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Should Women Wear Hats?

A Bit to Read

Should Women wear Hats?

A couple of weeks ago, Rev D discussed with me a development I’d face when I get overseas.  Folk overseas want to take the Bible seriously, very seriously – as indeed all Christians ought to do.  In their studies of Scripture they’ve also come to 1 Corinthians 11, where the apostle writes these words: “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head.  And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head” (vss 4f).  Some of those we’re working with overseas have concluded that all women (at least in church) must wear some form of head covering (while in worship), while others of the same group remain unconvinced that it need be so.  Rev D has advised me to be ready to answer questions on the topic.

We who live in Chilliwack can relate to this issue.  We’re well aware that there are churches in our community that require all women to wear a head covering in church.  And yes, we know Paul’s words are in the Bible, yet few of our sisters wear a hat to church.  Are we perhaps ignoring Scripture’s instruction on the point?  Why take the Bible literally in all other places if we ignore Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:5?  Let me, then, share with you how I intend to answer the question that could potentially arise overseas.

Earlier Revelation

It needs to be noted first that Paul’s words about a head covering for women has no parallel of any sort in any of the Lord’s earlier instruction.  There is nothing in the Old Testament upon which a command for feminine head covering (or masculine head uncovering) is based, and there is nothing in Jesus’ teaching on the subject either.  That observation alone makes suspect the conclusion that Paul records here a rule about women’s head covering valid for all times and places.  The will of God does not come to us in so many isolated commands or revelations scattered disconnectedly through the pages of Scripture; instead, the material of the New Testament is built on God’s revelation in the Old Testament, and what is perhaps not-so-clearly revealed in the Old is set forth in clearer detail in the New Testament.  Think of a tulip; from the moment it appears from under the ground the entire tulip is embryonicly present in the green you see, and as the days go by the initial sprout of green develops into leaves, stalk and flower.  The flower or leaves are not added as new material some weeks later.  Since that principle is true of Scripture, the Lord can tell Israel how to discern whether a prophet speaks truth or misleads; a true prophets’ words will always agree with God’s earlier revelation (cf Deuteronomy 13:1ff).   But on the question of whether every woman is to have her covered in public worship, there is no command upon which 1 Corinthians 11:5 is built.


In second place, the theme of the paragraph where head coverings receive a mention (1 Corinthians 11:2-16) is not the head coverings.  The theme instead is the centre portion of vs 3: “the head of the woman is man.”  Lest his readers understand Paul to suggest that the man may treat his wife as a slave, the apostle precedes his theme with the statement that “the head of every man is Christ” (so man is not the top of the ladder), and follows it with the statement that “the head of Christ is God”.  Christ is not less than God, for He is true God with the Father, eternal, almighty, all-knowing just as the Father is.  Yet there is an order between the Father and the Son, with the Father having a priority and the Son submitting to the Father’s instruction (Jesus, for example, was sent to earth, and He willingly went; see John 4:34).  Similarly, says Paul, women is not less than man, for both are created to image God, both fell into sin, both are equally redeemed through the blood of Jesus Christ.  Yet there is an order between the man and the woman, with the man having priority over the woman and the woman needing to submit to the man.  As Paul says further in vs 7: man “is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of man.”  The hierarchy of which the apostle speaks here is not material new to this chapter, but is drawn from and built on God’s revelation in Genesis 2, when He created the man alone from the dust of the field and placed him in the Garden to work it and keep it (Genesis 2:7f, 15), and after that created the woman from the man’s rib to be his helper (Genesis 2:18ff).  God did not create the man from the woman, but created the woman from the man (1 Corinthians 11:8); similarly, God did not create the man for the woman, but created the woman for the man (1 Corinthians 11:9).  “The head of the woman is man”: that is the theme of this portion of 1 Corinthians 11.


Why, though, does Paul bring up this theme?  And why does he, within the framework of this theme, mention head coverings for men (not permitted) and for women (required)?  This, it turns out, is due to the specific circumstances as they existed in the Corinthian congregation.  What those circumstances were?

The fashion in (pagan) Corinth in the apostle’s time was that men did not customarily wear a head covering while women did.  By the gracious providence of God, the gospel of redemption from sin and Satan came to Corinth through the preaching of the apostle Paul, and several Corinthians embraced this good news in faith.  Very understandably, their coming to faith resulted in a changed lifestyle.  The apostle describes some of that change in 1 Corinthians 6: idolaters and adulterers and homosexuals and drunkards, etc, were changed by the mighty work of the Holy Spirit, so that they were idolaters and adulterers and homosexuals and drunkards no longer (vss 9ff).  

