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Spiritual Principles - Customs - Rites
Keith Sharp

When I was in Nigeria in 1992, one of the preachers in my class in Ibadan asked if a woman should wear an artificial head covering. I briefly expounded 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and concluded it was a matter of custom or liberty. Obviously some of the preachers disagreed. Later in the week, I was preaching in one of the local congregations in the evening, received the same question, and replied the same way. Before this audience Brother Sunday Ayandare informed me that a Yoruba woman who appeared in public bare headed was considered a prostitute. I replied, "Sisters, put on your head coverings!"

I received the same question twice, and, though I came to a different conclusion the second time, my teaching about the passage didn't change. How is this? This involves an understanding and application of three concepts of Scripture: spiritual principles, customs, and rituals.

Spiritual Principles

The kingdom of heaven pertains to the spiritual rather than the carnal, i.e. fleshly (John 18:36; Romans 14:17; Ephesians 1:3; Colossians 2:20-23). Thus, it is the spiritual principle of a passage that is binding. Therefore, if the outward act is only a cultural or incidental expression of that principle, the outward act is a liberty, not a requirement. To find what is bound by the Lord upon us in any passage, we need to find what has spiritual significance.


The word "custom," pertaining to a common practice, occurs nine times in the King James Version of the New Testament. Twice it is a translation of the Greek term "sunetheia" (Young, 216). This word means "a custom ..., customary usage, ... or force of habit" (Vine, 1:163). It is not used to mean a practice required by law (cf. John 18:39).


If a customary practice is bound by divine law, it is no longer just a customary expression of a spiritual principle but is something God ordains that is inseparable from its spiritual principle. The Greek word the New Testament writers employ for this kind of custom is "ethos." Vine defines this term as "a custom, usage, prescribed by law, ... a rite or ceremony" (Ibid., cf. Luke 1:9; 2:27, 42; Vine also points out and New Testament passages confirm that this word can be used of customs not required by law.) These rites are outward expressions of spiritual principles.

The Old Testament was filled with ritual. The book of Leviticus, containing the priestly rites, is full of such acts required by God. Ritualism was a characteristic of Old Testament service and worship.

Christ binds two and only two rites upon us, neither were customs before He ordained them, and both represent what is at once unique to and the basis of the gospel: the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These rites are baptism (Romans 6:3-6) and the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-29).

It is sinful to bind customs as essential to salvation that God has not so bound (Acts 15:1; Colossians 2:20-23). This raises human customs to the level of divine rite. Ritualism is a return to Judaism (cf. Galatians 5:1-4).


Circumcision of sins is a rite the Jews received from their forefather, Abraham (Genesis 17:9-14). As a customary practice, it is innocent (Acts 16:1-3). But, since the Old Testament was taken away by Christ (Colossians 2:13-15), it is sinful to bind this custom as a divine ritual essential to salvation (Galatians 2:3-5).

The Master commanded His disciples to wash each other's feet (John 13:1-17). Some practice foot washing as a religious ceremony, which it never was. It was a customary act of hospitality and humble service at a time when people walked miles in sandals on dusty roads to visit one another (Luke 7:44). To turn foot washing into a ceremony is to rob it of its purpose. The spiritual principle Jesus taught was humble service (Matthew 20:25-28).

Jews customarily greeted each other with a kiss (Luke 7:45). So, Paul enjoins us, "Greet one another with a holy kiss" (Romans 16:16). The form of the greeting was simply a custom, but its nature, "holy," is a spiritual principle.

Lifting up hands to pray was so widespread a custom in the first century that Paul could use the phrase "lifting up holy hands" as a metonymy to mean praying (1 Timothy 2:8). But people also, with divine approval, beat their breasts (Luke 18:13) and knelt (Acts 20:36). There is no bound posture in prayer.

Laying on of hands can be traced all the way back to the patriarchs to signify doing violence to someone (Genesis 37:22), imparting a blessing (Genesis 48:14-16), transferring the guilt of sin (Leviticus 1:4; 16:21-22), ordaining into office (Numbers 8:9-11), healing (Mark 6:5), imparting spiritual gifts (Acts 19:6), and expressing fellowship with those being set apart for a special work (Acts 13:1-3). This practice was so common with early Christians that Paul spoke of it by metonymy to refer to setting men into office (1 Timothy 5:22). Not only was this an ancient, customary manner of expressing approval and fellowship rather than a New Testament ordinance, giving others the "right hand of fellowship" was used by the apostles for the same purpose (Galatians 2:9). Thus, we have confirmation that, rather than being a rite the Lord requires, laying on of hands is a customary liberty. We should show our fellowship and approval of those being ordained into office in the church (Titus 1:5) or being set apart for special service (Galatians 2:9), but the manner in which we do this is a liberty.

In the apostolic age many women undoubtedly wore an artificial head covering to symbolize their subjection to their husbands (1 Corinthians 11:2-16). But Paul specifically described this practice as a "custom" (verse 16, "sunetheia," practice not bound by law). The word "custom" does not refer to contentiousness (verse 16), for this is a sin, not an innocent custom. Nor did the apostle teach that the woman's head covering was a universal custom among Christians at that time by using the term "other" before "custom". Except in 1 Corinthians 11:16, the New American Standard Bible consistently translates the Greek word "toioutos," which in 1 Corinthians 11:16 is translated "other" as "such" or a synonym of "such," the opposite of "other". And even if we grant the mistranslation, Paul still called it a custom. Women, be in subjection to your husbands, wear a head covering if your conscience or social customs where you live demand it, but do not raise a custom to the level of divine rite.


One of the striking differences between Old Testament worship and that of the New is the complex ritualism of the Old and the simplicity of the New. The Lord has bound upon Christians only two rites - baptism and the Lord's Supper. They are both unique to the New Testament and signify the basis of our salvation: the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. We may employ innocent customs to express spiritual principles of worship and service, but we must not abandon the liberty in Christ to return to the ritualism of the law.


  1. "Metonymy is a figure by which one name or noun is used instead of another, to which it stands in a certain relation" (Bullinger, 539). The phrase "lifting up holy hands" is metonymy of the sign for the thing signified (Ibid. 603, 607).

Works Cited

Bullinger, E.W., Figures of Speech Used in the Bible.
Vine, W.E., An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.
Young, Robert, Analytical Concordance to the Bible.

(Comment by Lowell Blasingame: This question came up in the Calabar area with me, and I answered much as you the first time. S.J. Ebong, Manny's uncle, replied that the practice among the Efiks symbolized a woman's subjection to her husband and that a sister who refused to wear one there was disfellowshipped. I replied as you, telling sisters to wear it, but then pointed out to S.J. that the custom in China was for a woman to walk behind her husband, never at his side or in front of him. I asked him if I were a Chinese and came to Nigeria binding this custom on Nigerian women, some of whom I had seen carrying a baby tied on her back, a basket of wet clothes on her head and two buckets of water in her hands, while her husband lagged along behind bearing nothing, would he disfellowship a sister that refused and if not, why not?)

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