January 22, 2016

Headcoverings in the New Testament Church

Written By
William O. Einwechter


In our past two sermons we have examined two foundational matters of great importance to our faith and practice as Christians: the proper interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, and the creation order for men and women as taught in Genesis 1 and 2. In our first sermon, we argued that a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 (e.g., the word “day”) is required by the wording and literary structure of the text and is assumed in the rest of Scripture (e.g., Exod. 20:9-11).

In our second sermon, we argued on the basis of a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 that God has established a specific order and separate roles for men and women. This order can be called the creation order for men and women. This order establishes the positional priority of the man over the woman, and this priority is a creation ordinance that is supported, illustrated, and applied in the rest of Holy Scripture.

In this sermon, we want to extend our study of the creation order for men and women by looking at a crucial New Testament text, that not only teaches the fact of the creation order for men and women, and that it still applies in the mediatorial kingdom of Jesus Christ, but also establishes a physical sign and symbol for Christians as a witness to this creation order. That physical sign and symbol is the uncovered head of a man and the covered (veiled) head of a woman. The text for our sermon is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and our subject is the practice of headcoverings in the church of Jesus Christ — a practice established by the apostles of Christ to signify the order of headship established at creation and incorporated into Christ’s kingdom.

Sadly, the apostolic ordinance of headcoverings has been largely abandoned in the churches of America and Europe. There was a time, not so long ago, that the practice of headcoverings in worship was well nigh the universal practice of these churches. No Christian man would ever think of attending worship with a hat on his head and no Christian woman would dare to appear in public worship without her head being covered with a material cloth covering of some kind (e.g., a veil, scarf, bonnet, or hat). But all that has changed. Except for the conservative Anabaptists, most churches in the West have dispensed with the practice (at least as far as the women are concerned).

Why this extraordinary change in a practice that is firmly based on New Testament teaching and had been so universally followed? The disturbing reality is that the disappearance of the woman’s headcovering in public worship coincides with two distinct trends: the rise and triumph of feminism in the West, and the church’s slide into worldliness in fashion and dress. I can’t help but agree with Cory Anderson when he says, “Few New Testament teachings are as clearly taught and yet flatly refused by modern Western Christians as the woman’s head covering” (The Ornament of a Spirit, p. vii).

I am, however, grateful to God to be part of a local church that is committed to teaching and upholding the apostolic ordinance of headcoverings. In our Book of Church Order, Article XII on Headcoverings states:

1. Out of a desire to show forth his submission to God’s appointed order of headship, a man ought not to wear any type of covering on his head whenever the church gathers specifically for worship, for prayer, for baptism, for the Lord’s Supper, or for the teaching of God’s Word (1 Cor.11:2-16).

2. Also, out of a desire to show forth her submission to God’s appointed order of headship, a woman ought to wear a type of head covering (e.g., a veil, scarf, shawl, or hat) whenever the church gathers specifically for worship, for prayer, for baptism, for the Lord’s Supper, or for the teaching of God’s Word (1 Cor.11:2-16). (Note: A woman’s hair is not the covering of 1 Cor. 11:2-16).

Therefore, this sermon is not only an extension of our previous sermon on the creation order for men and women, it is also an explanation and defense of our practice of headcoverings here at Immanuel Free Reformed Church. We teach and practice this because we believe the Word of God requires it; we have made it part of our Book of Church Order because we believe that a church is walking disorderly and worshipping contrary to the mind of Christ if it does not obey and practice the teaching on headcoverings given by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

Although the text of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is clear enough as to the practice enjoined, it does present some interpretive difficulties. Furthermore, the unpopularity of its doctrine and practice has led to all kinds of approaches to the text that either complicate Paul’s presentation or interpret it contrary to sound principles of hermeneutics.

Our purpose today, however, is not to provide a detailed exegesis of the text nor to interact with all the views or interpretive approaches to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Rather, our purpose is to present an overview of the teaching of this text by means of a series of questions and the answers to those questions. Those desiring a more detailed exposition of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 are encouraged to listen to my three expository sermons on this text that I preached in my series on 1 Corinthians (available on sermonaudio). Let us consider, then, the following 12 questions.

1. What is the context of Paul’s teaching on headcoverings?

Although the Corinthian church was greatly endowed with spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 1:7), there was also a large measure of spiritual immaturity in the church. Consequently, there were many internal problems, both doctrinal and practical, in the congregation.

