Do Christian women need to wear head coverings?

Question:

Does the modern church have to have their women’s head covered or is it simply a traditional custom “

Answer:

Among a large part of the world, women wearing head coverings is not an issue deemed important enough for discussion. However, many groups of Christians do spend time debating or enforcing the applicability of Apostle Paul’s treatise on gender roles and head covering found in 1st Corinthians chapter 11:2-16. In the Slavic culture, most notably immigrants in the US, this is, in fact a defining issue and has caused no end to trouble. There are many views on this, and I would postulate that it head coverings are not one of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity as they are only briefly mentioned once (1 Cor 11:3-16), whereas everything vital is repeated and validated many times. This is an issue that requires us to allow other Christians hold to different views without shaming or disowning them.

5 VIEWS ON HEAD COVERINGS

1. Literal scarf or cloth that isn’t applicable today

– This view states Paul was addressing an issue that was very specific to the Corinthians and speaking of a specific practice in their church. Proponents of this view readily show the many distinctions of ancient clothing customs and have historical evidence that shows different regions treated hair covering differently. They argue, that therefore we ought to also treat this as an outdated custom, similar to Paul’s command for slaves to obey their masters. Slavery has passed away as culturally appropriate, and so have hair scarves for women.

2. Literal scarf or cloth covering to be worn today

– This view holds that the hair coverings mentioned by the Apostle Paul are in fact scarves or some other variation of cloth. Proponents of this view point to a simple literal reading of the passage which necessitates that women do not pray with their head uncovered. They also argue that it is only due to liberalism and feminism that the world has abandoned the custom of physical head coverings, and also the only way to counteract this growing trend is to retain this practice today, even though it is odds with culture, and even if it is not understandable by culture.

3. Hair given as head covering, applicable today

– This view argues that Paul made a large emphasis on natural covering, specifically naming 1 Cor 11:14 as evidence that the covering Paul speaks of is not a cloth but female hair, as evidence of a womans femininity. The proponents of this view often point out that there is a natural difference between men and women by their dress style and hair style, and some historians even think temple prostitutes, or dominant females in lesbian couples, would shave their heads according to a custom in Corinth. And so Paul would be referring to a defilement of biblical femininity with the symbol of a head that is uncovered by hair, or possibly a particular hairstyle.

4. “Head covering” only refers to husbands authority

– This view mandates that there was no physical coverings present in Corinth and that to have your head covered refers to a symbolic protective covering on a woman by her husband. The proponents of this view argue that every use of the word ‘covered’ or ‘uncovered’ refers to only to authority and not to any physical scarves or hair. A woman who is praying with head ‘uncovered’ is praying with her authority not covered by another’s authority. And likewise when Paul says a woman covers her head, proponents would say she did not do so with a scarf but only with her husband’s authority.

 5. Scarf as ancient symbol of an idea that is applicable today

–This view maintains that Paul was focused primarily on correcting an issue of incorrect gender roles, and was using a cultural example that would be understandable for the Corinthians at the time. The proponents of this view state that the symbol used to illustrate Paul’s point, hair/head coverings, was secondary to the point and is varied in different cultures and time periods. The main point Paul was making was about the natural distinction and order of man and woman, and so he used cultural ideas to illustrate that. To enforce that cultural illustration, while missing the point itself, would be like to forcing everyone to run in the Olympics (1 Cor 9:24) while missing the part about endurance in the Christian faith. This view is very similar to the above, expect it allows that physical head coverings were in use, but only as cultural symbols of something deeper. I lean heavily towards this view.

THE MAIN POINT OF THE PASSAGE

First things first, whether this is hair or a scarf, even whether or not its applicable today or not, we must understand God does nothing for no reason, and that every command in Scripture has a point and a purpose. Even the seemingly arbitrary things in the Old Testament often illustrated important ideas about the Creator and the atonement. It’s very consistent with this view of Scripture that the Apostle Paul would not give a ceremonial command without some greater purpose or illustration.

He starts by saying  “But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3). This is the main statement and point of this whole section of Scripture. That there is a specific order of things that is created by God. Historians and commentators have ventured that the main issue in the Corinthian church was a rising tide of feminism that misconstrued God given gender roles, and claimed men and women are functionally the same. So Paul would have been addressing this issue and arguing as led by the Holy Spirit against this issue.

