The Christian in his culture

1Corinthians 11:2-16 is a tough passage to interpret–presently I’ve given up. That’s not to say I won’t revisit the passage & renew my digging but at this point I’ve made my peace with the notion that many questions must (at least for now) remain unanswered. Even so, all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable. In this case I’m struck by the balance between biblical fidelity and our cultural setting.

As I understand the passage Paul is addressing the way in which some of the Corinthian women were presenting themselves in the church’s corporate worship: namely, without a head covering. There’s no doubt that Paul instructs the church women to cover their heads (with what is a matter of debate) which naturally leads many to wonder why the church has selectively ignored this biblical teaching. Two observations:

1) The issue is not doctrine per se but how doctrine shapes one’s practice. Paul grounds the prescribed practice (i.e. head covering for women) in doctrine (i.e. God’s creation of male headship) but the discussion seems to suggest that, in this case, the Corinthians haven’t denied biblical doctrine. Rather, they have failed to think through the practical implications of the truth they uphold.

2) Cultural practices are an important means by which the Christian bears witness to God’s truth. In the time & place of the Corinthian letter we’re led to believe that women wore head coverings as a sign of humility and submission. In light of the Corinthian women’s new-found equality through the gospel some apparently felt the freedom to buck the cultural norm of the day. Paul, however, instructs the women to observe the prevailing cultural practice of head covering. Why? In this case the head covering was a necessary cultural sign of biblical truth. In our setting we might liken it to a woman taking a man’s last name in marriage. A woman can retain her maiden name and still be married, but refusing to change her name–in keeping with our cultural tradition–is a sign that she intends to retain something of her pre-marital identity & independence. Consequently, by rejecting the cultural sign she betrays the biblical revelation concerning a wife’s role in marriage.

In the end Paul was unwilling to abandon the cultural practice because, in the case of head coverings, to lose the cultural sign was to lose an effective witness to biblical truth. Culture always communicates a message or philosophy. How and when the Christian can take advantage of this medium for the sake of the gospel is worth careful consideration.

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Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian and theological Luddite. A student of one book.

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