Biblical Egalitarianism (Part 07) - Head-coverings

08/04/2009 07:52


To be perfectly clear regarding authority, I want to add to our discussion the questionable doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son – that doctrine which most patriarchal complementarians (PCs) insist upon. According to this doctrine, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are all equal in essence (or being) but are different in role or function. And part of the function in which they differ is that the Father holds supreme authority while the Son (and the Spirit) voluntarily submit in subordination to the Father’s authority. Now note—this doctrine holds that the voluntary submission by the Son is not a temporary situation related only to Christ’s human and earthly mission. This authority and subordination arrangement, the PCs insist, has been and will be going on forever—from eternity past to eternity future. From this idea, then, we get the name of the doctrine—the eternal subordination of the Son. The PCs insist on this doctrine for obvious reasons. If they can show that the Father and the Son are equal in being and have for eternity voluntarily acted in roles of authority and subordination, they have the perfect model from which they insist the marriage relationship receives its organization. The husband and wife—just like the Father and the Son—are equal in being and worth, but just as the Son eternally submits to the Father, the wife should submit to her husband. So this is an important doctrine to discuss.

The Trinity is always a difficult subject because we will never really get our heads around it, at least, not while we’re here, as it were, seeing "through a glass, darkly" (1 Cor 13:12). One essence (being) and three persons is just too different from all earthly experience to understand fully. But the reason we hold the doctrine is that the Bible does present certain elements of that Trinitarian construct that we can understand. And those elements begin even in the OT.

I like Benjamin Warfield’s comment about the OT. He says it is like “a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted; the introduction of light brings into it nothing which was not in it before; but it brings out into clearer view much of what is in it but was only dimly or even not at all perceived before. The mystery of the Trinity is not revealed in the Old Testament; but the mystery of the Trinity underlies the Old Testament revelation, and here and there almost comes into view. Thus the Old Testament revelation is not corrected by the fuller revelation which follows it, but only perfected, extended, and enlarged.”

Although not perfectly revealed in the OT, we find definite hints of the Trinity. Right at the beginning, in the creation of humanity, God says, “Let us make man in our image” (Gen. 1:26). Though some claim this as an example of the majestic plural, I would disagree. The majestic plural is normally used to speak from a position or office to those outside that office who nonetheless venerate that position. But God, in this passage, was speaking to himself. No others were yet created. The verse, therefore, hints at the unity of the Trinity in operation.

Additionally, the Hebrew OT uses plurals several times in speaking of God (though their translation is usually singular).

Psalm 149:2 – Let Israel be glad in his Maker. (In Hebrew, Makers)

Ecclesiastes 12:1 – Remember also your Creator (Creators) in the days of your youth.

Isaiah 54:5 – For your Maker (Makers) is your husband (husbands).

And distinction is also provided in such passages as Psalm 45:6-7. “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” Notice that God is the noun of direct address in this passage; yet God is said to have anointed this God being addressed. Therefore, the verse mentions two that are referred to as God.

The point in this review is that we may discover some things about the Trinity even from the OT, but when forming doctrine, we must be careful not to add in some understanding that is forced on Scripture rather than is taken from it. The doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son seems to be a forced doctrine. Thisdoctrine held by many PCs today argues that Christ and the Father are equal, but the Son has forever assumed a subordinate position to the Father, who is, therefore, the supreme authority. Its scriptural support is usually limited to I Corinthians 11:3 and those NT passages that speak of Christ’s earthly ministry attitude of obedience and deference to the Father. Two good examples of this deference are John 5:30 and John 14:28, the latter of which quotes Jesus as specifically stating, “The Father is greater than I.”

Besides this scriptural support, PCs insist that the very names—Father and Son—include an authority/subordination implication.

Neither side disputes that during his earthly ministry, Jesus as a man was indeed in subjection to the Father. And therefore, those verses in which clear authority/subordination relationship occurs are not debated as if they meant something else. But the PCs argue that this authority/subordination relationship clearly seen between God and Jesus the man has been going on for all eternity between God the Father and God the Son.

