Head Coverings in Worship?
Preached on the Lord’s Day of March 18, 2018
by Pastor Michael Ives, of the
Presbyterian Reformed Church of Rhode Island
Part of the practice that our Presbytery has adopted is that in the public worship of God, women have their heads covered. The passage, naturally, that we go to is one that is not exactly easy to understand. I myself for many years read it and struggled with it. But I do think that the position that we have come to as a presbytery is the right one, as far as we think God has given us light. And we would like to set that before you humbly, for your prayerful consideration. We are not holding it forth as a “term of communion” that is a requirement to be a member in good standing of the church. We have not seen fit to go that far, as we also recognize that it is a challenging passage. And many other godly believers in the Lord Jesus Christ have seen things differently than we have. Nevertheless we set forth this position.
Now, the way we are going to go about things is, first, simply to read through the passage in 1 Corinthians 11 with comment, noticing the structure of the argument that the Apostle outlines, and then we will close with answers to several objections. The thesis here is that in the public worship of God women ought to worship God with their heads covered.
1. The Passage Considered.
“Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.” (1 Cor. 11:2).
It’s always a good thing to encourage folks when they are doing a good job. But now he turns to an area in which they need some guidance, even correction.
Argument from Authority.
In verses 3-6 he lays out an argument from authority. “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” (v. 3).
The conjunction “but” here is pointing us to an issue. Though you have done many things that are praiseworthy, he says to the Corinthians, there is an issue that we need to talk about. He begins by talking about the relationship of men and women and the Lord Jesus Christ. He is laying a theological foundation: doctrine precedes practice. The relationship in particular that he speaks of, the relationship of husbands and wives, or men and women; the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. There is a male headship, a headship over the woman. This headship is not absolute, but it is under the Lord Jesus Christ; every man answers to Jesus, but he does have an authority over his wife.
“Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.” (vv. 4-5).
So here’s the problem: there is not an outward reflection of this reality that the head of the woman is the man and the head of Christ is God. And that can be seen in the congregation in that the women are not covering their heads. Whatever has motivated them to do that, this is an issue that goes against that authority structure that God has ordained.
Aquinas writes that “a veil put on the head designates the power of another over the head of a person existing in the order of nature. Therefore, the man existing under God should not have a covering over his head to show that he is immediately subject to God; but the woman should wear a covering to show that besides God she is naturally subject to another” (com. 1 Cor. 11:4-5, trans. Fabian Larcher). This runs counter to the thinking in our society. The thinking is that in the marriage relationship there is an absolute equality. Now there is equality in the sense of humanness, but nevertheless there is a difference of roles and responsibilities, and there is a headship of the man over the woman as God has ordained it.
What exactly is meant by “praying or prophesying”? Does this mean that women were praying or prophesying in the church? We will get to that in a moment.
“For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.” (v. 6).
Here is the consequence. Paul is saying she should be covered – if what I am saying is true. If there is an order of authority. If the wife is to be subject unto the husband in the Lord in all things lawful, then the consequence is: let her show that forth in the public assembly with the head covered. Unless she would be shorn or shaven, which is, of course, unthinkable.
Argument from Creation.
Paul continues in verses 7-9 with an argument from creation. “For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.”
The Apostle—to support this particular practice that the Corinthians had cast aside—is expanding and explaining further this order of authority, and further supporting his argument by pointing back at the history of creation. Remember the story. God made mankind with two genders, male and female. Now, did he make them both simultaneously? He did not. He made man first, the very gender of the male first. And he looked and saw that it was not good that man should be alone, so he put Adam to sleep, opened up his side, took out a rib, and from that he fashioned and formed a woman. He woke Adam up and presented the woman to the man, that she might be a helper for him. So you see the Apostle Paul is again setting forth the distinctions of gender from the very order of creation. The man was not created for the woman, but the woman was created for the man.
Argument from the Angels.
Now there’s an argument from the angels. “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.” (v. 10).
Some think that angels here might refer to ministers as Revelation chapters 2-3 and various places might suggest. Then the reading here would mean that lest ministers should be offended at this indecency, let the women be covered. But I think it’s more natural to take angels as those spiritual beings which are present in the gathered assembly in a special way. The Apostle Peter says that the angels desire to look into those things that concern the salvation of human beings (1 Peter 1:12). And so what Paul would be saying in this case is that the indecency of the woman not wearing a head covering would be grieving to these holy beings. Chrysostom writes,
“The angels are present here. Open the eyes of faith and look upon this sight. For if the very air is filled with angels, how much more so the Church? …Hear the Apostle teaching this, when he bids the women to cover their heads with a veil because of the presence of the angels lest they be grieved at the indecency who are greater and higher beings.”
