Faith In Our Head Coverings
As conservative Anabaptists, we grow up accepting the head covering as a normal part of life. As we mature and hear some of our friends or family questioning the necessity of wearing it, or maybe we ourselves have questioned it, we hear every argument for it. We know all the right Biblical answers for it. We also know why our home church makes the rules for the size, the shape, and the material for our specific church group. We most likely even know why the neighboring church has slightly different rules for their specific covering size, shape, and style.
And if we are honest, we’ll admit that sometimes we get tired of hearing it hammered over and over.
So the thought of writing about the head covering almost fills me with dread. Why add another opinion to the staggering mound of Anabaptist head covering dogmas?
But yet, I believe strongly that this is another area that Anabaptists need reformation in.
Sometimes it seems that we have put the Head Covering issue as the foundation of who we are as a church. If our focus is really on following Christ, our concerns should be for the same things He cared about. Christ did not focus on outward things as much as He addressed the heart. When outward issues were obvious, He addressed the heart issue that was causing the problem.
When Christ transforms the heart, our life choices will reflect that transformation. Do we really believe that?
When a “baby” Christian enters into new life in Christ, we don’t expect them to live perfectly overnight. We all started out like that and then learned to walk uprightly. The Holy Spirit brought conviction and little by little we changed. And we keep on changing– each of us at our own pace and each in specific areas that the Spirit brings conviction in. Do we believe that?
“The head covering is not a salvation issue, but it is an obedience issue.” How many times have we heard that? But yet we make it a salvation issue. It has become the proof of salvation that we require for anyone wishing to join our movement.
If following Christ is really what sets us apart from the world, why do we think it should be our head coverings that set us apart? Have we turned our faith in Christ into faith in our head coverings?
If you don’t think the latter statement is true of yourself, ask yourself whether you think a woman of faith who does not wear a head covering should be allowed to get baptized in your church?
Conservative Anabaptists will not allow that. But then on that same note, would we baptize a newly converted young lady who has a problem of slandering and reviling others on occasion? We most likely would extend a little more grace because she is a young believer. We would give teaching and pray for the Holy Spirit to bring conviction. But we would still baptize her– as long as she at least wore a head covering.
If communion time came and this same young lady still seemed to struggle with slander and gossip, we would most likely still handle it the same way.
But… if she stopped wearing a head covering, everything would change immediately.
Interestingly enough, 1 Corinthian 5:11 says “But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such a on no not to eat.”
Hmm… not wearing a head covering isn’t on this list. A railer, on the other hand, is on this list. Strong’s defines a railer as someone who reviles or slanders.
Have we gotten off track?
Just as the Pharisees added to God’s commands concerning Sabbath keeping (Mat. 12, Mark 2) and the washing of hands (Mat. 15, Mark 7), could it be that we have taken our “pet commandment” and elevated it to higher status than what God ever intended?
If Jesus were here among us today, would we Anabaptists be the Pharisees attempting to reprimand and question Jesus’ methods? “What are You thinking, Jesus? Why are You allowing that woman to be so close to You? Can’t You see she doesn’t even have a covering on? Why are You allowing her to get baptized? Why are You allowing your disciples to mingle with these worldly looking people?”
We all know women who have not worn a covering, but yet walked closely with God (Elizabeth Elliot comes to mind). We have a hard time reconciling that with our beliefs. We won’t have anything to do with them in our churches, but we conclude with disapproval that if Jesus wants to associate Himself with them outside of our churches, that’s up to Him.
I believe God wants women to cover their heads when praying or prophesying and men to uncover their heads while praying or prophesying, but I don’t think He ever intended for it to be elevated to the level that we have turned it into.
I think it’s like any other Scripture. It needs to be taught and then we need to allow the Holy Spirit to convict. It can not be forced, or it defeats the purpose.
History of the Anabaptist Head Covering
Why do Anabaptists make rules about what the head covering should look like? Have they always done this or when did they start? Why did we start refusing certain types of head coverings as not being acceptable for our churches?
