In these last remaining weeks before I go on the first leg of my sabbatical, I wish to finish up our reading and teaching on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthian Christians. Now some of passages of this letter have painful histories, when it comes to how they have been understood and applied. So it would have been easy for me to just skip a few of the more controversial passages and hope that no one would have noticed. But that doesn’t seem honest to me. Especially since the following passage holds an important place in Mennonite history and tradition. Its where the custom of head coverings for women comes from. And sometimes, when you get down and really wrestle with a passage that seems at first blush to say something distressing or objectionable, you emerge from that struggle with something else that you did not expect, something surprising, something even fruitful. By the time I get done with this message, I hope that will be the case for you too. But as you listen to it, if you find some things difficult or painful, know that you’re not alone. I have too, at least until I realized that I was making a most common mistake in biblical interpretation: that of filling biblical words and doctrines with worldly meanings and definitions. Let the whole Bible interpret itself, by means of itself, and I’m pretty confident that we’ll come out the other side of today’s message just as committed to women’s honor, women’s dignity, and women’s equality and full participation in the ministries of the church, however they are gifted, as I hope we are going in. So here goes, with what I think is the best translation of I Corinthians 11: 2-16, Today’s New International Version:
1 Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. 2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. 3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man,[a] and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. 7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own[b] head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
Oh dear, they don’t seem to be here this Sunday, either. I’m talking about the people who call me up every once in a while and who want to know if we’re the kind of Mennonite church that insists on plain dress, especially for women. And that means prayer bonnets on their heads. I tell them that they’re welcome to wear them when they come (if they’re women, that is) and that occasionally you might see one among us, and that we have others among us who used to wear them, but who haven’t done so for quite some time.
Woops. Maybe that last part is what scares them away.
When they ask, just what kind of Mennonite church are we if we don’t insist on plain dress and prayer bonnets? I usually say I’m a pastor, not a policeman, and that dress is the least of my concerns. Oh, we’re all for modesty, respect and beauty, but I have enough trouble making sure I don’t mix orange plaid shirts with green pants, that I’m not about to play fashion police to everyone else. Besides, if we did want a dress code, I’d vote for the beautiful African clothing we sometimes see here.
No, I figure its better to disappoint them over the telephone before they come. Not that I want to disrespect them. I know what they’re afraid of, and it bothers me too: fashion as a declaration of status, and the sexualization of everything in our commercialized culture. And status is what today’s passage deals with, but not in the way we usually think.
Historically, we’ve taken this passage to mean that women are subordinate to men, and should therefore dress that way, from the head down. But that’s because we so often make that most common mistake in Bible interpretation: giving worldly definitions to biblical words. Hierarchy, superiority and status among people are worldly concepts. We must rather let the Bible interpret its own words with its own definitions and stories. Like the word “head” in this passage, as in “Christ is the head of man and man is the head of woman.” To define that word “head” in terms of hierarchy, domination, superiority and subjugation is a big fat mistake. When you look at how Christ is the head of man, I take that to mean that God created humanity by means of his word. And the Word is Jesus. So Jesus, as the word of God, is the source of humanity’s existence. Just like Lake Itasca is the head, or the source, of the Mississippi. When Paul says that man is the head of woman, he’s simply referring to the creation story that says that man was created first, as “the source” and then woman from him, from his side, literally, his half, a position of honor and equality. In the creation account, Adam was simply the physical source of Eve, not the dominator, nor the subjugator, nor the oppressor. Any power imbalance like that came out of the Fall into sin, not from God’s gracious act of creation. And lest we get any ideas of hierarchy, superiority or domination, Paul quickly goes on to say, in verse 11, that man is not independent of woman either, that they’re both interdependent. Interdependence between men and women is still the program, according to Paul.
Now if you want to see what being the head is all about, do like Paul and define “headship” by the example of Jesus in relation to the church. Yes, he is assertive, truthful, active and proactive in his courtship of the church. But he was also a servant, and sacrificial, he lived in submission to the needs of his church, to the point of bending down to wash the disciples’ feet, even to the point of living and dying for his bride, the church. If we men want to know what it means to be head in our homes and marriages, then think servanthood, think sacrifice, think submission to the needs of wife and family. Headship is about being a source of the power that we give and share, through love, and not about the power we claim and take. That’s what the example of Jesus, the head of the church, tells me. Men, as soon as we forget that and ask, “So, who has more power here?” or “Am I getting the power and respect I should be getting as ‘head’?” we’ve jumped the tracks, we’ve wandered off the straight and narrow, we’re listening to a snake in the grass.
