Sarah Zwicker

January 22, 2006

Head coverings:  what the symbol means to me

Many people find the teaching of head coverings found in 1 Corinthians 11 to be confusing.  Wherever I wear a head covering during a church service or Bible Study there is usually a man or woman who asks me, “Is that a head covering?”  They want to know how I can read 1 Corinthians 11 and conclude that I should wear a head covering.  There are many reasons for the lack of clarity on the passage.  Currently, most women in churches in the United States do not wear a head covering, so there is a prevailing mindset that the passage does not apply to women in our culture today.  Also, when people do read the passage, they do not follow Paul’s reasoning because they focus on a cultural understanding of actions such as covering the head, cutting off hair, and what it means for men and women to wear long and short hair.  In addition, they are sometimes not clear on what headship means.  However, the teaching of head coverings does not have to be a hard teaching to understand and appreciate.  I appreciate the symbolism of the head covering and when I put my head covering on, I remember the special understanding between me and the Lord. 

I grew up in a Plymouth Brethren assembly where almost all of the women wore head coverings during each of the meetings of the assembly.  In recent years, some women became convinced that they did not need to wear head coverings, and so they did not wear them during the assembly meetings.  This upset others, who thought that this should not be allowed by the assembly.  For some people, the head covering seems to have become an outward sign that indicates that everything is okay spiritually inside a woman.  Some of the men of the assembly have over the years given talks on the symbol of the head covering.  These presenters have appropriately argued against the use of the head covering as a spiritual barometer and often focused on the headship of the man over the woman in a sensitive way.  I became interested in the issue and read arguments online about head coverings and why women should wear them or do not need to and they usually focus exclusively on the headship of men and the submission of women.  However, I believe that the practice of wearing a head covering means more than the headship relationship between woman and man.  The essence of the symbol is a beautiful acknowledgement that Christ is exalted in his people.   

Some time during the spring 2005 semester, one of my friends at school began to talk with me about wearing a head covering.  She had not grown up in a church where women wore head coverings, but she knew I did and had attended a conference with me where women wore head coverings.  She decided to approach the passage with the attitude to obey what is in the Bible, and came away with the conclusion that she would need someone to prove to her that she did not need to wear one in order for her not to wear one.  Thus, she began to wear one at the beginning of the summer of 2005.  I have come to adopt the same attitude and I have come to some conclusions. 

The attitude to obey what is in the Bible is an expression of love for God.  1 John 5:3 says, “This is love for God:  to obey his commands.  And his commands are not burdensome.” Very simply, it is my desire to do what he says, because I know it will please him.  And to wear a head covering is not a burdensome activity; not when I do it for the Lord, and not for men.  It is actually a pleasure.  It has come to be a meaningful symbol to me since this has become my attitude. 

Since then, the symbol of the head covering has come to mean something special for me.  When I put on my head covering, I remember, between me and the Lord, that the focus is on him.  I first saw this from a passage in Ephesians in which Paul discusses the parallel between the relationship of husband and wife and the relationship of Christ and the church.

22Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. (Ephesians 5:22-28; emphasis added)

Husbands and wives are to emulate in their relationship the relationship between Christ and the church as in verses 23 and 26.  Christ is the head of the church and Christ loves the church with a sacrificial love.  Paul draws a strong parallel first from the wives’ perspective and then from the husbands’ perspective.  Therefore, Paul implies that the fullness of the relationship between man and wife is in Christ and the church. 

Similarly, I take the man and the woman in 1 Corinthians 11 to be symbolic of Christ and the church. When believers come together to worship, Christ is the focus, not their own glory.  It is so appropriate then for the woman, a symbol of the church, to cover her glory, and for the man, a symbol of Christ, to leave his uncovered, to acknowledge in their behavior that their hearts are occupied with the glory of the person of Christ, rather than the glory of men.  The thought is just as in the hymn, which speaks from the perspective of the believer when he or she gets to heaven in first person,

The bride eyes not her garment,
But her dear Bridegroom’s face;
I will not gaze at glory
But on my King of grace.
Not at the crown He giveth
But on His pierced hand;
The Lamb is all the glory
Of Emmanuel’s land.

From this perspective, their covering and uncovering are acts of dedication, from a desire to honor him alone.

I believe the passage supports this symbolism.  Now consider what the passage says and what that means.  Below is my outline of the passage.  I focus on the bold items in the next section.  Paul teaches a principle and then goes about trying to convince the Corinthians that his application to the head covering is in the spirit of this principle. 