These are questions that have been rolling around in my mind the last few years. And I have found that when you ask questions, some Anabaptist church members and ministers get very defensive and angry. One minister said, “The only time anyone asks questions like this is because they are trying to find an excuse for the women to stop wearing it.
Statements like that do work well to keep the masses from questioning too much.
So I started studying history books instead to find answers. I am not a historian, but it’s been an interesting journey. I found that some of my theories, such as assuming the rules came because women in mid-twentieth century society weren’t wearing any type of head coverings anymore and the Anabaptists wanted to keep the practice, weren’t as accurate as I thought.
In the first half of the twentieth century, most American women still wore some type of head covering at least to church. But yet, Anabaptists began making rules for their coverings in the late 1800’s. So why did they start making the rules about the size, shape, and specific cloth?
Apparently, during the 1800’s, women wore prayer caps and bonnets both. But at some point throughout that century, women began to drop the prayer caps. But Mennonite women who were members of the church continued to wear them to church.1
It seems that when Daniel Kauffman’s book, Manual of Bible Doctrines, was published in 1898, he publicized and drew attention to a list of seven biblical instructions (compiled by J.S. Coffman) that were referred to as the Seven Ordinances. Although Kauffman wasn’t the one who came up with this list, because of his book, he is often credited for them. (For more information on the Seven Ordinances, check out Dwight Gingrich’s outstanding in-depth study on in it here . 2 )
The Seven Ordinances named “Sisters’ Prayer-head-covering” as one of the ordinances and suddenly drew all kinds of attention to a Biblical command that hadn’t been emphasized this publically before in Anabaptist congregations.
The ordinances came at a time when Anabaptist women, as well as other woman in North America, wore coverings mainly to church. Apparently “it was customary in some districts for women to leave their coverings hanging on pegs at church and not even bring them home after the service”. 3
Interestingly enough, even the wife of J.S. Coffman, who first penned the seven ordinance list that we use, “wore her cap only in church as was the practice of others in the community at that time”.4
However, The Mennonite Brethren group, in 1878, did issue a resolution “that instructed women to wear head coverings in church and family worship”.5 So apparently the beliefs of this group at this time seemed to be also more about wearing it during times of worship with other believers, whether that was in public or with family members.
Anabaptist history from previous centuries – regarding how much the head covering was worn and where all it was worn to–is unknown. It wasn’t a subject that was written about by the early Anabaptists because their beliefs regarding it apparently did not differ from other believers around them. While the head covering was practiced by the rest of the world, they did not bother giving much attention to Biblical arguments for the practice and application of the head covering. 6
Culture of the Period and Pattern of Ritualism
Throughout the nineteenth century, Anabaptists were doing a lot of good things but apparently had forgotten why. The culture around them had good morals and did a lot of good things. But when the culture around them began to erode, they had to base their values on something else. For many fundamentalists, the solution seemed to be to make specific rules to “lock in” the culture of that time. But in doing this, they then faced the danger of holding traditions and rules as the reason for their religiosity.7
J.S. Coffman taught his list of ordinances because there was a desperate need for Biblical teaching. His intention was to give the Biblical reason for our practices. For many, hearing 1Corinthians 11 expounded as the purpose for wearing the head covering was a wonderful revelation. For many people it was the first that they had heard it taught.8 However, in attempting to bring correct teaching to these seven areas, a perhaps unintentional, consequence was that it also caused an elevation of the importance of these specific commands over all other Biblical commands.
