Q&A: Women's head covering in the worship service
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Reformed Practice - Male/Female Roles

Question: Please explain 1 Corinthians 11 concerning the necessity of women wearing a head covering in church services. According to this chapter why is a women's long hair not sufficient?

Answer: 

Dear friend,

This subject is large and I won’t do full justice to it in this answer.  But the ‘head covering of the women in the worship services’ is not a cultural or old-fashioned remnant of the old days. It is clear part of the revealed will of God as recorded in 1 Cor. 11.  Years ago I preached a sermon on this subject and tied it in with the fifth commandment.  The relationship with that seems remote yet it is intimate. Christ’s great mission is the restore the kingdom of God which is the authority structure where God is King and we are His joyful subjects. One place where this future kingdom is mostly to be reflected is the congregation of believers, especially in the context of the worship services which brings them all locally together. One expression of this authority structure God designed to be reflected in the head-covering of the women in that setting.

The background of the problem in Corinth isn’t simple.  The Gospel was liberating for many people.  Consider yourself a slave in the Roman civilization. You weren’t counted and considered a nobody.  But within the Christian church you were a brother or sister with equal status in salvation.  For in salvation there is neither male or female, master or servant.  The social distinctions common in the society do not exist in God’s household.  As females were also largely suppressed, you can see how the Christian Church was liberating.  This radical social departure was in some taken too far in Corinth.  The women folk aspired to a positional equality within the church family. But that has never been God’s order.  Even though He created male and female equal yet He placed Adam above Eve in positional authority.  Adam was the head and, as popularly said, Eva was the neck; very connected and very much interdependent yet distinct.

Satan was trying to bring disunity in this church by upsetting God’s order of position in His creation. The issue wasn’t so much the ‘head covering issue’ but the underlying issue of order and position.

Now you can see that Paul begins right there in vs. 3.  God has established an order and has ordained ‘heads.’  This reflects God’s pattern in every relationship.  God is the head of Christ; Christ is the head of man; man is the head of the woman and both man and woman were the head over the animals.  In Gen. 3 Satan makes his assault to upset this order from the bottom up. He uses the animal to bring Eve to fall and via Eve he launched his assault on man.

Within God’s Church there is to be restoration. Christ is owned by His people as the rightful head but the women are also joyfully to own and submit themselves to their head: man.  It is God’s will (not Paul’s idea) that this act of submission by the woman is symbolically expressed in the ‘head covering.’ (vs.4-5)  I don’t know whether the thought is valid but I have noticed that the angels ‘cover themselves’ in the presence of their head, the LORD in Is. 6.  In the worship within the church setting, God’s will is that the women reflect their submission in the head covering in the presence of their head: man.  There are Christian circles where they take this position further into the social setting at home or outside the home as well.  Personally I don’t think God intended that because 1 Cor. 11-14 deals with issues that relate to the worship services.

In vs. 8-12 Paul reinforces this established creation order of God.  The woman is of the man (vs. 8)  and was created for the man (vs. 9). In other words, God designed this order and this He wants to be reflected visibly within His kingdom (church) on earth. Yet before men run away as if they are superior, the apostle balanced it with vs. 11-12. Man can’t do without the woman and isn’t complete without her.  It is like in the army.  The captain is above the soldiers but a captain without soldiers is little good.

Toward the end, Paul appealed to something we can all observe.  He doesn’t even argue it or support it but basically states it as a general truth.  “Nature” teaches us that long hair belongs to women while short hair belongs to men.  The word “nature” is used 16 times in the NT and 15 times it refers to an ‘unchangeable created reality.’  Check for yourself the use of this word in Rom. 1:26; 2:14-15; Eph. 2:3. Clearly, God ultimately decides what is ‘natural and not natural’ because He is the designer of the Creation. The word ‘shame’ that Paul uses in vs. 14 is not the ‘shame’ one ought to feel when he does something dishonorable but ‘shame’ as having to do with one’s status or position.  Man’s honorable position is dishonored when he has long hair.  Equally, the woman dis-robes her honor when she cuts her hair short.  That brings me to vs. 15 which you included in your question.

Here again ‘nature’ continues to be our teacher. The long hair is a glory to the woman.  “Glory” means honor. God, the Designer, gave (it is a gift!) her long hair as a honorable covering. It has nothing to do with fashion.  Just as the woman is the glory of man by creative design (7) so her hair is her glory by the same design. (15)

Every woman who joyfully and willingly accepts her position, carrying out her God-ordained role, she is the glory of man. Maintaining her long hair is a symbol of her agreement with that role. Clearly in vs. 5 God states that it s shameful thing if the woman would shave her head.  In other words, when a woman would discard her nature’s (Creator’s) covering in any context she would bring shame upon her head.  She would show a rejection of the authority structure.

But it still seems that Paul taught that her hair is the ‘covering.  The interpretation of that has much to do with the meaning of the (second) “for” in the text, “for her hair is given her for a covering.” Does Paul mean that “her hair is given in place of a material covering or is he saying her hair is a gift corresponding to the covering referred to in the earlier verses?

If first one is the case, then re-read vs. 5-6 and let’s substitute ‘short hair’ for covering. It would read something like this and it makes totally no sense: “But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth having short hair dishonoreth her head: for that is even all one as if she had her hair shaved off.  For if the woman have not long hair, let her also have her hair cut short: but if it be a shame for a woman to have her hair cut short or shaved off, let her long hair.” That makes no sense. The conclusion then must be that Paul isn’t teaching that the ‘long hair would be the covering needed in the worship service.” Instead, her long hair is a gift corresponding to her womanhood. It is noteworthy that Paul also used a totally different word in the Greek in this verse (vail) than in vs. 5-6.

Finally, why then ought men to keep their head uncovered and the women covered in the worship service?  This brings us to verses I have so far skipped. In vs. 7 God teaches us that man is the image and glory of God. Yet the woman is the glory of man and she is reflect that by the token of her head covering. God expects that to be obeyed joyfully, willingly and thoughtfully.  I wonder how many women and girls are actually thinking of this act of obedience when they don their heads with the hats each worship service.  God is looking at the heart and not at a customary dressing up.  For the same token, are we men realizing what an uncovered head actually means?  Are we taking this headship over the women seriously?  Is our example the life and walk of Christ?

As an appendix, isn’t interesting that Paul didn’t say anything about what kind of hat, what color, size etc. It was something that should ‘cover’ the woman’s glory of her hair.  We need to watch that it doesn’t become a fashion statement because that has nothing to do with its ultimate purpose.

In my answer above I have gleaned ‘unacknowledged’ from the book The Head Covering in Worship by David Lipsy.  It is one of the booklets that I recommend on this subject.

Warmly,
Pastor Vergunst

Rev. A Vergunst is the pastor of The Reformed Congregation of Carlton, New Zealand.  He answers questions on his church's website, www.rcnz.org.