A Response to “Of Hats and Head Coverings” by Rob Slane (as posted on American Vision)
An article was recently published on the American Vision website putting forth a new interpretation of head covering (1 Cor 11). The article was written by Rob Slane and it shares many things in common with the position we advocate (head covering as a timeless symbol). Rob shares that he’s familiar with the debate but doesn’t find any of the three major positions on head covering persuasive (long hair, cultural or it being a timeless symbol). He then shares his understanding of 1 Corinthians 11 “to try and generate some comment”. He calls his position a “minority view” and said he doesn’t expect “anyone to agree with it”. However, he raises many good points that are worthy of contemplation and discussion. I’d like to first articulate back my understanding of Rob’s position and then respond to many of the points he raises.
Though Rob did not provide a line-by-line exegesis, if he did I believe it would look very similar to how we would see it. He sees an artifical covering in view and doesn’t believe it can be dismissed by an appeal to culture. We fully agree. In application though, Rob does not believe that women must cover their heads when praying or prophesying today. How does he arrive at that conclusion? He sees both the prayer and prophecy mentioned in 1 Cor 11 as sign gifts which ceased around the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. Paul said women must cover only when exercising these two “gifts” and since they are no longer given by the Spirit, there is no need for women to cover any longer.
We’d like to now respond to the main points that Rob raises to make his case.
1. Prophecy was only active for about 40 years
Rob starts off his case by appealing to the Prophet Joel. Joel says “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…”. Daughters prophesying is relevant as Paul says women must cover when they prophesy. Rob then turns to Acts 2 where the Apostle Peter says that what Joel said was being fulfilled in their midst (at Pentecost). No disagreement. He then turns his attention to the rest of the passage in Joel to make a case for a Preterist interpretation (70AD fulfillment) of the end times. By seeing Joel 2:28-32 as starting at Pentecost (Acts 2) and finding fulfillment at the “great and awesome day of the LORD” (Joel 2:31) in 70AD, a 40 year window for prophecy is created. Rob then summarizes that “both Joel and Peter are saying that the prophesy would start and end within a relatively short period of time.” Our problem with this understanding is no where in Joel 2 or Acts 2 does it say that it will end. I’m not trying to say it can’t end, but rather, it’s not taught in these passages. A better way to understand this section of Scripture is to see it as the start of something new (without mentioning an end). Joel says not only that prophecy, dreams and visions will “come to pass” but also that “it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved” (Joel 2:32 ESV). Paul quoted this exact verse in Romans 10:13 in reference to justification. Therefore, if Joel 2 teaches a 40 year window then not only have the gifts passed away, but salvation as well.
2. Covering is for prayer and prophecy, not “being in a worship service”.
Rob makes the point that Paul says a woman must be covered when praying and prophesying, not merely attending church. This is his strongest point and the most difficult to respond to as he’s technically correct. Paul does reference “when you are assembled” (1 Cor 5:4) so he could have said that women must be covered “when assembled” instead of “when praying or prophesying”. Since Paul didn’t say that, Rob rightly suggests it “should at least give us cause to wonder why he did this.” I believe Paul mentions “prayer and prophesy” to emphasize the specific time when we’re participating corporately in worship. During Paul’s time there were no church buildings and if you’ve ever worshipped in a house before, you’ve likely seen there was a time of worship but also a time when the body is still gathered together, but not worshipping. That’s not a hypothetical suggestion but rather something I’ve observed first-hand. The head covering is then not required for any time the church assembles, but only when we’ve begun participating in corporate worship. I also see “prayer and prophecy” as a summary of the things we do in worship (vertical/horizontal), rather than an exhaustive list. Because of that I see the need to be covered more often than in just those two acts. I do realize that’s an assumption I can’t prove, so take it for what it’s worth. There are two other reasons why I believe it’s best to cover during church rather than just when “praying and prophesying”: 1) to avoid distracting others by consistently putting on then removing your covering (off-on-off-on-off-on) and 2) to be prepared to be called upon to pray or speak. Milton Vincent provides an excellent example of this in his sermon series on 1 Corinthians 11:
Imagine in a spontaneous type of a setting where you come to church and you’re a lady for example and you’re not wearing a head covering because you’re not planning on being up front or ministering publicly and maybe you come to church that night and the pastor says, “you know what, let’s open up the floor for prayer and for testimonies”. You, because you don’t have a head covering have removed yourself from the opportunity to be able to minister publicly. And so by wearing a head covering you are readying yourself for whatever may present itself to minister in any kind of spontaneous way that the Lord may end up opening to you. 1) Sermon #2 – http://www.headcoveringmovement.com/christian-covering-media/milton-vincent-on-1-corinthians-112-16-sermon-series
3. Prayer in this context is a sign gift. Prayer/Prophecy is a package deal.
Rob’s view of the spiritual gifts is that those that function as a “sign” have ceased. Not only does he view prophecy as a sign gift, but also prayer. Hence the reason why there is no need for head covering today in his view. To clarify, he’s not saying believers shouldn’t pray privately or corporately today. Rather he sees the prayer mentioned in 1 Cor 11:4-5 as a specific kind of prayer, that functioned as a gift.
He begins by making the claim that “in all other instances where Paul talks about praying in this letter to the Corinthians, it is always tied to the “sign gifts”. This claim isn’t true. 1 Cor 7:5 is a reference to private prayer and the only other reference is in 1 Cor 14:13-15 which is prefaced (“praying in a tongue”) to let us know it’s not regular prayer. Since prayer in 1 Cor 11 isn’t prefaced as a specific kind, it’s best to understand it as all prayer.
