Should women cover their heads in church?


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.

33 thoughts on “Should women cover their heads in church?

  1. Pingback: What is the burden of proof in the #Methodist #homosexuality debate? | Mercy not Sacrifice

  2. I practiced headcovering for close to 15 years. I can tell you this: the fruit of it is not good. It leads to legalism and in many cases stems from it. It is an explanation that excludes women from the full grace of God. It is based on an idea that there is something fundamentally less or weaker or shameful about women (which is why so many are buying into it again) There are many many many many other interpretations for these verses, and many if not most of them are plausible in the overarching context of the Bible, of the message of redemption and grace, including a simple argument of logic (If a is true then B is true, but A is NOT true so B is not true, etc) I went back to the verse for Spirit led pondering after 10 years of spiritual stagnation. when i humbled myself and went before God, he first and foremost showed me that my clinging to this practice was because I was clinging to the idea that there was “something” i could do to be more worthy of him. in other words the headcovering became an idol to me. thus the spiritual stagnation. going to church without a headcovering for the first time in 15 years was incredibly stressful and at the same time so liberating. the minute i took it off, i felt naked and exposed. i took that to God. he showed me that I felt that way because I felt that I received safety and protection from the piece of cloth. this is a dead give away i was not relying on him. I should probably start a blog on personal experience, but i can tell you this- I was blessed by an overflow of the Holy Spirit in my life when i left it behind.

  3. I think you did a good job on this topic. You did a good job both on describing the arguments and providing the responses. Of course, there is a lot more in view here than head coverings and I think you brought that out very well.

  4. Have you studied the point that this passage may not have been original or written by Paul. I know Bart Erhman says its not in the original manuscripts, but I have never seen the source for this.

  5. John C. Wright has been writing an interesting series tracing his conversion from militant atheism. Part 9, today, is relevant to Sproul’s argument:

    So I set myself the task of discovering the date of the apostasy.

    Working backward, the date of the apostasy had to be before the Council of Trent, since that was the Council to which the Protestant princes refused to submit.

    One possible date is after the Fall of Rome, and the end of Imperial secular power in the West, for then the rise of the secular power of bishops of the Church would be claimed as the source of corruption. But this is not a dispute of doctrine. Even when the most outrageous of Borgia Popes or Avignon Antipopes occupied the Chair of Peter, none taught doctrines in contradiction to the received teaching, and no innovations date from that time.

    Another possible date is in the Tenth Century. But surely the Apostasy of the Church was prior to this, for otherwise the Reformers would have conjoined with the Orthodox Church, adopted the noncentralized form of Church government, and accepted their doctrine regarding the Filioque controversy—unless this is also an apostasy. If so, then both the Western and the Eastern Churches alike lost their authority to teach Christian doctrine at least by that time.

    For the same reason, any Reformer putting the last date of the Primitive Church in the Sixth, Fifth, and Fourth Centuries likewise must cojoin with the Nestorian and Monophysite Churches, or revive the claims of the Arians and Donatists; or else he must reject those schisms as heretical while also rejecting the authority of the orthodox Church to declare them heretics.

    And yet all mainstream Protestant denominations accept the findings of the Ecumenical Councils of Nicaea and Ephesus as valid and authoritative: If so, the Church retained her teaching authority at least by those dates.

    The dates earlier than this become, for reasons I have herebefore mentioned, increasingly fantastic and absurd: some date the apostasy with the date of the ascension of Constantine to the purple; others to some point within the Patristic period of the Antenicene Fathers; others to scriptural times (in which case the New Testament itself is suspect, and cannot be used as the touchstone to detect heresy); and at least one denomination claims that the Apostles never had the great commission nor authority to teach the teachings of Christ, nor to baptize laity, nor to anoint clerics.

    The insurmountable difficulty with placing the date of Apostasy between the First and the Sixth Century is that it leaves all early heretical doctrines after this early date, from Gnosticism to Docetism, to Manicheanism to Donatism, to Arianism and Semi-Arianism, to Pelagianism to Nestorianism, Eutychianism as equally authoritative and valid as the Orthodox Church doctrine in defining Christianity.

    But placing the date of apostasy after the Sixth Century means that the Church was still the Primitive Church at that time, and was correct to anathematize Monophystism, and did so as a correct application of her authority.

