Should Christian Women Wear Head Coverings in Church Meetings?

 

In First Corinthians 11:2-16, the Apostle Paul taught that Christian women should have their heads covered when they pray or prophesy. Until the early 1900’s, Christian women generally considered it a disgrace to be in public without a head covering. During the twenty-first century, not many people even question if Paul’s instruction applies today. Even so, I suspect that any serious Christian woman who has read this passage has at least wondered to herself whether this applies to her today. Perhaps the most common teaching today is that Paul’s instructions no longer apply as they did back in his day. They teach that to understand this passage, one must consider the culture of first century Corinth. They teach that back then, it would have been abnormal for a woman to be in public without a head covering of some sort. So, because it would have been considered disgraceful for a woman to have her head uncovered back then, Paul taught the woman of first century Corinth that they should always have their head covered when praying or prophesying. As a result of today’s widespread interpretation of this passage, very few Christian women wear head coverings to church. They don’t think Paul’s instruction applies to them.

The Bible teaches that whatever is not done in faith is sin. He taught that each person’s faith must be based upon his own convictions. (See Romans 14:22-23.) Therefore, whether a woman wears a head covering or not, she really must have a deep rooted conviction about it. If a woman does not wear a head covering when she prays or prophesies, she should be fully convinced in her heart that she is right to do so. If not, she is not operating by faith. If a woman wears a head covering when she prays and prophesies, she must do so out of her own convictions. If she does it simply because other Christians expect her to do so, she is not doing it by faith.

By saying this, I am not suggesting that Paul’s instruction about head covering has no relevance.  I am merely trying to point out that each person must have their own conviction. But I would also stress that it is our responsibility to make sure that our convictions have a basis in truth. To illustrate, let us consider the subject of believer’s baptism. If a new believer claims that it is his conviction that he does not need to be baptized, is it valid for him to refrain from being baptized? After all, he is not convinced that he needs to be baptized. Therefore, if he was baptized in this condition, he would not be doing it by faith, right? It is true that if he was baptized under these circumstances, he would not be doing it by faith. But rather than stay in this condition, he needs to be taught that his convictions are not biblical. The Bible clearly teaches that new believers should be baptized. So, his conviction that baptism is not necessary must be corrected. Otherwise, he will continue living in disobedience to the Scriptures since they teach he should be baptized. His unbiblical understanding does not excuse him. It is never a good thing to live in disobedience to God.

Likewise, women should not just blindly accept today’s common perception that they do not need to wear a head covering while they pray or prophesy. They have a responsibility to seriously consider this subject because they are responsible for their own actions. If the common perception that women do not need to wear head coverings is incorrect, then each time she prays or prophesies without a head covering, she is sinning. Sinning is never a good thing. There are always repercussions when a person sins. I have written this article to convey my current understanding of I Corinthians 11:2-16. It is my hope that by doing so, women will consider more carefully whether they should wear a head covering when praying or prophesying.

Before examining the passage itself, I must first point out something about its structure. This passage is known as a chiasm which is a literary tool that Paul used often. Since many people are not familiar with this literary tool, let me try and describe it. The outermost portions correspond to each other in some way. Then, the next outermost portions correspond to each other in some way and so on. The center portion is the section of the passage that is a focal point for the author. We can represent this passage with letters of the alphabet:  ABCDCBA, with “D” being the center and a focal point of the whole. I suggest that since Paul structured it chiastically, we should study this passage while taking its chiastic structure into account.

The structure of the passage

The chiastic structure of I Corinthians 11:2-16 depicted below (ABCDCBA):

A   2Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things        and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. 

    3But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. 5But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved.6 For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.

C  8For man is not from woman, but woman from an. 9Nor was man created for the woman,  but woman for the man.

D  10For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol  of authority on her head, because of the angels.

C   11Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord.  12For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.

B   13Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14Does 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; her hair is given to her for a covering. 

A  16But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

Though I call your attention to this chiastic structure, I am not suggesting that it is THE secret key to unlock its mystery. I believe that I would come to the same conclusions even if I never took it into account. But when I look at the relationship of each layer to it’s corresponding portion (AA…..BB….CC), the structure seems to underscore or perhaps confirm my understanding of the passage to me.  Let me suggest to you that Paul’s main argument is found in verses 3 through 10 or in the first sections B, C, and D above. The second C section seems to add to or qualify what he already stated in the first section C. The second section B seems to add to or qualify what he already stated in the first section B. (Also, the second section A seems to add to or qualify what he already stated in the first section A.) And section D seems to be the conclusion of what he taught in the first A, B and C sections.

