Head Coverings, Part 2: The Issues at Hand

I recently wrote a post explaining my heart behind the decision to start wearing cloth head coverings for corporate worship and promised I would continue the series with a post about the arguments that compelled me. Our traveling and holiday seasons hit us pretty hard soon after the first part was published, and I’m just now sitting down to do a follow-up (as many of you have asked me to do . . . and I appreciate the accountability!).

Just to reiterate, in case you haven’t or won’t read the first post:

  • I do not think head covering is a salvific issue. Women who are not convicted in favor of covering are just as secure in Christ’s redemption as women who are convicted to do so.
  • My issue with the question of head covering and modern culture’s interpretation of the passage in 1 Corinthians 11 is primarily a hermeneutical one. That is, the reason I’ve become more passionate about it is not because I think the argument in favor of covering is rock-solid or that there are no legitimate arguments against it. I am passionate about the contradictory and apathetic way that the modern church approaches Scripture, and I think this particular passage is a great example of the problem.
  • I cannot address every argument for or against covering in a single post, or even a single series (unless I were to drag it out for many months). Many more capable theologians have done this already, and I advise you to extend your research further than this post, including research from both sides of the discussion.

In short, I have come to affirm the practice of head covering in the modern church because I think that when we approach the passage with the same hermeneutic as we use when approaching the rest of Scripture, the arguments in favor of covering are stronger than those that promote covering as a matter of ancient Corinthian culture. The hermeneutical principles at stake here are:

  1. We let the passage and its context demonstrate its own reasoning. We do not attach motives or thought processes that aren’t demonstrated within the passage or the rest of Scripture.
  2. We accept that some translations of the original text are better than others, and that modern languages have some deficiencies that may make it difficult to interpret the author’s full message.This is particularly true when the original language uses different words where English only has one word to put in their place.
  3. We affirm that Scripture has authority over the patterns and philosophies of our own time, culture, and experience. If we approach the Bible humbly and openly and come to the conviction that it tells us to do something which seems odd or offensive in light of our social circumstances, we are obligated to submit to Scripture as an act of humble trust and abandon. We do not demand that any command in Scripure make perfect sense to us or seem reasonable from an earthly perspective before we agree to obey it.

I believe these three principles are at the root of the controversy that has surrounded this text (and many others) for centuries. And it has indeed been a centuries-long debate . . . which tells us that it is not a simple issue. In light of this, if we do not check our pride at the door we will never be able to have truly edifying exchanges on this topic or any other.

The Historical Argument

Although it has been controversial to varying degrees throughout church history, one of the good arguments in favor of covering is one that contemporary Christians do not often think about because they either don’t know much about – or see the value of – church history (see this article by Ligonier). When I talk to some believers about why I affirm female head covering in corporate worship, they quickly point out that the passage “obviously” refers to the trends of 1st century Corinthian culture at the time of Paul’s writing. What this fails to acknowledge is that the majority of the orthodox Christian church – in nearly every sect and denomination – practiced female head covering in different contexts up until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The only sect of the Christian church that has abandoned the practice to a widespread degree has been the Western church beginning in the late 18- and 1900s. Not coincidentally, this same era and culture also saw the birth and cultivation of feminist philosophy, which rejects the concept of male headship within the church and home. It is not far-reaching in the slightest to suggest that these events are likely connected to some degree, and the pattern of history attests to this (excepting a handful of deviances, as is the case with every issue of orthodox Christian doctrine).

What Is a Covering?

Another common argument against covering is one that I think is quite fair and understandable, given the confusion wrought by linguistics and the challenge of having too large a variety of translations: “Paul is just referring to a woman’s longer hair. There is no need for an additional cloth covering.” This interpretation stems from verses 6 and 14-15:

“For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. . . Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering” (ESV).

The answer to this argument from a pro-covering position can be read in better detail in the post I’ve linked in the footnotes; but to sum it up, the argument does not hold up either grammatically or contextually. The author of this article, citing the research of New Testament scholars Dr. Thomas Schreiner and A.T. Robinson, writes:

Support for long hair as the only covering comes from verse 15, “For her hair is given to her for a covering.” Those advocating this position argue that the Greek word “anti” (translated “for”) means “in place of”. They would understand this passage as saying: “her hair is given to her [in place of / instead of] a covering.” On this point Dr. Thomas Schreiner (Professor of New Testament Interpretation, SBTS) notes, “The preposition anti in 11:15 need not refer to substitution. It can also indicate equivalence. The latter makes better sense in the context”. 1) A.T. Robertson (Former Professor of New Testament Interpretation, SBTS)  further points out, “It is not in the place of a veil, but answering to [anti], in the sense of [anti] in John 1:16, as a permanent endowment [dedotai], perfect passive indicative. 2) The example that A.T. mentions is John 1:16 which says “For of His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (NASB). The section he’s referencing is at the end where it says, “charis anti charis” (translated: “grace upon grace” NASB or “grace for grace” KJV). This example shows that “anti” doesn’t only mean substitution, as we haven’t received “grace instead of grace”.

In the passage, therefore, we see that a woman’s longer hair (in comparison to men’s hair length, that is; Scripture never gives specific parameters for the hair length of either gender) functions as her “glory.” This actually makes the most sense from the affirmative position toward separate, material head coverings, because it means that the cloth covering placed over the natural covering is symbolic of the woman covering her “glory” and “authority” in an act of submission.

