Principle or Custom?

For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head” (1 Cor. 11:6).

- 1 Corinthians 11:1–16

The great American author Herman Melville authored many works other than his famous Moby Dick. One of these novels, Redburn, tells the story of a young sailor’s voyage from Massachusetts to Liverpool, England. His father gives him a map of the Liverpool of his own youth but when his son arrives there, the map is hard to use as the town has changed much since his father’s day.

This scene illustrates the difficulty we can have when applying the Bible today. After all, Scripture was written thousands of years ago, to a world vastly different in its technological and scientific acumen. How, then, do we know how to follow this ancient text today?

Orthodox Christianity believes original meaning determines faithful application; therefore, we study the background of each biblical book. When we know the particular issues being addressed, we can better identify which teachings are principles and which are customs. Principles are God’s standards for all times and all places. For instance, “do not murder” (Ex. 20:13) remains valid today. Customs, on the other hand, are not eternal norms. Things like currency do not transcend time and space. Tithing as a principle (Num. 18), for example, holds true, and we must give money to the church today. However, the custom of paying with shekels is not the way in which we can be faithful to this principle in the United States today!

Unfortunately, distinguishing principle from custom can be difficult. Today’s passage is a fine example of this. Many believe women must continue to wear head coverings today because Paul apparently bases his teaching on the principle of a husband’s authority (1 Cor. 11:7–10). Yet certain factors may indicate head covering is only a custom. Paul might have been trying to shield Christian women from charges of immorality since prostitutes in Corinth advertised their “trade” with uncovered heads.

In the end, we are not to separate from other professing believers regarding this particular issue. It is simply offered as an example to show that while we must obey the Lord’s principles, it is not always easy to determine what these principles are.

Coram Deo

Sometimes, after we have studied the background of a text thoroughly, we are still not sure whether it is giving us a principle or a custom. But it is better to treat a custom as a principle than a principle as a custom. If we think a custom is a principle, we are only guilty of being overtly scrupulous. However, in disregarding what is really a principle because we say it is a custom, we disobey God. When faced with unclarity, treat the biblical teaching as if it is a principle.

Passages for Further Study

Ruth 4:1–12
1 Sam. 2:12–17
Mal. 3:6
James 4:17

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