Head Coverings and Headship

I Corinthians 11:1-16

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
January 2011

Our Scripture reading tonight is I Corinthians 11:1-16. I Corinthians 11 deals with two problems that were taking place in the worship service at Corinth. We will only have time to look at the first one tonight. The chapter is divided into two parts. The first problem is that women were praying with their heads uncovered in the service (11:1-16).

The second problem, which we will look at next week, deals with abuses by the Corinthians at the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34). In the beginning of the chapter, Paul says to the Corinthians “I praise you” (11:2). In the second half of the chapter concerning something else, he says, “I have no praise for you” (11:17).

That is a wise thing to do anytime you have to correct someone. Start positive, because whenever you criticize someone they tend to get a little defensive. It is very interesting to me that Paul starts with the positive. He did that at the beginning of the book. Paul was writing to a carnal church. It was the church with problems.

Some people in the church were sleeping with their step mammas. Some were spending time with prostitutes. Some were taking other members of the church to court over small stuff. The church was full of divisions and cliques. Yet, despite all of this, Paul began the book on a positive note. He opens the book praising the Corinthians.

After praising the Corinthians, he goes on to talk to them about head coverings. It is a rather strange topic and a very difficult topic. This is one of the most difficult passages in the NT. It is a very controversial passage. There is a lot of debate about it. It boils down to this question, Should women wear veils on their heads today when they pray?

There are two main views on this chapter. Some say, “absolutely! That is what Paul said they should do. If you are going to follow the NT, you have to do what Paul said”. Others would say, “It is not required today”. Which view is right?

Both views are held by people who believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. It all boils down to how do interpret the Bible. Which view is right? I will let you decide. First, let’s look at what Paul says.

In first part of the chapter (11:1-16), Paul says that women are to wear veils. They are to cover their head when they pray or prophesy and men are not to do that. Men are to pray with their heads uncovered. Interestingly, Jewish men today do they exact opposite. They pray with their heads covered. They put a yarmulke (Yiddish) on their head when they enter a synagogue. Now they did not do this in the first century. That practice started later.

Reasons for Head Coverings in I Corinthians

1.  The principle of male headship (11:3).

2.  It is dishonorable or shameful not to do this (11:5).

3.  The order of creation (11:7-9).

4.  The angels who are watching (11:10).

5.  It is the proper or socially acceptable thing to do (11:13-15).

6.  It is the practice of all of the churches (11:16).

Paul appeals to common sense. He tells them to judge for themselves (11:13). Paul tells them that this is obvious (11:14 NLT). He appeals to what other Christians in his day were doing.  It was a common practice.

Are Head Coverings for Today?

Those may sound like great arguments if you live in the first century but what about today. There are two views. The first view says that head coverings for women are normative and are still binding on Christian women today. They see head coverings as a command.

View One – Head Coverings are Normative

There are Christian churches that believe this. Who are they? This would include the Brethren Churches, the Mennonites and the Amish. What are the advantages to this view?

1. It takes the Bible literally.

There is some merit to that approach to Scripture.  It tries to follow exactly what Paul said for people to do.

2. Paul’s arguments appear to go all the way back to creation.

If true, this would indicate that head coverings are normative, not cultural.   However, this argument has some flaws.  There are no head coverings mentioned in Genesis 1 or 2. God created Adam and Eve completely naked. They wore no clothes.

We can’t use the way God created man and woman as the norm for gender clothing styles. Eve did not wear a head covering. What you can prove from Genesis 1 & 2 (and Paul does) is the concept of male headship, as we will see shortly.

Of course, some of the other arguments that Paul used makes little sense today. It is no longer the practice in all the churches that women cover their heads when they pray, even in Bible believing churches. It is not even true that most churches do this. It is no longer the socially acceptable thing to do in this culture.

What is socially proper in our culture is very different from what was socially proper in first century Greece where the city of Corinth was located. In some parts of the word, it would still be a sign of dishonor for a woman to appear in public without a veil (Muslim world) but not in the Western world.