Coffman was aware of the dangers of ritualism and even cautioned about it in a journal entry, dated July 29, 1890, regarding a book (a minister’s manual) that his boss was publishing saying, “One danger of the book is that it may encourage ritualism.”9
Near the end of his life, Coffman gave more warning against making rules about outward nonconformity: “The Virginia church and conference has done much legislating to keep our people down out of the world in dress and other things, but in spite of all the keeping down they have done, their young men are now more conformed to the world than ours at Elkhart where we do not legislate much, but do some teaching on this point, and instead put our young people to work and have them contend for these principles…. They have tried too much to do by force of law what grace alone can do. What is it worth to keep people down in any sense if they submit only by constraint? We are in the dispensation of grace, and I shall never again help to legislate on outward forms as I did once in the Virginia conference when I did not know better. But I shall work harder in another way for the same principle.”10
As the doctrinal significance of the seven ordinances brought renewed interest in these specific commands, the wearing of the head covering was also highlighted, and women began wearing it more often. Many promoters of the ordinance began to push for woman to wear it at all times “if a woman was really to ‘pray without ceasing’”. (Interestingly enough, the men were not instructed to never wear a hat using the same Scripture.) Gradually, Anabaptist women began to wear it at meal times, family devotions, and then finally all the time.11
Melvin Gingerich describes how after Daniel Kauffman’s Manual of Bible Doctrines was published in 1898, the practice of head covering was then also referred to as an ordinance by district conferences. It has remained as that ever since. What we take for granted as a long established custom–although a biblical one–at this point took on a “hallowed meaning” and Mennonites began to view the symbolism as being almost in a same class as the Lord’s Supper. 12
The head covering then began to progressively be viewed as almost a mystical enigma among Anabaptists. It was thought to offer a woman physical protection from molestation, it was imagined to encourage virtuous behavior, it was thought to be a reminder to women of who they are “morally and ethically”.13 One group, the Manitoba based, Evangelical Mennonite Conference, called for women to wear them as a sign of humility. 14
Some Mennonite women began to view their head coverings as a banner of their religiosity and a symbol of status.15 Many groups began to employ the wearing of head coverings to signify other things as well. For some groups, different covering styles or colors were used to signify the availability of a woman for marriage (as old order Amish and some more conservative groups still do). For others, it signified the wearer had been baptized and was a member of the church.16
Mennonite church leader and Professor Harold S. Bender gave a more orthodox justification for it in 1922, when he wrote that the wearing of the covering was not of a moral or religious nature, but rather a social one. He felt it was to preserve social order and to enforce woman’s submission to man.17
As dress codes and specific directives regarding head coverings for Anabaptist women began making their appearance throughout the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Anabaptist women began to look more and more differently from the rest of society. 18 (Before this our female ancestors did not look much different from those around them.)
Responses to New Mandates
Fashion changes in the late 19th century included the demise of the Victorian-style bonnet and instead many women chose to wear a hat that was often decorated by feathers and flowers, etc.
This was alarming to Anabaptists who viewed the hat as being rather mannish and regarded them as being associated with and symbolic of women’s emancipation. The bonnet was then prescribed by church leaders as being the only acceptable head gear. Church leaders feared that if the bonnet was discarded by women, the covering would also be dropped. (Bonnet enforcement by American Mennonite churches occurred earlier and more rigidly than in Canada –which was soon influenced by visiting American Mennonite evangelists) 19
Interestingly enough, Anabaptists of this time seemed to have forgotten that before the bonnets were in style, their ancestors wore flat hats. Some of whom were very reluctant to accept bonnets.20
The enforcement of bonnet wearing caused much tension, angry debates, and conflict. In the early 1920’s, one of the most bitter conflicts occurred at First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario, regarding the bonnet. The struggle became so angry that it resulted in a church split and the formation of Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church.
A large number of women in this area had quit wearing the prescribed bonnets in favor of a hat while working at their factory jobs in town. (Many single Mennonite women started working factory jobs that were vacated by the men because of the First World War.) As a result of this, the ministers and deacons in that area had a district meeting and passed a resolution that made wearing a bonnet a test of membership for women. When the district bishop refused to serve communion to anyone who did not agree with the resolution, a committee was assigned to investigate the situation. One minister who sided with the women argued that “making a certain cut of head gear the test of discipleship was …not borne out by the teaching of Jesus”.
