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What Did Paul mean by the head Covering for Women and Does it apply to us today?

Walk into a modern church and tell the women to come back the next sunday with hats and fancy head covering and you will have started a fad. But any one reading through 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 will always ask what is the head covering Paul is talking about and does it apply to us today? Well a couple of views:

The following ‘exegesis’ (if we can call it that) is really no more than an attempt to wrestle with the major hermeneutical-pragmatic double question of this passage, viz., what is the head covering and in what sense is this text applicable today?

There are several views in vogue on the text, but within evangelicalism three or four come readily to mind:

(1) This text has no applicability to us today. Paul is speaking about a ‘tradition’ that he has handed on. Hence, since this is not the tradition of the modern church, we hardly need to consider this text.

(2) The head covering is the hair. Hence, the applicability today is that women should wear (relatively) long hair.

(3) The head covering is a real head covering and the text is applicable today, in the same way as it was in Paul’s day. Within this view are two basic sub-views:

  • The head covering is to be worn by all women in the church service.
  • The head covering is to be worn by women in the church service only when praying or prophesying publicly.

(4) The head covering is a meaningful symbol in the ancient world that needs some sort of corresponding symbol today, but not necessarily a head covering. This also involves the same two sub-views as #3 above.

The writer of the article [Gary North] further expounds on his favored view (the fourth view here). However Gary North too looked at the same issue this way:

In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul is forced to deal with a number of problems concerning church discipline and worship. The place of women in the church is discussed in the eleventh chapter and in the fourteenth. In both cases, women are placed in a subordinate position. [It must be pointed out at this point that the biblical requirement of the functional subordination of women, children, unordained church members, and new Christians in no way implies a personal inferiority, a fact which contemporary Women’s Liberation members cannot seem to grasp.] There is at least some internal evidence in the two passages that Paul was dealing with two different situations. The first problem concerned praying and prophesying [11:4-5]; the second concerned corporate church worship [14].

In the first passage, Paul sets forth the requirement for women who pray and prophesy: they must have their heads covered [11:4]. Yet in the second passage, he specifically forbids women to speak at all in the corporate worship of the church [14:34]. As I understand it, Paul was making one of two distinctions: (1) women in general are to remain silent in church, with only a special group of them permitted to prophesy [being marked as a special group by a peculiar kind of covering for their heads]; or (2) there was a distinct kind of prophesying practised by Christian women outside of the actual worship service. It is my opinion that the latter interpretation is preferable, although evidence gleaned from the records of early church practices may yet be found which would favour the former view.

Whichever interpretation is proper, it should be obvious that the prophetic function of the first-century church was historically unique. It involved speaking in tongues, the phenomenon Paul deals with in chapter 14. Reformed expositors have generally maintained that this feature of the church was temporary and died out with the coming of the written canon of Scripture. Thus, the focus of Paul’s concern with the covering of the prophetic women’s head would appear as an issue of concern in his day, rather than a general principle of worship.

In defence of this view, I would point to Paul’s words: ‘Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?’ [11:13] – If this is a general rule binding on the church in all times and places, does it then refer to all prayer, in or out of church? Must a woman always wear a covering when she prays? This would not seem to be a likely application of Paul’s language. Does it then refer to prayer in the church service? Again, Paul’s warning against women speaking in church would not confirm such an interpretation. The evidence points to a unique situation in church history: female prophets in the first century apparently had the right to prophesy at certain kinds of meetings, but not at worship services. Philip had four daughters who prophesied [Acts 21:9]. Women who possessed this gift were to demonstrate their femininity either by putting on a special kind of covering, or by wearing their hair in a particular way. They were not to regard themselves as superior to men, especially those who might not possess the prophetic gift. Their covering symbolized this position of functional subordination even during the period of prophetic ecstasy. Finally, they were not to exercise the gift during the corporate worship of the church [14:34]. [continued here]

It’s always interesting reading what the text says and going back to read it in context. Isn’t it? Well, if a husband and wife decide they wish to do this while not trying to impose it on others then they are free to do so. So, see you in church this sunday with or without hats (but with your bibles at least). 😉


2 responses to “What Did Paul mean by the head Covering for Women and Does it apply to us today?

  1. JessicaHof September 9, 2012 at 16:08

    I always wear a hat to church. It is a great and joyous occasion, so I am going to dress up the best I can – I’m going to be with the Lord 🙂

  2. Jamie Carter September 20, 2017 at 16:02

    If you speak with http://www.headcoveringmovement.com/ you’ll find that they believe that all women must wear head coverings during church service in submission to their husbands (if married,) fathers (if single), or church elders (if widowed.)
    But there is always a good sporting chance that something cultural is underlying the discussion – after all, wearing of head coverings appear only in 1 Corinthians 11, when Paul and Peter tell women how to dress modestly, they tell them not to have elaborate hair styles, but say nothing about it being required that they wear head coverings.
    The Corinthian church had a sizeable Jewish population as well as Greek members, but it was under Roman control. The Romans believed in capite velato – that the men who lead religious rites should cover their heads. They also believed that men and women have different roles in worship, if men lead, women follow. If men speak, women must be silent. The Jewish sect could point to the oral law, women could be divorced for going out in public without their head covering. Greek and Roman women didn’t really have a requirement to cover their heads. So it’s easy to see how one group might have wanted all the women to live by the same custom and the Jewish sect might have wanted their custom to be the one that they all live by so that they wouldn’t have reason to justify a spate of divorces. Given this reality in Corinth, I’m strongly inclined to believe that there’s some cultural background to it and like teachings on idol feasts, doesn’t necessarily apply to us today.


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