1 Corinthians 11:2-16 appears to be in a section of the epistle where Paul is responding to a letter from the church asking him about certain problems and issues (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1). Apparently, some problems had arisen in the church in connection with the practice of headcoverings. What the exact nature of the problems was we cannot be sure. Nevertheless, it seems fair to conclude that Paul wrote either to restore proper order because that order was being violated, or he wrote to maintain proper order because that order was being questioned. Whichever it was, Paul was determined that the church in Corinth follow the practice (11:16) of all the churches in regard to the symbolism of the uncovered head of the man and covered head of the woman in Christian worship.

It is important to note that the immediate context of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is part of a section of the letter where Paul is dealing with matters relating to the public meetings of the church for worship and edification. His goal in this section is to maintain and restore proper order (1 Cor. 14:40). This section begins in chapter 11 and continues through to the end of chapter 14. There are three topics: 1) Proper order in regard to headcoverings (11:2-16); 2) Proper order in regard to the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34); 3) Proper order in regard to the public exercise of spiritual gifts (12:1-14:40).

This contextual setting for the text on headcoverings is significant for its interpretation and application. Context requires that, at the very least, it be applied to the order of the church. This necessity is strengthened by Paul’s statement in verse 16 that says his teaching on headcoverings is the practice of all the churches. This declaration places the practice of headcoverings within the jurisdiction of the government of the church.

This fact does not mean that Paul’s teaching on headcoverings can have no application beyond the meetings of the church, only that this is the specific context that Paul is addressing here. The focus of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is undoubtedly the local church’s gatherings.

However, there is no statement in the text that the symbolism of the uncovered and covered head is important in only that one setting. It seems that Paul’s language allows for (if not requires) the symbolism of headcoverings to be applied in other contexts (e.g., family worship, or a private meeting of Christians for Bible study and prayer). Robert Diffenbaugh expresses this perspective by saying, “I believe that Paul is speaking more generally so that his words apply both to the church meeting and elsewhere.”

2. What is the text and outline of Paul’s teaching on headcoverings?

I. Introduction to the Subject of Headcoverings (11:2).

“Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.”

II. The Theological Foundation for the Practice/Ordinance of Headcoverings (11:3).

“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.”

III. The Instructions Regarding the Practice/Ordinance of Headcoverings (11:4-6).

     A. In regard to Men (11:4).

“Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.”

     B. In regard to Women (11:5-6).

“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.”

IV. The Rationale for the Practice/Ordinance of Headcoverings (11:7-16).

     A. From the Biblical Account of Creation (11:7-9).

“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.”

     B. From the Presence of Angels in Worship (11:10).

“For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.”

     (Parenthetical statement on the mutual dependence of men and women, 11:11-12).

“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.

     C. From the Instruction of Nature (11:13-15).

“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.”

     D. From the Custom of All the Churches (11:16).

“But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.”

3. What does Paul call his teaching of headcoverings? (v. 2)

He says that his teaching on this subject is part of the “ordinances” that he has delivered to them (v. 2). The word for “ordinances,” is from a word that means a handing down of something; particularly of the transmission of teaching, doctrine, and precepts. An “ordinance,” or, as the Greek word (paradoseis) can also be translated, a “tradition,” is the actual content of the instruction that is delivered orally or in writing from a teacher or another authority to those who are under him.

In the New Testament, an ordinance, a tradition, is authoritative teaching that is considered binding on a religious community. It is used negatively of Jewish traditions (Matt 15:2-3, 6; Mark 7:3, 5, 8-9,13; Gal 1:14), and positively of apostolic tradition (1 Thess 2:15; 3:6; the verb form of the word is used in Rom. 6:17; 1 Cor. 11:2, 23; 15:3; Jude 3; cf. Acts 16:4).

Hodge states that, “In reference to the rule of faith [for the church], it is never used in the New Testament, except for the immediate instruction of inspired men” (A Commentary on 1 & 2 Corinthians, p. 206). In other words, the traditions of the apostles are nothing less than the Word of God.

The words of 1 Corinthians 11:2 indicate that Paul is neither giving his opinion on how to deal with a matter of Christian liberty, nor is he instructing them on the need to follow local customs so that they might avoid giving offense to others. What the text actually says is that headcoverings is an apostolic ordinance, i.e., authoritative tradition that has been delivered to the church by the apostle Paul. This means that we must not treat this issue lightly or relegate it to the realm of things indifferent. Through the text of the New Testament, this apostolic tradition has been passed on to us, and we are responsible to receive it, obey it, guard it, and teach it to others.

Paul states later in this epistle: “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37). Thus, the things he writes in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 are the commandments of the Lord Jesus to His church.

