The Head Covering

The issue over the head covering has been controversial at times among brethren. It is something about which people are often curious. I regularly receive questions on a wide range of Bible topics. The head covering is easily one of the more asked about subjects. The main part of the passage discussing the covering is this:

But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. Every man who has something on his head while praying and prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman 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” (1 Corinthians 11:3-6).

Is the head covering discussed by Paul an artificial covering or does it refer to a woman’s hair? Is it just a matter of culture or does it apply to all Christian women of all time? These are some questions people have when they study this passage. In this article, we will examine what Paul wrote in this chapter about the head covering.

Hold to the Traditions

It is easy for people to attack “traditions” or “traditionalism.” Certainly some traditions need to be attacked. But Paul also said, “Hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2). Clearly not all traditions are bad or wrong.

What traditions were the Corinthians to hold? They were not to hold to human traditions that ran contrary to the will of God. Jesus plainly condemned such traditions in his discussion with the Pharisees and scribes: “You have invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matthew 15:6). They were also not to hold unwaveringly and dogmatically to matters of expediency that had become traditions to them. Though men will try to justify nearly anything as an expedient, Paul told these brethren that only those things which were first lawful could be called expedient (1 Corinthians 10:23). While such expedients may have been fine for them to practice, they were not to bind such practices upon others, lest they would become guilty of “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Matthew 15:9).

The traditions they were to hold were those that had been “delivered” by Paul (1 Corinthians 11:2). These are the traditions to which we must also hold (2 Thessalonians 2:15). They are the common standard of fellowship among God’s people, as Paul said, “Keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6). These traditions that were handed down by the apostles must be kept.

This is important to our understanding of this passage. We must hold to the apostolic traditions. These traditions were not based upon the apostles’ opinions or best judgment. These traditions were revealed to them from above (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23; 14:37).

The Head Covering: Not an Apostolic Tradition

After discussing the need to hold to the apostolic traditions, Paul said, “But I want you to understand…” (1 Corinthians 11:3). He was introducing a new thought – something he had not discussed before (unlike the traditions in the previous verse).

Regarding the head covering, Paul said, “We have no such custom” (1 Corinthians 11:16, KJV). The word translated custom (sunetheia) is defined as intercourse, custom, and being used to or accustomed (Thayer). The first definition is interesting. The Bible regularly uses the term know to describe sexual relations. “Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived.” “Cain knew his wife; and she conceived.” “Adam knew his wife again; and she bare a son” (Genesis 4:1, 17, 25, KJV). In this context, to know someone is to be acquainted with them in a way that no one else is. This is the idea behind the custom to which Paul refers. The brethren in Corinth were familiar with the head covering. Whatever it was, they knew of it in a way that other brethren did not. In other words, it was unique to them, either as a matter of custom or cultural practice.

The head covering discussed in this passage was not common among churches. Paul said, “We have no such custom, neither the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16, KJV). This proves that it was not an apostolic tradition that is to be bound upon all women in Christ. Paul told these same brethren earlier in this letter that the things he taught to them, he taught “everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:17). The head covering was not used “everywhere in every church.” There was “no such custom” among “the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16, KJV).

Because the head covering was not part of the apostolic traditions that were handed down from above to be bound upon all Christians, then the issue is not one that should cause contention among brethren. Paul said, “If one is inclined to be contentious,” we do not have such a custom (1 Corinthians 11:16).

This is the same principle that Paul discussed in his letter to the saints in Rome. “The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him” (Romans 14:3). In this context, Paul was discussing the eating of meats (Romans 14:2). Whether one ate meat or ate vegetables only, God accepted him. No sin was committed by eating meat, nor was sin committed by refraining from eating meat. Since no sin was committed either way, Christians were to accept both brethren just as God did. This principle applies to the head covering as well. Those who wear the covering are not to condemn those who do not. Those who do not wear the covering are not to judge those who do. Again, it is not part of the doctrine taught in every church (1 Corinthians 4:17). Therefore, it is not to be a test of fellowship or a source of contention.

What Was the Head Covering?