This issue continued to be a source of contention for quite a number of years in this church and in 1924, resulted in three ordained ministers being excommunicated and about one-third of the members leaving the church. 21
When clothing stores no longer carried the out-of-fashion bonnet, women had to begin making their own. Many women gave resistance to the bonnets (and to the caps) through small acts of rebellion. Some would leave the strings hanging, rather than tying them, and some removed the strings altogether. Some girls delayed their commitment to becoming a member of the Mennonite church so that they could wear the hat longer. Some modified the hats to make them look more like a bonnet by adding strings that tied under the chin.
The historical periods of time when women were involved in non-farm occupations seemed to bring the most resistance to the bonnet. Many women chose to only wear the bonnet to church but refused to wear them to their jobs. 22
Today, mandates for coverings still exist in some form for most conservative Anabaptists, but for most, the “bonnet” is a prayer cap and each church/ conference has its own specific rules for their covering style. Many wear head coverings with strings attached, but hanging. Others no longer have strings attached at all. The hanging veil, in either black or white, has also been added to many circles as being an accepted form of the head covering.
Church membership is not granted for those who do not follow the specific practice of the church they are in. And baptism is usually denied to those who are not willing to become members. Members that dare differ from their established church prescripts are confronted and eventually excommunicated if they refused to wear the right style of covering.23
It seems the wearing of the head covering for Anabaptists continues to be a ritual with extra man-made rules that are still held as highly as Scriptural commands. This does not seem much unlike the Pharisees that Jesus was reprimanding in Mark 7 and Matthew 15.
We are often more grieved about the prescribed shape/size/color of the covering not being followed exactly than we are about women who are not living obediently within the headship order that her head covering is supposed to represent. It seems we teach “commandments of man” for “doctrines” as Jesus spoke of in Mark 7:7.
We regard the head covering as a mystical cloth that carries protective powers of angels for our women (using 1Cor. 11:10—and yet the word protection is never used in this verse) and empowers them to somehow live a more righteous life than those who do not wear it. It has become, in essence, an idol that seeks to take the place of grace (the only thing that can empower anyone to live above sin) and attempts to diminish the power of an omnipotent God who will not allow anything to come into your life without His permission–whether or not an angel is guarding those covered women who are deemed to have “extra protection”.
Wearing the head covering for praying women is a good thing; but the elevation of it, the extra commandments we’ve added, and the idolatry we’ve been allowing, needs to be repented of. If the seven ordinances are the root cause of this, then we need to go to the root.
The Catholics had their seven sacraments that caused ritualism and adding to Scripture. This is another area that the earliest Anabaptists strove to break free from. But we have unwittingly allowed a variant of the same type of thing (however well-meant its intentions may have been in the beginning). Is it not time we turn from ritualism and sacraments (or ordinances as we call them) and just teach all commands in Scripture as being equally important?
I’d like to publically thank Dwight Gingrich for all his help and patience with all the questions I’ve peppered him with the last while. Also for giving tips and editing advice with this blog post and for directing me to some additional resources. It was greatly appreciated!
