Head Coverings in Public Worship
By: Brian Schwertley
A controversial topic that is avoided by many pastors and sessions today is the issue of head coverings in public worship. There are many reasons why this subject is avoided. (1) It is viewed as a “no win” situation by sessions that do not want to offend people of diverse opinions on the topic. (2) The passage that deals with head coverings is difficult to understand and thus has been used to prove completely different viewpoints. (3) The use of head coverings in public worship today is both rare and unpopular. Indeed, a number of women and even a few men are greatly offended by the use of head coverings in public worship. (Pastors have been fired or asked to resign simply because their wives covered their heads.) (4) Sadly, many pastors in our day view their job not as one of the proclamation of truth, but as primarily one of people management. Therefore, doctrine and practices that are controversial must be either avoided or explained in a manner that justifies current practice.
Although the use of head coverings in public worship is controversial and unpopular there are some important reasons why it needs to be considered. One obvious reason is that the apostle Paul devotes a major portion of a chapter in an epistle to this topic. The Spirit inspired apostle gave detailed argumentation in favor of the practice of head coverings. Everything in God’s word merits our utmost attention. Also, Paul commands the use of head coverings for women in worship. If this practice is to be ignored or avoided today, the church must have clear exegetical reasons why. As Christians our utmost allegiance is not to the status quo or the spirit of the age but to our Lord Jesus Christ and His infallible word.
Before we examine the apostle’s teaching regarding head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 there are a few preliminary considerations. (1) Paul’s teaching on head coverings comes within a larger section of the epistle in which he deals with disorders related to the public worship of God: the veiling of women (11:2-16); improper conduct at the Lord’s supper (11:17-34); and, the abuse of spiritual gifts (12:1-14: 40). Therefore, the passage under consideration does not speak to the issue of whether or not women ought to wear head coverings at all times. (2) Although there is no way to ascertain how Paul became aware of the head covering problem at Corinth, it is likely that he was informed of the abuse by a letter (e.g., see 1 Cor. 7:1). In any case, he considered the problem to be serious enough to deal with at length. (3) This section of Scripture presupposes that at least some women at Corinth had stopped covering their heads in public worship. Although we do not know why women were forsaking the head covering during worship, it may be that some women in the church had misunderstood or misapplied Paul’s teaching that in Christ “there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). The apostle’s teaching that in the matter of salvation, social status, race and even differences of gender are totally irrelevant, may have been twisted into a statement regarding role differences between men and women. Paul’s emphasis on God’s ordained order of authority (c.f. 1 Cor. 11:3, 7-9) implies that women needed to be corrected in this area.
(4) The apostle begins the section dealing with abuses in public worship by praising the Corinthians for keeping the traditions (v. 2). The word translated “traditions” (paradosis) or “ordinances” (KJV) in this context refers to the Word of God as handed down by Paul. This praise before correction has puzzled a number of commentators. Why does the apostle begin a section correcting false practices by praising the Corinthians for obeying inspired apostolic doctrine? There are a number of sensible answers to this question. It is possible that the abuses in Corinth were conducted by a small minority in the church. Thus, Paul could praise the main body as being faithful. Another possibility is that Paul commends the Corinthians for being faithful in many areas before he corrects them as an encouragement to even greater faithfulness. In other words he praises them for the good before he admonishes them for the bad. The apostle corrects them in a very loving tactful manner as a father does a sensitive child.
Paul’s Argumentation for Head Coverings
(1) Interestingly, the apostle begins his teaching on head coverings in public worship not with a rebuke or delineation of the problem but with a foundational theological statement. “But 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” (v.3). This theological statement serves as a reference point for verses 4 and 5. The fact that some women in Corinth were not covering their heads during public worship is a symptom of a greater problem. It is an indication of a false understanding of what Jesus’ work entails for social relationships in the new covenant era. Therefore, Paul begins with a statement regarding God’s ordained order of authority in creation. “With the view of proving that it is an unseemly thing for women to appear in a public assembly with their heads uncovered, and, on the other hand, for men to pray or prophesy with their heads covered, he sets out with noticing the arrangements that are divinely established.” Paul notes four gradations of authority that apply to the created order: God, Christ, men, women. (a) The head of Christ is God. This point refers to the fact that in His incarnate state as mediator Jesus has voluntarily assumed a position of submission to the Father. Obviously, as the second person of the trinity, the Son is equal in power and authority with God. (b) The head of every man is Christ. This statement is true in a number of ways. As God and creator the Son is supreme Lord over all men and women. Also, in His role as the divine-human mediator Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth (Mt. 28:19). He is the head of the church and the savior of the body (Eph. 1:22, 23; Col. 1:16). (c) The head of the woman is the man. God has placed the man in a position of authority over the woman. The apostle will go into more detail regarding this principle in verses 7-8. “The man is first in order in being, was first formed, and the woman out of him, who was made for him, and he not for the woman, and therefore must be head and chief…and she is to be subject to him in every thing natural, civil, and religious. Moreover, the man is the head of the woman to provide and care for her, to nourish and cherish her, and to protect and defend her against all insults and injuries.” The covenant headship of the man over the woman was established by God on the sixth day of creation (Gen. 2: 18-25). This principle is taught throughout Scripture. A notable example is Ephesians 5:23, “For the husband is head of the wife as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body” (see, 1 Pet. 3:1, 5-6; Rom. 7:2; 1Cor. 11: 8-9; I Tim. 2:12-13; 3: 4-5, 12; Isa. 54:5; Jer. 3:20; 31: 32; Ho. 2: 2, 7; Num. 30:3-15; Ex. 22: 16-17; 21: 1-11).