4. What is the theological foundation for the practice of headcoverings? (v. 3)

The theological foundation for the practice of headcoverings is the order of headship that exists in Christ’s mediatorial kingdom (v. 3): God - Christ - Man - Woman.

The doctrine of headship here stated indicates that in Christ’s kingdom, of which the church is the central part, there is an order of headship that Christians must understand and follow. That headship is no different than the one established at creation (1 Cor. 11:7-9), except that there is now a mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who sits at the right hand of God the Father.

The apostolic ordinance of headcoverings is based on this order, and its intent is to symbolize that order. If, therefore, you do not understand the doctrine of headship you will not understand the symbolism of the headcovering; if you haven’t grasped the importance of the doctrine of headship, you will not grasp the importance of the symbol of headship.

This doctrine of headship is so important that God established a sign and symbol to keep it before the minds of His people so that they will never forget it. How important is it? Charles Hodge says it well:

Paul begins his correction of the Corinthian’s problem by stating the principle upon which his instruction will rest; so that by assenting to the principle, they could not fail to assent to the conclusion to which it necessarily led. That principle is, that order and subordination pervade the whole universe, and it is essential to its being. The head of the man is Christ; the head of the woman is the man; the head of Christ is God. If this concatenation be disturbed in any of its parts, ruin must be the result (A Commentary on 1 & 2 Corinthians, p. 206).

Note also the important connection with what follows in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. In 1 Corinthians 11 we have the two pillars of Christ’s kingdom: 1) The fact of Christ’s mediatorial headship, verses 2-16, and, 2) the fact of Christ’s sacrificial death, verses 17-34; or, to put this in other words, 1) the order of authority in Christ’s kingdom, verses 2-16; and, 2) the means of establishing Christ’s kingdom, verses 17-34; or, 1) the creation order in Christ, verses 2-16, and, 2) the redemptive plan in Christ, verses 17-34.

And both are given signs (i.e., headcoverings, vv. 2-16, and the Bread and the Cup, vv. 17-34) to keep these two pillars before the church on a regular and ongoing basis!

5. What are Paul’s five arguments in support of the practice of headcoverings? (vv. 4-16)

Having stated the broad theological basis for the practice of headcovering in verse 3, Paul gives his instructions concerning it in verses 4-7a, and the rationale for it in verses 7b-16. The instructions are simple and plain: men are not to appear in public worship with anything on their heads (they are not to wear a hat, veil, or shawl); women are not to appear in public worship without something on their heads (they are to wear a veil, scarf, hat, bonnet, shawl). Paul gives the rationale for these instructions in five points:

1). It keeps from bringing shame on a man’s or woman’s own head (vv. 4-6, 13).

The first argument is imbedded in the instructions themselves, i.e., to disregard Paul’s instructions will cause shame to rest on your head. The word for “dishonoureth” (vv. 5, 6) means to put to shame, to humiliate, or to disgrace. The word for “shame” (v. 6) refers to a shameful deed that leads to ignominy and disgrace. The word names that which is shameful because it is unacceptable behavior that is an ugly and base departure from moral and social norms.

There is debate over whether the “head” in view is a person’s head in the hierarchy of verse 3, your own head (person), or both. The words of verses 5b-6 point to a personal application. Note how strongly these verses speak to a woman. To appear in public worship without a covering is as shameful as appearing in public worship with a shaven head!

2). It shows forth the creation order for men and women (vv. 7-9).

After giving his instructions and pointing out the shame that one brings on their own head for failing to follows these instructions, Paul now turns to his rationale for the practice.

What he said in verses 2-6 would seem sufficient for Paul’s purpose of exhorting the Corinthians to obedience to the ordinance of headcoverings. However, the fact that he proceeds indicates two things: 1) the importance he placed on the practice of headcoverings; 2) his desire to put the contention existing at Corinth over the practice to an end.

As verse 3 states, the headcovering ordinance is based on the order of authority in Christ’s kingdom. This order, however, has its own foundation in the creation order for men and women in Genesis 2. Male headship is a creation ordinance.

The uncovered head of man shows forth his unique place in the creation order in relation to God and his positional priority over the woman — man has no head over him on earth but stands directly under his Creator. Therefore, he ought not to cover his head (v. 7a).

The covered head of a woman displays her position in the creation order as being made from the man and for the man and therefore under his headship — woman does have a head over her on earth and that is the man. Therefore, she ought to cover her head (v. 6b).

3). It is necessary because of the angels (v. 10).

