On a recent preaching trip abroad, I was advised that one Pentecostal church I would minister in was very ‘traditional’. This term couched a number of separate elements. On the one hand the songs were very old, on the other men and women were segregated. On top of that, many women wore head scarves during the service. Rather than this reflecting the broader culture of their country, this was in response to the Biblical passage that says:
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours 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. 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.
(1 Corinthians 11:4-10)
This passage is fraught with exegetical challenges including the translation and interpretation. Whilst ministering in the church I was stirred to thinking again about this passage and the hermeneutical options that Pentecostals have in approaching it. I also remembered a photograph I had taken four years previously.
Although a sunny day, the wind was blowing a chill breeze over myself and the model, spurring me on to be quicker than normal. I wanted to capture an extreme head covering, perhaps a parody of the Pauline verses. The image was taken outside so that the wind could interact with the head-covering, tantalisingly ruffling it.
The issue of women ministering in Pentecostal churches remains a live issue in the UK, however generally women are not expected to cover their heads, whether as ministers or part of the congregation. I want to briefly suggest how the Pentecostal approach to the head-covering verses can continue to liberate women in a more holistic sense within Pentecostal churches.
Although Paul is writing post-Pentecost, this one passage with it’s exegetical challenges need not mandate a physical head covering for women. Many have argued that this is a Corinth context-based restriction; where uncovered or loose-hair indicated sexual availability. Others focus on the male-centric voice of these verses. Whilst honour and shame are frequently discussed as the main theme. For more in-depth discussion I recommend starting with Thiselton (2000 pp. 827–848). Pentecostals will often be happy to allow for the freedom of removing head-coverings as long as culturally sensitive, non-provocative attire is maintained by both men and women. They do this through referencing the liberty of the Holy Spirit.
The wind in the photo symbolises the Holy Spirit and the potential for Him to blow the head-covering away, liberating the woman in the process. As Paul says, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17). Freedom to worship, freedom to pray, freedom to prophesy, freedom to be a “slave to righteousness” (Romans 6:18). For the “traditional” Pentecostal church I ministered in, my prayer is that they find the freedom of God to liberate from legalism (“for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” 2 Cor 3:6), and encourage men and women in culturally sensitive ways to engage with the Gospel of grace: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
By Jamys Carter
Thiselton, A.C. 2000. The First Epistle to the Corinthians: a commentary on the Greek text. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans.