Head Covering: Common Questions
by Jason Ashe
Isn’t hair the covering?
Many people claim that a woman's hair is her covering. Verse 15 of 1 Corinthians 11 says, “For her hair is given to her for a covering.” If this were true, this passage would then be permitting long-haired women to show off their glory in the church since the same verse says “if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her.” It would also be instructing women to do something they are already doing naturally. Most women don’t suddenly try to have hair when they pray or prophesy because they already have it and very few of them willingly shave it off. That’s like saying, “Ladies, you have to remember to close your eyes every time you sneeze.” Every human being does that already! So, there cannot possibly be half a chapter devoted to such a thing.
Also consider verse 6, “For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off” (1 Corinthians 11:6). If the woman’s hair was the covering, the words “does not cover her head,” could be substituted for, “does not have hair” and the verse should technically still make sense. The verse would then read, “For if a woman does not have hair let her also have her hair cut off.” It would be impossible for someone who doesn’t have hair, to cut off what they do not have. A one-month-old baby cannot lose its teeth because it doesn’t have any teeth to lose!
We could also look at verse 4 for further clarity. It says that “Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head” (1 Corinthians 11:4). If we use the same logic of hair being a covering, the verse would translate as, “Every man who has hair while praying or prophesying disgraces his head” (1 Corinthians 11:4). That would mean that every man must be completely bald when praying or prophesying because being covered or to “have hair” while doing so, would be a dishonor to Christ. We know this isn’t the case because Paul himself had a head full of hair during his first two missionary journeys until he mistakenly shaved his head as a vow (Acts 18:18). We can conclude that the covering being mentioned in this passage is more than just the natural covering of hair. It is something else that the woman must willingly choose to apply, and the man must decide not to.
What kind of covering?
Seeing how hair of any length isn’t a sufficient covering, some women may ask the questions “What style of covering are we supposed to wear?” 1 Corinthians 11 gives no specifics so we cannot add to it by mandating one particular material or style of covering. What we know for sure is that whatever covering a woman chooses, it should do one of two things: It should cover her glory—which is her hair if it is long. This is the glory and covering given to her by God. And it should be worn on top of her head—the epicenter of the body— because she is under authority. Even if she doesn’t have the glory of long hair, a woman is still the glory of man in the creation order. As such, the glory of man must be hidden.
The general rule of Christian humility according to 1 Peter 3:3 is a given here so it also mustn’t draw attention to the woman’s beauty as to make her appearance more esteemed or admired. This doesn’t mean that she must choose an ugly scarf or old tattered hat to wear either. There is nothing wrong with dressing nice and presentably. If somehow by cultural standards a woman looks good while observing this commandment, so be it. There is nothing pious about wearing ugly or wrinkled clothing, in the same way, that there is no virtue in choosing to drink bitter juice when you break bread, instead of using wine or sweet grape juice, or being baptized in a cold lake rather than a tank indoors. The point is that the woman’s motive behind her action must be one that seeks to honor God and the man she submits to through covering her head, and not to accentuate her own beauty through a cute fashion accessory (1 Peter 3:3).
Who does this apply to?
We believe that this command to cover the head isn’t only limited to wives, but extends to every woman. This doesn’t mean that every woman should be under the authority of every man, but it does imply that ideally, all Christian women-like every Christian-should have a man in their life that they submit to. Be it a husband, father, or the elders in the church.
When we look at verse 8 again in 1 Corinthians 11, it states, “For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man.” Clearly, we can see here that it is referring to the creation account, but does “woman” mean wife or woman (mature female)? For this, we must compare Scripture with Scripture.
In Genesis 2, when God created Eve from the rib of Adam, she was first referred to as woman before she was ever called his wife (Genesis 2:22-24). As human beings, we are first identified by our gender before anything else. When we come into this world, we are either boy or girl, male or female, but even this has now become debatable in our culture. Therefore, we should not assume that what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 11:8 was, “The husband does not originate from the wife.”
From this, we can conclude, just like the early church did, that in referring to creation in support of the head covering, Paul is saying that it is something that applies to all who are considered women regardless of their marital status.
When should it be worn?
Some believers will suggest that since we are told to pray without ceasing, a woman should have her head covered at all times. If we follow that logic, then any woman who takes her covering off to shower or to go swimming is literally sinning and being disobedient. She should continue praying while doing those things, shouldn’t she? Likewise, any man who covers his head during a blizzard or wears a hard hat on a construction site is also being disobedient because he should continue praying while out in the snow and at work.