This verse indicates that the angels of God are present with the people of God and have a deep interest in how the church conducts its worship of God. They who know the holiness of God and cover themselves in the presence of God out of reverence for Him (cf. Isa. 6:2) are more than idle spectators of the church’s worship and service of God (1 Cor. 4:9; Heb. 12:22-23; 1 Tim. 5:21).

“Power” is a translation of the Greek word, exousia. This word is a noun that can have various shades of meaning, but all are related to the root meaning of “authority.” According to its context, exousia can mean authority, power, right, rule, or jurisdiction. The question is what does it mean in this context? It seems clear that the words “power on her head,” in this context, is a reference to the symbol of man’s authority over her, i.e., the veil.

In summarizing the teaching of this verse R. C. H. Lenski gives this helpful explanation:

“On account of angels” implies that God’s good angels are present when God’s people come together to pray and to prophesy. Paul’s view of God’s creation in general and of God’s people in particular always includes God’s good angels. So the phrase simply means that, when we worship, we must not offend them by an impropriety. Such an offense would occur if women prayed and prophesied with uncovered heads and thereby displayed the fact that they had disregarded the station that has been assigned them at creation. In regard to the nearness of the angels and their interest in us compare 4:9 where Paul speaks about the suffering apostles as being a spectacle also for angels” (The Interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians, p. 445).

4). It answers to the natural distinction between men’s and women’s hair (vv. 14-15).

It is very important to see where these verses fit in the flow of Paul’s argument: they do not contain the instructions on the practice of headcovering (this is given in vv. 4-7a), but are brought forward in support of the practice. Hence, they are supplementary and secondary in force (these verses do not define the nature of the covering, nor do they provide the most important reason for wearing a covering).

The point is simply that the natural order supplies an illustration of the principle that men and women are to be differentiated by what is on their heads. The natural realm of man’s physical appearance provides an illustration for the spiritual realm of the Christian’s worship of God. This use of nature to illustrate spiritual truth is common in Scripture (e.g., Jesus’ parables).

Hair length in the natural sphere (short hair for men and long hair for women) shows the necessity of a woman being veiled in worship and a man being unveiled. In nature men and women are distinguished by the length of their hair; so, in the church, they are distinguished by the presence or absence of a material covering. One thing is clear: the hair is not the covering being spoken of in verses 4-7, 13.

5). It is the practice of all the apostolic churches (v. 16).

Paul’s final rationale is an appeal to the united teaching of all the apostles and the unified practice of all the churches of Christ.

The word “contentious” signifies being fond of strife, or eager for strife and debate, and hence, contentious, quarrelsome, or argumentative. Paul says, If any one wants to continue to debate the matter and quarrel with me over the ordinance of headcoverings that I delivered unto you, let him know that “we” (all the apostles, cf. 1 Cor. 2:6-13; 9:2-5; 15:9-15) have “no such custom.” The word “custom” refers to a habit, custom, or usage. It is a practice that has become established or standard. There are two views as to what it refers to here.

The first view is that “such custom” looks back to the verse 2 and refers to the practice of being contentious over the definition and practice of the ordinances (v. 2). In this view, Paul is saying, that among the apostles of Christ “we” are one in our understanding and practice of the ordinances of Christ, and there are no contentions or quarrels among us concerning them. We all agree on the theological foundation, the instructions, and the rationale for the ordinance of headcoverings.

The second view looks back to verse 13 and refers to “a woman praying unto God uncovered.” This view understands Paul as saying that if some of the Corinthians are contentious and still cannot come to the right answer to the question of verse 13, he wants them to know that the apostles are of one mind on the matter, and none of them permit a Christian woman to pray uncovered in the church.

Regardless of which of the two views one favors, the clause, “we have no such custom, neither the churches of God,” is a very significant and powerful close to Paul’s argument for the practice of headcoverings. By using the plural pronoun “we,” Paul skilfully brings in the authority of all the other apostles and ministers of Christ to support the doctrine and practice he has just articulated concerning headcoverings.

Therefore, although 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is the only text in the New Testament to speak directly to the matter of headcoverings in the church (but cf. 1 Tim. 2:9-10, and, in the Old Testament, Deut. 22:5), verse 16 indicates that all the other apostles taught and practiced it; it is not simply an apostolic ordinance because Paul taught it, but is an apostolic doctrine because all the apostles taught it. This is why all “the churches” of God practiced it. Here we have a declaration of the universal practice of all the churches of the New Testament.

6. What does the practice of headcoverings signify?

As pointed out already, the ordinance of headcovering is a sign and symbol of the creation order of authority as it manifests itself in Christ’s kingdom.