My arguments against the eternal subordination of the Son include two ontological arguments (that is, arguments of being) and one biblical argument. The first ontological argument is that if Christ has from eternity past functioned in subordination and will also function to eternity future in subordination, there is no real sense in which one can say that he is equal to the Father. Although our God is three in Persons, he is one in essence. Arguing that one Person of the Godhead is subordinate to another creates an inequality of essence. We identify (define) God by terms such as omnipotent, sovereign, and infinite—all terms showing lack of limitation. Were we to assume Christ as eternally limited (subordinate), we would be removing these God-descriptors from Christ.

Now, the PCs say that in reality he is equal, but he voluntarily acts in a manner that indicates subordination. But if the Son eternally—from eternity past, through eternity future—acts in subordination, subordination is then what defines him. There has never been a point when he was not subordinate, and there never will be a point when he will not be subordinate. He is, therefore, subordinate. His sovereignty is therefore necessarily limited. And, therefore, he cannot be considered equal with the Father in essence. That does violence to the orthodox understanding of the Trinity as equal in essence.

Secondly, an authority/subordination concept implies differing wills—one will that alters based on the command of another will. But if Christ is equal in essence, omniscient in knowledge, and perfect in wisdom, it would be impossible for his will to differ from the will of the Father who is also equal in essence, omniscient in knowledge, and perfect in wisdom. Their wills would necessarily be the same. It makes no coherent sense to say that Christ subordinates his will to that of the Father’s, as if Christ’s omniscience and perfect goodness could possibly wish for something different from the Father’s omniscience and perfect goodness. Therefore, discussion of authority and subordination within the Trinity is simply incoherent—unable to be described and therefore unable to function.

The biblical argument against the eternal subordination of the Son is simply this: nowhere does Scripture ever point to eternal subordination of the deity of Christ. Every scriptural reference used by the PCs to promote eternal subordination speaks of Christ in his humanity, not in his deity. Even the designations of Father and Son do not appear in relation to each other except in referring to the incarnation. Psalm 2:7 and II Samuel 7:14 refer to David and Solomon respectively, but Hebrews 1 tells us that both these references are prophecies of Christ in his relationship to God in his humanity. And the only reference to God as Everlasting (or Eternal) Father is in Isaiah 9:6, which actually is speaking of Christ!

Philippians 2:5-11 helps us understand the emphasis on the humanity of Christ in the NT. In this passage we see that Christ was in the form of God. That means he was God in all essential qualities of sovereignty, almighty power, and omniscience (among other things). Verses 6 and 7 tell us that Christ did not hold on to these things as he took the form of a servant (became a man). But because he did this—because he limited himself in human form (while still remaining fully God)—he was able to fulfill the old covenant obligation through his perfect life. God, therefore, exalted him (as perfect man and covenant fulfiller) above every other man (all the rest of whom broke the covenant). This is the Christ upon whom focus and attention and emphasis is placed throughout the NT—Christ as the second Adam, the covenant completer—Christ the perfect man. Because of his sinlessness, he is capable of being the pure sacrifice for our sin so that he may apply his righteousness to us who believe—that, of course, is why he must be God as well.

I believe, therefore, that the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son is not only unbiblical and therefore wrong, but it is dangerously wrong since its acceptance must necessarily violate our conception of the Trinity and the one essence of God. It is not the reality of the Trinity, and therefore it is not a divine model that should govern the construct of husband and wife relationship.

Returning to I Corinthians 11, then, we find that verse 3 cannot be seen to designate eternal subordination. Remember, verse 3 states: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” God is the head of Christ not in some eternal authority/subordination relationship, but rather in relation to Christ’s humanity. The care relationship metaphor of head and body discussed in the last summary holds firm in each specified relationship. And the vulnerable party in each relationship is vulnerable precisely because of the sin curse of the world. Christ is vulnerable as he becomes man and goes to the cross to pay for the world’s sin. Adam (and Adam's race) is vulnerable precisely because of his sin and resultant subjection to death from sin. The woman is more vulnerable because of her gender distinctions preyed upon by the dangers in the sin-cursed world. Paul then uses this tri-part analogy as foundation for the rest of the passage. And it is absolutely essential that this idea of the head/body--caregiver/more vulnerable one--association is kept in the front of our minds as we attempt to understand the rest.

