The Biblical Practice of Headcovering

Dr. Brian Allison

What does the Bible teach about headcovering? Should women wear a headcovering today in the Church, or was this practice peculiar to the early Church? Was the wearing of a headcovering simply an stopgap measure to address the cultural concern of prostitution? Should we not view a woman's hair as her headcovering? The questions can be multiplied. Have you asked questions similar to these? There is much confusion over this issue of headcovering, and discussion on it is often controversial. In this booklet, I want to present a Biblical exposition on this much misunderstood practice. Are you open to be instructed from the Scriptures or have you already made up your mind? If the Bible teaches the propriety of a Christian woman wearing a headcovering, will you obey and conform to that Scriptural practice? Do you believe that God's Word is authoritative and relevant for today?

The passage that teaches on headcovering is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. It reads:

2 Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. 3 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. 4 Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying, disgraces his head. 5 But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover the 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. 7 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. 8 For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; 9 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 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.

Let us work progressively through this challenging passage.

The introductory statement to the argument

It is critically important to understand that the introductory statement to this argument on headcovering sets the context and stage for properly understanding the teaching that the apostle Paul gives – "Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you" (11:2). We need to take note of the distinct language that the apostle uses. Often, when we deal with this question of headcovering, we fail to view it within its proper setting, and thus fail to acknowledge its true ethical character and import.

Paul first commends these Corinthian believers for obeying and carrying out what he had taught them, especially the traditions. They had generally accepted and acknowledged every authoritative apostolic teaching and instruction, and had both tenaciously adhered to, and complied with, all of them. Paul initially commends their obedience because, first, he would require the same response to the teaching which he was about to give (or rehearse?); and second, he would encourage them to evidence the same obedient attitude concerning headcovering. His praising them prepares for and anticipates a subsequent appeal to them. Again, this introductory statement is critically defining for understanding the importance and necessity of headcovering; for the logical conclusion, from appreciating the apostle's point here, is that headcovering constitutes part of the traditions; for having made reference to their obedience to the traditions, the apostle immediately addresses this matter.

The term which is translated 'traditions' (Gk. - paradosis) is used thirteen times in the New Testament; and it means teaching which has been passed on or handed down from one group to another, and which typically entails the idea of customary practice. It is teaching which has recognized and established historical and religious significance, relating to outward or visible conduct; and thus assumes the form of conventional propriety. Thus, the apostle affirms, with respect to headcovering, "But if anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice [Gk. - sunetheia; i.e., custom], nor have the churches of God" (11:16). This term 'traditions' is found in other Scripture passages. For instance, the Pharisees and scribes challenged Christ, "Why do your disciples transgress the tradition [paradosis] of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread [a long-standing practice or custom]" (Matt 15:2; cf. Mk. 7:3-13). Needless to say, the 'traditions' were to be highly esteemed, and implied moral and religious obligation.

This term paradosis is used three times with respect to Christian teaching. Apart from its use in 1 Corinthians 11:2, the term is used in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us;" and again in this same epistle, 3:6, "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us." The apostle proceeds to specifically identify the tradition in view: "For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example [lit. imitate us], because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we might not be a burden to any of you" (vv. 7,8). Notice that in referring to the 'tradition' here, the apostle identifies it in terms of visible practice or observable behaviour. It refers to ethically acceptable behaviour. It touches on appropriate moral and religious conduct. It is teaching that is to be demonstrated in how one lives. The proper and only response therefore to a Christian 'tradition' is obedience.

Accordingly, when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:2 that these believers held "firmly to the traditions," just as he had taught them, he has in mind teaching that involves a practical and observable demonstration of truth, entailing religious and historical value. The practice of headcovering, as mentioned, is identified as part of the 'traditions', and thus must be viewed as an ethical and religious practice, with recognized historical roots, to which obedience and conformity are required.

The foundational principle of the argument

One foundational principle governs and undergirds the apostle Paul's argument on headcovering – "But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man [Gk. - aner; 'male'], and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ" (11:3). This foundational principle underlies and provides the impetus and support for the subsequent teaching. Before actually addressing this practical matter (and the confusion of these Corinthian believers) concerning headcovering, Paul first presents the truth which would guide and navigate his thinking. The practice of headcovering is not rooted in personal preference or culturally-occasioned exigencies, but rather in the Biblical teaching on the divinely-ordered authority structure. The wider context in which we are to understand this particular practice is the lines of authority which God ordained and instituted with the original creation, and reaffirmed (in light of the Christ-event) in the new creation of the Church.