But what does that have to do with women’s head coverings? Well, there’s one majority report and two minority reports. One minority report says this is a hard and fast rule for all Christians everywhere; that women should wear something on their heads to show that they are in subjection and submission to men and to angels. That’s the historic Mennonite and Amish position, and if anyone wishes to abide by that, for that reason, I’ll understand.
But for the past thirty years I have held to the current worldwide Christian majority position that says that there’s a principle here that can have many applications, and head coverings—or is it long hair?– in First Century Corinth was only one of them, but not a hard and fast one for all times and places, because external fashions change. Kind of like when the first Mennonite missionaries came back from Tanzania in the 1930’s to report on the amazing growth of the church there, and were often asked, “So, if they’re Mennonites, are they wearing plain Mennonite clothing?” To which the most honest answer sometimes was, “Clothing? Its a hot country. They’re not always wearing clothing.” Later on, missionaries could report that Christians were dressing respectfully, even beautifully, but certainly with no black woolen cape dresses or suit coats with hooks and eyes, rather than buttons. But that didn’t make them any less Mennonite.
So the majority report has typically said that maybe Paul was speaking to some women in the Corinthian Churches who seem to have used their new-found freedom and equality in Christ to make some extreme, militant, in-your-face statements. Like letting down their hair or uncovering it whenever they prayed, preached or prophesied in church. Women in that day and time usually kept their hair long and their heads covered, especially married women. Letting it out and down was provocative: it made them look like prophetesses or even prostitutes in the temple of the Greek Goddess Diana, or some other such fertility rite. All that Paul is saying is, “Women, do act and dress respectfully in the presence of Christ, of each other, and of angels.” Whether that involves head coverings or no head coverings, let the time and the context be your guide for respectful dress or conduct. Which would be a pretty good message for anyone, of any gender, in any time or place. So……. today, don’t come to church in swim suits. Or gang attire packing heat, with lots of bling.
But lately I have been swayed by another, newer, emerging minority report that turns the whole thing upside down: Namely, that Paul isn’t addressing women in this passage as much as he is addressing men. Notice, he actually starts out by addressing men first, when he says, in verse 4, “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.” So, maybe the problem in Corinth is not so much that women are praying, preaching and prophesying with their heads uncovered, and looking like priestesses or prostitutes, but that some men are praying, preaching and prophesying with their heads covered, and looking and acting like emperors and high priests.
Because those are the only Greek and Roman men of the time who would pray with their heads covered: the emperor and his high priests. Art and literature from the time tell us that Caesar and the high priests of the imperial cult covered their heads in worship, as a sign of submission to the imperial gods. So when men do it in a Christian church, they’re putting on high-status imperial airs, something the lowly slaves, serfs, laborers and freemen who make up the rest of the church membership couldn’t do. And that fits with everything else we read about the Corinthian Church in this letter: that it was troubled and divided by matters of wealth, class and status and the sense of entitlement and superiority that some people seem to have brought into the church. That’s why this letter starts with that extended meditation on the cross of Jesus Christ, and how its casts a long dark shadow over all such divisions and distinctions of rank and worth among men and women; how on it rings the death knell for all systems of caste, status and human hierarchy.
But some members of the First Church of Corinth didn’t understand that, and were making themselves little Caesars over the flock of God. That we know from almost every other chapter of this letter. And one way to do that, to lift oneself up and put others down, was to pray, preach and prophesy with their heads covered, like the emperor and the priests of imperial religion. That to me is the most likely reason for which Paul actually starts out this passage by forbidding men to cover their heads. Its not only phony, its a grab for status that is oppressive and insulting to the poor, the slaves, the serfs, laborers and women among them.