Therefore, on a personal level, it signifies an individual man’s or woman’s acceptance of their place in the creation order that God has established for men and women and how that order expresses itself in the order of headship in Christ’s mediatorial kingdom.

As an outward symbol, it is pleasing to God, if it is the expression of a man’s or woman’s heart on the matter.

7. When does the practice of headcoverings apply?

The practice of headcovering applies while “praying or prophesying.” How are we to understand this? Particularly in view of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 where women are categorically forbidden to speak in the meetings of the church for worship and edification, and in 1 Timothy 2:8 where only men are instructed to pray, and in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 where women are instructed again to be silent in the church.

It seems that the most biblical and consistent conclusion is to understand “praying or prophesying” as a figure of speech where a part stands for or suggests the whole (e.g., “give us this day our daily bread”). As prayer and prophesy were key elements of early Christian worship —prayer and instruction through the Word of God, i.e., speaking to God and hearing from God — so these two actions stand for the whole of Christian worship (cf. Acts 2:42 and 20:7).

The overwhelming consensus of commentators has been that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 teaches that men are to be uncovered and women covered whenever believers meet for worship and for the whole time of the meeting. Brian Schwertley says: “Probably the best interpretation is that the acts of prayer and prophecy mentioned by Paul represent congregational participation in public worship (Scholars refer to a description of a part [in this case a part of public worship] for the whole as a synecdoche)” (“Headcoverings in Public Worship”).

Paul Williams concludes: “‘Pray and prophesy’ covers what Christians do in worship. It is a way of saying, ‘When you worship God’.” (The Head Covering of 1 Corinthians 11, p. 89).

David Dickson explains: “they are said to pray and Prophesie, who met publikely, and consented to promote this publike Worship of God” (Commentaries on the Epistles).

But it should also be noted that nothing in the text limits Paul’s instructions only to the Lord’s Day meeting. These instructions apply to all gatherings of God’s people on any day of the week to worship God and edify one another (e.g., a mid-week prayer meeting or Bible study).

Furthermore, a case can be made, and the Anabaptists have made it well, that the principles underlying Paul’s instructions and the practices here enjoined concerning headcoverings are to be observed at all times, not just in gatherings of God’s people. Obedience to Paul’s teaching on headcoverings is an important witness to the world concerning God’s order of headship.

8. What is the nature of the headcovering?

The headcovering in view in 1 Corinthians 11:4-7, 13 is definitely a material covering of some kind. The words of verse 4, “having his head covered” mean to have something on the head, i.e., wearing some sort of material or fabric covering on or over the head, such as a veil, shawl, hat, or cap. A. T. Robertson interprets “having his head covered” to mean “the veil hanging down from the head” (A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, pp. 606-607). Frederick Danker, in the standard Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, concurs, stating that in 1 Corinthians 11:4 the phrase means to “have something on ones head.”

The words for “uncovered” and “covered” used in verses 5-7 are from the same Greek root that means to cover with a thing, to cover or conceal, or to put a covering over something. As a verb it is the act of covering something with something else, or, as a noun, it refers to the thing that is used to cover something (e.g., cloth). This noun is used specifically in Greek literature and in the Greek Old Testament to refer to a woman’s veil (Gen. 38:15) and in the Greek New Testament of the veil Moses used to cover his face (2 Cor. 3:13). In the Septuagint, the verb is used to designate covering the tabernacle with curtains (Exod. 26:13), of covering the furniture of the tabernacle with a cloth in preparation for transporting it (Num. 4:8-9, 11, 12, 15), and of Michal using a cloth to cover an image, meant to represent David (1 Sam. 19:13). I consulted twelve different New Testament Greek lexicons/dictionaries and all the authors of these lexicons understood the Greek words, as Paul used them in 1 Corinthians 11, in terms of covering the head with a veil, i.e., wearing or not wearing a veil on the head.

That the nature of the covering is some sort of fabric or material covering is evident by the essential meaning of the words themselves and the context in which they are used (something covering the head). So, it is not surprising, that the near unanimous opinion of scholars, commentators, lexicographers, grammarians and translators (both ancient and modern) is that Paul is talking about some sort of material headcovering (e.g., hat, cap, turban for men, and a veil, shawl, scarf for women).

I say near unanimous, because a few scholars have advocated (particularly in recent years) that the covering Paul is speaking about in 1 Corinthians 11:4-7, 13 is the length and/or style of a person’s hair based on what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15. This view seems to be growing in popularity and reach, and therefore, needs to be answered (see the next point).

