An exposition of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

The Head Covering

Peter Ditzel

When I think back to my boyhood and teenage years in the 1950s and 1960s, I recall the effect of what seemed to be an unquestioned practice among women. Looking forward from any pew (except the very front row), in any church (my parents visited a number of churches); my view was that of ladies' hats, large and small, and sometimes scarves. Women never entered the meeting without their heads covered, just as men universally removed their hats. Was this merely a social custom of the mid-twentieth century? Or does the Bible tell us that women should cover their heads, and men uncover their heads, during meetings of the church?

That by the mid-twentieth century, most people saw this as only a social custom can probably be assumed. After all, most women at that time wore hats whenever they got dressed up to go out. So, when women's hats went out of fashion in general, they also disappeared from most churches. This, I propose, was because those churches had several decades earlier stopped teaching the truth of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. They had allowed an entire generation of congregants to grow up thinking that women wearing hats to church meetings was merely a matter of style, not Scriptural command.

My purpose in writing this article is not to cause controversy and division in the church. But I think it is a shame that so many of even the best churches—churches that center on Jesus Christ, the Cross, man’s inability and God’s sovereignty in salvation—have missed the opportunity to obey a New Testament command with, as we shall see, such beautiful meaning. I hope to encourage the reintroduction of a practice that is soundly Scriptural.

This topic is addressed in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. The method of this article will be to expound these verses. In doing so, I do not intend to interrupt the simple exposition I am going to give by quoting what so-and-so's opinion was about head coverings. Nevertheless, before starting the exposition, I believe it will be helpful to note that there are at least seven common viewpoints promulgated concerning these verses. They are:

Viewpoint 1: The head covering of 1 Corinthians 11:2-13 was a covering in addition to the hair (addressed in verses 14-15), is still to be worn today, and is to be worn all the time. This is the belief of Mennonites and some other groups.

Viewpoint 2: Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, was dealing with a cultural issue that applied only to his time, and, perhaps, only to the Corinthian church.

Viewpoint 3: The head covering was a matter of modest dress. Like the view above, what is at issue is a social custom. In Paul’s day, it was immodest for a woman to have her head uncovered. Because such standards change in time and place, western women do not need to wear a head covering today because it is not an essential part of dressing modestly in our society.

Viewpoint 4: Paul is only addressing proper hair length. The covering for women is long hair. Men are to have no covering (short hair).

Viewpoint 5: As he explains in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, women are to be silent in church. So, in 1 Corinthians 11:2-6, Paul is saying that women can say public prayers and prophesy outside of church as long as they cover their heads.

Viewpoint 6: These verses are really only the beginning of a rebuke Paul is making about the conduct of women in the Corinthian church. The remarks continue in chapter 14, verses 34 and 35. What Paul is really saying, according to this theory, is something like this: Shame on you, Corinthian church! You have let your women speak in public without covering their heads. This shamed you in front of the surrounding community. What’s more, you should not have let them speak in public in the first place. Women are to be silent in church. According to this view, Paul spent fifteen verses explaining the proper use of head coverings in chapter 11 only to say in two verses in chapter 14 that it is all unnecessary because the women are to remain silent anyway and, therefore, do not need head coverings.

Viewpoint 7: The head covering of 1 Corinthians 11:2-13 was a covering in addition to the hair (addressed in verses 14-15), is still to be worn by Christian women today, and is to be worn during times of public worship. Paul’s instructions for the covering of the woman’s head and the uncovering of the man’s head during worship were not based on the custom of the times but on the Scriptures.

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