Headship and the Head Covering in the Assembly – 1 Corinthians 11:2-1613 min read

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The distinction between women and men in the context of a local assembly has been hotly debated ever since the apostle Paul first picked up his pen to write 1 Corinthians. Questions arise as to female pastors, head coverings, culture, etc. We need to ask ourselves “What does the Bible teach?” A good system of doctrine does not give excuses for Bible passages that the system doesn’t agree with; rather it gives an explanation of what those passages mean and adopts that meaning as its deep conviction. This is what we must do with the headship debate. Are head coverings for today? Does the Bible really forbid a public speaking role for females? How can we know? By honest Biblical exegesis, no other way.

Headship as a Biblical Concept

Headship is a concept of relational authority which uses the analogy of a head to its body. While a lord has the right to rule, subdue, and own, the head has an authority of relation and responsibility as the government of its body, whether that body be an individual or a collective group; Romans 6 and Ephesians 5 provide good texts for the study of these two concepts. Headship is seen in three main degrees: universal, federal, and relational. Universal headship can be seen in Adam’s being entrusted with all of creation in Genesis 1:28. Federal headship can be seen in 1 Corinthians 15, where we are seen as being either “in Adam” or “in Christ.” Relational headship is what we see in a local assembly and in the home and in Christ to His Church. Whenever Scripture speaks on this topic, creation is usually referred to as the basis, because from the very beginning God ordained distinction in roles and positions. This is why statements like “Adam was first formed” matter. God has a place for every component of His creation, and when a part of that creation is out of place, His order is disrupted. So then, when we find references to an authoritative head, it isn’t about man’s preference, but about how God will have His people function. This is the approach we need to take with 1 Corinthians 11. It doesn’t contain some isolated concept, but is rather a hugely significant aspect of one of Scripture’s larger themes. God cares about Headship; thus God cares about how we interpret 1 Corinthians 11.

Understanding 1 Corinthians 11

For a proper understanding of our topic, the best way to approach it is to simply see what Scripture says and what it means. In doing that we need to see where 1 Corinthians 11 fits in its context. Does it belong with the preceding chapters which deal with personal liberty and such or with the following themes of public worship and collective functioning? We know that this section can’t belong to the previous chapters, because verse 2 marks a clear transition from personal obligation to collective response to apostolic doctrine. Further, it can be structurally proven that chapters 11-14 go together as one section, which we won’t take time to develop here. This will be important when it comes to understanding whether or not the head covering was meant for all times and cultures.

So then, we begin with Paul’s statement in verse 2, which says “Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things, and keep the traditions as I delivered them unto you.” These are not traditions like the Pharisees held, but apostolic traditions which are written down in Scripture for us to obey today. Paul says in chapter 14, “the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.” Thus, the doctrine contained in 1 Corinthians is for every assembly, which is confirmed when Paul addresses the letter to “all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.” Thus, when Paul is defending the head covering, he is not defending a cultural norm. Rather the passage is a logical, timeless defense of the truth of headship and its display.

On this basis, Paul defends the head covering from three main areas: theology, creation, and nature. In defending the head covering with theology, he brings us to the central basis for this teaching: headship exists and is necessary to uphold. The head covering displays that, and to neglect it is to both dishonor the woman’s head (the man) as well as heap shame upon herself. In fact, Paul says the shame of an uncovered woman in the assembly is just as shameful as a woman with shaved hair in nature. This thought is further established when verse 15 comes in and says “if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her.” In this section he also answers the question of context for the head covering: it is a local assembly meeting that is the place for a head covering. (“Praying or prophesying” is simply a synecdoche for public participation in a meeting; or else, Paul is not specifically dealing with public roles yet and will address fully the issue in chapter 14.)

Then there is another reason brought up in verse 7: “For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.” This brings us to the symbolism of the covering. God must have His glory as well as His authority displayed in the assembly; the head covering is one means to fulfill that. In other words, through the uncovered head of the man, the representation of God’s glory is on full display, while the contrast to that (the glory of man) is concealed. Paul justifies this by appealing to the order seen in creation: the woman was created out of the man and was created on account of the man to help him fulfill his stewardship given by God. That order was not arbitrary; rather God was establishing a fundamental principle. Of course, this is balanced in verses 11-12 that just because man is head over the woman, he is not more important than or superior to her. The only one who can claim true superiority is God. This keeping of God’s order and display of His glory is put on display for angels (who, by the way, really don’t care about keeping cultural norms); by the head covering they have established in their minds the place God deserves and have greater opportunity to rejoice and worship at the sight of His glory.

Lastly, Paul appeals to a question: “Judge in yourselves: is it fitting that a woman pray unto God uncovered?” He follows this question by one last proof for the head covering, and that proof is the gender distinction we see in nature, which is communicated by clear difference in hair length. Man is to wear his hair short: to wear it long is a shame. The converse is true of the woman: her hair is to be worn long. Should she shorten what God has given her, she brings shame to herself in that her long hair is a special glory to her. Obviously, this refutes the idea that a woman is made out to be inferior to a man in this chapter; if that were true, why would she be allocated special glory that the man doesn’t and can’t have?

