A covering is a means of grace given to you as a way of showing that you honor your God given role as the wife of your husband. You put on a head covering out of obedience to Christ and to submit to your husband! You do it as a means of grace for your own spirit to remind yourself to take a stand against the powerful sinful desire within that drives you to challenge your husband’s role as the leader. By covering your head, you send a tangible message of encouragement to your husband (and arguably the Angels) which proclaims that you reject the notion that you are a threat to him.
1Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. 2Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 3 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. 4Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6For 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. 7For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. 8For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. 13Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God. (From the English Standard Version(1) ) First Corinthians 11: 1-16.
If you are like me, this is a mysterious section of your New Testament that has probably long made you ponder what in the world the Apostle Paul is talking about! It certainly stands out because what Paul seems to be telling the people of Corinth is that the men must to take off their hats (or any other covering) and for women to put a covering on their heads when they “pray and prophesy.”
No doubt you have sat under countless sermons which beautifully preach on this passage, but towards the end of the sermon the preacher makes a strange pivot when he applies the passage to our modern times. Often, they will tie the whole teaching to women’s modesty(2) and even cross references other famous verses from Paul on the subject such as in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Peter 3(3). Or perhaps you have heard the pastor say that a cloth head covering is no longer culturally relevant in our current times. Thus, it is not required for men and women to follow this teaching while simultaneously suggesting something else feminine such as “feminine clothing”(5) is the modern application. Maybe you have just heard that men having short hair and women keeping their hair long is sufficient to abide in Paul’s teachings(6). Or that husbands themselves are the covering of a woman.(16) For some, these views are satisfactory as it was for me for the first 20 years of my walk with Christ and, as in my case, many have never applied much grey matter on this strange passage.
I urge you to consider that the popularly held contemporary understanding of what Paul is saying could be wrong. The history of why women do not wear head coverings in modern times is a history filled with scandal, intrigue, and an unfortunate shift towards secularism in the modern church. I of course encourage you to adopt the view of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, William Tyndall, John Calvin, John Knox, Matthew Henry, Charles Spurgeon, John Murray, RC Sproul and many other church fathers over the past 2000 years.(18) Yet, my goal for this writing is not to restate what has already been said by so many others. For this, I encourage you to read some of the references below, particularly David Philips paper entitled Covered Glory(b), as he and the others I’ve listed have worked extensively on this topic. My greater desire is for you to reconsider the effect (in other words, the sanctification) that a correct understanding of Paul’s teaching has on our lives today and for you to realize that not obeying this instruction from Paul has a negative impact on faithful living.
To this end, I would ask you to suspend your current understanding and for a time agree with me, and the majority of your Christian ancestors,(8) that this passage has nothing to do with modesty, Corinthian culture, or custom. Rather, Paul is making an argument from nature about relationships, and He provides clear instruction, specifically by using a cloth covering, to symbolize the unchangeable reality that God has ordained between you and your spouse. Hold on tight because these will be some deep waters!
To start, let us be clear that there has been zero debate in Reformed circles about the crux of the passage. No one doubts that Paul is making a case for honoring biblical headship and proper gender roles. His case clearly fits into the mold of what some call Patriarchal theology (and to a lesser extent complementarian theology). While that word “Patriarch” is probably not new to you (being that you’re likely already “Reformed” if you’re reading this anyways), it would be helpful to remind ourselves quickly of its core idea.
The Bible teaches that God gave Adam authority over all creation and tasked him to subdue it, to be fruitful, and to multiply within it. However, upon the moment of Adam’s creation God proclaimed that it is not good (and thus impossible) for “man to be alone” and by extension to rule creation alone. Therefore, God gave man a woman from his own rib to be his Helper. She is to co-rule creation, but in submission to Adam whom which she shares in the same image of God as Adam by virtue of being made from the very flesh of Adam. In turn, Adam is not to rule creation without the help of the woman. Him disregarding the woman would be a rejection of the truth that God himself observed when he said it was not good for man to be alone. Thus, men and women have equal worth and dignity but have different roles and purposes. They exist in an authority structure in which Man is the leader and Woman is the helper as they both obey God’s command rule over the earth.
