Headship, Headcoverings and Hair

Headship, Headcoverings and Hair

W. Ross Rainey

This article by the editor has not been written to stir up controversy over what has become an increasingly touchy issue among the Lord’s people. Rather, it is intended to edify and to remind His people what God’s Word teaches on a subject which unfortunately has become “old hat” (pardon the expression) in many assemblies today. To my chagrin I have discovered that public ministry on this theme is neither appreciated nor wanted in some quarters.

A fellow servant of Christ, who read with a critical eye a copy of the editor’s manuscript, feels I have “begged the question” in the second sentence of paragraph two. In reply to him I stressed that 1 Corinthians is a church letter dealing largely with problems and abuses which had arisen in the local assembly at Corinth. I then asked in what other context other than the local church could this passage be logically interpreted and applied today?

It is not expected that all our readers will agree with the editor’s conclusions on this admittedly controversial passage, but any constructive criticisms are both wanted and welcome.

The frequently taught, much misunderstood and highly controversial passage of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 deals essentially with the public worship of Christian women in the meeting of the local church. This eleventh chapter unfolds the third of four main difficulties dealt with by the Apostle Paul in the major division of the letter from 7:1-14:40. They are: (1) marriage (7:140); (2) food offered to idols (8:1-11:1); (3) Christian worship (11:2-34); and (4) spiritual gifts (12:1-14:40).

The first problem Paul tackles concerning Christian worship centres on women praying or prophecying with uncovered heads. His ruling on the matter was that women must cover their heads whenever the local church gathers together, and this, apart from anything to do with local custom (11:16).

Multitudes today, many of them professed evangelical Christians, are espousing the cause of the “Women’s Liberation” movement and loudly proclaiming the equality of the sexes. In view of this, some may find it difficult to accept the teaching of God’s Word relative to their sphere of conduct and service unto the Lord in the local church. Nevertheless, we must accept and obey the teaching of Scripture rather than be influenced and led about by the fads and fancies of the modern and mod (or is it mad?) world around us.

Some think that the teaching of this passage was applicable only in Paul’s day. Others are extreme in their viewpoint, contending that these verses reflect the apostle’s prejudice against women, since at the time he wrote this letter he was single (probably a widower). Still others accept the passage in a simple way, humbly seeking to carry out its teaching, even if a few details are difficult to understand.

Paul advances three main lines of argument to support his view that women should wear veils, or head-coverings, in public worship, the first being:

The Established Order Of God (11:2-6)

The apostle begins by commending the Corinthians for the way in which they had remembered him in everything and had held fast the “ordinances” or “traditions” delivered to them (v. 2). By commending them as he did Paul was, among other things, using good psychology before directly dealing with their besetting difficulties. “Traditions” is a reference to the oral teaching they had received through him, not to water baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or to practices that had developed in the local church.

Briefly, Paul sets forth three great relationships in the universe involving subordination (v. 3). First, the head of every man is Christ. Second, the head of the woman is man. And third, the head of Christ is God. These subordinations have been established by God and they are basic in His control of the universe. That God is the head of Christ in no way affects our Saviour’s deity, the reference being to His voluntary subjection of Himself to the Father’s will in becoming incarnate in order that He might accomplish the work of redemption. As to His blessed Person, the Scriptures make it quite clear that the Lord Jesus is equal with God the Father (Phil. 2:6; see John 1:1; Col. 2:9; Heb. 1:3, 8; etc.) Granted Christ’s incarnation affected the outward form of His deity but not the inner essence of it.

Though in God’s order the woman is subject to the man, there is no thought here of any inequality of the sexes (cf. Gal. 3:28; Eph. 1:3). Subordination does not necessarily involve inequality. For instance, as a man, a private in the army is in no way inferior to the commanding officer of his particular military unit. In character, he may actually be superior to his commanding officer. As a private, he is “inferior” only in rank; consequently, he must submit to his commanding officer in this capacity. Headship is not the same as lordship. Man is head over the woman as God the Father is head over the Son.

Man’s headship goes back to Genesis 3:16, where we read: “Unto the woman He (the Lord God) said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” The subject of the woman’s subordination to the man may be summarized as follows:

1. The man was made first (Gen. 2:15).

2. The woman was made from the man in order to be his companion and suitable helper (Gen. 2:18-23).

3. The woman, having been deceived by Satan, was first in transgression; Adam sinned after being tempted by his wife (Gen. 3:6; 1 Tim. 2:14).