These three proofs – the authority of God on display, the glory of God on display, and the horrendous notion of praying to God uncovered – bring to us an irrefutable defense for the apostolic tradition of the head covering. Then in verse 16 for full confirmation, Paul says “But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” In other words, “If a man tries to manipulate the boundaries of the head covering, he should know that no apostle nor assembly subscribes to the idea of a woman praying to God in the assembly uncovered.”Obviously this was a well attested and highly emphasized doctrine. Truly it takes a tremendous bias in light of this to say that the head covering was only a cultural custom of Corinth.

Understanding 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2

Headship is not limited to its display in the assembly, but it extends to roles just as it does in the home. 1 Corinthians 14 says “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” Imagine! What some churches would think of as an exalted position for women is actually a place of shame for them. It is a fallacy to think publicity equals importance. Further on this issue 1 Timothy 2 says “I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting. In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works. Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” It is interesting that both in this passage and in 1 Corinthians 11 creation is appealed to as central proof for headship. This establishes in our mind a timeless, unchanging order that we would be foolish to reject, as well as disadvantageous to ourselves. So then, both genders in these chapters are left with a grave responsibility – the man with the stewardship of teaching the assembly, the woman with showing the beauty of modesty and godliness. Any thoughts of inferiority are obliterated in light of Romans 16 where Paul clearly and passionately commends godly women who were faithful to the work of the assembly. Faithfulness is what is valuable, not prominence; and God offers each a special position they can operate under that they might glorify Him in a unique way. Let us value brothers and sisters who take their responsibilities seriously!

Head Coverings in Ancient and Modern Church History

While we do not see church history as authoritative since we believe in Sola Scriptura, it does help us to understand certain topics in light of it, like the head covering. For instance, in the third century, Tertullian wrote extensively on the topic in his work “On the Veiling of Virgins.” Though his emphasis and interpretation is different than in this work, he does give us insight into the fact that both Greek and African assemblies took the command of the head covering literally: “Throughout Greece, and certain of its barbaric provinces, the majority of Churches keep their virgins covered. There are places, too, beneath this (African) sky, where this practice obtains; lest any ascribe the custom to Greek or barbarian Gentilehood.” Further, Clement of Alexandria (2nd Century), while we do not accept much of his belief, helps us to see again that 1 Corinthians 11 was taken seriously: “Woman and man are to go to church decently attired, with natural step, embracing silence, possessing unfeigned love, pure in body, pure in heart, fit to pray to God… And she will never fall, who puts before her eyes modesty… For this is the wish of the Word, since it is becoming for her to pray veiled.” In the late fourth century, in what is called the Apostolic Constitutions, we read that during the Lord’s Supper they had “the women approach with their heads covered, as is becoming the order of women.” The Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature records “A white veil called the velamen dominicale was worn by females at the time of receiving the eucharist during the 5th and 6th centuries.” The practice of the head covering also continued at least through the seventh to tenth centuries in Anglo-Saxon England (Dress in Anglo-Saxon England). This continues with Hugh Latimer’s teaching on the subject in the sixteenth century. The Augsburg Confession also adheres to it. Johnathan Edwards says on the subject, “That which the Apostle delivers in this chapter concerning women’s behaviour in the churches did not only oblige the women of that time, but is obligatory to this very day. All Christian women are engaged by virtue of what the Apostle here saith, to be always with their heads covered in time of prayer and other religious exercises.” Later than this we see Spurgeon, Darby, F.W. Grant, and H.A. Ironside – all of which believed in the head covering for today in local church settings. Even more modern teachers like Charles Ryrie, William MacDonald, and Gary Inrig advocate a head covering in assembly meetings as being for today.

Even with a myriad of witnesses (supremely the authority of Scripture), there still remain controversies over this concept. Some would say a head covering should be worn at all times so that a woman can pray always; but as mentioned before, the context of 1 Corinthians 11 is a public assembly function. Also, this would mean a man could never put anything on his head so that he also could always pray, but this obviously doesn’t work. Another controversy is that only married women are obligated to keep the command of the head covering since the Greek word for “woman” can also mean “wife,” but Paul never distinguished the married from the unmarried women here. Further, if headship only applies to the married women, does that mean single women can teach too? After all, the same principle of headship that applies to veils also applies to the silence of the sisters. Also, Paul’s arguments for the veil go beyond marriage to the two genders as a whole, as verses 14 and 15 clearly show. And lastly, the controversy exists that this part of 1 Corinthians 11 is simply cultural, having no bearing on us today. But as clearly shown in the interpretation of the passage, Paul never referenced culture for support. On the contrary, he laid out the doctrine as clear, timeless truth. If something as clear as 1 Corinthians 11 is cultural, we have no way of telling whether anything in Scripture applies to us anymore; that is how clear it is. One has to betray Biblical interpretation to contend for such a position. The only culture that is involved in this chapter is modern culture which has desensitized us to the importance of this section. It is not Scriptural exegesis that arrives at a denial of the head covering, but a regurgitation of spoon-fed traditions of men. So then, whose traditions will we choose – those of men, or of God? Whose glory will we contend for – that of men, or of God? Whose authority will we champion – that of men, or of God? May we humbly and firmly and confidently live to fulfill this passage as God would have us do.

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As a complement to this study, please check out our Analysis of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 here: http://www.insidethebible.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Analysis-of-1-Corinthians-11.2-16.pdf