Head Coverings: A Matter of the Heart

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43 - Head Coverings

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We’re still in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16  and when we began studying this last week I asked you to lay aside for a moment, the first presenting issue that we see when we read this passage – namely the head coverings and discussion of male female relations. Instead, we looked at the roots of the passage, the foundation on which the teaching is built. And, if you recall, there were 5: Apostolic Authority, The Trinity, Creation, Biology, and Common Church Practice.

And then I asked you to do some heart work this week in asking yourself if you are willing to submit yourself to God’s authority or not. Essentially, if you are a Christian today and have accepted Jesus as your Saviour, are you also willing to accept Him as Lord, even if His commands go against your feelings or upbringing? Are you willing to humble yourself before your Creator, your Saviour, your Lord and your God?

It’s still amazing to me that Jesus leaves this open as an option to humanity. We read part of Philippians 2 last week and I think it would be good to read part of it again because it really drives home our need for humility, the example of Christ’s humility, but also His absolute Lordship over all creation.

It says in Philippians 2:3-11, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

That’s all about humility, right? Humble before others, humble and obedient to God, following the perfect example of Jesus. But even though Jesus laid aside His divine majesty and took on the form of a servant, even to the point of dying in our place on a sinners cross, the passage doesn’t leave Him there, but continues from His humiliation to his glorification:

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

It should amaze us that Jesus gives us the option to disobey Him. It’s amazing to me. He is Almighty God, Creator, Lord of all, worthy of all worship and praise – and one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Christians are merely the ones who get to do it first, of our own volition, by our own choice – but one day, everyone who has ever lived, every creature, every country, every leader, will bow before Jesus as Lord – His glory and His power will make them bow, will make them confess.

Part of the Christian life is acknowledging that fact today. It’s in the prayer Jesus taught us: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed (or worshipped or held high) be your name. Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Christians claim God as our highest authority in all areas of our life, our King, And we acknowledge this every time we pray the Lord’s prayer! And then we ask Him to submit all the world, including us, to His divine will, causing everyone to worship and obey Him, just as they do in heaven. Because we believe His Kingship, His leadership, His way, His Will is the best plan for joy, peace, happiness, and justice that that humanity could ever hope for.

This was the main topic last week: Will you, in all areas of your life, submit yourself to the will of God? The answer to that question will dramatically affect how you respond to the Bible. So let’s read 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and see what it says:

“Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For 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 was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife 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 man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.”

Historical Context

As with all passages, it’s important to start with the context. Last week I said over and over that this passage isn’t rooted in culture. Whatever God is telling us through the Apostle Paul goes beyond hair and clothing styles or historical understandings of gender roles. It’s deeper than that.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t take the cultural context into consideration. In the city of Corinth, in Greek culture, and like many Middle Eastern countries today, most men and women wore something on their head like a veil, turban or headscarf to protect against the sun. But like today, they were more than a practical fashion accessory. What they were made of and how they were decorated would tell you a lot about how wealthy or important someone was.

And, like today the women’s version was way more complicated than the men’s. The fabric was of different quality and the veil could be was pinned to a stiff hat and set with jewels and ornaments. If the woman was married, the headdress got very complicated with even more decorations, even putting important coins in the front to signify her dowry. And of course, as the head covering and veil got more complicated, so did the style of the hair. Competitive fashion is nothing new and this status symbol competition had gotten so out of control that the Apostle Peter actually took time in his letter to warn Christian women about this (1 Peter 3:3-4).

Like today, it was common practice for a man to take off their head covering during a worship time to signify their respect for and submission to their deity, like we do when we take off our hats for prayer or to sing the national anthem. It’s a sign of respect. For a man to choose to cover his head during worship showed there was something wrong with his attitude. It was the opposite for women. At that time in Greece, only immoral women would be seen with their heads uncovered.[1] [2]

We understand this concept today because we have the same fashion issues, right? Certain styles of clothes signify certain events. A man’s hair, beard, and clothing signify something about them. Some guys are very concerned about this, some are less concerned, but none of us get dressed by accident. Our clothing choices reflect something about us.

And I think that whatever pressures men feel must be a hundred-fold for women. Every day, no matter what country they are in or what job they do, women are judged more by how they look than almost anything else. Judged by everyone – men and women are all very hard on women for their clothing choices. And whether we like it or not, those choices reflect something about us to the people around us. A high skirt and crop top sends a different message than a t-shirt and jeans. A sweatshirt and pair of leggings gets a different societal reaction than a cocktail dress. When a woman leaves the house, whether they like it or not, even though it’s not fair, they are forced by society and their own inward drive to consider every part of their appearance – hair length and style, jewels, pants or skirt, length, tightness or looseness, how deep the V neck goes – even their perfume is going to be judged.

All of this is not new and has been happening forever.