God is the head or authority of Jesus Christ, the God-man, Who willingly subjected Himself to the will of the Father as the incarnate second person of the Trinity. Christ is the head or authority of the man (i.e., the male) who was the first of the sexes to be created. The man is the head or the authority of the woman who was created from man in order to be his helper. God has duly ordained an authority structure in order to ensure harmony and order. Authority requires submission.

Now, Paul is not primarily addressing the issue of the authority structure in the home, though the principle he is presenting applies to the home. Though the teaching definitely and specifically refers to the husband and wife relationship, the original Greek terms should not be understood as 'husband' and 'wife', but rather as 'male' and 'female', though the actual application of the subsequent teaching has in view primarily, not exclusively, husbands and wives. Again, the apostle is articulating the creational lines of authority (i.e., what is the God-ordained functional relationship between the sexes). Further, in viewing this male-female relationship creationally, it does not mean that we should view it pervasively; that is, every female is not practically subordinate to every male, and in every conceivable situation (i.e., a woman may be an employer, under whom are male employees).

So, Paul argues according to God's original design of creation. The creational order is clearly in his mind, and not simply individual relationships. This is obvious as we read further on in the passage when Paul refers to the actual creation of the male and female, which supports and further develops Paul's main thesis or foundational principle (see 11:8,9). Again, though this particular truth has specific relevance and application to a husband-wife relationship (particularly as the practice of headcovering is carried out in public worship), the specific context in which Paul applies the teaching is in the Church, not in the home, nor even in society at large. Paul's concern in writing this epistle is primarily the conduct and protocol required in the Church. It is clear that this practice of headcovering is a Church matter, rather than a universal or domestic one. First, the general context demands this understanding – chapters 10 to 14 of this Corinthian epistle specifically deals with Church practice and order. Second, Paul indicates in 11:16 that headcovering is a practice in "the churches." Third, Paul specifically states that the teaching concerning headcovering relates to the gathered Church. He states, "But in giving this instruction [about headcovering], I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse" (11:17).

The issue or problem identified and addressed

Apparently, these Corinthian believers misunderstood the purpose and practice of headcovering. A. R. Fausset writes, "The Corinthian women, on the ground of the abolition of distinction of sex in Christ, claimed equality with men, and, overstepping propriety, came forward to pray and prophesy without the customary headcovering."1 Hence, having laid the foundational Biblical principle which would guide his logic and application, the apostle Paul now proceeds to identify and address the issue or problem concerning the propriety and legitimacy of headcovering. Who is to cover the head? – "Every man who has something on his head [lit. down the head; e.g., a veil or tallith] while praying or prophesying, disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered [i.e., nothing on the head; e.g., a veil] while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved" (11:4,5). The apostle does not present the full rationale for who is or who is not to cover the head until after (see 11:7) he first states who is and who is not to cover the head, adding what it means if such a required practice is not carried out, depending upon the sex.

If a male has 'something' on his head while praying or prophesying, he then disgraces his head, that is, his ruling head or authority, namely, Christ (see v. 3); and if a female has her head uncovered (i.e., no veil, kerchief, etc.) while praying or prophesying, she disgraces her head, that is, her ruling head or authority, namely, the husband [or father, if unmarried]. Calvin writes, "Someone asks if Paul is speaking of married women only. It is true that some restrict what Paul teaches here to married women, because subjection to the authority of a husband does not apply in the case of virgins [or the unmarried]. But these people are only showing their ignorance; for Paul looks higher, viz. to the eternal law of God, which has made the female sex subject to the authority of [the male sex]."2

But ask yourself the question: Why would the man's natural head be disgraced if he were to pray or prophesy with his head covered? Admittedly, this teaching on headcovering initially seems arbitrary, but the teaching was received by Paul in the form of a command, a command which found its justification and significance in the creational order. Paul's teaching originated from direct revelation, he spoke morally-obligatory truth. For instance, Paul writes to this same Church, "If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things I write to you are the Lord's commandment [which, of course, included the 'traditions']. But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized" (14:37,38).