This came into play especially when church leadership was concerned, and Paul is addressing the issue of leadership very specifically. If you notice in this section he is defining church practice, including communion. He says women should not be uncovered (show they are not submissive by their cultural standard) when they pray or prophesy. Prophecy is automatically always public speech (prophēteuō- to utter forth, declare) and the prayer he refers to is likely public as well; either way both are public ministry by a woman. Paul thus mandates that women who serve in church must do so under the authority of men because that is the natural order of creation as God ordained.

Any further rhetoric or writings past the main point will naturally be used to argue or “prove” that this first and main point is correct. Imagine if I told you Tim Tebow is the best football player. Its only logical to conclude that if I keep talking about Tim Tebow, the next few phrases and statements will be my evidence for this point. It is so with Paul, he continues making arguments that validate the first point he made by Gods sovereign will.

WHAT WERE HEAD COVERINGS ALL ABOUT?

How can we understand this tough passage in scripture? I would argue that the since the primary purpose of the passage is to show is Gods hierarchical order and gender differences (husband, wife) especially in ministry. Paul uses a culturally appropriate symbol that would teach the Corinthian church the right idea.

SYMBOLISM

There are many symbols and representations used or referred to in the Bible. A symbol is a thing or idea that represents something other thing or idea. The Bible called people to sacrifice a lamb in order to represent the future coming “Lamb,” Jesus, who would likewise be killed for the sins of His people. The ritual killing of a lamb was a symbol that was initiated by God Himself long ago to show another idea.

Two types of symbols: God initiated & Culture initiated

We can break them down into two categories; the first are symbols not existing in human culture, which are introduced by God and placed into human culture to show something. For example most of the ceremonial symbols in the Old Testament, such as circumcision. The second, are those already existing in human culture, and Scripture often points to them to illustrate something. For example the many farming or fishing symbols Jesus used in his parables, from “wheat/tares” to the use of a kiss as greeting in Greco-Roman culture.

Today we can usually discern between God initiated symbols and culture initiated symbols, and know when to obey cultural symbols/God symbols. The act of taking communion is observed by all churches, because it is God initiated and has no other possible meaning in any culture or society. Yet other cultural symbols are not always observed everywhere because they are created and upheld by the culture.

In the US, the middle finger is a symbol that represents negative emotions, while in Slavic countries it’s the “dula” a curled fist with the thumb protruding between two fingers. Similarly Middle eastern men often wear a dress-like robe, while in the West a dress is a symbol of femininity.

The main thing to keep in mind is that God-initiated symbols do not change, unless God changes them, while a culturally initiated symbol is prone to evolve and change with culture.  There is little to no evidence that any specific cultural dress code is a God initiated symbol, as every generation of Christians has changed their dress code. (The only thing that God calls for in all cultures is modesty, withing their cultural style.)

THE SYMBOL MAY CHANGE, THE IDEA DOES NOT

And so, regardless of whether Paul uses the symbol of a hairstyle or a scarf (though it’s more likely to have been a scarf based on the language) his main point remains about gender differences and submission.

It would be consistent for Paul to speak to our contemporary western culture and tell women that they are different than men and ought be in Godly submission, and use examples such as feminine clothes, and the changing of a woman’s last name to her husband’s as a symbol of submission.

Elsewhere in his writings Paul uses the representation of a human body, with the human head corresponding to leadership and headship (is “Christ is the head.”) And in the section of Scripture he uses the word head symbolically to mean not only physical head (the one on your shoulders) but primarily to point to the leadership/headship (as in head of the household). In the first and physical sense he describes the physical covering, but in a more deeper sense it refers to the issue of gender and authority (Paul even calls it a symbol of authority.)

It’s very important to note we dare not stop obeying universal commands of Scripture, such as don’t sin, lie, steal, kill, hate, or etc by pretending they are cultural symbols, however, at the same time there are things in Scripture which are culturally based. Take for example the holy kiss, it was practiced in Greek culture to symbolize deep brotherly love and so Paul tells Christians to greet one another with it to express that love, however, this is not practiced in our culture for it would carry a very different meaning. So instead we express that same deep love with other methods and symbols.

John Piper and Wayne Grudem write: “In demonstrating the permanent validity of a command, we would try to show from its context that it has roots in the nature of God, the gospel, or creation as God ordered it. We would study these things as they are unfolded throughout Scripture. In contrast, to show that the specific forms of some commands are limited to one kind of situation or culture, (1) we seek for clues in the context that this is so; (2) we compare other Scriptures relating to the same subject to see if we are dealing with limited application or with an abiding requirement; and (3) we try to show that the cultural specificity of the command is not rooted in the nature of God, the gospel, or the created order.”

