Head coverings, take 1

(I wrote this version of the head coverings post before the other one.  This one has a little more beef, which maybe someone will find useful.)

1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is considered by many to be a difficult passage of Scripture. It deals with head coverings for women in public worship.

I admit that for some time I have been afraid of this passage — afraid to read it, afraid to try to understand it. Lately I have felt convicted that I must not run from the teaching of God’s Word. This post is part of my journey to hear and obey the Word of the Lord.

The text

Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.
– 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 NASB


Submission involves doing the will of another, and it is tested when you don’t agree. When you agree, the submission is not visible (it’s what you were going to do anyway). So it’s only in times of disagreement that we find out how submissive our hearts are.

Authority, hierarchy, and submission are not politically correct concepts in our culture. Authority is nowadays often seen as intrinsically evil and oppressive — but the Bible teaches otherwise. I won’t go in depth into the basis for submission of a wife to her sinful, imperfect husband except to say that it’s a part of God’s good order and it has to do with more than marital happiness and is actually a picture of the church’s relationship to her Christ.

Cultural, so specific teaching no longer applicable?

Now on to this difficult issue of women covering their heads. Some say that Paul is reinforcing a common custom of the day, for women to be veiled. “Go on doing what is customary,” he’s saying. And since it’s not customary anymore in our day for women to have their heads covered, this specific application does not apply.

But we must all agree (unless we think Paul was flat wrong, which would be a different issue) that at least the general principle taught in this passage applies in a trans-cultural way, because Paul argues it that way, from the creation order, in verses 7-10. Man was created first, then woman. Man is the glory of God and woman the glory of man.  These things have not changed since the first century A.D.

John MacArthur says that Paul’s requiring a symbol of submission, this particular symbol anyway, was apparently due to a cultural issue at the time Paul was writing:

Apparently–going back to chapter 11 of I Corinthians–apparently they weren’t clear on this concept in Corinth, and there was the potential of a woman’s liberation movement. We don’t know how involved it was, and there’s been a lot of discussion, studying history, trying to figure out how far it had gone in Corinth, but at least it hadn’t gone so far that they were smug and indifferent about it. At least they’re asking the question here in chapter 11. They had asked Paul to answer this question undoubtedly, because is the second of I Corinthians where he is answering the questions they asked in the letter to him. At least they’re open. We don’t know how far–but apparently they at least had some kind of Christian feminist movement.

What it amounted to was this: In the society in Corinth, women who were proper, women who were modest, women who wanted to make a statement publicly and visibly about their submission to their husbands, women who were feminine, women who were genteel and wanted to take the role that was assigned to them in their society wore a veil as a symbol of their submission. That was the symbol–to be veiled.

So whereas the principle of submission is trans-cultural and based on the creation order, the veil or head covering was a temporary cultural issue that the Corinthians needed to obey but that is no longer applicable to us.

How would it be no longer applicable to us? I can think of two ways: perhaps there is a more appropriate symbol for our current society; or perhaps we have progressed beyond the need for such a symbol.

Different symbol?

If it is conceded that the clarification that the outward symbol brings is still as necessary now as it was at the time Paul wrote, perhaps the actual outward symbol does change from culture to culture. Let’s examine this question. If veiling or some kind of head covering was a common symbol of a woman’s submission to her husband’s authority in ancient Greece, what would our corresponding modern symbol be? John MacArthur suggests it is modesty in how women dress. Others suggest that the wedding ring accomplishes this purpose. But you see, these do not, because common decency is not the same as submission, and no one understands the wedding ring to be a symbol of submission. Let’s look again at MacArthur’s words:

In the society in Corinth, women who were proper, women who were modest, women who wanted to make a statement publicly and visibly about their submission to their husbands, women who were feminine, women who were genteel and wanted to take the role that was assigned to them in their society wore a veil as a symbol of their submission. That was the symbol–to be veiled.

So what do “women who are proper, women who are modest, women who want to make a statement publicly and visibly about their submission to their husbands, women who are feminine, women who are genteel and want to take the role that is assigned to them in their society” do these days, instead of wearing head coverings?

Beyond the need?

Alternatively, in today’s Christian community are we so solid in our understanding of the unique honors and responsibilities, roles and responsibilities that God has given us as men and women, are we so far beyond where the Corinthians were that the need for such symbols has expired and so they are no longer applicable?

Double Nyet

As for an accepted modern symbol: there is no such modern symbol, because it is not culturally acceptable for a woman to submit to her husband. I believe that in our hearts, what we take issue with is not the particular cultural application, but with the principle itself.

