Headcoverings. Why all the fuss?
Often conversations about head-coverings jam into the same ruts: either a pious expression of inward heart-worship or a legalism particular to ancient culture that has no relevance in modern society. For instance, says one church, “Sometimes it takes an outward action to produce the desired affect on our lives. A head-covering, a lifting of the hands, prostrating on the ground are all outward expressions of an inward conviction…In other words, (these practices) in worship can actually get us past our selves (embarrassment, ego) and draw us closer to God.”
This sounds pious, but individual expression was not what head coverings were all about in the 1st century. What were they about? Women showing submission to their “head.” And that is Paul’s primary point in 1 Cor. 11: women should show objectively that they’re under covenantal authority. The point of the head-covering passage is not to direct inward expression nor to dissect the meaning of “head-coverings” per sé, but that women should show they are under covenantal, representative authority. The main question women should be asking is not whether they should or shouldn’t wear cloth on their head or have long hair, but how can they show publicly and objectively that they are underneath authority.
I began to realize this way of interpreting passages when I started preaching. I went through Hebrews and came upon the warning passages (chs. 3, 6, & 10). Being a good Calvinist, the first thing I began doing was explaining how this doesn’t mean one can fall away. But then I realized that all I did was to explain my system of theology, while the actual message of the text is a warning – but I had effectively made it a comfort. The same goes for the headcovering passage. We use it to explain our system, whether it be piety or freedom from imagined legalism. Usually, the take-away point of the passage somehow becomes, “It’s not necessary to wear head coverings today. Let’s go get some lunch.” But that is not the fundamental message of the passage. Instead it is: “Women should show that they are under the authority of their head, publicly and objectively.” Every passage of God’s word to us demands obedience and action. If our explanation means no response is required of us, we have misread God’s word.
So, what is the “head”? It’s a biblical symbol for headship or authority. The physical head symbolizes the covenantal headship or representation before God. The family’s covenantal head is the husband/father, who is the representative for those in covenant with the him. So, if a woman uncovers her head, she’s saying that she’s the family’s covenant head; not her husband or dad. If a man covers his head, he’s saying that he is not the family’s covenant head and authority. A woman by covering her head shows that she is not the head, the authority, that rather she has another head – her husband or dad. Head = covenant representation and authority. But if you’re listening this means that the family is a covenantal union – one that is recognized by God and represented before God by the husband/father. The man is the woman’s head and Jesus is the man’s head. Thus, the family is a covenant union and if the head of that union is in covenant with God, then all whom he represents in his headship are also represented in covenant with God.
I think this concept is difficult to understand because the modern age has rejected the idea of covenants, especially the covenant of family. We’re all individuals with our individual choices. So heads symbolizing headship doesn’t make any sense to us. People may say that was just a cultural custom back then, but they say this outside of the covenantal context – from a 21st century anti-covenantal culture. Yet, Paul gives no indication that he’s speaking about cultural context. In fact, he uses 4 arguments for head coverings, none of which are cultural: the created order, the angels, nature, and the universal practice of the Church. None of those reasons are specific to the Corinthians nor based on culture. All of these speak of universality – the universality of the family covenantal structure. This chafes under the individualism of our day that divides families and marriages. But if it is universal, then it remains true today.
Furthermore, there is good physical evidence of women wearing head-coverings throughout the entire church age up until the late 1800’s – early 1900’s (which also coincides with many other rejections of traditional Christian practices.) But in the modern/postmodern age we have systematically rejected everything that human history records as near universal practice and custom until before ca. 1800. Any discussion about headcoverings and authority (anything gender-family-authority) must acknowledge these ideological developments. We can’t do our theology in a historical vacuum.
But to bring it back around: Every passage of God’s word to us demands obedience and action. If our explanation means no response is required of us, we have misread God’s word. The fundamental meaning of the headcovering passage in 1 Cor. 11 is that women should show they are under the authority of their covenantal head, publicly and objectively. The main question women should be asking is not whether they should or shouldn’t wear cloth on their head or have long hair, but how can they practically and actively show publicly and objectively that they are underneath covenantal authority and representation.