Tough Passages #8: Church Bikini (1 Corinthians 11:5)

In “Tough Passages,” we’re looking at the difficult verses in the Bible that are often brought up by secular people as reasons the Bible doesn’t make sense, and discovering how they actually reveal the character, love, and glory of God in a beautiful way.  Last month, we looked at Paul’s instruction to Timothy about women leading at church.  We’re staying with women this month and looking at another instruction from Paul to the women at the church of Corinth.

The Verse

…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.

1 Corinthians 11:5, ESV

The Secular Response

Fundamentalist Christian women seem to have forgotten this basic rule of church attire reminiscent of Islam.

Ivana Wynn, ranker.com

Our Reply

Sick burn, Ivana.

It’s not hard to see where she’s coming from, though.  The Bible seems to be quite clear, here: women should wear a hat at church.  But I somehow doubt that Paul is talking about a burqa.

Imagine this scenario.  One Sunday morning in mid-July, you go into church.  As the people of the church settle down and prepare for the service to begin, you see the doors swing open, and in walks a woman wearing a bikini, who sits down and participates in the service as if nothing is out of the ordinary.  Moreover, she actually goes up on stage to read scripture during the service, or plays with the worship band.

In that situation, as a man or as a woman – would you be able to concentrate on the service?

In the early 1500s, the same reaction would happen to a woman wearing pants instead of a skirt.

Let’s walk it back five hundred years.  In the early 1500s, the same reaction would happen to a woman wearing pants instead of a skirt.  In the early 1000s, it would be a similar reaction to a woman without a girdle; in the 500s, a bodice.  And in the first century, when Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians, it would be culturally inappropriate for a woman to be seen with her hair uncovered.

How do I know?  Let’s let Scripture interpret Scripture.  In this case, we don’t have to go far; only to the second half of the verse.

“…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.” –1 Corinthians 11:5, ESV

In our culture, is that true?  Is a shaven head a dishonor?  Maybe a bit unusual, but certainly not dishonor.  Let’s go on to the next verse.

“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.” –1 Corinthians 11:6, ESV

Well, that’s patently untrue in our culture. Short hair is not disgraceful or distracting to the modern eye; not as much as a shaven head, and certainly not as much as a bikini in church.

So what gives? Why does Paul write this way? One major piece of wisdom every Christian has to bring with them when studying Scripture is the understanding that it has to pass a core message on to everyone, regardless of time or culture. So what is Paul’s message here?

The underlying message is this: women (and men, in verse 4), do not distract others from their worship with your appearance.

Women (and men), do not distract others from their worship with your appearance.

So if you’re a woman going to church in the first century, wear a hat. Men, cut your hair. In the 500s, women, wear a bodice; men, wear a cloak. In the 1000s, women, wear a girdle; men, wear hose. In the 1500s, women, wear a skirt; men, wear shoulder pads. And in the 2000s, don’t wear a bikini to church (men or women). And, ironically, depending on your church…maybe don’t wear a hat!

It’s courteous. It’s God-glorifying. And it’s certainly not meant to oppress women.

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Next month’s Tough Passages addresses some more laws about women; the Bible has no shortage of verses about the way men and women are to interact. Thanks for reading Redeeming Culture; we hope you stick with us.

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