No, not atishoo!
The issue! What is the issue?
“What do you mean, what is the issue?” you ask.
Well, Paul would not be writing about the head covering tradition if there was not a problem to address. That is the way 1 Corinthians works: Paul writes about problems in the Corinthian Church he has heard about (1 Corinthians 11:18) or read about (1 Corinthians 7:1). If there had been no problem around head covering, we wouldn’t have heard about it at all (though God would not have permitted that!).
How can you criticise people for something you just praised them for?
1 Corinthians 11:3 seems a little odd, even so. Paul has just praised the Corinthians for maintaining traditions in verse 2, and then walks it back with the very first word in v3, “Now” or “But”. This is not unqualified praise, but neither is it an all-out rebuke like verse 17 (In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.)
It’s “praise, but”!
“Well done with those traditions, BUT I want you to realise…”.
“Now” or “But”? The first word of v3 is exactly the same word as the first word of v2. You won’t see that in the NIV or NET translation; you need to read a more word-for-word translation like the ESV. It’s a word that you work out by looking at sentences and paragraphs as a whole. In v2, “now” is used to show that a new topic (traditions) is about to be talked about; verse 3 is a little more difficult to figure out. It could be a stronger contrasting word like “but” or a weaker word like the “now”. Whichever it is, we can see that Paul is moving on to tell them something more.
It would seem by the rather mild correction here that the Corinthian church is carrying out the head covering tradition as a whole. Some people are questioning it, maybe challenging it, maybe even refusing to practice it as Paul has taught, but apart from these people, the Corinthian church is maintaining the tradition.
Does Paul tell us more than that?
What more can we figure out about what people are arguing about? Quite simply, they are not arguing about that men’s heads should be covered, they are saying that women can – even should! – pray and prophesy with heads uncovered.
Where’s the proof of this? All through the passage.
Proof #1: Paul goes into a lot more detail about women covering their heads than men leaving their heads uncovered.
Man: 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.
Woman: 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
Man: 7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God;
Woman: but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her ownhead, because of the angels…13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?
Man: 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him,
Woman: 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
Paul only seems to be correcting the women’s part of the tradition.
Proof #2: Verse 10 is a summary of everything Paul has said so far:
It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head…
It’s pretty plain speak. Paul telling us in so many words that the whole point of this passage is the wearing of head coverings on a woman’s head.
(There are a number of questions people pose about verse 10, but we’ll look at those elsewhere).
Proof #3: Verses 11 and 12 are an important aside, and then Paul brings us back to the main idea of the passage in verse 13:
Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?
What is the point Paul is pushing here? Is it that men are not to wear a covering on their head when praying? No, there is no mention of men here at all. The main point Paul is establishing in this whole passage is that women are to pray (and prophesy) with their heads covered.
Proof #4: The last piece of evidence we’ll look at is found in verse 16.
A translator’s job is to make the Bible understandable, and there is one word in verse 16 that causes people to scratch their heads – the word “such”. In some English translations (e.g. the NET Bible and the NIV Bible), translators decided that this word would cause too much confusion, and even though the Greek word actually means, “such”, they have translated it using another word instead: “other”. Unfortunately, while making the general sense clear, it clouds the specifics.
Here’s verse 16 in the NIV Bible:
If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
Here’s verse 16 in the ESV Bible:
If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.
You can see the problem the translators are trying to avoid. Paul has just been talking extensively about the tradition of head covering and then ends the whole passage by saying, “we have no such practice”!
No wonder some translators have tried to clear this verse up.
But there is a better way to clear up the confusion than changing the word “such” into “other”. We just have to back up a bit and start reading from verse 13:
13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?
14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him,
15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no such practice—nor do the churches of God.
Can you see what Paul is actually saying here?
Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?…We have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.
In other words, the practice Paul is talking about in verse 16 (we have no such practice) is a woman praying to God with her head uncovered.
Not only does this clear up Pau’s use of the word “such”, it also confirms that the whole passage itself is about women covering their heads and not about men uncovering their heads.
All that’s left to figure out now is who is trying to buck the tradition and how many.
We’ve already said that there are only a few people in the Corinthian church that Paul is correcting about head covering. How can we be sure?
We can be sure by comparing Paul’s words in the first half of chapter 11 with his words in second half.
When talking about head coverings, Paul says;
6 For if a woman does not cover her head
16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this…
But when talking about the abuses of the Lord’s Supper, he says:
20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go [some translations: each one of you goes] ahead with your own private suppers.
28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.
33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
There is a stark contrast between the “if anyone” when talking about head covering, and the “everyone” when talking about the Lord’s Supper.
When it comes to who is quarreling, it’s tempting to lay the blame at the feet of the women. Verses 5 and 6 make it sound like some women are already abandoning their covering while praying and prophesying, and that might be so. But I think it would be a mistake to leave it there.
Paul mounts an impressive defence of the woman’s part of the tradition in this passage and at the end he talks about people being potentially contentious (verse 16). If people then were like people today, both men and women would be diving into this disagreement!
This is the answer.
Okay, we have an answer to the question at the top of the post.
The issue Paul is writing to the Corinthians about in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 is that some people – likely women and men – are arguing that women should not have to wear a head covering while praying and prophesying. Paul gives a good amount of space explaining why they are wrong.
But then we come across another question: If the reason Paul is writing is to explain why women should wear a covering over their head while praying and prophesying, why does he talk about men?