Are head coverings mandatory for women in church?
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians and said:
“Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head” (1 Corinthians 11:4–5 ESV)
If we don’t wear head coverings aren’t we hypocritical for still believing in the other things the Bible says about sexuality, gender and marriage?
Those sorts of questions have the feel of “internet gotcha games” and betray a lack of understanding for how the Bible is put together. Consider the following text:
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16–18 ESV)
So let me ask you a question: when you fast do you have to anoint your head with oil?
Why or why not?
If you don’t anoint your head with oil aren’t you a hypocrite for believing everything the Bible says about sexuality, gender and marriage?
Because anointing your head with oil is not the point of the passage – it is a culturally embedded application of the point of the passage. The point of the passage is that when we fast or do any other act of piety, it should be done before God, not men. We should be seeking God’s approval, not the approval of others. Therefore, try to look normal, do what you would normally do – and in this case, given the cultural standards at the particular time, what you would normally do is anoint your hair with oil.
Today we would say: when you fast, shave, brush your hair, tuck in your shirt and act like it’s just another day.
Same principle, slightly different cultural application.
So with head coverings.
The point in 1 Corinthians 11 has to do with not overturning the order of creation when we start to worship Christ. While men and women are equal with respect to our dignity and worth and equal with respect to our salvation graces, there are certain differences that ought to be maintained in the church.
Women should look like women.
Men should look like men.
Married women should look like they are honouring their husbands.
Married men should look like they are trying to lead in the home and in the church.
Getting saved shouldn’t motivate us to rebel against the created order, it should make us love and serve within the created order as we were originally designed and intended to do.
In that culture the way to look like a married woman was to cover your head – that’s what married women did. The goal then for modern readers is not to run out and buy a stola, it is to translate the principle into a modern context and application. J.I. Packer says:
“The Biblical revelation was given in terms of Eastern culture, environment and thought-forms, all very different from our modern, industrial, Western world, and it has to be translated into modern terms before men can fully grasp its relevance.”
Ask anyone on the street how women in our culture signal that they are married as opposed to being single and you will learn a fair bit about what you need to know to apply this particular principle. They will say things like: “A married woman wears a wedding ring. She probably doesn’t wear low cut necklines and she probably goes a little lighter on the makeup.”
A woman in our day and age who wants to practice what Paul is preaching in 1 Corinthians 11 probably begins by deciding to look like a woman. I think that means rejecting some of the gender-bending and gender blending trends that we are observing in our culture at present. I think that a married woman wants to look like she is happy in her relationship with her husband. She isn’t displaying her physical attributes in any sort of coquettish way. And she is leaving space for her husband, and some of the other dads in the congregation to attempt to discharge their responsibilities in the area of teaching and stewarding the Word of God.
But she probably isn’t wearing a hat.
A hat in our culture doesn’t say: “I’m a married woman”; it says “I’m having a bad hair day” or “It’s incredibly cold in here” or “I grew up in the South”.
There’s nothing wrong with any of those things, but it doesn’t really address the main concern of the passage.
And that’s the point.
The goal is not to reproduce 1st century eastern cultural norms, the goal is to submit to the spirit of the passage.
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes.
 J.I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” And The Word Of God (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1958),136.