1 Corinthians is a book not many pastors systematically exposit through on Sunday mornings. While parts of this wonderful letter are used a lot—like chapter thirteen and parts of chapters eleven and twelve—much of the book is glossed over or ignored. The reason: it brings conviction and discomfort to different areas of life that we as American Christians would rather avoid, because they clash with our post-modern culture. However, the truths Paul wrote during the first century apply to our culture just as much as it did to the Corinthians’ era. While the detailed specifics may not translate perfectly, the general concepts and principles are just as relevant today as they were during the first century. So let’s dive into one of these commonly avoided sections of 1 Corinthians and glean the truths God has for us.
“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.”
~1 Corinthians 11:3-7
In our post-modern, egalitarian, feminist-driven culture, this passage can be both confusing and offensive to many. Head coverings are not something that is practiced in our culture so many brush this passage off as irrelevant and, therefore, inapplicable to American Christians. On the other hand, others read this passage and believe that it must be followed exactly since it’s in the Bible and, therefore, are strong proponents of women wearing head coverings in church.
Are either one of these responses correct? How do we interpret and handle this controversial topic?
I believe that one of the reasons people react in two extremes on this passage is because they read it at face value. They take the passage and only interpret and apply it based on a literal, surface reading. However, the truths and concepts Paul is trying to teach in this section go beyond the issue of whether or not women should wear head coverings in church. The fundamental concept here is God’s design of headship.
The core issue is not whether or not women should wear head coverings but how the church views headship and God’s designed order of authority. God created all men and women equal. Women are not more valuable or of higher worth in God’s sight nor are men of greater importance. However, God did design order and hierarchy and placed men in that place of authority and headship above women.
Therefore, while equal in value and worth, men have been placed by God as the head and covering over women and this hierarchy should be evident in how both men and women conduct themselves in cooperate worship. This is where Paul’s discission on head coverings comes into play. In the Corinthian culture, women who went around without a head covering were prostitutes and were intentionally uncovered to proclaim this position to the world. These women were not under the covering of a husband nor were they devoted to God’s design for living life. Therefore, the Christian women within the Corinthian church should be distinctly different from the women of the world. And for the first century Corinthians, that meant women needed to cover their heads.
Does that mean women in twenty-first century America need to do the same? I would say no. As a culture we do not use head coverings for women in any context. For us, it does not matter whether or not a woman wears a hat or head covering. It’s simply a fashion or style preference. Therefore, wearing a head covering in church holds no symbolic significance in our culture and thus does not fulfill the same purpose it did for the first century Corinthians. However, the core issue of headship and God’s design of male leadership is still a big point of debate.
So while the topic and practice of actual head covering is one that I believe must be sensitively applied within relevant cultural contexts, the deeper truth and concept of headship still holds true for us today. And just as the Corinthians were dealing with egalitarian ideology within their church, the rise of feminism and redefining of roles for men and women have infiltrated the church and led many away from God’s designed order of headship.
In conclusion, while head covering is not the answer to the issue of headship for the American church, the importance of following and displaying God’s ordained order of male headship in how Christians live their lives and conduct their worship is vital. While American women do not necessarily need to wear head coverings to live out this truth, they do need to dress and conduct themselves in a manner that shows proper deference to male leadership. At the end of this topic in 1 Corinthians, Paul actually stated that head coverings in and of itself is not a point worth contending over. However, understanding and living out headship is central to the Christian life.
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