Was the Apostle Paul Inconsistent?
I was reflecting on the difficulty of leadership in the modern world. Then I remembered that it was often the same in the ancient world in the New Testament. Some of Paul’s opponents had charged him with inconsistency in the first century. Even Peter validated that some of Paul’s writings were difficult to understand. Part of the difficulty is that Paul was not content to only talk about one issue. Today, numerous readers of the Scriptures, even ‘good’ and ‘conservative’ interpreters worry over the supposed inconsistencies in Paul. The truth however is that Paul was incredibly consistent. Once we have good background knowledge on Paul’s writing we can see this apostolic sage be one of the great consistent minds of all time. We need more like him. Take the situation with head coverings that Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 11:2-17. I often love pointing to this passage to those who insist on a ‘wooden literal’ interpretation of every verse in Scripture. Most who insist on this don’t wear a head covering or have their families do so either. This fact I often hope will soften them on other verses they are taking out of context. That aside, Paul writes about head coverings for at least four reasons.
Wealth and Class Distinctions – Given their status, wealthy women could get by not wearing a head covering. Many of the early house churches met in the homes of the wealthy women converts. Once the poor classes arrived and noticed some without a covering, it was causing some difficulty. Paul offers the temporary solution to remove consternation between the classes.
Prostitutes – Prostitutes often did not wear a head covering. They used their hair to attract business. This was well-known by the masses. Therefore, Paul is offering advice to distinguish his churches from any possible confusion with prostitutes.
Messengers – The wealthy would send servants to go check out the latest meetings in town. If those messengers came back with a good report, they might have interest in attending. If they came back with a bad report, they could take it to the authorities. Not being a registered religion means they are in trouble if a bad report comes in. In some sense the same is true today, albeit on different issues.
Nearby Cultic Group – There was a group nearby called the Cybelline Priests. They practiced changing their genders (at least the males). In more practical terms, the women took head coverings off to prophesy, and the males put a head covering on. Paul wants to distinguish his Churches from this nearby non-Christian religious group, and he does so by recommending keeping the covering for the time being.
At least these four reasons Paul writes to the Corinthians for the women to wear head coverings and for the men not to. In other words, there are many groups, pressures, and cultural factors that Paul considered when writing this temporal advice. Paul was ultra-consistent. Still, even to this day some miss his consistency because he chose to think about the implications of his culture.