Head-Covering: Is It Still Relevant?


Beautiful____[ It is always interesting to me when culture and theology meet… er, maybe I should say clash. Ever since the fall of Adam, the size, shape and texture of the proverbial “fig leaf” has been important, debated and watched. In this case, a nascent women’s liberation movement, in an ancient, educated, and cosmopolitan setting occurs; and of all things, it involves clothing at church. It also involves gender roles, how we see ourselves, “sexism”, culture, “progressive thinking”, submission, the will of God, and various other aspects of theology including, but not limited to, contextualization, modernism, values, seeker-friendliness,   etc.

The question is not how you may “feel about it”. Rather, the question is, How will you deal with the subject and also scripture? Will you dismiss the subject entirely? Maybe, even suggest that the “men” who push these thoughts are Sexists. Step back and say, “I really don’t want to get involved.” Or, “Another time… when it is more convenient.” “I’ll think about it?”  Or maybe even take a more “progressive,” “relevant,” and existential view of scripture?

Below, Dr. Timothy Williams makes an excellent, exegetically Biblical, theological and historical presentation on this subject. What are your thoughts? –MWP ]

What were the arguments that Paul brought forward to insist that in Corinth women should be veiled in public worship?  What may she do if properly veiled?  How far are these arguments of permanent validity? Are they culturally based or eternally based?

A note about the context would seem to be helpful here. Lenski  is right when he states that in reference to the head-covering the Corinthians were in perfect agreement with Paul.  This was one “tradition” they were keeping.  And that Paul in verses 3-16, simply states the reasons why they should continue in the practice.  He believes that the “contentious” ones referred to in 11:16..’is the thought that a few contentious voices had been raised in Corinth which either merely questioned the necessity of the women covering their heads or advocated that they leave them uncovered.  The congregation and the body of the women in it were not yet disturbed.’  In fact, it can be suggested that some among the women in Corinthians church had decided that they could cast aside all symbols of subjection to men since ‘there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ.” (Gal. 3:28). This is the position of scholars such as De Wette: ‘It appears that the Christian women at Corinth claimed for themselves equality with the male sex, to which the doctrine of Christian freedom and the removal of the distinction of sex in Christ (Gal. 3:28) gave occasion. Christianity had indisputably done much for the emancipation of women, who in the East and among the Ionic Greeks (it was otherwise among the Dorians and the Romans) were in a position of unworthy dependence. But this was done in a quiet, not an over-hasty manner. In Corinth, on the contrary, they had apparently taken up the matter in a fashion somewhat too animated. The women overstepped due bounds by coming forward to pray and prophesy in the assemblies with uncovered head.’

It can be easily postulated there was a certain in the midst of Corinth there was a small women’s liberation movement .Thus, the primary thrust of this passage pertains to subjection.  To persuade the women not to cast aside their symbol of subjection, Paul made six arguments.

1.) The headship of the man.  His first argument is that to appear uncovered in the congregation denotes the having no visible superior there. But woman has a visible superior, namely, man. To this fact, when she appears in public, her very dress should testify.

2.) While the man directly reflect God’s glory by not having any earthly being over him, the woman must show that he does not directly reflect God’s glory in this way. Woman is not the manifestation or representation of the glory of God on earth, inasmuch as she is subject to man, and therefore cannot properly represent Him Who has no superior. Man is God’s glory on earth: woman is man’s glory. Grotius uses the similitude of the sun and moon. Lias states, ‘But to all inferior beings she represents and is scarcely distinguishable from man, and therefore manifests and shares his superiority; reflects it, as the moon does the light of the sun, to use (and it may be said, to complete) the simile of Grotius here.’  Alford warns, ‘This of course is true only as regards her place in creation, and her providential subordination, not in respect of the dependence of every woman’s individual soul directly on God, not on man, for supplies of grace and preparations for glory.’

3.) Naturally moving from the above argument, we find that Paul now argues from the creation of mankind. ‘The narrative in the book of Genesis establishes two facts, (1) that woman had her being originally through man, and not, as man, directly from God; and (2) that she was created for man’s advantage, and not man for hers. Not that we are to suppose, with some, that woman is in no sense to be regarded as the image and glory of God, but that man is so immediately, she mediately, through man.’ It is important to underscore here the fact that man glorifies God, when man serves God in his recognized role (man, not God).  Woman brings glory to man (esp. her husband) when she serves in her recognized role.  Therefore, in pursuing the point at hand, to cast off the veil, a recognized symbol of femininity and subjection, was a sign of disrespect to the order established at creation, and esp. to one’s husband.  ‘In so doing she brings shame on him by trying to dissolve the rightful male/female relationship.’ (Fee p. 518) Now, we must not miss the point that the facts of creation and its implications abide forever.  Thousands of years after Gen. 2:1-25, God still felt that the text was relevant to first century Christians.