- Melvin Gingerich, Mennonite Attire through Four Centuries (Breinigsville, PA: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1970, dist. by Herald Press, Scottdale, PA), pg. 126
- This essay is still in “draft” version with further revisions planned, but I have found it to be an excellent historical source with all the research he has done
- Marlene Epp, Mennonite Women in Canada: A History, pg.186
- Andrew C. Martin, “Creating A Timeless Tradition: The Effects of Fundamentalism on the Conservative Mennonite Movement” (MTS thesis, University of Waterloo and Conrad Grebel University College, 2007), 60-62; available from <http://uwspace.uwaterloo.ca/bitstream/10012/3441/1/Thesis%20The%20Effects%20of%20Fundamentalism.pdf>; accessed 31 December 2011.According to Martin, the information about Coffman’s wife came from Coffman’s son S. F. Coffman, recorded by Melvin Gingerich in “A History of Mennonite Costume” (n.p., n.d.), 40-41. Credited in Dwight Gingrich, 125 Years of Seven Ordinances: An Historical and Biblical Review, pg. 20
- Marlene Epp, pg. 196
- Melvin Gingerich, pg. 127
- Melvin Gingerich gives an example of this: “J. S. Hartzler (1857-1953), an Indiana school teacher, who was ordained as an Amish Mennonite minister in 1881 told J. C. Wenger that at that time he did not know there was ‘any Scripture’ for the cap.” pg. 127
- Melvin Gingerich, pg. 130
- Dwight Gingrich, pg.17
- (letter to brother-in-law Lewis J. Heatwole, December 12, 1893; recorded by Barbara F. Coffman, 254) credited to Dwight Gingrich, p.17
- Marlene Epp, p. 186
- Melvin Gingerich, pgs. 130-31
- Marlene Epp, pg. 186
- Marlene Epp, pg. 196
- Strangers at Home, Jane Pederson “She May Be Amish Now, but She Won’t Be Amish Long”: Anabaptist Women and Antimodernism, p.351
- Marlene Epp pg.197
- “The entire question is not one of moral or religious nature, but social…–it is a necessity to preserve the divinely ordained social order from disruption and to enforce the lesson of woman’s submission to man.” Harold S. Bender, “An Exegesis of I Cor. 11:1-16″ (paper, 1922), 19. Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen, IN
- Jane Pederson, pg. 352
- Marlene Epp, pg. 187-188
- Melvin Gingerich, pg. 112 records the story of a woman from Forks church community in Lagrange County, Indiana, who on her deathbed, begged her daughters to promise they would never wear a bonnet. She wanted them to always wear the flat hat.
- Marlene Epp pg.188-189
- Ibid pg.193-195
- I have personally observed this happen
On Double Standards and Idols
One of the most familiar chapters in the Bible to a conservative Anabaptist is 1Corinthians 11. We particularly know these two verses well:
“Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.””But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head.”(1 Cor. 11:4-5a KJV)
These familiar verses seem pretty simple. When a woman is praying or prophesying, she needs to have her head covered. When a man is praying or prophesying, he needs to have his head uncovered.
We men have it pretty easy. No one has ever accused us of being legalistic when we take off our hats to pray (or at least not in my personal experience). We don’t have any rules given to us about how often or long we need to keep our heads uncovered. We are trusted to follow this simple directive as a follower of Christ in a conservative Anabaptist church. No one in the brotherhood checks up on us or confronts us if they see us wearing a hat.
This is a good thing.
We are free to wear a warm hat on cold winter days, we can wear a hat to keep the sun out of our eyes, it’s even okay to wear a hat just because it’s faster than combing our hair (or to cover the lack of it). We often wear hats that advertise a specific company that we like or support; or we just wear one just because we like how we look in a specific hat. We could even walk into our church house wearing a hat, as long as we removed it before going into the service.
So why do we regulate and impose so many applications for the verse to the women? Are they not as trustworthy as a man? Do we view them as being incapable of thought or do we doubt their desire or ability to obey God?
I read an interesting quote written in the late 1920’s, by a Mennonite man named Oscar Burkholder, addressing head coverings and dress. The following was printed in the Gospel Herald and the Christian Review, “It would seem that the woman is still bent on dragging man down; she was the one who first tempted man, and she is still at the same old game.”1
This quote was during an era of when Mennonites were beginning to impose increasingly more mandates for head gear for the women. If this mind set toward women played into the motivation for the extra rules we enforce for our women, then my question is, “Is this still what we believe about women?”
Is this a Biblical mind set? Somehow I just can’t see words like this ever coming from the mouth of Jesus, Who set an example for us on how we should view and treat women.
If we deny having an attitude like this toward women, then why do we persist in having a double standard regarding these two commands?
We expect the women to wear a head covering at all times, because we all know, of course, that she is to “pray without ceasing” (1Thess 5:17). But yet we interpret that same verse differently for ourselves. Why do we apply this verse differently to a man than we do for the woman?
