A Message from Pastor Hale
Scriptural interpretation is an art, not a science. In fact, it is a spiritual exercise, since the Spirit gave the words — which means they are fully God's words. Though it is God's Word, that does not mean we can rip words out of their context and apply them to any situation. To use the Word rightly is a great gift Christ gives His Church and to her teachers.
In the Old Testament there are civil or government laws, ceremonial or external worship laws, and moral laws. Only the moral law addressing the heart applies to Christians today. We obey our current government's laws, even the poor ones, if it is possible to do without sinning. We worship by faith, not in legalistic outward works — but in the freedom of Christ and His forgiveness. Only faith in Christ and His promises pleases God.
Acts 15 describes a big Christian council to settle issues over the Jewish law being applied to Gentile believers (those who did not have the Old Testament ceremonial laws). The letter written to bring peace said: For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.
So is bloodwurst (blood-sausage) or a really rare steak ok to eat? Must we only eat certain items that are “clean” and “biblical”? Orthodox Jews today worry about that stuff and some misled Christians too. Jesus told Peter: “What God has made clean, do not call common [or unclean].” Paul shows us how to use our freedom from all ceremonial laws: Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. (Rom. 14:20-21). We are free in Christ, but not free to be unloving — which is really sin.
Another interesting example in the New Testament is 1 Corinthians 11: 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, since 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, let her cover her head. That sounds strange, like a new Christian ceremonial law. Must women pray with covered head and men without? Paul states the case that it is disgraceful, not that it is God's will. So it is not law on top of the free Gospel. It has nothing to do with salvation. Any outward rule necessary for salvation would undo the Gospel, which is based entirely on Christ's death. No moral thing we do can bring us righteousness or hinder God's forgiveness. Sin certainly does cause people to fall away and resist the Gospel, but not material things by themselves — including hats. What is not sin is free to the believer who lives in Christ, dead to all sin.
Short hair for a woman is not disgraceful now in our culture, though a woman with purposely shaved head might seem strange. The third verse of this chapter is the most important: 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. This is not merely a rule, it is the reality established by God. It goes back to how God made us. The Lord made Adam first and men should lead today as the head. It is shameful when they are not who they are made to be. This is difficult for sinners to hear in our homosexual climate where the distinction between male and female has been lost, but the fact of headship is God's unchangeable will and a present reality. God is not concerned with hats or outward things, but He states that how we interact with others in this world reflects upon Him who made us. Righteousness is the same for all, but our actions toward others should be in accord with the design of our body. The Gospel does not make us generic, sexless people who do the exact same things — it offers forgiveness for our sins of not leading and taking responsibility (for men) and submitting (for women).
What about hats and hair? Paul clarifies himself. We must read the whole passage and place it into the entire doctrinal scheme of Scripture. He is giving pastoral advice to his congregation at Corinth which lived in the midst of certain cultural norms. It is like today, when we say a wife “wears the pants in the house.” The saying is not about clothing (that the real problem is wearing pants and not a dress), but who exercises authority in the relationship. Every woman wears pants nowadays (and can do so modestly in freedom), but the principle we still uphold: male and female are not the same and should not do the same things. That is very similar to the advice to wear hats in 1 Corinthians 11. The outward should reflect the heart and our order within God's good creation — but wearing a hat or a dress does not make one a godly female. (A man cross-dressing does not change his God-given vocation to be a man). It is a matter of attitude, public decorum, and praise of God's creation. By faith both male and female partake of the same freedom, but publicly we have different roles to play in this sinful world.
Wearing pants to church is free to God and optional. We are also free to wear short-shorts and a tank-top, right? Yes, to God, but remember freedom in Christ is never used to hurt someone else or to cause them to sin. We can sing a hymn in the shower without clothes on to God, but consider your neighbor and know that lust is a troubling sin for many. Consider your weaker brother. Hearing God's forgiving Word is the most sacred thing we can do, and it is good to treat it as such. Not many would wear a T-shirt to a wedding, but Christ's invitation to the eternal wedding feast is even more holy. Do not worry about God, but what message are you giving others. The Christian judges all things in the Spirit.
A woman can wear a dress and not respect what God made her to be — that is, want to be a man and usurp authority. The law detailing God's will addresses the heart, not external things which cannot bring us forgiveness. Wearing a hat does not change us, but God's Word does. None of us are satisfied where God has put us: our job, family, possessions, even our sex. Women are called to submit out of love for God. Submission is not a dirty word, it is something Christians are eager to do, since Christ has already cleansed us from all sin. It is a way to show thanks and please our Father in heaven and acknowledge what He made us to be. True masculine leading is done out love for Christ, since true leadership involves self-sacrifice and denial in submission to Christ. It should be done out of love for Christ and His Word.
Paul sums up his discussion of head coverings with v16: If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God. Clearly wearing hats is not an eternal law, but simply good advice for their circumstances. He says it can be ignored — it is not worth fighting for, though the Gospel is. The principle of headship can be observed without hats and with various haircuts. Those are external things. God changes the heart by His Word. But male and female distinctions are not erased by the Gospel. We are forgiven by God but must continue in this physical world, before we reach heaven, in the body God gave us.
This issue of headship is just about lost in our society. Men and women are supposedly equal and the same in all things (making homosexuality the logical conclusion). But the Christian is not about forcing others by a law or power. Instead, the power of the Gospel frees us to be what God created us. God's will, the God who died for us, becomes a delight, even if we do not relish the role God designed us for. As forgiven children we all strive to submit to God's authority. So in marriage and in the public realm, we do not want to upset that Word of God, out of respect for Christ: the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.
Paul explains in I Corinthians 14: As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Note carefully what it does not say: It does not put down women or their abilities. Where men are present, men are called by God to lead and should want to, if able. Women should learn and teach other women and children, especially their own. But Christ's created order in this world is not undone by the Gospel of Christ. We do not have group unisex bathrooms at Zion, nor should we. The difference between man and women is God-given and He knew what He was doing when He made us for the purpose of marriage. Those who are spiritual embrace that role, even if it feels unnatural and difficult to the sinful flesh. We remain sinners, after all, even though we are completely forgiven.
The prevalence of the acceptance of homosexual acts is due to men and women not knowing their roles. No one fully wants to be what God made them in the body He gave. Most children and young adults can't list any real differences between male and female or explain why they were made to be different. They've been taught that all differences are evil. But God's grace is extended to us, which changes our relationship to one another and especially with our Lord. We did not make our bodies, Jesus did. Forgiveness does not change our body or our outward role in this world, though it does give the conscience peace. So headship is not a restrictive law, but the creation of God who gave Himself for us. Even Jesus submitted to the Father and won us salvation by His death. Our biology informs how we are to live in this fallen world as we look forward to the world to come.
Hats, food, drinks, and even man-made worship forms are external things which cannot please God. But in faith, trusting our sins have been put aside, we are free to God, though not to creation, the body, and how we conduct ourselves in this world. But we are to do all things in the freedom found in Christ, bearing with the weakness of others. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (Rom. 14:23). Amen.
Rev. Philip W. Hale is a pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Omaha, NE.