One of the characteristics of God is that He is orderly. It has ever been His purpose that there should be order throughout His creation that would be achieved by some having authority to which others would submit. In the Old Testament this principle is seen both in family life, and in the life of the nation of Israel. Even in this church age, God’s purpose has not changed, for we learn that ‘the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God’, 1. Cor. 11. 3. As the human physical head governs the body to which it belongs, so authority is invested in the head in the spiritual sphere.
However, the responsibilities of headship extend beyond the duty of exercising authority; it includes relationship, guidance, and care. This truth is displayed perfectly by Christ who, as Head of the church, is ‘the saviour of the body … Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it’, Eph. 5. 23-25.
Although we live in an age marked by open rebellion against God, one sphere where He expects headship, and the attendant submissiveness, to be evident is within the church of God. Such is the importance of this matter that God has designed a very simple symbolism for it whereby His people may be conscious of it each time they meet together as a local church. When assembled, the males are to ensure that they wear nothing on their head, whilst the females are to ensure that their heads are covered.
There is only one section in the scriptures that gives us teaching on this symbolism, and it is found in 1 Corinthians chapter 11 verses 3-16. The purpose of this article is to give an overview of that section; for a detailed exposition please refer to articles written by Malcolm Horlock in issues 2 and 3 of volume 62 of Precious Seed International.1
These verses do not give us an exposition of headship; what they do is set out how we demonstrate the recognition of headship, and Paul bases his reasoning on three things. Those are:
Although in verse 3 Paul informs us that the head of Christ is God, he does not elaborate on that; maybe, he mentions it as an incentive to the church at Corinth. If Christ was prepared to recognize, and submit to, One who was His head, then the saints at Corinth, and, hence, believers today, should accept and submit to what Paul is teaching. Within the assembly, Christ is the Head of every man, and their uncovered heads symbolize that fact. Because many brethren do not wear a head covering at any time, there is the possibility that we fail to appreciate the truth being symbolized as we enter a meeting. Equally, the woman must have her head covered, to symbolize the fact that she recognizes that the man is her spiritual head.
These things are not optional; a man’s uncovered head is symbolic of Christ’s authority over him, so if he prays, having something on his head, he dishonours Christ – he brings shame upon Christ. Similarly, a woman who does not cover her head brings dishonour, shame, upon the man, for he is her head. In effect, she is saying, ‘I am subject to no one and do not acknowledge the authority of the man’. It is salutary to recall what happened the first time a woman acted like that.2
There are those who state that the teaching given by Paul in this section is based on the custom and culture that prevailed in first-century Greece, but that argument is inadmissible, for, in verses 7-12, Paul is taking his readers back to first principles inaugurated by God in Eden. The apostle is highlighting the fact that in creation order women have a subordinate place to men, and for that reason the males should not cover their heads, but women ought to wear something on theirs to symbolize their position of subordination, v. 10. Three reasons are then supplied to verify what is being stated.
Firstly, man is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of the man. The word ‘image’ in this context is used in the sense of representation, i.e., the man represents God in the sense that God has delegated to him authority over the woman. The man is also the glory of God in that he came direct from God; he was made for God, and was the pinnacle of God’s creation on earth, and something of God’s glory is reflected in the man.
Secondly, man did not owe his origin in any way to the woman, but rather she owed her origin to him – she came from him, and, therefore, in some degree the glory for her existence is due to the man. It has been well said that the bone God used to form the woman neither came from his head nor his feet but from his side, a place of protection, affection, and equality of worth.
Thirdly, man was not made for the woman but the woman was made for the man. God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him’, Gen. 2. 18 NKJV.
Based on what has just been taught, a woman ought to cover her head. Man has been given authority by God over the woman and the glory for her existence is the man – the spiritual woman recognizes that authority by wearing a symbol of it on her head. In addition, she is man’s glory and such glory should be out of sight in the place where only God’s glory should be displayed, and, therefore, the woman wears a head covering to symbolize that also. This divinely mandated order and symbolism is being observed by unseen spectators, the angels. These heavenly beings would have seen what happened in the Garden of Eden, when the first woman acted independently of the man. Now they can observe sisters accepting their position of subjection, and demonstrating that acceptance by wearing a head covering.
The section concludes with a word of caution for the brethren. What has been taught from verse 7 should not result in them thinking they are superior to the sisters. In verses 7-10, the focus has been on creation order, but, in verses 11 and 12, we are brought into the sphere of the new creation – hence the expression ‘in the Lord’. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Jack Hunter states, ‘The authority of the man does not make him independent of the woman and the subordination of the woman does not make her dispensable’.3
That mutual need of each other in the new creation is but a reflection of God’s plans for the continuation of the human race. Woman might owe her origin to man, but without the woman there would have been no more men, for man is ‘by the woman’. All this interdependence has been ordered by God; it is all part of His purpose.
In this final section we are given another explanation why a woman’s head should be covered, but nothing is stated about the man not covering his head. This is because Paul is going to focus on the hair of the woman. Men’s hair is not intended to be a covering in the sense that a woman’s hair is. Long hair on a man is a shame, but long hair on a woman is a glory to her. The point needs to be made here that the word ‘covering’ in verse 14 is different to the word ‘cover’ used in the earlier part of the chapter. These verses are not teaching that a woman’s hair serves as her head covering, but rather that people know intuitively that women’s heads are to be covered by hair in a way that men’s heads are not.
Having emphasized that nature utilises hair length as one way of making a distinction between the males and the females, we now come back to the question posed in verse 13 – is it befitting for a woman to pray with her head uncovered? Paul’s point is this, if a woman participates with her head uncovered she is making herself the same as a man, but nature clearly shows that they are not the same. Therefore, for a woman to participate in the church with an uncovered head she is acting contrary to what nature teaches.
Although the apostle had set out three clear reasons why a woman’s head should be covered, and two reasons why a man’s should be uncovered, there might have been some at Corinth who were prepared to be contentious about the issue. Having delivered his teaching, Paul does not intend to engage in contention. If anyone was to disagree with his teaching, he wanted them to realize that they were out of line with the teaching of all the apostles and all the churches of God. The only place where there may have been any problem over this head covering issue was Corinth – the most carnal church to which Paul wrote.
The teaching of these verses is being rejected in many Christian groups today, and a variety of reasons are given as to why we need not follow this doctrine. One argument is that the word ‘man’ refers to husbands, but this is a ridiculous argument for if the word ‘man’ in verse 3 refers to the husband then we must translate it consistently like that throughout the whole section. Is Christ only the head of married men and not head of those who are single; is it acceptable for unmarried men to cover their heads when praying but married men must not? In what sense is the husband by the woman in verse 12? The male has been made by God the head of the woman, and, whilst in Western culture that is now being rejected, the one sphere where it ought to be recognized is in the churches of God.