If they’re honest, those who insist on a 24/7 covering would have to admit that they do not obey their own teaching entirely. Although prayer cannot be limited to simply vocalizing the cries of our heart to God, Paul is, however, dealing with the gathering together of the saints when we speak to or for God in public and engage in the act of prayer in the church meeting. This is the reason why this passage is preceded by commandments to avoid becoming a stumbling block to other brothers and sisters and followed by instructions regarding the breaking of bread, loving one another and exercising spiritual gifts.
This doesn’t mean that a woman who does cover her head nearly 24/7 isn’t obeying the commandment in 1 Corinthians 11, however, if we simply judge by what is contextually revealed in Scripture, we will see that she doesn’t have to do that. A woman is only commanded to cover her head when praying or prophesying in the church meeting. From this reasoning, we believe that these instructions around head covering are to be followed during the entire praise and teaching portion of our meetings. 1 Corinthians chapters 11-14 all pertain to the church meeting. 1 Corinthians 14:26 says, “…When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” Notice the last sentence. Since all things are to be done for edification whenever we gather together, this verse alludes to the truth that even our time of singing (sharing a psalm) should venture into the realm of prophecy according to its biblical definition. This is an indication that our praise and thanksgiving—although ultimately for the glory of God—is also an act of submission and engaged in for the building up of the church in a prophetic manner.
This, however, doesn’t indicate that praise and the gift of prophecy are one and the same. It’s similar to how we are told that there is a specific gift of mercy given to believers as the Spirit sees fit (Romans 12:8), but the Bible also says that all Christians are called to show mercy (Luke 6:36). Corporate praise and thanksgiving has a prophetic spirit behind it (Ephesians 5:19). Therefore, we believe that we should obey these commandments during the designated time for praise, teaching, praying, and prophesying or sharing testimonies.
What if I don’t want to cover my head?
A sister who wishes to attend our church without covering her head will never be excluded from fellowship. However, she will not be permitted to share a word in the meetings or pray out loud. Some sisters may be confused as to why we forbid any woman who doesn’t choose to cover her head from praying out loud or sharing in our meetings. They may argue, “Isn’t that basically forcing your beliefs onto another? If I don’t share that conviction, why should I feel compelled to follow it?”
In matters where the Bible is silent, such as the ideal house size or the number of vehicles one family can have, we must give others in the church the freedom to do as they feel led to. However, where a commandment is given in Scripture pertaining to the church assembly and the elders are in agreement on its interpretation, as shepherds of the flock we must not permit anyone to share in a meeting who is continually and unrepentantly refusing to obey it. This especially pertains to those individuals who know that such a commandment is important to the function of our local church and claim to be a member. We must do our best not to compromise God's standard without becoming legalists.
Consider a brother who constantly speaks in tongues out loud even when there is no one present with the gift of interpretation. Imagine that he has been repeatedly informed about the commandment in 1 Corinthians 14:28 and told that to avoid confusion, he should pray to God in private because there is no one to interpret just as the verse says. But despite this exhortation, he still feels that it’s OK to speak in tongues in the meeting. Obviously, that person should never be permitted to share a word or lead in any capacity. Not only is he rebelling in secret, but he is also presenting a bad testimony through a visible display of his insubordination. Regardless of what we may feel, the same is true of any man or woman who regularly attends any church that teaches God’s headship order and refuses to submit to the teaching on head covering. It too would be an observable violation of the Word of God and contrary to the convictions of the church.
What about "judge for yourself"?
The words, “judge for yourself,” in 1 Corinthians 11:13 don’t imply that we can choose whether a woman can or cannot pray with her head uncovered.
Paul isn’t telling us to decide what is right or wrong; our decisions will vary depending on the type of culture we live in. Paul is basically saying that we can use our own God-given tools of observation to see the truth that even nature reveals. This is the sociological argument. It’s like saying, “Judge for yourselves whether it’s winter or not. Isn’t it February? Isn’t their snow all over the ground?” Our assessment will only confirm or deny the obvious. It will never determine what season it is, that’s God’s job, not ours.
What about foot washing?
Some people may wonder why we teach that a literal head covering should be worn, while at the same time say that we are not commanded to literally wash people's feet. How can we claim that head covering is not a commandment related to the culture, but say that foot washing is? After all, didn’t Jesus say we should follow his example (John 13:14-17)?