The context indicates that in Corinth, the head covering referred to an artificial covering that was being worn by the women there. It was not figurative, but was actually “something on [one’s] head” (1 Corinthians 11:4). It is distinguished from the hair, as Paul said, “But every woman who has her head uncovered…she is one and the same as the woman 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” (1 Corinthians 11:5-6). The women in Corinth could have their hair cut off after the covering was removed. Clearly, the covering being used by the women in Corinth was an artificial covering.

However, Paul also said later in this chapter that the hair was a covering. “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering” (1 Corinthians 11:14-15). Paul said that a woman’s hair was a covering, not the covering. An artificial covering was still fine for a woman to wear. But Paul reminded the Corinthians that the hair was also a covering. Again, his point was that they should not be “contentious” (1 Corinthians 11:16). There was no set apostolic standard regarding the head covering.

The Purpose of the Covering

In discussing the head covering with these brethren, Paul stated the four-fold purpose for the covering these women were wearing.

First, it was worn to give glory to one’s head. “For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man” (1 Corinthians 11:7). Man disgraced his head (Christ – 1 Corinthians 11:3) by being covered while praying or prophesying (1 Corinthians 11:4). On the other hand, woman – as the glory of man – was to cover her head (1 Corinthians 11:5). This is another reminder in the Scriptures of the distinction between men and women.

Second, it was worn to distinguish man and woman because of the order of creation. “For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man” (1 Corinthians 11:8). Woman is the glory of man because she came from man (Genesis 2:21-23).

Third, it was worn to distinguish man and woman because they had different roles. “For indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake” (1 Corinthians 11:9). In the beginning, Eve was created as a “helper suitable” for Adam (Genesis 2:18). Wives are to continue in this role today (Ephesians 5:22, 24; 1 Peter 3:1).

Fourth, the head covering was worn as a symbol of authority. “Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels” (1 Corinthians 11:10). The distinct roles that God gave to men and women were not about women being inferior to men. Instead, they were given because of the need to have a hierarchy of authority. This was his point earlier when he talked about God being over Christ, who was over man, who was over woman (1 Corinthians 11:3). Though man and woman are “one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28), man was made head over the woman (Ephesians 5:22-24; 1 Timothy 2:11-12). This does not mean women are inferior any more than it meant Christ was inferior to the Father – He was not (John 5:17-18; 10:30). But He had to submit to the Father’s will (Matthew 26:39; Philippians 2:8). In the same way, the woman is to submit to the man. The head covering was a symbol of this submission to the headship of the man.

Where Was the Head Covering to the Worn?

Women who wear the head covering among brethren today typically do so in the regular worship assembly of the church. This is perfectly acceptable for one to do, but this was not when the women in Corinth would have been wearing their head coverings.

The head covering discussed in this passage was to be worn at a time in which a woman could rightfully pray or prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:5). This would not have been in the regular assembly of the church. In speaking of the assembly later in this letter, Paul said, “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says” (1 Corinthians 14:34). There were women in the first century who had the miraculous gift of prophecy (1 Corinthians 11:5; Acts 21:9). But this did not permit them to use this gift in the assembly. Paul said, “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Corinthians 14:32). His point was that one who received a prophecy from God was able to keep from revealing it until such a time when it would be appropriate to do so.

So when would these Corinthian women pray or prophesy if not in the regular assembly of the church? It would have to be during some gathering for worship or Bible study and instruction in which only women were present. During such gatherings, they would wear the head covering. Even with no men present, it was important that they had a reminder of the need for submission (1 Corinthians 11:10). They were not to think that they could be “independent of man” (1 Corinthians 11:11). Even with women-only Bible studies and periods of worship, they needed to remember that the regular assemblies were still important. Even though they could not pray or prophesy at such times (1 Corinthians 14:34), they had the opportunity to “receive instruction” (1 Timothy 2:11).

Conclusion

Though brethren have varying views on the head covering, it is not an issue that should be a source of contention, nor should it be made into a test of fellowship. We must not allow a practice that is outside of the realm of divinely-given apostolic tradition jeopardize the unity of God’s people who would work and worship Him together.


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Comments

  1. Larry DeVore says

    Good article, Andy! Some brethren will disagree I am sure.
    But I think you are dead-on.

  2. Thanks, Larry. I always appreciate your feedback.