Today I ran upon the argument, for probably the fiftieth time, that St. Paul’s dictum on women’s head-covering was a pastoral directive to be applied only in a culture where an uncovered head was a sign of immodesty. In different cultures, different norms pertain, so that in our own it may safely be ignored as long as women dress modestly by prevailing standards--that in fact women’s hats have become a way to show off, so that following the apostle’s directions literally here and now would be subverting his purpose.
Putting aside the slimy rhetoric of linking apostolic head-covering with “women’s hats,” I reject the argument. It is not nearly as judicious as it sounds because symbols are not as labile as the arguer thinks they are. They have an irreducibility the churches are bound to recognize and honor. This is why cola and bananas will never do for the Lord’s Supper: one simply waits until bread and wine are available, even if death intervenes, rather than substitute something else as though symbols were merely creatures of the mind, having only the being and attributes the mind gives them, instead of being the specific, substantial, purposive, synergic gifts of God.
In societies where the whores wear hats, the Christian woman’s head covering simply means something else--that is, the universe of relations, visible and invisible, in which it stands has a different telos than that of the prostitutes. My own pastoral directive would be that the Christian woman shouldn’t wear hats like theirs, not that she should abandon head-covering. And if whores started wearing head-coverings like those of Christian women (as Madonna wore a cross while performing), I would counsel no change at all, for this would bring the Great Irony into clear relief. No one would mistake them for whores, or the whores for Christians.
To be sure, believers wear their faith not only in their clothing, but their countenance and bearing. This observation has only rarely been used among professing Christians as an argument that they might, under certain conditions, and for reasons of modesty, remove their clothing in public--but that is the track such arguers place us upon--that there is really no fixed ground in matters like this, for we are dealing with “mere symbols.” Only, however, when we agree that no Christian symbol is "mere," can we move on to discuss what obedience to the apostolic directive should look like in our own day.