Something the other tour guides won't tell you
Recently I've received enquiries about the practice of head coverings as related to Paul's instructions in Corinthians 11.
I will try to address this issue and answer a few questions, all the while realizing that many more may still need to be addressed. I don't anticipate that this will be an issue that most folks will settle in one pass anyway. I will encourage further contemplation with questions of my own in my conclusion.
Personally, this was an issue that I took years to really come to solid conclusions on, so I am more than patient with others wrestling through such.
Paul deals with various topics in 1 Corinthians 11, including headship and its demonstration, hair length, and regulations regarding the Lord's Supper. Our primary concern here is whether or not Paul's admonitions regarding women/wives wearing head coverings (1 Cor 11:2-16) is still binding on 21st century Christians.
2 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.
- 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (ESV)
The majority position and/or practice among contemporary churches (at least in the USofA) is that this Paul's words are not binding. They may have been binding at one time (and/or place ... i.e., Corinth), but they are not anymore.
Let me give you a few quick points as to why I endorse the position that Paul's admonitions are still binding for Christians today.
1. There is nothing in the text that indicates this was only a situation that needed to be practiced in
2. Paul's reasons for the practice of women/wives having their heads covered has nothing to do with culture. Those not wanting to do what Paul here commands might tell us that his reasons were tied to the culture and when the culture changed Paul would say that we should change with it. However, Paul's reasons for such practice were explicitly given by him and they have absolutely nothing to do with the culture:
- the headship of husband over wife (the Greek word could be translated "wife" or "woman," but the ESV seems to best capture the concept of husband & wife) (11:3)
- woman is the glory of man (11:7)
- the order of creation (man then women) (11:8-9)
- because of the angels (presumably to demonstrate submission) (11:10)
- a wife should have a symbol ("on her head") that signifies her husband's ("her head") authority is recognized (11:10)
- the natural order of differentiation between men and women in hair length - God's already wired things so that she has a built in covering as well as the material one needed (11:13-15)
- universal church practice - there was no other practice among the churches but the head covering (1 Cor 11:16)
As an aside, I'm not sure what exactly Paul means regarding the length of hair. In other words, I don't know exactly what Paul would call short and what Paul would call long. Ironically, one thinks of Jesus as having long-ish hair in pictures. Of course, no one today knows really what He looked like physically (although he probably wasn't the pretty boy Caucasian with the blue eyes that one typically sees). In the OT there was something called the Nazarite vow (Numbers 6:1-21) where a man would grow his hair out as part of a vow (also abstinence from wine & grape stuff & not touching anything dead). This vow would be for a time and at the end of the time the hair would be shaved off and given up as an offering to the Lord. Then life would be back to normal.
Outside of that, it seems Paul's words indicate that there should be a visible distinction between the length of hair on males & females and that there was back in his day (perhaps Jesus' hair was much shorter than is typically portrayed). I might be the wrong guy to ask what short is, because I like Marine cuts as a personal preference.
I think the reality is that Paul is saying one should be able to tell the difference between men and women and there shouldn't be confusion by one having hair too long or the other having hair too short.
Is long hair the covering about which Paul speaks? Would long hair suffice for him? First, the Greek word used earlier in the chapter regarding covering and uncovered is not the same as that used in verse 15. I'm convinced beyond a shadow of doubt that Paul is not saying that a woman should have long hair when she prays. There seems to be something specific Paul wants women in the assembly to do (wear a head covering) that differs from what he wants them to do all the time (have long hair). I think his words about long hair are an appeal to nature as if to say just as a lady physically has her hair long as a type of covering, so should she have a visible sign to all of her spiritual covering.
When should this covering be in practice? I would have you snoop around in the context and see that we're in the midst of Paul's teachings regarding how worship should be conducted (see Chapters 10, the rest of 11, and 12-14). Thus, I think the admonitions are for when the saints come together for worship and at a minimum I would say that entails the service.
Beyond that, it's a hard for me to be too dogmatic. What about Sunday school and/or Sunday nights? What about family devotions? Some of that stuff is more a matter of conscience of application, it seems to me. The fact that it's a sign of authority ... on her head seems to me that it is a practice that is meant to communicate to others a wife's submission to her husband (although there may be some disagreement here among head covering proponents, I don't find this binding to unmarried women). Thus, other people have to be gathered for this worship. I know some that advocate any and every time prayer is offered up, up comes the hat/covering. I certainly would not fault anyone for what I would consider "playing it safe."
To further illustrate, the case has been made that with regard to the whole thing of head covering one should cover up even if not convinced. The argument goes like this: if it's not necessary and a head covering is still worn, there is certainly no sin that has been committed. Conversely, if it is binding and not done then grave sin would have been committed where the order of creation and the angels are snubbed.
Interestingly enough, we still observe one aspect of this pretty much universally, that is the removal of hats for gentlemen during prayer (and really upon entering a church in many instances). Also, historically the ladies wearing head coverings was practiced in our country (and all throughout Christian churches) pretty uniformly at least up into the 1950s and some churches are still doing it. It seems to have fallen out of vogue in the 60s, but so did a lot of things (e.g., modesty, chastity, sobriety, etc.). Granted, there were probably many who lost sight of why they were doing what they were doing, but the practice was still there even then.
Some practical questions for those contemplating implementation:
- When/Where to wear a head covering? all the time? at all times in a church building? during the full assembly (i.e., main worship time)? only when a prayer is actually offered?
- What to wear for a covering? a veil? a lace scarf? a hat? a handkerchief?
- Who to cover? wives? all women? all females?
These are not irrelevant issues, but I also hope they would not be seen as the essential issues.
In my mind the principle is espoused in 1 Cor 11:10: the wife "ought to have a sign of authority on her head." Thus, I would suggest that while I would commend those who practice the wearing of some form of head covering in congregational worship, I would also urge any and all so doing to be sure to know what you're doing and why. You're communicating to those watching (humans and angels) your willing submission to your husband's authority. Now, if that's not counter-cultural, I don't know what is.
Recently, I had a conversation with R.C. Sproul of Ligonier Ministries about this topic at a pastor's conference. I wanted to gain some insight from him. I said, "Dr. Sproul, I'm an advocate of the practice of head coverings and I understand that you lean in that direction as well." To which he emphatically replied, "Oh, I don't just lean there ... I STAND there."
My last question: For those who say that the principle is binding, but not that particular practice, how do your congregations practice that principle? In other words, if not with a head covering, how do your women/wives communicate submission to their men/husbands? I'm convinced Paul gave a binding principle and binding practice for that principle, but I'm curious to hear how others might have alternate practices for said principle.
I encourage all to prayerfully study this topic so you too can have somewhere to stand with a clear conscience on this issue.
P.S. As it has been my experience that this concept is more reluctantly embraced by ladies, I thought a feminine perspective might prove helpful. The purpose of the following site is to inform and encourage women in their faith and daily living from a practical Reformed view.Reformed Puritan Home: For Women of Like Faith and Daily Living ... Why Should One Cover?