"...Let Her Be Veiled."
Can History Speak?
Can history speak? Can it say anything to the issues of today? Can it be trusted?
Yes, history can speak. It may report facts fairly well. But beneath history's familiar voice, one may detect a quavering note of uncertainty. History never has all the facts, and can never put all the facts it does have together completely straight.
And history comes up short in another way. While it may report what people did and said in some past time and place, it cannot tell us what God thought about what people did and said. That leaves our limited and darkened minds to judge and sort the "facts", and to try to figure out the why and wherefore of the past.
On this point history can only mumble confusion. We hear it give conflicting answers to the same questions; questions such as; "Why did it happen?" "What motivated people?" "What was God's part in it?" "What did He think about it?"
Of course, the confusion really centers in our own darkened minds. "The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." 1 Cor. 1:14. The natural man cannot comprehend history from God's point of view. Standing apart from the revelation of Scripture and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, history can only mumble confusion and half-truths at best. But bowing under the authority of God's Word, history can speak the truth clearly. To the mind enlightened by the Holy Spirit, history can aid the understanding of such things as human nature, cause and effect, the march of events toward God's eternal purpose, and God's ways and dealings with the human family.
So, how about an issue such as the woman's head veiling? Does history have a helpful word? The answer is both yes and no. No. We cannot ascertain God's mind on an issue by the prevailing practice of any period, past or present. For example, we cannot conclude that God desires cut hair and uncovered heads by the prevailing practice of North American women in the last 75 years or so. Nor can we conclude that God desires long hair and covered heads by the prevailing practice of another time—say, the early church. Here history has nothing to say; no authoritative word. Only God's Word can speak God's mind with authority on this or any issue.
Yes. For one thing, history can help us understand the effect that follows obedience or disobedience to the commands of Scripture. For example, let's try to look at the churches of America through God's perspective, using the head covering as a case in point.
Fact: For nearly a century, most Christian men have allowed or encouraged Christian women to uncover their heads.
Fact: Our society today is marked by moral weakness, confused sex roles, shattered lives, and broken homes. Many churches and even pulpits are overcome by a fornicating, divorcing spirit. Too much, the church is emaciated with the cancer of the world.
Now, one of our all time great challenges is to correctly link cause and effect. As strange as it may seem to some, a relationship exists between the abandoned veils and the unhappy condition of the church and society today. I believe that God wants us to see that the second set of facts above is in part a result of the first fact. God's commands are for our well-being. We disobey to our detriment.
We have rejected both the substance and the symbols of the first part of 1 Corinthians 11, and now we suffer the bitter consequences. We have displaced Christ, the rightful head, with our own exalted thoughts and ways. We have overturned God's order for man and woman. We have uncovered our fleshly glory. We have enthroned our glory and found God's glory departed. Ichcabod! 1 Samuel 4:19-24.
History can help us another way with an issue such as this. The consistent testimony of Godly men and women down through history underscores the testimony of Scripture. Even in times of deep spiritual darkness, courageous men have seen and spoken and lived the truth. They are to us a great cloud of witnesses.
And history can help us in yet another way. Sometimes it can help clinch our understanding of given scriptures. A New Testament passage obscure or controversial today was certainly clear to the first readers who lived in the culture and the time in which the New Testament was written. Writings that come down to us from the first centuries of the church sometimes give insight into how the first believers understood the New Testament.
Although false teaching had already sprouted in New Testament times, the excesses and errors of the new church had not yet grown to later proportions. In general, the closer to the time of the first apostles, the more closely the teachings and practice of the church followed their doctrine. For this reason, the history of the early church is of special interest to us.
Sometimes we are blessed with a particularly clear word, as in this quote from Tertullian (ca.200 A.D.). "So, too, did the Corinthians understand him" (the apostle Paul—that unmarried girls as well as married women should be veiled.). "In fact, at this day the Corinthians do veil their virgins. What the apostles taught, their disciples approve."
Several things come through clearly from this single, informative quote. The writer understood the Scripture to teach a veiling for Christian women, and that this veiling was an article in addition to the natural covering of the hair. Also, the Corinthians themselves had originally and continuously so interpreted 1 Corinthians 11! Paul's letter was surely correctly understood by them, and that understanding was that the women should have veiled heads, period. Of interest too is the plural "apostles", implying a unified, universal authoritative teaching.
This testimony from Tertullian boldly underscores what the Scripture itself clearly teaches. Those who argue that the hair is the only covering required may argue, if they wish, with the Corinthians who personally knew Paul, and who held and read his original letters. So we see from this example that history can speak to clarify and support the Scripture through trustworthy observers and commentators. Now, let's listen to some voices from the past which speak to some issues related to the veiling.
The Catacombs. The numerous pictures on the walls of the catacombs depict Christian women veiled and men bareheaded. (The catacombs were underground burial places used by Christians for that reason and as places to meet during times of severe persecution). Catacomb art spans several centuries, beginning about A.D. 100.
Clement of Alexandia (A.D. 150-220.) This church leader appealed to 1 Corinthians 11 to strengthen the conviction for the veiling. He also appealed to a sense of modesty. In his prescription for the veil, he went beyond the Scripture and for the sake of modesty called for the sisters to cover even their faces in public.
Tertullian (ca. A.D. 160-215). About the year A.D. 200, Tertullian wrote an essay entitled "On the Veiling of Virgins". As the title suggests, he argues that unmarried girls as well as married women should be veiled. Throughout his essay, Tertullian never questions the veiling of married women. In his appeal to 1 Cor. 11, he only makes issue with the word woman, showing that the term included the unmarried as well as the married. He seems unconcerned with such questions as: Is the hair the only covering? Is 1 Cor. 11 authoritative for Christians of every time and place, etc.? Apparently, the veiling issues of our day were not the same as they were in Tertullian's day. He opens his treatise with these words:
"I will show in Latin also that it behooves our virgins to be veiled from the time that they have passed the turning-point of their age: that this observance is exacted by truth, on which no one can impose prescription—no space of items, no influence of persons, no privilege of regions. For these, for the most part are the sources whence, from some ignorance or simplicity, custom finds its beginning; and then it is successfully confirmed by usage, and thus is maintained in opposition to truth. But our Lord Christ surnamed Himself Truth, not custom."
