The Role of Women – Head Coverings?

After moving through multiple biblical passages while discussing the role of women, as well as two more recent ‘topical’ posts, I take up another commonly discussed issue that arises within the dialogue about the role of women. Such an issue is that of head coverings found in 1 Cor 11:2-16.

Actually, what I notice at times is that, just as many might decide to sidestep discussion about gifts of the Spirit, due to possibly not knowing how to approach the topic today and in light of the full canon of Scripture, so too can people sidestep possible contentious discussion that might arise from the issue of head coverings. There not sure what to do with the passage found in Corinthians.

I mean, really, how do we approach this topic? It’s quite clear that 1 Corinthians 11 teaches such a practise should be done. But much of the church today does not hold to this particular practise. What to do?

I am also quite aware that, at least within some Pentecostal and charismatic churches, some teach this specific practise should be done in an attempt to provide for possible greater experiences during the church’s gathered worship. This is centred around the end phrase of vs10 – ‘because of the angels’. Thus, with an attempt to be obedient to the plain reading of the text and to encourage greater worship gatherings, it has been required that women wear head coverings when praying or prophesying in the public gatherings of the church.

But, as with all doctrinal and practical issues, there are a few points that need to be carefully considered from this passage and the greater context before jumping to any foregone conclusions.

1) Not Dealing with Submission to Husband

Unfortunately, many have seen vs10 teaching that a head covering is a sign, or symbol, to show that the wife is under the authority of and submitted to her husband. But is this what head coverings is about? Let’s look at the rendering of vs10 in the ESV:

That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

First of all, I believe that, if we say this verse teaches male authority over female, then we are imposing something upon the text.

Why do I say such?

In an earlier post on 1 Corinthians 11, I tried to show how some have mistakenly concluded that 1 Cor 11:3 teaches about the authority of man over woman (I suggest reading my article). With such a view concerning vs3, it also makes it quite easy to read such ‘submission theology’ into vs10 with regards to the role of head coverings. But, as I have tried to show, Paul is not emphasising male headship over women in the context of 1 Corinthians 11. Thus, I believe we must also guard against reading such a theological viewpoint into the role of head coverings in vs10. Even if we determine that head coverings must be worn today, such instruction was not given to show that a wife is submitted to her husband, since the larger context is not addressing such.

So what was the purpose of head coverings? Let’s move on to find out.

2) A Sign of Differentiation

Now, what many don’t realise from the reading of the text is that the phrase, ‘a sign of’, is not actually found in the original Greek of vs10 (as the NIV shows).

That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

Now it is possible that such a phrase is implied. But I’m not sure this has much of an effect on our understanding of the passage either way. Thus, I maintain the case that the passage is not teaching about a wife’s submission to her husband

But how could the phrase ‘a sign of’ be implied in vs10?

It is obvious that the greater context of vs4-15 does speak of the proper etiquette for women in wearing head coverings, while it is also improper for men to wear such. They are obviously signs, or physical symbols, of what is appropriate for these Corinthian believers.

Consequently, though Paul is not addressing the issue of male authority and women subordination, he does seem to be addressing the reality of gender differentiations. Within the Corinthian culture, the women were to wear head coverings and have longer hair while the men were not to wear head coverings and have shorter hair. It was customary practise of their society.

Now, let me again emphasise that gender differentiations never point to who has authority. The fact that women have been designed to bear children is another gender differentiation, but that does not point to subordination to men. As scholar-theologian, Gordon Fee, says:

‘In the same way Paul argues in 11:2-16 that wives continue to wear the head-covering because it served as a symbol of differentiation between men and women. Although it is often suggested otherwise, this passage has nothing to do with subordination of women to men – a view arrived at by making verse 10 say the opposite of what Paul in fact asserts.’ (Listening to the Spirit in the Text, pp62-63)

But the passage so clearly seems to teach about authority through the head covering, right?

That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

She is to wear [the sign of] authority over her head. But the literal rendition of the Greek would be, ‘a wife ought to have authority over her head’. From this rendering, we see that this does not have to speak about male authority over women. It is hard to determine every minute detail from such passages, but some suggest that the head covering could be a sign of the woman’s authority to prophesy in church (since Paul instructed the women to wear it when they did so, i.e., vs5), or to participate generally in the church assembly.

Thus, what we do know is that the role of head coverings within the context of the Corinthian church was to distinguish gender differences, as well as act as some kind of sign for the woman herself within the gathered church. But it was never to teach who had authority over the other. To suggest such is pushing too much into the context of this Scripture passage.

3) A Cultural Symbol

The final thing to think about is whether head coverings are 1) a cultural command within a specific cultural context or 2) a command for all time for all cultures and peoples. Or, as I shared in a previous post, we need to determine whether this particular instruction falls under our discussion of trajectory theology. No doubt, there will be much disagreement concerning such a discussion, but such must be taken into account.

As I have shared recently (again, read this article for more), many times Paul does address situations within a particular cultural-historical framework, thus leaving us with something that is not to be seen as a command for all time. He spoke into the slavery structure in Eph 6:5-9 without condemning such a practise. He also spoke into the household structure without condemning such in Eph 5:22-24. In both situations, Paul recognised what was set up within the framework of that society and he was not looking to tear it down. Rather, his instructions were how followers of Christ in that day could live faithfully within those prescribed societal structures. But I have concluded that neither slavery nor male ‘headship’ were actually to be commands for all time. Neither is strict adherence to the Sabbath law, literal foot washing, tithing, rules for specific clothing, etc. One more time, I suggest you read this post.

