Question 204:

It says in the New Testament that women must cover their heads in church. Why is this command not being obeyed?



Our answer will be given in two parts:

Are all biblical directions and rules governing ethical conduct valid for ever?

The generally absolute validity of ethical norms poses the question whether instructions from an earlier age, including those laid down in biblical texts, can still be of binding character for people today, and if their wording is still applicable to every situation without exception. Norms always require interpretation and appropriate application. This occasionally results in the discovery that individual regulations from former times (for example those which regulate the status of slaves), can no longer have any validity today.

It also happens that in changed circumstances, norms no longer protect the good they were originally meant to protect. In this case, the change in circumstances can also lead to a change or even a complete repealing of the previously valid norm. So, for example, usury could lead to abuse and blackmail in certain natural-economic systems, while it is entirely just in other economic systems, whenever the borrowed money bears fruit and generates interest.

The absolute claim of validity of norms does not exclude the possibility that goods which are to be protected by a norm end up in conflict with each other. During the process of ethical evaluation one has to consider carefully which good is to be prioritised in any given case.

The way of understanding people and human relationships can also change. There are, for example, many agreements in the understanding of human sexuality in the times of St Augustine (354-430) or Thomas of Aquinas (1224-1274) and the view of the Second Vatican Council, but there are also marked differences. The latter reflect the expansion of medical and anthropological knowledge, but also cultural experiences, which have greatly influenced the view of sexuality and marriage. The kind of humanising of sexuality and of marriage as displayed in the Second Vatican Council would not have been understood by Augustine, Aquinas or even the church law of 1917. This shows that the ethos takes different shapes in different stages, and that the tried and tested is retained while the new proves itself. […]

We are living in a time of big changes in feeling, thinking and values. In the pluralism of opinions, views and convictions it is not always easy to discern that which is moral and right before God. Here we, i.e. Catholic Christians, have to remember the origins of our faith and the moral convictions of the whole people of God. Where an expanded understanding and a deeper exegesis of previously valid norms becomes necessary, we always have to consider the value that is to be protected (cf. the encyclical “Veritatis splendor” by Pope John Paul II of 1993, no. 53). The Second Vatican Council gives an example regarding the question of freedom of religion and conscience. The previous understanding had not sufficiently taken those into account who subjectively err. In this instance, the new focus did not have the aim to soften moral principles, but rather to provide a new interpretation that shows more clearly the requirements of the gospels and that their binding character in norms concerning fundamental human rights. (Katholischer Erwachsenen-Katechismus, Vol. 2, 103f).

Under these aspects it becomes clear that many of the normative statements contained in the Biblical Scriptures, in particular those which are primarily of cultural origin, must repeatedly be reconsidered and interpreted. This is also true for the observations of the apostle Paul on the status of women within the family and the community.

What precisely does the biblical text say?

The text this question refers to is probably 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, where St Paul speaks of the veil of women. The renowned expert on exegesis of Paul’s epistles, Prof Dr Norbert Baumert, summarises his research into this text thus:

“How many battles have been fought with this text! Often women were being restricted because of it, or forced even to the extreme extent of having to place a piece of paper upon their heads when entering a church if they carried no piece of cloth […]

The background to the apostle’s exhortation is that occasionally, a women praying loudly or speaking prophetic words in a prayer meeting, would loosen her hair. This was distracting. Among the Greeks it was not unknown that male and female prophets occasionally loosened their hair and gesticulated wildly in order to stress the importance of their prophetic role, so that their hair flew around their face and necks in a more or less impressive manner. St Paul criticises this for men and women (!), but because at that time most men no longer wore their hair long, he worded it differently: Vanity and self importance in men can be expressed by his being occupied with his head. Women in those days always wore their hair long and, if they were married, this was tied back or pinned up. And so the woman usually covered her head with her hair (not her hair with a veil). This manner of speaking would not be appropriate for a man because he never wore his hair pinned up. At all times there were also men who no longer had hair that covered the head. Whether with long or short, much or little hair, a speaker can always pose or try to make a dramatic impression.

