Throughout time, women in the east have veiled their heads both at home and further afield. In the west, the custom was for ladies to don a hat when they went out, even for such routine activities as shopping or visiting friends. Largely, the eastern tradition prevails, but around the middle of the twentieth century western practice underwent a change, and there are few women who now wear a hat. This cultural change impacted on the religious world. Whereas at one time it would have been customary for women to wear a hat to “church”, that habit fell victim to the wind of change that was sweeping western society. Now, in many congregations a woman with a covered head is a rarity.
In many ways, current religious thinking has influenced what were once Scripturally constituted New Testament assemblies, with some now seeing no need for sisters to have their heads covered in assembly gatherings. Is the head covering an anachronism, or is it mandatory? Should the convention be maintained, or should we be flexible? Is it a Biblical principle or a tradition of what people regard as a minority Christian group? The crux of the matter lies in our attitude to the Bible. Do we really regard it as the inspired Word of God with commandments and principles that transcend cultural differences, with principles that are fixed, having no regard to changing fashions? The reason I believe that the sisters should have their heads covered in the gatherings is that I am convinced that the Scriptures teach it in 1 Corinthians 11.2-16. This article is not an in-depth exposition of these verses; for that, the commentary by Mr Jack Hunter on 1 Corinthians in the What the Bible Teaches series could be consulted with profit. Here, only a number of salient points will be highlighted.
1 Corinthians 11 is a chapter of symbols. In the first half the human head is seen as a symbol, and in the latter part a loaf and a cup are symbolic of the body and blood of the Lord Jesus. In the early verses the mans head is a symbol of his spiritual head, Christ. The womans head is regarded as a symbol of her spiritual head, the man.
Verse 3 explains that there are various levels of headship, that is, various levels of God-ordained authority. Christ is the head of the man, the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ. (In His incarnation, the Lord Jesus voluntarily took a position of subjection to His Father. This does not impinge on the truth of His deity or His equality with the Father; these facts are taught elsewhere in Scripture.) It is important for these levels of authority to be acknowledged in the assembly as both brothers and sisters adopt the correct attitude to each divinely arranged stratum of authority. However, the point of this passage is that these levels of authority should also be acknowledged symbolically, in that the men will gather with uncovered heads and the women with their heads covered. It is not that the women are in any way inferior to the men, just as there is no inferiority between God and Christ. Verses 11-12 show that men and women are interdependent, illustrated in the fact that the first woman was taken from a man, and every man born subsequently has been dependent on a mother giving birth to him. In this passage the question is not of inferiority and superiority, but of simply acknowledging the spheres of authority that God has set in place.
It was customary for Jewish men to congregate in synagogues with their heads covered. For a man to do that in an assembly gathering would be dishonouring to his spiritual head, Christ (v.4). Christ must be supreme. This must be true literally, and is expressed symbolically in the uncovered heads of the males. In symbol, Christ must be visible and obvious.
To be in the gathering with an uncovered head, a woman is dishonouring her spiritual head, the man, for she is assuming his appearance. The only alternative to having her head covered is to be “shorn or shaven” which is seen as so repulsive that it is no alternative at all (vv.5-6).
The Image and Glory of God
Because the man is the image and glory of God, his head should be uncovered; because the woman is the glory of the man, her head should be covered. When we gather, Gods authority must be acknowledged supremely. Any authority that the man has is derived from Him. By covering her head, the woman is saying symbolically that mans glory should never be on show in the things of God (v.7).
Another factor is the angel spectators. The women should have covered heads, acknowledging the authority of the men, “because of the angels” (v.10). Paul had been speaking of the first man and the first woman. Eve had acted independently of Adam with disastrous results (Gen 3); angels had witnessed that. They had also seen some of their own number being carried away by Lucifers rebellion against Gods authority. The New Testament church should be a place where angels can observe Gods order of authority being acknowledged, both literally and symbolically, in that the males have uncovered heads, and the females covered heads.
Pauls final argument is that our own natural instincts should help us to appreciate that what he has taught about the head covering is right (vv.13-16). An added factor is that God has further distinguished between the appearances of the sexes in that long hair is a natural glory for a woman but dishonouring to a man.
Some believers are unhappy about applying 1 Corinthians 11 today, and argue that a wifes wedding ring is the modern equivalent of the covered head. However, 1 Corinthians 11 is not dealing with husbands and wives, but with men and women in the context of a local church.
Another objection is that the problem addressed here is local to Corinth and should be interpreted within the culture of the district. In actual fact, the teaching of the letter has to be applied universally; as an inspired letter it should have acceptance with every believer in every place (1.2).
If the head covering is seen as irrelevant, it seems inconsistent to accept symbolism relating to the Lords Supper, and to reject the symbolism of earlier verses.
In short, I believe that the sisters should cover their heads because the Bible teaches it.