My friend Edgar asked for my opinion on some questions from some of his Sunday School students. I see the same sorts of questions from adults as well. My goal is to provide some brief, concrete answers. This is the last question (for now, at least!).
First, I think it is important to have a game plan with questions like this. Whether answering a skeptic or equipping a believer to answer the skeptic, my goal is always to give clear, thoughtful answers that address the question and then point to the word of God as quickly as possible. When in doubt, I’d rather someone read the Bible than listen to me. God’s word made many promises* about what it will accomplish but contains no such promises about anything I say.
I highly recommend reading Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions to learn how to navigate conversations like these (only $2.99 for the Kindle edition — you can’t afford not to buy it!). The burden isn’t all on you, and the conversations don’t have to be hostile. There are many ways to ask polite questions to get people thinking more carefully and to highlight their errors.
Here is the fourth question:
How do you determine what traditions to follow from the Bible and which ones you don’t (i.e. women’s head covering, others)?
OK, I’ll be candid: This will be the weakest response of this series. I just haven’t spent a lot of time on these things. I think the short version is to consider the context and the principle behind the traditions / commands. I’m going to punt over to CARM.org for this one. I’m hoping that our loyal readers will weigh in with more!
The first question is why Paul gave these commands about head coverings and long hair. He did so because the way people wore their hair indicated in the culture of Paul’s day whether one was behaving as a man or a woman. In other words, Paul wanted to retain the distinctions between the sexes. This is a powerful word to our culture where differences between the sexes are routinely denied, and we commonly have gender blending and gender confusion.
The principle Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 11:3 is male headship. Men have a unique God-given authority in the family and the church for leadership. Men are responsible to protect and provide for women, and women are to humbly submit to their leadership and to assist men in their leadership roles. Such differences in role don’t indicate lack of equality, for Christ submitted to the Father but was equal to him (1 Cor. 15:28).
The issue Paul addresses isn’t really head-coverings and length of hair in and of themselves. In the culture of Paul’s day a woman not wearing head covering in worship would signal rebellion against male headship, and in the same way a man’s wearing long hair would suggest that he was denying his masculinity. What matters in the passage, then, are not the exact customs, but the principle or truth communicated in the text. If a woman wears a veil today, it doesn’t suggest to people in our culture that she is rebellious.
We need to apply the principle of male headship and female submission to our culture today. We can apply the passage as follows. Men would deny their masculinity if they wore a dress, and a woman denies male headship if she did not wear her wedding ring or refused to take the last name of her husband.
Here is a truly in-depth analysis of the various interpretations of this passage.
I do think we need to take care when saying something is symbolic or a tradition. Otherwise, people could abuse scripture. The larger context of the universal differences between men and women are a foundation to work from.
* Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Isaiah 55:10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
** The three general types of pro-gay theology people: 1. “The Bible says homosexuality is wrong but it isn’t the word of God” (obviously non-Christians) 2. “The Bible says it is wrong but God changed his mind and is only telling theological Liberals” (only about 10 things wrong with that) 3. “The Bible is the word of God but you are just misunderstanding it” (Uh, no, not really.)