Head Coverings

Q – Alright, time to turn to “da man.”.

Jim – Well, I’m certainly “a” man, if I’m not “the” quintessential man. However, as frequently as I slap the palm of my hand against my balding forehead and exclaim “doh!” I may in fact be “doh man.” 🙂

Q – Can you please explain 1 Corinthians 11 and the women / head covering thing? A friend of mine believes that just as women were to be silent in the church of Corinth, they were also not supposed to have their head uncovered. The women teaching / speaking stuff is very clear to me after you’ve shared from the text. However, I am not quite sure that I have a grasp on this head-covering thing. Simply a cultural issue? Probably. Paul is using the Genesis narrative again so he’s getting serious which means there is plenty more to this.

Please share your insight . . .

Jim – There are several issues at work here, so I’ll look at the historic perspective first. Head covering in the Hebrew world typically signified being under authority. And, Hebrew males to this day wear yarmulkes as a constant reminder that God is over them and they are under His hand. Even if they don’t wear their yarmulke during the day, most every Jewish male will put one on when he is in the temple.

Hebrews historically prayed with their heads covered, and to this day you’ll see orthodox Jews draping their prayer shawls over their heads when they pray at the Wailing Wall. So, the picture is consistent. Standing before God in humility or repentance required a head covering.

Now, Middle Eastern women always wore scarves and veils in public. We still see that today in Muslim countries. And, Jewish women always had their heads and faces covered on those occasions where they left home. To go around town with an uncovered head was the sign of a loose woman or prostitute, so it was a great shame for a woman to have her head publicly uncovered before other men.

Consequently, in Numbers 5 God laid out a method for dealing with jealous husbands who feared that their wives had been unfaithful to them. It says –

“Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man’s wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him, And a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, and be kept close, and she be defiled, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken with the manner; And the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled: or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled: Then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is an offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance. And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD: And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water: And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD, and uncover the woman’s head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the jealousy offering: and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causeth the curse: And the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say unto the woman, If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness with another instead of thy husband, be thou free from this bitter water that causeth the curse: But if thou hast gone aside to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee beside thine husband: Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell; And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen. And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water: And he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water that causeth the curse: and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter. Then the priest shall take the jealousy offering out of the woman’s hand, and shall wave the offering before the LORD, and offer it upon the altar: And the priest shall take an handful of the offering, even the memorial thereof, and burn it upon the altar, and afterward shall cause the woman to drink the water. And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people. And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed. This is the law of jealousies, when a wife goeth aside to another instead of her husband, and is defiled; Or when the spirit of jealousy cometh upon him, and he be jealous over his wife, and shall set the woman before the LORD, and the priest shall execute upon her all this law. Then shall the man be guiltless from iniquity, and this woman shall bear her iniquity.” (Num 5:12-31)

Okay, long passage. But, intriguing stuff, to my way of thinking. This is the only passage in the Old Testament that talks about uncovering a woman’s head, and it is in the context of shame. The Hebrew word used for “uncover” is “para” and it means, “to free, keep or make bare.”

You say, “So?”

Well, this is internal evidence that Hebrew women under the Mosaic Law were required to cover their heads; otherwise this law concerning uncovering their heads is a moot point. And, it was dishonoring for a woman to have her head publicly uncovered. That covering was symbolic of the husband’s authority over the woman. Only he could look on his wife’s face and uncovered head. She was to hide her feminine beauty from all other onlookers. But, if she was suspected of faithlessness with her husband, she was shamed by the loss of covering, and the potential loss of a husband.

Fast forward to the church at Corinth. Middle Eastern women were still covering their heads and wearing veils over their faces. So, the church wanted Paul to tell them whether that practice was required in the New Covenant Church, without the restrictions of Moses.

Now let’s move to the text –

“But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Cor. 11:3)

That’s the subject matter – authority and subjection. God is over Christ, Christ is over men, men are over women. That’s the divine plan of authority and it’s the subject of Paul’s treatise.

“Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.” (1 Cor. 11:4)

In a man’s case, the covered head was a sign of contrition or repentance. For instance, in 2 Samuel 15:30, King David’s was running from his murderous son, Absalom. It says,

“And David went up by the ascent of mount Olivet, and wept as he went up, and had his head covered, and he went barefoot: and all the people that was with him covered every man his head, and they went up, weeping as they went up.”

David and his men ascended Mt. Olivet (where Christ would later preach), weeping and mourning. In that state, it was appropriate that they cover their heads.

Also, Jeremiah 14:3 draws the connection between shame and men covering their heads –

“And their nobles have sent their little ones to the waters; they came to the pits, and found no water; they returned with their vessels empty; they were ashamed and confounded, and covered their heads.”

