QUESTION: Are head coverings for women for today? I have a dear sister-in-the-Lord who has a blog, and is very much pro-head coverings. I was surprised to discover also that R.C. Sproul condones head coverings.
ANSWER: Thanks for the great question. There are a number of issues that arise in the context of the Bible passage that deals with the subject (I Corinthians 11:2-16). I won’t attempt to address them all. I’ll focus mainly on the verses that apply to women covering their heads in the meetings of the church.
As you imply, there are differences of both interpretation and application with regard to the passage. Some, of course, reject the validity of the teaching altogether, asserting that Paul was simply speaking for himself, and was prejudiced against women. For those who believe in the divine inspiration of the Scriptures, that is not an option.
But even when we deal with sincere Christian people, ones who accept that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, there are differences. Some believe Paul’s instruction is universal, and applies to our own time, and women should have their heads covered in the house of God. Others are convinced it was a cultural thing in the first century that has no direct application today. That the principle of humility behind it is still valid, but the specifics of dress are not.
When I was a boy, our family attended a church that believed in women having their heads covered. This was interpreted to mean that a woman should wear a hat in the Lord’s house. But nothing was said about the kind of hat, and those of some got bigger and fancier as time went on. Easter Sunday, in particular, was the traditional time to wear new finery and show off your latest head gear.
It doesn’t take much thought to realize that this practice actually flies in the face of the principle Paul was trying to teach. The hats became a matter of personal pride (for some, at least) rather than a sign of humility, modesty and submission.
As to the passage of Scripture, I checked a number of commentaries. Most authors seem to come to the conclusion that there were unique cultural implications to head coverings in Bible times that do not pertain today. Josh McDowell provides an example of the most frequent approach:
“Most scholars today see this passage as a cultural injunction rather than a universal command. They see it as an issue in the first century on how Paul dealt with matters of authority....So to many the issue for us today isn’t a covering for a woman’s head, but an attitude of heart–one of humility, submission, and service to one another.” (The Bible Handbook of Difficult Verses, by Josh and Sean McDowell)
My own conclusion is similar. That a woman's head being covered in the culture of the first century had symbolic meaning it does not generally have for Christians today, certainly in North America. In the first century, head coverings were not simply to keep the sun off, or worn as a decoration. They made a statement about a woman’s humility and modesty.
I don’t think the vast majority of people today would think of that, if they saw a girl wearing a hat. In some situations, it might make her stand out even more, and be more of a focus of attention, which could end up sending just the opposite message.
Things like tradition, culture, and custom can be tricky. There are, for example, those who are against women wearing slacks. But I find it difficult to point to a specific Scripture for insisting on that. (Men wore skirts in Bible times!) And some pant suits on women are far more modest that mini-skirts I’ve seen!
However, even if women covering their heads is not an absolute command for Christians today, I would try to avoid offending those who take that position. If my wife and I visited a church where that practice was the norm, I know she would have no problem wearing a scarf or shawl over her head. It would be a way of showing respect and Christian love for brothers and sisters in Christ.
Now, here is the passage (vs. 2-5) in the NKJV, with some explanatory additions I've included in squared brackets.
“I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions [teachings passed on from the Lord] just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to know that the head of every man [the One to whom he is responsible] is Christ, the head of woman [the one to whom she is responsible] is man [i.e. her husband], and the head of Christ [the One to whom He is responsible, as Man] is God [the Father]. Every man praying or prophesying, having his [physical] head covered, dishonors his head [Christ]. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her [physical] head uncovered dishonors her head [her husband], for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved.”
In these verses, the apostle addresses a distortion of what it means to have liberty in Christ, the idea that under grace we are free from restraint and can do as we please.
For some women, this apparently included a rejection of the headship of their husbands in the home. And to display their independence they cast aside a symbol of humility recognized in the culture of that day. But Paul declared this not to be a liberating, but a degrading step. If women do that, they might as well shave their heads–a sign of disgrace in that culture which was particularly associated with prostitutes.
As the context indicates (vs. 8-12), the headship of the husband was established in the very beginning, with Adam and Eve. It is taught in the New Testament too (Eph. 5:22-24).
This is a God-ordained administrative order in the home It does not mean women are inferior to men. That can be seen in the passage when vs. 3 says, “the head of Christ is God.” As God the Son, Christ is fully God (Col. 2:9), and is worthy of equal honour with the Father (Jn. 5:23). But He willingly submitted Himself to God the Father in order to carry out a divine purpose and plan.
Not only were those in the unsaved in the community watching the Christians and how they behaved, so were the angels (vs. 10; cf. Eph. 3:10). The holy angels are quite interested in earthly goings on, and the purpose of God in them (I Pet. 1:12). And just as these spirit beings are submissive to God, they expect that this attitude will be seen in the saints as well (cf. Matt. 6:10).