I’d like to preface this post by saying that this is not a topic I have approached lightly. I have spent the better part of two years going over the same portion of scripture, picking it apart and praying to God for wisdom and truth in my convictions. I am no biblical scholar. I have no degrees, no credentials. I am just a simple Christian trying to be obedient to God in whatever he calls me to do. I feel very strongly in these convictions and I believe that this practice is a biblical command for all women. Not only those who are “called” to it.
In late 2015, a friend introduced me to the concept of biblical, Christian head covering.
That same year, I felt led by God to start studying this passage of Scripture for my own life. Prior to this, I had never read this particular passage before. I knew that this passage was associated with the practice of head covering, because of this friend who had already been studying 1 Corinthians 11 and had mentioned it, but I didn’t know what that had to do with me or what I was supposed to glean from reading it. Nevertheless, after some study I came to the conclusion that I should start veiling when I attended church and my husband supported my decision.
Historically, women have been covering their heads during worship since the time of the apostle Paul. We have evidence that the Corinthian church was still practicing head covering 150 years after Paul’s letter. Throughout the first century and for centuries after, many bishops and theologians gave commentary on the passage but there was no debate that Paul was referring to a physical veil worn on the head (only whether the command included unmarried women; I believe it does because of creation order- this applies to all men and women, not just husbands and wives). John Chrysostom, a bishop of Constantinople, even went so far to say that for a woman to go without a head covering was indecent!
Leading up to modern day, we find the likes of William Tyndale (Doctrinal Treatises and Introductions to Different Portions of the Holy Scriptures), Martin Luther (A Sermon on Marriage), and Charles Spurgeon (Spurgeon’s Sermons on Angels), all highly regarded and well respected Christian figures, verifying the practice of head covering within the church. So how is it that after 1900 years this practice has now become disregarded and spawned disagreements among believers?
The short answer is feminism. In the 1960’s, the rise of feminism and organizations like the Women’s Liberation Movement gave way to the destruction of any symbol deemed “patriarchal.” Because head covering represents a submission to male authority, it suffered a slow decline. By the 1970’s, veil-burnings were taking place to “protest the second class status of women in all churches” (The Power of the Positive Woman, Phyllis Schlafly). Head covering was completely rejected because it was a symbol of submission and creation order.
Now, when I bring up the topic to other Christian women there is a lack of understanding because it has not been taught. At face value, it is believed that Paul is referring to a woman’s hair. I am told that head covering is “cultural,” “not for our time,” or “legalistic.” However, none of these reasons are rooted in biblical truth. Head covering is biblical, beautiful, and relevant.
Over fifteen verses, Paul proceeds to give a defense for head covering. The main tool that helped me understand what Paul was really talking about in terms of context was looking up words from the verses in Greek and seeing their expanded definition. Compared to English, Greek is a very expansive, complex language where one word in English (like “love”) can have many forms in Greek to represent different situations. Understanding language and context is key to understanding this passage. In 1 Corinthians 11:5-6, English has translated the Greek word katakalypto to mean covered (alternatively, akatakalyptos means uncovered). While this particular word choice only appears in this passage, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament tells us that outside the NT it is used in the context of “to veil oneself” referring to a material covering. While the English translations word it as if a woman’s hair is a suitable replacement, context tells us this is not so. Verse 5 equates not wearing a covering to having her head shaved. Verse 6: “So if a woman’s head is not covered, her hair should be cut off. But if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, she should be covered.” If you replace any form of “covered” with “have long hair” the argument become circular and doesn’t make any sense. Paul is also only concerned with women covering during specific times (while praying or prophesying which was understood to be in public during corporate worship) which implies that this is something that can be taken off and put on when appropriate. The last point in the “hair” argument is that later in the passage (vs 15) Paul says a woman’s hair is her glory, while the beginning of the passage says that a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head. These two ideas are antithetical if referring to the same thing.
As for head covering being purely “cultural,” I immediately want to ask you, when have we ever thrown out biblical commands because they were cultural? In this same letter, the very next passage gives instruction on the Lord’s Supper, but we understand this to be biblical command. We should never disregard scripture based on “culture.” “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) Paul is instructing women to cover because of creation order (vs 7-9). Creation order transcends culture. This is something that applies to all Christians all the time. Paul also gives another, rather vague, reason. Verse 10 simply says “because of the angels.” He doesn’t expand on why we need to cover because of the angels, just that we do. Maybe the angels are watching us worship, and since covering is an outward symbol of headship it could be a demonstration for them of God’s perfect order. This is obviously just speculation, but the reason for covering is still there. Angels transcend culture.
Legalism can understandably be a tricky and scary thing to deal with. To understand how to guard your heart from legalistic practices, you first need to know what legalism is. “Legalism” isn’t found in scripture, but a general definition is an incorrect view of law-keeping. This could mean one of two things: a) You believe that how you keep the law can affect your standing with God (works instead of grace), or b) you make laws out of things Christians have freedom over. To be clear, by the former example anything can become legalistic. Head covering is not exclusive in this. This is also an issue of the heart, not of the physical practice being made legalistic. If someone believed tithing affected their salvation, the solution wouldn’t be to stop tithing, it would be to work on your heart and change your belief. As for the latter, this refers to Christian liberty. Issues that are Christian liberty allow for us to hold different positions while still glorifying God. In this sense, head covering would only be legalistic if it were not commanded by scripture. However, this passage is very clear that there is only one position on the matter. Paul says for a woman to not be covered is dishonorable, shameful, and disgraceful. He praises Corinth at the beginning of this chapter (vs 2)- “…because you always remember me and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.” Head covering is a tradition that was delivered to God’s people by the apostles, and Paul goes to great lengths to defend it. In the same way that the Lord’s Supper and baptism are biblical commands for all Christians, so is wearing a head covering. We should be approaching all biblical commands with joy and reverence.
Head covering isn’t something only some women are “called” to. It it a biblical command for all women. We are called to be set apart, to be different from the world, to be counter-cultural. By covering our heads in worship we are showing the world that God takes precedence in our lives regardless of what societal culture deems appropriate.
“But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” James 1:22 HCSB
“So it is a sin for the person who knows to do what is good and doesn’t do it.” James 4:17 HCSB
God has already called all women to this by putting it in his word. That is calling enough. What are you waiting for?
While there are more points on head covering I could write about, these were the most important reasons to me. If you would like more information I encourage you to read Headcovering Throughout Christian History by David Phillips and Head Covering: A Forgotten Christian Practice for Modern Times by Jeremy Gardiner. As my source for the Greek definitions given I used the e-Sword program, and within it I used the KJV with Strong’s numbers and Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries. If you would like more on head covering from a woman’s perspective, visit Elaine Mingus over at Radical Christian Woman.
One of the things I find the most beautiful about covering is that while we may not have liberty over the act of covering itself, we do have liberty over what that covering can be. It still allows you your freedom of expression so long as your covering isn’t causing a distraction (a head covering veils human glory so modesty and discreetness should be observed, but this does not mean it is frumpy or without beauty!). To explore different styles of coverings check out Garlands of Grace, Liturgical Time, Wrapunzel, or the many head covering shops on Etsy. I encourage you to try covering in your own church. It can be scary to do it alone, but you could be the catalyst that leads other women to cover with you. If it would help you to have support in your covering from other women, there is a group on Facebook called “Headcovering Christian Women” where you can find encouragement.
If this post makes you upset or angry in any way then I challenge you to examine your heart and pray to God for wisdom. Biblical submission is not easy, but it is still required of us. This is just one way we can honor Him in our submission and God will be joyful of it!