In a patriarchal society of the New Testament era, which is what Paul addressed, it is very obvious that gender distinctions were of great importance. Now, of course, gender distinctions will remain a reality throughout time. We are not called to be androgynous beings. Women give birth, men do not. Women breast-feed their children, men do not. Men can grow out their facial hair to form beards, women cannot. But, again, physical distinctions do not give precedence for the subordination of women to men.

Within the patriarchal culture of Paul’s world, and maybe more specifically in Corinth, women wore head coverings and had long hair to distinguish themselves from their husbands. And the men were not to wear head coverings and were to have shorter hair. This is a very reasonable understanding of the context.

It is also ironic that, though some churches can emphasise the need for head coverings for women, some have never really laid great importance upon the length of one’s hair (for both men and women). And there need be no such overdone weight given to hair length. I believe we would be stepping beyond the constructs of what was intended in the writing of these words of the apostle, Paul.

So, in conclusion, though head coverings pointed to gender differentiation in those days, it did not point to male authority over women (nor does it do so today). Nor should head coverings be viewed as one of the keys to a great worship gathering. To do so is putting a lot of emphasis on one phrase in the Bible – ‘because of the angels’.

If a culture still requires women to wear head coverings as a gender distinction, then it’s perfectly fine for the women to wear such. But this should not be seen as a mandate for all cultures of all times.

Gordon Fee summarises things quite well:

‘Thus, the thrust of this argument is twofold: that the woman should continue with the cultural symbol of differentiation because of the issue of shame – but that this should not be understood to mean subordination, but mutual interdependence in the Lord. The new creation has not removed mutuality and differentiation, but has restored it. In the Lord male and female are both one and different. Thus men and women equally pray and prophesy, the two basic forms of worship in the Christian assembly…but do so as male and female, not as androgynous beings.’ (Listening to the Spirit in the Text, pp64-65)

14 thoughts on “The Role of Women – Head Coverings?

  1. Pingback: Week in Review: 12.11.2010 « Near Emmaus

  2. I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church of the 50’s and early 60’s, mostly in Dublin Ireland, before going to England. Back in those days almost all women wore both veils and hats to Church. St. Paul’s biblical and theological argument seems to define indeed the reality of the spiritual “authority” of the head-covering for women. One see’s still conservative or traditional women wearing the veil in the Roman Church often. Sadly however, this “authority” is rare in the postmodernity of today.

    • ScottL,

      Yes, I know your position somewhat. But both Judeo-Christian history, and exegesis here…1 Cor. 11: 10, etc., seem to teach otherwise. There is an important creational argument in St. Paul about both the roles of men and women. You know texts! 🙂

  3. Robert –

    There is an important creational argument in St. Paul about both the roles of men and women.

    Is there a ‘creational’ argument in Paul for male authority-headship over women? Which passages?

    And I think if you go back in Genesis 1 and 2, you will see there is not ‘creational’ argument for one gender having authority over the other. I share more in these 3 posts: post 1, post 2, post 3.

    Also, what about Paul’s words in 1 Cor 11:11-12: 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.

    • Scott,

      1 Cor. 11: 3; 9 etc. This whole section has to do with the corporate principle of the Church, creation order and worship… as verse 10, and the word “exousia”/authority (lawful) – as a sign of the Lord’s authority over the Church. Note, “In the Lord” verse 11.. women and men are equal before the Throne (as Gal.3:28). But in this life, they both have creational roles… 1 Tim. 2:13, etc. To miss this is simply foundational loss! 🙂

  4. I’d love you to take a little time and read my article on 1 Corinthians 11:3, only to interact there than rather trying to post so much in the comment section.

    Also, for 1 Cor 11:9, again, what about vs11-12?

    And Gal 3:28 is not just a soteriological text (as I share more here). Because of its soteriological thrust, it has an ecclesiological and anthropological effect, since salvation has to do with the the whole person and God’s work in all of creation.

    And with 1 Tim 2:13, we are reading into that text what isn’t there. Can you establish from Genesis 1 & 2 that there is a ‘creational’ order that man has authority over women? I don’t see this anywhere in Genesis 1 and 2.

    • Scott,

      In the end, we are not going to agree or even come close, I can see that. To my mind you either add or subtract to the Textual & theological reality on this subject. But I would say that the Headship and thus Federal Headship of Adam is a given revelation, (note in the negative for Adam, Gen. 3:17). He did listen to God alone! See also Romans 5:12-20. Yeah, I am a complementarian! 🙂

    • Scott,

      I read your links. But I am still traditional & egalitarian! Did you even read “my” statement about “authority” (Exousia, Gk.)? Which denotes authority (from the impersonal verb ‘exesti’, “it is lawful”). And in reality, the theological complementarian position is rather new to my mind. I am not convinced!

      • Scott,

        To my mind, Christianity can really only be expressed by dogmatic theology! That fine line of truth and biblical-theological revelation, truth is foreign to all overstatements as well as to all understatements. As it gives to everything a fitting measure and fitting place. But we must work and study to find it! (2 Tim. 2:15)

    • Scott,

      I was kidding about being a complementarian, sorry. I thought you knew I was both traditional and egalitarian. My wife is really old school also, she is a conservative. But, she is her own woman really. But she is Irish too! lol

      In a cultural & theological aspect, I would see and desire head-covering for women. But, now we live in postmodernity, so I don’t press it. I can remember as a boy in Ireland going to the Plymouth Brethren meetings with my greatgram (The Kelly Brethren, as they were unofficially called), and all the women were veiled or wearing hats. It was profound, even then.. An “authority” of order and worship! (1 Cor. 11: 10) 🙂

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