It's said that the first step towards solving a problem is to admit we have one.
We have one.
We don’t like head covering.
In fact, we dislike it so much, that we approach this passage of Scripture trying to find ways to avoid applying it.
But if we are to give this passage a fair shake, we need to hear what Paul is saying here with a heart leaning toward obedience. So before we even get to the passage, let’s quickly turn an eye toward ourselves.
Why do we dislike head covering?
The reason we don't like head covering is not just because it is not normal in our culture today. There are other Christian activities that are not normal in our culture today, like the Lord's Supper and baptism. Even though both of these things (or something similar) were done for non-Christian reasons in the wider culture in Biblical times, you don't find people in our 21st Century Western culture regularly eating and drinking for religious reasons, nor do you find people symbolically pouring water over each other or dunking them under the water. (The ice bucket challenge does not count!) We find ourselves having to explain to people what these church-specific traditions are all about yet we still practice them. Head covering, on the other hand, is not just culturally meaningless, it is culturally negative.
Head covering is not just culturally meaningless, it is culturally negative.
How is head covering culturally negative?
First, headcoverings are linked to oppression.
Head covering is a sign to most people that women are oppressed, stunted, chained. This is a powerful cultural idea, so much so that women I have talked to in years passed are happy to consider and even accept the idea of male headship, but broach the subject of covering their heads in worship and the response is immediate and impassioned. No way! Men, also, who are usually measured when discussing theological topics and biblical passages seem to shift into a higher gear when it comes to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. "Head covering is a cultural phenomenon, irrelevant to our culture today!" they say. They do not want to see women oppressed and they do not want to be seen to be oppressing them!
Since lots of people think of oppression whenever you talk about Christian head covering, is it best just to ignore the practice today? After all, if it were merely a matter of cultural ignorance, like it is for communion and baptism, perhaps we could explain the tradition to outsiders, but with such negative ideas flying around the tradition of head covering, maybe it would be wise to quietly leave it to one side, or, as Dan Wallace advocates, substitute the tradition for a less “humiliating” one.
But this is not the way the Church is to approach these problems. From the beginning of the Church, the idea of a crucified Saviour was culturally offensive, and in the second century, the Lord's Supper was misconstrued as cannibalistic. Yet the Church didn't abandon those truths and traditions, not even to further evangelism. Why should head covering be an exception?
In fact, looking around today at the general confusion about gender, surely head covering would be of benefit!
Looking around today at the general confusion about gender, surely head covering would be of benefit!
Second, head covering is seen within the Church as legalistic.
This is understandable.
In the evangelical church even the Lord's Supper and baptism are sometimes seen as mere add-ons, but at least they have a direct connection to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Head covering? It is never explicitly linked in the Scriptures to the gospel. To insist on a practice that does not seem to point to the centre of our faith smacks of legalism.
For many years I struggled with this point myself. I have never been persuaded by the arguments that head covering is something that was only part of the culture at the time, but I still came away thinking, I don’t understand why this is so important.
Head covering is so important because it represents truths that are essential to the gospel. Adam, as the head of man, plunged all of his descendants into sin and corruption. Then, when Christ became the head of man, he redeemed us and restored man and woman to their created purposes - man as the image and glory of God and woman as the glory of man.
But even if that explanation is not clear, Paul praised people in a church for obeying traditions he had given them, even though they needed to understand the head covering tradition better (1 Corinthians 11:2-3a). Aren't we in the same place?
Sure, if we obey without understanding why we are obeying, it can turn into legalism, but perhaps this is one of the many places where obedience leads to greater understanding.
Perhaps this is one of the many places where obedience leads to greater understanding.
Instead of allowing a fear of legalism to shortcut obedience, surely our focus should be on why we associate head covering with legalism and how we can avoid falling into that trap.
Third, head covering is associated with cults.
And not without reason.
You will find far more cults who adhere to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 than churches within today’s Protestant churches. And these cults are often places that are far from godly.
Growing up in New Zealand, there were investigative reports into groups that turned the beauty of Christ and the gospel into living hell for their members. Horrific reports from ex-members of physical and sexual abuse, social isolation, control and deprivation were confirmed and the most obvious way to identify them was their women's head coverings.
I also personally went to school with a girl my age who covered her head and honestly looked like a little old woman when walking home from school. She was pale and white and had a miserable look on her face. She looked like she had never had reason to smile, let alone laugh. Non-Christian counsellors at school suggested she join the Christian group at school that I was part of, but her family forbade her to associate with anyone that did not share their "Christian" beliefs.
In my experience, these were the people who wore head coverings. Their abusive, sinful behaviour mar the message head covering is meant to give us.
But is this a good enough reason to resist women covering their heads? If this truly is a tradition mandated by God, then are we going to allow its association with cults dissuade us from obeying him?
It is possible to turn the reputation of head covering around. In fact, there is enough cultural amnesia around today and there are enough women who wear a head covering in the freedom of Christ that progress can be made.
Let's not allow what is God's to be kidnapped by the devil.
Let's not allow what is God's to be kidnapped by the devil.
Recognise the power of your dislike.
So there we are. Three reasons why we dislike head covering.
Oppression. Legalism. Cults.
Are they the only reasons why we resist head covering today? Probably not, but notice, these reasons have more to do with what we've experienced or have been led to believe than with anything written in the head covering passage in the Bible.
Perhaps recognising some of what is behind our dislike of this tradition will help us listen more clearly to what the Bible does actually say. And if we recognize that, we are in a far better position to allow the Spirit to weed out our prejudices and point us to Jesus as we look at God’s Word.