An isolated study of the first B & C sections along with D indicate that Paul was teaching authoritatively based upon specific revelation God had already given in Scripture by the time Paul wrote this epistle.  The main theme has all to do with God’s ordained authority structure in creation. Let me suggest a very basic paraphrase of what Paul is teaching in 11:3-10 (based upon God’s prior revelation):

Because of man’s place in God’s ordained authority structure, men should not have their heads covered when they pray or prophesy. Because of woman’s place in God’s ordained authority structure, women should have their heads covered when they pray or prophesy. And women should have a symbol of authority on their heads whenever they pray or prophesy because of the angels.

Paul teaches authoritatively (vs. 3 -10) on his understanding of the authority structure that God has ordained as revealed in Scripture.

Note:  Someone might object to my paraphrase sighting verse 6 where Paul says, “But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.” Based upon today’s cultural practices, a person might conclude that since it is not shameful for a woman to have short hair nowadays, women do not have to cover their heads when they pray or prophesy.  But this would be poor hermeneutics because Paul was speaking to people who lived in a culture that considered it shameful for women to have short hair. (More about this will be addressed later.) Therefore, Paul’s argument is actually made more forceful when he said, “But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.” Since it was shameful for a woman to have short hair in that culture, it is clear that Paul is telling them that women should pray with their head covered.

Paul’s instruction in verses 3 -10 is based solely on his understanding of God’s ordained authority structure. I believe that if you look at it honestly, you will see that Paul makes his authoritative teaching statements in verses 3-10 concluding that women should pray and prophesy with their heads covered to reflect their position in God’s authority structure and because of the angels.

It is true that in verse 14, Paul brings up the argument from nature (it is a shame for women to have short hair). But he is not doing so to qualify his earlier authoritative teaching that concluded in verse 10. No, he says the things in verses 13 – 15 as a secondary evidence to support what he already stated with authority in verses 3 -10. (To the first century Corinthians, Paul’s word’s in verses 13 – 15 would merely serve to support what he had already just taught authoritatively in verses 3 -10.)  In other words, the bottom section B merely qualifies or adds to the authoritative teaching he gave in the top section B.  (Just as the bottom section C clearly qualifies or adds to the authoritative teaching he gave in the top section C.)  Consider the pairing of these sections again as you weigh all this. I think that if you honestly do so, you will see that Paul’s authoritative teaching (based upon the absolute truth revealed previously by God in His Scriptures) begins with verse 3 and concludes at verse 10. All that he says in verses 13 – 15 basically supports the authoritative teaching that concludes in verse 10.

 

Paul’s argument as I see it:

Verses 2 & 16: It is a common tradition in the churches for women to pray and prophesy with their heads covered.

Verses 2 and 16 are paired chaistically.  I believe that when they are considered together in light of what he is teaching in verses 3 – 15, Paul is calling their attention to a tradition that is commonly practiced and taught to all the churches. He concludes by saying that if someone objects, they are doing so independently and contrary to the tradition observed by all the churches.  Consider the testimony of Tertullian[1], one of the church fathers, written in 207 AD:

How severe a chastisement will they likewise deserve, who during the Psalms – and at any mention of God- remain uncovered, Even when about to spend time in prayer itself, with the utmost readiness they place a fringe, tuft, or any thread whatever on the crown of their heads and suppose themselves to be covered! (Tertullian (c. 207, W), 4.37.

Now Tertullian did not have apostolic authority and some things he has written are questionable. But I am not quoting him here as an authority. I believe that his testimony is merely evidence that suggests the following:

-By the year 207 AD, there is evidence here that Christian women in those days believed that they needed to cover their heads when they prayed.

-As we will see later from other historical documentation, women traditionally wore their hair long in those days because short hair was shameful for women. Therefore, from Tertullian’s testimony, they did not believe that their long hair itself served as adequate covering. It needed to be something (cloth of some sort) on top of their heads.

-At that time, many women apparently did not consider it shameful to be uncovered during the church meetings unless they were praying (or by extension, prophesying). Therefore, it was not necessarily a worldwide cultural practice for women to have their heads covered or veiled in public for reasons of modesty.

-Tertullian was irritated that the women did not keep their head coverings on throughout the meetings.  (We cannot conclude, however, that his anger was justified. Maybe Paul would not have objected??)

Verses 3 – 10: God’s ordained authority structure teaches that women must be covered.

Though it is unpopular in the 21st century, it is true nevertheless that God has ordained a certain authority structure. This can be seen in a variety of relationships. For example, children are under the authority of their parents. Wives are under the authority of their husbands. Citizens are under the authority of the governmental authorities. Church members are under the authority of church leaders in positions of authority.  All people are under the authority of God.  While many people may not place high importance on these authority structures, God does.

In I Samuel 15, King Saul does not obey a clear command from God and Samuel explains how disobedience is always aligned with Satan:

Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, And stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry” (I Samuel 15:22-23).