3-5a The teaching of headship

5b-6 The disgrace of a woman with her head uncovered

7-10a The reason for the head covering:  The glory of the head

10b angels comment

10c sign of authority

11-12 interdependence of men and women and dependence on God (Balance)

13-15 the “nature” of long hair and short hair: disgrace and glory (appeal to their judgment)

16 no other practice (let’s not make this an issue of contention)


Now, if my interpretation of the symbolism is correct, why does Paul not say that clearly in 1 Corinthians 11?  First, what is his argument? 

3Now 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. 4Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head

In the first part of the passage, Paul brings out three parallel headship relationships:  man to Christ, woman to man, and Christ to God where the second is the head of the first.  The next part of the quote applies these headship relationships to the behavior of wearing a head covering.  Verses four and five imply that it is a dishonor to Christ for the man to have his head covered and it is a dishonor to the man for the woman to have her head uncovered.  Now why would this be so?  This is not intuitive to the average American.  Thankfully, Paul does not leave it at that.  This is the central issue for Paul, and he uses the next part of the passage to explain what he means by this statement. 

In verses 7-9, Paul further begins to explain the reason why man should not cover his head and women should.  He says, “7A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man.”  To rephrase, it is a dishonor to Christ for the man to have his head covered because he is the image and glory of God.  Where does the shame for Christ come from?  It comes from the man not acting in an appropriate way regarding the covering of his head, given the symbolism of his head.  Why is there shame then?  There is shame because Christ is supposed to be honored, symbolized by the display of the glory of God (the head of man) but instead, he is taken out of view symbolically in the covering of the man’s head.  So to Paul, the man with his head uncovered is a symbol that Christ is exalted.  Parallel logic applies to the woman.  Since the woman is the glory of man, she is to have her head covered because man is not exalted in prayer and prophesy. 

We can conclude that the man’s uncovered head a symbol that Christ is glorified.  In the same way, the woman’s head covering is a symbol that man is not exalted before Christ, but in submission to him as head.  Paul’s purpose and his focus in his reasoning with them on this matter is that they will honor Christ. 

The uncovered head of the man and the covered head of the woman are appropriate and not vice versa because of the headship principle.  What is the nature of headship?  Paul gives reasons why the woman is the glory of man.  He says, “7A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9neither was man created for woman, but woman for man."  So, headship was set up at creation by God’s design.  Also, by stating the negative case about man first, that is, “for man did not come from woman” and “neither was man created for woman”, Paul seems to imply the following reasoning:   if man had come from woman (and if man was created for woman), then man would be the glory of woman.  However, since Eve was created out of the bone and flesh of Adam, and she was created to be a suitable helper for Adam, Paul concludes that she is his glory (Gen 2:21-23).  If so, then in his argument that the head of the woman is the man, Paul implies that man and woman are equal in all other aspects of their relationship to God. Paul’s method in arranging his argument is one that actively respects women in their equality in humanity with men.  This is a glimpse of what God means by headship.  We know that he intended men and women for it by design and that God wants us to practice headship in a way that actively respects women. 

In summary, in the passage, the man with his head uncovered declares Christ’s glory, and the woman with her head covered declares Christ’s headship over man, just as in the Ephesians passage in which the man stands for Christ, and the woman for the church, of which Christ is the head.  Why does Paul not say this at the beginning of the Corinthians passage?  He has structured the beginning of the passage to teach the Corinthians the three parallel relationships of headship and then persuade his readers that the proper use of the head covering derives its meaning from them.  He teaches the headship relationships and applies them to the head covering.  Everything other than the headship principle is an application of the teaching, or an application of other teachings from the Old Testament.  Paul wants his readers to be convinced themselves about the proper use of a head covering based on teaching of headship and the references he makes to the Old Testament teachings.  He shows them the grounds on which he bases his assumptions and his reasons for his judgment on this matter.  His wants to teach them to apply a principle about Christ in their lives, in the spirit of the saying about giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish. 

Paul applies the teaching of the headship relationships to the practice of wearing head coverings while praying of prophesying to show that the way to honor Christ is for the man’s head to be uncovered and for the woman’s to be covered, when they are praying or prophesying.  Paul shows great respect for women in his proof that women are the glory of man.  Headship that honors God will include intense respect for women.  The arrangement of the argument shows that the important teaching is the headship relationships.  Paul derives the application of the headship relationships using reasoning focused on the glory of Christ.  The head covering is a symbol that man is not the focus; Christ is exalted.