I am writing this article due to an urgent need. As a student of theology, I need an answer to a question that on one hands relates to Biblical interpretation and on the other hand relates to a particular style of worship. Bringing this issue to the fore may help me find some answers.
According to 1 Corinthians, women in the church need to cover their heads, especially when they are praying or prophesying. In the same letter, Paul tells us to only speak in tongues during the service when interpretation is available. Otherwise, we should avoid speaking or praying in tongues.
The question is this: why do we only follow only one of these teachings in the church while completely ignoring the other?
Both these instructions come from the same epistle, from the same apostle. Yet as Pakistani Christians we only stress on women covering their heads, but when someone speaks in tongues without interpretation, we consider it a sign of the Holy Spirit, even though this contradicts scripture which was written under the guidance of the Spirit. This is a blatant contradiction, which is practically demonstrated in various local Pentecostal churches, and even those churches that under influence of the Charismatic movement have even surpassed the traditional Pentecostal churches in their style of worship.
Before proceeding I must clarify that I am not against Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, and nor do I deny the gifts of the Spirit. In fact, Paul himself doesn't forbid believers from speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39), yet he stipulates the availability of interpretation. But in the churches where believers speak in tongues, they usually ignore this condition, and yet in these same churches, covering the head for women is considered the 11th commandment! Why is this so?
Here are the verses under discussion:
On Covering the Head (11:5-16)
On Speaking in Tongues (14:5, 13, 27-28)
The plain reading shows that Paul is continuing his argument in chapters 11 through 14 where the issues include the use of charismatic gifts and order during worship. Thus, he is presenting his case in a flow. Yet many of us practically break this flow in our churches. What's completely outrageous is that many Christian women cover their heads while speaking in tongues without interpretation! This is a clear disobedience of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 through 14.
The churches where this practice is common should tell us their hermeneutical principle through which they are able to literally enforce the covering of the head for women while openly ignoring the need for interpretation when someone is allowed to speak in tongues. And to avoid being a stumbling block to other believers, such churches should publish their hermeneutical principle.
Now my question can have 3 possible answers. In the interest of fairness, I will briefly discuss these answers as well.
1- These instructions are primarily for the Corinthian Church and secondarily for us. Thus, it is not an imperative that we follow the epistle in all its details
Fair enough. It is a basic rule of interpretation that we should try to understand what a text meant to its first audience, in this case, the Corinthian church. This helps us to understand the original meaning of the text, and then we can apply it in our context.
But as Pakistani Christians, are we willing to apply this interpretative rule when it comes to head covering for women? If not, why not? If we say that the instructions on covering the head still apply, then so do the instructions for speaking in tongues.
2- Covering the head is a sign of a woman's submission, which is prominently taught in other parts of Scripture as well (e.g. Ephesians 5:23). However, speaking in tongues is only discussed marginally in the Bible. That is why covering the head is of greater importance than interpretation of tongues
This argument is strong, but there are some limitations. Firstly, the argument itself demonstrates that the NT doesn't give much importance to the speaking and interpretation of tongues. So why should we give so much importance to these gifts? Think about it.
In fact, Paul regards prophecy to be a greater gift than speaking or interpreting tongues (14:5). And if the listing of gifts in chapter 12 is to be understood in a descending order, then tongues and their interpretation come at the very end, i.e. they are of the least importance in the growth of the church. Yet this is the gift that many local Christians desire the most today.
Secondly, while there is a dearth of NT references in regards to speaking in tongues, yet such references do exist and they reveal a broader understanding of this gift. The broader understanding of the gift of tongues is this: to proclaim the marvels of God in a way that people understand.
The greatest reference in this respect is Acts 2:2-8, the coming of tongues from heaven on the day of Pentecost. This is perhaps the clearest reference of speaking in tongues, but it refers to the languages of this world. This is the plain meaning of the the Greek word "glossa", which has been translated as 'tongues' in the NT.
In fact, a pretty good case can be made that Paul understood tongues in this very sense (14:21 cf. Isaiah 28:11-12). To sum up, if we want to bring in other passages of the Bible in this discussion, then we will also have to correct our understanding of this charismatic gift.
As far as the submission of women is concerned, essentially there is no difference between man and woman in the eyes of God (11:11-12).
3- If a believer, filled with the Spirit, starts speaking in tongues, what difference does it make if interpretation is not available? Is the Spirit bound by rules?
Absolutely not. The Spirit is dynamic and sovereign, free to work in the church as He pleases. But how can the Holy Spirit contradict himself? Didn't the Spirit himself move Paul to write these instructions?
And if it isn't so, then will we allow women in the church who are moved by Spirit to perform a mystic dance where they don't cover their heads? If not, then we are also restricting the work of the Spirit. If we can't allow women to dance and move in this manner during worship, then we shouldn't also allow the speaking of tongues without interpretation, for the sake of consistency.
Remember that the dancing of mystics is representative of our local spirituality as Pakistanis, yet the speaking of tongues is clearly an imported spirituality. This was neither the practice of our ancestors who first came to faith, nor the missionaries who brought them to faith. And it certainly wasn't the practice of the Apostles.
As far as I am concerned, there is simply no hermeneutic principle that enables us to force women to cover their heads in the church and yet not object when someone speaks in tongues without anyone interpreting.
May God enable us to use the gifts of the Spirit appropriately for the growth of the church. Amen!