This is a subject I decided to tackle because Thursday night I again saw a family in which the females all wore what they considered to be a “head covering” (a small piece of fabric pinned just in front of a bun of hair). We were involved with a family several years ago who wore head coverings a bit larger on flowing hair, and we live in an area teaming with Amish and Mennonites who wear anything from a doily to a stiff bun-cover to a huge bonnet. From my experience, those who practice the wearing of head coverings for the women are always involved in some sort of legalistic group, and many legalistic home-schoolers have taken to this practice. For these reasons I did a thorough study of the issue several years ago, and it is that study I have modified and shortened for this post.
Before I go farther, let me state that I reviewed 26 English translations of the Bible and 20 commentaries from many viewpoints, including the small book, “…let her be veiled,” which was given to me as a proof of the correctness of women wearing a head covering all the time.
Women wearing head coverings is mentioned only once in Scripture. The context begins at 1 Corinthians 7:1, where Paul begins addressing questions that were written to him. He does not address their worship meetings until 1 Cor. 11:17 - the verse which follows this section, which immediately refutes the idea that a woman should wear a head covering for worship.
My commentary will attempt to answer the following questions from my layman‘s understanding:
1. Is the head covering the woman's hair?
2. Is the head covering cultural or for all time?
3. Is the head covering for all women or just those who are married?
4. When should the head covering be worn?
5. Why should the head covering be worn?
6. What form should the head covering take?
Let’s first look at the text, and I’ll use the NIV. 1 Cor. 11:3-16:
(3) Now 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. (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 - it is just as though her head were shaved. (6) If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. (7) A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. (8) For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; (9) neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. (10) For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. (11) In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. (12) For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. (13) Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? (14) Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, (15) but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. (16) If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice - nor do the churches of God.
Verses 4-7 and 10 are the actual instructions, while the remainder of the text gives the reasons.
Is the head covering the woman's hair?
Because v. 15 says the woman's long hair was given to her for a covering, does this mean that the hair is the covering discussed as some claim? If that is the case, then, in context of the man having no covering, the man would have to be shaved! Logic dictates that this is wrong, so hair could not be the context of vv.4-10. V.6 says if her head isn't covered, she should be shorn; this implies that she has hair already and that the covering is something separate. Even v.5 seems to imply that she has hair. So, what is the purpose of vv.14-15? I think it is to demonstrate that as in the natural realm God has given the woman long hair for a covering, so in the realm of relationships between men and women there should also be a separate covering - it is an analogy. So, the answer to the this question is that the hair is not the covering spoken of.
Was the head covering just cultural as most claim today?
Paul's argument is about the relationships established between God and Christ, Christ and man, and man and woman. This argument transcends culture, so that would make this argument for all time and all cultures. Additionally, chapter 1:2 says, "To the church at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ - their Lord and ours..." This says the instructions in this letter are for "all those everywhere" who are Christians, and that it was not confined to any culture.
Is the head covering for all women or just those who are married?
Most Bible translations have the context of husbands and wives. Since the argument appears to be in relation to a woman and her husband, single women are not included, let alone young girls. Even the requirement of verse 10 is in light of the husband/wife relationship in most of the translations I read. But then, what about single women - should they not be covered? If we translate all verses to just "man" and "woman," which I understand the Greek permits, the text looks just like that of NIV. In this case, ALL women are included, and this actually makes sense in light of Paul's overall argument of the relation of men to women. Verse 10 just says it is a sign of authority; it doesn't say whose authority. In the passage, the reason given (that woman is the glory of man, that she came from man, and was created for man) is not relegated to married women. But then, whose authority are single women then under? I would say their father or an elder maybe? It doesn’t say, so we can only speculate.
An interesting consideration is Paul's appeal to nature in relation to hair length. He says the long hair is given a woman for her covering. This would be a covering for all women, including those unmarried. I think a possible understanding of this passage is this: Woman was given long hair as a natural covering. As long as she is a single woman this is all she needs before God but, once she is married, her husband is her head and so she should cover her own glory to show she is now under his authority.
For the sake of being conservative, let's assume all women, married or single, should be covered. Then the question becomes, at what age would it be appropriate for a girl to begin wearing a head covering, if it is desired as a sign of being under her father's (or other man's) authority? I would suggest it would necessarily be when she is old enough to have a scriptural foundation and understand the purpose. This may very well be around the time of puberty, as Tertullian and other early church leaders suggested, or at least when of marriageable age.
When should the woman have her head covered?