The apostle further elaborates on this matter of the woman disgracing her spiritual head or authority, if her head is uncovered – "For she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved" (11:5b). An uncovered Christian woman is as scandalous and reproachful as a bald-headed woman (haircutting was an act of grief - Deut 21:12; or an act of infamy - Isa 7:20) – remember that a woman's hair is a God-given endowment which reveals and highlights her beauty (see 11:15). Of course, in making this bold statement, the apostle is assuming and accepting the correctness and necessity of headcovering for the woman. He is simply stating that which an uncovered Christian woman may be identified with.

Paul proceeds to argue in such a way that the Christian woman has no option but to have a covering or veil on her head. He argues, "For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for her to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head" (11:6). Notice the tight, irresistible logic. Do you recognize the syllogism (i.e., an argument consisting of two premises and a conclusion)?

Premise 1

: Head not covered, then cut hair off

Premise 2

: Cut hair or shaved head is a disgrace


: Therefore you must have head covered

(for an uncovered head is a disgrace)

Therefore Christian women must have their heads covered with some material in the Church (i.e., in the public worship of the gathered assembly).

The practice of headcovering relates to public worship

Why do you think the apostle Paul only refers to the Church activities of praying and prophesying? Why doesn't it say, for instance, in verse 4, "Every man who has something on his head while praying and prophesying [or teaching, preaching, etc.]..."? The apostle is specifically addressing the legitimacy and propriety of women wearing a headcovering in the public worship; and according to early Church practice, the only two official verbal ministries in which women could participate in public worship were praying and prophesying. So, Paul makes reference simply to these two activities. If women were permitted to preach or teach in the public worship, then Paul, no doubt, would have applied this regulation of headcovering to these activities as well. According to the early Church practice, women were to keep silent in the context of preaching and teaching. They were not (and are not) permitted to engage in these verbal-didactic ministries in the gathered assembly. Thus, the apostle exhorts in this same epistle, "Let the women keep silent in the churches [when it comes to preaching and teaching in a mixed group]; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything [concerning what is preached or taught], let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak [didactically in a mixed group] in church" (1 Cor. 14:34,35). Elsewhere we read, "Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet [with respect to officially teaching in the gathered church]" (1 Tim 2:11,12). Now, if someone wants to argue that this injunction of silence upon the woman is universal (i.e., she cannot open her mouth at all), then it must be concluded that women should not even sing (melodious talk) in public worship; but we read, "Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord" (Eph. 5:19). This prohibition to women relates to the teaching-learning context of the gathered Church which consists of a mixed group, for women are not to have authority over men in this context.

So, in the early Church, the two verbal ministries in which a woman could engage (within the gathered church consisting of men and women) were praying and prophesying. Someone may criticize and argue that prophesying was teaching; but we need to understand the peculiar nature of prophesying. As I write elsewhere, "the Scripture distinguishes between the office of an elder [or pastor] and the office of a prophet(ess) (Eph. 4:11). The gift of teaching (typically associated with elders) and the gift of prophecy (associated with prophets or prophetesses) are essentially different (cf. Rom 12:6,7). Prophesying was the direct communication of divine revelation from God (see 1 Cor. 14:30,31). Therefore, the actual content of communication was (pre-)determined. The prophet or prophetess never spoke independently, but was directly "moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Pet. 1:21). Personal freedom in actual communication of the truth was precluded. The analytical and reflective powers of the mind became virtually obsolete. So, for instance, the injunction for the early church was: "And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, let the first keep silent" (1 Cor. 14:29,30). The elder or pastor [who exercises the gift of teaching], on the other hand, has a degree of personal freedom in actual communication, though the essential content must remain unalterable. He must harness and direct his analytical and reflective powers of the mind. Thus, the possibility of error or heresy continually looms.

"Furthermore, in accordance with the progressive revelation of God, this gift of prophecy was initially an extraordinary and temporary spiritual gift associated with the inauguration of the dispensation of the Spirit and the universal thrust of the Gospel. Both men and women were to participate in the initiation of the new era in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy (Joel 2:28-32; cf. Acts 2:17-21). [On the day of Pentecost, both men and women prophesied within the gathered church (Acts 2:1-4)]. With the coming of the age of the Spirit and grace, there is spiritual egalitarianism. In Christ, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female" (Gal. 3:28). There is equality in spiritual status and position before Christ, but diversity in functions and roles (Rm. 12:4ff; 1 Cor. 12:4ff.). So the appearance of the extraordinary spiritual gifts was a unique phenomenon which marked the commencement of the new spiritual age. Such gifts are not now a part of normative church practice and ministry" (Why Women Should Not Be Pastors, 9f.).

