Let’s get traditional, traditional,
I wanna get traditional,
Let’s get traditional,
Let me hear your symbols talk, your symbols talk,
Let me hear your symbols talk.
Olivia Newton-John, Let’s Get Physical, (Lyrics approximate only).
When you read 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 you immediately see that Paul considers head covering to be part of a tradition.
It’s very clear.
But to some people it’s not, so let me quickly run through the reasons we can know that Paul is talking about a tradition here.
A tradition among traditions…
1 Corinthians 11 is talking about two traditions: head covering and the Lord’s Supper. At the beginning of the chapter, Paul starts on this new area of teaching in verse 2:
2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you.
And this is how the chapter unfolds:
vv3-16 Tradition 1: Head Covering.
v17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.
vv18-34a Tradition 2: The Lord’s Supper.
v34b And when I come I will give further directions.
It’s certain that in verse 2 Paul was including other traditions besides head covering and the Lord’s Supper, because he praises the Corinthians for carrying out traditions correctly. The Lord’s Supper doesn’t seem to fit that bill in verse 17, and even head coverings require further understanding in verse 3. But both these practices are considered traditions also, which in this context means a practice that is part of God’s instructions to his people. And that means they apply to us today.
But while almost everyone agrees that the Lord’s Supper is a tradition in that sense, there are some who deny that head covering is a tradition. They tell us head covering is a cultural practice at the time of writing, and so has no binding force on those who live in a different culture.
That is not what this passage tells us.
Reasons why head covering is a tradition.
We can tell Paul includes head covering under the heading of “traditions” because:
1. He immediately talks about head covering after praising the Corinthians for maintaining traditions. Yes, Paul does want the Corinthians to understand it better, and speak against people abandoning the practice, but this is done by addressing it as a tradition.
2. In verse 17, straight after head covering, Paul contrasts his praise in v2 with a stern rebuke – “In the following directives I have no praise for you“. This provides continuity with verse 2. Paul has already been talking about a tradition when discussing head coverings and is now continuing on with the topic of traditions by talking about the Lord’s Supper, but this time without praise.
3. “I passed on to you” in verse 23 also shows that Paul is thinking about the same type of directives he was talking about in verse 2.
I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. (verse 2)
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you”. (verse 23)
It would be crazy to say, as some people do, that Paul begins talking about traditions in verse 2, immediately talks about a cultural practice and then returns to a tradition when talking about the Lord’s Supper. The most natural way to read the whole chapter is to understand both head covering and the Lord’s Supper as traditions.
The same sort of tradition?
But there are people who remain unconvinced, so let’s try another tack. Does head covering have all the markings of continuing Church traditions that Paul talks about in verse 2?
There are three main points about those traditions we can see in that one short phrase we’ve already highlighted: “I passed them on to you”, namely:
(1) they were new to the Corinthians
(2) they came through Paul
(3) they were specifically Christian traditions.
First, the traditions Paul was talking about were new traditions.
These traditions, including head covering, were new to the Corinthians because they came with Paul. This isn’t to say that the Corinthians had never seen or done the things they were taught to do in a particular tradition. These traditions included familiar practices or objects that were given specifically Christian meanings. This was certainly the case with the Lord’s Supper (see the eating of meat in the temple in 1 Corinthians 8-10) and baptism (washings were part of other religions). The same was also true of head coverings which were everyday wear for some and religiously significant in different cultures.
We can see that the head covering is part of these new traditions by the fact that Paul tells the Corinthians that he wants them to “realise” or understand things about head covering in verse 3. If this were not a relatively new tradition for them, then Paul would be appealing to what they should already have known a long time ago.
Second, the traditions were received traditions.
The fact that Paul passed these traditions on suggests they did not come from him; they came through him. Paul confirms this when talking about the Lord’s Supper in verse 23:
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you”.
It’s also how Paul talks about how he learned about the whole gospel in the book of Galatians chapter 1 verses 11-12:
11 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 For I did not receive it or learn it from any human source; instead I received it by a revelation of Jesus Christ.
He goes on to say when he finally sat down with the other apostles and leaders of the church in Jerusalem, he did it in secret in case he had got it all wrong. He had not. In Galatians 2 Paul says:
6 But from those who were influential (whatever they were makes no difference to me; God shows no favoritism between people) – those influential leaders added nothing to my message…
Everything Paul had been doing in setting up the gospel and establishing churches was directly from the Lord, but he was not the only one to be given that job. He knew that if he were hearing from the Lord, the traditions he had established would be universal within the Church. And they were.
We can see head covering is a tradition that came through Paul because Paul tells us that head covering did not originate from him, in verse 16:
If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
Third, these traditions were Christian traditions.
These traditions were Christian precisely because they were new to the Corinthians and came from Jesus through Paul. How could Paul be bringing something new if he was actually telling the Corinthians to go along to get along with the culture? Why would he be introducing traditions that were not specifically Christian if his whole purpose was to establish a Christian church? It would make no sense to suggest that traditions that Paul “passed on” to the Corinthians were not rooted in the gospel and Christian teaching.
We’d also have to wonder why Paul is using biblical story and Christian theology to back up the traditions he is teaching about. He does this when talking about the Lord’s Supper.
We can also see head covering is a Christian tradition because of what we find in the section on head covering:
- Christ is the head of man (verses 3-4).
- The account of creation in the Bible (verses 8-9, 12).
- A reference to the angels (verse 10).
- The use of a set of teaching on gender seen elsewhere in the New Testament (verses 8, 12, 1 Timothy 2:13-15).
- Speaking of being “in the Lord” (verse 11).
- Applying the practice to prayer and prophecy (verses 4-5, 13).
- Appealing to “the churches of God” (verse 16).
Could Paul have been writing all this so that Christians would avoid causing offense to the culture of the day, as most people suggest? Not at all! By giving such an extended, theological reason for this particular practice, Paul sets this tradition up as a specifically Christian tradition.
No, we can easily see that these traditions, including head covering, are Christian traditions.
Traditions for today.
Head coverings are part of the traditions spoken of in verse 2 and discussed throughout 1 Corinthians 11. The practice of head coverings, like all those traditions were new to the Corinthians, came from Jesus through Paul, and held Christian meaning.
And that is why we should practice them today.