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Rock Your Role is a series examining the “go to” and hot button Scriptures that relate to and help us understand our role as women in the church. Don’t forget to prayerfully consider our three key questions
as you read.

head coverings

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven… Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered?
1 Corinthians 11: 4-5, 13

In this series, we’ve been examining the biblical passages that define and give shape to our role as godly women in the church. We’ve taken a look at the different roles God has laid out for men and women in the church and the passages of Scripture people commonly like to twist to argue against the clear teaching of God’s word about those roles.

But aside from a very small minority of folks, no one is arguing that Christian women need to wear some sort of head covering in church or while praying. Most of us seem to instinctively know that the first half of 1 Corinthians 11 is not a command that is binding on 21st century American women. So why even bring up this passage in this series?

Because much like the tiresome “Leviticus also prohibits eating shellfish and wearing garments of mixed fibers!” argument repeatedly trotted out by those offended when Christians rightly call homosexuality a sin, 1 Corinthians 11 is used by feminists, egalitarians, and others as a “gotcha” passage against Christians who rightly uphold the biblical roles of men and women in the church. “If you believe women shouldn’t preach, teach men, or hold authority over men in the church,” they say, “then why don’t you wear a head covering? See? You’re a hypocrite! You pick and choose which Scriptures you’ll obey!”

What they (and often we) don’t realize – because this passage takes some digging and study – is that women who obey Scripture’s parameters for biblical womanhood (submitting to their husbands, following God’s role for women in the church, etc.) are “wearing a head covering.”

First Timothy 2:11-15, the most commonly cited biblical prohibition against women teaching or exercising authority over men in the church, works hand in glove with 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. Both passages deal with male and female roles and authority in the church. But, whereas, in 1 Timothy God gives only universally applicable, unchanging reasons for His instruction that women are not to teach or exercise authority over men in the church (the creative order {verse 13}, and the deception of Eve {verse 14}), in 1 Corinthians, He gives both universal reasons (3, 8-9, 11-12) and transient, man-made, cultural customs (head coverings and hair length) as an additional illustration of the principle He is teaching.

First Corinthians is something of a “policy and procedure manual” for the church. Through Paul’s letter, the Holy Spirit is instructing the church at Corinth, and, subsequently, us, on everything from orderliness in the worship service, to love, lawsuits, marriage, idolatry, and other issues of importance. Chapter 11 fits right in with the flow of instruction. God decided the church needed to be taught about authority and gender roles and inspired Paul to pen this section.

As chapter 11 opens, Paul commends the church at Corinth for keeping God’s word as Paul had taught them (2), but, apparently, something was out of whack with the authority structure and the way men and women were behaving in the church, because Paul immediately pivots to say,

“But I want you to understand…” (3)

In other words, “You’ve been doing pretty well in these other areas, but this area needs some improvement so I’m going to give you very clear instruction about it. Listen up.”

If you’ve ever taken a composition class, you know that persuasive or instructive writing often follows the format of presenting a thesis statement (the main point of your paper) and then supporting or proving that thesis statement with evidence, examples, or logical arguments. This is the format Paul seems to follow in this section.

Why is this important?

Because those who use this passage to argue against the biblical roles of men and women either misunderstand or ignore the main point the Holy Spirit is trying to teach in these verses.

The thesis statement of this passage of Scripture is not found in the verses mentioning head coverings and haircuts. It is found in verse 3:

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.

In other words, the entire point of this section of Scripture is not that women should wear head coverings, the point is the biblical line of succession of authority. Head coverings, head shaving, short haircuts, and long hair are examples, illustrations, and logical arguments supporting the main point in verse 3.

God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of man, and man is the head of his wife. And, similar to the way that Christ has a different role in the godhead than God the Father, yet is not in any way inferior to Him, women have a different role in marriage and the church than men, yet are equal to them in value, worth, and salvation. (11)
Paul proceeds to explain this by using head coverings and hair lengths- commonplace marks of apparel whose function and significance would have been easily understood by his first century audience -to illustrate his point.

At that particular time, in that particular locale, among those particular people, a head covering was worn by married women to signify a) that they were married, and b) that they respected and were in submission to their husbands. For the women of the church of Corinth, it was a symbol that they understood and embraced their role as godly wives. A woman who pointedly refused to wear her head covering in church would have been making a statement akin to, “I can do what I want. I don’t have to do what my husband, my church leadership, or even God says.” (Kind of like women in the church today who argue against biblical womanhood so vehemently.) By doing so, she dishonored both her own head (herself) and the “head” of her home, her husband. Worst of all, she rejected and rebelled against the authority structure God Himself established.

In a way, refusing to wear the head covering would have been similar to a wife today who takes off her wedding ring and flings it at her husband when she’s angry or leaves her ring at home when she goes out because she’s on the prowl for another man. It’s not the mere act of removing the ring itself that is intrinsically wrong, but, rather, the symbolic statement she makes by removing it.

Head coverings are no longer a cultural norm in Western society. Christian women today do not have to wear a literal head covering, but even from the earliest Old Testament times godly women have always adorned themselves with “a symbol of authority” (10) on their heads: their humility and submission to their husbands and to Christ, in the home, in the church, and in the world.

Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. 1 Peter 3:3-7

If you’re following in Sarah’s footsteps, striving to love Christ and obey His written word in all you do, you are already “wearing a head covering.” So the next time someone tries to use this passage of Scripture against you, asking, “Why don’t you wear a head covering?” you can confidently answer, “I do. Why don’t you?”


Additional Resources:

Here are some great resources that get into more of the specific details of this passage.

Addressing the Dressing III: Clothes and Roman Culture by Lyndon Unger

Addressing the Dressing IV: Hair and Roman Culture by Lyndon Unger

1 Corinthians 11:2-16- An Interactive Bible Study by Lyndon Unger

Principle vs. Custom by R.C. Sproul

Does 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 mean a woman should never ever cut her hair? at CARM

Should Christian women wear head coverings? at Got Questions

It’s a Shame for a Man to Have Long Hair? by WWUTT (When We Understand the Text)

Head Coverings for Women by John MacArthur

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