What head coverings mean in one culture and time is very different from what they mean in another culture and time. If a woman today wears a hat in church, we look on it merely as a fashion statement. In the same way, if a woman is not wearing some type of a head covering in church, we do not think the woman is in rebellion.

View Two – Head Coverings are Cultural

The second view sees head coverings, not as a command, but as a custom. Why do you think most Christians believe that head coverings are cultural?

1. Head coverings are not commanded

There is no specific command for head coverings in I Corinthians 11, at least not in the Greek text.

2. Head coverings are specifically called a custom.

Paul calls this a “custom” in 11:6.  The same word is used in John 18:39. Now this was not just a local custom (a local Corinthian custom). It was a universal custom. All of the churches in Paul’s day did this but it was still a custom.

3. Dress is largely cultural.

What is worn in one country is not necessarily worn in another country. God does not dictate a particular style of dress and clothing. The NT does not require a specific uniform or costume that all Christians are required to wear.

Relevance for Today

This brings us to a very important question. How is what Paul says in I Corinthians 11 relevant to us in the twenty-first century? If we live in a completely different culture than the Corinthians did, does this chapter even apply to us? Should we just tear this chapter out of our Bibles?

Well, believe it or not, this chapter is still relevant to us today, even if we do not use head coverings. God’s Word is eternal. Let me give you several examples of other things just like this in Scripture.

  • I Peter 2:17 says “honor the emperor”. We don’t have an emperor. We have a different political system. Does this verse still apply to us? We can take the same principle of honor to political leaders and apply it to a president. There is a difference between a principle or a truth and the application of that principle.
  • Exodus 20:17 says, “Do not covet your neighbor’s ox”. What if your neighbor doesn’t own an ox? We do not live in an agrarian society but we can still apply this verse to ourselves. It is still relevant today. It is relevant in all societies and cultures because covetousness is a universal sin.
  •  Paul said in I Corinthians 16:20, “Greet one another with a holy kiss”. In fact, not only did he say this, it is a command in Greek but we don’t do that too much today. I didn’t kiss too many people at the door. We don’t see too much kissing in church. That is what they did in the ancient near east. In fact, in some European and Middle Eastern countries today people greet one another with a kiss on the cheek. Corinth was located in Greece, which is part of Europe. It was a common practice in the first century (Acts 20:37; Matthew 26:47-49). We live in a different culture today. Can we still apply this verse? The principle of showing affection for one another still applies. In our culture, we express that in a different way (a hug or a handshake).
  •  Jesus washed his disciples feet and then said in John 13:14-15, 17: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you… Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them”. This was a custom in the ancient near east (I Samuel 25:40, 41; Luke 7:37-38, 44-46).  People wore sandals and walked on hot dusty roads and it was necessary. We don’t do that today. Does this verse still apply today? It is not needed today. In fact, when churches have foot washing rituals, people come with clean feet anyway. It becomes a meaningless ritual. Feet that are already clean do not need to be washed. Jesus said that. This was originally something that was done to meet a real need. The principle of hospitality still applies but how we express that biblical principle varies from culture to culture.
  • In the same way, I Corinthians 11 tells women to wear a head covering whenever they prophesy or pray. We do not wear head coverings in our culture. Muslim cultures still do. What did the head covering symbolize? In Paul’s day, it was a sign of being married. Today, married women can show other signs of being married (changing their last name, wearing a wedding ring, etc).

What lessons can we learn from this chapter? There are several important lessons for us today.

Lesson on Tradition

Tradition is a scary word to some Christians but all tradition is not bad. A tradition is just something that has been handed down. Families have traditions. We have certain things we do at Christmas and Thanksgiving. That may be the time you all go to eat at Uncle Fester’s house. Churches have traditions as well. All churches have some kind of tradition.

The Corinthians had some traditions that were good (11:2). There is a danger to tradition as well. What is the danger? The danger is when tradition becomes equal in authority to Scripture (that is what the Roman Catholic Church believes) or in some cases takes the place of Scripture. We see this with the Pharisees in Mark 7:1-13.