Further, some would criticize and argue that only men are to pray in the public worship, referring to 1 Timothy 2:8, "Therefore I want the men [Gk. - aner; i.e., male] in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension." Yet, Paul is not excluding the women from praying at all, with this injunction, but is simply indicating his preference for, and providing encouragement to, men to take the lead in this holy practice, in keeping with their functional role as heads. The practice of the early Church certainly suggests the propriety and acceptability of women praying in the public worship. For instance, we read concerning the imprisonment of Peter, "So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God.... And when he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying" (Acts 12:5,12).

Now, the question is raised: Assuming that the practice of headcovering is Biblical and requisite, doesn't the passage teach that a woman need only wear a covering on her head if she is actually praying or prophesying? Not at all. Though the apostle focuses singularly on the verbal ministries of public worship, this regulation of headcovering has universal application within the context of the Church in which both men and women gather for the purpose of worship. Remember, Paul's main concern is conforming to, and respecting, the authority structure ordained at creation. The wearing of a headcovering, as we will see with verse 10 of this passage, symbolizes the fact that the woman is under the authority of the man.

The intimate correlation between the symbol and the truth

There is an intrinsic relationship between the symbolism associated with a Christian practice or custom and the spiritual truth which is communicated or conveyed through that practice or custom. Accordingly, the notion of an authority-submission relationship clearly means that one is 'over' or 'above' (functionally speaking) and one is 'under' or 'below'. There is a leader or head, and there is a follower or helper. The symbolism of wearing a headcovering merely and aptly communicates that the woman is 'under' the authority of the man, for the covering (which is a symbol of authority - 11:10) is 'over' her head. God wants the woman to show that she is 'under' the man's rule and protection. Man is not to have 'something' on his head, for as the natural head he is not creationally 'under' woman or the rest of the creation. Certainly, you see the appropriateness of the symbolism associated with this practice, and how it adequately captures the spiritual truth in view.

Similarly, baptism is the symbolic act of regeneration; but, again, there is an intimate, correlative connection between the symbolism of the act and the spiritual truth conveyed through that act. In the act of baptism, one is immersed in water and is 'washed', signifying a spiritual washing from sins, and the assumption of a new spiritual nature. Similarly, the Lord's Table communicates our communion and our participation in Christ, and with Christ and His people. We have spiritually partaken of His body and His blood, that is, we have an invested saving interest in His body and His blood; and we demonstrate that fact by ceremonially eating the bread (which symbolizes 'eating' His body) and ceremonially drinking from the cup (which symbolizes 'drinking' His blood). Again, the religious symbolism directly correlates with the spiritual truth to which the Christian practice or act points. The customs to which Christians must adhere are spiritual in nature. Accordingly, the practice of headcovering should be viewed as a spiritual practice which communicates divine truth, rather than as a male-imposed or chauvinistically-driven rite.

The rationale for the regulations concerning headcovering

Having identified the problem of the practice of headcovering (11:4-6), the apostle Paul then provides the rationale for why a man should not have his head covered and why a woman should. He argues, "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" (11:7). Both the man and the woman are made in the image of God (see Gen 1:26); but the matter of distinction and importance here concerns the notion of 'glory'. Paul apparently refers to the fact that man is the image of God to indicate that the orbit and ground for this teaching on authority (as already argued) is the original creation. Being created first, the man has the creational priority, he is the head; and creational priority entails functional authority.

Man is the glory of God in that he reflects and manifests the wonder, strength, and power of God, being the first, highest and greatest expression of God's creation. Man is the glory of God in that he is created to be God's chief representative; and as the glory of God, man is to assume headship or leadership over creation, even as God has headship over the whole universe. Now, woman is the glory of man in that she came from his 'strength' and now reflects him. So, Paul continues to teach, giving the reason why 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" (11:8,9). As God's representative or head, God was pleased to create for him, and give to him, a helper – someone who would perfectly and completely meet his needs and provide him with the necessary companionship and aid to subdue the whole creation. Woman was made for the benefit, not abuse, of man. Now, this fact does not mean that the woman is inferior to the man; she is not. Men and women are equal in worth and value, but different in roles and functions, according to the original design of God.

