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The Covering for the Woman’s Head

Category Articles
Date October 1, 2010

Some students wore hats in our services. Some were from Holland and others came from similar congregations where all the women wear hats. Another student was convicted by this and began to raise the subject with her friends and finally came to me. ‘You say you believe the Bible, but here is plain teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:5 and you and the congregation ignore it. Why is this? You are not consistent.’ What did I tell her?

1. If I preached and told the women to wear hats none of them would do so. There is not a single one of them who is wearing a hat now. They are not going to turn up the following Sunday to my exhortation with hats that they have retrieved from their wardrobes or gone out to purchase. I would have turned half the congregation into guilty unhappy people. I do not want to be the kind of minister who tells the congregation ‘Wear hats,’ and immediately they do that or they are disciplined for not doing so. Such ministers are cult leaders.

2. There are far greater priorities I would want for the entire congregation than that the women wear hats. I would want many of them to come to the mid-week meeting. I would want them to love their neighbours as themselves, to turn the other cheek, to be more prayerful and forgiving, to display evangelistic zeal, to be faithful in personal devotional exercises. Wearing hats is way down my list of exhortations.

3. It is a great challenge to us to be seen to maintain in the congregation the headship of men. We do so by having just men as elders and deacons, men making the announcements, welcoming people at the doors, giving out the bread and wine at the communion, and the men taking the lead and praying in the Prayer Meeting. For this to be appreciated and supported is an achievement, while insisting on hats being worn by the women would detract from that.

4. I am not persuaded that Paul is insisting that women should always wear hats on Sundays in church, and so I have reprinted the following article by my friend Gary North from The Banner of Truth magazine, October 1971.

Geoff Thomas

In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul is forced to deal with a number of problems concerning church discipline and worship. The place of women in the church is discussed in the eleventh chapter and in the fourteenth. In both cases, women are placed in a subordinate position. [It must be pointed out at this point that the biblical requirement of the functional subordination of women, children, unordained church members, and new Christians in no way implies a personal inferiority, a fact which contemporary Women’s Liberation members cannot seem to grasp.] There is at least some internal evidence in the two passages that Paul was dealing with two different situations. The first problem concerned praying and prophesying [11:4-5]; the second concerned corporate church worship [14].

In the first passage, Paul sets forth the requirement for women who pray and prophesy: they must have their heads covered [11:4]. Yet in the second passage, he specifically forbids women to speak at all in the corporate worship of the church [14:34]. As I understand it, Paul was making one of two distinctions: (1) women in general are to remain silent in church, with only a special group of them permitted to prophesy [being marked as a special group by a peculiar kind of covering for their heads]; or (2) there was a distinct kind of prophesying practised by Christian women outside of the actual worship service. It is my opinion that the latter interpretation is preferable, although evidence gleaned from the records of early church practices may yet be found which would favour the former view.

Whichever interpretation is proper, it should be obvious that the prophetic function of the first-century church was historically unique. It involved speaking in tongues, the phenomenon Paul deals with in chapter 14. Reformed expositors have generally maintained that this feature of the church was temporary and died out with the coming of the written canon of Scripture. Thus, the focus of Paul’s concern with the covering of the prophetic women’s head would appear as an issue of concern in his day, rather than a general principle of worship.

In defence of this view, I would point to Paul’s words: ‘Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?’ [11:13] – If this is a general rule binding on the church in all times and places, does it then refer to all prayer, in or out of church? Must a woman always wear a covering when she prays? This would not seem to be a likely application of Paul’s language. Does it then refer to prayer in the church service? Again, Paul’s warning against women speaking in church would not confirm such an interpretation. The evidence points to a unique situation in church history: female prophets in the first century apparently had the right to prophesy at certain kinds of meetings, but not at worship services. Philip had four daughters who prophesied [Acts 21:9]. Women who possessed this gift were to demonstrate their femininity either by putting on a special kind of covering, or by wearing their hair in a particular way. They were not to regard themselves as superior to men, especially those who might not possess the prophetic gift. Their covering symbolized this position of functional subordination even during the period of prophetic ecstasy. Finally, they were not to exercise the gift during the corporate worship of the church [14:34].

In the final volume of Matthew Poole’s commentary, we read:

We now have no such prophetesses; so as I think that question about the lawfulness of women’s going without any other covering upon their heads than their hair, must be determined from other texts, not this, and is best determined from circumstances; for God having given to the woman her hair for a covering and an ornament, I cannot see how it should be simply unlawful . . . [p 578].

This cautious conclusion seems justified in the light of the internal biblical evidence. I know of no other texts that are compelling in this regard. With the phasing out of the prophetic gift, the issue of the prophetic covering should have dropped out of the church’s list of debatable topics.

If those who insist that the issue is still relevant to the corporate worship service are to make a strong case, they must deal with the following problem. If a woman covers her head in church, as supposedly required by Paul, does she have the right to exercise that option which Paul acknowledged as valid, namely, the right to pray and prophesy in church? Paul’s language is inescapable at this point: ‘But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head . . .’ [11:5a]. But she does not dishonour her head when she prays and prophesies with it covered. Are we to conclude that such covered women now have the right to speak out in the corporate worship service? Or are we not instead to regard Paul’s warning in chapter 14 as the proper standard of corporate worship, with the women remaining silent in the church? Women may not speak. On what grounds, then, can any requirement for a covering be imposed on the women who remain silent? They are in no way dishonouring their heads because they are no longer exercising the gift of prophecy. Churches today are lax enough in enforcing legitimate discipline; it seems foolish to burden the officers of the church with a rule which no longer can be legitimately imposed.

