(This photo is from liturgicaltime.net)
Throughout all of human history, we can trace symbols and how they were used to convey non-verbal messages. Symbology refers to the study of symbols; I can think of many that have had an impact on society, but I’ll start out by referencing one that I believe we’re all familiar with: the Fish.
In popular culture, we associate this image with the Christian faith. I’ve seen fish necklaces, fish logos on business cards, and … fish bumper stickers (might want to think twice before you apply one of those to the rear-end of your minivan). This symbol identifies the wearer, or user, as a Christ follower. The usage of the fish sign can be linked back to the early Christians, as a secret code to ascertain whether someone was a fellow Christian or not. One man traveling along the road might come upon another, and draw in the dust of the roadway the first arc of the fish. If the other then drew the correlating half, they understood themselves to be friends in the faith.
The fish symbol is also called the Ichthys, which means “fish,” and is an acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior,” with each letter of the word “Ichthus” corresponding to the first letter of each of the Greek words Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter.
This acronym is a witty tool, because not only does it point to Jesus’ identity as Christ, God’s Son and Savior, but it reminds us of the New Testament stories featuring fish which Jesus used as examples to teach us important eternal truths. Jesus also called his disciples “fishers of men,” signifying their new occupation of teaching and preaching with the aim of gathering in a great “catch” of men who would be joined together into God’s kingdom.
Symbols have power to communicate abstract ideas. I used the fish sign as an example because most people have seen it and know what it means. The message is clear–little explanation is necessary. Why have we human beings been so inclined to use pictures to express what we mean; why can’t we just say the words, understand them, and that be good enough? I want to suggest three reasons why we have been drawn to projecting our ideas through the means of symbols:
1) We are sensory beings and need something to be tangible and visual for us to really absorb it’s meaning. We aren’t just minds without bodies–don’t forget that everything that makes us who we are is connected: mind, spirit, soul and body.
2) Images are readily understood by anybody, even those who don’t know how to read.
3) I’m no scientist, but I suspect that images are received more quickly by the brain than words (whether read or spoken). I don’t know about you, but if I have to sit down and read something, it takes awhile for my brain to “get it”–whereas, if I see a picture, or if I touch something, understanding comes much more quickly.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). He could have just said, “Follow me, and I will make you into great preachers, who will convince many to believe in Me, rescuing them from hell and gathering them into My kingdom.” It would have meant the same, but there’s something about the imagery of the disciples casting out their nets, and pulling up men instead of fish, that captures the imagination. The meaning strikes us immediately without need for explanation, and is something we will always remember.
The Ichthys (fish) sign in itself is merely a man-made symbol; it is not a sign directly given to us by God. However, I think we can easily acknowledge by now that images play a strong role in communication.
Symbols must be important, because God was the first to utilize them. In the garden of Eden, God planted the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. These two trees not only represented two opposing concepts, but were in themselves the means by which to attain real life, or death. After Adam and Eve sinned, they attempted to cover the shame of their nakedness with fig leaves, but that wasn’t good enough, so God made coats for them out of animal skins, the very first blood sacrifice in the history of our world, foreshadowing the death of our Savior which would cover our unrighteousness. Later on, after the worldwide flood, God gave Noah the sign of the rainbow as a reminder that He would never flood the whole world again with water. God instituted the practice of circumcision with Abraham, as a sign of His covenant with the Hebrew people to make them into a great nation, to be their God, to give them the promised land as an everlasting possession, and to send the Savior through them. There are SO MANY symbols used in the Old Testament. If we skip forward to the New Testament, two of the most well known are:
Baptism, which is a complete submersion of the body in water, symbolizing the death of the old, sinful nature, followed by coming up out of the water, symbolizing the birth of the new, godly nature, also identifying us with Jesus’ death and resurrection from the dead; and
The Lord’s Supper, a practice whereby we remind ourselves of Jesus’ death on the cross, His body broken (represented by the unleavened bread) and His blood spilled for our sins (represented by the grape juice/wine), and demonstrate our anticipation of His second coming (the return of the Bridegroom–Jesus–for His bride–the church).
God could have just told us to meditate upon the principles represented by the two biblical ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; yet, He gave us visual, tactile aids to help us internalize those concepts. If God thinks we need symbols, why is it that we think we can do without them? (at least we like to pick and choose).
