“But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head…” (I Cor. 11:5).
If you haven’t seen this in person, you’ve seen it in books or magazines or on television. Based on our text, women of certain religious persuasions wear a distinctive head covering whenever they are out in public, and not just when praying in church. Since the words of our text were penned by our apostle Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13; 15:16), we are often asked if our grace churches should insist that women cover their heads in like manner. Since we believe the answer is no, we need to give a careful look at what the Word of God has to say about this sensitive subject, especially since Paul begins this passage by saying, “Be ye followers of me” (I Cor. 11:1).
To begin with, when Paul says that a woman with an uncovered head “dishonoureth her head,” this is a reference to her husband. You see, Paul had just finished reminding the women in the Corinthian church that “the head of the woman is the man” (I Cor. 11:3). When a woman in Corinth went to church without a head covering, she dishonored her head, i.e., her husband. But why would that be?
Well, the word cover in Scripture often has the idea of protection. Moses once said of Benjamin:
“The beloved of the Lord shall dwell in safety by Him; and the Lord shall cover him all the day long” (Deut. 33:12). 1
The word cover is still used to indicate protection in our own day. When a soldier says, “Cover me,” to his fellow, he is asking him to protect him while he attempts to advance on the enemy. In the case of a woman in Paul’s day, a woman’s head covering was a symbol of the protection provided for her by a husband. In essence, her head covering was a sign that she was married. 2 For a married woman to go to church without this symbol dishonored her husband, for it meant that she refused to acknowledge the headship of her husband. It would be like a woman today refusing to wear a wedding ring.
So why do our grace churches not insist that our grace women cover their heads? We believe this is a cultural issue, and cultural things like this often change over time. In our day, women use different symbols to indicate that they are married. They still take their husband’s name, a tradition that dates back to when God blessed Adam and Eve, “and called their name Adam” (Gen. 5:2). But now, instead of covering their heads, women wear wedding rings to signify that they are married, a symbol that is recognized and understood in most, if not all, cultures around the world.
But what right do we have to ignore the plain words of our text and adopt this cultural change? Shouldn’t God’s people resist worldly trends and insist upon the plain teachings of His Word? Generally speaking, yes. But let’s consider yet another area where time has introduced yet another cultural change that is almost universally accepted by God’s people. Five times in the Bible we are told to “greet one another with an holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16; I Cor. 16:20; II Cor. 13:12; I Thes. 5:26; I Pet. 5:14), yet this is seldom if ever practiced in our grace churches. While believers in France or Italy or some of those other kissin’ countries might still observe this custom, this cultural symbol of love for one another has long since been replaced here in the United States by the warm handshake, and in more recent years, by the hug.
But what right did God’s people have to make this change, especially since it was our apostle Paul who issued four of the five commands to greet one another with a kiss? Well, we believe we can point to yet another area where God allows for cultural differences and changes among His people. It lies in the area of church government.
If you have ever studied the Scriptures looking for instructions as to how to set up the government of a local church, you know that God is very nonspecific in this area, and we believe that this was a purposeful omission on His part. You see, when God’s people were found only in the nation of Israel, He was very specific about how they were to be governed (Deut. 1:13-17). This was because they were one people, with one culture, located in one geographic area of the world. On the other hand, God knew that the Body of Christ would eventually be located throughout the world, encompassing many peoples and cultures. 3 For this reason, He left the description of local church government purposely open-ended, to allow for cultural differences within the Body of Christ.
When cultural symbols change, we must change along with them, or else fail to convey the message we wish to convey. In the 1940’s, to extend two fingers in the air was a symbol that was commonly recognized as a “V” for victory sign. Ever since the 1960’s, however, this symbol has come to stand for peace. If we refuse to recognize this cultural change, we will not be conveying the message we think we are conveying when we extend our two fingers hoping to convey the idea of victory. In the same way, if a woman today were to cover her head but refuse to wear a wedding ring, she would not be effectively conveying the message that God wants her to convey, i.e., that she is married and under the headship of her husband.
Having said all this, if you live in an area where the women wear head coverings in church, you might want to cover your head when visiting their churches, out of respect for their custom. While Paul made it clear that in such matters “we have no such custom” as believers, “neither the churches of God” (I Cor. 11:16), he advised the women in Corinth to show respect for the local culture in which they found themselves (I Cor. 11:6-13), and we should be quick to do the same. Don’t forget, our text here in I Corinthians 11 comes close on the heels of Paul’s exhortation to be deferential to the personal convictions of others (I Cor. 8:13; 9:20-23; 10:33).
If you live in an area where people do judge you as a woman by your cover, you might want to adopt the attitude that the Apostle Paul expressed when he said:
“…I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (I Cor. 9:22).
Your respect for the convictions of others just might be the thing that helps you lead a soul to Christ, or welcome a believer into “the fellowship of the Mystery” (Eph. 3:9). source
1 The word cover also has the idea of protection in Psalm 91:4 and Psalm 105:39.
2 Today this significance has been lost, and single women wear such coverings as well.
3 The word Gentile is a translation of the Greek word ethnos, from which we get our word ethnic. God knew that the Body of Christ would eventually encompass ethnic groups all around the world.