Concerning Headcovering

Essential reading for both men and women

Any Bible teacher attempting to uphold headcovering as a requirement in the churches today can be certain of a very frosty reception. He will be accused of promoting legalism and religious bondage. The allegation will likely assert that while the practice of headcovering pertained to an ancient culture it has no relevance in western society today. However, underlying this argument is the powerful and pervasive feminist doctrine that currently dominates western thinking. Its brain-washing has been successful and makes the practice of headcovering utterly unacceptable to Christian women today.

But what if it could be demonstrated that headcovering really is required - and that it is an issue of great importance to God? Would you be prepared to ignore the cynical opposition of others and take a stand for truth?

Before reading the rest of this article, consider asking the Lord to liberate you from all preconceived notions and prejudice on the subject, and ask Him to reveal His truth to your unbiased heart. Once you have done this, you will discover the teaching and explanation of Scripture are remarkably clear.

Headcovering is a Biblical ordinance along with water baptism and the Lord’s Supper (I Cor. 11: 2). Each of the ordinances, which God has established, while essentially symbolic, are intended to clarify, and keep fresh in our minds, the inward spiritual issues they represent. Naturally, the inward issues themselves are of greater importance than the symbolism, but this fact must never be allowed to diminish the value of the symbols. The Bible leaves us in no doubt that the symbols are to be preserved with great care. For example, consider the serious consequences when believers partake of the bread and wine unworthily (symbols of Christ’s broken body and out poured blood).

When considering the preservation and continuance of symbols, it should be remembered that symbols in the New Testament are quite different from types of the Old Testament. Since many of the types found in the Old Testament serve to illustrate various aspects of the Person and work of the Lord Jesus in redemption – they are now fulfilled and thus have served their purpose. In contrast, the symbols of the New Testament are relevant and serve to refresh our appreciation for that which they represent in the experience of believers today.

The Divine ordinances may be socially disagreeable, but this is hardly the issue; we are required to respond to His word with unquestioning obedience. There are times when the act of obedience is costly and results in us being misunderstood and rejected - or worse! For example, we are aware that countless believers have lost their lives as the result of obeying the ordinance of baptism.

In pursuit of an accurate understanding regarding the subject of headcovering, we must turn to the 1st. Corinthians chapter 11 as this is the only passage in the Bible that specifically addresses the subject. Some reason that since this is the solitary reference to the subject, this is an indicator of its relative unimportance. But this reasoning is invalidated when we observe that the only apostolic instruction on the subject of the Lord’s Supper in the churches is also limited to this same chapter! However, no evangelical assembly would consider abandoning its practice based on this fact – nor has anyone suggested it diminishes its importance.

All who claim headcovering was merely a localized cultural issue should remember that Paul was raised an orthodox Jew and was accustomed to both men and women covering their heads during worship. The instruction he presented in this chapter represented a radical break from that tradition. During worship, specifically while praying and prophesying, he taught that men should remove their headcovering. On the other hand, women, who also customarily covered their heads, were to continue covering their heads. But the essential feature in his teaching was this: in the church – the ‘covering’ and ‘uncovering’ of one’s head holds a significance it never possessed under Judaism.

There are three major features of this new significance.

The first is headship – this pertains to certain specific relationships and involves the concepts of authority and submission.
The third verse of the chapter specifies three relevant relationships: “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God.”

The last of three relationships mentioned is likely to be the most difficult to understand. In respect to this, it should be remembered that the Son is, in substance, one with His Father and is described as “the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person.” Yet for the purpose of redemption, He presented Himself as His subordinate and was obedient to Him in all things, even to the farthest extent – “the death of the cross.”

While in the realm of the spirit there is no distinction between the male and female; in their human relationships, there is an order, which must be recognized and honoured.

In the tenth verse the actual covering is described as ‘authority’ (Greek exousia). The Authorized Version translates this word as ‘power’, which is somewhat misleading in this case. Several other translations use the word ‘authority’, but prefix it with the words ‘a sign of’ in order to make the statement more understandable to the English reader. Thus the veil is ‘a sign of authority’, and the woman standing before the Lord with her head covered is declaring outwardly that, in her heart, she is submitted to the divinely ordained structure of headship.

Refusal to cover her head signifies her rejection of authority, but not merely that of man, but also the authority of God! If this sounds strange or far-fetched, then allow the driver of an automobile to illustrate the principle: In pulling over in response to a police officer’s instruction, the driver submits to the authority of the officer. However, a higher authority has delegated the officer’s authority. Therefore, as the driver obeys the officer, he is at the same time submitting himself to a higher law of government. Therefore, when a person recognises and submits to God’s delegated authority, they at the same time, submit themselves to His Sovereign authority. Conversely, when a person rejects God’s delegated authority, they reject the authority of God.

