/ Barry York

On Headcoverings

Why does my wife not wear a headcovering? Simply put, because she is not a prophetess. Please let me explain.

Women wearing headcoverings has been a practice in churches as diverse as Amish, German Baptist, Mennonite, Orthodox, Pentecostal, and Scottish Presbyterian ones. Often in Reformed churches one will see headcoverings practiced by some households in the congregation, if not by the entire church. From colonial times even up to our fathers' generation, our culture, which was undeniably influenced greatly by Biblical Christianity, saw women regularly don caps, bonnets, hats, and veils in the church. So it raises the question. Are head coverings necessary attire for the Christian woman?

Though certainly some wear them because of tradition, many appeal to Scripture as the reason for their adoption of this practice. For hear the words of the Apostle Paul:

But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her 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.... Therefore a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels....Judge for yourselves:  is it proper for a woman to pray to God with head uncovered? (1 Corinthians 11:5-6, 10, 13)

From these verses, many have concluded that it is clear from the Scriptures that a woman should wear a covering upon her head, at least in the worship assembly. Some within Christianity would go on to say that any Christian woman who does not do so is guilty of impropriety and a lack of godly submission.

When dealing with this subject of head coverings as taught in the Bible, one must take the following matters, listed below, into consideration in order to properly understand the intent of the apostle's Spirit-led instruction. Notice that each of these points has to do with how we read and understand our Bibles, which helps not only in dealing with this passage but any difficult-to-understand portion of God's Word. Also, as is the case with many doctrinal issues in Scripture, thorough study and an understanding of the Bible in its covenantal context (i.e., remembering each portion of Scripture is to be interpreted with the whole story of the Bible in mind) are necessary to make sense of difficult passages.

I Corinthians 11 is the only passage in Scripture dealing with this subject. The only passage that really addresses the issue of head coverings is this passage from I Corinthians 11, which in itself says a few things. Anytime we begin a practice based on one passage of Scripture, we must be far more careful than when something is taught in many places throughout Scripture. Usually seeing something only once or a few times in Scriptures indicates you are dealing with something that is unique, i.e. not necessarily standard operating procedure. Also, the fact that it is found in the book of 1 Corinthians, written to a divided, immoral, immature church, should make you extra cautious about what you are reading and the conclusions you draw from the text.

Look carefully at the topic of Paul's concern. Regarding this passage, in my opinion people supporting the modern use of head coverings may be guilty of two errors. First, they are not dealing with the grammatical context evident here. To understand this practice, we need to ask what particular question or concern Paul is addressing. Answering concerns is why 1 Corinthians was written (see 1 Corinthians 7:1a). Contrary to what many might think, the issue under discussion in this passage is not "Should women wear head coverings?" or even "Should women wear head coverings in worship?" (The first question answered affirmatively is what those who wear head coverings all the time believe Paul is addressing. Those agreeing with the second question would believe a women should only be required to wear a head covering during formal worship.)

Yet neither of these issues is the direct question at hand. Look at the passage again. The question Paul was addressing is "Should women wear head coverings when they are praying or prophesying?" (See verse 5). That question is the specific matter under discussion. This important detail leads us to the next principle of Biblical interpretation that is the second area often violated by students of 1 Corinthians 11.

Read the passage in the context of all of Scripture. When reading the Scriptures, it is easy to forget not only the grammatical context but the historical-redemptive context as well. The Corinthians, as all the early churches, were in that unique period of time in redemptive history where they did not have the whole of the Scriptures yet revealed. Thus, God was allowing both men and women to prophesy in order to communicate his truth to the church (see Acts 2:17-18; 21:8-9 for examples). Peter, in his sermon at Pentecost, quoted from the prophet Joel the following:

And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

Though it goes beyond the scope of this article to develop this fully, God allowed both men and women to prophesy in the first generation after Jesus for several additional reasons than the fact that they did not have a completed Bible. This special gift of revelation was a sign that the Spirit of God had come in his fullness. This phenomenon showed that young and old, men and women, free and slaves are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Further, in particular, it indicated that judgment had come upon the nation of Israel. Because they as a nation had rejected and crucified their Messiah, God was turning to the Gentiles. Special gifts, such as prophesying and speaking in tongues, were an indication of that momentous event (Read Acts 2:19-21; 11:1-18 [especially verses 15-18]; 1 Cor. 14:20-25). To miss the clear tie between head coverings and women prophets (or prophetesses) will lead to errors in its interpretation.

