If you’re anything like me, having been born and raised in the good ol’ U. S. of A, these words probably don’t play a very significant role in your life—aside from maybe wearing the occasional ball cap or sun hat in the spring and summer months.
And again, if you’re anything like me, a born-again believer who found Christ inside the walls of a modern church in America, the concept of wearing a head covering for religious purposes has been solely reserved for other religions—religions where women are viewed as subservient and forced to wear the aforementioned article of clothing, merely as an outward symbol of their inward inferiority (in comparison to their male counterparts, of course).
Up until a few weeks ago, this whole “wearing a head covering” concept certainly didn’t have much significance to me in the context of Christ’s Church. I mean, Jesus came to abolish such symbols and the man-made inequalities that have been handed down to women for thousands of years. Right?
Well, if you had asked me that question a couple of weeks ago, my answer would’ve been much different than it is today. But before I explain, let me begin by saying that my main goals in life and in my walk with Christ are to continually seek God’s will, continually grow closer to Him through His Word, and to continue to allow Him to mold me into the godly woman He desires me to be. This has been and continues to be a life-long process.
Something I’ve come to realize in striving to meet these goals is this: If I’m not continuously learning new things about God through His Word, then I’m not growing. And if I’m not growing, I’m certainly not being molded into who He desires me to be.
Philippians 2:13 tells us that God is constantly working in our hearts, giving us the desire to obey Him and the power to do what pleases Him.
And this, my friends, is where the subject of head coverings comes into play for me.
About a month ago, God put it on my heart to start reading through the book of 1 Corinthians. Having already read through 1 Corinthians on multiple occasions in the past, I expected this to be a nice trip down memory lane. I figured God would highlight a verse or two in a new way for me, like He’s always done, and I’d be good to move on to the next book of the Bible He would lead me to dig into.
Well, as I read through chapters 1-10, this was pretty much how my reading experience played out.
A highlight here; a reminder there.
Fast forward to chapter 11, however, and it’s there that God began prodding my heart regarding the subject of head coverings.
I must admit, I’ve read these verses before in the past; and while I believe everything in God’s Word is absolute truth and written down for our edification, I’ve always read right past this passage because, well, I didn’t think it applied to me. But when I read through this passage again a couple of weeks ago, the Holy Spirit began moving in my heart and it’s like I saw these verses in a new way.
In 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 NIV, Paul writes this:
“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.
But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.
Nevertheless, in the Lord, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.
If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.”
After I read these verses, God began stirring some questions in my heart. My first thoughts were, “If the Bible says that women should be covering their heads when they pray, why have I never been taught this? And why don’t any Christian women I know practice this today??”
With these questions weighing heavily on my heart, I decided to ask a couple of Christian ladies in my life, who are fairly mature in their faith, what their thoughts were on this subject and their views on this matter were much like my own.
None of us are theologians by any stretch of the imagination, but the overall consensus we arrived upon was that these verses were just a “cultural thing that we no longer have to observe,” since it was written, like, a really long time ago and stuff.
I know, sometimes I can be so deep.
Well, the Holy Spirit would not let me rest on that conclusion.
As I read back over these verses once again, God pointed out to me in this same passage that Paul tells Christian men not to pray with their heads covered – a practice that all Christian men I know still observe today. And that got me thinking, “If it was really a cultural thing, then why do men still remove their hats when they pray today?”
It also brought me back to my childhood days (well over 30 years ago, ahem), when Sunday morning gatherings at my church were filled with older ladies wearing big flashy hats that matched their dresses and their purses. I never thought about why those ladies wore hats, I just assumed it was a Sunday morning fashion statement for older women.
I was intrigued, so I decided to dig a little deeper.
The internet is an amazing thing, isn’t it? I did a quick Google search about this subject and I stumbled upon an article from the 1990s that was discussing a decline in the number of women who wore head coverings in American churches. The original reason they wore the hats in the first place, according to the article, was in reference to 1 Corinthians 11:5. Very interesting!
I then did a search of whether or not Christian women still need to wear head coverings today and it’s crazy how many different articles and opinions there are on this very thing! Who knew?
As it turns out, I found three major beliefs regarding Christian women covering their heads when they pray today:
- It was a cultural practice that the early Church observed in the region of Corinth, but it is no longer applicable today, since times have changed and Paul doesn’t reference this practice anywhere else in scripture.
- Paul wrote this exhortation to the Church as a whole back then and it is something Christian women all over the world should and still do observe today.
- Paul equated a woman’s long hair with a head covering; therefore, women don’t have to wear a literal piece of fabric on their heads in order to honor this teaching.
Before I started researching this and God began directing my thoughts about it, I was leaning more towards a combination of belief numbers 1 and 3. I believed this teaching was cultural and since we don’t live in Europe or the Middle East and we’re not Jewish, it doesn’t apply to us. I also believed that if for whatever reason this teaching DOES apply to Americans, I have long hair—so either way, I’m good!
