Should Women Wear Head Coverings Today?

Are Christian women required to wear head coverings today as they were in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16? My answer would be that it depends on whether or not the culture in which the Christian lives requires women to wear head coverings. Christians have an obligation to “become all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:22). But Christianity is unique in that it is adaptable to all cultures. The truths of the Christian faith transcend culture whereas Islam always brings with it Arabian culture wherever it goes in order to maintain the traditions of Muhammad.

To properly understand 1 Corinthians 11, we need to understand the historical context behind the wearing of head coverings. Head coverings were only worn by married women in order to signify that they were already taken to the men around them. Plutarch in his Moralia writes concerning the Spartans: “When someone inquired why they took their girls into public places unveiled, but their married women veiled, he said, ‘Because the girls have to find husbands, and the married women have to keep to those who have them!'” In the same book, Plutarch speaks of the marriage ceremony as “veiling the bride” when the woman who was to be married donned a veil to signify her married status. Tacitus in his Annals writes that in marriage a woman “assumed the veil.” The poet Juneval describes the bride in a wedding ceremony as wearing a veil. Paul confirms this understanding of the head covering in 1 Corinthians 11:10 where he calls a head covering “a symbol of authority.” The head covering symbolizes the authority of the husband over his wife. The angels are watching to make sure that men dress like men and women dress like women and submit to their husbands. Those who insist that all women must wear head coverings today do not understand that head coverings were only worn by married women to signify their married status. By making unmarried women wear head coverings, they are going beyond the text of Scripture. Ironically, their practice of wearing head coverings is not the same as it was in first century Corinth.

On the other hand, in Hebrew culture, prostitutes wore head coverings to identify themselves as prostitutes. Tamar wears a head covering to disguise herself as a prostitute in Genesis 38:15-19. In Song of Songs 1:7, we see another reference to prostitutes who veil themselves to attract the business of shepherds. That means Paul would never have demanded that women who are members of the church in Jerusalem cover their heads. If he had, unbelievers might claim that Christians were forcing their wives into prostitution! God never commanded women in the Old Testament to wear head coverings because they did not signify the same thing that they would later signify in Greek culture. It was the men who wore head coverings in worship, not women. This is the exact opposite situation that is found in Greek culture. The following chart summarizes the historical data:

Men Women Prostitutes
Greek Culture Did not cover their heads. Covered their heads to identify themselves as being married. Did not cover their heads as unmarried women.
Hebrew Culture Covered their heads in worship gatherings. Did not cover their heads in worship gatherings. Covered their heads to identify themselves as prostitutes.

What a head covering signifies today is completely different from what it signified in first century Corinth. Whereas in Greek culture, when a man saw a woman wearing a head covering, he immediately knew that it was a sign that she was married and not available. But when a woman wears a head covering today, people in America assume that she is a Muslim. It would make her stand out in the crowd bringing humiliation and shame in contrast to Greek culture where it was normal for a married woman to wear a head covering.

Our approach to head coverings should be the same as our approach to Paul’s command to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom 16:16). We do not disregard this text or cast it aside as a relic of the past, but we accommodate or translate it into our culture. Greeting one another with a holy kiss in our modern context means that we greet one another warmly. 1 Corinthians 11 in our modern context means that men dress like men and women dress like women in whatever culture we live in (Deut 22:5). But what counts as a man’s clothing and hairstyle versus a woman’s clothing and hairstyle differs from culture to culture. If we live in a culture that requires women to wear head coverings, they should do so in order to not put a stumbling block before the gospel.

The principle of male headship and the distinctions between men and women are the creation ordinances Paul appeals to. The head covering was simply how these creation ordinances were expressed in first century Corinth. Creation ordinances are binding on all people at all times. But how male headship and the distinctions between men and women are expressed look different from culture to culture. Adam had authority over his wife Eve, but Eve did not wear a head covering to express this. This demonstrates that head coverings are not a creation ordinance, but the application of the creation ordinance through a pre-existing cultural norm that distinguishes men from women and married women from unmarried women.

The existence of such distinctions between men and women betrays the fact that man is created in God’s image and therefore knows even apart from special revelation that men and women are to act and dress differently from one another. Since those creation ordinances were expressed through the head covering, to reject head coverings for married women would be to reject the creation ordinances themselves. But since we do not express the creation ordinances of male headship and the distinctions between men and women through head coverings, they are not necessary to distinguish men from women because the message they communicate in our culture is completely different from the one they communicated in first century Corinth. We must not confuse the creation ordinance with the cultural means by which that ordinance is expressed.

Trying to implement Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians where long hair was highly valued in a woman would not work in Maasai culture where the women shave their heads. Paul’s statement that “it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head” (1 Cor 11:6) makes no sense in their culture because they live in a completely different one. The solution is not to turn the Maasai people into westerners who value women with long hair and demand that they grow out their hair now that they are saved, but to recognize that such a demand would only create a barrier to reaching them with the gospel and give a reason for them to reject the Christian message as a foreign and imperialist tool for destroying their culture. Demanding that all married women today wear head coverings would create a barrier to reaching people with the gospel by forcing people to live as the Greeks do.

What the modern head covering movement is trying to do is make Greek culture normative for all cultures just as Islam makes Arabian culture normative everywhere it goes. The end result of demanding that all women wear head coverings is that Christ’s body is divided and we misunderstand the background of the text of Scripture. The missionaries of the past made the same mistake by demanding that people first learn English and dress and act as they do in order to be good Christians. The result was that people did not know the Bible in their heart language or comprehend the worship songs. By making the gospel for only those who live as Englishmen do, the reach of the gospel was restricted. We must be faithful to Scripture, not our misunderstanding of Scripture. For more information on this topic, I recommend Robert Morey’s article on the subject. Benjamin Merkle’s paper on 1 Corinthians 11 is also helpful.

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