Remember that the high priests always wore turbans when they went about their temple duties, as did the Levitical priests. They were laboring under the Law and had their heads suitably covered. But, the “children of the free” were not to represent themselves that way. So, Paul concluded that men in the Church should pray or preach without a head covering. No prayer shawl. No turban. No ceremonial headdresses. They were to understand that Christ had paved the way to open communication and worship by grace without shame.

“But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.” (1 Cor. 11:5)

On the other hand, a woman is always under her husband’s authority, in church or out. It was still socially unacceptable in many areas for a woman to be seen uncovered. And, it was a greater shame for a woman to be bald or have her locks shorn – which was often done publicly as a form of punishment for faithlessness. So, Paul concluded that a woman who prayed or spoke in church should be covered, in keeping with her position.

It’s interesting to note that even though Paul was willing to admit that the Corinthians had women praying or exegeting Scripture, they were still required to do it under the headship of men. Of course, later when he addressed their abuse of the spiritual gifts, Paul concluded –

“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.” (1 Cor. 14:34-35)

So, in any circumstance, Paul was adamant about the position of women under the authority and headship of their male counterparts.

“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. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.” (1 Cor. 11:7-9)

There’s the equation again. Adam was first created in God’s image. But, Eve was created as a helper and mate for the man. Men are the express image of God, made after His likeness from the dust of the Earth. But, women were made from the rib of the man, after the image of the man. And, as Paul adroitly points out, men were not created to help women; women were created to help men.

The feminists may resist that notion, but it’s basic human history. Still, Paul will balance the scales momentarily.

“For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.” (1 Cor. 11:10)

That verse shows us the purpose of the covering. It is a symbol of power or authority on her head. And, the cryptic phrase “because of the angels” is most likely a reference to the angels who watch over Christ’s church. They are holy beings. Therefore, all people ought to act righteously in their presence, each accepting their given roles and assigned place without dissension or rebellion.

“Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.” (1 Cor. 11:11)

There’s the balance. In Christ, the married couples are one – the man with the woman and the woman with the man. For just as Eve came from Adam, all men were born of women. So, there is a divine balance to the structure. But, everything and everyone is under the dominion of God. So, they should keep their rightful positions.

“Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.” (1 Cor. 11:13-15)

There’s an interesting bit of word play here. In verses six and seven, the word translated “covered” and “cover” are forms of “katakalupto,” which means, “to cover fully.” But, the word “covering” when applied to hair is “peribolaion.” It means “something cast around, what is thrown around one.” In Hebrews 1:12 it is translated “vesture” or “garment.” So, Paul’s reference to shorn women wearing a covering meant that they should be fully covered. But, when talking about hair, he spoke of it as a garment or adornment.

So, Paul’s point here is that God gives women full heads of hair that virtually never go bald as a form of natural head cover. Paul grasped that example from the obvious nature of things to make his point that women are naturally adorned with a head covering because their heads require covering.

Now, as for Paul’s comment about the shame of longhaired men, it’s an obvious reference to the natural order of things when compared to women. As for men, they are subject to baldness (and don’t I know it!). Remember however that John the Baptist never had a haircut, nor did Samson, nor any Hebrew who took the vow of a Nazarite (Num. 6:5). So, long hair is not intrinsically sinful. But, the nature of things shows us that men lose their hair over time and women retain their hair. That, according to Paul, shores up his point that women require covering for their heads.

“But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” (1 Cor. 11:16)

One thing I like about Paul (among the many things I like about Paul) was that he was willing to concede the customs of local church communities, provided God would be honored through them. But, he never imposed his opinion on the Church and called it God’s word. Far too many preachers do that, you know. They start out with a tradition or good idea and the next thing you know it’s entrenched in the teaching of that church and considered a sacred part of the canon … like going to movies, or women in pants, or men with beards, or playing cards, etc. etc. etc.

But, Paul concluded the discussion by saying that it appeared obvious to him that both the historic Godly order and very nature of things drove him to believe that women should be covered and men uncovered in Church. Still, if someone wanted to debate, Paul wasn’t going to the mat over it. He told them “judge in yourselves.” Paul maintained no such convention, nor did he impose it on the churches he oversaw.

So, all that being said, I agree with your assessment that it was a cultural issue that wasn’t worth dividing over. Paul allowed for individual conscience where such things were concerned. He certainly had an opinion, but he did not impose a rule where God had not imposed a rule.

Nevertheless, he was a great defender of proper order and authority in the church, whether that was the authority of the elders over their flock, the authority of the men over the women, or the authority of the parents over the children. All things were to be done in order, because all things were under the authority of Christ, and Christ was under the headship of God, and God is not of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33).


Have a good evening! God’s blessings to ya’!