If we refuse to submit to people in God-ordained positions of authority over us, He considers it a direct affront to His authority.[2] The severity of the sin of rebellion against people in positions of authority over us can be seen in God’s judgment  concerning rebellious children as specified in the Law of Moses.

17“And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. (Exodus 21:17)

 18“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not heed them, 19then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, to the gate of his city. 20And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall put away the evil from among you, and all Israel shall hear and fear.  (Matthew 21:18-21)

Many examples could be given from the Bible to demonstrate that our actions and our attitudes towards people in positions of authority over us must reflect reverence for God. The people in positions of authority over us represent God Himself. So, any unsubmissive action or attitude is as the sin of witchcraft, aligned directly with Satan. Unsubmissive actions or attitudes always make us vulnerable to Satanic attack.

It is because of the seriousness of this issue of God’s ordained authority that women need to be careful when deciding whether or not to wear a head covering when she prays or prophesies (since Paul points directly to it as the basis for his instructions in I Corinthians 11.)

In verse 8 and 9, Paul addresses the position God has ordained for women and men in the creation. This is not a reference to the marital relationship of husband to wife. It extends back to the original creation even prior to the fall. In this order, man is over woman in authority in the created order.  This is a general creation order. It does not mean that all men are in authority over every woman.

Based upon this observation, Paul teaches that women need to understand their God-ordained place in the general authority structure of creation.  In this structure, women should accept that somehow, man holds a place of protection over the woman. (Again, in the realm  or created order.) Paul teaches in verse 3 – 7 that in His ordained authority structure, God is over Christ, Christ is over man, and man is over women. In this way, man is the head over women. Christ is the head over man, and God is the head over Christ. It is because of this spiritual reality that Paul concludes by saying, For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.  ( I Corinthians 11:10).

There has been much speculation about the phrase, “because of the angels.” Though I cannot prove it, I believe that it may have something to do with the spiritual warfare that continually goes on in the unseen world. I believe that God does utilize angels in the process of shielding us from Satanic attack. Perhaps by praying or prophesying with her head uncovered, a woman opens herself up to Satanic attack in the same way that any unsubmissive attitude or action does for any Christian. The head covering shows that the woman respects God’s order of authority and shows she reverently wants to be under God’s protection.

While the things I have written may not satisfy every reader, it does represent my current thinking on this subject. I suppose that I could summarize it as follows. Because of the potential ramifications concerning God’s authority, if I were a woman, I would definitely wear a head covering whenever I prayed or prophesied.

Verses 11 & 12 man is not independent of woman

Since these two verses are paired with verses 8 & 9 (chiastically), I tend to think that Paul wanted to insert something that elevates women to their place as fellow heirs with man. They are not to be considered inferior! Perhaps Paul wants to guard against twisted views that sinful men are inclined to form.

Verses 13-15 the hairstyles of the prevailing culture of THEIR time teach that it was shameful for the woman to have her head uncovered (when they pray or prophesy)

Contrary to the authoritative style of writing in verses 3 – 10, Paul now appeals to their judgment, “Judge for yourselves.”  So, he is not teaching authoritatively like he did to make his argument in verses 3 -10. Now, with this change of tone, Paul is appealing to their judgment to confirm and support what he already instructed them to do.  In that culture, a woman’s long hair identified her as a woman, not a man. (Men wore short hair in that culture). So, in that culture, all women who wore long hair were doing so to identify themselves as women. In this sense, it served as an identifier or covering. 

For a lengthier explanation, I suggest the following article:

“Let Her Be Covered”: Notes on I Cor 11:2-16, Parunak, H.Van Dyke, October 17, 1990. http://www.cyber-chapel.org/Headcover.pdf

In section 5 of this article, the author provides writings from historical documents dating back to the early church. These documents indicate that women and children (boys and girls) wore long hair and men wore short hair.

Lastly, a woman’s long hair does not qualify as a head covering.

In addition to the writings of Tertullian noted above that indicates that the women in 200 AD did not consider their long hair to be a covering, the text of the passage itself makes it impossible.  From the passage itself, we learn that everyone in Corinth already agreed that women should have long hair. From verse 15, it is clear that if long hair would suffice as a covering, Paul would have no reason to say, “I want you to know” in beginning his argument about head coverings in which he concludes, “for this reason, a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head.” They already have long hair and they know it would be shameful if they had short hair. To women with long hair, Paul instructs them to cover their heads.

 

[1] Tertullian lived from about 160 to 230 AD. Fiery Christian writer in Carthage, North Africa. He may have been an ordained presbyter. He wrote numerous apologies, works against heretics, and exhortations to other Christians- nearly all of which are in Latin.  This quote taken from A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, p. xix, Bercot, David W., Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts

 

[2] This is not true, however, whenever a person in authority orders something that violates God’s revealed will.

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