Head coverings were to remind prophetesses of their great privilege and need for continued submission. Therefore, with God displaying in a miraculous fashion these wondrous truths through human agents, honoring them greatly, it was vital that the messengers did not forget their appropriate roles. For the women to show their subjection to the men established at creation (1 Cor. 11:8-9), they were to cover their heads and were not to question openly the prophecy that was taking place in the congregation. During the time in the service when they were communicating on behalf of God with prophecies and perhaps visions, they were to "say their piece" with their head covering on to show their subjection to the Lord and their submission to the male leadership, and then “have a seat” so to speak. (I speak of visions here, for given the context the use of the word “praying” when Paul tells the women to wear a covering when “praying or prophesying” must be seen not as common prayer, but the special praying of a prophetess in her communication to God.)

Any questions regarding the nature of the prophecy were to be raised and answered by the men at the service, and further questions the women might have were to be answered in the home. (Please see 1 Corinthians 14:32-35, which is a troublesome passage unless understood in this light, i.e. women were to be silent when it came to judging prophesy. I have witnessed several men using the head covering in 1 Corinthians 11 and the passage on women being silent in 1 Corinthians 14 to attempt to teach that women are not to say anything in a public worship service, never to question their husbands, etc., effectively using the head covering as a "muzzle." They choose to ignore the obvious fallacy of a position that teaches women are not to say anything in the church service based on a passage that tells us women were prophesying in Corinth!) This practice allowed all things to be done decently and in order (I Cor. 14:39-40). Please note that this is not just the "cultural" argument so many use today: "All women wore head coverings back in that time, so that's why they are commanded. But in this modern day women do not have to do so." Rather, Paul's injunction was a reminder that even though God was allowing the women to have a special role in revealing his word, they were not to then seek to position themselves as the head of men or even as "co-heads" with the men. Rather, they were to maintain a reverent submission to the leadership of the men in the church and to their husbands in the home.

The example of angels bears witness to this perspective. With regard to verse 10 that speaks of the women having a symbol of authority on her head because of the angels, I would make this point. Angels are often seen in the Scriptures as those who transmit the word of God to His people. For instance, we are told that the law was given to Moses by an angel (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2). The angels, as they stood before God, covered themselves in reverent submission and honor to God (see Isaiah 6:1-3 for instance), recognizing the great privilege they had in being in the presence of God and the conveyors of his word to the recipients. However, when angels were carrying out "ordinary" assignments for God on earth, they did not cover themselves in this fashion. In the same way, as the women stood in the presence of God before the congregation beside the men revealing God's word to the church, they were to show this same kind of reverence by covering their heads. To say women have to wear head coverings today goes beyond the connection of the revelatory role being discussed.

This passage then should be treated as a situational case study and not as a law section of the Bible. When Jesus sent out the seventy, and told them not to take purses with them (Luke 9:3), does this mean then that disciples in the church through the ages can never take money with them when they do evangelism? Certainly not, for we recognize at a later time Jesus himself revoked this prohibition for his own disciples (Luke 22:35-36)! Certain passages have to be read and understood as narrative and historical.

Because of the historic, redemptive roots of I Corinthians 11, I do not think head coverings are a demanded ordinance for the church for all time, though I do believe that we can learn godly principles and make careful applications from the specifics of this case. What I believe proponents of head coverings today are doing wrong with regard to Scriptural interpretation is saying that this passage principally teaches that head coverings are required for women in the church, and that is what we are to learn and apply in this passage. Yet what this passage is showing us is Paul dealing theologically and pastorally with a specific incident in the history of redemption in the early church, from which we can draw lessons and applications such as the headship of Christ, headship of man, submission, Christian propriety, appreciation for the revelation God has given us, proper identification of gender roles, etc.

Having said all of that, I must say that though I do not believe this passage would require women today to wear a head covering, it certainly does not forbid it. Women who are wearing a head covering out of a desire to obey Scripture or even for personal or cultural reasons have the freedom to do so.

However, pastoral concerns exist about this practice if head coverings are employed. Here are a few of those concerns with cautions given.

Those using this passage to support the practice of head coverings open up a Pandora's Box of other interpretive difficulties. If women must wear head coverings, then should they not also be prophesying? And if prophesying, should they not also be exercising the other gifts mentioned in I Corinthians, such as speaking in tongues? Words of knowledge? Healing? On one occasion, I heard a gifted reformed preacher use chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians to exhort women to wear coverings, then in the next session on 2 Corinthians 12-14 present a powerful argument for the cessation of the apostolic gifts. The inconsistency was glaring. Failure to see the covenantal context of Scripture leads to a hit-and-miss brand of hermeneutics that causes so much of the division we see in the church today. Denominations and groups form over external matters such as speaking in tongues, the modes of baptism, dress, etc. Traditionally, the reformed faith has seen a cessation of the miraculous gifts based on the end of the apostolic era and passages such as 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, found in the immediate vicinity and connected to the passage under question.