After praying about this and really seeking the Lord’s will regarding it, I now believe belief number 2 to be the more accurate position for Christian women today.
In 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Paul is addressing those who had committed to following Christ in the Church at Corinth—Jews and Gentiles alike. And just like he did in all of the other Epistles he wrote to the various churches he planted (Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, etc.), he was pointing out to these new believers both the good and the bad practices that they had adopted – praising them for the good and encouraging them to turn away from the bad. (Kind of like how Jesus does when He addresses the 7 churches in Revelations 2 and 3.)
The thing we have to understand before reading a passage like the one about head coverings is that Corinth was heavily influenced by a pagan society when Paul planted the Church of Christ there. These new believers were surrounded by false religions and pagan rituals – some of which were deemed highly spiritual or “divine” by society, though they were still very much pagan practices when compared with Christian standards.
I read in a commentary that some of the pagan priestesses in Corinth had a habit of removing their head coverings and messing up their hair in order to appear as if they were under “divine inspiration,” and apparently, some of the Christian women started mimicking this practice and would attend Church gatherings with their heads uncovered and hair disheveled so that people would view them as being more spiritual. Paul obviously didn’t think this sort of behavior was fitting for a Christian woman, which is why he felt the need to address it.
With that in mind, it makes sense as to why this issue is only addressed here in 1 Corinthians and not in Paul’s other epistles. Christian women covering their heads when they prayed was common practice throughout the churches that Paul had planted. Paul addressed this issue in the Church at Corinth because some of the women there had abandoned this practice in order to imitate the cultural norms around them.
By removing their head coverings, these women were inadvertently rebelling against the order that God had put into place and Paul was informing these new believers that as God’s children, they could not simply toss aside the order that God had set into place, just because the culture around them operated differently.
He reminded them of this order in 1 Corinthians 11:3, when he says, “the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” He references Genesis 3:16 when explaining this order, where God tells Eve that part of her punishment for sinning and leading Adam to sin would be for her husband to rule over her. It was there that God made woman subject to the authority and rule of man as a direct result of the first sin.
This is something that we women don’t like to hear, especially here in America, but alas – punishments generally aren’t meant to be pleasant. And just because we may not like something that God does or says, it doesn’t make it optional. And just because God set woman under the authority of man, it doesn’t mean that men can abuse that authority, nor does it mean that God values women any less.
It does, however, mean that God has the right to order things the way He wants to. And if He ordered men to be above women, when it comes to authority and rule, then we have no choice, but to respect that. (Well, technically we have the choice not to respect that, but in doing so, we’ll be inviting God’s judgment into our lives – which isn’t the wisest decision.)
Head coverings were and still are an outward symbol for women to wear to show that they respect this order, while also showing that they are in submission to God’s plan and the roles that He has designated for each gender—men being subject to the authority of God and women being subject to the authority of man. Paul explains the need for this outward symbol in verse 10, “For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.”
Scholars can’t seem to decide why Paul includes the part about the angels in this verse, but to me, it points out the fact that this outward symbol is not just for human observation. Women aren’t just showcasing this symbol of submission for those around them to see, meaning fellow humans. They’re also showcasing it for those we can’t always see—angels.
This, my friends, is why I believe that Paul’s exhortation was not limited to the early Church. Sure, society may have evolved since then and so many things may have changed in the way the Church functions today, but angels still exist and according to Hebrews 13:2, we are still encountering them —sometimes without even knowing it.
If Paul had said, “A woman should have a symbol of authority on her head so that she can stand out as a follower of Christ in the midst of this pagan society,” I think it would be a totally different story. And maybe not even then because we’re still surrounded by pagan societies today, so it could still easily apply. But because he references angels here, it makes this issue much bigger than that of a cultural one. Heavenly hosts have been invited to the party and that makes this a heavenly affair, which changes everything.
Of course, with so many different Bible versions and translations out there today, a lot of people would interpret (and have interpreted) all of this differently. But when you think about the character of God and how He is a God of order, and you think about the character of Paul and how his main goals in life (his redeemed life, that is) were to tell people about Jesus and to instruct those who followed Jesus on how to live in a way that pleased God, passages like this one cannot be ignored or simply tossed aside, just because it doesn’t fit in with the cultural norms of our day.
There’s too much at stake. If we throw this concept out based on a differing culture, who’s to say there aren’t other things we shouldn’t throw out in these books that Paul penned to the Corinthians, as well? How do we know what to obey and what not to obey? How can we take verses like 2 Timothy 3:16-17 seriously, which tell us, “ALL Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the servant of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work?”
