A head for hats

God’s word makes some things crystal clear – no room for doubt. Take Paul’s words in the 6th chapter of this first letter to the Corinthians: Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?

Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. That’s pretty clear! But the bible would be an impossibly thick volume if it were to offer specific instructions for every possible situation in which we find ourselves. Sometime we just have to work things out for ourselves and often this will involve taking wise counsel from mature and established fellow believers. That’s all well and good, but sometimes different believers can arrive at opposing but entirely legitimate positions on a specific matter. In the last 3 chapters (8-10) we have learned how to cope in such circumstances. The key thing is to have a desire to do what is right and to have a love for our fellow believers.

Now Paul turns to a new theme and it involves head gear. Some Christians have struggled with these verses and they have even caused some division in churches. If we have learned anything from the last 3 chapters we must have learned that division over secondary matters is to be avoided. And the wearing of head gear surely falls into the work-it-out-for-yourselves category. In support of this, I note that Paul uses such phrases as ‘traditions’, ‘proper’(which I think is about socially acceptability) and ‘judge for yourselves’.

Paul’s advice about head gear does however sit on top of some more fundamental truths about roles – more of that later.

So what about head gear? What we wear is of some importance. Clothing can denote our place and importance in society. Recently the Queen presided over the state opening of parliament. She wore a crown and was dressed in her royal robes – she is the head of state and her apparel made her position and role clear. The mounted soldiers who accompanied her down The Mall, through horse guards parade and onto the houses of parliament were dressed in their red tunics and bearskins; a statement of their power and proud military tradition. Even the uniforms of the police who provided security speak of their state-given powers of arrest and law enforcement. What we wear says something of our rank, and role and responsibility.

Clothing can also be used to make other statements: when we attended Leona and John’s wedding recently the white dress spoke of purity, suits spoke of formality and seriousness and flowers spoke of the joy of the event. As I write this I am sitting on a train on my way to work, I wear a ‘suit and tie’ as a statement of the type of work I am involved in and of my attitude to work.

But clothing can also shock and be used as an instrument of rebellion. Vivian Westwood seems to use her designs for that very purpose; to shock and challenge the norms of society. Eddy Izzard dresses partly as a woman and in doing so seems to be deliberately challenging distinctions between men and women. We will see how some of the Corinthians may have been deliberately choosing what they wore to shock and challenge male and female roles.

The second part of this chapter deals with church services in Corinth. Again this largely takes the shape of advice from a seasoned and reliable Christian leader. The issues were related to selfishness and disregard for others.

  1. Roles, responsibilities and hats!

Men are not the same as women and women are not the same as men. That’s a pretty obvious statement, but in the age in which we live it carries some controversy. It seems that there is a conscious effort in our society to blur the distinctions between men and women. Much of this has at its heart the laudable desire to establish equal rights for both men and women. Why should women have a poorer deal from society than men? why should they be paid less than men? Why indeed. But things seem to have gone much further than establishing fairness for women. Equality seems to have been overtaken by a desire to eliminate difference.

In verse 3, Paul sets out a structure for key relationships. What is surprising and fascinating is that there is a structured relationship within the godhead and specifically between God and Christ. Paul says that the head of Christ is God. In the same way there is a relationship involving different roles for men and women; the head of the woman is the man. I believe that over the years men have for one reason or another completely misunderstood, corrupted and exploited this truth. Being the head of the woman does not mean that the woman is a second class citizen and neither does it mean that men have a right to treat women as slaves and objects of their whim. Difference and different roles does not mean different status and worth. In verse 7, Paul states that as man is the image and glory of God, so woman is the glory of man. The woman was made for man, but there is interdependence between the two.

So what’s this got to do with head gear?

At the time the letter was written women would wear head coverings outside of the home. These were rather like the head coverings Islamic women wear today; they covered the head and hair entirely. This was the custom and it was accepted as the norm. Incidentally different groups had slightly different traditions and customs; both men and women covered their heads in Roman worship, but the Greeks did not. Thus the use and significance of head coverings was conditioned by customs and traditions which varied from one group to another.