Next, in verses 11-12 there is a qualification lest it should discourage the woman that somehow Paul is teaching that women are absolutely inferior to men, the wives to their husbands. He indicates that there is in another sense a great equality.
“Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.” (v. 11).
They need each other! They complement each other. Lest the man should think: ah! God made me first and you were made to serve me! Paul would say to that man: you need the woman! You need each other. You cannot do without each other. And then he goes on to say,
“For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.” (v. 12).
Every man after Adam is “by the woman.” None of us men came forth into this world except by the womb of our mothers. So Paul is not a male chauvinist here; he is not despising women by any means.
Argument from Nature.
Then there is an argument from nature. “Judge in yourselves: is it comely” or is it appropriate or decent “that a woman pray unto God uncovered? Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.” (vv. 13-15). Now Paul challenges the Corinthians with respect to this issue of doing what is decent in worship in the church.
What does “praying or prophesying” mean?
We might as well speak about the phrase “praying or prophesying” at this point, since Paul brings it up once again in verse 13. Is it appropriate that a woman pray unto God uncovered?
This “praying or prophesying” by the women cannot mean that women could exercise these functions in the church, because these functions imply authority. We know that because in only two chapters later we read: “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” (1 Cor. 14:34-35). So whatever the women praying or prophesying means, it certainly cannot mean that within the church these women are given, or allowed to have, certain official teaching roles. This is against the practice of many other churches within Christendom also. It is not proper for a woman to teach, as Paul says elsewhere, nor to exercise authority over a man (1 Tim. 2:12). It goes against nature. It goes against the authority that God has ordained.
That does not demean the woman, because woman is created with the greatest of dignity. And in Christ there is an absolute equality, “there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28; cf. Col. 3:11).
Men, on the other hand, may prophesy or pray in the church, but when they do so they must not be covered according to verse 4. Professor John Murray understands this as follows: “If women will pray or prophesy publicly they might as well take off their head coverings, for this is none other than the refusal of the sign of subjection.” (The Use of Head Coverings in the Worship of God).
The Apostle supports all of this by pointing to nature. “Doth not even nature itself teach you…?” He moves from special revelation to general revelation and specifically points to the general difference between the hair that men and women maintain. There is a distinction of sexes naturally. Men tend to have shorter hair, women tend to have longer hair. And this supports, from nature, the argument that he is making.
Argument from the Church.
Finally, the argument from the Church. “But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” (v. 16).
It is thought that what is meant here is that the Apostle Paul is reproving the Corinthians’ self-sufficiency and disputatiousness. That is, if you still want to fight, you need to realize that you’re alone. The universal practice of the churches stands against you. Our women do not throw off their coverings, much less pray or prophesy in corporate worship.
2. Objections Answered.
Now let’s deal with several objections. Admittedly, this is a challenging passage, and an issue that not all Christians see eye to eye on. So we want to deal with objections that have come, and might come, in a way that is God honoring and charitable.
Obj 1. Head coverings were cultural.
The first objection one could raise is that this custom of women having their heads covered in the public worship of God was proper to the culture of that time and therefore does not oblige us today. Head covering, then, was a cultural issue. Now, there are clearly some very distinct cultural practices of the New Testament churches that I do not think any of us would think we should practice. For example, greeting one another “with an holy kiss” at the end of several New Testament epistles (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thes. 5:26). There are some who may still do that but for many Northern Europeans that is not necessarily something to which we might gravitate. It is done in some cultures, but we would not necessarily suggest that it is a law that we all must hold to. It is a reflection of love that expresses itself in the Mediterranean world with a holy kiss. So, is the women wearing head coverings in the same category as the holy kiss? It’s a natural question, so we want to be sensitive to it.
1. We would respond and ask, why would the Apostle, with a long-term view for the Church, quibble about indifferent customs? These are fourteen verses that we have just read in a letter that is filled with many doctrines and instructions. Why would the Apostle be so very concerned about something that really is just indifferent? I say ‘potayto,’ you say ‘potahto.’ It doesn’t really matter. But it makes more sense to read such an extended, detailed passage as expressing something normative for the Church in all ages.
2. We also might ask, why would the Apostle heft such theological weight to prove his point? Fourteen verses and he delves into some very deep theological issues. God, Christ, the relationship of man and woman, angels, etc. Does he do that kind of thing with the holy kiss? Does he say, “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you”…but you really should resume the practice of the holy kiss, and here is why…and let me give you this theological reason, and that theological reason, etc.? It just would not make sense.
