The Biblical (and Unbiblical) Doctrine of Women’s Head Coverings

Yesterday, I began a little series on what it means to follow Jesus Christ. This issue is such a foundational, serious, nature, that time must be given to it as often as necessary. According to Paul, the heart of the issue of what it means to follow Christ is that you submit to His righteousness. We see this in Romans 10:3,

For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.

 

Paul summarizes here the problem with the Jews during Jesus Christ’s ministry-they would not let go of their own, personal, righteousness. In the previous verses, Paul indicates that they are unsaved since they have a zealous ignorance about God’s righteousness. They thought they were righteous. However, the reality is, the righteousness they thought they had, which they believed would commend them to God, did not commend them to God. Rather, it confirmed their own condemnation. This is the heart of ministry. This is the heart of the conflict in ministry. A faithful pastor must confront people as to where they believe they derive their righteousness. Further, he must expose those “crutches” that people use in order to feel, or believe, that they have attained a kind of righteousness that they think God is pleased with. However, the fact of the matter is, God is never pleased with our righteousness. He is only pleased with His own through His Son, Jesus Christ. We are required to submit to His righteousness by believing Him (Romans 10:4). He, then, produces in us His own righteousness by His own working in us and this righteousness is summarized by:

Galatians 5:22–23

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

One such “crutch” that many lean on is a woman’s use of head coverings during worship. I have personally seen the devastation it produces in the hearts of women when they believe that their holiness is all wrapped up in their head covering. In an effort to demonstrate the fallacy of that kind of thinking, and hopefully to liberate women from a false righteousness, I will be examining Paul’s teaching, in summary, on the issue from 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, which says:

1 Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.

2 Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.

3 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.

4 Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head.

5 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.

6 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.

7 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.

8 For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man;

9 for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake.

10 Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

11 However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.

12 For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God.

13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?

14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him,

15 but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.

16 But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.

Much could be said from this passage; more than can be said here in this post. However, what needs to be said will be. Remember, the church in Corinth was not an exemplary church. To see what an exemplary church looks like, look to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 1-2). Paul wrote all 4 letters (2 of them we do not have) to the Corinthian believers because of the multitude of sins resident in that fellowship, many of which were caused by false apostles and false brethren. With all of this, the issue of head covering became an important thing.

This is a fascinating section of Scripture. Paul instructs the church in Corinth concerning the use of physical head coverings during worship, i.e. preaching and praying (vv.4-5). He writes to them about this because they had questions about it (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:1). In fact, the issue was producing schisms in the church, just as it does today (1 Corinthians 1:10-17). There were some who held to the “custom” of wearing a physical head-covering of some kind during their worship services, which were already full of confusion (cf. vv.17-34). This practice, in the immature church at Corinth (3:1-4), was causing major division and strife. The factious nature of this kind of thinking is evident by the divisions that were produced by those who believed they are more holy and godly than others. The reality is, Paul is debunking the practice of a physical head-covering in 1 Corinthians 11, not establishing it. Let’s look at God’s Word.

First, notice Paul’s theme in this section (11:1-16). It is found in the indicative statement of v.3-

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.

This is a subordinate clause to vv.1-2 in which Paul praises the church for imitating him, to the degree that they are doing it, and that they, in all their confusion, still hold to the teaching that Paul gave to them. However, he begins v.3 with an adversative conjunction which indicates a contrary statement to v.2. Translating it as “but” is good. It could also be translated, “Yet,” “However,” or, “In spite of this.” The idea is that in spite of the commendable fact that they are still on his side, there are things that he needs to correct in their thinking, behavior, and worship. And he proceeds to do that (and so should every pastor). So, from the start, we see that Paul is correcting a practice that is produced from improperly understanding headship, thus the main theme of vv. 3-16. Paul says that he wants them to really understand something. He wants them to grasp a teaching. This is apostolic authority at work in the church-it is dealing with speculations that have infiltrated the mind of these people and he needs to correct them (see 2 Corinthians 10:3-5) because it was devastating the unity of the church. The focus of this error is the question, “From where does headship come?” And, “Is it important?” The second answer first-Yes! Headship is important. Why? Because a kind of headship exists in the godhead. God is the head of Christ. That is our pattern. Christ is not inferior to God (John 10:30). However, God is the head of Christ and thus headship is defined by that. Further, that pattern is established in creation-man is the head of a woman. You cannot reverse that. Adam was created before Eve (see vv.7-9; 1 Timothy 2:13). Thus, he is her head. This is not limited to a husband over a wife, although that is a particular headship that a man has over a particular woman (Ephesians 5:23). The language in 1 Corinthians 11 does not refer to marriage anywhere. Rather, it refers to general creation and general worship. Thus, by virtue of creation, and thus responsibility, a man has headship over a woman. Some women will balk at that. However, that is only because they are rebellious against the truth stated here. Paul is clear. I have also seen some parents teach that their daughters will not submit to anyone but their husbands. However, what that creates in the heart of that depraved child is a “sanctified rebellion” that exhibits itself in every relationship she has. She destroys God’s glory when she does that.

The point that Paul proceeds to make is not that her hat or doily is her head-man is. That is where her headship comes from. She us under men, her husband in particular. Man, not her hat, is the head of a woman. She, then, is to have a submissive, gentle, spirit which God considers precious (1 Peter 3:4). She lives her life rejoicing in God’s design! Some will say, “Does that mean that she is to obey every command given to her by men other than her husband?” No. But it does mean that in every man she meets, a godly woman appreciates, and admits to the created responsibility that man has over her. Obviously, if he is wicked and godless, she should not be in that relationship to begin with. But hypothetical situations do not interpret Scripture.

