Women and covering up. Or, frequently, not.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 October

On covering one’s hair, and why many Christians don’t bother.

1 Corinthians 11.3-16

I was asked to say a little something about this controversial passage, so what the heck.

I’ve gone to Protestant churches all my life. Visited Catholic and Orthodox churches too. In most of the churches I’ve visited, American Christians utterly ignore this passage. Our women don’t cover their heads.

Now yeah, there are parts of the bible which the bulk of Christians figure no longer apply to us. Like the curses upon humanity, Ge 3.16-19 which we figure Jesus undid. Or the commands about ritual cleanliness and sacrifice, which we figure Jesus rendered redundant. Or all the commands in the Law, which we figure Jesus nullified—which is absolutely not what he said. Mt 5.17 In general, Christians tend to assume Old Testament commands (except maybe 10) are out, and New Testament instructions are in.

Yet this is totally New Testament. Comes right before the apostles’ instructions on how to do holy communion. Those instructions we totally follow. But not the head-covering bit. Why not?

I’ll jump to the punchline right now: Because it’s cultural.

In the ancient middle east, men had shoulder-length hair, and women had floor-length hair. Women didn’t cut their hair; they let it grow. If you remember the stories where women cleaned Jesus’s feet with their hair, they didn’t have to bow their heads all that much for their hair to reach his feet. Their hair was plenty long enough.

Custom was for them to cover it with headscarf of some sort. Not burkas, but the custom of covering up did originate from the apostles’ particular part of the middle east. Go further east and it evolved into burkas. Go west and it became hats.

Originally these veils had practical purposes: Kept one’s hair clean. Kept it from getting snagged or pulled. Over time it became a modesty thing: Women who uncovered their hair would get the same reaction as if they uncovered their breasts—then and now. You can see why the women who cleaned Jesus’s feet with their hair got such a startled response.

So that’s how things were in the first-century middle east. But in the rest of the Roman Empire, women didn’t bother to grow their hair as long, nor cover it. They’d walk around with their heads exposed—startling middle easterners. Much like it startles westerners when we encounter a tribe where people don’t bother with clothes, or otherwise have very different standards of modesty.

For Paul and Sosthenes, their attitude about veils reflects the middle eastern standard of modesty. But to their minds, this wasn’t just a middle eastern standard. It was a universal standard. God himself had meant for women to cover up.

Hence this passage, where they try to defend the idea.

1 Corinthians 11.3-16 KWL
3 I want you all to know Christ is the head of every man,
the man the head of his woman, and God the head of Christ.
4 Any man praying or prophesying against his head, disgraces his head.
5 Any woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled, disgraces her head.
One may as well shave her: 6 If a woman isn’t veiled, cut her hair short.
And if it’s disgraceful for a woman to cut her hair short or be shaved, then be veiled!
7 A man isn’t obligated to cover his head—being God’s image and glory.
But a woman is her man’s glory, 8 for man isn’t out of woman, but woman out of man—
9 for the first man wasn’t created through the woman, but woman through the man.
10 This is why the woman’s obligated to exercise power over her head—because of the angels.
11 Still, neither a woman with no man, nor a man with no woman, in the Master:
12 Just as woman came out of man, likewise the man comes from woman. And all out of God.
13 Judge for yourselves: Is it appropriate for an unveiled woman to pray to God?
14 Doesn’t nature itself teach us when a man has long hair, it dishonors him?
15 —and when a woman has long hair, it’s to her glory? That hair gives her a covering?
16 If anyone wishes to debate this…
well we just don’t have such a custom. Not in God’s churches.

Why’s this a controversial passage? Simple. All those Christians who ignore it, no matter what they claim to believe about the bible and its authority, demonstrate in practice what they really think: They get to pick and choose which parts of the bible they consider universal standards, and they haven’t chosen this one. Because uncovered heads don’t offend them. Now, homosexuality might totally offend them, so they’ll preach against it on the regular. Veils? Despite the clear and obvious teaching of the apostles? Meh.

Some of ’em will come right out and say it, and some of ’em will avoid ever saying it for fear it undermines everything else they teach about scripture, inspiration, and literal interpretation. Yet their practices expose all: Contrary to Paul and Sosthenes, they figure head-covering isn’t a universal, eternal, God-decreed standard. It’s merely the apostles’ personal cultural hangup. So it can be dismissed in the present day. Otherwise they’d have serious qualms about flouting this instruction—and they totally don’t.

This isn’t the only situation where they treat the scriptures as if it’s all relative. It’s just the most obvious. Use it as a litmus test if you like. I do.

Honestly, it’s not a strong argument.

For most Christians, a biblical argument doesn’t really have to be a strong argument. ’Cause it’s in the bible. They believe the bible (or they believe they believe the bible): “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” There’s no point in analyzing a biblical argument to see how well it holds up… unless of course it’s to show off how strong it is, and use that as evidence God inspired it.

