The Heart Issue Of Headcovering

Photo of me wearing a hat

The apostle Peter acknowledged in 2 Peter 3:16 that the letters of the apostle Paul had Scriptural authority. In that very same verse, he admitted that Paul sometimes wrote things so difficult to understand that unstable people could easily distort them. While Peter’s emphasis was on the false teachers that distort God’s Word, it bears noting that Paul indeed wrote things that aren’t so easily interpreted.

1 Corinthians 11:1-16 is, according to several pastors and commentators I interviewed and read, one such passage. Those supporting the Head Covering Movement of course believe that the passage is straightforward, mandating that women cover their heads in worship services. This Website offers an overwhelming amount of articles, videos and ebooks expounding on 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 to make the case that headcovering is not optional for Christian women.

Really? An entire movement dedicated to one passage of Scripture?

Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 for ourselves, and think through its assertions and implications.

Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.

Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. 10 Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God. ~~1 Corinthians 11:1-16 (NASB)

Obviously I can’t do a verse-by-verse analysis of this passage in the context of a single blog post. Thankfully, my friend Pastor Mike Abendroth of Bethlehem Bible Church in West Boyleston, MA sent me audio recordings of his four sermons on 1 Corinthians 11, which I strongly recommend to anybody who has questions or convictions about headcovering.

Pastor Mike explains that First Century Greek culture expected married women to cover their heads in public at all times as a sign that they were married. When they entered pagan temples, however, some of them would uncover their heads as a statement that they were under the authority of the pagan deity in opposition to that of their husbands.

Thus, when Christian women uncovered their heads in gatherings of the church, they essentially did so to signify that their submission to the Lord liberated them from the responsibility to submit to their own husbands. Paul wrote this passage as a corrective, emphasizing that the Lord actually designed marriage to reflect the church’s submission to Christ as His Bride (see Ephesians 5:22-33).

I want to go back to Peter for a moment. Look at his instructions to women.

In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands; just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear. ~~1 Peter 3:1-6 (NASB)

Peter neither condemns dressing nicely nor advocates for headcovering. He focuses on a woman’s attitude of submission to her husband in agreement with Paul. As a matter of fact, submission within marriage is what makes a woman beautiful.

Both passages that I’ve quoted in this article center more on the attitude of submission than on external symbols of that submission. Those of us who cover our heads would do well to keep that point in mind.

For example, I clearly remember a Sunday years ago when I harbored sinful thoughts that dishonored John. As my Personal Care Attendant placed my hat on my head, I thought of the Pharisees who cleaned their eating utensils but refused to clean their hearts (Mark 7:1-8). During that ride to church, I couldn’t stop wondering if Jesus saw that hat as a disgusting symbol of my hypocrisy.

As I understand 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, therefore, the concern is more with the purity of a wife’s heart towards her husband than with the outward symbol of covering her head. Are we in godly marriages where we embrace God’s command to submit to our husbands out of reverence for Christ? Or are we piously wearing headcoverings while we internally rebel against our husbands? If it’s the latter case, perhaps our headcoverings really don’t honor the Lord after all.

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