This practice can lead to division in the body. Given human nature, members of the church can look down on others who do or who do not wear head coverings, depending on which side of the issue they stand. With regard to this issue, we must remember the principles of Christian liberty outlined for us in Romans 14. Again, because head coverings are obviously not forbidden, individual Christians should be free to follow their conscience in this matter. The brother who believes this is a necessary practice should not be judged by others who believe they have freedom in this area. On the other hand, strong believers, who remain unconvinced by the arguments offered in this article and practice head coverings, should exercise care in their attitudes and dealings with others in the Christian community. In matters of controversy that are not heretical in nature, patience, forbearance, and love are of the essence.

Wearing head coverings can lead, though not necessarily, to a focus on the external. That our Christianity is to not be an outer show can be seen in such places as Matthew 6:1-7. Those who wear head coverings in congregations where that is not the custom should realize how this outer mark might affect others in the congregation that do not wear them. In making this statement, realize I am not just speaking about the women. Though I admire many Christians whose families follow this practice and have good friends who humbly practice wearing them, I have also witnessed in my own ministry men causing division in the church who have exalted themselves over the rest of the body regarding the issue of head coverings and other matters. As my above statements and next point make clear, that is not a necessary result, just a potential one.

Head coverings can lead, though not necessarily, to an over stress on male headship. The Scriptures clearly teach that a husband is to be head in the home, and that his wife is to live in submission to him. I firmly believe it and seek to practice this in a godly manner in my home. However, again in my pastoral experience, I have observed men making use of head coverings in a patriarchal manner to overly subdue their wives that raises questions. Should a woman who wears a head covering have a low view of herself and her feminine role? Must she have a downcast countenance? Does wearing a head covering mean a woman has to dress unattractively, wear a “standardized” dress that meets community expectations, not wear make-up, pull her hair back tight against the head, etc.? Does she have to let her husband dominate every conversation and decision?

Again, I am not raising these questions to caricature all who use headcoverings or say these things are true of all Christian women who wear them, as I know of those who wear head coverings and just the opposite is the case. I am just suggesting that those who wear them should be very careful in their practice, just as when in fasting, for instance, we are commanded not to look glum (Matthew 6:16). I would also suggest that in cultures and subcultures where head coverings are a common practice this can be the tendency, as a quick look at certain Christian sects or Islamic communities would demonstrate.

This then leads us to the question, “Why is it in cultures where head coverings are more the norm that works-righteousness is often the underlying theology?” Consider then the next two concerns.

Head coverings can form a barrier to the gospel. It would seem reasonable to conjecture that if all the women in a congregation were wearing head coverings, it would make it far more difficult for those outside of the church to come in. Just by looking at the church they would think that they must get this "mark of circumcision" in order to be included or even believe that they are saved. Clearly this was a matter of great concern to the early church (Acts 15), and should be taken into consideration by those who hold to this practice. To those who would object, saying that comparing head coverings to circumcision is insulting, and that the concern is not worrying about offending unbelievers but God and his commands in the passage under consideration, I would make my final point and plea.

My greatest concern of all is that this practice could tend toward letting our religion touch the body but not truly touch the heart. Would not trusting in a veil-covered head rather than a blood-covered heart to bring us to God offend him greatly? He has redeemed both men and women not with "silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ" (I Peter 1:18-19). The congregation Paul was instructing was being told what the women should wear in order to humble themselves for the awesome task of declaring the direct revelation of God, not simply what they needed to wear in order to worship God. If women are not allowed to worship unless they have their heads covered, or even made to feel inferior if they do not worship this way, the potential is there for adding to or even displacing the gospel of Christ, whose blood alone is sufficient to bring us to God. Men and women could begin believing a lesser gospel, and women could be treated as lesser citizens of the kingdom. Perhaps this trust in covering the body but not the soul is one part of the reason why works-righteousness is often the practice in communities where head coverings predominate. This then is the reason for my comparison to circumcision.

May God grant us grace and wisdom as we consider these things.

Barry York

Barry York

Sinner by Nature - Saved by Grace. Husband of Miriam - Grateful for Privilege. Father of Six - Blessed by God. President of RPTS - Serve with Thankfulness. Author - Hitting the Marks.

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