    But this admission is fatal to Calvinism and other Protestant sects who hold that Christ died for the salvation of the Elect alone, with all others pre-destined inescapably to eternal death, for this is the doctrine called Predestinarianism, the work of a heretic called Godeschalcus, who flourished one hundred years before the Monophysites and two hundred before the Monothelites.

    Like their heresies, the opinions of Godeschalcus were examined by the clerical legal and theological process of the time, and found to be incompatible with Christian teaching, and duly anathematized.

    If this process was lawful and guided by the Holy Spirit, that it is the duty of all faithful Christians to eschew the false doctrines, no matter what their personal opinion or intellectual pretensions. But one cannot eschew Gnosticism, Docetism, Manicheanism, Donatism, Arianism Pelagianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism on the authority of the Church and then eschew the authority of the Church on the question of Predestinarianism.

    In sum, any heresy which arose after the selected date, whenever it was, when the Primitive Church was no longer pure, cannot be discarded as heretical on the authority of the official Church decree of apostasy, because those decrees are invalid.

    A Lutheran who denies the authority of the Council of Trent to define Church doctrine logically must also deny the authority of any other apostate councils, such as those who defined the canonicity of the Bible, the doctrine of the Incarnation, and the mystery of the Trinity. But this affirms (or, at least, undermines any authoritative anathematization of) any heresies or schisms arising after the first council of the Apostate Church or the last council of the Primitive Church, whenever that was.

    A Mormon or Mohammedan simply does not have this difficulty, since the one denies everything after the Ascension of John, and the other denies scripture altogether, and writes his own; they both agree that the Church was apostate from when she was founded, if not before.

    A modern nondenominational Christian, if such a chimera can be imagined, might argue that Christianity requires no authoritative body of teaching, nor even a canonized Bible, but only each man’s individual conscience, guided by the Holy Spirit (or, more likely, guided by whatever fashionable fads are currently fascinating the scribbling classes). The problem is that this doctrine of individual magisterial authority has no support in Christian teaching in any period of history, nor in scripture.

    I have so often heard denunciations of the often-misunderstood doctrine of Papal Infallibility, that I have no patience for those who both utter than denunciation and then claim individual infallibility. Christ did not say the gates of Hell would not prevail against each and every lonely individual Christian reinventing the wheel for himself by himself; He said those gates would not prevail against His Church, founded on the rock of St Peter.

    There is nothing in anything said by the Son to any saints or revealed by the Father to any patriarchs saying or implying that each man should or could write his own books of law and prophecy, his own Ten Commandments, and found his own Church.

    There is, however, scripture implying that the Holy Spirit will protect the Church from apostasy: any schismatic must deny that implication, or interpret it to apply to whatever new church he means to found tomorrow, not to the one from which he stubbornly expelled himself yesterday.

    So the idea that each man for himself should discover or invent his own version of the Church is a modern or postmodern idea, found in no generation before this one, and not found anywhere in Christian teaching, but repudiated everywhere.

  6. Context, context, context. Paul’s letters were to individual congregations, not papal bulls. There is much in them that is helpful, but some that is community-specific.

  7. We (or my wife) attempted this for a time early in our marriage, because of my convictions related to the same. I was deeply impressed by the practice among some Mennonites with whom I sojourned. That said, we abandoned it, because the very wearing became a distraction. Just the opposite of what uncovered hair may have been in another context. That said. I wish it were not a distraction. When I see that look it looks sacred and righteous and good.

    • I think the simplicity and humility of the Mennonites I have known is very beautiful. I don’t think that head-covering is a “have-to” for us because of the way I read scripture.

  8. Richard Beck at Experimental Theology has written recently about the head covering issue. He talks about an interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:15 where women’s hair is compared to a man’s testicles, which in Greek medical thought served similar functions of pulling the semen in the right direction during intercourse: the hair pulled semen up while the testicles pulled it down (semen was thought to be stored in the head), which is why Paul explains that it’s shameful for men to have long hair (interferes with reproduction) and for women to have it uncovered in worship (flashing your genitals in a public place!). It’s a fascinating interpretation, and I know that it dips into the cultural context pool, but it seems like a really good explanation for the apparent contradiction between hair being a shame that needs to be covered and the glory of a pious woman in the same passage. Here’s a link to the relevant article:
    In regards to the question that someone else asked about why Paul would use an illustration that suggests woman is made in the image of man, I think that may be part of a technique that Paul used frequently where he would make reference to Jewish tradition and the Genesis narrative to give his readers a frame of reference for understanding his larger spiritual point; he didn’t necessarily hold that view so much as he used it to relate to the people he was writing to. Paul was, after all, a pragmatist at heart, and whatever techniques he could employ to help spread the Gospel faster and more effectively, he would use.