Near his conclusion he writes: "Herein consists the defense of our opinion, in accordance with Scripture, in accordance with nature, in accordance with discipline. Scripture founds the law; nature joins to attest it; discipline exacts it. Which of these (three) does a custom founded on (mere) opinion appear in behalf of? or what is the color of the opposite view? God's is Scripture; God's is nature; God's is discipline. Whatever is contrary to these is not God's. If Scripture is uncertain, nature is manifest; and concerning nature's testimony Scripture cannot be uncertain. If there is doubt about nature, discipline points out what is more sanctioned by God. For nothing is to Him dearer than humility; nothing more acceptable than modesty; nothing more offensive than "glory" and the study of men pleasing."
To make his point, Tertullian argues both for and against custom; but he refuses to make custom his authority. To him, only Scripture can speak with authority.
Tertullian, like most of his contemporaries, had a deep concern for modesty. He too stressed veiled heads for modesty's sake, but he seems to apply the principle with a severity not taught in the New Testament. Also, he was concerned about the adequacy of the covering. as his words show: "...because you cannot refuse it, to take some other means to nullify it, by going neither covered nor bare. For some, with their turbans and woolen bands, do not veil their head, but bind it up: protected, indeed, in front, but where the head properly lies, bare. Others are to a certain extent covered over the region of the brain with linen coifs of small dimension.... The region of the veil is (should be) coextensive with the space covered by the hair when unbound: in order that the necks too may be encircled.. .(who) when about to spend time in prayer itself, with the utmost readiness place a fringe, or a tuft, or any thread whatever, on the crown of their heads, and suppose themselves to be covered? Of so small extent do they falsely imagine their head to be!"
Finally, it is of interest to note that Tertullian expressed a concern that the veiling be worn consistently out of the assembly as well as in it. "Identity (sameness) of nature abroad as at home, identity (sameness) of custom in the presence of men as of the Lord, consists in identity (sameness) of liberty. To what purpose, then, do they thrust their glory out of sight abroad, but expose it in the church? I demand a reason. Is it to please the brethren, or God Himself...? What cannot appear to be done for God's sake (because God wills not that it be done in such a way) is done for the sake of men—a thing, of course, primarily lawful, as betraying a lust for glory."
Hippolytus (died ca. A.D. 236). "And let all the women have their heads covered with an opaque cloth, not with a veil of thin linen, for this is not a true covering."
The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles (ca. A.D. 250-325). This collection of writings cite 1 Corinthians 11 as authority, uphold man's headship and requires women to be covered in worship.
"Finally, let me suggest that there are fragments of the apostle's (Paul) instructions everywhere scattered throughout his epistles, such as the minute canon concerning the veiling of women in acts of worship, insisting upon it with a length of argument which in one of the apostolic fathers would be considered childish. He also insisted that his tradition is from the Lord."
Apparently the truth of the woman's need to be covered was so plain to them that they thought it "childish" that Paul spent so much time explaining the reasons for it; but then they weren't anticipating the darkness of this present generation!
Chrysostom (A.D. 344-407). In a sermon on 1 Corinthians ll, Chrysostom urged women to worship with veiled heads and men with bared heads. He warned women against "pride and undue assumption of authority."
Jerome (A.D. 345-429). Jerome confirms that Christian women wore the veil in his time in both Egypt and Syria.
Augustine (A.D. 354-430). Augustine insisted that women not uncover their hair. He also based his argument on the teaching of the N.T. as these quotes will show: "It is not becoming even in married women to uncover their hair, since the apostle commands the women to keep their heads covered." And at another place: "For she is instructed for this very reason to cover her head, which he is forbidden to do because he is the image of God."
The above testimonies lead to several conclusions:
- Leading church men of the first centuries essentially interpreted 1 Corinthians 11 the same way, that is, that God wants Christian women to be veiled.
- Practice in the early church generally kept with this interpretation.
- This interpretation apparently was not opposed or exposed as false doctrine by teachers of the first several centuries.
What of succeeding periods of church history? Throughout the Middle Ages women veiled their heads. At least one of the reformers, John Calvin, clearly understood the N.T. to require a covering. "Should anyone now object, that her hair is enough, as being a natural covering, Paul says it is not, for it is such a covering as requires another thing to be made use of for covering it."
J.C. Wenger describes the veil worn in Swiss Reformed cities of the 17th and 18th centuries. He concludes; "The wearing of this white or black veil seems to have been common in Switzerland, Germany, Holland, and England - and likely in all of Europe."
Wenger also points out that the American churches in the late 19th century replaced the veil of England and the Continent with ordinary headgear. "It was usual in American Christian churches for women to have their heads at least covered in worship until the latter years of the 19th century (testimony of Bishop S. F. Coffman, 1872-1954). That which altered the practice of many American Protestant groups was the introduction of huge hats in the 1890's (these hats were nicknamed 'Merry Widows')."
We'll conclude with Wenger's words: "If one reviews the historical evidence fully, it becomes evident that the bulk of the Christian church to this day believes that the command for men to worship with bared head, and for women to wear the veil, is permanently valid."
Christians of the 20th century who courageously obey the principles and keep the symbols of 1 Corinthians 11 stand with saintly Christians of all time. May their number increase, and may the Lord use them to the reviving and uniting of His church, and to the healing of our land.