Additionally, a couple of other introductory points should be kept in mind. First, Paul ended the previous chapter, chapter 10, telling us, "Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved" (10:32-33). So this idea of some individual sacrifice may at times be helpful simply so as not to be offensive. The second introductory thought to maintain is that chapter 11 begins with Paul saying he commends the Corinthians on the point about to be discussed. In other words, the first half of chapter 11 is not a corrective to them, but just additional information supporting what they are doing. It is not until we get to verse 17 of this chapter that Paul switches to rebuking and correcting, telling them that now he has an issue about which he does not commend them.

Before we begin our discussion of this passage, let's read it once straight through. In 1 Corinthians 11:3 through 16, we read the following:

"But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head--it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, loet her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. 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, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God."

There is quite a bit there that may appear confusing on the first pass through. The thing that will help keep us oriented as we work our way through is holding on to verse 3 as our foundational verse. In it Paul gives the head/body relationship outline that it is his intent to explain through this passage. Immediately then after his set-up--in other words, immediately after Paul gives the principle in verse 3 of head/body relationship on which he will base his discussion--Paul explains in verse 4 that "every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered (or more literally, veiled) dishonors his head." Here's where we have to keep in mind our foundational verse 3. In verse 3, who is man's head? Paul says Christ is the head of every man. So if the old math formula is correct in that if A=B and B=C, then A=C, we ought to be able to swap Christ with head in part of the verse 4 statement without harming the sense. In other words, when the verse tells us that a man who worships with his head veiled dishonors his head, we can understand Paul to say that a man who worships with his literal head veiled dishonors Christ, his metaphorical head. And then verse 5: "but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head” should be understood as “but every wife who worships with her literal head uncovered dishonors her husband, her metaphorical head." Now, why would this be so? Why will dishonor come to Christ, man's head, if he is veiled, but dishonor will come to a husband, his wife's head, if she is NOT veiled?

Here's Paul's point. First, understand that we are talking about direct communication with God. We are talking about approaching God's throne in prayer or prophecy. The vulnerability of the man (through Adam) is cared for by his head, Christ. If the man approaches God veiling his head, covering his head, it is as if he were covering or veiling his metaphorical head--his caregiver, Christ. Of course that dishonors Christ. We may come to God in worship and relationship because of Christ. For a man to cloud that understanding by metaphorically covering his head, Christ, when he comes to worship, he does Christ dishonor. Switch thoughts now to his wife. She also is approaching God in prayer or prophecy. If she doesn't cover her head, if her head remains exposed, she is symbolically placing her husband, her metaphorical head, between her and God. That is dishonoring to her husband in that she would be upholding him as some sort of mediator. So it is right and proper for her to veil her head, symbolically veiling or taking her husband out of the picture, so that she stands alone before God.

Paul goes on in the second half of verse 5 and verse 6 to draw a comparison. He says that the dishonoring of her metaphorical head (her husband) is "the same as if her [literal] head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head." In this analogy, Paul is merely connecting veiled and unveiled heads with hairy and shaved heads. Women didn't cut their hair. It was an adornment of beauty. Men however did cut their hair. So Paul is merely using the length of hair and its disgrace for a woman if shaven to relate to how the veiling should be considered--disgraceful for a man if he has a veil and disgraceful for a woman if she does not.

Verse 7 presents a little confusion--especially as it is normally translated. The ESV states: "For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man." We'll look at the first clause first. If we take a word for word translation from the Greek, we get something like this: "For a man surely should not to be veiled the head the image and glory of God being." Translators, without exception according to what I've seen, translate based on the presupposition that the image and glory of God that is spoken of in this verse relates to the man. And that's not so hard to believe since we learn in Genesis that man was indeed made in the image of God. But the thing that usually jumps to mind is that, well, women too were made in God's image. So why does it seem Paul is using the fact that man was made in God's image as a basis for not being veiled although a woman, also made in the image of God, is supposed to be veiled? 