There are a number of things to note regarding Paul’s initial statement on authority. (a) The apostle does not set out to prove the principle of authority and subordination but merely asserts it as an established fact of God’s created order. (b) The authority structure that Paul sets forth is universal with respect to time and place. As a creation ordinance (that is, a law or principal that is founded upon God’s created reality) the headship of the man over the woman is not in any manner a product of culture of social evolution. The covenant headship of the man over the woman applies throughout all history to each and every culture. Any attempt to circumvent Paul’s teaching regarding this matter is an act of rebellion against God Himself who established this authority structure. (c) The word translated “head” (kephal) means “ruler,” “leader,” or “the one who has authority over.” Feminist and egalitarian attempts to avoid the clear meaning of this passage by interpreting the Greek word kephal as “source” have been thoroughly discredited. (d) Paul’s statement regarding man’s authority over the woman does not mean that women are inferior to men. Men and women are metaphysically (i.e., as regarding their being, essence or nature) equal, although different in many ways (e.g., Men are physically stronger than women. Peter refers to women as the weaker vessel [1 Pet. 3:7].) Also, they are equal spiritually before God. They are saved and sanctified in the same manner and have the same status as redeemed children of God in Christ (see Gal. 3:28. 1 Pet. 3:7). Therefore, women are not second-class citizens in the family, church or society. The difference between men and women that Paul describes refers to function and purpose. Man was created to lead in a loving manner (i.e., as a ministering, servant leader; Mt. 20:25-28; Eph. 5: 25-33). The woman was created as a helpmeet to submit to her husband in a respectful manner and assist him in the task of godly dominion (Gen. 2:18; 1 Cor. 11:9; Eph. 5:22-23). (e) Paul’s foundational statement in v. 3 informs us that God considers the uncovered head of a woman in public worship shameful not because it is immodest or contrary to culture; but, because it symbolizes a usurpation of God’s created order.
After delineating God’s ordained order of authority, Paul proceeds with concrete examples of violations of this principle and additional arguments in favor of the use of head coverings in public worship.
(2) In his second argument Paul sets forth a hypothetical situation in public worship in order to discuss the shame of appearing in public worship with (for men) or without (for women) a head covering. “Every man praying or prophesying having his head covered, dishonors his head. But 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. 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” (1 Cor. 11:4-6).
Before we consider the apostle’s argument from shame there are a number of things to consider in this passage. (a) There is a need to define the apostle’s reference to praying and prophesying in public worship. Many commentators consider the reference to women praying and prophesying in public worship problematic because in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 women are commanded not to speak during the worship service. Since it is impossible for Scripture to contradict itself, and since it would be especially absurd for the apostle to blatantly contradict himself within the same epistle, scholars have offered a number of different yet possible interpretations that answer this alleged difficulty. Calvin argues that Paul’s discussion of women praying and prophesying during public worship is merely hypothetical because he later forbids the practice altogether. Another possibility is that the apostle regards women setting forth direct revelation from God to be an exception to regular speaking (e.g., the uninspired exposition of scripture). In other words, since prophecy is God Himself speaking without human exposition, a woman prophesying is not herself exercising authority over a man (see Matthew Henry’s commentary on this passage).
Probably the best interpretation is that the acts of prayer and prophecy mentioned by Paul represent congregational participation in public worship. (Scholars refer to a description of a part [in this case a part of public worship] for the whole as a synecdoche). The commentator John Gill gives an excellent explanation of this passage. He writes: “Not that a woman was allowed to pray publicly in the congregation, and much less to preach or explain the word, for these things were not permitted them: see 1 Cor. xiv.34, 35. 1 Tim. ii.12. But it designs any woman that joins in public worship with the minister in prayer, and attends on the hearing of the word preached, or sings the praises of God with the congregation.” While it is true that women do not teach in the public assemblies or lead in prayer they do pray liturgically (i.e. in unison with the whole assembly, e.g., the Lord’s prayer) and they do sing inspired songs that are prophetic scripture when they sing the Psalms.
The reason it is important to properly understand the meaning of prayer and prophecy is that if coverings were only required during the specific act of setting forth divinely inspired prayer or new divinely inspired teachings directly from God then one could argue that head coverings for women applied only to the first century for the gift of prophecy ceased with the death of the apostles and the close of the canon. Since the use of head coverings in both the Eastern and Western church was universal in the post apostolic era, it is extremely unlikely that head coverings were used only during the exact time that divinely inspired teaching or prayer was being spoken.
(b) What does Paul mean when he says head covering? Does he refer to a piece of cloth (i.e., a veil), which is the traditional interpretation, or does he refer to long hair? There are a number of reasons why the head covering must be interpreted as a piece of cloth–a veil. First, words and phrases that Paul uses to describe the head covering are used in other places in Scripture to describe a fabric head covering over the head. In verse 4 the unusual phrase kata kephales echon translated “having his head covered” which literally means “having down the head” is used in the Greek Septuagint to translate Hebrew phrases referring to cloth head coverings. “[A]lthough Paul’s idiom is somewhat unusual, it is not without precedent. In Esther 6:12 Haman is said to have ‘hurried to his house, mourning and with his head covered’ (RSV). The LXX [i.e., the Greek Septuagint] translates this last phrase kata kephales (= ‘down the head’). So also Plutarch speaks of Scipio the Younger as beginning to walk through Alexandria ‘having the himation down the head,’ meaning that he covered his head with part of his toga so as to be unrecognized by the people. Almost certainly, therefore, by this idiom Paul is referring to an external cloth covering.”
This is a very well written article and if you want to read the rest, click HERE