The Head Covering Issue
Mr. Donald L. Norbie of Greeley, Co., the author of several books and numerous articles, serves the Lord in a Bible teaching, shepherding, and evangelistic ministry.
In years past no well-dressed woman would attend church without wearing a hat. Many wore hats without any thought of obeying Scripture. It was proper etiquette.
But times have changed and the bareheaded look became the style. Few women wear hats now and most feel it is unnecessary to wear them to church. In conservative churches such women may accept the teaching about the roles of the sexes (1 Cor. 11:3) and are happy with male leadership. But for some of them wearing a hat seems strange and utterly irrelevant in this modern world.
Let us examine both positions and try to understand the reasoning involved.
First, let us hear the stand of those who believe dress is a matter of culture.
Such would say, first of all, that there is no command in the Old Testament to wear a veil. It is mentioned as a custom but not taught in the Torah (cf. Rebekah in Gen. 24:65). There is teaching concerning male leadership, implied in creation (1 Tim. 2:13) and commanded in the fall (Gen. 3:16). The whole Old Testament is in harmony with this.
Secondly, the Semitic culture of the day practiced the use of the veil. This is true today in Muslim lands where some form of the veil is still used. It may be over the top of the head, leaving the face exposed, or the face maybe partially covered. Local customs vary.
Thirdly, the plea of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 is based on culture, not Scripture. Paul does not appeal to a command of Scripture to reinforce his exhortation but to what is proper or fitting (1 Cor. 11:13). He does appeal to Scripture for the creation order to teach the subordinate role of the woman. Here the veil is viewed as a symbol of her submission to male authority (1 Cro. 11:10).
The woman’s appearing without a veil in public is viewed as disgraceful conduct (1 Cor. 11:5). She is stepping out of her role and dress as a woman in that culture.
Finally, the point is made that in today’s Western culture women do not veil themselves in public. For a woman to be unveiled in public is not to transgress public propriety or to step out of her role as a submissive wife. Today to put on a veil is to go against social custom.
And some would say that what is important is the attitude, not the dress. In the military service men may wear work clothes or dress uniforms but each knows his rank and keeps it.
Now let us consider a more traditional position which believes the woman should still wear a covering. What are some of the arguments?
First, churches for 1,900 years have generally practiced head covering for the woman. The Roman Catholic Church for centuries was very strict on this. A woman could not enter one of their churches without putting a scarf or hat on her head. Until recently nuns wore veils. And most Protestant churches encouraged women to wear a hat. There is a long tradition in the churches for women to be covered.
Secondly, Paul takes a very strong stand on women being veiled in 1 Corinthians 11. If it were just a matter of culture would he have written so strongly urging women to be veiled? He asserts that this is a symbol of her taking her proper place in society.
Thirdly, it is an eloquent symbol that a woman is willingly taking her God-ordained place in the church. In a world where women are asserting their independence and rejecting the idea of a difference in sex roles this is a powerful statement by a godly woman of her submission to God’s Word.
Finally, Paul insists that this is the universal practice of the churches (1 Cor. 11:16). Those who contend for a different position go against the teaching followed in all other assemblies. Apostolic practice was uniform in this area in the first century.
Much more could be said for both positions, but this may help in seeing the other perspective. We must allow for sincerity and a desire to please God in each camp. It is a question of an external symbol and does not affect the functioning in the respective roles.
If conformity is not from the heart and is reluctant and resentful, God is not pleased. Perhaps an assembly should wait for God to change the thinking of His children, rather than to force compliance. Is the basis of fellowship a head covering?
In a fellowship where some wear a head covering and some do not, what could be an attitude that would please God? Perhaps the attitude of Paul is needed: “Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him” (Rom. 14:3, NKJ).
Let not the woman who sees no need for a covering regard her covered sister with amused contempt, as though she were benighted. And let not the covered sister judge and condemn her unveiled sister. “Who are you to judge another’s servant?” (Rom. 14:4).
Is it too much to ask God’s people in an assembly to be loving and accepting in areas such as these? Or is it such a vital matter it should be made a condition of fellowship? Elders will need wisdom from God to be good shepherds of His flock and to guide God’s people aright.