3. Further, why would he include this—if it were merely cultural—in a section where he is correcting abuses in worship and setting matters for the future practice of God’s people straight? Following this passage is the section in which he corrects their abuses of the Lord’s Supper. Why do we feel it necessary to resort to a cultural argument, when the argument as we have made it seems to make sense?
Obj 2. Head covering is merely a tradition, not a divine ordinance.
Another objection comes from the understanding of Paul’s use of the word “ordinances” (παραδόσεις) in verse 2. Technically, in the original, the word could also be translated “traditions.” It could be read: “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the traditions, as I delivered them to you.” So isn’t this just a tradition, implying that the tradition is relative? You have all different kinds of traditions. When you go home you probably have certain traditions regarding what you’re going to eat or to do, or whom you’re going to call. Or, when you get together over Thanksgiving, you’ve got certain traditions. They’re nice things, but you would not absolutize them. You would not say that everyone has to conform to the way that I go about doing them.
1. We admit that there are indeed traditions of men which do not bind us. And we trust that we would be humble enough if there ever was a practice or a tradition that we observed that you did not think was biblical, and if you came to us respectfully, and laid it at our feet, that we would take the matter seriously. Because we do not want to be doing things in the church of God simply because it is something we have always done and we like it. That is the way it is in too many churches. People do not have a biblical reason for why they do this or why they do that, it’s just something we’ve always done and we like it, and we’re rather fond of it. So don’t take it away from us!
2. But while there are traditions of men that do not hold authority over us, yet there are also divine traditions. 2 Thessalonians 2:15 uses the same word, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” Hold on to them!
3. He also praises the Corinthians for keeping them, “Now I praise you, brethren…” (v. 2). If you praise somebody, you’re doing it because they’re doing a good job. They’re working hard, they should be commended. He uses the language “as I delivered them to you.” If this objection were correct, this would be like me praising you for holding on to polyester and bell-bottoms. But I should neither praise you nor scold you for your fashion choices, since they are wholly indifferent. He also uses the same formula later with respect to the Lord’s Supper, “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you” (v. 23), but he cannot praise them in that case because they had not faithfully kept the traditions that the Apostle Paul had given them (v. 22). So we cannot make head coverings a relative, cultural thing by reading too much into the word “ordinances” or “traditions.”
Obj 3. The principle of headship matters, not head coverings.
Next, one might object by saying: we’re not throwing off the principles of headship, rather, we’re saying that we should maintain the principles and follow the customs proper to our culture which best honors those principles. Said another way, ‘we share the same principles you do, we’re not like the egalitarian world that says there is no difference between the sexes and that there is no such thing, or ought not to be any such thing, as a woman submitting to her husband. That is what our culture says. It is a culture that has been influenced, not by the Word of God, but by feminism. We share these principles with you, but we would simply say that we would express and maintain those principles in a different cultural shape than wearing the head covering.’
1. We would admit that there may be aspects of head coverings that we would call “positive.” That is, they are neither right nor wrong in themselves. If you go to a church meeting in Iraq you will see women wearing certain kinds of head coverings that are rather different from the head coverings of women in Sudan. Personally I prefer my wife to wear a brimmed women’s hat because it raises fewer eyebrows in the U.S. than other kinds would.
2. But what would that custom be in the alternate view, which would not involve coming to worship with an uncovered head—the very thing that Paul appears to be arguing against? If one says that the woman’s long hair serves as the head covering, then that is a different argument altogether, which we will address now.
Obj 4. The woman’s long hair is her head covering.
This objection states that the custom was never, in fact, the practice of the early church to wear an artificial head covering, but rather it was that women were to maintain long hair. That covering in 1 Corinthians 11 therefore is a woman’s long hair. At first glance, it might seem as though a reading of verses 14 and 15 support that very position. Let’s read it again, “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.” I suppose reading this passage through 20th and 21st century eyes, that might make sense.
1. Why then does Paul introduce the issue of hair length as a supporting argument? That’s what he is doing. He said earlier that based upon these considerations, the relationship between male and female, and God and Christ, and because of the angels, and the order of creation, let the woman have her head covered. And here is another argument that supports everything I have just said: look at nature, look at how God made men and look at how societies generally follow this pattern. Men have short hair, women have relatively longer hair. A supporting argument is distinct from the argument itself. You do not support what you are trying to prove with what you are trying to prove. Rather, Paul is proving that women should cover their heads in public worship with some type of cloth covering, and he is supporting this by pointing to nature’s witness to the distinction that exists between men and women in the length of their hair.
