People have a very bad tendency of ignoring obvious teachings in Scripture, because they don’t mix well with the social norms of the day.

The issue of head coverings is one of these issues. The first time I ever read 1 Corinthians 11 I understood what it meant, because it was so simple. After getting married, my wife started wearing a hat to church, because it suffices as a head covering.

Both my wife and I have independently come to the conclusion that without doing injustice to the clear words of the text, that head coverings are something that God wants women to wear and men not to wear during worship.

The passage is simple enough (1 Cor 11:2-15) and I will discuss it section by section:

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

It is important to note that these are not some listless traditions that have only been made clear explicitly in writing hundreds of years later. Paul takes the next few chapters to elaborate exactly what these traditions (the Lord’s Supper for one) are.

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 the purpose statement of the section on head coverings. What’s the big deal here? Hierarchy between husbands and wives reflects a divine hierarchy between Father and Son, just as marriage is a reflection of Christ and the Church in Ephesians 5. So, any understanding of this passage that ignores the idea of submission shows not only a fundamental misunderstanding of marriage, but a warped view of the Godhead in which one Person of the Trinity is in submission to the other.

Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered (akatakaluptO) while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved.

A simple ordinance is set forth. Men should not put “something” on his head, while a woman should do the opposite. While it is shameful for the man to cover his head, it is as shameful for the woman to have her head uncovered. So shameful, she might as well have her beautiful hair cut off.

Also take note of the term for “uncovered” (akatakaluptO). It helps us understand what a head covering is.

For if a woman does not cover (katakaluptetai) 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 (katakaluptesthO) her head.

Obviously akatakaluptO, katakaluptetai and katakaluptesthO are all related words with very close spelling. So, the same thing, the act of covering one’s head, is being referenced.

Further, Paul is speaking rhetorically. He already set for that it is shameful for a woman to be bald in the previous passage. So, when he says “if she doesn’t cover let her cut off her hair, but if doing that is disgraceful…” not so that there are two ordinances (one of cutting hair and one of covering) but rather one. It is BECAUSE we know it to be shameful for women to be bald, it is important for women not to act shamefully and cover their heads with something.

But should we care what’s on our head in church? Is it simply Paul’s personal view of style that is at issue here? Paul gives a very telling reason:

For a man ought not to have his head covered (katakaluptesthai), 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.

Paul goes back to the beginning where reference is made to submission within the Godhead. If a man covers his head, he is denying he is made in the image of God. Likewise, if a woman does not cover her head, she denies that she was made to be in submission to her husband (even though she is equal heir to God’s promises according to 1 Peter 3.)

Then, there is a cryptic reference to a “symbol of authority.” It is not complicated at all if you understand why Paul even has this passage to begin with: the covering symbolizes the fact that she is under her husband’s authority and that she submits to him. Not coincidentally, Christians in other countries that still practice female head covering and in denominations that do (i.e. the Mennonites), they affirm the understanding that wives should submit to their husbands and the husbands should lovingly and sacrificially lead their wives. Also, not coincidentally, in the West where head coverings have disappeared have watched extreme doctrinal degradation and the rise of gender egalitarianism.

Lastly, what’s the deal with “the angels.” R.C. Sproul Jr. wrote, “I don’t know.” I have a good guess: every church has an angel that watches over it, as indicated by Revelation 1:20. So, what Paul is conveying is simple: We should be obedient to the ordinances set forth in the Scripture because God is watching and we are held accountable.

Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered (akatakalupton)? 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 (peribolaiou).

Two points can be made here. First, long hair is not a proper “head covering” for a woman. The word in the Greek is different for one and the injunction “if you don’t cover your head, then cut all your hair off” doesn’t make any sense unless Paul is only against medium-length hair.

Second, Paul is making a cultural argument here, appealing to the tastes of the Corinthians (“Does not even nature teach you?”) While some people say that this proves that this whole section applies only to the people of that era, the fact that Paul only later appeals to people’s good sense proves that the main thrust of his argument is not cultural at all. The covering issues between men and women has metaphysical importance, as it reflects the nature of the Father and the Son. Further, as Paul made clear in his reasoning, men’s and women’s order in creation necessitates it.

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

Now, if what Paul was really saying was, “As long as women submit to men and have some sort of literal, or even non-literal ‘sign’ of submission, that’s fine,”  it is quite striking that the Holy Spirit put the words in his mouth stating that the church universally follows the ordinance and we should not contend or alter it in any way. Apparently, GOd likes wasting his words and confusing us with a useless ordinance, or He wants to emphasize through Paul that we shouldn’t dispute the ordinance and just do it.

Now, to modern western readers, we would like to take his words in a non-literal sense: “Paul can’t mean we have to really have to care what is on or not on our heads, right?” However, as Paul clearly lays out, it would be just as offensive to alter the head covering ordinance as it would be to use cookies and grape soda in place of bread and wine in the Lord’s supper. In fact, cookies and grape soda would actually be a more faithful rendition of the ordinance than ignoring head coverings all together. At least those treats share ingredients with bread and wine!

Further, there was zero debate about head coverings until about 60 years ago. In the second century Tertullian noted that the whole church used head coverings for worship, but that there were other debates raging such as whether unmarried women should be compelled to wear head coverings. How could the whole church, which in the second century covered dozens of cultural and linguistic groups, have all equally understood that covering the head meant simply the wearing of head coverings for women apart from it being a serious, universally accepted practice? If it was merely a narrow cultural context in Corinth, the practice would have not spread to Armenia, Libya, Italy and other far off places where people didn’t dress the same.

My last gripe: “Cultural context” is the most abused biblical interpretation there is. It has been used to make homosexuality and fornication not a sin, destroy doctrine, and morph church governance into a 20th century egalitarian mold which God does not intend (for he does not love one century’s cultural norms more than the next). Our cultural norms should conform to Scripture, not the other way around.

The honest biblical interpreter should not even think of saying the issue of head coverings is “cultural” when the Greek does not lend itself to that interpretation, and neither does history or Paul’s logic in the passage. Thus, it requires special pleading to deny the traditional view of head coverings and it is time we abandon this practice of picking and choosing which ordinances we like and which are “out of date.” We do all things for the glory of God.

P.S. Just in case there is any confusion, this issue does not make or break one’s salvation. Rather, I see it as a matter of faithful obedience to God. Someone who has been redeemed from just punishment because God paid his penalty for him would want to be obedient to all of God’s ordinances with God’s help.

P.S.S. The Head Covering Movement linked to this article. Props to them for uploading the R.C. Sproul video above.

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