Should women cover their heads in church?

Should women cover their heads in church? July 12, 2013


The latest movement in neo-patriarchal evangelicaldom is a call for women to return to covering their heads in worship per the instructions of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11. The movement’s website features a quote from neo-Calvinist scholar R.C. Sproul: “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…?” Do you think Sproul is right? If not, what would you say to Sproul and on what authority would you justify your response?

The head-covering movement breaks down their argument into four pieces according to Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians. I don’t think you can wiggle out of their argument if you have a flat view of Biblical interpretation and you disallow the “cultural context” card. So here are the four arguments:

1) Creation Order
“For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man” (1 Corinthians 11:7). The first reason for women to cover their heads is to show that men are superior to women, according to Paul’s anthropology. They are not merely complementarian (“equal with different roles”), according to this verse. If man is the glory of God and woman is the glory of man, then man is an intermediary of God to woman. This verse expresses hierarchy unequivocally; I don’t see any other way to understand it.

If you accept Paul’s word here uncritically without allowance for translation into a different cultural context, then you should leave whatever church you’re a part of and find out how to become a satellite of Mark Driscoll’s church, because this is what he teaches. Paul goes on to say in verses 8-9: “Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.” So understand, women, that according to Paul (at least for the sake of this particular argument), you exist for the sake of men.

2) The Angels
“Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels” (1 Corinthians 11:10). Now this is a little bizarre to me. What do angels have to do with it? The woman writing for the head-covering site turns to Ephesians 3:10 for an explanation: “So that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places,” saying that the “rulers and authorities” are another word for angels. The writer imagines what the angels see when they see men’s shiny bald spots and women’s doo-rags in worship together from heaven:

They see males and females worshiping together as equals. On top of all that through head coverings our women show all present that their position as a woman is also redeemed. No longer are they at war usurping and longing for the mans position of authority (Gen 3:16). Instead they’re content in the role God ordained for them in Genesis 2.

The problem with this sentence is that exemplifies the tortured logic of complementarianism. No, men and women aren’t “worshiping together as equals” in this arrangement. Paul made it clear in 1 Corinthians 11: the head-covering is not intended to express different but equal, but superior and inferior. You can’t have it both ways. What about Galatians 3:28 where it says “there is no longer male and female”? If Galatians 3:28 and 1 Corinthians 11 are of equal weight, then we are at an unresolvable impasse, because Galatians 3:28 contradicts everything that Paul has just said in 1 Corinthians 11:7-9. (That’s why I say Galatians 3:28 is the universal while 1 Corinthians 11 is the pastorally contextual, but anyway…)

By the way, the writer advances a completely eisegetical interpretation of Genesis 3:16, which has nothing to say about women longing for the man’s position of authority: “To the woman he said, I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” The most straightforward interpretation of this sentence is that the woman’s desire for her husband is the cause of his ruling over her, i.e. that their relationship hierarchy is a reflection of the curse of sin.

3) Nature
“Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him?” 1 Corinthians 11:13-14. If Paul’s view of “nature” is prescriptively binding upon us as believers today, then any male youth pastor who has ever had long, nappy hair for the sake of “relevance” has degraded himself.

Interestingly and unsurprisingly, the head-covering site supports its argument by going to another place in Paul’s letters where he talks about what’s “natural” and what isn’t — the infamous anti-gay clobber verse of Romans 1:26-27: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.” Basically, the argument of the head-covering site is that if you’re going to accept Paul’s view of “nature” as prescriptively binding on the homosexuality issue, then you have to accept it on the head-covering and gender hierarchy issue too. I agree with them.

4) Church Practice
“If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16). The writer of the website explains that she thought this verse let her off the hook for wearing head-coverings along the lines of Paul’s counsel to believers about not being contentious over “disputable matters” in Romans 14. But when she connects verse 16 with verse 2 (“I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you”), she concludes that Paul is saying there is no other church in which women don’t cover their heads to pray.

She uses this verse to stave off the escape hatch that some conservative evangelical women try to deploy with the alleged Corinthian temple prostitution that might be behind these teachings:

Some argue that Paul commanded women to practice head coverings because if they didn’t they may be identified with the temple prostitutes in Corinth who didn’t wear one. However, in  verse 16 Paul shows that this goes beyond Corinth and is the practice of all churches, everywhere. Just think geographically of the churches that were in existence at this time: Corinth, Phillipi, Thessalonica, Ephesus, Iconium, Caesarea, Antioch and many more. They all practiced head coverings. All these churches have a mixture of Jews and Gentiles fellowshipping in them and are from different cultures. They are spread out geographically over thousands of miles over such places as modern day Israel, Turkey & Greece. Yet, they all hold to the same Christian doctrine regarding head coverings. How can such unity be accounted for except the church understanding head coverings as a command for all Christians?

So what do you think? Has she convinced you? If you are a Biblical inerrantist without anything governing your Biblical interpretation other than the “self-interpreting” text itself, then you’d better go buy a hijab before Sunday. As for me, I have several lenses that I use by which I evaluate all the nuts and bolts instructions that I read in the Bible.

1) “I desire mercy not sacrifice.”
Hosea 6:6 is the only Old Testament verse that Jesus quotes twice in the same gospel, in Matthew 9:13 and Matthew 12:7. In both cases, Jesus is defending people who are being judged by Bible-quoting Pharisees, first Matthew’s party guests and then his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath.