With this core concept in view, Paul relevantly reinforces this idea of distinct gender roles in 1 Corinthians 11:7-10. There he makes the case that this created order is not random but done with great intentionality. God created Adam for His (God’s) Glory and Eve for Adam’s glory. This created order set in place a chain of responsibility between the man and the woman. Man is given authority to lead the woman. The woman’s endeavor to help the man begins with her responsibility to submit to the man’s leadership.
I cannot emphasize how important understanding the idea of biblical authority and submission is. It’s found throughout all of creation, and it’s also found within the trinity itself. In Ephesians 5, Paul uses Christ’s submission to the Father as a picture of how a woman should submit to her husband. Similarly, he also uses Christ’s headship of the church as an example to men on how they should sacrificially lead their wives and give themselves up for her.(9)
It’s within this paradigm that Paul gives the Corinthians and us today instruction on how to symbolically demonstrate, specifically during acts of worship, the authority relationships that God has made true about the crown jewels of his creation. Paul tells the men in verses 1-4 that they should keep their head uncovered, which is to say to remove any cloak, hood, or hat, while he is worshiping God to be a physical reminder that symbolizes he alone is held responsible directly by Christ for the proper leadership of his family.
This was debatably a massive counter-cultural statement Paul was asking the Corinthians to make. I would suggest it is certainly a huge statement now. As with the Romans(10) in Paul’s day, in our day also many institutions of authority use head coverings to identify which individuals have authority. Perhaps the clearest example is the Military with the rank of its officers on their hats (in fact the military term for a “hat” is the word “cover”). You can also turn to law enforcement who usually place the crest or seal of the city on their uniform’s hats. Even non-governmental instructions do this as well. Remember seeing the official hat on the pilot of the plane you last flew and thinking that he looked professional and well equipped to take you to your destination safely? Or how about your favorite sports team? Do they not proudly wear the colors of their team for the world to know who they are loyal to?
What Paul is saying to men is that, on certain occasions, they should remove any symbol of authority or allegiance they have to any worldly power and remember who they are ultimately accountable to. Paul is symbolically using the uncovered physical head of the body to represent the reality of spiritual headship. This might be more intuitive than you realize in our culture today as this command from Paul is still hidden within our traditions. Next time you’re at a ball game, look around and see how many men remove their hats when it’s time for the invocation!
With the physical act of removing a cloth covering, Paul is tying together the unseen reality of a man’s headship responsibility to a visible and tangible reality that he commands to be practiced. Making the invisible something that is tangible should be familiar to us believers. While there are countless examples in scripture, the chief of them all is the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Its whole purpose is to make what is intangible tangible for our own benefit. I humbly point you towards the Westminster Confession of Faith’s Chapter 28 for more on this.(11) Of course head coverings are not a sacrament, never-the-less it accomplishes the similar idea of tying the spiritual reality to a physical reality that should be observed often. Paul is providing men a dramatic reminder of the weighty responsibilities that comes with their role as the head of their wife. It’s a terrifying reality to know that as the leader of your wife you are going to be held responsible for how well you lead her! Yet, it is also a means of grace to be reminded of this reality and provides as a direct and physical means to fight the post fall sinful state male nature precludes itself to. (12)
But Paul doesn’t stop here.
After telling the men to uncover their heads in order not to dishonor their authority (Christ), he turns to women and in similar fashion commands them to cover their head so that they may honor their authority which is their husband. This seems almost offensive to our modern ears, but what Paul is asking women to do is not just live a life of submission to their husband inwardly, but physically and symbolically show their inward submission outwardly by putting a cloth covering on their head! If that hurts your pride a little, which it probably does, it is evidence that a physical symbol does have huge significance to you and to our culture. It is also a great means for you to inject grace into your relationship with your husband in a way that is surprisingly profound.
Consider that every grace given to us in scripture is for our sanctification, and by extension our comfort and joy. Paul’s instruction to men and women is no different here. A woman physically covering as a symbol of submission is something that is good for her and necessary for her. By tangibly reminding her of His purpose for her, Christ is drawing his female children closer to himself. Before I continue, I think it is important to pause and remind ourselves what Paul is not saying to women in 1 Corinthians 11:
- Paul is not saying you are immodest if you do not wear a covering. Modesty is indeed addressed elsewhere, and we should look to those passages for that subject. Rather, this passage is only about headship. Similarly, Paul is not saying men should be constantly uncovered and woman should similarly be always covered. More on this later.