Further, every man who wears a head-covering disgraces his Head (vv.4-5). A man who conducts worship while wearing a hat disgraces his Head, who is Jesus Christ. A cranium can’t be disgraced. However, Paul already gave us the information we need to interpret what he means. It is a disgrace to Jesus Christ, who is on display in the man (v.7), to cover Him by wearing a hat at that very time when He is to be displayed. His leadership should be on display, not covered up.

However, a woman, who is made from the man, is not the image and glory of God in the same way that a man is. She is the image and glory of God through the man. Case in point, woman originates from the man and she is for the man (vv.7-9; see Genesis 2:18-24). This does not denigrate the woman any more than Christ is denigrated by having God as His Head.

A woman who has her head uncovered might as well also have her head shaved, Paul says (v.6). This is sarcasm, which Paul uses often in these letters. In their custom of head-coverings, which Paul is attempting to correct, Paul is demonstrating that if a woman, in their thinking, is to remove her hat during praying and prophesying, then let her also remove her real covering, her hair (v.15). Further, if she is disgraced by having her hair cut off, let her wear a hat. A man, though, should not have his head covered since he is the image and glory of God. The woman is not the direct image and glory of God, but of the man (v.7). So, a woman who insists upon wearing a hat during praying and prophesying must do so, according to their own custom. To remove it is to be like one who has just shaved her head.

And that is the issue. In saying this, Paul is not saying that the true covering for the woman is the hat, doily, or shawl. The real covering for the woman is her hair. That is the comparison that Paul is making. Notice how he relates their custom to the reality of the hair. It is true that a woman needs a demonstration of headship over her because of angels, who are looking into these things (v.10; cf. 1 Peter 1:12). However, her true head is not the doily, nor is it her hair. Her true head is the man, particularly, if she is married, her husband. Again, that is Paul’s point. The submissive heart of a woman will recognize that and maintain her long, beautiful hair for that reason so that the angels will glorify God on her behalf.

In vv. 13-15, we have Paul’s teaching on the matter. Even nature tells us (see Romans 1:20) that a woman should have long hair for a covering. She should not pray to God “uncovered” (v.13). She should have a covering on her physical head. Alternatively, a man, because he is the direct image and glory of God and the head of woman, should rise up to that responsibility for all to see and not have long hair (v.14). It is disgraceful, naturally, for a man to have long hair (there were provisions for the Nazirite vow of the OT [Numbers 6]. However, that vow was a time of consecration and self-abasement to which a man, or woman, would commit themselves for dedication to God and His service. It was a time of humiliation and social distinction and only for a time-period promised by the one making the vow. Afterwards, they would return to “normal”-see Acts 18:18]).

Paul’s statement at the end of v.15 is important to what Paul has been thinking all along.

…For her hair is given to her for a covering.

Literally, Paul says, “[nature teaches that on the one hand it is disgraceful for a man to wear long hair; but a woman with long hair, on the other hand, is a glory to herself [by means of herself-i.e. she is an instrument of glory to her head, man/husband] because long hair was given in place of/as an equivalent to something to throw over the head.

ὅτι ἡ κόμη ἀντὶ περιβολαίου δέδοται 

The Greek sentence you see above is 1 Corinthians 11:15b. I will break it down for you and give you the meaning and implications of each word:

ὅτι  = this conjunction is causal in nature. That is, it says that the previous verses of 14-15a are true because

ἡ κόμη  = “long hair.” The verb form of this word means “to wear long hair; let one’s hair grow long.” (κομάω -Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg and Neva F. Miller, vol. 4, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Baker’s Greek New Testament Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 234).

ἀντὶ  = preposition that means “in place of,” or “equivalent to” something. That is to say that long hair is the equivalent of a head covering.

περιβολαίου  = a noun referring to something that is draped over something else. It is a compound word literally meaning, “to throw/cast upon” something.

δέδοται  = this verb is in the Perfect tense. In Greek that is a strong verb that indicates a permanent action. The verb means “to give/commit.” It is a passive verb which means that the action of the verb was not done by the subject or the object of the verb. The action of the verb was done by someone or something outside of the subject or object. It was done for the subject or object by someone else. Thus, long hair was given to the woman (since it is disgraceful for a man to have long hair by creation) by God, since Paul is dealing with creation in the context.

Paul is saying, no matter what one believes about head-coverings, “At creation, long hair was given to the woman as a head covering.

To drive it home, with a warning, Paul says, “If anyone is inclined (seems to be/appears) contentious about this custom of yours, realize that we (the apostles), nor the churches of God (see 1 Corinthians 4:17; 7:17) have such a custom (as wearing head coverings).” In essence, Paul is saying that those contentious people who insist that women should wear a hat, doily, or otherwise are under extreme pressure to prove why they do it. The apostles don’t do it. The other churches in the known world don’t do it. If the apostles supported such a practice as this, don’t you think that they would teach it to the other churches as they did Paul’s ways confirmed by Timothy (4:17), and remaining in the responsibilities of life in which you were when you became a believer (7:17)? But here, he says that this little, divisive, group in the Corinthian church is the only group in any of the known churches which the authoritative apostles have established who have this custom of wearing a physical head-covering. The burden of proof is upon them. Meanwhile, other women in the church need to follow the teaching of the apostles and the example of the other churches established by Paul (it is interesting to me that Paul never wrote about head-coverings in any of his other letters, although he had occasion to do so-see Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18; 1 Timothy 2:9-11; 5:9-16; Titus 2:3-5; see also 1 Peter 3:1-7), and not the example established by contentious women who cause division.

It is amazing how people love to have the last word. People who are characterized by this group of head-covering-wearers seem to desire to not submit to the righteousness of God in Christ. Many of them appear outwardly religious (after all, who can argue with the apparent piety of a woman who wears a head-covering), yet their hearts defy the very thing the head-covering is supposed to symbolize-submission.