Today hair coverings don’t always mean submission, but when they do that’s good too.

If we were to ask Corinthian men what they thought of a women publicly serving the church with a covered head, they would automatically answer that it shows the woman is submissive to her husband. If we ask a man today what he thinks of such a woman, we are either going to hear that she is likely a Hollywood celebrity hiding from paparazzi or some crazy cult member. The symbols have dramatically changed.

Yet at the same time, there are subcultures (mini cultures that have radically different rules than the rest of culture (ie Goths, native tribes, and etc), especially Slavic churches that have large groups of people who view hair coverings a form of submission. If all wholly believe that this is a way of showing submission and this is a symbol understood by all or most members of this community, then it ought to be followed. There are of course problems when half of the group doesn’t share the symbol and there is perpetual shunning between the sides, but this is more the fault of the creation of a subculture at odds with common symbols than Biblical illiteracy.

Paul uses a cultural symbol (baldness) that is different for Hebrews

So when Paul says “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” he is using some cultural symbols to refer to deep spiritual ideas. By ‘uncovered’ he doesn’t merely mean ‘without physical covering,’ Paul means ‘without showing (in a culturally appropriate way) to being a woman and under her husband’s authority.’ To prove that is cultural, he compares being uncovered to being shaved. It is said that in the Corinth culture the only women with short/shaved hair were those against biblical gender roles, namely temple prostitutes and lesbians (lesbians and short/shaved hair was mentioned by a few commentators in my studies).

In the other cultures, like the Hebrews there are occasions where a woman with a shaved head was honorable and good. In Numbers 6:2 God tells His people of a special vow that specifically both men and women could take to separate oneself for the Lord. It was called the Nazirite vow. Part of this God-honoring process involved shaving off all of one’s hair, see Numbers 6:18.

Paul uses a second cultural symbol (long hair) that is different for Hebrews

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.” First off, nature has gifted both women and men with almost the same propensity to grow long hair, in fact one of the only studies on the topic states men grow hair faster than women due to testosterone (J Invest Dermatol, 56:5, pp 362-365, 1971). The only reason men have shorter hair is due to the cultural invention of haircuts and hairstyles used to distinguish men and women. If only biological nature is concerned men in fact have more hair once you add facial hair. “Nature”, in Paul’s use of the word refers to “common [cultural] sense” in any particular culture. In our culture we can easily argue a point by saying something like “naturally humans want freedom” because that is our common sense belief (whether or not it really is true).

Pauls cultural argument to the Corinthians, wouldn’t work for Hebrews. The Hebrew Nazirite vow held first required one to spend a great deal of time, possibly years with long hair (remember Sampson and John the Baptist had really long hair). Was John the Baptist or Samson dishonorable? Mathew 11:11 doesn’t seem to say so.

So we conclude that Paul is talking to all about the heart issue of gender roles and hierarchical submission, notably in ministry. He is using symbols and logic the Corinthian culture already holds dear to distinguish between man/woman. By this Paul shows them that their own culture testifies to what God has decreed about gender differences and hierarchy.

REASONS AGAINST OTHER VIEWS

This is without doubt the hardest passage in the New Testament that I have ever dealt with. And there are at least five explanations that I have found, though many are poorly argued for and use faulty logic. Below are some important considerations and severe arguments against all other view except the “ancient symbol of idea that is applicable today.”

Cannot be a physical command for all people-all the time or the OT saints/priests would be dishonored

Paul says “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head”. The Old Testament and Hebrew culture is filled with men praying with their physical head covered, they even wear a kippah today. In fact the priests were literally commanded by God to cover their physical head with a physical covering when they did their priestly duties, including prayer. In 2 Samuel 15;30-31 we see David and the people cover their heads, weep, and pray. Can God change and claim his former command to the Jews to be dishonorable? Never! When OT Law was replaced by the NT covenant, Jesus fulfilled all of the OT, but He never said it was dishonorable. The only reason it’s wrong to obey OT Law today is that it shows we ignore the work of Christ to fulfill the law (He didn’t abolish it, but fulfilled it). Yet in this case of head coverings it would call OT saints who covered their heads (and Jewish Christian men at the time) to be dishonorable. That is hardly possible. A much better answer would be that Paul is saying per Corinthian customs a man who covers his head publicly symbolizes he is not in Gods role as a man, and that his headship/leadership is covered by his wife. This spiritual issue of losing his gender identity is then is dishonoring to himself and to God.