The second reason Rob brings up is “’praying and prophesying’ seem very much to be connected and therefore part of the same package”. There is a common factor since they’re mentioned together but I believe it’s better to understand the connection as “things believers do when assembled for worship” rather than them both being “sign gifts”. I don’t believe there’s warrant to yoke the two terms together as later on in this same passage Paul deals with prayer apart from prophecy when he says, “is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?” (1 Cor 11:13) Furthermore, no where in Scripture is prayer ever called a spiritual gift. “Praying in a tongue” is called a spiritual gift, but when the spiritual gifts are listed Paul calls that “Tongues”, not prayer. If tongues is what Paul meant in 1 Cor 11 then like Rob said “why wouldn’t he have just said so?”
The third argument that Rob makes is “there is nothing whatsoever in the Old Testament that required a woman to wear a head covering when praying silently in the congregation.” His point in bringing this up is to show that Paul doesn’t have “agreeing in prayer” in mind, but something different. It’s true that the OT doesn’t require women to wear a head covering for silent prayer, but then again, it doesn’t require women to wear a head covering for anything. Rob finds difficulty with Paul’s “heavy charge” of being compared to an immoral women (which I assume he means the shaved head in verse 6) without an OT reference. I believe the heavy charge is reasonable once we define what a head covering is. In verse 10 Paul says it’s a symbol that you’re under authority and more specifically, male authority (1 Cor 11:3). Since that’s the case, wearing a covering during corporate worship is a symbol of biblical womanhood. That’s why if a man wore one or a woman refused, it would be dishonorable (1 Cor 11:4-6). That’s also why Paul could rhetorically ask the Corinthians to “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?” (1 Cor 11:3). If that’s the meaning of this Christian symbol, then the heavy charge is reasonable since nature itself teaches us there’s differences between men and women and if we cross those distinctions it’s dishonorable (he gives hair lengths in verses 14-15 as the example).
Fourthly, by contrasting two different chapters Rob believes Paul is speaking to all women in 1 Cor 14 but only some women in 1 Cor 11 (those who possessed gifts of prayer/prophecy). Rob’s evidence is that in 1 Cor 11 “woman” is singular but in 1 Cor 14 “women” is plural. The problem with that is he’s not talking to “woman” or “some women” but “every woman” (1 Cor 11:5). The “every” (Greek: pas) before “woman” (Greek: gune) pluralizes the sentence and thus nullifies his point. 2) Even in Rob’s own example of 1 Cor 14 Paul says in the same context just a verse later ‘for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.’ Woman is singular there as well but that doesn’t mean he has only some women in view. No, the singular woman in verse 1 Cor 14:35, is the same plural women who ‘are to keep silent in the churches’ (1 Cor 14:36). So 1 Cor 11 is written to “every woman” in the church and 1 Cor 14 is speaking about all “women…in the churches” as well.
Finally, after giving a story about “Mrs. Crispus” he argues that prayer cannot mean silent prayer because “if she merely sits and prays silently, she is not doing anything that might lead someone to believe that she is usurping his authority, and therefore she does not require the head covering”. I’d argue that there doesn’t have to be tension for the symbol to take on meaning. We take the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of Christ, even when we haven’t forgotten him. Likewise we can symbolize our roles from our seats even when it doesn’t look like we’re usurping them. Symbols don’t require a defensive posture; we can practice them because they picture something positive. In this case we’re showing men and angels God’s created order, not merely assuring them that we’re not breaking it.
Christians who believe in the continuation of the spiritual gifts will not find much in Rob’s article compelling. However, those who believe they have ceased and those who hold to a preterist interpretation of the end times, will likely see many strengths in his argumentation. It should be noted though that being a cessationist and a preterist does not necessitate adopting his conclusions. R.C. Sproul for example has defended preterism and cessationism, but still believes in the timelessness of head covering for women during church. Likewise virtually everyone in church history prior to the 20th century was a cessationist, yet head covering was the majority position during that time as well. Rob’s suggestion that prayer in 1 Cor 11 should be understood as a sign gift is utterly foreign throughout church history. I’ve read extensively on this topic and have never heard it suggested before. Also, seeing “prayer and prophecy” as taking the lead only, is debatable. John Gill (1697-1771) for example argued that it’s “not to be restrained to the person that is the mouth of the congregation to God in prayer, or who preaches to the people in the name of God; but to be applied to every individual person that attends public worship, that joins in prayer with the minister, and hears the word preached by him…” 3) John Gill – Commentary on 1 Cor 11:4. I’ve quoted John because he agrees with this specific point rather my conclusion that head covering is timeless. By turning prayer into a spiritual gift, the troubling conclusion is that for 2000 years the church has completely misunderstood Paul. While not being authoritative, it should make believers cautious when new interpretations are proposed that have never been heard before. Paul’s instructions for head covering came with apostolic authority (1 Cor 11:2) and was the unanimous position of every church (1 Cor 11:16). After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, the churches did not think to stop with head covering. In fact, the same Corinthian church that Paul wrote to was still practicing head covering in the 3rd century. As Tertullian (160-220AD) wrote, “So, too, did the Corinthians themselves understand him. In fact, at this day the Corinthians do veil their virgins. What the apostles taught, their disciples approve.” 4) Tertullian – On The Veiling Of Virgins – Chapter VIII. We’d do well to follow in their footsteps.