If gesticulating with the head during prayer and during prophecies is always inappropriate, then this also affects the social standing of women, even more so than of men, because the pinned up hair is also a sign that she is married. At the same time, the loosening of her hair represents to some extent a provocation to men, as can be deducted from the term shorn woman for adulteresses and prostitutes. Furthermore, the actual cause of the exhortation appears to have been the misconduct of women, because men are not being criticised here, although the same action would be a misconduct for men too.

What is interesting is the affective reaction of the apostle and how, in true rabbinic style, he gives biblical and theological reasons for a rebuke. Because the issue is the head of the woman, he seeks biblical and theological thoughts which include the word, and he then plays with the two meanings of the word, the physiological and organic meaning, and the interpersonal meaning of being head of something, being at the top of it, having priority. The Greek word for both is kephalè. The word does not have the interpersonal meaning of having priority, but it denotes an origin (thus the source is the head of the river). St Paul is thinking of the second creation narrative (Genesis 2: 21f). He also assumes that the reader will judge the questions of conduct in a similar manner to himself and that he will therefore understand and accept his argument. He himself has been brought up in a Greek environment and knows what is generally considered to be acceptable and unacceptable in this cultural setting. Furthermore, the issue were not all women, but individual ones, who he believed had a lacking sense of tact.

The text ( 1 Cor 11: 3-16): (3) It is very important to me that you are aware that every mans head is Christ, but that the head of a woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. (4) As every man who dishonours his head (i.e. Christ) when he plays with his head during prayer or prophetic speaking, (5) so every woman who during (loud) prayer or prophetic speaking in a meeting loosens her hair dishonours her head (i.e. her husband); because it is just as if she was being shorn. (6) Because if a woman does not veil her head (with her hair), she should also have her hair cut off. But if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shorn, then she should veil her head (with her hair). (7) As you know, a man is not obliged to veil his head , because he is the image and the emanation (manifestation, visible glory) of God; but woman is the emanation (glory and splendour) of man. (8) Man is (exists) not owing to woman, but woman owing to man; (9) nor was man created owing to woman, but woman owing to man.(10) Therefore, it is a woman’s duty to keep her head chaste owing to (the absence) of the angels. (11) After all: Neither woman without man nor man without woman are in the Lord; (12) because as the woman (Eve) from the man (Adam), so also the man (Christ) through the woman – but the whole from God. (13) Judge for yourselves! Is it right that a women with loosened hair should pray (in public) to God? (14) Neither does nature teach you that it is a shame for a man if he tries to impress with his hair, (15) but on the other hand an honour for a woman if she tries to impress with her hair; because hair is (!) given as cover (for protection). (16) But if anyone wants to quarrel: We do not have such custom, nor do the communities of God.

Thus we see that the section is complete in itself and has a clear thread. (Norbert Baumert, „Frau und Mann bei Paulus. Überwindung eines Missverständnisses“. Würzburg: Echter, 1992. p. 166-168.).

In a letter to C.W. Troll of 14.10.2009 N. Baumert, cited above, adds the following:

A further example can be found in 1 Cor 14:33-36, where we usually read: “Women should remain silent in the church”. But in 1 Cor 11.5 St Paul assumes that they pray loudly and speak prophetic words in church. However, 14:33 does not refer to a prayer meeting or church, but the word gathering is used here in its original meaning: ekklèsía = decision-making gathering. This is the word for the official gathering of citizens of a town; in this case now in a house church. And there, not women were allowed to be present. Furthermore: Paul does not request them to remain silent, he merely states what is generally applicable: The municipal code does not permit women to speak. And the reason is: Not because it is Gods unchangeable order, but because neither in Jewish nor in Hellenistic tradition it is usual for women to be present at such gatherings, never mind speak. The principle behind it is: Do that which is appropriate and fitting according to your circumstances. Because the circumstances have changed, Paul would apply the same principles today and say that women should speak in a decision making gathering!

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J. Prof. Dr. T. Specker,
Prof. Dr. Christian W. Troll,

Kolleg Sankt Georgen
Offenbacher Landstr. 224
D-60599 Frankfurt
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