The necessity for the woman to wear a headcovering

The apostle Paul, having provided some rationale underlying the practice of headcovering, definitively concludes and emphatically states the necessity of the practice. He affirms, "Therefore, the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels" (11:10). Because the woman is the helper and the follower of the man, being under his authority, she must clearly demonstrate that truth through the wearing of a covering on her head, which symbolically conveys the fact that she is indeed under authority; as God intended from the beginning. Notice the note of moral obligation – "ought to have..." (i.e., it is necessary from God's point of view).

Accordingly, we ought not to understand this practice as merely cultural or relative to the Corinthian Church. Some critics contend that Paul was addressing a problem peculiar to the Corinthian Church, or contend that the rationale for women wearing a headcovering was to distinguish them from prostitutes who did not. So, the critics argue that the practice was either relativistic or cultural, and thus it does not have universal significance and application. No. Remember that this practice is part of the 'traditions', and thus has permanent, and not merely relative value. Further, Paul proceeds to teach that this practice has a universal application – it was observed in all the churches (11:16).

Moreover, the cultural argument carries no validity or weight, for Paul, as stressed, grounds his reasoning in the teaching of the original creation. It is not a cultural issue, but rather a creational one. You cannot argue honestly from the passage itself that this practice of headcovering is cultural. Another point against the cultural interpretation is that Paul argues for the necessity of headcovering "because of the angels." This direct reason for the necessity and propriety of headcovering immediately removes the rationale from the cultural realm and gives it universal value.

What does this phrase mean – "because of the angels." Some fact pertaining to the existence, activity, or behaviour of angels provides the reason for the observance of this practice. One reason believers should observe this practice 'because of the angels' is because the angels are being taught the wisdom of God through the Church; and this would be a very instructive and practical lesson for them as they witness the reversing of the effects of sin and the creation returning to its original state. So, Ephesians 3:10 reads, "In order that the manifest wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities [i.e., angels] in the heavenly places;" again, "It is revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven – things into which angels long to look (1 Pet 1:12; see also 1 Cor 4:9). God is pleased to teach angels through the Church, even this matter of creational authority.

A second reason believers should observe this practice 'because of the angels' is so that they do not commit the same fatal and tragic act of the fallen angels who rejected being under authority. Rejection of authority results in disaster and judgement. Jude 6 reads, "And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day;" again, "For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment" (2 Pet 2:4). The fall of the angels should serve as a helpful reminder and lesson for believers. Paul's concern is that the lines of authority be acknowledged and adhered to. Living within the constituted lines of authority results in safety and blessings. There is a need for submission to authority in order to guarantee order and decency.

Furthermore, the apostle seems to be working with a distinct parallelism here. The relationship that the angels sustain with God in the larger universe, women should sustain with man (the image and glory of God) in the physical world. Angels are the ministering spirits of God. Woman is the 'suitable' helper for man. As the angels should be in submission to God, as the universal head, particularly of the heavenly realm (of course, everyone should be in submission to God), so the woman should be in submission to the man, the natural head of the physical realm. The angels rebelled against God, resulting in confusion and chaos; the women are to be under the authority of men in order to guarantee order and decency. The angels veil their face and feet (showing submission and reverence) in the presence of God (Isa 6:2); and similarly women are to veil their heads in the presence of men. Fausset interestingly notes, "St. Paul [probably] had before his mind the root-connection between the Hebrew terms for 'veil' (Radid) and subjection (Radad)."3

Now, though man was created first and thus has the priority; and because the woman was made for the benefit of the man; the man should not be considered as superior in any way. A necessary interdependence exists between the man and the woman. The apostle states (possibly in anticipation of male gloating and abuse!), "However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God" (11:11,12). Man may have the creational priority, but he is not intrinsically better than the woman, nor can he exist or survive without her. A mutual dependence exists between the male and female. Each one needs the other. The mutual dependence is clearly seen in the fact that neither can come into existence apart from the presence and mediation of the other. Yet, the man and woman should remember that they both are dependent upon God, and find their existence and life in Him.

