Hats, Hair and Headship (1 Corinthians 11:2-16)

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In a future study, I wish to highlight a woman’s ministry in the local church. First, however, we must take something of a detour, for there is much “unfinished business” from our previous study. There are three crucial New Testament passages that speak to gender restriction in the corporate teaching and leading of the church: 1 Timothy 2:9-15, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 1 Corinthians 14:33-40. Each of these passages must be understood if we will glean a proper biblical picture of the differentiation of roles within the life and ministry of the church.

In our previous study, we considered 1 Timothy 2:9-15, and concluded at least five major things.

First, we concluded that women are to “behave” (1 Timothy 3:15) like women in the life of the church. That is, they are to have a feminine demeanour. They are to act as helpers to, not as heads of, the teaching ministry of the church.

Second, we concluded that women are to manifest submissiveness in both position and disposition. That is, a woman cannot biblically serve in the office of a pastor, and she must not disrespect the leadership of the church.

Third, we concluded that women are not to direct men in public worship. This, of course, is what the teaching ministry of the church aims to do. The public teaching of the church aims to have church members “continue steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship” (Acts 2:42) and women are not to direct men in this way in the local church.

Fourth, we noted the reasons given for these restrictions. Paul states the reasons in a twofold manner, but they really form but a single reason. The apostle states the principle of differentiation, as established by God in creation (2:13), and goes onto illustrate this principle by pointing to the disorder at creation, the fall (2:14). “When God’s determined order is reversed,” he says in effect, “you play right into Satan’s schemes.” And if we understand the results of that at the fall, we will not want it again.

Fifth, we concluded that the woman finds her significance in the Body of Christ not in headship, but rather as a helper in the home. That is, as a woman raises a godly seed in the home, she ultimately helps the church to be holy, preparing the next generation to continue as God has ordained. What wonderful significance is that!

Thus, we saw that 1 Timothy 2:9-15 emphasises the principle of headship, but not exhaustively so. The remaining two passages create a threefold cord, which is not easily broken.

I hope to show in these studies that what God’s Word says with regard to gender is vital to the church’s stewardship of the gospel. The church is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), and any attack on Scripture is an attack against the truth and, ultimately, an attack against the Seed who loved the church and gave Himself for it. Evangelical feminism and egalitarianism are a Trojan horse in the contemporary church. This mindset has entered with promise of freedom only to enslave the church, her ministry and her message. “While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption” (2 Peter 2:19).

This issue is vital to all of us. Now is not the time for lazy thinking in the church. We must think biblically and work hard to ensure that God’s purposes for the church are displayed in our practice in the church. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 sheds further light on the issue of headship. Let us consider what it says with regards to hats, hair and headship, and why it addresses this issue.

The Context

The church in Corinth had some serious problems, probably because they were serious about their faith. Martyn Lloyd-Jones notes that when a church has life, she also has problems. This was the case in Corinth. The church there learned very quickly that life ushers in challenges, and she faced a great deal of these challenges within her own assembly.

Paul addresses many of these issues in his letters to the Corinthians, commanding and correcting where necessary. He also answers specific questions that they had with regard to church life. In particular, these answers to questions are found in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, from the seventh chapter onwards. Our passage of study is the one in which Paul begins to answer questions relating to the public, corporate worship of the church. He answers at least three major questions from 11:2-14:40.

First, the apostle deals with the demeanour of women in public worship (11:2-16). Second, he deals with the proper administration of the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34). Third, he deals with the use of spiritual gifts in public worship (12:1-14:40). Each section begins with the Greek term de, which has been translated in the kjv as “now.” This is a term that Paul uses throughout 1 Corinthians to indicate that he is beginning a new section. Thus, it is clear that each of these sections stands on its own.

There are three things that we should note about these three sections, particularly with regard to our section of study. First, these verses speak to the issue of corporate worship. Many commentators believe that, when Paul speaks of a woman praying or prophesying, he means that she is doing that in her own private capacity. But the context clearly indicates that he is speaking of corporate worship. There is evidently no problem with a woman praying publicly in the church, nor was there any problem with a woman prophesying publicly in the church when that gift was still in operation. Thus, we understand Paul to be speaking of corporate worship.

Second, the problems addressed were not simply unique cultural problems, but problems that transcend time and culture. As I will seek to show, the major issue there was not that of hairstyle or hats in the church. That was a symptom, but the problem was far more severe: an open challenge of the headship of the church. Whilst the symptom may have been cultural, the problem itself is very relevant to us, and thus Paul’s instructions apply as much to churches today as they did to the church in first-century Corinth.

Third, corporate worship is extremely important and there are, as such, rules for worship. As goes to the worship, so goes the church; and as goes the church, so goes the world.

