The question of whether or not women should cover their heads during prayer or sermons (prophesy) has been around a long time. We have a rather thick folder with articles written by a variety of people, and one of those articles written by Eric Svendsen says “1 Cor 11:1-16 ... ranks among the most difficult of all passages in the NT.”
Since these passages are not all that clear, a personal decision should be made about them, and then our idea not forced others. This is a good example of how we need to have tolerance for people who see things differently to ourselves.
Most of the articles we have found agree on two points.
The apostle Paul is saying that women should have their head covered while “praying and prophesying”, and the men should be uncovered.
The custom he is talking about is “timeless and universal in scope”, and not some local custom, or “fashion statement” of the day.
So where is the problem? It is found in v15 where he states that a woman's hair is given to her for a covering. Is this the only “covering” that is required, or is he also talking about something else? If a woman's hair is the only covering required, then what is the point of all Paul has to say in verses 1 – 13?
We believe that the answer is found in v14 and 15. In v14, Paul is saying that nature is to “teach” us something. To put it another way, nature is showing us something, not doing something for us that takes away our responsibility. So nature starts the process for us by giving a woman long hair as a token covering. We then follow nature's lead and then add to the covering, with a shawl or veil or some other suitable covering.
The other side of the coin is that men should keep their hair short. How short is an individual decision, but from the principle of Deut 22:5, males and females should be able to be distinguished without seeing their faces. If a man, viewed from certain angles, looks like a woman because his hair is too long, then something is wrong. Of course it is the opposite for women, if they wear their hair too short.
While we are talking about 1 Cor 11, we might mention that we feel that v10 might be better translated. The root word for “angels” is messenger, so the end of v10 could be translated something like “... the woman ought to have a symbol of [being subject to] authority on her head, because of the message it sends”. While it is difficult to prove, I think many people would agree that a woman with longish hair looks much more feminine than a woman with short hair (medical reasons excepted), and as such, is given a higher level of respect in society.
Men should wear their hair short, and not cover it when praying or in a situation where “inspired speaking” is happening. Women should wear their hair longish, and then add an extra covering when involved in public worship or formal prayer. We see no instruction that indicates that the head covering should be worn at all times, nor that women should refrain from informal (1 Thes 5:17) talking to God just because their veil is not handy.
Jamieson, Fausset and Brown have this to say under 1 Cor 11:5 “It is natural to her to have long hair for her covering: she ought, therefore, to add the other (the wearing of a head-covering) to show that she does of her own free will that which nature itself teaches she ought to do, in token of her subjection to man”
If women wear a head covering with an attitude of “because I have to”, then the advantage is lost. The apostle Paul takes time in verses 3-12 to spell out the relationships between mankind and Jesus, and also between Jesus and God. If there is an “understanding” between the two greatest powers in the universe, as to who is in charge and what their individual responsibilities are, then it should come as no surprise that the same situation should exist between husband and wife. However, just because there are different levels of responsibility, this does not mean that one should try to dominate. Verse 11 shows us that we are very dependant on each other, so everything should be done in a spirit of cooperation.
The Believer's Bible Commentary has this to say under 1 Cor 11:3 “Behind his [Paul's] instruction is the fact that every ordered society is built on two pillars – authority and subjection to that authority. ... one person has the place of rule and another takes the place of willing submission. These examples of headship and submission were designed by God and are fundamental in His arrangement of the universe.”
We should take some time and think about the importance of what is being discussed in the beginning of 1 Cor 11. Understanding how God's government (the Kingdom of God) works is something every human who has ever lived (or will live) should desire. Physical life – pre-life compared to eternal life – shows us very well what happens when people take authority to themselves (Hitler, Polpot, Stalin) or they reject the laws of the land (vandalism, drink driving, violence towards others). So it should be easy to see why God's Kingdom will have a system where the right people will be in charge, and all will submit to the established authority. Men submitting to Christ, and women submitting to men, is just training us so that ultimately we will all submit to the Father.
Paul goes back to the Genesis beginning to show that the creation of women was expressly for the support of the already created male. Material things work best when they are used as their maker designed them to be used. Wood tools should only be used for wood, and stone tools should only be used for stone. If we try to use wood tools to cut stone, then damage is done. And so it is with men and women – when they fulfill the role they were created for, and perform the responsibilities they have been given, harmony is the result.
A head covering worn by a woman during formal worship and prayer should indicate that the relationship between God and Christ, Christ and man, man and woman, is understood and upheld. All men seeing this - along with modest dress and a quiet spirit (1 Tim 2:9-15) - should respond by showing respect, and providing protection and support.
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Bob Orchard Dec 2011
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