An appeal for acceptance of the practice

Having clearly stated the need for the practice, the apostle Paul now appeals to these believers to accept the teaching, and thus carry out the practice. These subsequent remarks are secondary considerations, and are not germane to his main argument. (This should be remembered when we come to v. 15 which deals with the fact that a woman's long hair is her covering). He exhorts, "Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with head uncovered?" (11:13). Though addressing the whole congregation, the apostle particularly refers to the role of the prophets who have the gift and ability to discern whether Paul's teaching and command (which is by way of revelation) is true or not. This activity of 'judging' is used technically, and refers to prophetic activity. Hence, we read in 1 Corinthians 14:29,30, "Let two or three prophets speak, and the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, let the first keep silent." If Paul is simply referring to a kind of general judgement, on what do we base such a judgement? Against what or according to what should the average believer judge the validity and propriety of this practice? We could only know this truth through revelation, which Paul has communicated and the prophets were able to confirm. Thus, Paul writes, "If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord's commandment" (1 Cor 14:37).

The apostle further appeals, "Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonour to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering" (11:14,15). Paul suggests that instinctively we recognize that there is a difference in how man and woman should appear with respect to the physical head. We instinctively realize (generally speaking) that long hair on a man (remember long hair is considered well below the shoulders) is inappropriate; that it should, at least, be above the shoulders. God has put this natural sensibility within us, with a view toward acknowledging differences between the sexes. Paul is simply observing that the physical heads, by God's original design, sustain a difference, and thus it should not seem strange that there be a difference in how the physical heads are understood and treated within the Church context. Again, the practice of headcovering finds its roots in the original creation. The practice of headcovering echoes an essential aspect of the clear distinction between the natures of the man and the woman.

Now, someone may contest that a woman's covering is her hair. Obviously, that interpretation runs counter to, and is clearly contradicted by, all that has been argued to this point. Such an interpretation denies the clear logic and simple meaning of this passage. Some resort to this position, not because they are honestly constrained by the teaching of the passage, but because of self-justification or pride. It really is a question of obedience to God's Word. When it states that "her hair is given to her for a covering," the apostle uses a different word than in verse 4. The word he uses here is peribolaion, and means coat, shawl, or mantle. You, no doubt, can see the obvious point. The 'long hair' serves as a coat or shawl for the woman. It adorns her as an ornament. Its appearance contributes to her beauty and 'strength'; and, in this sense, a woman's long hair "is a glory to her" (11:15b). It accentuates her loveliness and attraction.

Notice, for instance, how ludicrous it would read, if we were to substitute 'hair' for 'covering' – "For if a woman does not cover her head [that is, have her hair], let her also have her hair cut off [but the hair would supposedly be already off!]; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head [that is, have her hair; the logic is tautological]" (11:6).

The concluding remark

Having addressed the issue of headcovering, providing the meaning, purpose, and rationale for such a practice, the apostle Paul concludes, "But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God" (11:16). Apparently, there were upset believers over this issue. They were argumentative; but Paul was inflexible. For him, it was a matter of truth, regardless what was required. Many at Corinth were "arrogant" (see 1 Cor. 5:6, 19; 5:2), and they needed to be humble and obedient. Calvin writes, "A contentious man is one who takes a delight in stirring up quarrels, and gives no consideration at all to the place of truth. Included in this category are all those who destroy good and useful customs where there is no need to do so; who raise controversies about matters which are as clear as day; who will not listen to reason; who cannot endure anyone getting the better of them."4 Paul clearly declares that this particular practice was observed by all churches, without exception, and they too would have to observe it. Marvin Vincent comments, "The testimonies of Tertullian and Chrysostom show that these injunctions of Paul prevailed in the churches. In the sculptures of the catacombs the women have close-fitting head-dress, while the men have the hair short"5

Some critics argue that Paul is setting forth a principle, and not a practice; and so, practically speaking, the principle may be applied in our day in different ways (e.g. the wife wears a ring to indicate union and submission). In response, any honest treatment of the passage demands the acknowledgement that Paul is arguing for the practice, and not just the principle. Again, this practice was observed in all the churches; a practice which comprises part of the 'traditions'.

For many women, this practice initially may seem strange or unnecessary. Many may feel embarrassed to conform to the practice, feeling group pressure to abstain. Some will wrestle with pride. But the question is this: What does God require? It seems clear that the wearing of a headcovering by women is Biblical and required. It is a spiritual act, communicating spiritual truth. It is a command of the Lord, and thus the response should be one of obedience. This practice shows respect for the husband (see Eph. 5:33), and certainly brings honour and glory to God, which should be the goal of all that we do.