The Problem

Now, what was happening in the Christian church in Corinth was that, because of their newfound freedom in Christ, some people were breaking from societal norms – especially the women. The Christian church was different than all the other religions around them. Christians taught that women and men are equal in dignity and worth, both worthy of the same respect and honour. Both men and women have the same level of access to God through Jesus Christ, and the same Holy Spirit within them. No longer were women considered inferior, unfit for teaching or learning – as they were in the rest of society – now they were invited to sit alongside their fathers and husbands and listen to the same teacher, ask questions, and even, after some time of maturing and study, to teach! There were even times when God would show up in a special way and give a message, a prophecy, through one of the women in the church.

This was amazing to everyone! The women in Corinth were obeying God and were praying publically and prophesying in church, speaking out words from scripture and explaining passages to people, right in front of everybody, and it was an awesome thing to witness. This was all approved of by the Apostles and the scriptures, Old and New Testament, give examples of women prophets and teachers all over the place (Exo 15:20-21; Luke 2:36; Acts 2:17-18, 21:9) This level of freedom and respect was unlike anything they had ever experienced – and being human, they took it too far.

When they spoke during the worship times they were, apparently uncovering their head, like the men did. This was a problem. In their freedom, they were “flaunting social convention and sending ambiguous signals”[3] to everyone around them. Remember, their head covering was more than just a hat to keep the sun out, but was like a billboard with all sorts of information. To take it off in church, during a worship time, was to send a signal about your sexual freedom, your marital status, your religious commitment, your respect for your husband and family.

Without question, the head covering was a cultural convention, neither commanded nor prohibited by God, but it still had very important meaning. And remember, one of the most important messages that keep coming up in 1st Corinthians is that the church needs to take other people into consideration when we do things – we just covered this over and over in our study of the last few chapters, right?

To disregard the social conventions and expectations of their culture wasn’t a small thing. They were experiencing an intoxicating level of freedom in Christ. To learn they are as loved by God and as useful to God as any man was an awesome thing. So, some of them figured, “Why do I have to wear this head covering, then? Jesus doesn’t command me to, and He’s my Lord. I don’t have to listen to anyone else, so forget this thing, I’m going to be like the men and uncover my head during worship.” And herein lay the problem. For them to do that showed there was something bigger going on in their hearts.

Their fashion choice wasn’t just about the fashion, it was about the heart. Casting aside their head covering was doing a lot of damage. It disrespected their fathers, husbands, and family, flaunted their sexuality, and hurt their testimony before all of the new believers and the watching world who would be utterly shocked and unable to understand what was going on. It also blurred the biblical distinctions between males and females, something very important to God in scripture, and something we will cover next week.

So, when we read this section, we aren’t really reading about head coverings, are we? This section, on the first pass, ends up reading like an oppressive command that tells women they always need to wear hats and veils. And some people get that far and stop. Certainly, some religions demand this, but there are also Christian churches that still require all women to wear a head covering during church. Someone told me this week that some women took this so literally that they would even wear hats to bed because they would often pray before they went to sleep. But that’s not what this is about. This isn’t about head coverings, it’s about what’s happening in the heart of the women and the church.

The Heart of the Issue

With all that in mind, the historical and literary context of the passage, let’s go through it together and take it apart so we can better understand it. Verse 2-3, “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”

One of the questions that was sent to Paul was evidently about this head covering issue that was dividing the church. We talked a little about the root of this passage last week, in that it is rooted in Apostolic Authority, as important as the teachings about the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, but look at where it goes. Paul says, “You do well to ask me, and thereby ask Jesus, about what He thinks of everything you do, but you need to understand something important when it comes to head coverings: it’s not just about the fabric covering a woman’s head but what it represents is going on in the woman’s heart.”

So Paul uses the question about heads to talk about real and true headship as it’s presented in the Bible. “You think this is about a fashion accessory and cultural conformity, but it’s about so much more.” “The head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” “So, women”, Paul seems to be saying, “When you cast aside your head covering, are you still obeying Christ as your head, your Lord, and still respecting your husband? Probably not, right? You’re making it all about you, your freedom, your choices, your desires – and completely forgetting about Jesus, your husband, (or father if you’re unmarried), and all the believers around you. When you come to church dressed the way you are, what message are you sending about yourself, your marriage, your faith, and your submission to God’s order? Instead of bringing glory to God and to your husbands, you bring them shame and that isn’t good.”

Imagine the picture there, right? A man brings his wife to church. They attend for some months, grow in God, learn some scripture, tastes freedom in Christ. She learns that her sins are forgiven and she is free from all the horrible things the culture around her has been telling her about women. It’s a big adjustment, but they learn to live as equals, share with each other, learn from each other, serve together. Eventually, they become deacons in the church. He administrates and she has a talent for singing and reading scripture.

