An exposition of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16: The Head Covering


Let’s look again at the seven common views of these verses.

Viewpoint 1: As we have seen, those who say that women must always wear a head covering are inconsistent in allowing men to ever wear hats. This view also misses the symbolism of the hair and the extra covering during public worship.

Viewpoint 2: Those who say that Paul was only trying to get the Corinthians in line with a social custom that does not speak to our culture today are opening a Pandora’s Box. If we say that Paul’s instructions concerning the head covering are only about a social custom, even though he does not say so, then why can we not say that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are merely first-century social customs that do not speak to our times? In fact, if we allow this kind of picking and choosing without any internal, biblical evidence as to what is and what it is not a social custom , we can tear the Bible to shreds.

Further, those who promote this view often say they are supported by historical evidence. First, it is not historical evidence but the Bible that is to determine our beliefs and practice. But, second, the historical evidence is not on their side anyway. Some will say that Oriental women always wore a head covering, apparently not realizing that Corinth is in Greece, which is in Europe, not the Orient. Others say that only temple prostitutes in Corinth did not wear a head covering. While this may have been true about 200 years before Paul wrote, it was not true of Paul’s time. Extra biblical evidence shows that the Corinthian women of Paul’s day were influenced by Roman culture and likely did not always wear a head covering, even during religious services. The men, however, often did wear a head covering during pagan worship ceremonies. So Paul’s instructions, if they had any relationship to the prevailing culture, were counter to it. But, again, we must base our conclusions on the Bible, not extra-biblical evidence. And there is nothing in the Bible to indicate that Paul is telling the Corinthians to conform to their culture.

Viewpoint 3: Now that we have examined these verses, we can see that Paul says nothing in them to make us think he is addressing an issue of modesty. As even a Muslim author examining 1 Corinthians 11 on an Islamic website explains, the Islamic head covering is worn for modesty, but Paul teaches that Christian women are to cover their heads as “a sign of man’s authority over woman.” This author ends the article by asking, “Do any Christian women today cover their heads? It is true that most Christian women do not, and many don’t take other teachings of the Bible (against pre-marital sex, adultery, etc) literally either” (“The Veil in Christianity“). This is a sad commentary on our churches by an outsider. Once again, if we take the head covering command to be only cultural or an issue of modesty, we are doing nothing less than tearing down the authority of the Bible.

Viewpoint 4: Saying that Paul has only long hair in mind as a covering makes a hash of the verses in question, especially verses 5 and 6. This explanation simply does not stand up to close examination.

Viewpoint 5: Saying that Paul was teaching that women are to be silent in assembly (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), but, in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, permitted women to publicly pray and prophesy outside of the assembly as long as they cover their heads is not supported by the context. The context of verses 2-16 of 1 Corinthians 11 is the meeting of the saints. The Bible seems to indicate that those daughters, handmaidens, and virgins who had the gift to prophesy did so in a family context in their own homes. Certainly, the Bible never records or even mentions their prophecies.

Viewpoint 6: If Paul is saying that women should have their heads covered when speaking in public worship, but they should not be speaking in public worship anyway (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), then we must conclude that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is basically useless. This is completely inconsistent with the high view of Scripture that I hope most of us have. God does not inspire useless Scripture. If these verses are to make sense, then “praying or prophesying” must refer to something other than just speaking.

Viewpoint 7: There is only one view that fits all of the biblical evidence. In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul is teaching that men are to have their hair cut short and not wear a head covering during church meetings. Women are to have long hair as an ordinary covering, but are to put on an additional covering during public worship. The man’s head is to be uncovered because, being made first, he is the glory of God. The woman is to have long hair (not shorn close) as a sign of her submission to man. Because her hair is her glory and because she is man’s glory, during the Christian assembly, she is to wear an additional covering over her hair. In this way, man’s glory–the woman–is covered, and God’s glory–the man–is uncovered. The head of the woman is the man, the head of the man is Christ, and the head of Christ is God. In not following these instructions, we are ultimately dishonoring Christ and God. Because the relationship between the man and the woman is typical of the relationship between Christ and the church, this covering of man’s glory and uncovering of God’s glory is typical of the church not glorifying itself, but submitting to and glorifying its head, Jesus Christ.

The head covering, therefore, is a remarkable sign of Jesus Christ’s headship over the church. Those who see the head covering as only a relic from a bygone or far-away culture or as a matter of modesty or as a legalistic dress code or merely as the hair are missing its profound meaning. Being careful to follow Paul’s instructions concerning the head covering is no more outdated or legalistic than following the biblical instructions concerning baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

But, some may still ask, does not God look upon the heart and not the outward appearance? It is true that God looks on the heart, but the attitude of the heart is reflected in our willingness to obey. We cannot fool God. He knows the motives behind our outward actions. The motive must be right, but so should the outward actions. If we are unwilling to do what the Bible says we should, there is something wrong inwardly.

We certainly should not be whitened sepulchers, giving only an outward appearance of righteousness. This is hypocrisy. It is certainly possible for a woman to wear a head covering and not be submissive to her husband’s God-given authority. But it is also possible for someone to be baptized and regularly take the Lord’s Supper and be a hypocrite. Should we, then, all stop being baptized and eating the Lord’s Supper so as not to appear to be hypocrites? Of course not!

I have no doubt that there are many converted, God-fearing women attending church without a head covering. But I suspect that the reason is that they are unaware of the meaning of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and may even have been taught a wrong understanding of this passage. If they are taught and accept the truth about the head covering, their inward attitude will be reflected in their outward conformity to Paul’s inspired instructions.

I know of Christians who see the head covering as a practice followed by people they consider to be spiritually weak and fearful. I hope that this article shows the case to be the opposite. It takes faith and courage to honor the Lord by wearing something as conspicuous as a head covering, especially when no one else in your church is doing so. It takes no courage to blend in with the culture of the day and say the head covering is outdated.

There are sovereign grace preachers who are cautious to baptize only proper subjects using the right mode. They are careful about whom they administer the Lord’s Supper to and the elements they use. But when the head covering is mentioned, they dismiss it as cultural or say the hair is the covering and then emphasize that they preach only Jesus Christ and Him crucified. But having a proper emphasis on the central message of the Gospel does not mean that we should forsake conducting our meetings according to biblical instructions.

It is my sincere prayer that this article will cause Christians to see that the Bible teaches that women are to wear a head covering in the assembly. I also pray that pastors will reexamine this issue, see that the Bible teaches the head covering, and lovingly and patiently reintroduce this beautiful picture of the submission of the church to Jesus Christ our Lord.

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