After reading I Corinthians 11:2-16 for the first time, where Paul discusses hair-length and head-coverings, a friend of mine reacted with understandable shock:
All this time I’ve been praying without a hat. This is the New Testament? What am I supposed to make of this? And then are we not supposed to quarrel about this? Sorry, this isn’t that big deal, was just surprised and confused.
As my response turned out to be rather lengthy, I figured I’d re-post it here (adapted from a personal email into a more impersonal blog post, of course).
One of the big issues in the Corinthian church was unchecked sin. They’d experienced the gifts of the Spirit, but were allowing sinful practices to take over their lifestyles. This is partly due to the false belief that once you become a Christian, the rules no longer apply to you, because you’re “saved” forever. This passage may be one of those things – women & men were beginning to act (and look) like there was no distinction between them. So although Paul does point out the head-coverings and hair-length issues, he starts this section with the underlying issue: I want you to understand that the head of every man in Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God (v3). How one understands this statement has a huge impact on the rest of the section.
There are two major connotations of what “head” means here: source/origin or authority/leader. The Greek word for head can refer to either concept, and probably makes use of both here. Since we read elsewhere that Christ is the head of the Church, and that’s in the context of leadership, I’ve always found that the best interpretation of the passage here. Thus, the fact that a woman covers her head with a veil/shawl/hat/etc. is a visual symbol of the fact that she’s “under” the man of the household, (because the covering is physically higher than her head), and the fact that a man does not cover his head is a visual symbol of the fact that he is the head of his household. Similarly, having long hair and short hair were cultural norms further distinguishing women and men.
Today, hair length and hat-wearing has little to do with gender roles, so taking those commands directly into our lives today is not necessary. There was a time when long-haired males was a very effeminate image, which is what Paul did not want. The same thing applies with women with short hair – it was seen as very boyish. In our culture today, we don’t put as much emphasis on that, although in other cultures they still do. So if a short-haired American woman were to go to visit Christians in, say, the Middle East, she might do well to grow out her hair to avoid social scandal. On the same token, I’d best cut off my ponytail so as not to raise suspicions regarding my sexuality. But here in the USA, our non-traditional hairstyles don’t scandalize anyone, so it’s fine.
Another clue that we can’t take this sort of teaching in the Bible at face-value is in verse 5: women can pray and prophesy. But later on, in 14:34, women are told not to make a sound in church! Why would Paul contradict himself in his own letter? Both passages are referring to corporate worship settings; it’s not like one is “at home” and the other’s “at church.” The fact is that Paul’s giving advice along with his doctrinal teaching. If women at church are sitting in the balcony or in the back of the room where they can’t hear, then they might as well keep quiet so their husbands in the front can hear properly and fill them in later. But if the worship service is integrated such that all can participate in the same ways, then women can pray & prophesy aloud, so long as they’re wearing their head-coverings. That’s basically what Paul seems to be saying to the folks in Corinth.
So what’s the modern equivalent of the head-covering from back then? I’m not sure. The main point is that the God-Christ-man-woman headship thing is understood, whether we visually display it or not. In our equality/sameness culture, it’s hard to do this without getting accused of being sexist. That being said, this practice does show up in a number of corners throughout the Church today. In East Orthodox churches, women still wear shawls over their heads in church. Some Roman Catholic and Anglican women do too. Also among Protestant churches, if you go to a more “traditional” (old-fashioned?) church, you may notice the old ladies and their hats. Or at weddings (moreso in England than in the US perhaps) you may’ve seen women getting nice hats to wear to the wedding – because they’re going to church for an extra-nice event! On the other side of the token, in these same churches, men are expected never to wear hats to worship, and in public ceremonies and/or prayer, men (even in uniform) remove their hats for prayer.
Do women need to wear something over their heads in church nowadays? I would say no, they don’t need to, nor do men need to remove their hats in church. But more important than the practice is the doctrinal teaching it represents. What kind of a distinction do we believe men and women have in God’s ordering of life in this world and/or in the Church? If there are differences, how might we visually express them in a way that’s meaningful to us?
—- further notes not in my original email on the subject —-
Clearly this is where vast significant differences come up. Complementarians believe that there are God-ordained differences in gender roles, and Egalitarians believe that God desires no difference between men and women. Probably obviously, my statements above reflect a complementarian position. This is a pretty arduous, picky, and touchy subject to address, and I’ll likely have to go into greater detail in different posts.