No Christian, no matter how knowledgeable they are, should feel so free as to dismiss a God-given commandment or tradition by assuming that it is limited to a particular culture or group unless there are various contextual markers in the Bible that clearly prove that to be the case.
In the Bible, we learn that one of the first acts upon entering a Jewish home was the washing of the feet (Genesis 18:4, 19:2, 24:32, 43:24, Judges 19:21, 2 Samuel 11:8, Songs 5:3). It was for comfort, hospitality, as well as hygienic purposes. It was also the responsibility of the host to provide a basin for his guests to wash in (Luke 7:44). This was a common courtesy extended to guests, along with things like a holy kiss, providing food and shelter, and caring for the animals of said guest. Within the lower class, guests would wash their own feet, but within the wealthier upper class, this duty was designated to the lowest of slaves (1 Samuel 25:41). This is the reason why Peter initially rejected Jesus’ offer to wash his feet. He must have thought to himself, “There is no way I’m going to allow Jesus to do the job of a slave,” but after Jesus’ friendly warning and compelling words of wisdom, Peter permitted it.
It would have been this great act of love, as well as these commandments which followed, that would have stuck out to the disciples when they finally received revelation on Jesus commandment to love one another as He loved them (John 13:34). Nevertheless, we are presented with a series of questions when we read these commandments of Jesus to His disciples to wash one another’s feet: Did they obey Him? If so, how did they do it? If not, why didn’t they? Unlike the traditions of breaking bread and baptism which Jesus also commanded them to keep, it would appear as if the early disciples didn’t heed His exhortation since there’s no mention of foot washing as a Christian tradition in the book of Acts or the Epistles. We believe that the early disciples obeyed Jesus’ commandment exactly how He intended it to be followed, in spirit and in truth.
When we examine the practice of foot-washing alongside traditions such as baptism, the breaking of bread, and head covering, we see that these three practices are given much different treatment by the biblical authors when they are mentioned outside of the context of a descriptive historical account. All three symbolic practices are explained from a deep theological standpoint in the epistles (Romans 6:1-14, 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, 11:23-25, 3-4, 7-10). A commanded time of observance is provided for all three as well (Acts 2:41, 1 Corinthians 11:26, 4-5). And all three symbolic practices are defended against legalism (1 Peter 3:21, 1 Corinthians 11:17-22, 16). None of which can be said about foot washing. It is for these same reasons that we do not greet one another with a holy kiss or drink wine for our stomach problems (2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Timothy 5:23). These are clearly cultural commandments.
Also, in 1 Timothy 5:10 we read that a widow was not supposed to receive support from her church unless during her days of marriage she had raised her children to follow Jesus, regularly opened her home to other believers, and had faithfully washed the feet of others. Now had foot washing been a ritualistic church practice like baptism, the breaking of bread or head covering, there would have been no need to consider whether a widow had actually done so or not, for those things were a regular part of church life.
From the account in John 13, we also see that Jesus was purposefully directing the focus of His disciples away from the action itself and toward the spiritual meaning of what He was doing. Jesus told Peter, “I know you think that I’m just washing your dirty feet. You don’t understand what I’m doing right now, but you will one day” (John 13:7, paraphrase). Peter clearly understood that Jesus was literally trying to wash his feet, that’s the very thing he objected to initially. But what Jesus was emphasizing was the spirit or principle behind the act—something which the disciples could not understand at that time. This is why He asked them, “Do you know what I have done to you?” Naturally, outspoken Peter or any of the disciples for that matter, could have raised a hand and said, “Yes Lord, you washed our dirty feet like a servant,” but this would not have been the answer that Jesus was looking for.
The spiritual principle at the core of foot washing is submission and sacrifice for our brothers and sisters. It means humbling ourselves to the lowest position for the sake of the local church. It means doing the dirty jobs even if no one else will. This was an everyday occurrence in the early church. I believe this is what Jesus meant when He commanded us to love another and wash each other’s feet. It transcends the realm of useful aid and cuts right to the heart and self-will. A love that bears no crosses will never have its origin in the divine nature.
No matter what our interpretation may be, we should realize that the love of God must continually be shed abroad in our hearts to empower us to obey this commandment of Christ in the spiritual sense. It is implied all throughout the gospels and epistles that any spiritual growth which doesn’t lead to a deeper concern for the body of Christ must subsequently be labeled as artificial.