Is Head Covering “Majoring in the Minors”? Is it a Distraction?
The head covering passage (1 Cor 11:2-16) is often classified under the “obscure” category in Scripture. One theologian said, “head covering here and the man of sin in II Thessalonians are two of the three most obscure passages in the New Testament“. But is that so? This section of Scripture is debatable and there are good objections to the practice that require much thought and study. But obscure? A truly obscure verse is not expanded upon, explained or defended. The meaning cannot be easily discerned because of its vagueness. Good examples of obscure verses are 1 Cor 15:29 (baptism for the dead), 1 Tim 2:15 (women saved through childbearing) and 1 Cor 11:10 (covering “because of the angels”). Now even though there’s an obscure verse in the head covering passage (1 Cor 11:10b), the section as a whole is not.
- An obscure passage would likely occupy a verse or two. Head covering is taught in 15 consecutive verses.
- An obscure passage would be mentioned, but not explained. With head covering Paul says “I want you to understand…” (1 Cor 11:3) and then unpacks the meaning behind the symbol.
- An obscure passage would be commanded but with no reason as to why. With head covering Paul gives reasons for why we’re to practice it including the creation order (v. 3, 7-10a), nature’s witness (v.14-15) and angels (v.10). He tells us that head covering is a part of official apostolic teaching (v.2) and is the practice of all churches, everywhere (v.16).
Rather than being obscure, head covering is the most defended symbol in the New Testament.
Only Mentioned Once
A similar objection is that head covering is only mentioned once in the Bible. This is true. But how many times does something need to be mentioned in Scripture before we take it seriously? The answer has to be just once, because of who the Author is.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)
All Scripture is profitable. Not some and not just things that are mentioned many times, but ALL. Not only that, but all Scripture is “profitable for teaching”. This means discussion and teaching on head covering is not a distraction but a proper response to belief in the inspiration of Scripture.
It’s also worth noting that the Apostle Paul devoted essentially the same amount of time to head covering (1 Cor 11:2-16) as he did to the Lord’s supper (1 Cor 11:17-34). On both topics he only felt the need to address them once. If repetition were to determine importance then the Apostle Paul saw head covering and the Lord’s supper as equally important. He would also see greeting one another with a holy kiss (which he mentioned four times) as more important than if women are able to be pastors (which he only mentioned once). Clearly that is not the case.
Some think that prolonged discussion about this topic (and surely a movement dedicated to it) is distracting us from the more important commands like feeding the poor and sharing the gospel. First, are those commands more important than head covering? Well, yes. Yes they are. I hope that doesn’t surprise you. Head covering is far from the most important command. But once again we believe that God is the author of “all Scripture” and so all Scripture deserves to be taken seriously.
Let’s take a look at how Jesus handled “lesser commands”.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matthew 23:23 ESV)
Jesus tells the Pharisees that tithing is not as important as justice, mercy and faithfulness. The Pharisees got the small stuff right, but they neglected the more important commands. How did Jesus respond? He sharply rebukes them and tells them to start doing the “weightier mattes of the law”. However, he doesn’t tell them to stop doing the less important commands, he wants them to do both. He tells them, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
In another instance when speaking about Old Testament laws, Jesus says:
Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19 ESV)
As we can see, Jesus didn’t view lesser commands as optional. The least are to be observed along with the greatest. They need to be distinguished and kept in their proper places, but both are to be observed.
The teaching of head covering is not wrapped up in obscurity. It’s a lengthy explanation with many reasons for why we’re to practice it. Since this is so, it’s unfair to compare this to those who build a doctrine from a verse out of context or a passing vague statement in the Bible. While it is only mentioned once, once is enough because God is the author. Futhermore, one can hold to head covering without assigning an importance level to it that the Bible does not give. To set different biblical commands against each other is a false dichotomy. It’s not head covering OR feeding the poor, it’s head covering AND feeding the poor. One does not have to stop serving to study and practice this biblical teaching.