Probably all of us have at some time or other wished we could ask Jesus in person to clarify some point of Scripture. For many of us, these questions have concerned the application of various Law passages–after all, we want to make sure we are doing the right thing to please God. The Gospels record that people were asking Jesus such questions in the days when He walked the earth. And usually, Jesus didn’t give them the kind of answers they wanted. His answers often upheld the integrity of the Scripture, of the divine Law God had given (as opposed to the traditions men had added to the Law), yet His words cut to the heart of the issue–that is, to the heart of the person asking the question. The more important matter was always whether the asker had faith and love.
I’m sure many of us would like to ask Jesus about head-covering–does it apply to us today? If so, in what manner? I don’t think it’s wrong to wonder about this, but I know from experience with my own sinful flesh that it’s easy to develop a legalistic and even Pharisaical mindset about it to the point where we lose focus on the more important matters of the heart. I think that if we were to ask Jesus about the application of 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, He would respond with an answer that would sound a lot like what St. Paul writes a couple of chapters later, in 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love chapter.” I will quote it below from the NKJV:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
My point in this post is twofold. First of all, while it’s not wrong to study passages of Scripture intensively to understand exactly what they mean and how we should live according to them, we must never neglect love for our neighbor. All our works done without faith in Christ and love for our neighbor are useless, empty husks. We may be outwardly performing the Law to the letter, but if we have not love, the work profits us nothing. We are simply puffed up and arrogant, judging others for neglecting the Law while we without realizing it are committing the greater sin, piling hypocrisy on top of our own failure to keep the Law. Lord, have mercy!
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (see 1 Corinthians 8:1). As we wear our headcoverings, let us also remember to love everyone we meet, to greet them with a sincere smile, to show them hospitality and every kindness, and to remember that just as Christ receives us miserable beggars, so are we to receive others. Let us extend the grace and mercy the Lord imparts to us–for we do not fulfill the Law perfectly, and we do not love our neighbor perfectly. We need forgiveness for our lack of love, for we can barely even begin in this life to love as Christ loves us. Yet as we receive forgiveness for our lack of love, our heart will begin to fill with all the more love, and this love will then spill out to those around us.
My second point can be summarized in the words of one of my favorite hymns: “God’s Word is all-sufficient; It makes divinely sure, And trusting in its wisdom, My faith shall rest secure” (LSB 587:1). Many of us, seeking to apply the headcovering passage correctly, look for signs or ask God to speak to their heart to reveal to them what they should do. While I won’t deny that God can and sometimes does use signs to communicate things to people, His ordinary way of speaking to us is through His Word. I would be wary of imagining God has given us a sign when He has not. It is all too easy to interpret an ordinary–or extraordinary–event the way we want to. Two people can come to opposite conclusions by means of “signs,” and then all of Scripture is relativized and subjectively interpreted.
I’ll give a real-life example. In 2009, the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) voted at its Churchwide Assembly to ordain non-celibate homosexual clergy and to allow same-sex marriage. The whole time voting was taking place, a violent storm raged outside, and a tornado came down the street and overturned the cross on the steeple of the ELCA church across from the convention center. Many conservatives interpreted this as a sign that God had departed from the ELCA and demoted it from being a church. (See one article here.) Yet others pointed out that once the voting was complete, the sun came out shining. Some liberals cited this as a sign that God was showing His approval of the actions taken, and that the storm was a warning lest they should fail to vote in favor of the gay agenda. (I can no longer find a source to back this up, but I was an active member of the ELCA when this happened and distinctly remember its being discussed.)
Which interpretation is correct? What was the true sign, and what was God trying to tell the ELCA? One cannot be certain about such “signs”–but one can be certain about God’s revealed Word in holy Scripture. He has already spoken there; His Word is the true, unchangeable, objective sign. So let us not pray for signs external to His Word, but let us rather pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us as we read and hear and study the Word, and let us seek to find our answers there, and not in signs in the world or feelings in our hearts. We may run into wild coincidences or feel all kinds of warm fuzzies or even imagine we hear God speaking to our hearts and minds, but we cannot trust these subjective things, which often are not supported by Scripture or go beyond it.
In conclusion, the only reliable source of truth we have is the Word of God. Jesus consistently points us to the Word, and He points us to Himself, the incarnate Word. He is the fulfiller of the Law, and He always acts in mercy and love toward us unworthy, unlovable, loveless sinners. He performs the Law in love and commands us to love one another as He has loved us (John 13:34-35). Let us strive first to fulfill this law, and make all other works subordinate to it–not that we should cease to do them, but rather that we should do them in love, always remembering the One who in love fulfilled the Law for us so that if we are found in Him, no good thing will be found lacking in us on the Last Day.