The immediate context of these verses (11:2-16) appears to be the same as that of 1 Timothy 2:9-15–a misguided “libertine spirit.” That is, the church had perhaps misinterpreted Paul’s own words that “there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28) and had come to believe that all role distinctions fall away “in Christ.” Now this, of course, appeared to be more “culturally acceptable,” for the Greek and Corinthian culture was very “free,” but it had also led to other serious problems in the church. Obviously, there was a leadership problem in Corinth, and the blame must surely be laid at the feet of the men.

Now, I have entitled this study “hats, hair and headship,” but I do not wish to mislead you. The issue that Paul addressed was not that of “hats” or “hair,” but that of “headship.” The hats or the hair were the symptoms of the problem, but they were not the problem itself. The issue was a failure to understand biblical, male headship in the church, and this resulted in unacceptable worship in the church. Though many would disagree, I do not believe this passage teaches that women must wear hats to church. The passage does teach–much like 1 Timothy 2:9-15–that it is wrong for women to challenge male headship in the corporate setting of the church. Let us then consider this passage further.

The Commendation

Paul begins this section with a commendation for the Corinthians, “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you” (11:2). This commendation serves as the anaesthetic before the surgery. Paul commends them that they remembered him, and that they kept the ordinances that he had delivered to them. We might paraphrase it this way, “I commend you, brothers, for your continued keeping of the ‘traditions’ (authoritative teachings) that I taught you.” Paul had instructed the Corinthians in the Word of God, and they continued to remember and, to some extent, to observe what he had taught them. But there was still a problem; their worship still needed help.

The principle here is simple: when we neglect apostolic teaching, a deformation in the church takes place. It is thus of the utmost importance that local churches “give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine” (1 Timothy 4:13). It is important that pastors “preach the word” and that they be “instant in season, out of season” to “reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:2). We must obey the apostolic “traditions” (i.e. those “traditions” that have been inscripturated) if we will have worship that is acceptable to God.

The Correction

The commendation is not all that Paul had for the Corinthians, however, and he begins the next verse with that all-important word of contrast, “but.” “I praise you,” he begins, “but I would have you know…”

The Principle Stated

Paul commences the correction by stating the principle of God-ordained headship, “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God” (11:3).

“The head of every man is Christ.” What precisely does Paul mean by “every man”? Is he referring to “every man” in the church? Possibly, for we know that Christ is “the head over all things to the church” (Ephesians 1:22). Is he speaking of “every man” in the world? This is also possible, for Christ has been given “all power…in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18). Thus, He has authority over every man in the world. But because he is speaking of local church worship, I would imagine that he is speaking of “every man” in the church.

The next part is clearer, “and the head of the woman is the man.” Paul here is probably not speaking of Adam and Eve, where Adam (the man) was appointed as the head of Eve (the woman). Possibly, he is speaking of the marriage relationship: “and the head of the wife is the husband.” Or he might be speaking of male headship in the church: that women must submit to male leadership in the church. Regardless, he is clearly speaking to the issue of headship.

The concluding words are plainest of all, “and the head of Christ is God.” Here, we have a reference to the economy of the Trinity. Whilst each Person of the Godhead is fully God, there is a willing submission between the Godhead. The submission of the Son (“Christ”) to the Father (“God”) is here highlighted. This principle is important because it shows that, whilst there is no difference of equality between Father and Son, there is certainly a differentiation between their roles. In the same way, men and women have equal worth, but there is an expected differentiation of roles between the two.

Thus, whatever headship is, it is not demeaning. That is, the helper is of no less value than the head. The two are equal–each created in God’s image–but there is also a created distinction explicit in Scripture that must be honoured. Obviously, there was confusion over this in Corinth, and the corporate worship of the church was showing the effects.

We must be sure to honour this principle that God has laid out so clearly in Scripture. The world, as God intended, is patriarchal, and so is the church.

The Problem Addressed

The problem might be poetically described in this way, “To cover or not to cover: that is the question.” As noted above, the actual problem was one of headship in the church, but the symptoms were revealed in a distinct way:

4Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. 5But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. 6For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. 7For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. 8For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. 9Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. 10For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels. 11Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. 12For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God. 13Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? 14Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? 15But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.

(1 Corinthians 11:4-15)

As you can see, the issue was one of “covering” and “uncovering.” The word “covered” literally means “down over.” The men were expected to pray or prophesy “uncovered,” whilst the women were expected to do so “covered.” The question is, what is meant by “covered” and “uncovered”? Is Paul speaking of wearing a shawl or hat to church? Is he perhaps saying that women must have long hair and men must have short hair? Is the covering simply a metaphor for being under authority? Let’s see if we can find the answers together.