Some of us wear a hat most of the day and only remove it for a brief prayer at meals. But wait– shouldn’t we be “praying without ceasing”?
What if we would view the verses directed at women the same way we do the men? What if a woman only covered her head when she prayed? What if there were times we would see her putting it on in public as she went into prayer? What if we allowed her to make the choice about when she was covered– just as we allow the man to choose when he is uncovered?
This goes against everything we have been taught and believe about the head covering. Why?
It is because we have added so much to this simple directive. We have assigned values, ideals, and reasons for wearing the head covering that are not in given in Scripture– so for us we can not allow it be worn in this kind of way.
We want the woman’s head covering to give a statement of representation of which Anabaptist church she belongs to. Her specific covering can tell us a lot about her beliefs. We want her to wear the covering because of modesty and humility. We believe the covering will empower her to live a more righteous life. We have faith that her covering will grant her extra protection from angels. It will keep her from free of molestation from men with evil intentions.
We believe it is a sign that she is separated from the world– and even separated from non-Anabaptist believers. We want our women’s head coverings to save our culture, our community, and our identity from being taken over by the rest of the world.
In some churches, the color of the covering may represent her marital status. For some, the head covering may announce that she has been baptized and is a member of the church. For others it is a sign of salvation.
We even take it so far as to question a woman who would wear another type of hat over– or instead of– her “prayer covering”. A woman who wears a winter hat for warmth in public often has her motives questioned by others. “Are you ashamed of your covering? Are you trying to hide who you are?”
The wearing of a specific prayer covering is held so highly that to be ashamed–in any way- to wear it at all times is considered to be equal with being ashamed of the gospel of Christ.
Have we elevated a God-given directive to the status of an idol?
How can this be something that God approves of? God will not share His glory, His might, His grace, or His righteousness with a mere piece of cloth that we have decreed to hold a position of power that only He could ever hold.
Only the grace of God can empower any woman or man to live a righteous life. Only the omnipotence of God is the deciding factor for what is allowed–good or bad– into our lives. If the only thing that sets a woman apart from the unbelieving world is a piece of cloth on her head, her religion is in vain.
What did Jesus say is evidence of being a follower of Him? He said in John 13:35, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” But we attempt to make Him a liar by instead replacing that with, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if your women wear the church-prescribed head covering.”
A head covering was never meant to be the evidence of salvation.
We have elevated it so much that we have lost the simplicity of the command. We’ve focused on the application of it to such an extent that we turn people off from wearing it altogether.
We then take our applications and teach “commandments of man” for “doctrine” –just as the Pharisees did with their pet commands that Jesus reprimanded in Mark 7. We have turned a simple command into a recondite doctrine and caused the covering to be more of a burden than a blessing.
But even than, many of our women wear their banner of “humility and modesty” quite proudly. “We are not ashamed to wear this,” they boast with pride.
The Bible gives reasons for wearing it, but it is not because of the extra reasons we have assigned to it. Isn’t it about time we let the Bible speak for itself? Aren’t the reasons God gave for wearing it enough?
It is time to put this commandment back into perspective, let God be God, and let His Word stand alone.
Author’s note: My purpose in this post is to point out where we have erred. Read 1 Cor. 11 if you want the right reasons for praying with a covered head (women) or praying with an uncovered head (men)
1. Oscar Burkholder, “The Devotional Covering,” Gospel Herald 23 (17 April 1930): 67-68; “As it was in the days of Sodom, Attention women!” Christian Review 2 (October 1928): 14
Our Head Covering Applications
What does Jesus think of me? How does He view my people, those of my culture, my denomination? Are there things in my culture that are contrary to His teachings and need changing? These are good things to ask ourselves occasionally because it is so easy to move away from His heart, His desire for us, if we are not heedful to stay connected to the Vine. Moving away from Him– regardless of which direction– will be just enough to cause us to miss the mark.
Jesus was born into a Jewish culture. The religious leaders of His culture rejected Him and His teachings because it was so different from their mind set and the way they had been doing things for so long. Are there things in my life or my culture that cause me to reject what Jesus taught because we have “done it this way” for so long that anything different can’t even be considered?