I doubt anyone would deny the significance of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, however, when we come to the issue of the headcovering, most Christian folks I know are quick to throw it out as an outdated cultural custom. My goal is to show you step by step why I believe this practice is still binding for Christians today. Please, note, however, that I will only be highlighting the major points. A thorough discussion of every question this passage may raise is beyond the scope of this short article. For an in-depth study on this topic, I will refer you to several good resources at the end.
Please read the passage in focus:
1 Corinthians 11:1-16
1 Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ. 2 Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you. 3 But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. 5 But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. 6 For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. 7 For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. 8 For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. 9 Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. 10 For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. 12 For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God. 13 Judge in yourselves; is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? 14 Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? 15 But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering. 16 But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.
Before I enter into an explanation of my reasons for headcovering, it would be helpful to note who this passage was originally intended for:
“Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours” 1 Corinthians 1: 1,2
This letter was written to the church at Corinth, in the first century AD. A study of the historical and cultural context of that specific time and place would of course be helpful in clarifying details. But there are some who attempt to squeeze this particular portion of biblical text into the “antiquities” box, and view it as ONLY applying to the Corinthian church of that time. I would like to point out what it says in verse 16 of chapter 11 (quoted above):
“But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.”
Clearly, the practice of headcovering (for women) and uncovering (for men) was universally being applied to all the churches. Any person who contended anything other than what was being taught here, was trying to endorse a foreign custom. The headcovering issue was not to be considered a changeable custom, but an ordinance from God: “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you …” (ch. 11, v. 2)
I have read notes on this passage that try to force words into Paul’s mouth that he never actually said. In fact, one website popular with Christians, gotquestions.org, gives the explanation that Paul was trying to tell the Christian women to fit in with the cultural symbols of submission common to their society. I believe the Got Questions article on this subject makes some inaccurate assumptions; namely, that ALL women in Corinth who respected their husbands wouldn’t dare be seen without a headcovering, when in fact, I have read that it was not uncommon for women in Greek/Roman culture to go out in public with no covering, and to remove their headcoverings while worshiping, while men would pull up the edge of their togas to cover theirs. Read about it here. I do not agree with everything in the report just referenced; though it does make an important point: it wasn’t actually that scandalous for a Greek/Roman woman to appear in public without a headcovering. On the other hand, Jewish women usually used a headcovering, as did Jewish men while praying. Evidently, the instructions given in this passage of 1 Corinthians were fresh and unique for all believers in Christ.
Now, let’s take a look at what this text ACTUALLY says, without leaning on the well-meant misinterpretations of some commentaries, sermons and notes.
- The head of every man is Christ
- The head of the woman is the man
- The head of Christ is God
God–Christ–man–woman. The headcovering issue is based on biblical order of authority, put in place by God Himself. Ephesians 5:22-25 says, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it…” Christ is the head of: the church. The husband is the head of: the wife. When the wife submits to her husband, she shows a picture of the church submitting to Christ. This passage in 1 Corinthians is not pinpointing just wives and husbands, however, but seems to be meant for “every man,” just as it refers to “the woman.” I believe that headcovering is something that could be done even by young, unmarried women to show submission to the God-given authorities in their lives, such as father, or pastor.
According to verses 4 and 5, if a man covers his head during prayer or prophesying, he dishonors his head of authority, Christ (perhaps also dishonoring his physical head). If a woman uncovers her head while performing the same actions, she dishonors her head of authority, her husband–or father, or pastor– (and quite possibly shames her very own, physical head).
Subordination to authority does not make one inferior, just as Christ is not inferior to God the Father (contrary to what the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe). Just as Jesus is equal to the Father in nature, so are men and women equal. However, God designed different roles for them. I doubt a man in the lowest rank of the army considers himself to be inferior in value to his commanding officer, but for the army to function smoothly, he must obey his superiors in rank. Can you imagine the chaos that would result if every man in the army felt he needed to argue with the officers placed above him?
vv. 7, 15
- Man’s head–uncovered
- He is the image and glory of God
- Woman’s head–covered
- She is the glory of man
- Her (long) hair is a glory to her
Specifically during times of prayer and prophesying, God’s glory is NOT to be covered. Since the man reflects God’s glory, he is not to cover his head, since that would be obstructing the glory of God. The woman is the glory of the man. During times of prayer and prophesying, man’s glory is to be covered, in order to exalt God, and not man. Since she reflects man’s glory, she must cover. Her long hair is her glory, which also must be kept out of the spotlight.
