Are head coverings for sisters a relevant practice for today?
Head coverings for sisters using a head scarf or hat when a local church meets together, and perhaps on other occasions of spiritual activity, is a practice based on one specific passage in the New Testament, 1 Cor. 11. 1-16. Throughout history, head coverings have been a mainstream practice among Christian groups. The early church practised head covering, with Luther, Calvin, and John Wesley all advocating this teaching.1 Today, it is limited to a small number of Christian groups, including New Testament assemblies. Are head coverings relevant now? After all, we are called to be New Testament believers living out the truth of the scriptures in our day, and not living in the past. In 1 Corinthians, Paul deals with some very serious issues including division, immorality, and false teaching. He takes the time to deal with this problem in chapter 11 providing several trans-cultural arguments in support:
The practice of head coverings falls under a wider biblical principle called headship. This is outlined in verse 3 where we read ‘that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God’. The idea of headship is recognizing and submitting to the God-given authority of another. A sister covering her head is visibly acknowledging her head, the man. Perhaps, even more importantly, if a man covers his head in the presence of God, he is dishonouring his Head, who is Christ. Ultimately, headship is about giving God His rightful place.
Paul lays out three principles from Genesis chapter 2, describing the relationship God set in place between men and women. First, man was created in the image and glory of God, whereas woman is the glory of man, v. 7. Second, man was the source of the woman, since Eve was taken from the side of Adam, v. 8. Third, Eve was created for Adam, as a help ‘meet for’ (or comparable to) him. These principles take on eternal significance when we consider that they reflect the relationship between Christ and the church, Eph. 5. 22-33. Through the sleep of Adam, typifying the death of Christ, came forth Eve, an individual who owed her existence entirely to him. As Eve originated from Adam, so the church originates from Christ, through His death, and lives to serve Him as His eternal companion. Paul also anticipated that this teaching appeared one-sided and in favour of men. He redresses the balance by also stating that God has created men and women to depend on each other, v. 11. Women are now also the originators of all men through motherhood, v. 12.
Paul includes a tantalizing glimpse into the unseen world, v. 10, where we read, ‘for this cause ought the woman to have [a symbol of] power on her head because of the angels’. The verse draws attention to an astounding truth. In real time, angels look on as we gather as Christians. One reason is given, ‘that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold [multifaceted] wisdom of God’, Eph. 3. 10. This is amazing! God is teaching the angels through New Testament churches today as we gather to worship. This elevates the practice of head coverings to a very high level.
Paul also appeals to the natural order of things. As a general principle, around the world, women tend to have long hair and men shorter hair. In other words, a woman has a covering by nature. Partly this is biological, due to the adverse effects of male hormones on hair growth, but also long hair enhances the appearance of a woman - ‘it is a glory to her’, v. 15. Some argue that this passage is teaching that women should have long hair as a covering rather than needing an additional covering. However, why would Paul bring this argument in as another line of evidence if this was the point he was making in the first place? Also, the interpretation of verse 6 becomes problematic using such an argument.
One final point, more important than outward symbols, is our attitude of heart. It would be easy for our approach to be that of grudging conformity. Verse 3 highlights two opposing attitudes towards headship. When the Lord Jesus came into the world, humanity demonstrated rebellion towards His headship, saying, ‘we will not have this man to reign over us’, Luke 19. 14. In contrast, the Lord Jesus acknowledged the headship of God when He was here, saying, ‘I do always those things that please him [the Father]’, John 8. 29.
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