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  • Writer's pictureMichael Burgos

1 Corinthians 11 & Head Coverings: A Response to Dr. Barry York

by Michael R. Burgos

Since my recent sermon on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 several people have registered careful feedback as they wrestle with this passage and its implications. One member sent me an article written by Dr. Barry York that issues eight thoughtful objections to head coverings. Dr. York is a former Presbyterian pastor who serves as president of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh. Indeed, we share much in common with Dr. York and his theological outlook, including his commitment to Reformed theology. Because his article on head coverings provides some of the more common objections, I have decided to provide a response. When his objections required summarization, I have attempted to articulate them accurately, and I encourage you to examine his article to ensure the accuracy of my summary of his objections.

Objection I: “I Corinthians 11 is the only passage in Scripture dealing with this subject.”

This objection is undoubtedly true. However, we ought not to question or ignore the teaching of a passage merely because the text of Scripture addresses something a single time. Rather, there are multitudinous biblical truths mentioned a single time that no one contests. For example, there is only one passage of Scripture that claims that the Holy Spirit intercedes for God’s elect when we do not know what to pray (Rom. 8:26-27). Yet, this text is both clear, important, and uncontested. Only a single verse of Scripture teaches that Christians who are deserted by their spouse may divorce (1 Cor. 7:15). Even so, no tradition in the whole of the Christian faith questions the validity of divorce due to abandonment.

1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is not an obscure passage—it is comprised of fifteen verses that feature four distinct arguments for why men should not cover their heads and why women should cover their heads in corporate worship. Had Paul couched his teaching on head coverings in a single verse with no context and a vague rationale, Dr. York may have had a valid point. However, that is certainly not what we have in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

Objection II: The topic of Paul’s concern was “Should women wear head coverings when they are praying or prophesying?” and, therefore, Paul is addressing women who possess the gift of prophecy and not all women in the church.

The verb “prophesy” (i.e., prophētuō) in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 has a primary definition of proclaiming inspired revelation.[1] That is, whenever one brings to bear the inspired Word of God in corporate worship, he is engaging in prophetic ministry. John Frame observed, “Spirit-filled preaching has often been called prophesying in the Reformed tradition.”[2] This practice has a powerful rationale: the exposition of Scripture is nothing less than the proclamation of God’s inspired Word. The term may also refer to a specific gift given by the Holy Spirit, which results in the “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” of God’s people (1 Cor. 14:3).

Dr. York has made two assumptions without the ballast of evidence. First, it is arguable whether Paul has the gift of prophecy in view in vv. 4-5 instead of the broader practice of applying the Scriptures within corporate worship. That Paul includes prayer in his command implies that the broader sense of prophecy is intended. Second, Dr. York has assumed the position known as cessationism which claims that the gift of prophecy is no longer functioning in the church today and, thus, head coverings became obsolete along with the gift. This view is incorrect since Paul claimed that prophecy would cease when Christ returns (1 Cor. 13:8-12). Further, even if one were to grant both that the gift is in view and that cessationism is the biblical position, Dr. York’s objection is impossible because Paul included prayer in his command. Paul’s inclusion of the disjunctive conjunction “or” in the phrase “prays or prophesies” requires that men refrain from covering their heads and women cover their heads whenever they pray or prophesy. Prayer is not a contestable gift that ceased when the Bible was written. Instead, prayer is essential to our worship on each Lord’s Day.

Objection III: Paul’s reference to “angels” in v. 10 implies that the head covering command only pertains to women who have the gift of prophecy. “Angels are often seen in the Scriptures as those who transmit the word of God to His people… hen angels were carrying out ‘ordinary’ assignments for God on earth, they did not cover themselves in this fashion. In the same way, as the women stood in the presence of God before the congregation beside the men revealing God’s word to the church, they were to show this same kind of reverence by covering their heads.

This objection rests on Dr. York’s earlier assumptions that the gift of prophecy is in view in vv. 4-5 and that this gift has ceased functioning in the church. The difficulty with his explanation of the reference to angels is Paul’s inclusion of prayer within his command. As noted above, because Paul’s commands involve prayer or prophecy, Dr. York’s appeal to the gift of prophecy does not account for the text. Moreover, the function of angels within the NT is diverse. While angels do engage in the delivery of divine messages, Paul mentioned earlier in his letter that angels spectate on the experiences of the apostles (1 Cor. 4:9; cf. 1 Pet. 1:12). That is, Paul’s statement in v. 10 implies that angels are aware of and participate in corporate worship (cf. Luke 15:10; Heb. 1:6; Rev. 8:3).

Objection IV: “This passage then should be treated as a situational case study and not as a law section of the Bible.”

That Paul appealed to the creation and created order (vv. 7-9), angels (v. 10), nature (v. 14-15), and the standardized practice of “the churches of God” (v. 16) are good indications that Paul’s commands are not based in a unique situation in Corinth. Paul’s use of the plural “churches” requires that head coverings were the established practice not merely of the women of Corinth but of all churches.[3]

Objection V: “Those using this passage to support the practice of head coverings open up a Pandora’s Box of other interpretive difficulties. If women must wear head coverings, then should they not also be prophesying? And if prophesying, should they not also be exercising the other gifts mentioned in I Corinthians, such as speaking in tongues? Words of knowledge? Healing?”

Whether or not Dr. York believes that the application of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 causes “interpretive difficulties” is immaterial as to whether Paul commanded the use of head coverings. We do not temper the Bible’s teaching because of perceived “interpretive difficulties.” Further, Dr. York’s objection implies that we ought not to desire the spiritual gifts described in the NT. That is, his “interpretive difficulties” consist of the spiritual gifts. By contrast, Paul taught that believers are to “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:1). While these gifts may not be normally expressed on a given Sunday, the inclusion of prayer in Paul’s commands in vv. 4-5 demonstrates the need for consistent application. Unless we intend to cease praying during corporate worship, Paul’s command is relevant and timely.

Objection VI: “This practice can lead to division in the body.”

We have all heard the canard about church members fighting over the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. We rightly recognize that arguing about insignificant issues is foolish and that the Scriptures place great emphasis on church unity. However, we ought not to fear that simple obedience to the commands of Scripture will cause division. While any biblical teaching may potentially lead to division in the body, our responsibility is to honor God with our obedient faith.

Objection VII: “Wearing head coverings can lead, though not necessarily, to a focus on the external.”

Any biblical command may be applied in an unbiblical way. Some misuse Christian baptism (1 Cor. 1:13-15). Others abuse the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-22). The potential for abuse is not justification for disregarding a clear command of Scripture. Further, Paul evidently did not share Dr. York’s reservation that head coverings may lead to inappropriate emphases on external things since he commanded their use.

Objection VIII: “Head coverings can lead, though not necessarily, to an over stress on male headship.”

Paul did not share Dr. York’s fear that head coverings may lead to an imbalanced view of male leadership. Rather, Paul emphasized that male headship is a key reason for why head coverings are necessary. He wrote, “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head” (vv. 8-10a). The phrase “That is why…” in v. 10 includes the Greek causal preposition dia, which when used in this grammatical construction gives the effect of “Because of this…”[4] Therefore, Paul’s explicit basis for female head coverings is the order of creation and the headship of men.

[1] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 890. [2] John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 627. [3] There is remarkable unanimity among the early church regarding the importance of head coverings. E.g., Clement of Alexandria, Paed. 11 (ANF 2:290); Tertullian, Or. 22 (ANF 3:688); Augustine Eps. 245:1 (NPNF1 1:588). [4] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 369.

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