The Conflict of Head Coverings

In last week’s bulletin, we discussed the question of whether women should cover their heads during worship. After consideration of the text of 1 Corinthians 11, the conclusion was clear that if we bind head covering as law for women in the assembly, then we have twisted the context of Paul’s words. For Paul was specifically not referring to women covering their heads in the assembly, but only outside of the assembly, and this was only for select women who had miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit that enabled them to lead prayer in the Spirit and prophecy in the Spirit. Since women are not permitted to either lead prayer in the assembly or preach (prophecy), then head coverings were not applicable attire for the assembly. Space limited us to additional information for further consideration of the subject of head coverings dealt with in 1 Corinthians 11. So, today we will go over more details that will help with an overall understanding of this theme.

To the women of the church in Corinth who had miraculous gifts of the Spirit that involved speaking (whether prayers or prophecies), these gifts could be freely utilized by the will of the Spirit outside of the church. Further into the letter, when Paul deals specifically with gifts used within the assembly, he reminds them, “the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says…. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (1 Cor. 14:34-35). So again, back in chapter eleven, Paul is providing instructions for women with these miraculous gifts, so they can appropriately use these gifts outside the church in a way that would glorify God and spread the gospel to the lost. The main point that Paul desires to get across to these select women is the importance of representing themselves as humble, submissive disciples. In the city of Corinth, they may have found many occasions to spread the tidings of Jesus, sometimes while men were around or directly involved in listening. Living in Corinth, these Christians were in a melting pot of Romans, Greeks, and Jews; all these cultures held the custom of head coverings in high esteem. And the first-century culture would not have accepted a doily as a head covering; after all, a doily does not exactly cover the head. The first-century people would have demanded something much more substantial on the head. Just look at the head covering of this woman praying/prophesying found carved in a Roman catacomb (fig. 1), or this depiction on a coin of the goddess of piety (fig. 2):

figure 1


figure 2





These images are helpful in discerning what a head covering was understood to be in the first century. I think it is important to recognize that Paul was not instituting a new concept of women coving their heads but teaching them to maintain this cultural practice. Think of it this way, if a prophetess was attempting to teach the gospel to a few Greek men near the market and her head were uncovered, she would have been thought a disgrace by these men and their ears would have been closed to her words. I honestly don’t know what these Corinthian prophetesses were doing, but their disregard for head coverings would not bring any benefit to the body of Christ.  Paul’s instructions for these women are similar to what he had said about his own self just moments earlier in the same letter: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22). That is, live appropriately according to the culture, and show all honor and respect to others; this is the way to win some over to Christ. If you are an insult to them, then the gospel can have no effect. In application today, the gospel still has the utmost effect on the souls of those whom we have acted appropriately and honorably towards.

Paul concludes the head-covering discussion with: “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.” (v.16). This verse has been twisted by some to say that they had no such practice of head coverings in that generation of miraculous gifts, but that is not what Paul said. Firstly, I want to consider how unusual it would be for Paul to spend this much time detailing the need for these prophetesses to wear head coverings only to follow that up with: but if someone has an issue with this then we’ll just drop the whole idea! Certainly, that could not be what Paul is suggesting. In fact, Paul began this discussion by saying “maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (v.2). These were Paul’s traditions as he received from the Spirit, these were the church’s traditions. The covering of a prophetess was the custom of all the churches. Paul concludes this discussion of a tradition/practice that they must “maintain”, by stating that if anyone of the church at Corinth wants to be contentious about this, to know assuredly that the apostles of the Lord do not have that same attitude about it, nor do any of the churches of God. It was a final blow to any who were inclined to deny the messages that didn’t suit them; Paul had given them the full commandment, the reason for the commandment, and finally, that the apostles and the entire church humbly accept this teaching.

Article by Tanner Campbell.