The question of whether a Christian woman should wear a head covering in obedience to 1 Cor. 11:2-16 is a highly controversial subject. Some say that she does not need to wear a head covering because her long hair is her covering (v. 15). Others say that she does not need to wear a head covering because the head of the woman is the man (v. 3), therefore the man is her covering. Still others say that this passage only applied to the culture of the first century and does not apply to us today. But there are those who say that this passage does apply to us today and therefore a Christian woman should wear a head covering.
With so much disagreement over this issue, would it not be helpful if we could hear Paul himself tell us what he meant? Of course, we cannot do that but we can do the next best thing. We can know how the Corinthians themselves understood this passage. A leader in the early Church named Tertullian wrote a tractate entitled, “On the Veiling of Virgins,” around 200 AD (that is, about 150 years after Paul wrote First Corinthians), and he says that the women of the Corinthian church wore veils in response to Paul’s injunction, and were still doing so even in his day. He also says that the women in the churches founded by the apostles were still wearing veils. Tertullian’s testimony alone should settle the matter. (You can read Tertullian’s tractate at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0403.htm).
However, he also admits that the women in many of the churches in his day had stopped wearing a head covering. Why? Because the women in their culture no longer wore them. Does that argument sound familiar? These women did not want to stand out from the crowd.
“We are scandalized,” they say, “because others walk otherwise (than we do);” and they prefer being scandalized to being provoked (to modesty).
His response to this is “Good things scandalize none but an evil mind.” Being scandalized is not a good enough reason to disobey God. He asks, what if the evil ones are scandalized by virginity?
Are therefore chaste virgins to be, for the sake of these marketable creatures, dragged into the church, blushing at being recognised in public, quaking at being unveiled, as if they had been invited as it were to rape?
Of course not. The fear that a Christian woman would be “scandalized” or embarrassed if she wore a head covering in a culture in which the other women did not wear a head covering is not a good enough reason to disobey the Word of God.
He also points out “our Lord Christ has surnamed Himself Truth, not Custom.” Therefore, if custom is contrary to truth, truth should prevail. This does not mean that custom cannot determine the style of the head covering. For example, the Scriptures admonish women to dress modestly (1 Tim. 2:9-10), but the Scriptures do not require them to wear first century Middle Eastern clothing. But it does mean that custom does not determine whether or not we obey the Scriptures. When Paul says, “But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God,” he is using a Greek idiom which would be better stated as, “If anyone seems contentious by offering a custom other than this, we will not accept it because this is the only custom practiced by all of the churches.” Notice how Paul says that the practice of wearing a head covering was observed not just in Corinth, but by “the churches of God.”
Many people mistakenly argue that Paul told the Corinthian women to wear a head covering because if they did not, they would be confused with the prostitutes who ran rampant through the city. The temple of Aphrodite in Corinth, for example, was known to have 1000 prostitutes. This may have been true of the Greek city of Corinth, but that city was destroyed in 146 BC by the Romans who rebuilt the city as a Roman colony in 44 BC. The architecture of the Roman buildings clearly show prominent women of the city without coverings. What Paul was commanding the Corinthian women to do, therefore, was actually contrary to the Corinthian culture. This is why he appeals to timeless Nature (vv. 13-15) to support his argument, not to ever changing culture, and certainly not to the Corinthian culture of his time.
My response to the position that this passage only applied to the first century church is, “Then why is it in God’s eternal Word, which is meant to instruct all Christians for all time?” Paul mentions in 1 Cor. 5:9 an earlier epistle he had sent to the Corinthians, an epistle which the church did not keep because it was not inspired Scripture. Why did God not have Paul address this issue in that letter? Why did God make sure Paul addressed this issue in the inspired Word of God if it no longer applies to us?
I have even heard someone say that Paul refers to the wearing of a head covering as a “tradition” (v. 2), and since we are not to be bound by tradition, we are not obligated to observe this. When I think of “tradition,” I think it means “a continuing pattern of culture beliefs or practices.” Thus, it is a tradition to have turkey at Thanksgiving dinner because that is what our culture does. If Paul thought that this was a tradition in that sense, that it was something the churches did because it was the cultural thing to do, then perhaps we could say that we are not obligated to observe this since it is no longer a tradition in our culture. But then again, if so, why is it in the eternal Word of God?
“Tradition” also means “the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth or by practice.” We eat turkey at Thanksgiving because that is the custom that has been handed down to us. The Greek word used here is paradosis, which means “a giving over which is done by word of mouth or in writing, i.e. tradition by instruction, narrative, precept, etc.” “Tradition,” therefore, can be another word for “teaching.” The Corinthians practiced the custom of wearing a head covering because that is what they were taught to do.
A tradition, like any teaching, can be a good thing or a bad thing. It is true that Jesus chastised the Pharisees for allowing “the traditions of men” to supersede the Word of God (Mark 7:8). But the problem is not that they practiced traditions; it is that they practiced the traditions of men. Traditions that are handed down to us by the Word of God itself should be observed by Christians. Thus, Paul tells the Thessalonians, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thess. 2:15). He also commands them “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us” (2 Thess. 3:6). The wearing of a head covering is a tradition that has been handed down to us by the Word of God and should therefore be observed by Christian women everywhere.
Does that mean a Christian woman needs to wear a hat or a scarf or a veil? Some say that she does not have to do so because the man (whether her husband or her father or her pastor) is her covering because the man is her head. However, that means the man has a covering also, which is Christ, because Christ is his head. But Paul says it is a dishonor for a man to prophesy or to pray with his head covered (v. 4). Does that mean he must disavow Christ as his Lord before he can prophesy or pray? Of course not. This argument, therefore, is senseless.
Is long hair a sufficient covering? If so, then verses 5and 6 do not make sense. If long hair covers a woman, then having short hair (cut hair) or no hair at all (shaved head) means she is uncovered. So verse 5 would then mean, “But every woman who prays or prophesies with a shaved head dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved.” And verse 6 would then mean, “For if a woman has cut hair, let her also be shorn (let her hair be cut).” Obviously, those verses do not make sense if the woman’s covering is merely her long hair. What Paul does mean is,
But every woman with long hair who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman with long hair is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.
He means that the woman should have a covering in addition to her long hair. His argument is that Nature, by providing the woman with long hair as a covering (literally, a mantle or a veil), teaches us that she needs to have an additional covering on her head.
Where Tertullian got it wrong is that he, like so many others after him, makes it an issue concerning modesty. Paul’s mention of angels leads many to link this passage with Gen. 6:1-4, where the sons of God (presumably angels) were attracted by the beauty of the daughters of men. If the beauty of women could tempt angels, so the argument goes, then they should completely cover their heads so that they do not tempt men. But it is not certain that Paul had this story in mind. We can only speculate as to what he meant by “because of the angels.” It is also shameful for women to have shorn or shaved heads, says the argument, because the prostitutes in Corinth had shorn and shaved heads. But that is not the argument that Paul uses at all. He says that it is shameful for women to have shorn or shaved heads because it is their glory to have long hair. How long is long enough is a question he does not address, which probably means that each woman will have to ask God how long is long enough for her. Those who think this is about modesty naturally think that the woman should wear the covering all of the time, but Paul specifically says that she should wear it on only two occasions: while praying or prophesying.
The issue is not about modesty; it is about submitting to authority. This is the real reason why the women of our culture refuse to wear a covering. Paul starts the passage by reviewing the chain of command from God the Father down to the woman, who is last on the chain. He also says that the covering is a symbol of authority (v. 10). The purpose of the covering is to remind her that she is to submit herself to the authority above her, which is God the Father, Christ, and the man that God has placed over her.
Some have dismissed this issue as “a little thing,” as unimportant, that obeying it or disobeying it does not significantly change things, so why bother? Yet Jesus said, “He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much” (Luke 16:10). This is one reason why the Western Church is so ineffective. We are not faithful in the “little things.” Jesus is really not our Lord anymore. We choose what we will obey or disobey and then justify it. I have spoken to some of the women in my church about this issue, and yet they still do not wear a covering. I have also spoken to some of the husbands in my church about this, and yet their wives still do not wear a covering. I do not know if they spoke to their wives about this at all. That men are unwilling to make their wives wear a covering and are afraid to even broach the subject with them is a sign of just how weak Christian men have become.
If wearing a covering is about submitting to authority, then why does the woman not wear it all of the time? Is she not supposed to be submitted to her authority all of the time? Why does Paul say that she should wear it while praying or prophesying? I can only speculate, but perhaps she is to wear a covering at those times because spiritual forces are especially at work during those times and she is more prone to deception during those times. That is why, I think, Paul says, “because of the angels.” The covering reminds the spiritual forces that she is protected by God the Father, Christ, and the man who is her head.
Since prophesying can only be done in public, I assume that Paul also meant public praying. I could be wrong on that. I do not expect my wife to wear a covering during her personal prayer time, but she does wear one when we go to a place (such as worship service) where public praying is likely to happen.
Tertullian’s tractate is hard to read but worth it. He makes some interesting observations, such as:
Whatever savours of opposition to truth, this will be heresy, even (if it be an) ancient custom.
Herein consists the defense of our opinion, in accordance with Scripture, in accordance with Nature, in accordance with Discipline. Scripture founds the law; Nature joins to attest it; Discipline exacts it. Which of these (three) does a custom founded on (mere) opinion appear in behalf of? Or what is the color of the opposite view? God’s is Scripture; God’s is Nature; God’s is Discipline. Whatever is contrary to these is not God’s.
Another helpful website, though you might not agree with everything that is said there, is https://www.headcoveringmovement.com.
The Corinthian women wore head coverings in addition to their hair. That fact alone should settle the issue. The Scriptures do not specify the style of the covering or even how much of the head should be covered. The woman has some liberty in those areas. But she is required to wear a covering of some sort while praying or prophesying. The woman who refuses to do so can argue about tradition, custom, and culture all that she wants. Her real problem is that she is not submitting to authority, including the authority of the Word of God.