Here we are only in verse 7 and already we have forgotten our foundational verse—verse 3. Remember in the God/Christ relationship, God is head (caregiver) and Jesus is body (vulnerable one). In the Christ/Adam (or man) relationship, Christ is head and man is body. In the husband/wife relationship, man is head and woman is body. So let's look at this verse again...but, look at it without the presupposition. "For a man ought not to cover his head [his metaphorical head, Christ], since he [who is he? The man’s head--Christ] is the image and glory of God." Yes, men and women are made in God's image. But both fallen men and women have marred part of that image. Who would best represent the image of God in its unfallen state? Of course it is Christ! And who is the glory of God? Yes! again Christ! As God is caregiver, the one for whom he cares is his glory; and he cares for Christ. In the husband/wife relationship, the husband as caregiver, cares for his wife, and that is why verse 7 ends saying that the "woman is the glory of man." But the first part of verse 7 should be clear. So reformulated with the notion that Christ is the image and glory of God, we should understand this verse as follows: "For a man should surely not cover his head, because his head represents Christ, who is the image and glory of God."

This now makes perfect sense with what we understood of Paul's point in verse 4. Verse 4 told us that man's head--Christ--would be dishonored if man covered his literal head in approaching God because covering his head means he's symbolically hiding Christ from his approach to God. And then verse 7 continues that thought in telling us that man should not cover his head because his head, symbolically, is Christ, the image and glory of God--the very God that man is approaching in prayer and prophecy.

Now in verses 8-9, Paul goes on to emphasize the man/woman relationship and why the woman is man's glory (glory is the expression of image). We learn "for man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man." As we read in Genesis 2, the wonder, amazement, and satisfaction came to Adam when the woman was formed. That is why she is his glory. And that, coupled with his care-giving responsibility for her, is Paul's point in this verse.

Verse 10 may be the most difficult of the entire passage. The reason is that it involves the Greek word exousia. This word can mean a number of things. According to Thayer's lexicon it can be (1) power of choice (liberty, permission); (2) physical and mental power; (3) power of authority, influence, right, privilege; (4) power of rule or government; (5) sign of regal authority, like a crown. The ESV translates this verse seemingly according to Thayer - 5, as a "symbol of authority." But usually our presuppositions make us assume that this symbol of authority is something which indicates the subjection of the woman to her husband's authority. But that's not how Thayer discusses it. The symbol of authority is like a crown, and it is the wearer of the crown who holds the authority. So far in this passage we have not talked about authority at all because authority is not ever mentioned. Its mention here fits exactly with the thought pattern of verse 5--a woman should be veiled to hide her metaphorical head, her caregiver husband, because she has the spiritual authority to approach God without him.

The phrase "because of the angels" is still difficult. But it seems most likely that the veil explains to them her independent approach to God, although they know her oneness with her husband/caregiver.

Immediately, lest independence takes hold and we start ripping relationship apart—even for only a moment and even if only in our thought—Paul knits the relationship back together with the next verse. In essence he says first in verse 10 that she must be independent going to God, but then in verse 11 he counters, "Nevertheless, in the Lord the wife is not independent of her husband nor the husband of his wife." And he explains that further in verse 12.

Verses 13 through 15 are a reiteration of a point begun in verses 5 and 6. Again, Paul is comparing veiling the head for men and women with hair lengths for men and women. Nature tells us that a man cuts his hair keeping it shorter and a woman grows it long for adornment (glory). Just so, a man does not wear a veil (likened to short hair), but a woman does (likened to long hair).

I believe that the statement in verse 16 about those who might be contentious ties back somewhat to Paul's discussion ending chapter 10. He recognizes that what he is discussing is symbolic portrayals. Using veils and our heads to represent the relationship order is, after all, no timeless spiritual rite that must be performed in order to be right with God. But it is symbolic significance that can parallel a practice (like veiling the head), which happened to be the cultural norm. Sure, Paul says, you can be contentious and refuse to do this, but that's not the nature of the church--demand for individual right to do as you please apart from the harmonious practice of the body.

Today our culture has little use for hats and veils. They certainly do not symbolize anything as they have done in the past. What Paul did in chapter 11 was to make use of a cultural norm to keep a truth of Christian relationship in the forefront, especially of our times of joint worship. This is not a prescriptive command for all ages. But it is good to understand the underlying relational concept and hold fast to that.

And, ultimately, what is important for our discussion is that this chapter does not show any sign of an authority/subordination teaching in the relationship between the husband and wife.