Whatever the covering is specifically, to be improperly covered (or uncovered) is to dishonour one’s head. A covered man “dishonoureth his head” and an uncovered woman “dishonoureth her head.” The “head” of the man and woman has already been established: the “head” of the man is Christ and the “head” of the woman is the man. Thus, for a man to pray “covered” is to dishonour Christ, and for a woman to pray “uncovered” is to dishonour the man (her husband). The dishonouring here is a violation of both person and principle. Simply put, a man praying with his head “covered” dishonours Christ because it points to a role reversal in the church leadership.

The issue is a serious one, for to reject male headship is to assume male headship. “6For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. 7For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.” In that culture, prostitutes shaved their heads. Thus, for a woman to reject male headship, as manifested in her appearance, was as bad as her becoming a prostitute!

Allow me to paraphrase Paul’s words here to the women in the church, “If you reject or dishonour male headship then go all the way and make yourself look like a man. On the other hand, if you realise that it is shameful to take on the appearance of a man then show respect to the man (i.e. to his headship).”

There are no half measures here: it is all or nothing. If a woman desires to be a feminist, then she may as well go all the way and become a man. If, on the other hand, a woman has the appearance of submission, then she must show submission.

Paul goes on to give the biblical foundation for male headship:

7For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. 8For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. 9Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. 10For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.

(1 Corinthians 11:7-10)

Woman was created both from and for man. But it is important to note that woman was created from and for man, not man from and for woman. Therefore, it is biblically wrong for the man to be in submission to the woman, both in the home and in the church. It is thus Scripturally wrong for women to display headship over, or even equality of headship with, men. And it is wrong for men to appear to be in submission to women.

It should be noted that both men and women are the very image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Nevertheless, man is the glory of God, for they reflect in a special way what God can make from Himself. Woman is the glory of man, for she reflects what God can make from him. And as she submits to male leadership, she brings glory to God; but to reject male headship is to bring glory neither to the man nor to God.

Paul appeals, as he does in 1 Timothy 2:13-14, to the order of creation: since man was created first and woman second, there is a clear differentiation between the two. Man is the head, and woman is the helper. This distinction, says Paul, must be manifest in corporate worship, as well as in the home.

Paul now brings his argument to a “head” (pun intended!) with a rather strange-sounding statement, “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.” Or, as the esv puts it, “That is why the wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” Paul probably has a few things in mind with regard to “the angels” as he writes these words.

First, the Bible seems to indicate that angels were present at the creation of man. God spoke to Job of “the morning stars” and “the sons of God” (i.e. the angels) who “sang together” and “shouted for joy” when “the foundations of the earth” were “fastened” and “the corner stone thereof” was “laid” (Job 38:4-7). It seems, then, that the angels saw the created order. They saw God created man first, and then woman. The angels know how authority should work, even if we often miss it!

Second, the angels know from experience what happens when roles are reversed. “And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day” (Jude 6). “For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgement” (2 Peter 2:4). The angels know the results of rebelling against God’s authority and thus they must cringe when they see this same rebellion in the life of the church.

Third, the angels observe the church to the glory of God. “The angels desire to look into” the grace of God that is manifest in the church (1 Peter 1:12; cf. Ephesians 3:10). Angels will never experience grace themselves–those angels who sinned were immediately doomed, and there is no hope of grace for them–and thus angels look with great intent to the church to see the outworking of that grace in our lives.

Fourth, we are told that angels attend the corporate worship of the church. Every time a church gathers to worship, she gathers with “an innumerable company of angels” as well as “God the Judge of all,” “the spirits of just men made perfect” and “Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant” (Hebrews 12:22-24). Thus, the angels see when God’s order is not observed in the corporate worship of the church.

Dear Christian, worship matters! It is important that we worship God, and that we worship Him in the manner that He has prescribed. How can someone profess faith in Christ who cares not a whit about the corporate worship of the church? “I don’t need the church: I have my own personal quiet time.” The Bible knows no such thing! If you do not worship corporately, it is highly doubtful that you are worshipping privately!

The esv speaks of “a symbol of authority” on the woman’s head. Whilst this gives the sense, the words “a symbol of” are supplied by the translators; they are not found in the Greek text. The kjv gives a more direct translation: the woman is to have “power [authority] on her head.” There really is no debate: women are to show deference to male headship in the church. Show me a church where no respect is shown to male headship, and I will show you a church that does not worship God–regardless of the rituals that take place there!

There is, however, a caution to be uttered, “11Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. 12For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.” Lest men become chauvinistic, Paul adds that there is equality of dignity and mutual dependence between men and women. It must be remembered that the context here is the church. We have a tendency to take matters to extremes, but Paul will not allow that here. Whilst God has appointed male leadership in the local church, we must also remember that men cannot do it alone. There is a God-ordained partnership between men and women in the church, for the extension of God’s kingdom. We will examine this partnership in future studies.