The language of chapter 11 after verse 5 indicates that Paul was concerned with more than a mere limiting of prophetic utterances. It sets forth basic principles of masculine leadership and feminine subordination; these principles reappear in other Pauline passages. The later verses speak of the woman’s covering of her head and the proper length of a man’s hair. In fact, the comparison of the man’s hair and the woman’s hair is absolutely crucial to Paul’s discussion. He states categorically that it is unnatural for a man to have long hair [11:14]. Yet in the next verse we read: ‘But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given her for a covering.’ This is a poor translation of the Greek. Alfred Marshall provides a literal translation in his Interlinear Greek-English New Testament [London: Bagster, 1960]. The second clause reads: ‘because the long hair instead of a veil has been given to her.’ The importance of this passage cannot be overestimated. Paul makes the distinction between men and women in terms of the length of hair to be worn by members of the two sexes. A woman has her long hair instead of a veil to serve as her proper covering. A man is to wear his hair shorter than women do, because he is to have his head uncovered. The passage is quite specific: long hair is the equivalent of covering, while short hair is the same as an uncovered head.

Nevertheless, many commentators have been unwilling to make this conclusion. They have instead concluded that the ‘covering’ referred to in verse 6 must refer to a veil or a hat of some kind. They have argued along the following lines. First, Paul’s condemnation is cited: ‘For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn; but if it is a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered’ [vs. 6]. Second – and here is the heart of their error – they assume that Paul’s distinction between short hair and long hair is not crucial to his discussion, and they go on to conclude that Paul therefore had to be referring to a veil or hat, since it would hardly make sense for Paul to write, in effect, ‘if the woman does not have hair, let her also be shorn.’ Not having hair and being shorn are the same condition; therefore, they conclude, Paul must have meant that for a woman not to wear a veil or a hat, it is as if she were shorn – bald. But this exegesis begins with a false premise. Paul’s whole point is to distinguish the role of women from that of men, and he uses hair length as the mark of that distinction. He uses a specific word to describe the woman’s hair which has definite meaning; it is derived from the Greek verb, ‘to wear the hair long’, or to ‘let one’s hair grow long’ [Arndt & Gingrich’s Greek-English Lexicon, p 443]. Paul chose his words carefully in his epistles; he built the doctrine of the promises of God on the distinction between ‘seed’ and ‘seeds’ [Gal. 3:16ff]. We are required to acknowledge his precision of language in our own exegesis. If he writes ‘long hair’, we should take him seriously.

Paul’s argument, given the distinction between long hair and hair as such, is clear. He is arguing that a woman who wears short hair, as if she were a man, ought to regard her hair length with the same horror as she would if her head were shaved. If she wishes to look like a man, then she should be willing to live with the curse of men, baldness. Paul assumes that women do not usually desire to look bald; thus, he makes his point in a graphic and forceful way. There are two lengths of hair for the two sexes. Long hair is a covering denoting functional subordination, and women should be willing to wear it long. Short hair is a sign, therefore, of responsibility, and men should wear their hair short.

To return to the original problem, the question of the covering for the prophetess, we can state categorically, as Paul did, that any woman who exercises this prophetic gift must wear her hair long. When praying or prophesying publicly, a woman had to wear long hair as a sign testifying to her functional subordination as a woman. No woman was to appear as if she were taking over the authority that is properly to be exercised by men. Paul’s inflexible requirement for those women was long hair; it was to remind them of their place, a position irrespective of any peculiar gifts that God might choose to bestow on a woman.

If any general principle of universal application is to be drawn from this passage, it is this one: godly women who have been given gifts that will tend to place them in authority over men [which may never be permitted in the corporate worship of the institutional church, 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:11ff] should wear their hair long. They should never permit themselves or others to imagine that their special gifts in any way compromise their femininity. The symbol of long hair serves as a warning and a reminder of the order imposed by God over his creation. Men are not women and vice versa. Yet even this rule should not be made a matter of church discipline, since the passage in the eleventh chapter is specifically limited to female prophets. Long hair for women in authority is simply a general guideline of personal conduct, for which the individual woman is responsible before God. It is an issue of self-discipline.

A woman should regard her long hair as her glory. That is what Paul says it is. She has the option of cutting it short, so long as she takes no position of authority over men. She is not required, under all circumstances, to wear her ‘covering’. But a man must never let his hair grow longer than women’s hair [whatever the prevailing culture’s styles for women may dictate]. He must always maintain his God-given right of authority over women, and this right must be symbolized. A woman’s authority [exousian] is to be worn on her head [11:10]. It is a sign that she is under authority. A man, who is passive under God’s authority, is required to exercise active dominion over the earth; he may not wear the symbol of passivity to earthly authority.

In conclusion, the eleventh chapter of First Corinthians has absolutely nothing to do with hats. Men may wear hats if they so desire; they may not wear long hair. Therefore, the whole point that Paul makes must establish the reverse: it is neither here nor there whether a woman wears a hat, just as it is irrelevant whether or not a man wears one. What is relevant is the respective length of men and women’s hair. That is the focus of Paul’s argumentation. To interpret in any other fashion – and I do mean fashion – is to ignore both the specific language of Paul’s Greek and the symbolism of dominion and passivity that he sets forth throughout the entire passage.

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