But the pendulum of change can swing too far.  In 1 Corinthians 11 the apostle mentions two ways in which the pendulum overreached.  He tells us in vss 4 & 5 about the man and the woman who “prays or prophesies”.  He mentions also that when the man or woman “prays or prophesies” the women declined to wear a head covering.  Now, Paul defers a discussion on whether women ought to prophesy until chapter 14 (and then he answers it in the negative with the well-known words of 14:34: “Women should remain silent in the churches.  They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says”).  Meanwhile, in chapter 11 he gives attention to the question of whether head coverings are proper for men or women as they pray or prophecy.  What he says?  Let me print again the words of vs 3, and directly thereafter the words of vss 4 and 5:
3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of a woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head….


Notice how often Paul uses the word ‘head’ in this short quote.  In vs 3 the term ‘head’ obviously refers to ones leader, be he Christ or the man or God.  In the first part of both vss 4 and 5 the reference to ‘head’ is obviously that physical protrusion on top of your shoulders upon which one can easily wear a hat.  But what is meant by the final reference to ‘head’ at the end of both vss 4 and 5?  Does that refer to the ‘head’ of vs 3, ie, the leader?  Or does it refer to the ‘head’ of vs 4, ie, your skull?  

As mentioned before, nowhere in Scripture do you find any reference to head coverings honouring or dishonouring one’s skull while praying or prophesying.  That fact makes suspect the interpretation that ‘head’ at the conclusion of those two verses refers to one’s skull.  The alternative is to read vss 4 and 5 in the light of vs 3, so that “every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours” Christ – for “the head of every man is Christ” (vs 3a).  And: “every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her” man – for “the head of a woman is man” (vs 3b).  And reading verses in context, well, that’s of course basic to all reading….

Still, the question arises why head coverings are even mentioned.  Allow me an illustration from our Canadian culture to clarify the point.  If I were to come to church wearing a dress, everyone would take offence, simply because in Canadian culture men don’t wear dresses.  In fact, in today’s western culture a man wearing a dress amounts to obvious defiance of the way our culture distinguishes between God-created genders.  More, if a man claiming to a Christian would wear a dress to church, well, he would certainly dishonour his head Jesus Christ by the message he’s sending to the public.  It turns out that Corinthian culture had no place for a man to wear a hat, and equally no place for a woman to go without a head covering; to counter that accepted pattern of society amounted to defying the commonly recognized distinctions between man and woman.  But see: pagans of Corinth came to faith, and as a result much in their lifestyle changed.  Some rejoiced in change so much that they defied the accepted standards delineating manhood and womanhood – as if woman could now dress as a man.  But that counter-cultural dress style sent a message to the community suggesting that these Christians disregarded the God-created distinctions between man and woman.  And yes, that distinctly dishonours Jesus Christ the church’s head.

That is why Paul is adamant that “the head of the woman is man,” and the practical look of that God-given reality in Corinthian culture is that the woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head (= her husband), for in her deeds she is publicly stating that she does not accept her place as woman-under-man.  That defiance of her God-given place is contrary to the revealed ordinance of God, for “the woman is the glory of man” since “man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was the man created for woman, but woman for man” (vss 7ff).

Head covering

Is Paul, then, demanding that women of all times wear a head covering?  Must women of all cultures wear a skirt, and men of all cultures wear pants?  Is there place for robes?  Or kilts?  Paul’s point is not what peoples of various cultures should wear.  As there is no Biblical command that all men of all cultures must wear a pants, and all women of all cultures must always wear a skirt, so there is no Biblical command that all men of all cultures must have their head uncovered when they pray or preach, and all women when they are in church must wear some form of head covering.  Such details are left to local dictates.
Rather, Paul’s point is that the male/female distinction as God has created it –whereby the head of the woman is man– is to be maintained in all cultures throughout all times.  More, each culture is to display that distinction in patterns befitting the dress standards of that culture.  As pagans come to faith, or as Christians develop a place in a particular culture, they are not by their deeds to communicate defiance of God’s ordinances.  The unbelieving world, after all, reads from the conduct of the Christian whether or not he accepts all that God has revealed in His Word – including the differences God has obviously established between man and woman, and the fact that God back in Genesis 2 ordained that “the head of the woman is man.”  In Canadian culture today, that aspect of God’s revelation is no longer communicated through the presence or absence of a head covering in church.  

C Bouwman
May 11, 2011