Aren’t complementarians guilty of a selective literalism when they say some commands in a text are permanently valid and others, like “Don’t wear braided hair” or “Do wear a head covering,” are culturally conditioned and not absolute?
All of life and language is culturally conditioned. We share with all interpreters the challenge of discerning how biblical teaching should be applied today in a very different culture. In demonstrating the permanent validity of a command, we would try to show from its context that it has roots in the nature of God, the gospel, or creation as God ordered it. We would study these things as they are unfolded throughout Scripture.
In contrast, to show that the specific forms of some commands are limited to one kind of situation or culture, (1) we search for clues in the context that this is so; (2) we compare other Scriptures relating to the same subject to see if we are dealing with a limited application or with an abiding requirement; and (3) we try to show that the cultural specificity of the command is not rooted in the nature of God, the gospel, or the created order. In the context of Paul’s and Peter’s teaching about how men and women relate in the church and the home, there are instructions not only about submission and leadership but also about forms of feminine adornment.
Here are the relevant verses in our literal translation:
Likewise the women are to adorn themselves in respectable apparel with modesty and sensibleness, not in braids and gold or pearls or expensive clothing, but, as is fitting for women who profess godliness, through good works. (1 Tim. 2:9–10)
Let not yours be the external adorning of braiding hair and putting on gold or wearing clothes, but the hidden person of the heart by the imperishable (jewel) of a meek and quiet spirit, which is precious before God. (1 Pet. 3:3–5)
It would be wrong to say these commands are irrelevant today. One clear, abiding teaching in them is that the focus of effort at adornment should be on “good works” and on “the hidden person” rather than on the externals of clothing and hair and jewelry. Neither is there any reason to nullify the general command to be modest and sensible or the warning against ostentation. The only question is whether wearing braids, gold, and pearls is intrinsically sinful then and now.
There is one clear indication from the context that this was not the point. Peter says, “Let not yours be the external adorning of . . . wearing clothes.” The Greek does not say “fine” clothes (NIV and RSV) but just “wearing clothes,” that is, “the clothing you wear” (ESV) or “putting on dresses” (NASB). Now we know Peter is not condemning the use of clothes. He is condemning the misuse of clothes. This suggests, then, that the same thing could be said about gold and braids. The point is not to warn against something intrinsically evil but to warn against its misuse as an expression of self-exaltation or worldly- mindedness. Add to this that the commands concerning headship and submission are rooted in the created order (in 1 Tim. 2:13–14), while the specific forms of modesty are not. This is why we plead innocent of the charge of selective literalism.
Binding Vs. Not Binding
But doesn’t Paul argue for a head covering for women in worship by appealing to the created order in 1 Corinthians 11:13–15? Why is the head covering not binding today while the teaching concerning submission and headship is?
The key question here is whether Paul is saying that creation dictates a head covering or that creation dictates that we use culturally appropriate expressions of masculinity and femininity, which just happened to be a head covering for women in that setting. We think the latter is the case. The key verses are:
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 to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. (1 Cor. 11:13–15)
How did nature teach that long hair dishonored a man and gave women a covering? Nature has not endowed women with more hair than men. In fact, if nature takes its course, men will have more hair than women because it will cover their face as well as their head. There must be another way that nature teaches on this subject!
We believe custom and nature conspire in this pedagogy. On the one hand, custom dictates what hair arrangements are generally masculine or feminine. On the other hand, nature dictates that men feel ashamed when they wear symbols of femininity. We could feel the force of this by asking the men of our churches, “Does not nature teach you not to wear a dress to church?” The teaching of nature is the natural inclination of men and women to feel shame when they abandon the culturally established symbols of masculinity or femininity. Nature does not teach what the symbols should be.
When Paul says that a woman’s hair “is given to her for a covering” (v. 15), he means that nature has given woman the hair and the inclination to follow prevailing customs of displaying her femininity, which in this case included letting her hair grow long and drawing it up into a covering for her head. So Paul’s point in this passage is that the relationships of manhood and womanhood, which are rooted in the created order (1 Cor. 11:7–9), should find appropriate cultural expression in the worship service. Nature teaches this by giving men and women deep and differing inclinations about the use of masculine and feminine symbols.
This article is adapted from 50 Crucial Questions: An Overview of Central Concerns about Manhood and Womanhood by John Piper and Wayne Grudem.