- He also is not saying that a head covering is the means in which we are able to pray to our heavily Father. We know that the Holy Spirit indwells in us, and we are in constant communion with our Father through Christ.(13)
- He is not saying that your husband is the source of your salvation or even your faith. Rather, we know that in Christ there is neither male nor female, but we are all one in Christ.(14)
- He is also not saying that by putting a covering on you automatically become closer with Christ or that it aides in your salvation in anyway due to some power in the covering itself. Rather, salvation comes from Grace through Faith.(15)
So, what is he saying to women? A covering is a means of grace given to you as a way of showing that you honor your God given role as the wife of your husband. You put on a head covering out of obedience to Christ and to submit to your husband! You do it as a means of grace for your own spirit to remind yourself to take a stand against the powerful sinful desire within that drives you to challenge your husband’s role as the leader. By covering your head, you send a tangible message of encouragement to your husband (and arguably the Angels) which proclaims that you reject the notion that you are a threat to him. More than just a benefit for yourself, a covering is a symbol of obedience and submission to your husband that is meant to encourage his spirit to fight against his sinful disposition to shirk responsibility to lead you! A message to him that demonstrates you are not just inviting him to lead but expecting him to lead. You are challenging him to better learn the ways of Christ, to be a better husband, a better father, and to sacrifice everything for this cause just as Christ sacrificed for his bride. On his best days he will see your covering as a sign that you see him as the leader God wants him to be. On his worst days, he will see you still put that covering on despite the circumstance and he will be reminded that you understand that it is Christ, who is his head and his provider, who will see you both through those dark days.
Being uncovered (men) or covered (woman) while praying and prophesying seems to translate best into corporate worship for us today. However, I encourage men and women to think deeply about the grace available to you in using coverings more often than just a few hours while at Church each week. I challenge the men to think just as gravely any time you wear a hat unnecessarily in the presence of your wife, out of reverence and respect to Christ, but also to her! Ladies, what a beautiful gift Paul provided you, not just for your own encouragement and sanctification, but also for the encouragement of your husbands! I urge you to not become legalistic, but certainly do not minimize this blessing to just a ritual on the Lord’s Day!
While there may be some disagreement on what a head covering looks like, Paul does not describe in detail what he means and thus provides freedom in this regard. My own wife uses a small headband or a scarf, many of which she found on GarlandsofGrace.com. Wherever your convictions lead you, I pray that I have encouraged both you and your spouse to fight against your “modernity” and not let the instruction given to us by Paul as a grace for each other become lost on an errant idea that coverings are no longer relevant for our times. In this day of pagan gender ideology, perhaps the head covering is purpose built, from a letter written 2000 years ago, to give you a “tool” to declare that you are a man and your wife is a Woman. A complimentary sexuality with clear distinctions that are worthy of celebrating! Praise the Lord for that!
Derek Freeman is Deacon in the First Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Dothan, Ala. He is also a pilot with United Airlines.
Additional resources on the historical interpretation of head coverings, you can read, watch, or listen to the following:
Light Reading/Listening References:
- Brian Sauvé – Bright Hearth “S2E18: What About Head Coverings?”
- Phillips, D. Covered Glory – The Christian Use of Head Coverings-Condensed (2016) Coveredglory.com
- Wood, A. G. Are Head Coverings Biblical? (2023)
- Phillips, D. Covered Glory – The Christian Use of Head Coverings (2016) Coveredglory.com
- The Head Covering Movement
Modesty is the driving principle?
Transcultural Idea, but culturally changeable?
Symbol of Submission today is Dresses?
- MacArthur J. F. Head Coverings for Women (2023) Grace to You
Long Hair is Equivalent?
An Early Church Father on Head Coverings
- Augustine Letter 245 Translation Cunningham, J.G.
- Wood, Anna G. What Was the Predominate View on 1 Corinthians 11: 2-16 throughout Church History? (2022), Femina Sola Gratia
- Phillips, D. Covered Glory – The Christian Use of Head Coverings (2016) Coveredglory.com
- Price, G What Does Church History Teach? Semper Reformanda (Retrieved 2023)