When the religious leaders confronted Jesus about not keeping their oral laws, He pointed out how their traditions/oral laws were keeping them from obeying some of God’s commands and causing them to be blinded to God’s original intention for His commands.
It made me wonder if we have done this with any Biblical commands? Have we become like those religious leaders in any way? Are there ways that we are imitating the Pharisees and turning Jesus away by our commitment to some man made traditions/applications?
Did the Pharisees know the difference between a command from God and an application?
The religious leaders took commands (given by God) and seemingly added to them to make sure that the common folk would know how to follow them correctly. We could call this the application part of the command.
For example, the law said that Aaron and his sons were to wash their hands and feet before going into the tabernacle or coming near the alter. By the time Jesus was on earth, there had been much added to this command and the Pharisees taught that one should wash his hands before and after eating. They considered anyone who didn’t do this to be no better than a pagan. They “induced men to” do it by teaching that an evil spirit, called Shiybta’, sits on their hands by night, and has a right to sit on the food of him who does not wash his hands.1
Even though there was no direct command in the law regarding washing hands before eating, only traditions pertaining to that law, the Pharisees had no problem confronting others, specifically Jesus, for this perceived sin. (Mat. 15, Mark 7)
Another example would be the law of keeping the Sabbath. They were not to work, or carry a “burden”, or “kindle a fire”. (Exodus 20, 35; Jeremiah 17 are a few passages that refer to this) The Jews then added “commandments of men” or “traditions” to this commandment as applications of it. They had a total of 39 categories of activities that were prohibited. They also had a much shorter list of activities that were allowed on the Sabbath.2
When Jesus did not keep their oral traditions/applications, it became very obvious that they held their applications as high as– if not higher than–God’s commands.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and their applications
Jesus healed a lame man (John 5) on the Sabbath, then told the man to “take up his bed and walk”. He seemed to see the common sense of not leaving the man’s bed there just because it was the Sabbath day. He knew that it was needful for the man to have his bed. Jesus showed that legalism was not part of His plan for the Sabbath. He also showed that mercy and acts of necessity on the Sabbath were lawful.
The Pharisees, however, completely ignored the lesson that Jesus was trying to show. They didn’t even seem to notice what a great miracle from God had just occurred! All they saw was that their interpretation of a Sabbath law had been broken.
The fact that Jesus healed people on the Sabbath day and did other things that contradicted their beliefs regarding Sabbath keeping seemed to be particularly offensive to them because of their many traditions concerning that law. But in Mark 2:27, Jesus told them, “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”.
This admonition came right after they had confronted Jesus and His disciples for picking corn and eating it on a second Sabbath (Luke 6:1 –which is when the first fruits were to be offered). Jesus was not stressed about it, but had a ready answer. In Matthew 12:7, we hear Jesus telling the Pharisees that He would rather have mercy and not sacrifice (regarding a hungry person eating that which was meant for a Sabbath sacrifice) showing even more clearly what was in His heart regarding the Sabbath.
In Matthew 23, we hear Jesus talking to the multitude and his disciples about the scribes and the Pharisees. He warns them not to do like the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus’ words about them were, “…they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders…all their works they do to be seen by men.” (4-5)
In verses 23-28, He describes them further and says how they demand an exact tenth of even the smallest herbs but omit the “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith”. Jesus calls them “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” He depicts them as “whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.”
Are applications wrong to have?
When God gives a command, how we live it out is our application of it. That is not wrong. But if my application of a Biblical command causes me to disobey another direct Biblical command, then my application can become wrong.
What if I hold my application as high as a Biblical command and teach it as such? Is this wrong? Maybe a better question would be, what did Jesus think of the Pharisees who did that? He described the Pharisees like this, “…they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders…”
And what were those burdens? Was it not their applications that they insisted that everyone must follow just as much– if not more than– God’s commands?