    • Your last sentence is exactly my argument. Paul is always a pragmatist whose objective is to liberate people for the gospel and kill whatever drama they were dealing with. He said that he became all things to all people so that by all means he might win some. We completely get him wrong when we try to corral his wild polemical rationales into a system (which the reformed tradition has never tired of song).

      • Agreed. I read a couple of books a few years back that helped me with the whole idea that Paul’s letters don’t create a fully cogent creed:
        The first was The Shaping of Things to Come which discussed how effective church structure should be built around reaching people in the communities they’re currently in; the most striking example from the book I remember was of a person joining a skydiving club that meets on Sunday mornings and evangelizing to its members, but then creating the problem of what to do with their time. Do they leave the club to regularly attend church, or does the church bend to accommodate these new believers in a context where they are already comfortable and use that context to help them grow?

        The second book was Pagan Christianity, which has a chapter on proof texting that uses Paul’s letters as its example for how this approach is problematic. Paul’s letters are only half of the correspondence between him and his readers; we don’t have their original letters to contextualize what Paul recommends in each case. At the same time, these are letters to specific people addressing unique cases. It’s difficult to get a sense of the arc of Paul’s theological thought throughout his life even, because the letters are organized in the Bible not chronologically but from shortest to longest.

        I’m sure this kind of stuff is nothing particularly groundbreaking to a lot of folks, but it was immensely helpful to me at that stage in my spiritual journey.

  9. ” Has she convinced you?” No, because, as a man, I do not permit myself to learn ANYTHING from a woman.

    NOTE: Very, very, very, very, very much just a joke!

  10. Paul contradicts himself, from letter to letter. We always can get spiritual insight and guidance from his epistles, but remember we are looking at someone else’s mail, and at that all the cultural biases in the middle east. Even though Paul says we are not under the Law, he acts very Jewish at times. If his sermons don’t jive with Jesus’ outlook on all humanity, I consider it a cultural or Jewish bias.

  11. If mercy is more important than sacrifice, how are we to know when we are being too prideful and thinking we are wiser than God by using mercy as a justification for man to decide which laws to follow.

    • We have to do everything with fear and trembling and operate with a hermeneutics of suspicion against ourselves. I don’t see a hard and fast principle that will draw a clear line between saying nothing in the Bible is prescriptive and saying everything is, including snake-handling and head-covering. The mercy not sacrifice thing is uniquely vocational to me because of how God has ground that verse into me. I think love God love your neighbor is probably the best hermeneutical lens. And another thing that’s important: it’s not deciding *which* laws to follow; it’s deciding *how* to follow God’s teaching. We should absolutely apply Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11. Our hermeneutics just shows us how to translate it into our context.

  12. Although I agree with this, I still don’t understand why Paul would have made a reference to women being made in the image of man, while man was made in the image of God to begin with. Do you have any light on this?

    • With that one, I have to shrug that Paul must have had a specific pastoral reason to humble a specific individual. It totally contradicts Genesis 1, but there was probably a source of that teaching in 1st century Judaism or Paul wouldn’t have used it.

  13. Not much time for a full reply/refutation here… but I would like to make the point:
    The text says that if a woman prays or prophesy’s in public,(the context is in the public worship of the local gathering of believers)… her head should be covered. I have found that most of those who currently advocate for head coverings… still do not allow the women to participate verbally in their meetings. Also, in way of context… the church at Corinth was a predominantly Jewish gathering… and the “angel” being referred to here which is very difficult to translate… is a Jewish name/title/office given to a man serving in the local synagogue.

  14. I assume that Sproul is converting to Catholicism, then, since all Christians were, and all recognized the authority of the Magisterium, until the 1500s?

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