What’s Up With the Male Head Coverings in Corinth?

1st Corinthians 11, with its discussion about head coverings, has been called one of the most confusing chapters in the Bible. Often the discussion about this chapter zeroes in on whether or not women are universally required to wear head coverings in the church, or whether this requirement was a local/historical application of a universal principle. I lean toward the latter, finding the case compelling which advocates that Corinthian female head coverings were a sign of modesty and faithfulness among the married women of the Greco-Roman world. So today, whatever forms communicate that principle of modesty and faithfulness in a contemporary culture would be a good way to apply 1st Corinthians 11 to the ladies of our churches.

But what about the men? Why would men in Corinth desire to cover their heads when praying or prophesying in the church? This is why I love learning about the New Testament background and culture. As L.P. Hartley said, the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Check out this revealing note from the ESV Archeology Study Bible:

Roman statuary depicts emperors and senior magistrates as partially covering their heads with fold of their togas when offering a public sacrifice (“praying”) or reading its entrails (“prophesying”). Paul instructs the Corinthian men not to dishonor Christ by praying to him in the same way that others addressed false gods such as Apollo. By praying with their heads uncovered, they show they are praying in a new way and worshiping a different deity than their pagan neighbors.

ESV Archeology Study Bible, p. 1710

That’s right. Roman emperors and other officials covered their heads to pray and prophesy. There’s even a statue from Corinth of Caesar Augustus doing this very thing (pictured above).

So how in the world do you apply this underlying principle of countercultural worship forms to the men of contemporary churches, whether in the west, the global south, or among the unreached people groups of the world? In some contexts it might be simpler than others. Where we serve in Central Asia, we should apply this by raising up men who preach and pray and even dress differently enough from the mullahs and imams of the mosque that it’s clear that they are worshipping different deities. The god of the Qur’an is not the same God of the Bible and the apostle Paul would have that distinction reflected in the public praying and prophesying of men in the church.

How would this be applied in the post-Christian West? I’m not quite sure, and I would welcome help in fleshing this out. Who would be the equivalent of the emperor and other Greco-Roman officials? Perhaps the political, business, and culture leaders. And the equivalent of making a civic religion sacrifice and reading its entrails? Perhaps any false-salvation narrative held up publicly by one of these leaders, whether that be a president promising the answer is revived nationalism, an opposition promising liberation from oppression by means of more government regulation, or a tech titan on stage promising life change through their latest generation technology. Men in the church, do you sound like them when you pray and speak in the gathered assembly of believers? Or is there enough different about your public presentation that it’s clear you serve a different God?

And in the realm of the painfully obvious, don’t wear a toga to church and during prayer drape it over your head. A form that risked gospel clarity in Corinth, for us, would at least risk appropriate gospel gravity.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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