“No such practice”—v. 16
Verse 16 reads:
“But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” (KJV)
“But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.” (NASB)
This comes as Paul’s final statement on the subject, intended to settle the matter conclusively. Nearly all commentators agree that Paul is appealing to the practice of all the churches of God, saying that they all practice the same thing; that is, they require women to pray or prophesy with heads covered and men to pray or prophesy with heads uncovered. This means that the phrase “we have no such custom” (KJV) means “we have no custom of allowing women to pray with heads uncovered, etc.” Or we could say that the phrase means, “we have no custom such as that of the contentious man (who wanted women to pray or prophesy with heads uncovered and men to pray or prophesy with heads covered.)”
The NASB, while not rendering the Greek words literally, is trying to give the same sense. “We have no other practice” meaning “we have no other practice than requiring women to pray with heads covered, etc.”
This makes good sense. In 1 Corinthians 7:17 Paul appealed in the same way when he wrote concerning marriage and other relationships: “And so I direct in all the churches.” He also told the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 4:17; “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church.” Here in the same letter he appeals to the same argument—neither “we” nor the churches of God have such a custom (practice). All the churches practiced the same thing.
This is the understanding of Mike Willis in Truth Commentary p. 308: “The universal custom in Paul’s day was for the woman to wear the veils. The different local congregations all observed the custom.” Bro. Willis argues that the matter is governed by the custom of the people (see the chapter on “Custom” for an examination of that position), and that all the churches required women to be veiled in worship because that was the custom of (worldly) people everywhere.
However there are some brethren who understand this verse to mean just the opposite. They maintain that Paul is saying, “We have no such custom (as requiring women to pray with heads covered and men to pray with heads uncovered), neither the churches of God.” That would mean that what Paul was requiring the Corinthians to do was the opposite of what was practiced by all other churches of Christ.
These brethren reason that there was a custom concerning head coverings at Corinth which was different from the custom anywhere else. Because of this custom, sisters and brothers had to cover or uncover their heads when praying or prophesying, but because this custom was not observed in other places, sisters could pray with heads uncovered and brothers could pray with heads covered in those places. Only in Corinth was the peculiar custom found which required what Paul taught in 1 Cor. 11:2-15. Those who teach this idea cannot cite biblical evidence for this peculiar custom at Corinth, nor can they find any mention of it in history or archaeology. They base it simply on what they believe verse 16 means.
Their application of this is the same as those who teach the usual custom argument (See the chapter on “Custom”). The assertion is that Paul is teaching that where there is a general custom in the community for women to cover their heads and men not to cover their heads when praying or prophesying, Christians must conform to that custom. But where custom does not require this, Christians do not have to cover or uncover heads in accordance with what Paul teaches.
The historical evidence
But we have found that the heathen practices in worship among the Romans were quite different from what Paul commands. We have noted that Corinth was a Roman colony where Roman practices were common. It is quite likely that there were men in the church in Corinth who were covering their heads just as they had been accustomed to doing when worshiping their heathen gods before they became believers. Further, Kittle cites contemporary evidence to show that heathen priestesses did not wear head coverings. Thus every reliable evidence points to the conclusion that customary practices in heathen worship were the opposite of what Paul legislated in 1 Corinthians 11. No contemporary historical evidence suggests that head covering practices in Corinth were different from other areas, nor that the customary head covering practices were what Paul commanded the Corinthians to observe. Thus, those who argue that verse 16 means that Paul’s commands did not apply anywhere else than Corinth are asserting something which flies in the face of all the evidence.
It is noteworthy that these brethren do not usually try to cite any historical evidence to support their contention of the peculiar worship practices at Corinth. The fact that they do not is strong evidence that there is none. All of the evidence is that the practices in Corinth were no different than in Rome or other places.