4.) There is an argument drawn from the presence of the angels at Christian worship. The passage has sorely perplexed the commentators. The various explanations of it may be summarized in the following way: a.) guardian angels who watch over the heirs of salvation (Jerome, et al); b.) bad angels whose lust might be aroused (Tertullian); c.) human angels of the assemblies –the prophets (Beza); d.) the presidents of the assembly (Ambrose); e.) people assigned to give away the betrothed (Lightfoot); f.) spectators within their assemblies; and g.) angels within the assemblies “because in the Christian assemblies the holy angels of God are present, and delighting in the due order and subordination of the ranks of God’s servants,—and by a violation of that order we should be giving offence to them” (Alford; cites Chrysostom). Lias agrees, ‘It is best on the whole to regard it as an intimation that the angels, though invisible, were fellow-worshippers with men in the Christian assemblies, and were therefore “spectators of the indecency,” and liable to be offended thereat. “When therefore the women usurp the symbol of dominion, against what is right and lawful, they make their shameful conduct conspicuous” in the eyes of the messengers of God. Thus Calvin. Erasmus paraphrases it well: “If a woman has arrived at that pitch of shamelessness that she does not fear the eyes of men, let her at least cover her head on account of the angels, who are present at your assemblies”.’

5.) Paul also argues from nature. What this actually means is debated. In its core, it means ‘The recognized constitution of things.’ (Vincent p. 248)  Fee is probably right when he states that this refers ‘to the “natural feeling” that they shared together as part of their contemporary culture.’ (Fee p. 527). Obviously, we cannot argue against long-hair, seeing that Nazarenes were forbidden by God to cut their hair (Num. 6:1-5).  In a real and distinct way, this argument is based upon the accepted ideas of propriety. In most societies, short-hair was the “norm” for men and long-hair for women. ‘The Athenian youth cropped his head at 18, and it was a mark of foppery or effeminacy to let the hair afterwards grow long.  This feeling prevailed in ancient as it does in modern manners.’ (Gr. Ex. N.T. p. 875).

Notwithstanding this, the use of the cultural situation was only to bolster his overall charge. In reality, Paul’s main concern was not length per se, but he was speaking of being revealing one’s womanly portrayal. Paul seems to be arguing along these lines: a.) The Christians could easily observe that society frowned upon long-haired males. This is ‘evidenced by thousands of contemporary paintings, reliefs, and pieces of sculpture’ (Fee, p. 527). Society viewed such as ‘effeminate.’   (b)  Women, even the Corinthian women arguing for the removal of the veil, took pride in their natural covering, i.e. their long hair.  (c)  So everyone could see that there existed things that were viewed as distinctly “feminine (under normal circumstances), i.e. belonging to women.’  (d)  If they could see this in reference to a ‘natural covering,’ then is not unreasonable that the same type of meaning can be placed on a physical covering.  (e)  Respecting the use of the veil, was just like respecting the fact that certain hairstyles belonged to women and others to men.

6.) Paul’s last argument concerns the universal practice of the church. There were those who were still trying to protest against Paul’s teaching. Therefore, Paul highlights the fact that is done is all apostolic churches. As Fee reminds us, ‘This is now the third time that Paul had tried to correct the Corinthian behavior by appealing to what is taught or practiced in the other churches’ (Fee p. 530; cf. 4:17; 7:17). And why this argument? Hodge captures well the reason: “With such persons all argument is useless. Authority is the only end of controversy with such disturbers of the peace. The authority here adduced is that of the apostles and of the churches. The former was decisive, because the apostles were invested with authority not only to teach the gospel, but also to organize the church, and to decide every thing relating to Christian ordinances and worship. The authority of the churches, although not coercive, was yet great. No man is justified, except on clearly scriptural grounds, and from the necessity of obeying God rather than man, to depart from the established usages of the church in matters of public concern.”

From Paul’s standpoint, only when a woman is properly veiled does she have the right to pray and prophecy.  It is not the proper place to explain the meaning of prophecy here, nor is it the place to harmony this statement about prayer with others passages wherein women are to be silent. It is, however, the overall thrust of the passage to underscore the only biblical ground for her to do these; she is be veiled. Lias is right when he qualifies this by saying, ‘This refers, of course, to the public assemblies of the Church, where the woman appears, not in her individual character, but as the member of a community. She must therefore perform her devotions in this latter character, and her attire must bear witness to the fact that she is subordinate to those of the other sex in whose presence she worships. Alone, of course, or in the presence of her own sex only, she has the same privilege of approaching God unveiled, that man has.’

It must be observed that these apostolic churches were in various cultural contexts.  Yet, he could appeal to the fact that all the churches in all these various cultural contexts followed this pattern in public worship.

 Now, the question over permanence of this must be addressed. It would seem that the principles of Paul’s arguments, with the possible exception of that based upon the nature of things, move us in the direction of saying that a physical sign of subordination is required. While the sign upon her head, and it must always be that upon the head if any, may change according to the day, the necessity of it remains. The church has held to this position for nearly two millennia until the sexual revolution and women’s liberation movement; this is an historical fact that cannot be easily dismissed by revisionism. Even Wikipedia notes this, saying, “Veiling, covering the hair rather than the face, was a common practice with church-going women until the 1960s.”

 Moreover, the very forms of the head-covering of the ancient church varied. The article in Smith’s Dictionary of Antiquities speaks of the fact that some used a pellum or shawl, which was ordinarily used as a covering for the body, but on public occasions thrown over the head in worship. In Oriental countries, however, the women wore, and still wear, a veil. Thus, while times may change the way in which women might cover their heads in worship, according to the customs and fashions of the day, the requirement of a public and physical sign of subordination remains in force.