It will require a book to talk about all the implications of mercy not sacrifice, but here’s my best paragraph summary. When I see the greater arc of scripture through this lens, it seems to me that God is saying that He does not need us to act in a certain way or abstain from certain things for the abstract sake of honoring him, which would be sacrifice. It is rather that all of God’s instructions concerning our holiness shape our hearts so that we can embody the mercy He wants to make sovereign over all of us, which is best exemplified in the instinctive actions of Jesus’ paradigmatic merciful figure, the Good Samaritan. One verse that corroborates seeing this as the purpose of God’s teaching is what Jesus says in Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Or Ephesians 2:10: “For we are His poetry, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” I could add about twenty other proof-texts but I’m not going to.

To make Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11 into a universal prescription for all Christians at all times seems to me to affirm sacrifice instead of mercy; it’s saying that God has an order with which He created things that we just need to follow without any other sanctifying reason for doing so. Ultimately I understand God to be a pragmatist; everything He commands of us is for a real loving purpose, not merely to be decorations who “know their place” on His well-ordered shelf. Scripture bears witness to the way that religion is most abused by those for whom mercy has no place in God’s purpose, who make it instead all about God’s honor. Many evils have been committed for the sake of abstract honor (google honor killing, for example). That’s why God makes it clear through Jesus that He desires mercy not sacrifice.

2) “Love God; love your neighbor”
Since Jesus said that all the law and prophets hang on the two commandments to love God and love your neighbor, St. Augustine concluded in his De Doctrina Christiana that unless we can explain how a particular teaching increases love of God or neighbor, we do not understand it well enough to apply it in practice. The challenge with this lens is that it can be immediately tossed aside by saying, “Well, if you love God, then you’ll do what His book says to do” (according to whatever is its most straightforward, “self-interpreting,” presupposed to be universal meaning). When you use that logic, you’re in effect saying that interpretation itself is unloving to God.

So in order for the Great Commandment to actually function as an interpretive lens in the sense in which Augustine suggested, I need to be able to explain how a particular Biblical teaching increases my love of God or neighbor, or if I’m going to claim that it isn’t universally applicable, I need to have an account for why it was a love God, love neighbor issue in its original pastoral context. And if you’re going to say that everything in the Bible is universally prescriptive, then you’d better find some rattlesnakes to play with (Mark 16:18).

Love of God has to do with worship, which I understand to be most purely delighting in God for His own sake. This involves purifying myself of the tendency to “worship” as an act of performance in which I am doing it “to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:5), to feel a sense of superiority and self-justification for myself, or to win favor from a God whom I do not trust to have already loved me unconditionally.

Worshiping God also requires smashing every other idol in my life that I make into a god, including individual Biblical teachings that are being overemphasized to the detriment of the Bible’s overall witness. Now here an interesting issue comes up. I see us living through a time in which “traditional gender” has become an idol among the conservative evangelicals.

I recognize that there are very real problems with sexuality in our culture that we need to defend ourselves against. But when girls have to wear extra-large t-shirts and shorts over their bathing suits to go to church youth swimming parties, their bodies are being fetishized in a way that goes far beyond an earnest desire for holiness. This fetishization not only interferes with girls’ ability to worship God fully without shame; it consumes the attention of the church community in all sorts of demon-attracting ways. With regard to the question of head-coverings, I worry that head-coverings in our context of idolized “traditional gender” would serve to reinforce that idol and take worship away from God, putting the focus instead on our performance of “traditional gender.”

Now the other side of the Great Commandment is love of neighbor. In Paul’s 1st century context, if uncovered hair had an erotic connotation, then for women to cover their heads in church would be a loving thing to do for the sake of men in the community. But in the context of today’s neo-patriarchal movement, the “love your neighbor” implications of such teachings have proven to be quite different, and tragically so.

We have seen report after report in the last few years of sexual abuse that occurs in neo-patriarchal churches with impunity as a direct result of the power dynamics created when bareheaded men have all the authority and covered-up women don’t. If the reason for women to cover their heads is to make it clear that men have all the authority, then the head-covering itself serves to reinforce the implicit teaching that when Deacon Bobby touches you, you don’t do or say anything that would disrespect his authority.

So the universal use of Paul’s teaching fails both the love God and love neighbor criteria for me, though it fulfills both in the particular pastoral context of 1st century Corinth. Since all scripture is supposed to be “useful [see the pragmatism] for teaching and making disciples,” that simply means that we need to translate Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11 into our context. To translate the “problem” of 1st century women letting down their hair into our context means to me that men and women both should think about how we can dress in such a way that will maximize the love of God and neighbor when we gather for worship.

We need to recognize that there are a variety of possibilities for interpretation here. Should we dress drably for the sake of humility or beautifully for the sake of creating an ambiance of delight in God? Should we dress informally to show hospitality to the outsider or elegantly so that we will enter more deeply into the holiness of the space? I don’t think that establishing hard and fast rules is the point so much as being prayerful and loving in deciding how you can balance delighting in God through your fashion with avoiding a distraction for others. And if you look at 1 Corinthians 11 and conclude that you need to wear a hijab, I won’t judge you.

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