4. The woman is the weaker vessel (1 Pet. 3:7).

It is noteworthy that the reason for God having given the man authority over the woman does not stem from New Testament principles but from Old Testament principles based on the creation and fall of both the man and the woman. From this truth is developed the reason for the Christian woman wearing a head-covering in the local church.

Now, returning to 1 Corinthians 11, just as the woman has an order to follow, so also does the man. As stated in verse 4, his head must not be covered; “Every man praying or prophecying, having his head covered, dishonoreth his head.” On the one hand, it would be totally out of order for a man to pray or preach with his hat on; while on the other hand, verse 5 states that “every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head, for that is even all one as if she were shaved.”

Admittedly, verse 5 is difficult to interpret, but it would seem correct to presume that the Apostle Paul is by no means approving the actions of the women at Corinth praying or prophecying with their heads uncovered. On the contrary, he was simply referring to the unauthorized conduct of the women in the Corinthian church.

In support of this view, Charles Hodge (1797-1878), the famous Calvinist theologian, has aptly stated, “It was Paul’s manner to attend to one thing at a time. Here he is speaking of the propriety of women speaking in public unveiled, and therefore he says nothing about the propriety of their speaking in public itself. When the subject comes up, he expresses his judgment in the clearest terms, 14, 34. In here disapproving of the one, says Calvin, he does not approve of the other.”1

“Head” in verse 5 clearly refers to the womans’ physical head, not to her husband, while in verse 6 Paul’s ironical words simply call for the reproach to be made complete: “For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn; but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.” This text, by the way, makes it crystal clear that a woman’s hair is not the covering the apostle has in mind. To prove this point, try reading verse 4 with the word “hair,” then with the word “hat.” Now do the same with verse 6.

In view of the chapter as a whole, it would seem that the public worship meetings of the assembly are alone involved here and that the divine order of things does not concern, say, the home or other circumstances outside the local church.

We come now to Paul’s second main line of argument, which is:

The Explicit Revelation Of The Word (11:7-12)

There are two Biblical reasons why women should wear headcoverings in public worship.

1. The facts of creation (11:7-9; 11, 12). The man was created in the image and glory of God (Gen. 1:26-27). It is helpful at this point to again quote Hodge, who states: “The only sense in which the man, in distinction from the woman, is the image of God, is that he represents the authority of God. He is invested with dominion. When, in Genesis 1:26-27, it is said God created man in his own image, the refrence is as much to woman as to man; for it is immediately added, ‘male and female created he them.’ So far, therefore as the image of God consists in knowledge, righteousness and holiness, Eve as truly, and as much as Adam bore the likeness of her Maker. But in the dominion with which man was invested over the earth, Adam was the representative of God. He is the glory of God, because in him the divine majesty is specially manifested. But the woman is the glory of the man. That is, the woman is in this respect subordinate to the man. She is not designed to reflect the glory of God as a ruler. She is the glory of the man. She receives and reveals what there is of majesty in him. She always assumes his station; becomes a queen if he is a king, and manifests to others the wealth and honour which may belong to her husband.”2

Who alone but God can fully know what has been wrought for His glory and the blessing of mankind by husbands and wives working together? We are familiar with such statements as, “I could never have gone on without my wife’s love and encouragement,” and “Whatever success I have achieved I owe to my wife.”

In verses 8 and 9 the two prepositions “of” and “for” reveal the woman’s place. She has her origin and purpose of life in the man (Gen. 2:21-25). Every woman taking a new name at marriage tacitly affirms Paul’s teaching.

Verses 11 and 12 show the other side of the truth. “Nevertheless, neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, but the woman for the man. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.” The man and the woman are necessary for each other in the Lord. After all, the man exists by the woman. Both are of God. Were it not for the woman there would be no Redeemer!

2. The presence of angels (11:10). Good angels, of course, are in view here. Since they live in the presence of God (Psa. 138:1; Luke 15:7, 10; 1 Cor. 4:9; Eph. 3:10; 1 Tim. 5:21), they are present in worship meetings. Angels were witnesses of the woman’s insubordination in Genesis 3, and any insubordination on part of women in refusing to acknowledge the authority of their husbands would most surely offend angels, since they know no insubordination in their appointed tasks and ministry. “Power” means “authority,” the headcovering being the sign of man’s authority over the woman.