The second feature headcovering signifies is representation.
This is a concept that is common throughout Scripture and is generally termed typology. For example, Abraham is a type of God the Father as he offered his son Isaac, who is a type of Christ. In a similar way, the Christian man is honoured to be a type, or representation, of Christ in the earth. The Christian woman is honoured to be a type, or representation, of the Church, which is Christ’s Bride. This fact is highlighted by the description of the marriage relationship in Ephesians 5:21-33. A woman who covers her head in obedience to God’s word signifies not only her personal submission to the man’s headship (as seen earlier), but is also declaring the submission of the Church to Christ’s headship and authority.

Since man represents Christ, he is instructed not to appear before the Lord with his head covered (vs.4, 7). In covering his head, he is symbolically concealing Christ and as a consequence, dishonouring Him (v.4).

The third feature headcovering signifies is concealment.
The element that must be concealed is ‘the glory of man’ (1st Peter 1:24). The word ‘man’, in this verse, should be understood as ‘mankind’ and includes both male and female. The glory referred to is the flesh, and the Scripture states clearly that no flesh is permitted to glory in His presence (I Cor.1:29). Christ alone is to be glorified in the church (Ephesians 3:21).

In the realm of symbolism the woman also has the privilege of signifying this aspect of headcovering in two distinct ways. First, Paul states that she herself is the glory of the man (v.7b). In covering her head she is symbolically concealing herself, thereby declining to exhibit man's glory. Second, he states that her hair is a glory to herself (v.15). Therefore in covering her head she is also covering her own glory. Further to this, Paul makes a statement that seems almost outrageous: "let her be shorn‟ (v.6). To put it plainly, if she refuses to cover that which is a glory to her, the only alternative would be for her to shave her head. At least then that which she gloried in would be removed! The contrast between delighting to conceal that which is a glory to a woman, and being shaven is enormous. It would undoubtedly signify great shame to her; no woman would wish to appear before a man in such a state. In the cultures of the Eastern
Mediterranean during the first century such action carried the added stigma of indicating immorality.

Many argue that the woman’s hair is sufficient covering. But this line of reasoning is without merit, for it lacks even basic logic. If that were the case, then the man would be required to shave the hair from his head. As we have already noted, the man must not have his head covered as he comes before the Lord. It is true that the woman’s hair is referred to as a covering, but note two things in this regard: One is Paul’s deliberate use of a particular Greek word in verse fifteen which has the connotation of hair being thrown around, whereas the word used earlier, in verse six, denotes to cover completely. The context also clearly indicates the character of the covering that her hair provides – it is a covering of glory – for her hair is glory (Gk. doxa) to her, and that glory is to be concealed with a veil!

In verse ten, the statement ‘because of the angels’ provides a further reason for women to wear headcovering. This is a difficult verse, and should be understood in the light of Isaiah 6:2, where the angels cover themselves in the presence of the Divine Majesty.

Evidently angels are present as witnesses when each assembly meets for worship. Note Paul’s consciousness of their presence as he writes to Timothy, “I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things….” (1st Tim. 5:21). Angels, who have an understanding of the concepts of authority, submission, and obedience, are perplexed at the insubordination of men and women who have been redeemed by the blood of the King of glory. It is possible they recall the disobedient multitude of their own company, who found no place of repentance!

On the other hand, as each of the worshipers complies with the instruction concerning headcovering, it appears these heavenly witnesses note their acts of obedience. Yet doubtless the query still lingers in their minds: ‘what is man that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You care for him?’ (Heb. 2:6).

The last verse in this section (v.16) has caused much confusion. Some have suggested that Paul foresaw that this would prove to be a controversial topic. As the result, he gave permission to disregard all that he had just set forth, if it gave rise to disputes! This is an absurd interpretation. It is unthinkable that a subject that has been so thoroughly presented may be cast aside if it causes a problem. If that were the case it would be the only topic in the Bible that can be treated in that way. The clear meaning is that it is contentiousness, not headcovering, which is not customary in the churches.

As mentioned earlier, many believe that the instruction set forth in this chapter applied to first-century Corinth alone. They conclude that Paul’s assertions here have no relevance to us in another time and place. However, Paul states that contention over the headcovering issue was unacceptable in all ‘the churches of God’ – this surely points to its universal application. This is further confirmed as we review the various ways the apostle seeks to emphasize the importance of headcovering – from reference to the lofty spiritual issues it represents to the observing angels – and as is obvious, neither of these are local in character or limited to a time frame!

Surely wherever true worshipers stand in His holy presence, whether praying or prophesying, every man’s head must be uncovered, and every woman’s head veiled. For it has been given to Him to be the Head over all things to the church. Amen?

Fred Tomlinson
Christian Fellowship
Abbotsford, Canada