Did you know that various Christian denominations around the world require women to wear head coverings in church? Some denominations even extend the requirement to settings outside the church. As for what type of covering the women wear, that depends upon the culture. For example, the headscarf is the preferred covering in Eastern European churches. The shawl is preferred in the Middle East and Russia. The dupatta is common in India and Pakistan. The head tie is prominent in the Caribbean and West Africa. The marama is standard in Romana, and the mantilla is commonplace in Spain, Latin America, and the Philippines.
Here in America, the Amish, the Mennonites, the Quakers, and some groups of the Plymouth Brethren require women to wear head coverings. The kapp is the covering most often used in these settings. Whereas the headscarves, shawls, dupattas, etc. from other parts of the world have enough length to at least come down past the woman’s shoulders, kapps barely cover the top of the head and leave the ears exposed. For this reason, they are oftentimes worn with a bonnet.
Of course, all of this raises the question: Is there anything in the Bible about women wearing head coverings? The answer is: Yes. As a matter of fact, the Christian tradition of women wearing head coverings is based upon a very famous passage from 1 Corinthians. It’s 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, and I’ll cite it for you in its entirety. The apostle Paul says to the Christians of Corinth:
Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God. Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering. But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God. (N.K.J.V.)
Well, obviously, this lengthy passage requires a lot of unpacking. To help me do that unpacking, I’m going to employ ten statements as a way of outlining my comments. Here we go.
Statement #1: The main teaching of the passage has to do with male headship and female submission. Some people don’t like texts such as this one, Genesis 3:16, Ephesians 5:22-24, and Colossians 3:18 because the passages all teach the concept of male headship and female submission as being God’s divine order. This headship/submission relationship is to be on display in regards to both marriage and church leadership. In keeping with the Bible’s consistent teaching on this topic, Paul doesn’t get too far into his words about head coverings before he says in verse 3, “But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”
Statement #2: In explaining that the man has the God-given role of headship, Paul uses Adam and Eve as an illustration. He says in verses 8 and 9, “For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man.” This is an obvious reference to how God created Eve from one of Adam’s ribs and described her as “a helper comparable to him” (Genesis 2:18-22, N.K.J.V.)
Statement #3: In the culture of Corinth, as well as in other cities of the New Testament era, the women wore head coverings as symbols of their submission. This explains why Paul says in verse 6, “For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shaved (and it was), let her be covered.” History tells us that these coverings were not veils that hid the women’s faces. They were, instead, shawl-type coverings that left the faces exposed.
Statement #4: In encouraging the Christian women of Corinth (and by implication the Christian women of other New Testament cities) to wear head coverings, Paul explained that God has even built this basic idea — the idea that an uncovered head represents a lack of submission while a covered head represents submission — into His bodily design for men and women. In verses 14 and 15, he says, “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering.” While it’s true that women can typically grow their hair longer than men, Paul wasn’t saying that the Christian women of Corinth or other cities could forego their literal head coverings if they wore their hair long. No, he still wanted them to wear the coverings. He was simply pointing out that even before head coverings were created, God had ensured by way of usual hair length that a woman’s head could be covered enough to showcase her submission. (By the way, I am of the opinion that these verses also prove that Jesus wore His hair much shorter than the look Hollywood usually gives Him.)
Statement #5: Some of the Christian women of Corinth were breaking from the established custom of the day by refusing to wear their head coverings. Perhaps these women had been emboldened by passages such as Galatians 3:28, where Paul himself writes: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (N.K.J.V.). While it’s certainly true that male Christians and female Christians are spiritual equals in regards to salvation, it does not follow that this equality obliterates the God-appointed roles of men and women. For example, just as Christian men can’t have babies, Christian women can’t usurp (at least with God’s approval) the role of headship. As a matter of fact, Paul says in verse 10 of our text passage that even God’s angels pay attention to whether or not women wear symbols of submission upon their heads.
Statement #6: The situation in Corinth was made even worse by the fact that in that city the prostitutes did not wear head coverings. In keeping with their whole mindset of rebellion against God’s way, the prostitutes in Corinth not only refused to wear head coverings but also wore their hair short. By breaking their city’s cultural norms in these two ways, the prostitutes brazenly flaunted their rebellion and their refusal to submit to male headship.
