Head Coverings

Paul's first letter to the Corinthians addresses questions that the Corinthians had with regards to the church (7:1). One of the questions which is addressed in the first part of chapter 11 is, should a women pray or prophecy with her hair uncovered? This question has caused controversy in the past but in recent times it has been considered irrelevant. This is unfortunate since it was obviously included in the Bible for a reason. On the other hand it must be kept in perspective, wearing a symbol on your head is not greater than applying the symbol to your heart. It is for the latter reason that it is important to discuss this topic.

Paul's purpose in taking up this subject is to make sure the Corinthians understand that "the head of every man is Christ, and the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God (11:3)." In other words, there is an authority structure that governs our relationships with God and our spouses. It is noteworthy that he also includes the that "the head of Christ is God." This demonstrates that it is not a structure meant to demean or discriminate against women, since there is a similar relationship between Christ and God (and they are one). The specific issue that Paul is addressing is that "every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head (11:4-5)."

There are many people who argue that this tradition of wearing a head covering is cultural and is no longer of relevance today. Although there are some parts of this section that are cultural, the reasoning for wearing head coverings is not. In fact, it goes all the way back to the formation of man.
A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife out to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels (11:7-10).
It is clear that this argument is not cultural but is based on the creation of man and woman and the role that God has assigned them. The mention of angels is difficult to understand. Although many thoughts have been put forward, it is difficult to determine the meaning with any certainty. My thought is that Paul is reminding his hearers that the angels fell because they did not recognize their own position of authority, and is exhorting the Corinthians to not do the same thing. "And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day (Jude 6)."

In case some people were to misinterpret Paul's teaching and discriminate against the other gender he once again reminds them of their mutual dependence. "Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things from God (11:11-12)."

Some argue that a head covering is simply a women's hair. The reasoning comes from the following section:
Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering (11:13-15).
The problem with using this section to define a head covering as a women's hair is that it would seem to stretch the natural reading of it. Essentially Paul would be asking, is it proper for a wife to pray to God with short hair or shaved? But, earlier in verse 5 he differentiates between a head covering and a shaved head. "Every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head - it is the same as if her head were shaven (11:5)." Arguing that Paul is talking about short hair also does fit, since he also differentiates between short hair and a head covering. "For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short (11:6)." The meaning of this section is simply to demonstrate that even in the natural order of things God has provided woman with long hair for a covering. It is an additional argument as to why a woman should wear a head covering.

It seems clear to me that a woman should wear a head covering whenever she prays or prophesies as a way to recognize the authority structure of God's design. What is not clear from the passage is what it means to pray and prophesy. Praying can be done publicly or privately, but prophesying can only be done publicly. It does not make sense to prophesy privately, which means that Paul most likely has public (i.e. 2 or more) people in mind. But this understanding seems to contradict what comes in chapter 14:34. "As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches." The only way to make sense of these verses is to distinguish between the different contexts. Little is said about the context of chapter 11, but the context of chapter 14 is clear. It is talking about when people come together as the church in worship (14:26). This means that chapter 11 at the very most is referring to public situations outside of church gatherings. At the very least, it may only be addressing situations involving a husband and a wife, since the whole purpose of this subject is to understand that"the head of every man is Christ, and the head of a wife is her husband (11:3)."

Some people argue that a woman should wear a head covering whenever they are in church. Although there is no harm in following this practice as a way to demonstrate God's order, I don't see any clear argument from Scripture. Chapter 11 only applies to when a person themselves is praying, not when somebody else is praying. Many people get caught up with the symbol and don't remember what the symbol represents. There is no point of wearing a symbol on your head if your are not submissive to your husband. It is better for someone not to wear a head covering and live according to the symbol, then for someone to wear a head covering and live contrary to the symbol. The symbol is not more important than what it represents. Unfortunately most people are more concerned with the symbol either positively or negatively.

What gets lost in this debate is that this passage is not just about women and head coverings, it is about understanding the roles of men and women. Men need to recognize that Christ is their head and act accordingly. They cannot shirk their responsibility. If men do not act appropriately is it any wonder women take over their authority? When men and women do not act according to God's assigned roles it will end in disaster, just like the angels. Gender after all is at the heart of understanding God. He uses it to explain what it means to be made in his image (Gen. 1:26), and the relationship between Christ and His church (Eph. 5:22-31). This is not just some peripheral topic, but is worthy of our study.


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