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

Hey Ladies: R.C Sproul wants you to cover your head! (and he’s got a whole movement behind him) July 11, 2013

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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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