I received a note in the question box asking me to explain the women’s head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11. This is an important conversation to have, especially since members of the church elsewhere hold views that women must wear a head covering during worship services. The only way to handle such differences is to go back to the text of 1 Corinthians 11 and diligently examine what is revealed by the Spirit of God.
“but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head” (1 Corinthians 11:5).
Now, like any statement, the meaning of the text above is impossible to determine outside of the context; and here the context would include the surrounding text, the purpose of the letter to the Corinthians, as well as understanding who the original recipients were and what they were dealing with. Understanding these aspects of the context will surely set us up for success when considering the details Paul gives concerning head coverings. Yet, even in the verse of consideration (1 Cor. 11:5), we see the word “prophesies” applied to wives prophesying, forcing us to acknowledge that this verse is not for us, nor about us. The writing of this Corinthian letter took place in the first century after the Spirit had been poured out upon the earth in Acts chapter two. This event altered the course of life for many men and women. On that event, Peter quoted the book of Joel, showing that this event was what Joel had prophesied long ago, “God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18). It is evident, from both Peter and Joel, that both men and women would prophesy as a result of the coming of the Spirit in the first century. Peter pointed out that the generation which Joel spoke of is no longer to come in the future, but had arrived. The apostles’ generation would have had many women who had the gift of the Holy Spirit to prophesy. Philip’s family is a quality example of a faithful family of God in that generation. Philip was “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom”, and was chosen by the church in Jerusalem to serve as one of their deacons. He had four daughters, all unmarried (probably due to the present distress of the Jewish persecution – 1 Cor. 7:8, 26). We hear, in Acts 21:9, that all four of Phillip’s daughters prophesied. Of course, just as there were evil men who falsely called themselves prophets to take advantage of God’s flock, so there were also evil women who did the same (Revelation 2:20). Nevertheless, the abundance of true prophecy from the Holy Spirit through faithful men and women cannot be refuted. And the Corinthian church already understood this very well, seemingly having a good number of men and women with the various gifts of the Holy Spirit, including the gift of prophecy. Much of Paul’s letter to them is committed to managing and handling aright these miraculous gifts. The Corinthians seemed to have their own bright ideas about how to use these gifts, but this was causing much confusion, selfishness, and division within the congregation. Paul will deal specifically with how to properly utilize the gifts of the Spirit in the assembly; he does this in chapters twelve through fourteen. However, Paul began his discussion of the assembly halfway through chapter eleven (11:17), where he starts with the proper handling of the Lord’s Supper. He said to them, “But in the following instructions [see how he is starting a new section in the letter] I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” He begins this section by stating that their coming together as an assembly is for the worse. The two main things he has in mind are the misuse of the Lord’s Supper and the misuse of spiritual gifts within the assembly. I said all that to point out that Paul, earlier in chapter eleven (before he started the new section on the problems within the assembly), was not dealing with a situation that was present in the worship of the church, but rather outside of the assembly. This means that Paul was not talking about women covering their heads in the assembly, just outside – as long as they were praying or prophesying with men present. This can be readily seen when considering other things that Paul taught about women in the assembly. Notice what he said to Timothy: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” (1 Timothy 2:11-12). How could he say to Corinth that women may prophesy (teach), but to Timothy, that the same are not permitted to teach? It’s simple, one context was dealing with a woman’s role in the assembly (1 Tim. 2:11-12), while the other is about women teaching the gospel outside of church (1 Cor. 11:5-16). So, should women cover their heads in worship service? The answer is no, not for worship service. This question, being specifically applied to the assembly of the church, can have only one answer; we have no instruction whatsoever for women to cover their heads in the assembly. The instructions for head coverings are specifically applied to women who would pray or prophesy before a man outside the assembly. This was a symbol of man’s authority over women. Because women neither lead prayers nor teach before men when in the assembly, the instructions for head coverings are entirely inapplicable. Preachers who demand the use of head coverings out of women during the assembly have not honored the context of the Holy Spirit’s words through Paul, and in their ignorance, have added to the word of God by binding things upon the church that God did not bind. To make matters worse, churches have been hurled into confusion over this matter and brethren have split up in bitterness. All because the Words of God are not honored. We ought not concern ourselves with the traditions of men, but to focus our attention solely on our duty toward God and his commandments for us. There is much work to do in the vineyard of the Lord; to expend our efforts on covering up every woman’s head in church, where they are neither leading prayer, nor teaching before men, is a shameful waste of mission. Next week, we will dive into more specific details on head coverings.
Article by Tanner Campbell.