that, as an expression of ecstatic frenzy, some women would be tempted to take off their veils and loosen their hair.
Perhaps, they prayed with their arms raised high and their heads thrown back as was the custom in certain oriental cults. like that of the Maenads.
This must have upset other members of the community. Paul worried about it because it threatened to destroy order and peace. He decided that the practice should be stopped.
Interpreting Scripture Correctly
Paul wants the Corinthian women to wear a veil during prayer services. To understand Paul’s intention we should carefully analyse what he actually says in what is obviously a somewhat muddled attempt to give a ‘rational’ explanation to his request.
A factor that may have complicated matters is that Christian men had given up the Jewish practice of praying with a prayer mantle over their head. They prayed ‘with uncovered face’ to reflect the glory of Christ (2 Corinthians 3,18).
Some women may have asked why they could not do the same thing? Paul tried to explain why they should not.
“What I want you to understand is that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Any man who prays or who speaks prophecies with his head covered dishonours his head. But any woman who prays or speaks prophecies with no veil on her head dishonours her head – it is the same as if her head is shaven. For if a woman does not want to wear a veil, then she should cut off her hair. But if a woman is ashamed to be shaven bald, she should wear a veil.” (verses 3-6)
Maenads dancing as portrayed on ancient tombstone
“For a man should not cover his head for he is the image of God and reflects God’s glory. But a wife reflects her husband’s glory. (verse 7)
“That is why a woman should keep authority over her head, because of the angels.” (verse 10).
“ Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not different from man, nor man from woman. Woman may come from man, but man is born from woman. And all come from God.” (verses 11-12)
“Ask yourself: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with no cover on her head? Does nature itself not teach you that wearing long hair does not suit men but looks beautiful on women? For a woman’s hair has been given as an ornament to her. ” (verses 13-15)
“ And if anyone still wants to argue: we recognise no other practice, nor do the other Christian communities.” (verse 16)
If we analyse this passage, we find that Paul is really pleading for order and peace in the community. For that reason he does not want women to pray with their long hair hanging loose. But it is wrong to conclude from the text that Paul promulgated a law by which women of all times and in all cultures were required to wear a veil in Church.
Neither is it correct to think that in his reasoning Paul promulgated inspired doctrine about the submission of women to men. He was simply arguing his point, as any worried pastor would, pleading and ‘thinking aloud’, aware of the inherent weaknesses in what he was saying. Imputing doctrinal weight to such rationalizations is erroneous and unfair.
We tend to forget that Paul was a human being like anyone of us. When we try to persuade people to follow some course of action, we adduce all kinds of reasons and motives, some better, some worse. We are aware of the fact that such reasonings only serve to support a point we want to make. They may not be lifted out and made into solemn pronouncements that stand on their own.
© John Wijngaards
The texts in our course Interpreting Scripture Correctly were written by John Wijngaards in 2009. Part of the contents is based on his earlier publications, in particular:
Illustrations in the video clip by Jackie Clackson.