Paul wasn’t in the habit of separating the practices of Christ-followers based on their location or their status. He made it his mission to promote unity among all believers (1 Corinthians 1:10). When the Jews tried to pressure the Gentiles into taking on some of their outdated customs (like circumcision) in order to be “saved”, Paul refuted those claims and set the record straight (Galatians 5:2-3). When the Gentiles were living according to cultural practices that went against God’s desire for His people, Paul refuted those practices and corrected believers (Galatians 5:16-26). He does this in every one of his Epistles.
Why, then, would he encourage some Christians to practice an “outdated custom”, like having men and women pray with their heads covered or uncovered as a symbol of their submission to God’s order, but not others? I’d argue that he wouldn’t – which is, again, why I believe this exhortation was not limited to the early Church.
In 1 Corinthians 8:9-13 and 1 Corinthians 10:23-33, Paul talks about the fact that if what believers are doing is not a sin, it’s not against God’s will, and it doesn’t cause anyone else to stumble, then they have freedom in Christ to either do it or not do it, depending on their own conscience. But because he gave specific instructions to believers to follow in this passage about how they should position themselves when they pray (men with heads uncovered, women with heads covered), it shows that this was not something that they had freedom in deciding to do, like the other practices he had mentioned that neither benefited nor hurt believers. And this is why I believe this teaching still applies to us today.
Now, with that being said, we still have the issue of whether women are supposed to wear an actual covering on their heads or if long hair would be sufficient, as stated in the 3rd popular belief that I mentioned earlier.
A lot of people, including myself at first, will read this passage and interpret it as Paul giving women a pass on covering their heads with a physical covering because he says in verses 14-15 that “nature gave women a covering by giving them long hair.” It would make total sense as to why we may interpret it this way, if we only read those two verses. But when we read it in context with the entire passage, we can see that Paul is merely using verses 14-15 as a supporting argument for women covering their heads when they pray.
In verse 5, Paul says, “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.”
Here, he compares a woman who prays with her head uncovered to a woman with a shaved head.
Let me replace the word “uncovered” in this verse with the phrase “without long hair” and see if it still makes sense: “But every woman who prays or prophesies without long hair dishonors her head —it is the same as having her head shaved.”
This kind of makes sense—until you add the next verse onto it, which says, “For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.”
Again, let me reword these verses by switching out the references to her head being covered/uncovered and replacing them with the phrases “without long hair” and “having long hair” and see if that makes sense: “But every woman who prays or prophesies without long hair dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not have long hair, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should have long hair.”
Doesn’t it seem redundant for Paul to make this statement? Hasn’t a woman with short hair already cut her hair off? He’s not equating short hair with a shaved head either, because, at the end of verse 6 here, he makes the distinction between the two by saying, “if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off OR her head shaved.”
It just makes more sense for Paul to be talking about a physical covering in this passage. If he was only talking about long hair, he wouldn’t have needed to include the latter part of verse 5 or verse 6. He could’ve just said, “But every woman who prays or prophesies without long hair dishonors her head.”
Therefore, it stands to reason that Paul was, in fact, exhorting Christian women in these verses to wear some type of physical covering on their head when they prayed.
I know that all of this is a lot to take in and it’s something I’ve wrestled with over the last couple of weeks, myself. It goes against what I thought to be true for pretty much my whole life, and if you’re anything like me, you probably feel the same way I did when God first began revealing these truths to me.
With that being said, what are we, as Christian women who live in a modern world, supposed to do with this information, when most, if not all, of the Christian women we know do not practice this teaching?
Well, I would encourage each one of you to pray and seek God’s will on this matter for yourselves.
As for me, I feel like God revealed this truth to me in order to sanctify me and to make me aware of an area in my life where I was not following His Word.
At this point, I can’t “un-know” this truth and I’m basically left with 2 options:
- Pretend that God didn’t point this out to me and go on with my life in disobedience, just because nobody I know practices this teaching.
- Step out of my comfort zone, walk by faith, and follow God in obedience—knowing that obedience always leads to life and deeper intimacy with my Creator.
I am happy to report that I’ve chosen option 2, hence the reason you are reading this article today.
So, if you see me wearing a hat from this point on, you can just assume that I’m wearing it because I want to honor my heavenly Father while I’m talking to Him (which is often, considering we’re also encouraged in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray without ceasing”).
Am I completely comfortable living out this new practice? Not quite. I’m not really a “hat” person, aside from wearing ball caps when I’m playing sports or working out in the yard. But would I rather sacrifice personal comfort in order to be close and in right standing with my Heavenly Father? You bet.
The beautiful thing about Paul’s exhortation for women to cover their heads while they pray in 1 Corinthians 11:5 is that he didn’t put any specifications on what to cover our heads with. So, if we choose to obey this teaching, we can cover our heads with whatever makes us comfortable—as long as we’re doing it to honor our Lord and Savior.
Because at the end of the day, isn’t that our main goal as followers of Jesus Christ?
Featured Image by Volodymyr Hryshchenko