Isn’t likely to be only a spiritual covering “for her hair is given to her for a [physical] covering”

The idea of covering the head, is found very view times in Scripture, and sometimes it refers to being protected by another who is stronger than you. In Psalm 140:7  David cries out and says “O GOD the Lord, the strength of my salvation, You have covered my head in the day of battle.” It is seen by some as plausible that the use of language such as a woman with her head covered, refers symbolically to a woman who is protected by a man instead of being self-ruled. While this is a good observation and indeed is true, there is evidence, both historical and scriptural, that there indeed was also a custom of covering hair with a veil or scarf as cultural evidence of this spiritual covering. Also Paul uses rhetoric to say “a woman’s hair is given to her as a covering” and hair is clearly a physical covering, so there is no reason to say the other uses of the word “covering” are not physical at all. A better answer is that he argues that men and women are different, and uses two cultural icons that his Corinthian readers would understand to confirm that. First, women’s hairstyles that are different than men’s, and seconds women’s hair coverings are also different that men, who don’t cover at all in Corinth.

Covering may be just hair because though the language leans towards a physical covering

Paul says “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.” If this is referring to hair when it speaks of “covering” it would be very redundant. I would literally say “ if a woman does not [have long hair], 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 [have long hair].” While this is still possible, I find it somewhat unconvincing and think Paul is using hair examples as one of his two categories of gender examples.  However, both the proponents of the hair theory and of the cultural symbol theory readily admit the main emphasis is symbolic and the most important thing is the distinction of female/male roles in gender identity and headship.

OBJECTIONS ANSWERED

Angels are not from any culture, so women ought to obey this command.

Paul speaks of Creation, that woman was created  “for the man’s sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” It has been argued that because Paul says “do this because of angels,” and angels don’t belong to culture, this specific cultural expression of submission ought to be done in all cultures and time periods even if the culture doesn’t understand the meaning of the symbol. However, the angelic reference is only meant to relate to 1 Pet 1 :12, that angels look into Gods perfect order, including seeing women submit to their husbands in whatever is the appropriate way. Clearly angels also looked over every other culture, including the Hebrew culture which had different symbols as far as hair covering worn by priests and the shaving of hair by Nazirines.

But it says every woman, not only Corinthian woman.

Another argument is that it says “every man” or “every woman” and therefore this applies to every living human that exists/existed. It says “every man” who covers his head shames his head. However, we have the example that David, among many other saints and priests, covered his head while praying/prophesying in public ministry, even as they were told by God. So if we take the word “every” to apply to every culture and literally every person from the beginning to the end of time, this would cause the Bible to contradict itself. Instead we can say that Paul writes to a culture where every one of his hearers would definitely be concerned, and those from different cultures would be able to understand the main point is the submission and biblical gender identity. There are other examples in Scripture where very inclusive language is feels like it should but does not refer to truly ‘all’ people (example “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Luke 2:1, this clearly only included the roman empire, as China, Africa, Asia, Native Americans and etc did not go.)

There is no other practice except covering heads.

Some take the last verse in this passage (1 Cor 11:16) and claim that in it Paul says anybody who dares speak against head coverings is wrong, because him and all the churches are for hair covering, and arguing against it is not accepted. It is a hard passage to understand as there are two valid point he may be making. He could be saying “if you want to argue, we don’t have such a practice [head coverings]” or “if you want to argue, we don’t have such a practice [arguing].” It would seem inconsistent that he made so many statements about gender roles, as witnessed by two cultural icons and then proceeds to say other churches have different symbols for submission. Conversely, it’s almost certain he is saying this is not an issue one should be contentious (philoneikos- fond of strife) about. The main thing is to remember the main thing as the main thing. And in this case it’s the main point, men and women have different roles as created by God, especially in ministry, and Paul says we should not be fighting against Gods order, the custom or practice of women serving in ministry only under the submission of men, as affirmed by all the churches.

FURTHER READING:

A question and answer session by Wayne Grudem, prolific scolar and editor of ESV Study Bible

Assigning things in the Bible as cultural vs universal, in reference to head coverings, by Pastor John Piper

Journal Article from the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood on this topic 

3 responses

  1. Wow! Thanks so much for explaining this. I really appreciate it, it’s been something I’ve been wondering for a while now.

  2. Wow! Thank you so very much. I am wanting to start wearing head covering because of my love for God but like you have many questions and few answers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *