Hey Ladies: R.C Sproul wants you to cover your head! (and he’s got a whole movement behind him)

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The other night, a friend from our adoption small group posted a link on Facebook that practically gave my wife and I palpitations. The link was to the “Head Covering Movement”, which is a new Christian Fundamentalist movement attempting to stave off the movement of gender equality within Christianity.

Instead of sticking to traditional fundamentalist methods of persuasion by force and shaming within their own congregations, this movement is beginning to utilize the full-force of modern media with a relatively well-made website, Facebook account, twitter handle, and YouTube channel.

The “Head Covering Movement” (yes, it’s a real movement) is calling for all Christian women to return to the ancient practice of covering their heads during worship, calling this a “neglected doctrine”. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be your ordinary rogue movement as they are able to boast of the theological support of popular teacher R.C Sproul on their front page. Sproul states:

“The wearing of fabric head coverings in worship was universally the practice of Christian women until the twentieth century. What happened? Did we suddenly find some biblical truth to which the saints for thousands of years were blind? Or were our biblical views of women gradually eroded by the modern feminist movement that has infiltrated the Church…”

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Which is where we see what this is really about: a growing number of fundamentalists are concerned that perhaps, women are beginning to be accepted as somehow co-equal (some Trinitarian lingo for you) to men. Gender equality, especially gender equality in church, presents a threat to male dominated power and control… and well, we certainly can’t have that, can we?

Just think of the madness that would occur if we started letting women serve in roles commensurate with their calling, talents, and gifting. All hell would break loose. Before you know it they might even want to start having a voice in their home finances, have a career of their own, or actually teach adult Sunday School instead of being relegated to the nursery. There’s no telling what could happen.

Best way to swash the movement in some churches? Bring back archaic practices that re-enforce the notion that they are inferior to men, and remind them of their inferiority every time they step into church by forcing them to dress differently than the men.

Brilliant idea. Although, deeply, deeply broken (a subtle Steve McCoy reference).

Besides the obvious motivation to combat the impacts of gender equality, this movement is deeply flawed theologically- making some of the same critical mistakes so many people do when reading scripture. Here’s where they missed the boat:

First, the head covering movement presupposes that all of the Pauline letters were written as “open letters”, as if they were addressed:

“To All Christians: both now, and in generations to come, this letter is for you- a blanket decree for all cultures”

This, simply isn’t the case. All of the epistles in the New Testament were written by a specific author to a specific audience. The primary meaning of the text is what it meant to them. However, aspects of American culture which tell us “it’s all about me” have blended into our way of reading scripture in such a way that we approach the text as if it were written directly to us- in our time, in our culture. To read scripture in this way, misses the depth and beauty of it, and makes idolatrous use of the text by placing “me” at the center.

timthumbIf you read the text from an American mindset without doing any historical exegesis, you end up with crappy theology. Not just crappy theology, but crappy theology which subjugates women.

However, if we stop placing ourselves at the center of the text and dig a little deeper, we discover that this passage commanding head covering might have actually been practical and pro-woman in the original context.

While there are certainly scholars on opposite ends of the spectrum, I have found the most compelling historical exegesis to be the following:

The culture Paul was speaking into, hair and head coverings had massively different connotations than in our current culture almost 2,000 years later. In this culture, a woman’s hair was a sexual symbol with links to pagan beliefs on fertility. Covering one’s hair would have been seen as a sign of self-respect and modesty, as one was modestly covering a part of their body that had sexual connotations. Additionally, some scholars argue that the only women in this culture who didn’t cover their heads were prostitutes, or slaves.

 In light of historical and cultural considerations, we could conclude:

Head covering helped people focus in church on what mattered, instead of getting distracted- a theme Paul takes on several times in the NT and fits nicely within a proper understanding of Pauline theology. If hair really was a compelling sexual symbol, as some have argued it was, covering it in church would make as much sense as asking women not to show up to church today topless. In this regard, it becomes completely reasonable and practical- I would have a hard time paying attention in church if I looked across the room to see everyone topless. What appears to be a verse that subjugates women may be as simple as a rule that, 2,000 years ago, made having a corporate worship service practical without distractions.

Additionally, if not wearing a head covering was common among prostitutes, this verse becomes even more beautiful. Prostitutes, in all cultures, tend to be treated like subhuman, consumable products, instead of people. In that light, this verse becomes:

“Hey Ladies- you are wonderfully, and beautifully made. You are not a product, but a person. Please don’t even dress like a consumable product, because I don’t want anyone to treat you that way.”

This new movement, completely disregards any historical context to the Corinthians passage. As a result, this verse is being misapplied to a new cultural context in an abusive, demeaning way in an attempt to squash the modern gender-equality movement. All we need do is look to their own “testimonials” to see the type of mentality they are trying to create.

 Meet Melissa Walker, one of the movement’s happy converts.

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Unfortunately, by way of introduction, we see where the ethos of this movement is headed. Melissa’s self introduction is: “Hello, my name is Melissa. I am a help-meet to my wonderful husband Jason…”

Yes, her primary identity is “help-meet”. Other testimonials begin similar ways- their identity coming from their husbands and not their own selves.

I’m not knocking the idea of being a help-meet. My wife and I are partners in life, and I’m a help-meet to her, and she’s a help-meet to me. But I would be mortified if she were simply introduced as my “help-meet”, because she’s MORE than that. She’s a wonderful clinician, program manager, family manager, financial manager… she’s full of all kinds of wonderful qualities, abilities, and God-given gifting.

And, I’m sure Melissa is too. But we don’t see that from her introduction- because this movement is clearly aimed at beating back the tide of biblical gender-equality, and they’re willing to use whatever crappy theology will enable them to do it.

I’m sure my readers haven’t been duped by this new movement, but if you have- or know someone who has (please share this with them) as a reminder that:

You are wonderfully and beautifully made. You are nobody’s product, you are a person. You have unique talents, abilities, and God-given gifting– and I want you to go out there and use those talents and abilities to love the world.

Because that’s what Jesus would tell you.




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About Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. He is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Theology & Missiology), is currently a 3rd year Doctor of Missiology student (a subset of practical theology) at Fuller Seminary, and is a member of the Phi Alpha Chi Honors Society. His first book, Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, is available now at your local bookstore. He is also a contributor for Time, Sojourners, Red Letter Christians, Evangelicals for Social Action, Mennonite World Review, has been a guest on Huffington Post Live, and is one of the CANA Initiators. Ben is also a syndicated author for MennoNerds, a collective of Mennonite and Anabaptist writers. Ben is also co-host of That God Show with Matthew Paul Turner. Ben lives in Auburn, Maine with his wife Tracy and his daughter Johanna.

You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

  • http://emerginganabaptist.com Ryan Robinson

    In my university years there was a Plymouth Brethren Church right near campus. I went there one day with a friend as part of doing a general tour of some churches in the area. There was a communion service before the main one, where in the communion service men stood up and told testimonies or things God has been saying to them. It could have been seriously powerful if it wasn’t for the fact that I kept looking at all the women in the room with their head coverings on being completely silent. I kept wanting to stand up and yell “Break free! The Gospel is better than this!” I restrained myself but I could not bring myself to stay for the main service.

    My wife, before I knew her, also had an encounter there once. Her cousin went there and invited her to a young adults group. My wife being the amazing woman she is asked questions. In front of the men. She was escorted to the pastor’s office and given pamphlets explaining why she was supposed to submit to teaching in silence, wear the head covering, etc. She also didn’t ever go back.