In his third and final main point of argument, the Apostle Paul appeals to:

The Evident Teaching Of Nature (11:13-16)

“Judge in yourselves,” challenges Paul, and then he asks two questions: “Is it seemly that a woman pray unto God uncovered? Doth not even nature itself teach you that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?” (vv. 13-14). Nature itself suggests what is fitting for the dress of the man and woman in public worship by virtue of man’s short hair and woman’s long hair. That the woman’s hair is not her head-covering has already been clearly demonstrated from verses 4 and 6. If this were the case, the entire force of verses 2-14 would be nullified.

The alternate translation of 11:47, which appears as a footnote in The New International Version of The New Testament, is a classic example of some of today’s miserable and misleading scholarship, and this, among evangelicals.3

“But if any man seem to be conentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God” (11:16). The words “no such custom” mean that there was no custom of women worshipping in the local assembly without veils. That this was something not peculiar to Corinth is revealed in the expression, “the churches of God.” That the practice applies to today is supported by the fact that each of Paul’s reasons for women wearing a headcovering is taken from permanent facts.

Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. has indicated that Paul did carry his point, for early church history bears witness that in Rome, Antioch, and Africa the practice became the norm. And he further stresses that, in reality, the headcovering isn’t the important thing. The important thing is the subordination for which the headcovering stands, and the presence of both, of course, is God’s ideal.4

There are at least four classes of Christian women in relation to the matter of wearing a headcovering in public worship: (1) ignorant; (2) indifferent; (3) unbelieving; and (4) obedient.

Finally, consider the following points:

1. The passage implies that the headcovering can be put on and off with ease.

2. The length of the hair and the size of the headcovering are not the issues, although as for the hair it should be short enough on a man so that he does not look like a woman and long enough on a woman so that she does not look like a man. Selah.

3. Which fashion are we following — earth’s or heaven’s?


The established order of God (11: 2-6), the explicit revelation of the Word relative to the facts of creation and the presence of the angels (11:712), and the evident teaching of nature (11:13-16) are the primary points of Paul’s overall argument that women should wear a headcovering in public worship. Each point must be honestly and objectively answered before this admittedly controversial passage can be lightly dismissed as applying only to the local circumstance of the apostle’s day. That the teaching of the passage is not considered applicable to the present time is crassly evident in most evangelical groups today. Even among the assemblies of God’s people, where this doctrine has been faithfully taught and practiced for generations, it has obviously fallen on hard times.

To divide local churches over issues such as this is most certainly not God’s will, any more than it would be God’s will for local elders to plunk hats on ignorant, indifferent or unbelieving women as they enter the local assembly, whether they liked it or not. After all, for this practice to be meaningful it must be obeyed from the heart. Nevertheless, it is the holy responsibility of spiritual leaders — and God’s people as a whole — to rightly divide the Word of Truth, and as much as lies within us to love and obey His will for His sake and for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, even if the matter involved may seem insignificant in the minds of most.

As a fitting close to our subject, we quote from the words of Mr. Feben of Reading, England, who has written as follows:

“Someone may ask, ‘Why be bothered about such trivialities, when so many souls are perishing?’ But the matter has to do with the conduct of a sister after she is saved and when she is in church fellowship, so that she may walk worthy of the high calling of God, Eph. 4:1. Elder sisters should be careful to teach the younger this follow-up work of salvation. Small things are not trivial when seen from God’s point of view, although we may find it difficult to understand the absolute holiness of our God and the obedience that His holiness demands. For example, Moses smote the rock instead of speaking to it as commanded of God, Num. 20:8-11. For this ‘trivial’ act of disobedience Moses was denied the privilege of leading the children of Israel into the promised land. But someone may persist, ‘Isn’t it a triviality, when we think of so many of our brethren and sisters in Christ in other lands suffering persecutions for their Lord?’ Yet those suffering for Christ’s sake try all the more to be obedient to His Word. It is when things are ‘easy’ that believers tend to become lax in obedience to God’s Word.”5

1 An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, pp. 208-9.

2 Ibid., p. 210.

3 The New International Version of The New Testament, p. 378.

4 The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 1248.

5 Precious Seed, Sept.-Oct., 1972, p. 150.