Statement #7: The praying and prophesying that Paul speaks of in verse 4 was most likely taking place outside the worship services of the local churches of Corinth. I say this because for Paul to have advocated such things for those worship services would have completely contradicted what he taught in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 about women remaining silent in the church services. While the argument might be made that a women could have prayed silently in those churches, there was simply no way for a woman to remain silent if she was prophesying.
Statement #8: It could have been that some of the men of Corinth had taken to actually wearing some type of head coverings themselves when they did their praying and prophesying. Perhaps this is why Paul says in verse 4, “Every man praying and prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head (Christ).” In light of this verse, I have often wondered how professing Christian men from various types of denominations around the world justify their wearing of hats, shawls, or other types of head coverings in worship.
Statement #9: Even though God doesn’t expect modern-day Christians to be bound by the societal standards of ancient Corinth and the other New Testament cities, we are unwise to completely ignore His basic principles concerning length of hair. Notice that Paul (who wrote under the inspiration of God) appeals to nature, not to Corinth or to New-Testament-era culture, when he says in verses 14 and 15, “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her…” The fact is, regardless of the age and society in which one lives, God always wants men to look like men and women to look like women, and He doesn’t approve of the blurring of the lines (Deuteronomy 22:5). Certainly that includes the realm of hairstyles.
Statement #10: While we should not become fanatical legalists on the issue of hairstyles, the plain fact is that many men and women (even many Christian men and women) do not take God into account when it comes to how they wear their hair. The same Paul who wrote 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 also wrote 1 Corinthians 10:31 and Colossians 3:17, two passages in which he teaches that the Christian should do EVERYTHING to the glory of God. And that definitely includes what hairstyle and length of hair he or she publicly presents.
Alright, now that I have explained the basics of the passage, let me get to the answer for my title question: “Should Women Wear Head Coverings?” My answer is, “No,” and I have a logical reason for choosing that answer. Even if the practice of wearing head-coverings was the custom for the churches of Paul’s day, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it was to remain the custom for all churches of all time in all parts of the world. Consider the following examples of how customs have changed in churches down through the centuries:
- The New Testament congregations were “house churches” that met in homes (Romans 16:3-5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon v.1-2; 2 John v.10). Does this mean, then, that God wants every church to meet in a home and that we are wrong to meet in church buildings?
- The only two church “titles” (offices) in the New Testament churches were that of pastor (elder, bishop, overseer) and deacon (Philippians 1:2). So, does that mean that every assistant pastor, youth minister, and worship leader today is out of the will of God?
- Those New Testament churches didn’t know anything about Wednesday-night prayer meetings, Sunday Schools, revival services, Bible schools, or Christmas Cantatas, either. But does this really make these types of services wrong in the eyes of God?
- The early churches incorporated a “love feast” into their observances of the Lord’s Supper (Jude v.12; 1 Corinthians 11:21,29-30). Does that mean that our churches today must do the same if they want to be pleasing to God in how they observe the Lord’s Supper (Communion)?
- The churches of the New Testament didn’t have a completed Bible to use, a fact which accounts for a lot of the need for prophesying in those days. But surely God doesn’t frown upon Christians carrying Bibles to church services today.
Do you catch my drift? It’s not that I’m trying to muddy the waters of how church should be done. I’m just showing you that those waters were already fairly muddied when we got here. Actually, when we get right down to it, we must admit that comparing today’s churches to the churches described in the New Testament is in many ways like comparing apples to oranges. Particularly in regards to how those churches “did church” there is a vast difference between how they functioned and how we function. Therefore, the challenge is to spiritually discern the mind of God concerning what we should keep from the way those early churches conducted their services and what we are free to drop. And in my opinion, we are free to drop the custom of requiring women to wear head coverings.
In closing, though, let me quickly add that what we aren’t free to drop is the scriptural principle those head coverings represented. And what was that principle, again? It was the teaching regarding the headship of the man and the submission of the woman. That is a concept that we dare not cast aside as being no longer culturally relevant. Regardless of whether or not a woman wears a literal covering on her head, she must be submitted to male leadership in her heart if she wants to be a true woman of God. You see, just as Paul taught that “heart” circumcision is more important than wearing the literal mark of outward circumcision (Romans 2:25-29), the same holds true for “heart” submission as opposed to the literal wearing of a head covering. That, I think, is how God would have us to apply 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 in our churches today. But I have to say that if a Christian woman still wants to wear an actual head covering to evidence her godly submission, well, that can certainly be a beautiful thing, too.