For excusable reasons, many from the West are under the impression that the veil, or head covering, is a Muslim tradition that has been adopted by some Christians from the East. They couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, some Muslims have admitted that the opposite is true and that the idea for the head covering originated from the Bible and not the other way around.
With that cleared up, we still need to tackle the second question:
Is it a cultural tradition only?
Is the head covering something the East does out of habit? Did Paul instruct it as a cultural tradition?
Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.
– 1 Corinthians 11:2 NASB
Aha! “Traditions!” There it is.
Read the very next topic Paul addresses:
But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse.
– 1 Corinthians 11:17 NASB
He praises them for one “tradition” but doesn’t praise them in another “instruction”.
It’s important then that we understand what the word “tradition” means.
A typical dictionary definition goes something like this:
“A tradition is a custom or belief that has existed for a long time.”
– Collins Dictionary
Rather than being simply a practice that we do out of routine, the word “tradition” is a way of living we believe to be right that is passed on from generation to generation; and, as is well known about the books of the bible, the teachings were not easily accessible to all but were handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.
So, yes, the head covering is a tradition or teaching or ordinance, as some Bible Translations word it, just like the rest of the first letter to the Corinthians, and the second, and all the others books of the Bible.
What the head covering is not, though, is a cultural tradition. There is no indication, in this passage or any other, that parts of the Bible were to only be actioned by the Easterners and not the Westerners nor others to be actioned by the Westerners and not the Easterners. Afterall, think about where Paul is from and to whom he is speaking.
Can you imagine, Paul coming from the Middle East, Palestine, and travels to Europe, Greece, to teach them a Middle Eastern tradition? Even if that were the case, if it was important enough to be passed on to Europe, why not the far West, America and Australia?
If we were to dismiss the head covering with the excuse that it is a “cultural tradition only”, then the rest of that passage falls apart and so does the rest of the letter to the Corinthians and, well, where do we draw the line? How much of the Bible was simply a “cultural tradition” and how much do we pay attention to?
As it is, the head covering wasn’t a cultural tradition but a tradition of faith — as a less popular Bible Translation puts it — a teaching, that was being passed on along with other commandments and ordinances.