If that minority report is correct, then Paul is effectively clipping the wings of men more than women, by telling them, “In your culture, head coverings are a sign of status for women. And here are some reasons why. Men, you already have status and worth, but in relation to Christ your source, and to your families, to the church, not to Caesar, the empire and the cult of emperor worship. Men, the creation story says that the first man was made directly from the clay at the hand of God, and that God breathed his Spirit into him. Isn’t that status? Men, you are called to be priests in service and support and responsibility to your wife, your family and your children, after the sacrificial servant manner of Jesus. Isn’t that dignity enough? Men, your wives, your children, your communities, your neighborhoods, your aging, elderly parents, your churches, need you to step up and lend a hand, take some responsibility, but as servants, with humility, not as tyrants and wannabe Caesars. Isn’t that honor and dignity enough? But don’t abuse nor abandon the home, the family or the community for the wild hair symbols of imperial domination, whether it be war, gangs or the drug trade.
That interpretation surprised me when I first encountered it. But to me it rings truest to the rest of the letter and to personal experience. Like the time Becky and I attended a seminary graduation, and one of the graduating students took off his cap and gown to reveal his military officer’s uniform underneath. It wasn’t at a Mennonite seminary, obviously. Now that an was in-your-face grab for status. He immediately got a standing ovation from most of the crowd there, which I can’t help thinking was precisely what he was angling for.
But as I look out at the men in this sanctuary this morning, I know I’m preaching to the choir. But its what I’ve always wanted to say to my own gender. Which ever of those three interpretations you take this morning, don’t forget that it was already quite revolutionary that women and men were worshiping, praying, preaching and prophesying together in the churches of Corinth, when such mingling and mixing would never have happened in a Jewish synagogue nor a Greek temple of the time.
While we’ve been wrestling over head coverings, or not, we’ve usually overlooked another point in this passage that lends even more dignity and honor to all who gather to worship, men and women alike. And it comes out of the difficult and mysterious words in verse 10: “Because of the angels,” Dress and worship in a way that is respectful of each other, in ways that are mutually submissive one to another, Paul says, because of the angels.
Angels? What have angels got to do with head coverings and worship? The best and simplest answer is: because angels are with you in worship. You know, the ones seated and singing next to you in the pews this morning and every time we worship. No kidding: I mean that. Although, its not so much that they join us in worship, but that we join them whenever we worship.
The Irish talk about “thin places,” that is, places and times in which the veil between heaven and earth, time and timelessness, the worldly and the sacred, seem thin and translucent and we can hear like a whisper sounds of joy from all the saints and angels around the Throne of the Lamb, or feel a brief caress of the fresh, cool breeze of love and mercy from the throne of grace. Sometimes it happens in prayer; sometimes music or a hymn lets in a flash of heavenly light. For me, sometimes the sacred music of Bach, or a turn of phrase in the Psalms, or a flash of light on rippling water, might make something rise in me and come out in the form of tears and a smile and a catch in the throat.
Thin places, like the birth of a child, or attending a dying loved one as he breathes his last and surrenders his spirit…..when you know that heaven and earth are but a heart beat apart. Worship is also a thin place. Not always the sermon, not always the song nor the way its played or sung, but the fact of worship and the faith and the love that bring us together, those make of this place, this moment, a thin place, whether we feel it or not. So even if there is only one worshiper here on a given Sunday morning, there is at least a trillion, counting the hosts of heaven who are worshiping all the time and who may just be saying this very moment: “Oh look, the mortals are joining us. How Lovely: like children trying on their parents’ clothing, they don’t know what all they’re in for, but they’re trying; they’ll grow into it. Let’s sing with them, shall we?”
So next time we pass the peace among each other, maybe we should turn to the empty spaces around us, or look into the air above us, reach out a hand and say, “Peace be with you too,” because, as long as we’re really, truly worshiping, or at least trying, no space around us is empty. Its only thin. I’m speaking figuratively, of course. Exaggerating the connection between us and heaven.
A little. Sort of.
All the more reason to dress and act humbly, modestly, respectfully and reverently toward each other, men and women. All the more reason then to be servants, equally submitted to each other’s well being, to each other’s honor and empowerment. That’s what I take home from this passage about men, women and head coverings. And secondly, treat each other thus because every time we gather for worship, we are not alone. We are in a thin place, on the threshold of heaven, in the presence of true royalty and high dignitaries: God, each other (women and men), and the angels.