The Bible was written by particular people, in a particular culture at a particular time, and yet, Christians also believe that it was written by the Holy Spirit of God. Believing both of these things simultaneously requires us to exercise wisdom and discernment when studying and applying the Scriptures. Take Matthew 6:16-18 for example:
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16–18 ESV)
There is a clear and obvious point being made in this passage: beware the danger of religious hypocrisy! Do your acts of religious devotion and piety in secret. Do it for the Lord. Do not do it for the approval of others.
In order to make that point Jesus draws upon certain common practices and cultural norms that would have been easily recognized and understood by his hearers. The Pharisees were rigorous fasters. They went well beyond the requirements of the Law, fasting twice a week, and would usually make sure that everyone around them was aware of what they were doing. They would tussle their hair and walk around unwashed and dishevelled.
Don’t do that, Jesus says.
“when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.” (Matthew 6:17–18 ESV)
Anointing was fairly common as a cosmetic procedure. It made the hair glisten and it doubled as a sort of perfume. I think most of us understand that we are not being commanded to adopt 1st century Jewish beauty techniques whenever we fast, rather, we are being told to go about our daily routine. Wash and style your hair, put on deodorant, smile when you greet people at the office. Do your thing. Let your private acts of devotion and piety remain between you and the Lord. The goal for us as readers is to extract the authoritative principle and to reapply it in ways that suit our current cultural and personal context.
The same basic approach applies to a similar, though more controversial passage in 1 Corinthians 11. In that passage Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth and said:
“Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head” (1 Corinthians 11:4–5 ESV)
The point in that passage has to do with honouring the order of creation when we gather for corporate worship. Men and women are equal with respect to our dignity and worth and equal with respect to our Gospel inheritance, but there are certain differences that are not obliterated by the grace of God in Christ.
Men are still men and women are still women – and we should look like males and females when we gather together for corporate worship. Women should not look like they would rather be men. Married women should look like they are happy being married. Married men should look like they are trying to lead in the home and in the church.
That’s the point Paul is making in 1 Corinthians 11 and like Jesus in Matthew 6, he makes his point by drawing upon certain recognized features of 1st century culture.
In the Roman world at that time, the way to look like a married woman was to wear a stola and so Paul commends the continuation of that custom in the church. J.I. Packer says:
“The Biblical revelation was given in terms of Eastern culture, environment and thought-forms, all very different from our modern, industrial, Western world, and it has to be translated into modern terms before men can fully grasp its relevance.” 
If you were to ask 100 people on the street of any city in North America today how women in our culture signal that they are happily married I doubt that a single person would say anything about headwear. A woman with a scarf around her head in our culture is presumed to be cold, stylish or perhaps European. Again, the goal of this passage is not to commend 1st century fashion norms, rather it is to commend respect for natural law and the created order within the church.
In our culture today there are ways for a woman to communicate that she is married (she could wear a wedding ring and avoid plunging necklines) and there are ways for her to communicate that she is happy being a mother (she could sit with her children in church) and there are ways for her husband to communicate that he is attempting to lead spiritually in the home and in the church (he could sit with his Bible open and take careful notes). All of these symbols and gestures communicate clearly in our culture and respect the general principle that is being advanced in the passage.
Legalism is easy, but it is often not the best way to show respect for the text.
Do the hard work.
Try to figure out what is really being said and avoid the trap of simplistic application.
Pastor Paul Carter
If you are interested in more Bible teaching from Pastor Paul you can access the entire library of Into The Word episodes through the Audio tab on the Into the Word website. You can also download the Into The Word app on iTunes or Google Play.
 J.I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” And The Word Of God (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1958),136.