  • http://gratituesday.blogspot.com Jill Roper

    I am a brand new reader, somehow finding you on a post about adoption on fb. I embrace the LORD as my ABBA. He has rescued me from the pit of hell. I will be forever grateful for the work on the cross. I am truly saved by grace. What might surprise you is my attire. I actually wear cape dresses and cover. I am the only one I know who does this and have for about 5 years now. I am not oppressed and I am a full partner with my husband. I have brains and a mouth and use them, not always at the same time! I chose to cover because I felt the LORD was asking me to humble myself and honor him with my covering. Because of the angels I feel like it symbolizes the protection that God affords me. I worship at a church of Christ and I guarantee I am the only one. I love being feminine and want to embrace how God created me. I NEVER force my calling on anyone else. I was obedient to a call no matter the consequences. People have been very kind to me. I am a happy soul because I am a child of God. So if ever see me or anyone like me please feel free to ask why I do what I do. I am a grace filled child of God who choses to cover. Hope that makes sense.

    P>S. I blog about being a midwife and have written about adoption which we did multiple times for similar reasons as you. God bless you in your walk and in your ministry here.

    In Christ Alone

  • http://www.formerlyfundie.com Benjamin L. Corey

    Thanks for the comment Jill– if you’re wearing one by personal choice, and by personal conviction, I say go for it!

  • Terry Firma

    I don’t know whether to admire or rue your faith if it entails being even remotely on the same ideological page as these people. OK, not the same page — but let’s say, metaphorically, in the same chapter in the same book…

    I get believing in a Creator (although I don’t). What I don’t get is organized religion, because even the good and sweet and kind Christians I know are just a random doctrine or two removed from misogynist shitbags like these, and from all manner of Bible-lovin’ racists, bullies, exploiters, child rapists, and all manner of other hypocrites.

    Thanks for writing about this — I had no idea…

  • orland

    “for ye are all sons of God through the faith in Christ Jesus, for as many as to Christ were baptized did put on Christ; there is not here Jew or Greek, there is not here servant nor freeman, there is not here male and female, for all ye are one in Christ Jesus; and if ye are of Christ then of Abraham ye are seed, and according to promise—heirs.” (Galatians 3:26–29, YLT)

  • Dean Carroll

    This post brings back old memories! My ex-wife wore a head covering to worship early in our marriage (a friend of hers wore one ALL of the time…and a floor length skirt…at her husband’s insistence!) Our church, did not require this, but as Fundamentalist and Reformed churches major on minor issues anyway, there was no little controversy about it. But, while insisting on the head-covering for several years, my wife became increasingly disrespectful and unkind towards me, finally even pretending I was not really present in a room with her! Eventually, she left the head-covering…and the marriage…behind. Whatever Paul meant by the “covering” comment, most churches have interpreted as pertaining to a woman’s hair. Your blog is appreciated! Deano in Cincy

  • gimpi1

    I have to say, as an outsider, this kind of things just drives us further away. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, if a church really cares about spreading the Good News, don’t do this. Trying to slam 2000 year-old apparel customs (and that’s all this is) down the throats of 21st century women will get you laughed at and ignored, and you will deserve it. Telling women that they must sit in the back of the bus, not speak, not exercise their gifts, not hold any authority will have you regarded as flakes and extremists and you will deserve it.

    If you care about your witness, stop with this foolishness, and concentrate on what you claim is you core-mission.

    Ben, thanks for covering (pun intended) this. Someone needs to call this kind of thing out from the inside.

  • Pingback: Christian Fundies Find Another Thing to Get Upset About: Uncovered Female Heads()

  • donna harris

    Hi…I love God..I don’t cover my hair. My husband does not have short hair, and he loves the Lord as well. I take God at His word..that He will judge me. Truthfully, I don’t think wearing a covering is as important as say….showing my love by my actions towards others, how I treat people..do I try to behave in a way that would make God say..Well…you didn’t wear a head covering ..but you fed My Sheep..You are loved.

    Simple isn’t it?

  • Dean Carroll

    Donna, et al;

    When you are dealing with a Fundamentalist mindset, “If the Bible says it, that settles it,” regardless of whether one actually understands a Bible verse, considers its cultural or contextual significance or implications. Your point is well taken: putting something on one’s head seems completely inconsistent with the spiritual and ethical nature of being a Christian…and petty. Deano

  • Peter Gardner

    For about nineteen and a half centuries, Christian women* everywhere covered their heads, to some degree, in church as a matter of course. However, our modern culture is rather anomalously anti-hat. What before was a matter of men being required to remove their hats in church would turn into women being required to put on something.