Note that her long hair is not THE covering she is to cover with during prayer or prophesying; it is A cover, which was given to her by God through nature to show why a cloth covering is needed (vv. 13-15) If hair was the only covering meant, then what does it mean when God says that the man should be uncovered?–is he going to shave all his hair off during prayer, then grow it back again when he’s done? Because it looks to me like the uncovering/covering of the head is being applied to the specific actions of prophesying and praying, things which would happen, publicly speaking, only at certain times. So, either a man has short hair or is bald all the time, and simply stays that way while praying or prophesying, OR he must cut his hair short or shave himself bald every time he prays or prophesies. What makes more sense to me, is that the covering being referred to is not the hair itself (which merely serves as an example), but is an actual piece of fabric.
Additionally, we have verse 6 to consider:
“For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.”
So, if hair were THE covering (and not a piece of fabric), this verse would read: “For if the woman be not covered [does not have long hair], let her also be shorn [cut her hair short]…” Wait–how can she cut her hair short if it is ALREADY short? She can’t. We see that her hair was given to her by God as an example, a model, of how the woman is intended to have a covering. Except that now, she is being instructed by God to use a cloth covering in addition to her God-given, natural covering.
Her hair is her glory, because it is so beautiful and frames her face, along with neck and shoulders, in a graceful, feminine drape. But when coming before the presence of God while praying, and speaking to others ABOUT God while prophesying (which could involve teaching other women or children, telling her personal testimony, and singing or playing a musical instrument, etc.), she must take the focus off herself by concealing her glory, her hair, with a cloth covering.
- Man was created first
- Woman was created for the man
So that there is no confusion regarding the inherent value of the woman, verses 11 and 12 tell us that even though the first man, Adam, was created directly by God, every other man has had to be born from a woman. Man and woman are interdependent, and both rely on God for everything. However, referring to the roles that the different genders fit into, we are told that woman was made for the man, not the other way around. She came from his very own body, not from the dust of the ground, to demonstrate her relationship to him. She came from him, and she was made for him. It’s really simple; our culture just wants to complicate it. (See the beginning chapters of Genesis for the account of the creation of man and woman)
A woman wearing a headcovering shows that she accepts her God-given role of supporter and helper to her husband (or future husband).
Showing submission to God-given roles by covering (women) or uncovering (men) is witnessed by the angels in the heavenly realm. Whether this verse is referring to fallen angels, or to the holy angels of God, is not clear. What is apparent is that they are watching our conduct, and that what we DO (not just “what’s in our hearts”) MATTERS.
Here’s the way I understand this cryptic verse:
The fallen angels rebelled against God’s authority by leaving their proper domain (Jude 6). When women choose to submit to the authority in their lives, they put Satan and his demons to shame.
The holy angels of God who did not rebel, see human beings’ decision to obey God, and they rejoice.
Further, we demonstrate to the heavenly realm God’s plan for the order of his Church and Kingdom; we instruct them of God’s intended authority structure.
Putting the entire passage into perspective then, we see the reasons given for women using a headcovering and for men taking off their hats during prayer or prophesying:
- Headship and order of authority
- Glory of man and woman vs. glory of God
- Creation of gender roles
Do any of the reasons given have anything to do with culture? NO. There is no mention of fitting in with societal norms. God, through Paul, gives us His reasons, plain and simple. To put words into Paul’s mouth that he did not actually says is to twist the word of God. That is DANGEROUS. If Paul had wanted to convey that he simply wanted the Corinthians to not scandalize their community by appearing to not respect gender roles, or by looking like prostitutes with shaven heads (which some commentaries mention), WHY DIDN’T HE JUST COME OUT AND SAY SO? It would have been easy enough for him. Instead, we are explicitly provided with the logic behind this God-given tradition, no guessing involved.
