I have recently been troubled by a theological dilemma regarding 1 Corinthians 11 and veiling. Actually, I should say I’ve been wrestling with it for years and the conflict comes and goes.   How can we as disciples of Jesus KNOW that Paul is speaking culturally? I know that David Bercot is popular throughout churches and he has written that he came to the conclusion that it is mandatory, particularly in his book, “Common Sense”. His argument basically is that since the early Christians and Christians throughout history took it literally we should today. I’ve been reading others who have also made this argument. While very persuasive, I find that argument problematic since:

1.) If it was so essential as a symbol of submission from the beginning of time, then why was no mention of it made in Genesis or the OT as mandatory?

2.) I find it difficult to believe that the “freedom in Christ” that Paul argues throughout Romans now seemingly binds sisters with a rule about an article of clothing for all time.

At the same time, the arguments that somehow such issues were related to temple prostitutes seems to fall flat or are just mere speculation. I guess my question is how you came to the conclusion that such issues are not essential, but peripheral? If they are essential then don’t Christians risk who do not follow this risk losing salvation by not following God’s commands on this matter?


I am well aware of David Bercot’s writings. He takes the view that anything done in the early church, even if it is not specifically mentioned in the New Testament, is binding on us as Christians today. There are a couple of things wrong with this. First of all, the logic is bad. The fact that the early church did something does not prove that we should do this today. If they rode horses to church, does this mean that we need to ride horses to church? Here is a simple rule I think we can go by. If the New Testament does not command a particular practice or if it does not forbid a certain practice, then that practice (or not doing that practice) is not bound on the church today. Let me give you an example. Bercot claims, correctly, that the common practice of the early church was to meet in house churches. Then he declares that the true New Testament church will meet in house churches. Where is this command in the Bible? Of course it is not there. Did the apostles tell them to meet in house churches? Probably. But perhaps this was an expedient because of the intense persecution the church was subject to. Another example. Bercot notes that the early church leaders taught that Christians should not be in the army for any reason, unless they were already in the army when they were baptized. Bercot concludes that it is sinful for a Christian to join the army today for any reason. Personally, I tend strongly toward pacifism and agree with Bercot that it is problematic for a Christian to voluntarily choose the be in a job which might call them to kill. However, we need some context. To be in the Roman army required participation on idol worship. This is different from a Christian doing required military service, for example, in Singapore.

Bottom line, Bercot’s approach tends strongly toward legalism and works salvation. I agree with many or his suggestions for the church but few of the legalistic requirements he would bind on the church. I suggest we read Bercot for encouragement, but be extremely hesitant to adopt his prescriptions and the things he would bind on the church.

About the issue you bring up, surely it is not a theological one!!! This is not a question about who God is and about the very basic nature of Christianity. This may be a doctrinal issue, but it certainly is not a theological one.

So, what about the issue? Apparently you read somewhere a claim by myself that the suggestion that a woman wear a head covering while praying in 1 Cor should be interpreted in a cultural context. For what it is worth, I still feel this way. You ask how we can be absolutely sure that this is a cultural think and that the actual wearing of a head covering while praying is not bound on Christians. My answer is that I suppose we cannot be absolutely sure of this. I suppose that this will remain a debatable issue, although I am fairly confident I am right. What I can say is that if this was SO important, then God would have made it more clear. I think that perhaps you should try to relax on this one. The idea that anyone’s salvation is at stake on this is really over the top. The very idea that someone would suggest that our salvation could rest on what we wear while we pray tells me that this person ought to reevaluate their theology.

What is Bercot’s evidence that the early church took this command literally to be a requirement for salvation? I believe that such evidence is lacking. I have read the early church fathers extensively, and I have never seen a single early church writer who ever mentioned the use of head coverings as a doctrinal issue. This may have been done, but there are very few examples of this being taught as required for Christian membership. A possible exception is Tertullian, but he was a fairly radical legalist in general. Others, such as Clement of Rome mention the practice, connecting it with modesty, but not as a doctrinal requirement. Even Tertullian suggests it as a practice, and not a doctrine of the church. The practice may be mentioned, and we know from Christian art that this was a common practice, but there is no suggestion that this was a Christian doctrine. Bercot’s argument is this. There is some evidence that they did this in the first century, therefore, it is required today. This is rather poor logic and rather poor Bible interpretation. I think you can safely discard Bercot’s arguments.

Still, putting Bercot aside, it is still possible that 1 Corinthians 11 might be a commandment for Christian women today that they must wear a head covering when they pray. The subject of 1 Cor 11:3-16 is submission. Paul says that the head of Christ is God. that the head of the husband is Christ and that the head of woman is man. His point is that when married women pray, they should, in essence, recognize their submission to their husbands. I have read a number of commentaries on this topic and, other than those who tend remarkably toward legalism, nearly all agree that there is a strong indication that Paul is using examples of a very specific cultural significance–things which would have made perfect sense to the Corinthians but which lose their meaning in other cultures where a veil or the length of hair had nothing to do with authority (such as our society). Imagine commanding women in New Guinea or Inuit women to wear a veil!

Anyway, you may disagree with this and may choose to wear some sort of head covering when you pray. I get the sense that you are not going in that direction. Even if you do, you should remember that this is a debatable thing and the very suggestion that this might be an issue of salvation is an obvious error.

About your arguments: I agree that your arguments are good ones as well which could be added to the ones I already used. God has always taught that in marriage, the woman should be in submission to man, yet he did not command Jewish women to wear a sign of submission when praying. This does not PROVE that he would not require this of Christian women, but, given that the Old Covenant had many more “rules” than the New, it would be really surprising to find such a physical requirement for salvation in the New Covenant. I agree that this is a good argument. I also agree that, given the freedom we have in Christ and given the lack or rules-orientation in Christianity in general, it would seem quite a surprising to have such a restriction on prayer for all women in all cultures on prayer. Again, this does not prove the point, but I think it is a good argument.

I do not agree that the argument that this was given by Paul, in part, as because of association with temple prostitution practices is completely speculative. It may not be a completely convincing argument, but it is not speculation. It is quite logical. Again, I do not think it amounts to proof that this was a cultural-based commandment only, but I believe it is good reasoning.

In summary, let us take the binding command approach of David Bercot with a really big grain of salt. Even if he is right in this case, that Paul literally intended this to apply to all Christian women at all times (as doubtful as I believe this to be) let us please not try to make this a salvation issue or a reason to divide the Church of Jesus Christ. Can I humbly suggest that you stop “struggling” with this issue because it surely is not an essential issue to Christianity. Satan wants you to major in the minors. Do not allow yourself to get side-tracked on this minor issue.

I hope this helps.

John Oakes

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