Requires Christians to follow heathen worship customs
This argument requires the church to follow the customs of heathens. These brethren assert that the practice of all other churches was different from what Paul required the Corinthians to follow. If this assertion is true, the custom did not come from Christians. If it were a Christian custom, all churches would follow it. Further, if these brethren are right the custom did not come from the Jews. There were Jews in the church at Corinth—AND in most of the other churches. If it is true that the custom here commanded was ONLY observed at Corinth, then it could not have been Jewish custom, since Jews were everywhere.
According to this argument, there was a peculiar practice in Corinth different from the practice in all other churches of Christ. Since the custom could not be from Christians or from Jews, it had to come from heathens. There is no other possible source for the custom.
But to make the matter even more difficult, Paul does not talk about what Christians are to wear on the street. He is legislating what Christians must do “when praying or prophesying.” These are worship practices, not practices of modesty in society. So the heathen custom at Corinth which the church had to follow must have been what was required by idolworshipers, that when worshiping idols the women were required to cover their heads and the men were required to uncover theirs. This is the only source from which the “custom” could have come—that men must pray or prophesy with heads uncovered and that women must pray or prophesy with heads covered. It had to come from heathen worship!
What a strange position these brethren are in! They have Paul saying that at Corinth women must cover their heads and men must uncover theirs when praying or prophesying because that was the practice of Greek heathens in their worship! That is hard to believe. Perhaps these brethren have not realized the consequences of their assertions.
Remember, Paul writes about head coverings when worshiping. Therefore the customs which Corinth alone had and which the Corinthian Christians had to obey, were worship customs— which came from heathens!
In 2 Thess. 2:15 Paul wrote: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” Again he wrote in 2 Thess. 3:6: “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.” This is the same Greek word (paradosis) which Paul used in 1 Cor. 11:2: “Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.”
Therefore we cannot infer from the word in verse 2 that Paul is talking about human traditions. They were traditions which Paul delivered to them and in this whole section Paul is talking about those traditions. They were the practices which Christians are to observe when praying or prophesying. They were delivered by Paul, therefore they came from Jesus Christ.
This is why all the churches observed the same practices.
The evidence of Tertullian and Clement
David W. Bercot observes: “The interesting thing I noticed in reading Tertullian’s essay or tract on the subject of ‘veiling’ was that there was no issue in the churches of his day on what 1 Cor. 11 meant. The only issue that was there was whether Paul’s words applied to all mature females, or whether it applied only to married women.” (See chapter, What the Early Christians Believed About the Head Covering.) Tertullian wrote before 200 A.D., less than 100 years after the death of John, the last apostle to die. He cited the practice of all the churches, and particularly the church at Corinth, when arguing that virgins, and not just married women, must cover their heads in worship. This was evidently the universal practice from the time of the apostles. Mr. Bercot cites Clement and Hypolitus who testified to the same thing.
What Paul based his instructions on
Perhaps the strongest argument that Paul was not instructing brethren to follow worldly customs, whether universal or local, is the fact that Paul based his teaching upon divine principles, not custom. He appealed to the divine principles of headship, creation, nature’s teaching, and “because of the angels”. He did not say, “Follow the customs of the people.” He taught us to cover or uncover heads when praying or prophesying because of eternal principles. To trivialize those instructions into advice to follow local or universal customs is to fly in the face of what Paul teaches.
It is simply amazing to me that brethren who are so careful to handle the word of God correctly in other matters are willing to “suppose” something in this matter, something which cannot be proved from the Bible, and which is opposite to all known historical evidence! The position that the brethren at Corinth were required to cover or uncover heads when praying or prophesying because of local custom, while all other Christians in every other place were free from those restrictions, must be rejected. It cannot be true.
The truth is that all the churches of God required women to cover their heads when praying or prophesying, and all the churches of God required men to uncover their heads when praying or prophesying. The instructions of Paul were exactly what all the other apostles taught in every place. In every church the same behaviour was required. Paul cites this fact as the concluding argument, the argument which should stop every mouth. We today should listen carefully to this argument.