Having said that, it is noteworthy that there ARE certain details that are not so clear, such as:
- Which style of covering to use
- How much hair is to be covered
- How long a woman’s hair should be
I have seen bonnets, bandannas, doilies, lace veils, Russian-style kerchiefs, and scarves, among many other headcovering fashions. The way I see it, to conserve the symbolism the headcovering has to at least cover the top of the HEAD. I don’t think that a net over a bun really does the job, though it does cover the bulk of the hair, a woman’s glory. I myself use a triangular scarf mostly; the fabric conceals the top of my head and the hair hanging down around my shoulders. However, I have a couple of wide headbands which I use occasionally.
HOW MUCH HAIR TO COVER
Some women cover everything; I do not personally believe that is necessary, though. If you look at 1 Peter 3:3 for example, referring to wives, Peter says: “Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel …” If the women were to cover all their hair, all the time, then what would it matter if they plaited (braided) their hair, or not? Nobody would ever see it. It seems to make more sense that at least some hair would be visible, or that the women did not cover all the time.
LENGTH OF HAIR
I have seen ladies with gorgeous long hair reaching to their ankles. If you want to understand what is meant by the phrase, “But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her,” here’s your answer–all that long hair is glorious! Not to mention extremely feminine. I do believe that all women should have long hair, because it is our glory, and our natural covering given to us by God (though it is not the spiritual, symbolic covering). However, I do not think it necessary to never cut the hair. It looks to me that what is being juxtaposed in the 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 passage is short manly hair (a shame to a woman) versus long flowing hair (a shame to a man). When the text says, “But if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven,” shorn hair is the same as hair cut short, not hair that scissors have never touched.
The headcovering is an important symbol given to us by God that He meant for us to employ universally, throughout all time, until He tells us that it is no longer needed. It transcends culture. It has nothing to do with personal preference. It is a command, not a custom. To disobey is to dishonor God.
Let’s go back to our discussion of popular symbols. The fish is an image almost anybody would recognize; most people would understand its meaning immediately. Another famous one is the Wedding Ring, which has a long and rich tradition associated with it. The circle of the band signifies eternal devotion and dedication to one another, while the placement of the ring on the fourth finger of the left hand is also important–that particular finger was thought in ancient times to have a vein leading directly to the heart. The wedding ring is a beautiful testament to the couple’s commitment to each other. It is a visual reminder to each of them, and to everybody else, of the promises they made to each other on their wedding day.
Can one be married, while not using a wedding ring? Of course! Marriage is the physical, emotional and spiritual uniting of a male and a female (according to God’s design from the beginning) who vow to be faithful to only each other their whole lives. That’s the meaning of marriage, while the ring is simply an outward sign. I would like to suggest that the headcovering has a similar function. The principles upon which the headcovering is based are timeless and originate with God’s unchangeable creation order, the structure of the church, and the unseen heavenly powers. Those concepts are externally mirrored in the use of the headcovering. Can a woman be submitted to her husband while not wearing a headcovering? Of course! But that piece of cloth on her head is a very real reminder to her, and to him, that she is not the head of the home. The man is the leader. He is the head. Therefore she literally covers her own.
Headcovering (for women) and head-uncovering (for men) is another biblical symbol which deserves our esteem, just as Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. If we were to take this mandate seriously, I believe that we would start seeing a powerful impact on our homes and society. It takes humbleness to submit to wearing the headcovering and its obvious meaning. If godly women want to initiate a strong change for the better after the damage radical feminism has done to our culture, taking the Bible seriously by wearing a headcovering is a good place to start.
To learn more about this topic, or to find answers to questions that I have not had room to address here, please link to the following free e-books. Also available to you are some awesome websites all about headcovering, that are rich sources of articles, sermons, videos and personal testimonies, including links to other headcovering resources. I hope you take advantage of these, and thanks for reading!
- Headcoverings–Free e-book by K.P. Yohannan
- The Head Coverings of 1 Corinthians 11–Free e-book by Paul K. Williams
- Covered Glory–Website and free e-books by David Phillips
- The Biblical Headcovering: Scarf of Hidden Power–Free e- book by Renee Ellison
- Getting at the Truth of the Christian Headcovering–Free e-book by Candy Brauer
- Headcovering Directory with links to articles, books and resources
- Headcovering Movement–website and so much more!