Again, the language Paul chooses is consistent with this. While the English translations use one word, ‘covering,’ throughout the entire passage, Paul actually uses different terms to describe what appear to be two different types of covering.

The author of the article I referenced approaches the grammatical dilemma in a way I find very compelling:

The fact that Paul only commands covering for certain times (1 Cor 11:4-5) hints that he has a removable covering in mind. Additionally, if long hair were the only covering mentioned in this chapter then there’s a major problem with verse 6. Let me show you what I mean. If long hair were the same as being covered according to Paul, what would be being uncovered? It would mean having short hair, right? The opposite of covered is uncovered and the opposite of long hair is short hair. So if that’s what Paul had in mind, let’s do some word replacement in verse 6. Where we see the phrase “cover her head”, let’s replace that with “have long hair”.

“For if a woman does not [have long hair], let her also have her hair cut off (1 Cor 11:6a NASB). For if a wife will not [have long hair], then she should cut her hair short (1 Cor 11:6a ESV).” If you refuse to have long hair, you should cut your hair short? You’d already have short hair! This argument wouldn’t make sense.

In Conclusion: The Heart of the Matter

While these are the two or three most concrete arguments I can share on which I base my conviction to cover, they are not exhaustive. This is a broader and more implication-ridden topic than it appears on the surface, and while it is not a primary issue that the Church should divide over (and please note that ‘divide’ and ‘disagree’ are not the same) I believe the manner in which people attempt to argue against this passage on covering reveals a lot that is wrong about the modern Church’s handling of Scripture.

We can take the passage for what it says . . . or we could read into it and impose motivations on it that it never references, like in the argument that this passage only applies to ancient Corinthian culture. It should stand sufficient that the reasoning Paul clearly gives is based on natural (thereby universal) delineations between men and women, as well as the standards God sets for formal, corporate worship. There is nothing in this passage that indicates it (or we) should be treated as some sort of historical exception – that is, apart from the fact that the concepts it represents deviates from the feministic or egalitarian values of modern society. We still take seriously and literally the other instructions given in the passages immediately surrounding this one . . . why else but a distorted, culturally-compromised hermeneutic have we chosen to section off and disregard this one?

I believe this is the reason, albeit a subconscious one, why so many of us have balked at the mere idea that this command might still apply to us. The lengths that the contemporary church has gone to reject this passage’s application demonstrates the level to which it offends us. And this reveals a fierce sense of autonomy and stubbornness that I don’t want to be true of me anymore in my handling of God’s Word.

So whether or not we come to the same conclusions or convictions, I beg you to examine yourself and the consistency of your hermeneutic (your method of studying Scripture).

Footnotes

“Is a Woman’s Long Hair Her Covering?” https://www.headcoveringmovement.com/articles/is-a-womans-long-hair-her-covering

6 thoughts on “Head Coverings, Part 2: The Issues at Hand

  1. In all honesty I have never even considered wearing a head covering, but I like your thought process and heart behind it. Wonderful to want to follow the Lord in every aspect of your life. I love this!

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  2. Thank you for your honest posts about this issue. In the last few years, I’ve come to a similar conclusion as you, that the practice of head covering is for today. I studied for a long time, months in fact, to make sure I really knew what the Word said. At the end of the day, it came down to two things for me: 1-simple obedience to the Word of God; and 2-the fact that even though I believe the hermeneutic points to the practice being relevant for all times and cultures, there’s something in my heart that still wants to fight it…and therefore, I realize perhaps this is the real issue at hand, and one that Jesus knows most women will struggle with.

    That being said, as I studied and studied the passages, I honed in on the “simple obedience,” plus the proof that Christian women throughout the ages have practiced this and still do in many places in the world, which seemed to line up with v. 16 “…we have no other practice, nor do the churches of God.” In articles I read, this was a major point made, that it wasn’t just for the Corinthian church but for all churches for all time (also pointing back to the beginning of the book in 1 Cor. 1:2 “…To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” So the whole book wasn’t written just for Corinth but for all believers. That being said, and tying back to the “simple obedience,” I’ve recently begun wondering what do I really believe about 1 Cor. 14:34-35? If I applied the same principles of simple obedience to God’s Word and also that this book is for all churches, then what? I do believe women shouldn’t be pastors, and should not have authority over men in the church, but the passage is worded so strongly…not allowed, shameful…and some of these same ideas are what are listed as the reason we should cover our heads. Ugh. I’d be curious what your thoughts are on this.

    Also, I’m wondering what led you to covering only in corporate church services. I was under that impression for awhile, but then got stuck thinking about, “Well, what about in small group or ladies’ Bible studies? Or what if (in the ministry my husband are in overseas working with other missionaries) someone comes over and asks me to pray for them, wouldn’t it be appropriate to put on a covering?” And so I’ve decided that it’s better for me to cover the majority of the time. What are your thoughts?

    Thank you so much for tackling this issue. I truly think, especially now, with so much confusion in our culture and even in our churches about the differences/equality/roles of men and women, this was something God intended for our good, to honor Him and ultimately do what men and women were supposed to do…reflect Christ and His Bride.

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    1. Thanks for this response! I may answer some of these questions in an additional post, if that is alright, as they may turn out to be quite lengthy. I probably should have included them in the original post before publishing! 🙂

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  3. Head covering is not a movement. It is not cultural issue. It is a command. If you truly believe the Words of God are true then this command is just as true as any other command found in God’s Word. The Bible is not a restaurant menu whereby one picks and chooses what they will or will not obey.

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