Q&A: The Covering

Q: Why would a woman wear an artificial head covering in the assemblies of Christians?

A: The practice is based in Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16:

Now I praise you that ye remember me in all things, and hold fast the traditions, even as I delivered them to you. 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. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoreth his head. But every woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled dishonoreth her head; for it is one and the same thing as if she were shaven. For if a woman is not veiled, let her also be shorn: but if it is a shame to a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be veiled. For a man indeed ought not to have his head veiled, 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: for neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man: for this cause ought the woman to have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither is the woman without the man, nor the man without the woman, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, so is the man also by the woman; but all things are of God. Judge ye in yourselves: is it seemly that a woman pray unto God unveiled? Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering. But if any man seemeth to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.

We do well to explore this passage in terms of Paul’s argument structure. Paul began by commending the Corinthian Christians for holding fast to the apostolic traditions as he delivered them (1 Corinthians 11:2). He established the divine hierarchy: the head of Christ is God, the head of man is Christ, the head of woman is man (or possibly wife is husband; 1 Corinthians 11:3). He then introduced the explicit instruction: when praying or prophesying men are to maintain uncovered heads, while women ought to have their heads covered (Greek akatakalupto; 1 Corinthians 11:4-5). The woman who prays or prophesies without her head covered dishonors her head, as if she were shaven; if she would not cover, she should cut off her hair; but since it remains shameful for her to have short hair, let her be covered (1 Corinthians 11:5-6; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:15). Having set forth the expected practice, he began defending the practice with his primary argument rooted in the creation: a man is not to be covered because he is the glory of God, yet woman is the glory of man, since woman was created from man and woman was created for man, not man for the woman (1 Corinthians 11:7-9; cf. Genesis 2:18-25). Paul gave the angels as the reason why women needed a covering, as a sign of authority, on her head (1 Corinthians 11:10): perhaps lest the angels lust after the “daughters of men” again as in the antediluvian days (Genesis 6:1-4), or to see that the people of God understand their relative standing and give angels no reason to rebel. Lest he be accused of not properly honoring woman’s station in life Paul then reassured the Corinthians that men and women are not without each other in the Lord and that all men are born of women, but all are from God (1 Corinthians 11:11-12). He then asked a rhetorical question, asking the Corinthian Christians to judge for themselves whether it is appropriate for women to pray or prophesy with head uncovered (1 Corinthians 11:13). Paul continued with his secondary argument from physis, nature or reality: “nature” teaches that it is shameful for men to have long hair, but long hair is the glory of women, for it is given to her for a covering (Greek peribolaiou; 1 Corinthians 11:14-15). Paul concluded his discussion of the matter by declaring that if any would be contentious, they have no such custom, neither do the churches of God (1 Corinthians 11:16).

Unfortunately, ever since, the passage and the practice have proven very contentious. Some details do seem a bit obscure: why does Paul never explicitly identify a covering? Why not just have women be shorn? Why does his reasoning involve the angels? Why would he make any argument, even if secondary, based on “nature” or “reality,” especially since among many cultures it is not shameful for men to have long hair? Why is the covering mentioned only in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and nowhere else? These questions are understandable, valid, and impossible to answer without additional revelation from God.

As Christians we do well to believe that God has equipped the man of God for every good work through what He has revealed in Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-17); our goal is to make the best sense of what God has made known and ground ourselves in what we can explicitly demonstrate is true and faithful from its pages. There are practices which are right and cannot be wrong based on convictions about what Scripture says is true. In all matters of faith each must be fully convinced in his or her own mind; what is not of faith is of sin, but we must be careful lest we are condemned in what we approve (Romans 14:5, 21-23). In terms of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, we hazard that we do best to fulfill the passage as written, that such is right and cannot be wrong if a woman covers her head when praying and a man maintain an uncovered head.

Other conclusions have been offered. Some believe that Paul overthrows all of 1 Corinthians 11:4-15 by what he says in 1 Corinthians 11:16, believing that the “custom” is the covering itself. There is no other passage in Scripture which exists and then is entirely overthrown by its conclusion; why make the argument as is if it is ultimately meaningless? We do better to understand that contentiousness is not the custom of Paul or the churches of God: it is one of the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21, and thus such an interpretation is consistent with the rest of what God has made known in Scripture. Others believe that the long hair in 1 Corinthians 11:15 is the covering. As noted above, the Greek words for “uncovered” and “covered” in 1 Corinthians 11:4-13 are not the same as the term used in 1 Corinthians 11:16; the former truly mean cover (or veil)/uncovered (or unveiled), while the latter carries a connotation of something thrown around a person, a mantle; the verbal form of the term is used to describe Solomon “arrayed” in clothing in Matthew 6:29. 1 Corinthians 11:15 is best understood to explain that a woman’s long hair is given to her as a mantle, especially since women tended to wear only the tunic without the toga/cloak that the man would generally also wear. If long hair were the covering, it seems odd to restrict the covering to two practices (praying or prophesying); Paul’s determination that a woman who does not wear a covering is as if shorn is also very odd; and would it demand that a man who would be uncovered must shave his head bald to be so?

Some wonder if “men” and “women” are better translated “husbands” and “wives.” This is not a new dispute; Tertullian, ca. 200 CE, wrote about it in his treatise On the Veiling of Virgins. Christians in his day are making the same argument; he does well in asking if it means that unmarried men should be covered, among other objections. If nothing else, Tertullian’s treatise demonstrates that whereas there were disagreements in belief as to whether all women or just wives were to be covered, all agreed that what Paul declared to the Corinthian Christians 150 years earlier still demanded respect and satisfaction among Christians in North Africa and elsewhere.

Many more accept the text as written yet believe that it was a cultural custom or only based in the exercise of spiritual gifts. We do well to note that Paul does not say “praying and prophesying,” but “praying or prophesying” (Greek he, not kai; 1 Corinthians 11:4-5). We no longer prophesy, but we still do pray (1 Corinthians 13:8-10, 1 Thessalonians 5:16); Christian women may not lead prayer in mixed groups or the assembly, but they still participate in the collective prayer (1 Corinthians 14:14-17, 33-35, 1 Timothy 2:9-15). As to cultural custom, such a position has been frequently advanced but not historically substantiated. It is one thing to claim it was a cultural practice, but where is the evidence that it is uniquely cultural for all women to be covered in prayer while men are not in Corinth in the first century? For that matter, if it were merely cultural, why do Tertullian and other early Christians continue to insist on its practice 150 years later? Why did it remain a practice among Christians for a very long time, likely even influencing current Jewish and Muslim practice? And, above all things, why does Paul ground his argument in the order of creation if it is merely a cultural phenomenon, the same ground on which he will argue about gender roles in the church in every other situation (1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 14:33-35, 1 Timothy 2:9-15)? Those who would be in opposition regarding women in leadership in the congregation are not unjust in pointing out the inconsistency to claim the cultural argument in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 while denying it in terms of 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2:9-15.

In the end, let everyone be fully convinced in their own minds; each will stand before God on the judgment day in terms of their decision about the proper interpretation and application of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Nevertheless, the above is offered to demonstrate that a woman is not sin by wearing an artificial covering while praying, and does so in order to take seriously and fulfill Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

Ethan R. Longhenry

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