1 Corinthians 11:5—Should women wear veils when they pray?
Problem: Paul insisted here that “every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head” (v. 5). Does this mean that women should wear veils in church today, or is this purely cultural? And if it is cultural, then how do we know what is cultural and what is not?
Solution: Several considerations will cast light on this difficult problem. First, a distinction should be made between the meaning of the text and its significance. The meaning is what it says to people in that culture, and the significance is how it applies to our cultural situation today. There is little doubt about its meaning. It means exactly what it says. When the women of Corinth threw back their veils and prayed in church, they dishonored their head (husband, 11:3, 7, 9, 11). In that day, the veil was a symbol of a woman’s respect for her husband. In such a cultural context, it was imperative that a woman wear a veil in church while praying or prophesying.
Second, there is a difference between command and culture. The commands of Scripture are absolute—culture is relative. For example, few believe that Jesus’ command to His disciples not to have an extra pair of sandals with them while on an evangelistic tour applies today. And most Christians do not literally “Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss” anymore (1 Thes. 5:26). Nor do they believe that “lifting up holy hands in prayer” is essential to public prayer (1 Tim. 2:8). There is a principle behind all these commands that is absolute, but the practice is not. What Christians must do is absolute, but how they do it is culturally relative. For example, Christians must greet one another (the what), but how they greet each other will be relative to their respective cultures. In some cultures, as in the NT, it will be with a kiss, in others with a hug, and in still others with a handshake. Many Bible scholars believe that this principle is also true of the practice of wearing a veil. That is, women in all cultures at all times must show respect for their husbands (the what), but how this respect is manifest may not always be with a veil. For example, it might be with a wedding ring or some other cultural symbol.
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.