Dwight Gingrich says it like this, “The mere act of treating man’s word as weightily as God’s word is blasphemy against God’s word, a de facto demotion of God to the status of man.”3
And I could add here that treating man’s word as weightily as God’s Word could also be viewed as the attempt to promote man to the status of god.
We have many applications/traditions within our Anabaptists circles. They don’t seem odd to most of us because we have grown up with them. We know them well, and for the most part, do not question them. When outsiders view our applications though, they often question why we insist on doing things this specifically. When we defend our applications so religiously that we hold them equal with a command of God, it makes me wonder if we know how to tell the difference between our applications and a Biblical command. Dwight Gingrich addresses this more in depth here .
Dwight also has another essay showing how applications/traditions can be a positive thing when they are done correctly. You can find that here .
The head covering– Biblical command or application?
The head covering is a good example of a Biblical command that Anabaptists have added applications to. I have my own preferences for my wife and daughters in regards to our application of this command. However, I doubt that everyone else around me has that exact application. And if I insist that everyone must do exactly as I do or I can not consider them to be a true brother/sister in Christ, something is wrong.
The only thing 1Corinthians 11 says is that women are to pray with their heads covered and the men with their heads uncovered. If God did not deem it necessary to say exactly what that head covering should look like, could it be that He wanted a variety? Maybe He doesn’t prefer robot replicas all doing the same thing– maybe He likes to see colors and diversities of styles. I don’t know what His reason is for not spelling out, but it just seems if He thought what it looked like –color, shape, size, style– was so important, He would have said so.
It seems to me that God probably cares more about what the covered head is supposed to be symbolizing than He does about what that symbol is supposed to look like (since He didn’t spell it out). When we take our focus off the act and onto the symbol, we often end up missing the point.
Women are often confronted quicker for head coverings that aren’t up to code, than they are for not living out the headship order it is supposed to represent. But which of these is actually a commandment of God? Do you think He is more grieved about the actions of a woman that is wearing the correct church standard covering while being disrespectful or non-submissive to her husband, or with the non-Anabaptist woman who is in right relationship with her husband and wears a scarf or some other covering? Would Jesus words to the Pharisees apply here? “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”
When someone from outside our Anabaptist traditions attempts to join our group, one of the first things we do is to make sure that their head covering is “up to standard”. Is it the right shape, color, size, etc.? If not, we let them know they need to change it before they can join our fellowship. Sometimes the woman in question may be wearing a covering that covers more of the head than most Anabaptist women’s coverings do, and still we insist she must change because we must have “unity”. But is this unity–or is it just uniformity?
Just because an entire congregation agrees to do something a certain way does not make it Truth or make it equal to a command of God. In fact, it sounds a bit like the post-modern belief of saying truth is relative (truth is truth because we all agree on it).
We say that we must add rules to the covering command to ensure that it is followed and that we don’t lose this practice. But what good is the practice if there is no change in the heart? When our long list of head covering rules is the only thing keeping everyone looking right, all we get is a lot of correct looking “Christians” who are like plastic imitations of the real thing.
In Acts 20:38-32, Paul is addressing some church leaders about dangers that the church would face regarding being drawn away from truth. He warns the overseers of these churches that “wolves” that would enter into the church to “draw away the disciples after them”. But he doesn’t tell them to make a long list of rules and guidelines to protect their flock or to keep them from falling away. He doesn’t tell them to start their own sub-culture to make sure their godliness is passed down to the next generation. In fact Paul warns that some of the danger would come from within their own group (vs. 30). Even if they could keep the “wolves” out, what about the “sheep” within their group that would also be doing the same thing?
So what was Paul’s “solution”? He only exhorts them to “take heed”, to “watch and remember” that he had “not ceased to warn them” and then he says, “I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified..”
Have we just decided within ourselves that Paul’s solution is not sufficient? Have we looked at God’s Word and decided that it is not enough–that we must do more than what God says because we have a better way?
1. Adam Clark commentary on Matthew 15:2