Lesson on Clothing

God created two sexes at creation. He made people male and female, They were created different. They are to look and dress different. Paul says that in I Corinthians 11. Paul says that one way they were to look different was in the area of head coverings. Women were to have them and men were not to have them.

Another way they were to look different was their hair length. Men were to have shorter hair and women were to have longer hair. He does not say how much shorter or how long the women’s hair was to be. He simply makes a generalization.

Even if head coverings are cultural, this principle remains true today. Both men and women today should dress so that they do not look like the opposite sex in whatever culture they live in. In the OT law, cross-dressing was considered an abomination (Deuteronomy 22:5). Some fashion statements are abominable. This verse specifically prohibited transvestites. It is not a new practice. It is at least four thousand years old.

Now some clothes today are not gender specific. Clothing styles differ from culture to culture and change through time. We should wear clothes which reflect the gender expectation of the time. Men should look like men and women should look like women.

This does not necessarily mean that women can’t wear pants. Only men wear pants. The problem with this logic is that people in the Bible times never wore pants. Jesus never wore pants. Men in the Bible wore skirts; they wore robes (Deuteronomy 22:30; Ruth 3:9; Ezekiel 16:8).

They wore what we would all dresses today. The Greeks, Romans and Hebrews all wore tunics. Both men and women wore robes. There were clear differences between the two but they were both robes. Women can wear pants today as long as they wear pants designed for women.

Lesson on Headship

This is a very controversial topic. It is unpopular among women, even some Christian women, and is often misunderstood. It has also been abused by some people. First, let’s look at what the bible says. Then let’s look at what it means.

The NT teaches that the husband is “the head of the wife” (Ephesians 5:22-24). It mentions that in Ephesians 5 & I Corinthians 11. It also teaches that the wife is to SUBMIT to her husband (Ephesians 5:22, 24; Colossians 3:18; I Peter 3:1, 5-6; Titus 2:4-5). That is mentioned in four different books of the NT by two different authors (Paul & Peter).

Incidentally, the Bible does not command wives to submit to all men. It commands wives to submit to their husbands. I Corinthians 11:3 says, that “the head of the woman is man” but the Greek word for woman is the same as the Greek word for wife and the Greek word for man can also mean husband.

Some believe that there is no head of a home. Either or both can function in these roles but The Bible clearly teaches that the husband is the head of the wife. What does this mean? Feminists would say that this is just male chauvinism. There are several things you need to remember about headship to put this into perspective. It will completely revolutionize what you thought the Bible said about this topic.

1. Headship is a command.

It is not optional. Those are not just Paul’s words. They are God’s Words.

2. Headship is for everyone, not just women.

It is a universal principle. It is a principle that exists through out the entire universe. This is not just something that applies to women. Everyone has a head. Everything that exists is subordinate to someone. Wives have a head. Husbands have a head and every other member of the church, because Ephesians 5:23 says that he is “the head of the church”. Even Jesus had a head (11:3). Angels have a head as well. Jesus is the head “over every power and authority” (Colossians 2:10).

3. Headship goes back to creation

Headship does not go back to the Fall. It goes back to creation. Feminists argue that it started with the Fall. There are many hints in Genesis that this was God’s original intention.

 Evidence of Headship in The Book of Genesis

1. God created Adam first, not Eve (I Timothy 2:13).

2.  Eve was created as a helper to Adam, not vice versa (I Corinthians 11:9).

3.  Adam named Eve (Genesis 3:20), an indication of his authority over her.

4.  God named the human race man, not woman (Genesis 5:2).

5.  God spoke to Adam first after the Fall (Genesis 3:9), even though Eve sinned first.

6.  Adam, not Eve, is the head of the race (II Corinthians 15:22; Romans 5:15)

4. Headship has to do with authority.

There is no getting around this fact. The rest of your body is subordinate to your head. The head tells the body what to do. The church is under the authority of Christ. He is our head. If the wife is under her husband and her husband is under Christ and Christ is under God, some have come to the conclusion that Jesus must not be God, because Paul says that “the head of Christ is God”. That brings us to the third thing to remember about headship.

