First, our text on this fine day:
1 Cor 11:2-16 NASB
Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman's sake, but woman for the man's sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.
I first examined this passage about three years ago. Before that time, if I had read it at all, I skimmed it, thinking, "that has nothing to do with me." About three years ago, though, I read it again--and this time I knew that it had at least something to do with me. It's in there for a reason.
I'll start by commenting on the text briefly, and then addressing some common arguments. As usual, I'll give you the bottom line right away. ;-)
After reading this passage myriad times and pondering (seemingly) every conceivable interpretation, my husband and I came to the conclusion that I should cover my head in the assembly of believers, and particularly where there might be praying or prophesying going on (I'll try to comment later on the practicalities of this).
Paul gives several reasons why women should cover their heads:
1. Headship. Man is the head of woman as Christ is the head of the church.
2. Covering glory of man before God. The woman is the glory of man, and her hair is her glory--covering the hair/head hits two birds with one stone. You'll see that the angels do something similar in God's presence in Isaiah 6:1-2. I admit, this is deep stuff, but we shouldn't let that make us give up trying to understand what's being said and commanded here.
3. Creation order. Woman was created for man's sake.
Do you notice anything about the reasons Paul gives? I do--they are universal and time-transcending. Nothing has changed regarding any of those reasons, which is why I reject the argument that this passage is cultural and has no practical modern application. Paul was perfectly capable of telling the Corinthian believers, "Hey, since your town does things this way, let's not offend anyone...keep their custom even though you're free in Christ not to." Nope. He is issuing a command based on things that do not change. Not only that, but he stresses that this is the way things are done in all the churches.
In the course of doing my research on this topic, I took a gander at what the early church fathers had to say about this. One of the primary interpretations I encountered is that the "covering" spoken of throughout the passage is supposed to mean a woman's long hair. Now, I do agree that a woman should have long hair if she can, but that is not the covering being described here. In fact, the Greek katakalupto, used in most of the verses for various forms of "to cover," is not even the same word as is used when Paul says a woman's hair is "given to her as a covering" at the end of the passage. That word is peribolaion, and Paul is using the woman's hair as a natural example of the covering required by God in His presence.
But back to the early church fathers. When I was examining the issue, trying to determine whether Paul meant a veil or hair, it occurred to me that if this was truly a Christian custom in the first centuries, the leaders would have surely mentioned it. Well, they did. You can read some of the early church fathers' commentary here.
"Around the year 200, at Carthage, North Africa, Tertullian wrote a tract entitled, The Veiling of Virgins. Tertullian makes the argument that the passage applies to all females of age—not just to married women. Of course, Tertullian’s personal view is of little concern to us. But what is so valuable about this work of his is that he discusses the practices of different church in various parts of the world. Here are some key excerpts from his work:
'I also admonish you second group of women, who are married, not to outgrow the discipline of the veil. Not even for a moment of an hour. Because you can't avoid wearing a veil, you should not find some other way to nullify it. That is, by going about neither covered nor bare. For some women do not veil their heads, but rather bind them up with turbans and woollen bands. It's true that they are protected in front. But where the head properly lies, they are bare.' (snip)
Clement of Alexandria, an elder writing from Egypt around the year 190, counseled: 'Let the woman observe this, further. Let her be entirely covered, unless she happens to be at home. For that style of dress is grave, and protects from being gazed at. And she will never fall, who puts before her eyes modesty, and her shawl; nor will she invite another to fall into sin by uncovering her face. For this is the wish of the Word, since it is becoming for her to pray veiled.' [Clement, The Instructor 3.12]"
Do we have to dress like first-century Christians? I don't think so. But there is ample evidence that the first Christian women DID veil their heads.
Bruce Terry provides some wonderful scholarship and insight in his work:
Five Myths about Corinthian Headwear
Aspects of Culture at Corinth
So, what does that mean for the modern church?
1. No, it doesn't mean--to anyone I've ever met--that you aren't saved if you don't practice this.
2. This is a New Testament, apostolic command. Why don't we obey it? Just consider: could it be because of Western pop culture, vanity, fashion, and feminism? Ask your grandmother whether women used to wear hats to church. Yep, they did. When did it stop? Depending on where you live, anywhere from the 1950s-60s (I'd love a correction from anyone old enough to know for sure). Anyway, it was still a tradition up until very recent times. I don't know if people knew why they were doing it, but the tradition came from this passage.
Unfortunately, the plain facts are that every Christian isn't going to see this passage this way--and I don't think that's the end of the world. I think anytime we disregard a command of God (or explain it away, etc), we miss out on tremendous blessing. It is freedom, not bondage, to obey God.
Sometimes people bring up things like "Greet one another with a holy kiss" and point out that no one does that in Western culture. As my pastor says, if a man came up to give him a holy kiss, he'd feel a little uncomfortable! :-) But I don't see that as having any bearing on this command. In my view, God wants us to greet each other warmly, as family in Christ should. I don't think, though, that the headcovering passage has the same cultural flexibility, if you will, because the reasons for doing it are clearly stated.
So, do I veil? Well, I have some veils from Jerusalem that I love (by the way, headcovering for women is still an Orthodox Jewish practice...hmmmm). I don't wear those to church, though, because it'd stick out like a sore thumb! I am the only woman in my church who holds this belief. So I wear hats every week; that's my "cultural accomodation." If it was good enough for ladies for hundreds of years, it's good enough for me. Truthfully, I see the veil as even more Biblical and love wearing them and thinking of the old paths:
Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.
I actually don't talk about this that much. I wanted to share it with you guys, though. No one at my church (with the exception of my husband and two approving brothers) really knows why I am wearing hats when I am there--I don't want to stir up controversy in my local assembly.
Mrs. Jennifer P. and Molly have both blogged about this before. I am slow...sorry!
I reserve the right to come back and add things I forgot! :)