It seems that something in the way the Corinthians were worshipping necessitated Paul’s advice. The issue in Corinth seemed to strike at the heart of the God-defined roles and responsibilities for men and women. The advice Paul gives is simple and to the point – men should not cover their heads as they are the image of God, whilst women should cover their heads as a reflection of their role as having come from man and being the glory of man and being for man. The advice is straightforward but why was it needed? I believe the answer lies in verse 5. You will recall that we noted earlier that what we wear can have the power to shock. The punks certainly knew this! They not only used the way they dressed to shock but to make a statement to society about what they thought was of importance. In verse 5 Paul says this: ‘every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head, she might as well have her hair cut off.’ It seems that the act of worshipping without a head covering was a calculated act to shock and to make a statement. And it seems that that statement was that women were rejecting their role and differentiation from men. If this is the case, then Paul’s advice acknowledges the cultural significance of head coverings (i.e. it denotes differentiated roles and responsibilities for women) and furthermore identifies rejection of the cultural norm as a tactic to shock and reject the specific role of a woman. This is not a new idea to us either as we see similar efforts by extreme feminists to reject a differentiated role for women.

Paul also notes that men and women are naturally differentiated in terms of head covering by their hair – men tend to have hair that does not grow long as successfully women’s: women’s hair tends to work better being long and men’s hair tends to work better being shorter. My own hair (or lack thereof!) looks bad enough short! Paul indicates that a woman without a head covering is like a woman with a shaved head – it had the power to shock.

How does this relate to us today? Lack of a head covering for women does not raise eye brows in our day and age. But it was shocking in Corinth. Even shorter hair on women (unless taken to a Sinead O’Conner extreme!) goes largely unnoticed today: but not in Corinth. It is clear that the social impact of head coverings for men and women in Paul’s day, are today of little or no significance. However what does still shock is rejection of gender differences in the way people dress – women dressed like men and men dressed like women still has the power to shock. Whilst people who dress like this do so for a variety of reason at least some of the time this is done to declare a rejection of conventional (and biblical) gender roles. Perhaps this is our modern equivalent of women without head coverings?

For us in the church, I don’t see much evidence of shock tactics in what people wear as rejection of male/female roles, lack of head coverings and some shorter hair in women sends no rebellious signals at all! But we certainly ought to be aware that some fashion trends can attempt to oppose male female differentiation and we ought to be aware of this and reject it. Perhaps of more importance however is a need for us in the church to promote good and godly male and female role models.

  1. Church services

Paul offered some praise to the Corinthians as he began his previous section on male/female roles but not as he begins this next section: ‘I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good’ he says. This is a surprising and remarkable statement. What was going on?

The Church was divided over leadership – this we learned in chapter 1. Now we see the effect of these divisions. When they met together to celebrate the Lord’s supper it seemed that the divisions resulted in some groups having a ‘private supper’ and others having nothing. Occasionally we have lunches at West Street, imagine if we were a divided church and one group planned a lavish meal and entirely excluded the other group! This is what seemed to be happening in Corinth – Paul says one group gets drunk and the other group gets nothing! What a disgrace says Paul! It’s hard to disagree.

This prompts Paul to give some advice that is not only his own wise counsel but also a God-given instruction. Paul seemed to be saying that the ‘Lord’s supper’ was not an occasion for having a big lavish meal for some whilst others were excluded – but was rather ought to be a simple meal for all. Paul recalled the evening of Jesus’ betrayal and how he and the disciples ate together, bread representing Jesus’ body and wine representing his blood. Paul simply states ‘whenever you eat such bread and wine you ‘proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’. We note that the recommendation of Paul indicates the temporary nature of this meal: it is ‘until he comes’. This is not surprising as the purpose of the meal was to remember Jesus: when Jesus returns, methods for remembering him will become redundant.

In view of this, it was time for the Corinthians to sort themselves out. The present situation was sinful and was bringing judgement – time for the Corinthians to look at themselves in the mirror and change. The situation was so serious that God was disciplining some of the Corinthians: some were weak, some sick and some had ‘fallen asleep’. Paul seems to be saying that obvious disregard for doing what was right was resulting in God’s discipline in the form of ill health and even death! Whether such discipline is God’s normal modus operandi in the church today is open to debate. This direct intervention may have been an ‘early church’ phenomenon or may even have been a reflection of the way God was dealing with rebellious Jews prior to their final judgement at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD. In our day, we should at least be aware of the possibility of God’s discipline in one form of another if we fail so spectacularly to do what is right.

So what ought the Corinthians to do when it came to remembering the Lord’s death , simply this; eat together and if you are hungry, eat at home first! Practical, sensible and to the point: we should take note.