Why do women have to wear head coverings?
This is the same question a number of Christians in Corinth were asking. Hasn’t Paul taught elsewhere that there is no male and female in Christ (e.g. Galatians 3:28)? Why should women cover if men don’t? Or, if women do need to cover, why don’t men?
Paul answers these questions by writing 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and the first thing he does is talk about Christ.
Christ the head.
Paul begins in verse 2 by praising the Corinthians for keeping the traditions he delivered to them. Then, in verse 3, he addresses the push back he's got about head covering from some people in the Corinthian Church (see verse 16).
3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
Immediately, people start thinking about a top-down hierarchy like this:
But I think it’s more accurate to think of the hierarchy like this:
In the second diagram, each person is linked to another by a shared grouping.
- Christ is the head of Man and the circle around Christ and Man represents their shared maleness.
- Man is the head of Woman and the circle around Man and Woman represents their shared humanity.
- God the Father is the head of Christ and the circle around Christ and God represents their shared deity.
In other words, each head is in the same group as those they head.
It is important to see that the circle around Man and Woman not only represents their shared humanity, but Christ's humanity as well. Christ is a man and as the head man he is also the head of woman.
Christ, therefore, is the head of all humanity.
Adam, then Christ.
Christ, however, has not always been the head of all humanity. As Creator, of course, Christ is eternally Lord of all, but before God the Son became Christ, God and man, the Bible tells us there was another head of humanity. That head was Adam.
Let's go to Romans 5:12-20 where Paul explains how our condemnation and death came through Adam, but now through Christ we have justification and life. Romans 5:17 gives us a quick summary (though I recommend reading the whole passage).
17For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man [Adam], how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!
Using the second diagram above and adding a third, we can illustrate what Christ has done like this:
The teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:3 implies that through this headship of Christ, both man and woman are redeemed and restored to God. It is because Christ is both man and God that he becomes the place where God and humanity meet by his death and resurrection.
The head covering tradition sits upon this precious truth of the gospel.
Hierarchy in Christ.
You might ask, "Can we really get all that out of verse 3?" It does seem a lot to put on this one verse. In fact, we need to be clear that what has been outlined above is not the focus of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. What we have been trying to do is understand the verse in the broader context of gospel truths. And when we do understand verse 3 in this way, it agrees that both man and woman have the same access to their Saviour, Christ their head, even while it teaches a structure for redeemed humanity – Christ the head of every man and man the head of woman.
Let’s look at the verse 3 again, this time considering the redeemed structure of the sexes.
But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
Did you notice that the word “every” is in front of the word "man" but it is not in front of the word “woman”? This indicates what is illustrated throughout the Bible – while Christ is the head of every man, it is not true that every man can claim to be the head of every woman.
...while Christ is the head of every man, it is not true that every man can claim to be the head of every woman.
In fact, since the Greek word for “the” can be found in front of the word “man” when Paul talks about the head of woman - "the head of woman is the man" - it is likely that Paul is thinking of specific relationships. For instance,
- a husband (Ephesians 5:23)
- a father (e.g. Numbers 30:3-5),
- or even church leader (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:6).
He certainly is not suggesting that any man can exercise any authority over any woman!
And yet, even though there is not necessarily any direct authority, the Bible teaches that qualified men – not women – are to be rulers of nations (e.g. Deut 17:14-16; see also Isaiah 3:12), priests (e.g. Deut 18:1), judges (Exodus 18:24-26), and soldiers (Deut 24:5).
The authority these men have over both men and women differs depending on the position they fill, but the fact that only men can hold those positions does reflect a more general understanding that the head of woman is man.
Christ and head covering.
As Paul continues to write, he tells us in verse 4:
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.
If a man prays or prophesies with his head covered, he is dishonouring Christ.
Why? Paul does not tell us at this point. Instead, he goes on.
But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
An uncovered woman who prays or prophesies dishonours her head, man.
Why? This time Paul says it is as if that woman has short hair or a shaved head - it is disgraceful, unwomanly, a rejection of her femininity. For a woman to pray or prophesy uncovered, therefore, is to reject her femininity, and for a woman to reject her femininity is to reject her head and bring disgrace on him.
Sadly, this may not seem such a big deal to some if it were just a husband, a father or some other man in her life. Isn't that what our culture has taught us? But we have also seen that Christ is a woman’s ultimate head. For her to reject man as her head means she also rejects the man Christ as her head and brings disgrace on him.
On the other hand, in the same way long hair on a woman is womanly, a covering on a woman’s head while she prays or prophesies is womanly. It shows she accepts that man is her head, both specific men in her life and Christ himself.
And what about men?
Once we've worked through Paul's arguments about women, we can ask whether we can use those arguments to help us understand why a man praying or prophesying with a covered head dishonours Christ?
I think they can.
Men should not wear a covering while praying or prophesying; women should. If a man wears a covering - a symbol of femininity - it is, for him, a rejection of his masculinity.
To use a confronting illustration (though less confronting than it once was), it is like a man choosing to wear a bra. He is rejecting his masculinity and his head, Jesus Christ, who shares his masculinity. He dishonours the one who is his salvation.
So, why do women have to wear head coverings?
The first reason Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 11 involves Christ.
A man praying and prophesying uncovered shows honour to his head, Christ. A woman praying and prophesying with her head covered shows honour to her male head, and, ultimately, to Christ.
On the other hand, a man who covers disgraces Christ and a woman who uncovers disgraces man and Christ. Both reject their own sex and the relationship between the sexes that has been restored by Christ, a relationship through which they have been saved.
That is one reason they should wear a covering.