Should women cover their heads in church?

Bible Issues

In 1 Cor. 11:3-15, Paul states that a woman ought to cover her head when praying or prophesying, and that men are not to. Paul speaks of a physical covering. The covering is not the woman’s hair as some suppose. 11:5 says that for a woman to have her head uncovered is just as if she were shaved. It was just as bad as, not identical with. Verse 10 speaks of a physical sign or symbol of authority on her head. Also this covering was specifically for when she was praying or prophesying. This really cannot refer to her hair. It has to refer to some physical covering.

Admittedly there is much in this passage that is difficult for us to understand, although those difficulties more than likely did not exist with the original readers. Why did Paul mention angels in verse 10? Why does he appeal to nature in verse 14, and what does nature mean? Most answers to these questions are speculative at best. Does the word “head” mean authority or source? Paul seems to indicate both in the text (vs. 8,9,12 cf. vs. 10) and scholars are divided over it.

The Real Issue

The real issue that impinges on us is whether this command was specific to the Corinthians by cultural constraints, or is it applicable to all believers of all time? I believe that principles are timeless and applicable for all time. Commands are subject to change.

There are quite a few instances in the Bible where God altered, amended or annulled his commands. The food laws are one such case. The divorce law was another example. God allowed divorce because of the hardness of man's heart, but it was never his plan. He only did it because He did not want man to get out of hand. That is the reason for many commands, just to keep sinful man in check (1 Tim. 1:9). To further illustrate this point, consider that in 1 Cor. 7:27b and 1 Tim. 5:14, Paul seems to give two opposing commands. In the first case, do not seek to be married. In the second, get married. But they were given to different audiences at different times.

But all the Old Testament commands were based on the principle of love for God and man (Matt. 22:38, 39). Commands were means of making principles practical to people in given situations. Believers were never intended to live by commands. Commands vary according to condition, circumstance and culture. They are not timeless. So because Paul commanded the Corinthian women to cover their heads, that does not necessarily mean that women today need to do likewise.

Apostolic Tradition?

Many bible teachers appeal to apostolic tradition in these areas. No serious bible student believes that the head covering has anything to do with salvation. No right minded Christian believes that if a woman does not cover her head, then she will lose her salvation. Instead many bible teachers appeal to apostolic tradition - they insist that women cover their heads in church because this was a tradition that the apostles started. Personally I am not too comfortable with this idea.

One of the big problems in the early church was Jewish Christians trying to enforce Old Testament traditions on the new Gentile converts. The apostles condemned such attempts as putting a yoke on believers that was too heavy even by OT standards (Acts 15:10). Paul taught very clearly that the purpose of the law was to keep sinful man in check until Christ came (1 Timothy 1:9). Man was never intended to live by laws. God's ideal is that we will have his laws of righteousness written in our hearts. Christianity is supposed to be like that. We are supposed to be led by the Spirit, as opposed to following laws. But we all have to contend with the flesh and we very often tend to be selfish and carnal - even Christians. So we need rules sometimes to keep us in check.

Now some teachers claim that the apostles instituted some traditions of their own that Christians are bound to follow. One such tradition they claim is that women should cover their heads in church. My problem with this is that it means we are now free from the law of Moses only to be bound by new traditions. The apostles did give a lot of "commands", but they were not meant to live by. They were just guidelines to keep us in check.

Consider an example. Whether gentile Christians should be circumcised was a huge issue in the early church. The Jerusalem council emphatically declared that the gentiles should not be burdened with circumcision (Acts 15). In Galatians 2:3, Titus refused to be circumcised, and Paul was OK with that. But in Acts 16:3, Paul had Timothy circumcised. Why? Titus refused to be circumcised because he did not want to capitulate to those who were trying to attack Christian liberty. Timothy on the other hand was circumcised because not doing so might have created a genuine offence to the Jews.

So you may argue that it was "apostolic tradition" that gentile Christians not be circumcised. But we were not intended to live by commands and laws. When Jesus was asked about divorce and remarriage, He did not just answer the "what" of the question, but also answered the "why". We need to know the reason why commands are given. That's why I have a problem with "apostolic tradition". It blindly follows rules without understanding why the commands were given. In the case of Timothy, there was a greater principle at work - the believer's public testimony.

The Believer’s Public Testimony

In 1 Cor. 11, Paul appeals to our better judgment (vs. 13) and nature (vs. 14) to prove his case that women should cover their heads. Failure to do so would be just as if they were bald (vs. 5). What does nature mean? Does nature teach US that? It obviously did to the Corinthians. Does nature refer to the “fact” that women’s hair grow more naturally than men’s? Then what out Samson, Absalom, and Marge Simpson?

I think nature in this context refers to the culture and customs prevalent at the time. Women generally covered their heads. It was tradition. It is believed that only prostitutes and idol worshippers deviated from this norm, thus for believers to not follow tradiation would seem to identify them with heathens. In 1 Cor. 8-10, Paul constantly emphasizes the importance of the Christian’s public testimony as a message to the unsaved, and that trend of thought continues in chapter 11 and even as far as 14:24.

It is very possible that what was more important to Paul was the principle that the believers’ public testimony be above reproach, and as a result he urged them not to deviate from socially accepted customs. He was not creating traditions for all Christians of all time. In our day when the head covering is not part of western culture, enforcing it is not necessary. Commands change, but principles remain.

Submission to Authority

Today it is a custom that men wear pants not skirts. In ancient times, men wore what looked like dresses. David did not cut off piece of Saul’s Levis or Armani (1 Sam. 24:4, 5). In Scotland, some men wear kilts which to me, look like skirts. For them that is and was normal. But if a man wears a skirt to church today in a western society, that would definitely cause a stir, perhaps even an offense. It could hardly be just an innocent act that does not really mean anything. More than likely it exposes certain homosexual tendencies, which by the way is sin. This is what it was like for a woman in Biblical times to not wear a head covering. For women today, it means very little. Back then, it could be nothing other than open rebellion. The principle is submission to authority.

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