We should note that the actual headcovering that is worn by women should be distinct enough and dignified enough that it is able to show forth the spiritual truth that it is intended to represent (e.g., a baseball cap does not qualify). There is wisdom in a church unifying its practice by defining what the covering should be like (e.g., the way the Anabaptist churches have).

9. Why can’t hair (style and length) be the headcovering?

For the following reasons, hair style and length cannot be legitimately understood as the covering in view in 1 Corinthians 11:4-7, 13:

1). The meaning of the words “having his head covered” and the words “uncovered” and “covered,” refer to having or wearing something on one’s head; some type of material or fabric headcovering in the form of a hat or veil or the like.

These words are not used in reference to hair length or hair style (e.g., If a person has long hair, we do not say their head is covered; if their hair is short, we do not say that their head is uncovered. Even short hair covers a persons head. In this view, the only uncovered head would be one that is shaved).

2). The place of Paul’s words concerning long hair in verses 14-15 indicate that hair is not the covering.

The statements on hair are part of Paul’s rationale for the instructions concerning the headcoverings of verses 4-7, 13, not the instructions themselves. These verses have a subordinate standing in the passage; subordinate in the sense that they supply an illustration from nature for the teaching and imperatives of verses 4-7a. To make hair the covering is to turn the passage on its head, and convert an illustration into an imperative.

Furthermore, if long hair is the headcovering why didn’t Paul simply say so from the beginning of his teaching and instructions on this subject? Why would he confuse and mislead his hearers by such a method as this? Paul is a better teacher and communicator than that!

3). The word for “covering” (in v. 15, peribalaion) is a different Greek word than the one used in vv. 5-7, 13 (katakalupto, akatatkalupto).

This is something that our English translations do not bring out, but it is very significant.

If verses 14-15 are an argument drawn from “nature” and the covering of hair is used to illustrate the need for a material covering on a woman’s head, then you would expect that Paul, to avoid the possibility of confusing the two, to use different Greek words. On the other hand, if verses 14-15 provide the essential definition of the covering being commanded in verses 4-7, 13, then you would expect Paul, to avoid all possibility of confusion, to use the same Greek word.

What did Paul do here? The first, i.e., he used a different Greek term for the covering. We have to accept that the use of different Greek words for the coverings was a deliberate choice on Paul’s part, and makes nearly certain what the structure of the passage already indicates: the hair is not the covering in view; it is only being used to illustrate the need for the woman to wear a headcovering (e.g., a veil) and for a man to have nothing on his head.

4). The testimony of nature concerning the distinction of men and women as reflected in the length of their hair is on the level of natural revelation, and, therefore, is inadequate, in itself, to serve as a sign and testimony to the grand truths of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

What is being signified by the headcovering, in this text, is not only the creation order, but the creation order as it has been incorporated into the kingdom of Christ. The headcovering is established for the church, and, therefore, contains a definite Christological dimension.

Hair length may be sufficient as a general revelation to all mankind concerning the creation order, but it is not sufficient as a distinct sign of Christ’s mediatorial kingdom and the place of men and women in that kingdom. The headcovering is a church practice ordained of Paul to be obeyed as a distinct witness to the cosmic order of God - Christ - man - woman.

There is no distinct Christian symbol in how persons wear their hair. Nature has taught all mankind to distinguish between men and women through the length and style of the hair on their heads, and, generally, all cultures and religions have followed the same essential pattern of shorter hair for men and longer hair for women.

Women, throughout time, have worn their hair long whether they be saved or unsaved, Christian or heathen, disciples of Christ or devotees of “Baal.” And so it is today. Long hair only indicates a woman’s acceptance of her femininity; it does not testify of her submission to the order of male headship in Christ’s kingdom.

Paul’s point is that the natural covering calls for an additional covering which testifies of God’s order in Christ. This also means that the natural covering, though important and still to be embraced (i.e., women should still have long hair), it is not enough for the Christian woman.

To reiterate then: 1) long hair is a woman’s response to general revelation concerning the natural difference between men and women; 2) covering the head in worship is the Christian woman’s response to biblical revelation concerning her God-given position and role. It is her covenantal declaration of submission to the order of Christ’s kingdom.

5). The preposition “for” (anti) does not teach that the headcovering in view in Paul’s instructions in verses 4-7, 13 is a woman’s hair or that she needs no other covering but her hair.

