How to read difficult texts?

by Christian Alf

Recently I preached on First Peter 3:1-7. This is a difficult passages. Not only are there several verses that run contrary to culture, there is also one line that is confusing. Peter says to the wives: “Do not let your adorning be external --- the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear.” It is almost like he is telling the women not to braid their hair or wear jewelry. Is that what he is saying?

This verse reminds me of 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul writes: “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, since it is the same as if her head were shaven.” (1 Cor 11:4-5) What is he saying? And why do the women at ElementCS not cover their heads or shave their heads?

Well, to answer these questions we need to spend a little time looking at how we read through the Bible, and especially through difficult passages. I am encouraging you to read passages and verses that you might not understand the first or 50th time through. But, I don't want you to just read the verses by themselves. When I pull out the single verse of First Peter 3:3 it seems to state that woman can't dress nicely. And then we go and look at those verses in 1 Corinthians and we get confused about headcoverings. What we miss by reading these verses independently is the context. It is critical for us to expand our view to the surrounding verses and read the context of the statement.

Let us first look at the context of First Peter 3:3-4.

“Do not let your adorning be external --- the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear --- but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious.” When we extend the view onto the next verse we start to see that this truly is a statement about the adorning. “Do not let your adorning be external… but let your adorning be the hidden person” Peter is giving us an example of what adorning externally could be. If we were to take that clause as a literal command not to braid hair, put on gold jewelry, or wear clothes, that would be crazy! Peter is not telling the women to run around naked! No, he is saying, don’t let your focus be on your external beauty, but on the quite beauty of the heart, which is internal. (For more on this listen to the sermon from December 2, 2018)

Likewise we can look at what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians. Are men a disgrace if we pray in a baseball hat? And should the women of ElementCS shave their heads since they don’t wear headcoverings? This is an extreme statement, so we need to go look at the context to see what else he is saying. Just a few verses later he says: “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” (1 Cor 11:13-14) We can start to see a picture come together here by pulling in more context. Paul says that the long hair of a woman is her glory, so clearly he is not a proponent of shaving, and he also says that it is contrary to nature for a man to wear long hair. Great! I used to have long hair. So this is where we can pull in some extra help. We read the difficult verses in context and then if there is still confusion we can turn to a trusted study bible, pastor, or commentary. I will quote two passages from the ESV study bible which will shed some more light on this.

Why should a woman not pray with her head uncovered? Well, this “may have connoted sexual availability or may simply have been a sign of being unmarried. In cultures where women’s head covering are not a sign of being married, wives do not need to cover their heads in worship, but they could obey this command by wearing some other physical symbol of being married (such as a wedding ring).”1 And then later in reference to Verse 14: “Nature probably means ‘your natural sense of what is appropriate for men and women’: it would be a disgrace for a man to look like a woman because of his hair style. Although the norms of appropriate hair style (and dress) may vary from culture to culture, Paul’s point is that men should look like men in that culture, and women should look like women in that culture, rather than seeking to deny or disparage the God-given difference between the sexes.”1 So, like the headcoverings this is not an explicit command. Wives should look as if they are married and men and women should look as culturally appropriate versions of their sex. This is why you will not see the women in ElementCS with headcoverings or shaved heads, and we will preach wearing pants and not dresses.

So, context matters when reading difficult passages and if the context does not clarify everything, then sometimes seeking external help will help provide the language and cultural context required to fully comprehend the text.


1Taken from the ESV® Study Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright ©2008 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.