Paul concludes with some sanctified common sense, which really settles the matter, “13Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? 14Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? 15But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.”

It is as if Paul is saying, “Use your common sense. Forget that I am an apostle, and make the call for yourself.” “Everyone” recognises that certain hairstyles depict either masculinity or femininity. It is a “shame,” a “disgrace” for a man to have a feminine appearance, but it is a glorious thing for a woman to look truly feminine. We should note that Paul does not tell us here how long is “long.” He does not say, “It is a shame for a man’s hair to touch his ears.” His point is not the length of hair; it is that it is a disgrace for men to look feminine. In corporate worship, as in the rest of society, God expects that there be a difference between the sexes, which points to the headship-helper dynamic.

It is interesting that God has put into our fibre this principle of nature. Hair goes through three stages in a person’s life: the growth stage, the rest stage and the recession stage. Testosterone speeds the recession stage; oestrogen slows it (and allows hair to grow faster). Thus, it is far more common to see bald men than it is to see bald women. Paul probably did not know all about testosterone and oestrogen but his point is clear: nature teaches us something about the distinction between men and women.

By the way, the answer to the question posed above of the nature of the covering is perhaps answered here. What is the “covering” of which Paul speaks? He is probably referring to hair, not to hats or shawls. He is not teaching that women must wear hats to church. Instead, he is arguing that, just as there is naturally a distinction in appearance between men and women, so there must be a distinction of roles between men and women in the church. It is shameful for a woman to pray in the corporate worship service of the church if she has an ungodly attitude to the (male) leadership of that church. And it is a shame for men (husbands) to do so if they allow women (their wives) to have that attitude!

In Corinth, the attitude of the women in the church was being publicly displayed in their appearance. In that culture, the way one wore one’s hair said something about the type of person that one was. Loose hair spoke of loose morals; thus, it was actually a “shame” for a woman in the Corinthian church to wear her hair loose to church. For a woman to do so would be to identify herself with the ungodly in her appearance, precisely because she harboured an ungodly attitude in her heart.

The Conclusion

Paul concludes his argument in the strongest way possible, “But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God” (11:16). “Enough said! This principle is universal: egalitarians, be silent!”

Women at worship are not to be different than women at home. They are to be submissive to male headship. The woman’s entire deportment should manifest this disposition. She should embrace her femininity and resist all temptation towards masculinity.

Of course, a question will arise at this point: what about culture? After all, various cultures have various dress and appearance standards. Is it then different in different cultures, or do Paul’s words transcend culture. In reply, I would encourage you to apply two tests. First, ask what does Scripture address? Second, ask what does nature address? If Scripture and nature address an issue–as in this passage–then we cannot argue that it is cultural. Such issue transcend cultural boundaries, and are binding on every church in every age.

The principle is simple: if neither Scripture nor nature addresses it, it remains within the “jurisdiction” of culture. To a large extent, dress codes and appearances lie within this domain. However, what Scripture does speak very clearly to is the matter of male headship. The Bible knows nothing of women leading men in public worship, and thus the “legitimacy” of such a practice is not the realm of culture. Scripture has spoken: we are simply to obey what God has said.

I bring this study to a close by highlighting three essential observations. First, I wish to highlight the principle of headship. When it comes to leadership in the local church, patriarchy must be upheld. That is, men are to lead the church’s worship; women are to submit to that leadership and learn from it. We ought not to raise silly objections at this point. “Yes, we are for male headship, but we are against wife abuse.” Those issues are apples and oranges: completely unrelated. Biblical headship does not promote abuse of women; to the contrary, it promotes security of women. When a church understands the principle of patriarchy, there is great freedom to worship God together when the church gathers.

Second, I wish to highlight the priority of worship. Again, male leadership is vital to this, for it is male leadership that God has ordained to guide the church’s worship. Biblical worship, then, requires biblical men. Christian men, let us determine that we will be biblical men, in order that our churches may truly worship God in spirit and in truth.

Third, I wish to highlight the responsibility of stewardship. Once again, the church is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The truth has been once committed to the church, and we are to earnestly contend for that truth (Jude 3). If we relegate headship in the church to women, we have abandoned the truth that God delivered to us. And that is to fail in our stewardship. This ought never to take place in the church of Jesus Christ.

These three principles are intimately connected. Only as biblical headship is upheld in the church will biblical worship be offered to God, and only then will the church be seen to be protecting the stewardship of the truth that has been given to her by God.

Worship must be acceptable for stewardship to be profitable. This requires biblical headship. Indeed, this is no mere academic truth, but one that is vital to the protection of the church’s great stewardship. Let us then understand and implement biblical headship in our churches to the glory of God.