Note carefully that the text does not say that her hair is her covering, but that “her hair is given for a covering.” This makes the meaning of the preposition “for” quite important. The preposition (anti) has the basic sense of over against or opposite to; its derived meanings are: 1) to denote substitution, instead of, in the place of; 2) to denote equivalence, as, just like; 3) to denote exchange, for; 4) to denote comparison, like or as.

Those who believe that hair is the covering often argue that “for” is here used in the sense of substitution or exchange (i.e., instead of, in the place of). But if the woman’s hair is to be used in the place of or as a substitute for a covering, what is the covering that it is a substitute for? If you believe that the whole passage is talking about hair (even in vv. 4-7), then no other covering is mentioned in the text of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 for which hair can be considered a substitute, i.e., used in the place of.

If you believe that hair is a substitute for the material headcovering that Paul speaks about in verses 4-7, then you have Paul saying something like this: Although it is a shameful thing for a woman to pray or prophesy without a cloth headcovering (vv. 5-6), in the end, it doesn’t matter, and you may discount what I have just said about wearing a covering because God has given her long hair in the place of a material covering (v. 15)!

The preposition “for” is better understood as indicating some sort of equivalence or comparison; this is why it can serve as part of Paul’s rationale for his command that the woman be covered in worship, i.e., veiled. As A. T. Robertson states, “It is not in the place of a veil, but answering to (anti in the sense of anti in John 1:16), as a permanent endowment” (Word Pictures in The New Testament, p. 162).

6). The context specifies the need for a covering while praying or prophesying, and so it implies a covering that can be put on for the specified time and taken off when no longer required.

Such a conception supports the view that the covering is head gear; it does not support the view that the covering is hair!

If the covering is hair length, then there would be no need (it would be superfluous) to specify a covering for times of prayer or prophecy, since our hair length is with us throughout the day and during all our activities.

Furthermore, since the text of verses 14-15 indicates that it is always shameful for a man to have long hair, and implies that it is always shameful for a woman to have short hair, there seems no need to point out that it is shameful for a man to pray or prophesy with long hair or a woman to do so with short hair.

10. Why can’t the practice of headcoverings be set aside as a cultural accommodation?

Relegating Paul’s teaching on headcoverings to something only applicable to the city of Corinth and the ancient world is a favorite means for doing away with the practice of headcoverings in the church today.

But there is nothing in the text that indicates that Paul is simply teaching the Corinthians (or us) to be sensitive to local customs so as not to violate those customs. Instead, everything in the text points to a practice that is trans-cultural and binding on the church in all times and places.

1). The practice is referred to as an ordinance, i.e., apostolic teaching that is to be obeyed.

In verse 2, Paul leads into his teaching on headcoverings by noting that it is one of the ordinances he has delivered to the Corinthians. As an “ordinance,” it is expressed in definitive teaching as to what is to be practiced and is grounded in biblical doctrine. No reference whatsoever is made to prevailing customs or cultural practices.

2). The practice is grounded in the order of headship in Christ’s mediatorial kingdom.

There is nothing cultural about the mediatorial kingdom of Christ. It was formally established at His exaltation to the right hand of God the Father, and will conclude at His second coming and the final judgment (Acts 2:33-36; 1 Cor. 15:24-28).

3). The practice is a sign of the creation order.

The creation order establishes the pattern for man’s life in the world: his dominion calling, his worship, his work, his rest, his differentiation as male and female. The creation order has never been repealed, and it continues to bind all men in all places, in all times, and all aspect of life (the fall did not destroy these ordinances; it destroyed man’s willing submission to them).

4). The practice is important in view of the angels’ presence in our worship.

Angels are not concerned with the mere cultural traditions of men. Their concern is the pure worship of God, and the obedience of men and women to the laws, statutes, commandments, and ordinances of God.

5). The practice is consistent with what nature teaches.

The word “nature” (v. 14) refers to the regular or established order of things that exist in nature independent of man’s consciousness or evaluation of them. It speaks of the external world and the divine laws and purposes that govern it. It seems that in this context, Paul is speaking of “nature” as the established order of things as they appear in the world as created by God. In other words, nature reflects the creation order. “Nature” is not subject to the changing whims or trends of human culture but is a permanent feature of God’s creation. If nature is part of the rationale for the practice of headcovering, the practice is as universal and unchanging as nature itself.

6). Paul does not speak of becoming all things to all men as he does in other parts of 1 Corinthians.

If the practice of headcoverings was mere cultural accommodation, then Paul would have presented his teaching on it in terms similar to 1 Cor. 9:19-22. He would have called on them to “become all things to all men” for the sake of the Gospel. But instead of urging them to be sensitive to the customs of the people of Corinth, he exhorted them on the basis of unchanging creational and theological realities.