But then one day she comes to church – and I’m grasping for a modern equivalent here so bear with me – and she’s wearing a short, strapless party dress, heels, and a huge, gaudy necklace. She proceeds down the aisle and as she nears the front, she takes off her engagement ring and tosses it into the offering plate, declaring that since men don’t have to wear them, neither does she anymore. She heads up to the platform, grabs the mic and says,

“Before we do our opening song and read scripture, I just want to let you know about the freedom I’ve found in Jesus. For years society, even my husband, has told me how to dress, and I realized that I don’t have to anymore. God gave me this body and I can decorate it however I want. And I encourage you to join me, ladies. Take off those oppressive diamonds, change those drab, uncomfortable clothes and let’s worship God the way we all want to! Why should the world have all the fun! Let’s bring the same energy as we would on a Friday night with our friends! This is a place without judgement, without fear, where men and women are free to do whatever they want because Jesus has freed them from the Law and from culture! So either sit or stand or whatever you want and let’s sing and really dance together!”

That’s as best as I can do to give a modern equivalent to what was happening in the Corinthian church – except to remind you that in their culture worship and sex were completely tied together and most of the church would have had a very messed up, sexualized history. Basically, it was like a church full of former sex and porn addicts.

Everyone in the church, including the husband, is shifting uncomfortably in their seats. Why? What would you think in that situation? What would go through your head as she walked the aisle and spoke? She’s technically not altogether wrong with what she’s saying. Men and women are equal before God. Society does oppress and judge women, and the Christian church isn’t supposed to. Engagement rings are not in the Bible. God did give her that body and there’s a lot of freedom in how Christians can dress.” So is she wrong? What’s going on there?

The reason we have a reaction to that situation is because it’s not about the dress or the shoes or the jewelry. It’s about the effect on the people at the church. It’s about disrespecting and embarrassing her husband. It’s about the example being set for other believers and the message that is sent to any non-Christians. Are you going to that woman for marriage advice? If you walked into a church and saw everyone dressed the way they would dress in a night-club or at a rave, what would you think? That’s a lot of what’s going on here.

Our scripture addresses it this way. Look at verse 4-7:

“Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.”

It says to the men and the women: you can’t dress and comport yourself, or conduct your life in an irreverent, rude, disrespectful way, while at the same time saying your marriage, family, and spiritual life is ok. What is happening on the outside shows what’s going on on the inside. If you are disrespecting yourself and your spouse in public, dressing with a great, prideful concern for your looks or for how seductive you are – your relationship with God and your spouse is probably quite a mess.

It says, in effect, “Showing up with your head uncovered should have the same effect on you as if you were to show up bald. The shame you would feel if all your hair fell out is the same shame you should feel if you are disrespecting yourself, your spouse, or your church.”

In any culture, your hair and your clothes mean something. It shows how much you respect yourself, your culture, your spouse, your family, and your church. To break cultural convention because it’s sinful or wrong or because it goes against your conscience is perfectly fine. But to do it simply because you want some shameless attention or declare yourself better than everyone else, is sin. You are stealing God’s glory and disrespecting those around you. Recall what we said in Philippians 2.

Your Look Says a Lot

I want to get into the male headship aspect of verses 8-16, but hopefully you see how this ties to last week and many of our other studies. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

Christian, it’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s about Jesus. And Jesus commands us and gives us the example of humbling ourselves before God and each other. So, in your clothing styles, in your hair styles, are you being humble?

And this doesn’t just have to be expensive or seductive clothes, or strange and complicated hair styles. This attitude can be conveyed with any type of clothing. There are people who dress like slobs and never shave because they want to declare to everyone how little they care about themselves or what anyone else thinks. There are people who only wear certain brands or have a certain beard because they convey a certain message – that they’re tough, cool, smart, trendy, sexually liberated, or counter-culture. There are women who put on skin-tight clothes in the morning and think, “I don’t care what anyone else says, this is comfortable.” and head out not giving and regard to how it affects those around them. Or men who put on the same shirt every day, the one that their wife begs them to change and is so embarrassed by, even wearing it when company is over, and keep doing it because they like it. They don’t care what anyone else thinks.

Clothing can say a lot about the heart: There are men who wear suits to church simply so they can judge those who don’t. There are women who wear conservative clothes because they have a real fear of the men around them. There are men who hate women simply because of their clothes, and women who look at their closets and hate themselves. There are beautiful people that try to cover their beauty because they have been told it’s shameful. And others who have been treated like commodities and objects for so long that they feel their only worth is in how they look. It’s a mess.

So, this isn’t a prescription for how to dress. I’m not telling you how to dress at all, nor should I. I’m not saying wear dresses or don’t, have a beard or don’t, wear tights or don’t, wax your mustache or don’t. That’s between you, your spouse, your parents, your culture, and God. But, when you get dressed, when you choose a hair style, when you buy that piece of clothing, will you submit that choice to God’s leadership? Will you see that decision through God’s lens, asking yourself, “What does this say about me? How does this reflect on my spouse and family? How does this affect my testimony? How will this affect others today? What does this say about my faith in God? Is God honoured by this choice? Does this bring glory to Him? Will this help my witness and encourage people?”

Let me close with the words of 1 Corinthians 10:31-33, only a few verses before our passage today: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.”

[1] Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Head Covering. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 936). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[2] NIV Archeological Study Bible, Pg 1875

[3] NIV Archeological Study Bible, Pg 1875