2. But an even more convincing response may be drawn from verse 6. “For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.” If the covering of verse 15 – the long hair of the woman – is the exact same thing as the head covering that he has earlier been speaking about, then verse 6 makes no sense. It is redundant. It would be like saying, ‘if she has short hair, then let her have short hair.’ Or, ‘if she has been shaven, then let her be shaven.’ It just wouldn’t make sense. But verse 6 makes perfect sense if we read it in the way we have adopted, that is, ‘if a woman will not cover her head, then she might as well be shorn. But if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, then let her cover her head.’
Obj 5. Women would have to always wear a head covering.
Lastly, should not women then always have their heads covered?
1. In context, this passage seems to be referring to the public gathering of God’s people. He has been talking about praying and prophesying. It is not appropriate for a man to pray and prophesy with his head covered. And Paul speaks about prophesying in the church in 1 Cor. 14:4, “He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.” Also verses 2 and 17 are very similar and they seem to link the two passages. “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.” (v. 2). “Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse.” (v. 17). This seems to support the idea that it is referring to the gathering of God’s people when they “come together” in public worship.
2. The supporting argument from nature, the woman’s long hair, seems to point to its limited mandate in verses 14 to 15. ‘Nature,’ in a sense, is spoken of as ‘out there’ in a way that is distinct from ‘in here.’ “When you come together” in the Christian assembly, you are entering a sphere of supernature, if you will. It is here and not there that Jesus walks among the seven golden candlesticks; it is here in the Church, the pillar and ground of the truth, that we dwell in the very house of God. We must not confuse nature and supernature, the world and the church; and different rules apply. We should observe the Lord’s Supper, but we should keep common meals distinct, and relegate them, as a rule, to our own homes (v. 22). Nevertheless, nature supports supernature. We bring nature into the church every time we gather; we don’t leave our bodies at the door with the coats and umbrellas! Men come in with their short hair and women with their long hair. But as they enter a different, more exalted sphere, a special observance applies. The saints are here, the angels are here; and what is more, Jesus Himself is here! And so women cover their heads. It is a unique observance, yet it is clearly rooted in nature.
All this being said, if any are uncertain and wish to wear a head covering at all times, within and outside of worship, there is certainly no prohibition.
I want to conclude with a few quotes. We have already mentioned the opinion of Chysostom and Aquinas, but let me conclude with the opinions of others who, though not on par with Holy Scripture, nevertheless echo and confirm its testimony as we understand it.
Tertullian, who was one of the great church fathers, wrote at approximately 200 A.D. a treatise called “On the Veiling of Virgins.” Apparently the reason he wrote this was because virgins, that is unmarried women, were taking off their veils in church and they did not think they needed to head cover because they were not married. Terrullian writes, “So, too, did the Corinthians themselves understand him. In fact, at this day the Corinthians do veil their virgins. What the apostles taught, their disciples approve.” Of course, that includes the married women, but at this point the issue in dispute was over virgins. So Tertullian tells us that at 200 A.D., if you went to the church at Corinth, unmarried women and the virgins would still have their heads covered in worship.
Augustine later writes, “it is not becoming even in married women to uncover their hair since the Apostle commands women to keep their heads covered” (Letter 245, To Possidius).
Martin Luther writes,
“the wife has not been created out of the head, so that she shall not rule over her husband, but be subject and obedient to him. For that reason the wife wears a headdress, that is, the veil on her head, as St. Paul writes in 1st Corinthians in the eleventh chapter, that she is not free but under obedience to her husband.” (A Sermon on Marriage, January 15, 1525).
R.C. Sproul writes, “The wearing of fabric head coverings in worship was universally the practice of Christian women until the twentieth century.” Incidentally, I remember talking with my mother some years back, and she told me that when she went to church as a little girl, she and her sister wore hats to church. And she was not Presbyterian – that was the case across all American Christianity. “What happened?” Sproul asks, “Did we suddenly find some biblical truth to which the saints for thousands of years were blind? Or were our biblical views of women gradually eroded by the modern feminist movement that has infiltrated the Church of Jesus Christ which is ‘the pillar and ground of the truth’ (1 Tim. 3:15)?” Now, that is a good question!
I leave you with this exhortation from Paul, “judge in yourselves” (v. 13), resolve the matter in your own conscience. I encourage you also for those of you young ladies, women who do wear hats, make sure that you are doing it for the right reasons. But let us also be gracious towards others who may not agree with us, and win the day through charity. Amen.