And as for being beyond the Corinthians’ need for a symbol, I assert that we are not beyond where the Corinthian church was. I believe we are if anything in worse condition, based on this: the Corinthian church had apparently sought Paul’s instruction in many matters (possibly including this one), but in our day we are afraid to even read his response to them!


Let’s briefly address a couple of objections that could be raised.

“Judge for yourselves”

In verses 7-10, Paul has been arguing from the creation order. Verse 13 begins a section (vv. 13-15) where he argues from a natural sense of propriety:
“Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?”

At this point, is it easy for us to say, “Aha! See, Paul is just saying, ‘Judge for yourselves and see what you think you should do, and do it’, and I judge for myself that it is fine for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered.  There! That wasn’t so difficult!”

Do we feel uneasy with this? We should. If we’re honest with ourselves, what do we know Paul expects the answer to be when he says, “Judge for yourselves: Is it proper” ? He expects the answer to be “No!” Taking Paul’s rhetorical question as an easy out is dishonest, and I think deep down we know this.

Long hair

Isn’t long hair the covering?
Continuing on with verses 14-15, Paul says,

Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.

So maybe the woman’s long hair is her covering, no additional covering needed.

Perhaps this is the right interpretation. I would respect someone who read this passage that way and honestly concluded that this is what obedience looks like.

If it’s so, though, why do those who teach this passage say it’s so difficult? Why not just say, “This passage teaches that women should have long hair as a sign of their submission to their husbands” ? And why don’t we practice that?

Historically this has not been where the disagreement has been — the dispute has not been with what Paul was commanding the church at Corinth. Commentators don’t say, “Here Paul was telling the women to wear long hair.”  Even those who argue that the head covering requirement was a cultural issue agree that at the time, to the Corinthians, Paul was talking about another covering in addition to their natural covering of long hair.

Intensely relevant

There are many other objections that could be raised.  But what I want to close with here is to assert that this passage is not irrelevant in our day – it is intensely relevant. It speaks to one of the top spiritual issues of our day. It disagrees with our understanding of men and women. It teaches a principle that we bridle at. We bridle at the principle, we bridle at the application…and in so doing, do we not demonstrate our lack of submission to Christ? We do.

Brothers and sisters, let’s not rebel against our Lord and Savior, who has loved us and given himself for us. We’re foolish sheep who want to jump out of the structures our Shepherd has provided for our good — we don’t understand why we can’t go out to play with the wolves like the sheep of the world do. But it’s because we’re his beloved children, and he our Father. Why should we run from his love?

This entry was posted in authority. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Head coverings, take 1

  1. Mom says:

    Hi, Daniel!

    A few thoughts come to mind in reading this post:
    The Word says, “Be still and know that I am God”. After all of our busyness and studies and knowledge, we are reminded to keep it simple. Although law and regulations are necessary, Christ reprimanded the Pharisees for dwelling on them excessively. He told the disciples that the main thing is to Love God with all our heart, and our neighbors as ourselves. That is a big enough challenge for all of us to be working on!

    Regarding the cap or long hair, if a person feels that it is important to his/her devotion to God, so be it. As far as God is concerned, He says that man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart. We are instructed to dress modestly. Beyond that it’s up to our good sense.

    Micah 6:8 says “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

    I think God doesn’t need a lot of the baggage that we tend to tack on to our Christianity.

    I trust that you will know my comments are written with much love.


  2. danielmeyer says:

    Yes, I hear it as love. Thank you for writing!

    When we walk in the way of love, we want to do what pleases God simply because it pleases Him and not out of fear of punishment — and God in His goodness has not left us to guess what pleases Him! There are many imperatives in the New Testament. Why would we who love God do things according to our own imaginations where He has pointed to us the way in which to walk?

    The Pharisee hated God and hated his neighbor and tried to use the law for personal gain. The Christian loves God and his neighbor, and this is expressed in willing obedience to God’s words.

    We shouldn’t oppose loving God and following his commands, because they’re not in opposition. For instance, in Romans 13, the Holy Spirit speaking through Paul speaks to this very issue:

    “The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”” – Romans 13:9 NIV

    Yet a couple of verses earlier we are instructed to pay our taxes, and a few verses before that to be subject to our governing authorities. Surely the Holy Spirit doesn’t intend for verse 9 to nullify verses 1-8 or make them merely suggestions that we can freely disregard, does He?

    The key is wanting what God wants and loving who God loves, right? And his commands are a blessing to us who love Him, because they help us do that!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s