    Perhaps in fifty years, hats will be fashionable, and people will be talking about how sexist it is that some churches are insisting that men take off their hats.

    *What counts as, for lack of a better term, “woman enough” to cover in church has varied widely, in many times and places, from married adult women only, to anyone female and old enough to leave the house.

  • http://www.dirtydiaperchic.com laura g

    I really like this post (and your whole blog, which I only recently found. as a recovering fundie myself) and especially like what you said about Paul’s letters and how they are misinterpreted. But I’m having a hard time with the pro-woman interpretation of the head coverings. I mean, any time someone is telling women: dress this way because MEN! That isn’t very pro-woman. It is actually pro-telling women what to do, making them responsible for men’s behavior, and ultimately putting the blame on them for any actions men do/don’t take as a result of their dress (hashtag, modesty culture). I’m not advocating public nudity, I’m just saying when you put it entirely on women to follow some relativistic standard of dress because, the poor little men and their distraction. eh. not so much. I’d consider it pro-woman if Paul were like, hey guys. Chill out about women’s heads. modesty is a cultural construct, we can’t keep redefining it and expecting women to say, “how high!” every time we say “cover up!” Lets just try to respect ourselves and each other, how about that?

    Also, this: “Prostitutes, in all cultures, tend to be treated like subhuman, consumable products, instead of people. In that light, this verse becomes: “Hey Ladies- you are wonderfully, and beautifully made. You are not a product, but a person. Please don’t even dress like a consumable product, because I don’t want anyone to treat you that way.”

    It’d be way more pro-woman if Paul were like, Hey everybody, you are wonderfully, and beautifully made. And I don’t want anyone to treat ANYONE like a consumable product. No matter what they do or how they dress. got it? good.

    It would be analogous to saying, people treat black people badly in this country. I don’t want anyone to treat you badly. So don’t dress like a black person. No hoodies, etc. I mean, uh??? How about we just stop treating black people badly. Let’s start there, you know?

  • http://www.formerlyfundie.com Benjamin L. Corey

    Thanks for the comment Laura– those are some good thoughts. I agree, we must not put the responsibility on women to curb male behavior– male’s need to curb male behavior.

    I hope Paul’s heart was more of what you describe– my own attempts, are just attempts, and will perhaps still fall short. The writings of Paul create a lot of tension, which can make them challenging to wrestle with.

    I’m glad you found the blog! Look forward to continuing to interact.


  • Rachel

    Regarding the inset photo and Mr. Murray’s comment: “Nature” did not give men short hair. Scissors. Scissors are what gives men short hair. Just sayin’.

  • Benita Bylicki

    I love the post by Jill Roper. I am like Jill, I cover daily, and when I was a part of the Mennonite Community I did wear a cape dress and I wore a kapp. When I moved there was no community for me, and through much prayer and research, I discovered the Eastern Orthodox Church, whom also dress modestly and wear a head covering. Some wear them daily, others wear them for prayer and church only. I started to cover after being convicted by scriptures to do so and have been for about ten years now. I have no regrets. Yes because I wear a veiling I am mistaken at times for a nun and gently and politely say no I am not, but thanks for the compliment. I am happy there is a movement for women to return to the roots of biblical principles, and I am sorry if some of the modernists out there somehow feel its a return to oppression of women. I am a widowed now, but just prior to my husbands death, I started to cover, dress modestly and also followed the principals of submission, making my husband the head of the home, with me and the children under him and Christ. It changed our lives dramatically in our marriage, and I am so happy I did. Submission does not mean doormat, it does not mean oppression. Submission is honoring your husband and allowing him to take the role of the leader of the home. I hope and pray that especially in these days we live, that more and more women return to Biblical Womanhood, our families are much happier when living according to scripture and not the world.