5. Headship does not necessarily imply inferiority.

There is a big problem with the logic of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. If Jesus is inferior to the Father (because the head of Jesus is God), then you would have to also have to say that women are inferior to men (because the head of women is man). Male headship does not mean that men are superior to women.

It does not mean that they are more important than women. Male headship is patterned after the Trinity. It is a relationship between equals. Jesus was equal to God (John 5:18). He said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

The Bible says that men and women are EQUALS. They are spiritual equals . Paul said, “IN CHRIST, there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). We are all children of God through faith (Galatians 3:26). Now Americans are unequal in many ways. Some are stronger, smarter, wealthier, taller and better looking than others.

Thomas Jefferson lied to us when he said, “All men are created equal” but we are equal in one sense. We are equal before the law. Both men and women are created in the image of God. They bear God’s image equally. They are equal in their standing before God.

Just because you submit to someone does not necessarily mean that you are inferior to that person. Jesus submitted to his parents when he was young (Luke 2:51). The Father and Son are equal members of the Trinity but they have different roles in salvation. One person of the Trinity came to earth, became a man and died for us and one did not. The husband and wife are also equal but they have different roles in the family.

6. Biblical headship is not dictatorial

Many have the idea that biblical headship gives the right of husbands to boss their wife around. That is not how headship in the Trinity worked. God the Father did not boss the Son around. He did not order the Son to die for the sins of the world. It was what the Father wanted. It was God’s plan from eternity past but the Bible says that Jesus went voluntarily. He chose to die for us. He said, “I lay down my life and no one takes it from me” (John 10:18).

The Bible teaches that Jesus is the head of the church but it also teaches that Jesus loved the church and gave up his life for the church. That is why it tells husbands to love their wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for it (Ephesians 5:25). Christ’s headship over the church is not dictatorial but loving and sacrificial.

3 Responses to Head Coverings and Headship

  1. gladys says:

    Okay so 2 things. 1 so this passage isnt telling women they cant cut there hair, cuz at the end its says that a womans covering is her hair.

    And secondly, as a girl I love the fact that you mention that this isnt saying a man should push his wife around, but how much sway should a woman have. For instance as a kid like I told you before I was homeschooled with abeka, and our teacher said a wife shouldnt argue with her husband, using an example of taking a car trip if the husband is going the wrong way he said the wife should not argue with him, just let him go on and then the fault can be his when you get lost.
    And I was wondering if its your opinion if thats to strict or not. Im sorry but if I need to get to my dr apointment and he is heading in the oposite direction I would probably start an argument.

    • admin says:

      The Bible nowhere says that women cannot get a haircut but it does make distinctions between men and women’s dress and hair styles. Men should look like men and women like women. In the Bible, women’s hair is usually longer than the hair of men, although how this is played out in each culture will vary. Today, women wear skirts and men wear pants but in the Bible times, everyone wore a robe (although men’s and women’s robes were different).

      Speaking for myself, I think women look better with longer, rather than shorter hair but that is my preference. Paul says, “But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.” (11:15)

      There is nothing wrong with a wife telling her husband that he is going the wrong way. The biblical role of the wife is Genesis is to be a HELPER to the man and such a comment would certainly be helpful.

      However, the dynamics of each marriage is different. The issue is not so much WHAT she says in such a situation but HOW she says it. A wife can come across as trying to help or husband in such a situation or she could come across in a way that makes her husband look and feel like a complete moron. It depends on the tone of the comment. It would also depend on the husband. I would not be offended by such a comment and would welcome it from my wife but I cannot speak for other men.

      Hope I have not thoroughly confused you here.

  2. gladys says:

    No confussion but with the womans hair thing I have herd for so long that its a sin for a woman to cut her hair, that for me I dont think it would be a good thing, ya know the whole going against your conchious thing. I dont have the face for short hary anyway (SIGH) :(

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