Every now and then someone sends around those “getting to know you” questions, and I’ve answered them a few times on my blog. Sometimes one of the questions is “What is one thing people might not know about you?” One good answer to that question is that I wear a hat, or headcovering, to church, but I have never mentioned it on my blog because I don’t want to be thought weird or misjudged because of it.
But in real life, of course, a hat in church is obvious and sticks out like a sore thumb, even though I try to keep them unobtrusive and not overly decorative. My husband and I don’t want to make it our “pet issue,” soapbox, or hobby horse by bringing it up and discussing it excessively with people, so we usually only explain it when asked. I don’t think we have ever been asked, though I was once accused of “formalism” by someone who pronounced that judgment without trying to find out our reasons.
Online discussions of those who wear headcoverings often pronounce them as legalists. Since I am neither a formalist or a legalist, I thought perhaps an explanation would be in order.
The practice comes from I Corinthians 11:1-16, which I’ll include here for easy reference:
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. 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.
There are several different ways of interpreting this passage, so I’ll just go through them to explain the conclusions we came to.
1. It’s a cultural issue. I’m told that in the days in which this was written, respectable women wore veils in public and women of ill repute did not, so it was a matter of good reputation to be veiled in public. While that may be true, that’s not the reason given here (and the apostle probably would not have needed to encourage them to do what they were already practicing as a culture anyway). The reason given here for a woman to wear a head covering is to illustrate that her husband is her head and she is honoring him, and she is specifically to have it on when she is “praying or prophesying” in a public assembly of the church.
2. It’s just talking about hair. Verses 14-15 cause some people to attribute the whole discussion to hair length. There are a few reasons I don’t agree that that’s the case. The phrasing of the passage seems to indicate that this is an example of the same principle in nature, not the culmination of the discussion. And if it is talking about hair, wouldn’t it be saying that men should be bald when they pray (verses 4 and 7)? When it says a woman should have her head covered when she prays or prophesies, that seems to indicate something she puts on at that time.
3. Women should cover their heads all the time. Some people who do believe in using head coverings take this view because a woman needs to be ready to pray or prophesy (verse 5) at any time. However, the context of the passage is public worship (verse 1 talks about keeping the ordinances, then the remainder of the chapter after this discusses communion [or the Lord’s Table or the Lord’s Supper, whatever you choose to call it]). The early New Testament church participated in the Lord’s Table much more often than modern churches do (I was told once that they did so every time they met, but I don’t know how to find out whether that is true). Therefore, since the context of the passage is public worship with both men and women present, I don’t wear a hat around the house or at the grocery store or to women’s meetings at church.
4. A head covering in Bible times is like a wedding ring now, just a symbol that a woman is married. They may both indicate marriage, but the instruction in this passage seems to me to go beyond just being married, particularly since the head covering seems to be something they put on while meeting together, not something that is kept on all the time.
5. Woman should wear a headcovering in a public assembly of the church to illustrate that she is under the headship of her husband and honoring him. That’s obviously the view that I hold.
What is the verse about angels referring to (verse 10)? Some think that is a reference to pastors, as the angel of each church in Revelation is its pastor. Some think it refers to actual heavenly angels and that God shows something of Himself to them through us (“so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,” Ephesians 3:10, ESV).
To me the cultural difference comes in the type of head covering. Woman in Western societies don’t wear veils, so at some point they began wearing hats. Amish and Mennonite women wear prayer kapps. In some Eastern European churches, the woman wear scarves over their heads. Some of the women who wear headcoverings all the time here use a bandana style, though often they use white fabrics.
Women wearing some type of head covering in American churches was practiced up until the 50s or 60s, not that long ago. Somehow the practice fell away, maybe because it was no longer taught. Gradually people forgot the basis for it, and then didn’t see a need to keep on with it. Or maybe the practice was rejected because the world in general rejected the idea of man being head over a woman. Oddly, society has kept the practice of men praying with their heads uncovered. You do still see men removing their hats when during public prayer, though I think even that is beginning to decline.
There are some fundamental Biblical issues for which there is no wiggle room: the Deity of Christ, salvation by grace through faith, and others. But on other issues, Romans 14 has instructions for those who come to different conclusions about what the Bible teaches in those issues that aren’t fundamental to the Christian faith (though the passage is discussing weaker brethren, I think some of these overarching principles apply). Some people can read the same passage, like this one, and come to different conclusions about what is taught or meant. Each should do whatever they do as unto the Lord (verse 6), not judging or condemning each other, (verses 3, 10,13), being fully persuaded in their own minds (verses 5, 22), remembering they’re accountable to the Lord (verse 12), not being contentious about it (verses 1, 17-19).
As I said at the start, this isn’t a soapbox issue and I rarely mention it. I don’t judge other women who don’t wear hats or headcoverings because I understand that they may read the passage differently. But because I see the passage the way I do, I need to follow what I believe it is teaching. I thought perhaps explaining where the conviction comes from would help others not to judge the practice unfairly.
This post will be also linked to Women Living Well.