A Recommended Article Toward Why Women Shouldn’t Wear Head Coverings in Worship to Show Submission

I came across a helpful article on Head Coverings this week by Bojidar Marinov. I was studying this matter because my text took me into looking at the worship assembly in the early church in Acts 1:13–14. So, this matter was something I was compelled to study in relation to that. It is often a very opinionated matter for some. If it is for you, and you are dead set on forcing head coverings on your women in the church, then read no further than 1 Cor. 11:16 (over and over again and slowly). I am not here to make for war, but peace. I’m sharing largely with an audience whom I wish to equip to be settled in their consciences on this matter from sound teaching. So, all others read on…

The summary of the position is this: In the original context Paul was correcting men who did not want the woman to wear a sign of authority or freedom on their heads to participate fully in the worship of God on equal footing of men. Today, head coverings no longer represent a symbol of authority or freedom, but of submission. To command women to do this in our churches today therefore is not keeping with the text and is thus anti-biblical. So, such thinking needs to be eradicated based on Scripture. Again, the head covering (as you will see explained below) was not a sign of submission, but of power (exousia) in the presence of angels. When people are demanding head coverings on women in churches today they are calling for submission, and that is not what the text is dealing with. The text is dealing with contentious men who do not want to give full liberty for women to worship in the church (cf. 1 Cor 11:16).

Disclaimer: By sharing this I am not necessarily subscribing to this position, I simply found it helpful in understanding this text better. I think there is more work to be done in study on this than can be put in this article. But I also think the article is a good start at dealing with issues that I have not seen others wrestle with. Carry on…

Here are a couple of excerpts from the article. First, the author sets the stage by explaining the original intent:

This significance of the veil worked for the men, too. The Roman men prayed to their gods and performed their religious sacrifices with veils over their heads; check out, for example that well-known statue of the veiled Augustus as a religious leader (pontifex maximus). But a pagan doesn’t approach his gods with a symbol of submission; the principle of communicating with pagan gods is opposite to the principle of communicating with the God of the Bible. A pagan worshiper approaches his gods as a man of authority approaches another man of authority; the prayer and the sacrifice are not ones of submission but of bargaining between men of equal power. The pagan gods don’t speak to the lowest in the culture; they only speak to men in power. And the veil was such a symbol of power on the heads of the Roman pagan priests, and subsequently, the emperors as priests. Among the Tuareg tribes in the North African desert, it is the men who are veiled as a symbol of authority, while the women are not veiled. The principle extended into medieval Europe, and even as late as the 20th century a man standing in the presence of his superiors was expected to remove his hat as a symbol of deference. (“My hat is off to you,” remember that expression?) Only a few chosen men coming from families of power had the privilege to remain with their hats on in the presence of the French kings. We can bring in even more historical examples, but the main point must be understood: the head covering was a privilege, not a burden, and certainly not a symbol of submission in the Roman Empire. It makes no sense to declare that rebellious women would refuse to wear it. And therefore, it makes no sense to believe that Paul was really addressing some rebellious, feminist women. Such a thought is absurd. 

Then who was Paul addressing? Obviously, the men in the church. The men in the church who wanted to keep the women from covering their heads. 

The Christian teaching brought a radical change in the cultural views concerning gender and the views of men and women in the society. In Christ, there was no higher rank and lower rank; all were the same rank. In fact, that very same chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians speaks of that problem when Paul covers the subject of the Lord’s Supper. Some come earlier and eat all of the food,  others come later. Why. Well, some are rich and can afford to come earlier. Others are workers and can’t come until after the work day is over. By telling them that they have to wait for each other, and eat together, Paul basically destroyed the meaningfulness of any rank and class distinctions in the church. 

Combined with the sexual ethics of Christianity, this would mean that women of lower social status would rank equal to women of higher social status. Put it bluntly, there was to be no more sexual availability of women based on their status, and symbolized by their lack of covering. It is to be expected that in the church, even the converted prostitutes would want to have their heads covered, as a symbol of their newly acquired authority as priests of God in Christ. This is where the line about the angels is explained: the head covering ascribes a status of authority to all women, and since the angels are to be judged by all the saints (including women) and since they are serving spirits to those who inherit salvation (including women), then no woman should be in the Lord’s assembly stripped of her authority. 

But the Greco-Roman society was a society based on the ethics of power, not on the power of ethics. The laws were made so as to establish the power relationships in the society; the Roman society was very close to some modern power-based societies like the Mafia or the bureaucratic-military institutions of today. The men in the church of Corinth were all from pagan background, and it would be natural that the customs and habits of the power-based society would still be alive in their hearts. Such men would object to all women covering their heads in the church. Even if they had no intention to claim that the women should be sexually available, they would still insist that the law is the law, and therefore women who are banned from covering their heads in public shouldn’t cover their heads in the church either. 

But Paul’s position is clear: by insisting that some women shouldn’t cover their heads, you are disgracing them. More than that, you are degrading them based on the cultural stereotypes and the legal rules of the pagan society around you; you may as well shave their heads. If you are not allowing them the authority they have in Christ to be fully manifested in the Church, you are declaring them second-class citizens of the Kingdom of God. And there is no such thing as a second-class citizen in the Kingdom of God; women are just as valuable, and honored, and clothed with authority as you, powerful men. Even those women of lower rank, the weakest members of your society which worships power and despises weakness. In fact, specifically those women of lower rank, for it is in the least of the least that the power of Christ is made manifest. So, cease trying to limit the liberty of these women; let them have – as a principle of justice in the Kingdom of God – the symbol of authority on their heads. Not a symbol of someone else’s authority over them, but the symbol of their own authority before the world and even before the angels. 

And any man wants to fight about it, Paul says, we in Israel, and the churches of God in the Jewish diaspora, we have no such custom about veiling, either way. The issue is not one you men should be fighting about. There are more important things. 

And by the end of the article the author applies the matter to today:

The customs of our own society today are quite different from those of the Roman society, of course. The veil is no longer a symbol of power and authority; it is rather a symbol of submission. But Paul didn’t speak in this passage to impose on the women a symbol of submission in the church – if he had such a thing in mind, he would be insisting that all women should go uncovered in the church. Paul’s intent was to free the women to declare to the world and to the angels their newfound authority in Christ. The ethical/judicial meaning of Paul’s words was, “Give those women the freedom to exercise their authority in the way they believe is best for them. Don’t impose your pagan rules of power in the church. That power-based world is dead, it is over, and it will soon disappear. We have a world where all those who inherit salvation have authority, and must be let free under God.” 

The conclusion, therefore, is, that those theologians today who use these verses to impose a rule on the women to wear a head covering as a symbol of their submission, actually go straight against the teaching of Paul. While the specific physical symbol is the same, the head covering, the cultural interpretations between Paul’s time and our own time are diametrically opposite to each other. And therefore, arguing for preserving the same symbol is arguing against Paul’s meaning of the text. Or, to put it bluntly, if our theology today insists on forcing women to exhibit submission in the church, then such theology is certainly not Biblical, and not Pauline. It is a false theology, and should be eradicated from our churches. 

For a fuller understanding of where he is coming from, read or listen to the entire treatment here.