7). The actual practice commanded in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 was contrary to both the worship practices of the Greeks and the Romans.

Cultural arguments used in the interpretation of Scripture must be used very cautiously because our knowledge of ancient culture is general at best, and in specifics it may miss completely the actual situation or circumstances of the biblical event or teaching.

As best as I can determine, the worship practice of the Romans was that both men and women covered themselves in worship, while the worship practice of the Greeks was for both men and women to be uncovered in worship. Corinth was a Roman city situated in the country of Greece, so did Roman customs or Greek customs or both influence the Corinthian church? Hence, it should be evident that Paul’s instructions contradicted both the Roman and Greek customs!

11. Why shouldn’t the practice of headcoverings be a matter of individual conscience?

Some have argued that since the practice of headcoverings is a controversial matter, individual churches should simply leave it up to every member to decide for themselves what they believe about the practice of headcoverings here presented by Paul.

1). It is not presented as such by Paul.

Nowhere does Paul suggest that this is the best solution to the contention in Corinth, nor does he deal with this subject as he deals with other subjects that he allows are matters of individual conscience (cf. Rom. 14:1-15:2; 1 Cor. 8:1-13).

2). The church collectively is to judge on the matter.

The words “judge in yourselves” (v. 13) is an imperative calling the Corinthians to action. It is a specific command for them to judge in regard to the matter of a woman praying to God without a covering on her head. The word “judge” means to make a judgment or form an opinion after taking the relevant factors into account, and after engaging in the cognitive processes of thinking and deciding. The command is not to a singular individual but to the whole congregation (the command is given in the second person plural). The judgment Paul is commanding them to make is not an individual judgment because the matter of a woman praying to God without a veiling in the meetings of the church is not a private matter of individual judgment, but a public matter that involves the whole congregation.

3). It is held forth as apostolic teaching and as a practice in all apostolic churches.

It is inconceivable, on the basis of verse 16 and the whole text of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, that Paul believed that headcovering was a issue of individual conscience. Rather, for him, it is a point of church polity to be followed by all the members of Christ’s church. Therefore, each church should formally establish the practice of headcovering so as to make it a fixed part of their worship decorum, and not allowing deviation from it by its members.

12. What is the testimony of church history concerning the practice of headcoverings?

In general, the practice of men being uncovered and women covered in their worship and service of God has been the custom of the church in all ages and nations. This fact is well-stated by Robert Spinney:

Virtually all Christians practiced head covering until the late 1800s. Tertullian (160-200), the Apostolic Constitutions (325), Chrysostom (347-407), and Augustine (354-430) confirm that Paul’s teachings regarding head coverings prevailed throughout the early church. Women during the Middle Ages, Reformation-era women, Puritan women, Revolutionary war-era women in America and nineteenth century women all wore head coverings. As late as the mid-1800s, American theologian Robert Lewis Dabney wrote, “[F]or a woman to appear or to perform any public religious function in a Christian assembly unveiled is a glaring impropriety (Should Christian Women Wear Head Coverings Today? A Brief Examination of 1 Corinthians 11:1-16).


1 Corinthians 11:2-16 was written to both men and women. It sets before us Christ’s will for His Church. The practice of headcovering provides us with a glorious opportunity to testify by visible signs to what we believe about the roles and responsibilities that God has established for men and women in the creation order and has incorporated into the kingdom of Jesus Christ. The truth we proclaim by observing the apostolic doctrine of headcovering is one of the most important truths concerning the way of life established for us by our Creator: the creation order for men and women. If we get that order wrong, as Charles Hodge put it, “ruin must be the result.” Let us close with this word of admonition from Timothy Nelson:

Perhaps there may be, in the minds of some readers, the feeling that the subject of the woman’s headcoverings is of little importance. Are we at liberty to reduce any matter on which God has spoken to such a level? If God has inspired his servant to present a full discussion of this issue, and has preserved that discussion for all succeeding generations, it is our solemn obligation to attend, to listen and to obey. Failure to manifest such a response will affirm that we have indeed imbibed the spirit of this age, being as those who “have cast away the law of the Lord of hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel” (Isa. 5:24). From such folly, may God preserve us (The Head Covering: What Saith the Scriptures?).


This sermon was preached at Immanuel Free Reformed Church on September 27, 2015. The audio of this sermon is available at SermonAudio.com (http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermonaudioinfo.asp?SID+101052113335)