Here is the sticky point. The context is NOT just at worship. As previously pointed out, instructions in relation to worship meetings begin after this discussion - at v.17. Paul’s instructions are for "praying" or "prophesying." Alexander Strauch points out that, by the Greek construction, this must be audible and public, so that the symbolism is meaningful; if a woman is praying silently, how would anyone know she is doing so, and how would a symbol then mean anything? So then, I think that the covering should be worn whenever the woman is participating in a prayer meeting where she would join in audible prayer. As for prophesying, I believe direct revelation from God has ceased, so this would not be a consideration.
Some feel that it should be worn at all times because one may be at prayer at any given moment; this seems to be the teachings of the Amish and others who have adopted the tradition. As Strauch points out, the logic would then need to be applied to men, that they could never wear anything on their heads. And yet every one I have seen practice the head covering tradition have no problem with men wearing hats, and Amish and Mennonite men wear hats often! So they pick part of the passage to force women to be covered, yet ignore the other part that says they are NOT to be covered.
Interesting considerations here would be to look at 1 Tim. 2:9 and 1 Pet. 3:3. To Timothy, Paul talks about dressing modestly, describing the hair but not saying that modest dress should include covering that hair or even just the head; if the head was to be covered always, would he not have so stated here? Peter also address a woman's hair by saying not to let the braided hair be her beauty; if her head was to be covered always, no one would see her hair to begin with!
What if a woman is somewhere without her head covering, or has never been taught the practice - does God honor her prayer? As with other signs, I believe the whole thing boils down to a heart attitude. If the woman forgets her covering and wants to participate in a prayer meeting, I believe God honors her because of her attitude; she has a submissive attitude that correlates with the sign.
Another argument for continuous wear is that it would be a constant reminder to the wife (single woman) that she is under her husband's (father's) authority. This is adding to the text something not there.
I think the only thing we can determine from the text is that the woman should wear a covering if she is praying or prophesying, regardless of location or setting. And since prophecy is no longer being revealed, current practice would only be for prayer.
Why is it worn? What about the angels; what do they have to do with it?
Commentaries making modesty a reason for the veiling are eisegesis; modesty is not mentioned in our subject text. Paul says the reason the covering is worn is that woman is the glory of man, that she came from man, and was created for man AND, because of the angels she should have a sign of authority on her head. The head covering is obviously considered a sign of authority to those who see it, including angels. But why do the angels need to see a sign of authority on a woman's head? A review of the commentaries gave me some insight:
I learned that the good angels watch over us, minister to us, and are interested in the gospel message. They should see proper attitudes towards God when observing us. Since the angels are veiled as a sign of their subordination to God, their head, they would expect a woman to be veiled as a sign of her subordination to her husband (or father?), who is her head.
But the bad angels have a different problem. They see the beautiful hair, and are enticed by the woman. However, if she has a sign of being under someone's authority, this says to the bad angels that she is protected from them.
Could not single women also wear the covering as a sign here? There is no proscription as I see it, and if the angels are indeed attracted to the beauty of the hair, then it wouldn't matter if the woman was married or single.
What form should the head-covering take?
Since the Greek word for veil means "something that covers completely and hangs down," I would say the covering should be something the woman can drape over her head at the time of prayer, such as a scarf or shawl. The idea is obviously to drape over the head an item that covers it. I do think it is enlightening that the art from early Christian times shows various forms. The attitude of the heart has to be in line with the sign. If the attitude is to just wear a tiny doily so no one would even notice the sign, or to fulfill a legal requirement, then the purpose is defeated. And a small doily certainly doesn’t cover completely and hang down!
Okay, so what is the ultimate lesson to learn here?
Firstly, I think the idea of a woman wearing a head covering was intended to be a forever sort of thing, but it is not a salvation issue, and I think for that main reason our culture has left the teaching behind. (It would be interesting to see what would happen if the Church began teaching the wearing of a covering for audible prayer.)
Secondly, those who claim a woman should wear a covering at all times are adding to Scripture, and ignore the fact that a man could then never wear a hat. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander; if you are going to make your women wear a head covering all the time, then you’d better not ever have a hat on your head! You can’t just take part of the verse as being applicable and throw the other part out.
Thirdly, those who wear little fabric patches or doilies are not in compliance with the teaching of the text. Those things do not “cover completely” or “hang down.”
So, to sum the whole thing up, IF you choose in your tradition to wear a head covering, then do it when and how the Bible says: just during audible, public prayer - and have a real covering. Otherwise all you are doing is forcing on the women your own legalistic ideas. Let’s free Christian women from this legalistic bondage!