But to some people it's not. So let me quickly (hah!) run through the reasons we can know that Paul is talking about a tradition here.
A tradition among traditions...
Okay, let's look at 1 Corinthians 11.
Paul has just finished talking about meat offered to idols, and starts on a new tack in chapter 11 starting at verse 2. The chapter looks like this:
We can tell Paul includes head covering/uncovering under the heading of "traditions" because:
- He immediately talks about the covering and uncovering of heads after praising the Corinthians for maintaining traditions. The most natural way to read this is that covering and uncovering of heads is a tradition.
- In verse 17, Paul contrasts his praise in v2 with a stern rebuke - "I do not praise you". The repeated phrase in v23 makes it clear he is still talking about a tradition:
- Everything else in the chapter is about traditions: v2, vv17-34a, and 34b*. You would need a very good reason to exclude head covering/uncovering from that category.
What type of traditions?
Let's go further. We know Paul is talking about traditions throughout chapter 11, but what sort of traditions are they? Church traditions? Cultural traditions? Verse 2 tells us a lot in just one phrase: I passed them on to you.
First, if Paul passed these traditions on to the Corinthians, they were new to the Corinthians. This isn't to say that the Corinthians had never seen or done the things they were taught to do in a particular tradition. It might mean that these traditions had familiar things about them that were given specifically Christian meanings. This is certainly the case with:
- the Lord's Supper (see the eating of meat in the temple in 1 Corinthians 8-10),
- baptism (washings were part of other religions)
- and head coverings (everyday wear, and also religiously significant in different cultures).
But despite these things being familiar, the ways, the reasons, the specific practices were different, and so we can say that even if the Corinthians had some familiarity with the symbols and practices, these traditions, in and of themselves, were new to the Corinthians.
Second, Paul saying he passed on these traditions implies they did not come from his own creative mind. They came through Paul, not from him. That being the case, the traditions in 1 Corinthians 11 were widely known, probably throughout the world-wide church. In fact, we could easily argue that Paul is passing on these traditions from Jesus Christ himself!
That's what Paul says about the instructions he passed on about the Lord's Supper: For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you... (v23) It's also how Paul talks about how he learned about the whole gospel in the book of Galatians chapter 1 verses 11-12:
He goes on to say that when he finally sat down with the other apostles and leaders of the church in Jerusalem, he did it in secret in case he had got it all wrong. But, in Galatians 2, Paul says:
These traditions, then, as we can see, were through Paul, not from him.
What Christians should do. Third, precisely because the traditions written about in 1 Corinthians 11 were new to the Corinthians and through Paul, the traditions were what he was telling Christians to do.
How could Paul be bringing something new if he was actually telling the Corinthians to go along to get along with the culture? Why would he be introducing traditions that were not specifically Christian if his whole purpose was to establish a Christian church? It would make no sense to suggest that traditions that Paul "passed on" to the Corinthians were not rooted in the gospel and Christian teaching.
Once again, it is clear these traditions Paul talks about throughout 1 Corinthians 11 were something for Christians to do.
But was head covering a Christian tradition?
We've seen that the traditions Paul is talking about throughout the chapter are
1) new to the Corinthians,
2) through Paul, (not from him) and
3) something for Christians to do.
For those still unconvinced that head covering is one of those traditions, let's compare Paul's discussion of head coverings with those three characteristics of the traditions spoken of in verse 2.
Is head covering/uncovering new to the Corinthians?
Yes. We can see that by the very fact that Paul tells the Corinthians that he wants them to understand (v3). If this were not a new tradition for them (and by new, I mean new when Paul originally introduced it) then Paul would be appealing to what they should already have known a long time ago.
We can also clearly see that head covering/uncovering is new to the Corinthians because the gospel message and the church are new to the Corinthians. If those things are new, then we can know this Christian tradition would be also (see below).
Is head covering/uncovering through Paul, not from him?
Yes. Take a look at the last verse of the passage (verse 16). Here, Paul appeals to the practice of women covering their heads while praying throughout the whole church: If anyone intends to quarrel about this, we have no other practice, nor do the churches of God. As wide-ranging as Paul's travels were, he was not the only one to set up churches. The rest of the New Testament makes that very clear. However, he feels confident enough to say that the tradition of head covering (and uncovering by implication) is practiced throughout "the churches of God". Clearly this does not stop at Paul. It is a tradition held to church-wide.
Is head covering/uncovering a specifically Christian thing to do?
We'd really have to wonder why Paul is using all this biblical and Christian theology to back up the tradition of head covering/uncovering if it is not a specifically Christian tradition.
- Christ is the head of man (verses 3-4).
- The account of creation in the Bible (verses 8-9, 12).
- A reference to the angels (verse 10).
- The use of a set of teaching on gender seen elsewhere in the New Testament (verses 8, 12, 1 Timothy 2:13-15).
- Speaking of being "in the Lord" (verse 11).
- Applying the practice to prayer and prophecy (verses 4-5, 13, 16 (implied)).
- Appealing to "the churches of God" (verse 16).
Paul's whole reason for writing to the Corinthians was to encourage and correct them in their Christian lives. Why would he include such an involved discussion, backed by Christian reasoning, on a tradition that was not actually part of their Christian life? To avoid causing offense? There are examples of Paul instructing Christians to avoid causing offense to others, but not while giving such an extended, theological reason for a particular practice.
No, we can easily see that this tradition is a Christian tradition, a "specifically Christian thing to do".
Let me hear your symbol talk.
And so we come full circle. We can now confidently say that Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 about headcovering/uncovering as a specifically Christian tradition. It is a symbolic practice that talks, and it talks about Christian truth...
...and what that truth is we shall look at in other articles.