But for the most part, the apostles’ argument here isn’t so weighty.

Starts off with some wordplay about how God (i.e. the Father) is the head of Christ, Christ of men, and men of women. Which Christians, particularly sexists, have used to claim the Father’s the boss of Christ—and Christ of men, and men of women. And in so doing they claim to find some sort of hierarchy where we boss one another around. Medievals extrapolated this into the “great chain of being,” where God’s on top, devils are on bottom, and every creature has a place in the system… and you’d better know your place. It’s like Taoism on caffeine.

“Boss” might be one of the definitions of head in English, but not ancient Greek. Kefáli/“head” refers to the source of life—’cause if you ever get beheaded, you’re dead. Hence the Father’s not Christ’s boss; he’s the one who sent him, and is happy to share power and authority with Christ so Jesus can do his duty. Jn 5.19-20 It’s not a boss/employee relationship, but a father/son one. Same was with the Father and us humans. Same as Christ with humans. Jn 15.16

And same as men with women. It’s an attitude particularly needed to combat the oppression of sexist cultures. Headship isn’t about hierarchy, because God’s kingdom isn’t about power, but submission. Any Christian who characterizes it otherwise, either hasn’t let this idea sink in, or prioritizes power over love.

If Christ is a man’s source of power and authority, obviously when this hypothetical man acts or speaks in any way counter to his source, it’s not good. It’s like when we perform miraculous things, but lack love, and nullify everything good which was meant to come from those things. 1Co 13.1-3 It damages our relationship with God, instead of growing it.

So far so good, right? But now, abruptly, the apostles leap from talking about sources of power and authority… to a woman’s literal uncovered head. And a man’s literal uncovered head. And whether we oughta wear veils. All within the same parallel verses:

1 Corinthians 11.4-5 KWL
4 Any man praying or prophesying against his head, disgraces his head.
5 Any woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled, disgraces her head.
One may as well shave her…

It’s an attempt at wordplay; at using one idea to prop up another idea. But it doesn’t work, because there’s too great a difference between head/“source of life” and head/“source of hair.” They’re functionally using an entirely new word. So it becomes illogical.

As demonstrated by how head/“source of life” doesn’t work if that’s how we try to apply it to shaving a woman’s head, or cutting her hair short. If removing her hair makes her uncovered head acceptable, does it therefore follow there are certain actions a man can take which makes disconnecting from Christ acceptable? (Or worse, Christ disconnecting from his Father?) The analogy falls apart.

Next the apostles try to argue a man is God’s image and glory, but a woman is a man’s glory. 1Co 11.7-9 The apostles didn’t slip up and say a woman is a man’s image, which’d contradict where Genesis affirms humans—men and women alike—are created in God’s image. Ge 1.27 But they figure a woman is man’s glory because no other creature was worthy to be Adam’s equal partner, necessitating the creation of Eve. Ge 2.20-23 (Though it’s debatable whether the apostles realized Eve was an equal partner. Cultural hangups, remember?)

They make an odd comment about how women oughta cover up because of angels. 1Co 11.10 Most scholars figure this is a reference to the strange story in which “sons of God” decided to make wives of “daughters of men” and produce “giants.” Ge 6.1-4 Pharisee myths claimed these “sons of God” were angels, sent to teach the Law to humanity, who ditched God and their duties because human girls were smokin’ hot, and their offspring is where all mythology’s demigods come from. And no doubt many a Pharisee parent decided to tell their girls, “So this is why you gotta cover up: You don’t want some horny angel coming after you.” But it’s about as factually accurate as the Elf on the Shelf telling Santa Claus on you.

I’m gonna skip verses 11-12 for now because it’s actually an excellent argument. I’ll come back to it though. Promise.

Then it’s followed up by, of all things, appeals to popular culture.

1 Corinthians 11.13-16 KWL
13 Judge for yourselves: Is it appropriate for an unveiled woman to pray to God?
14 Doesn’t nature itself teach us when a man has long hair, it dishonors him?
15 —and when a woman has long hair, it’s to her glory? That hair gives her a covering?
16 If anyone wishes to debate this…
well we just don’t have such a custom. Not in God’s churches.

“Come on, people. Doesn’t this just strike you as wrong? We don’t do this sort of thing. We just don’t.”

Okay, but here’s the problem: Sometimes they did. If it’s a violation of nature for men to have long hair, what about Nazirites—men like John the baptist, Samson, Samuel, Elijah, and others who swore to God to never cut their hair? What about the fact God not only condones Nazirite practices, Nu 6.1-21 but had an angel order it for Samson, Jg 13.7 and had Gabriel likewise order it for John? Lk 1.15 Yeah, I’ve heard the argument that what made Nazirite vows stand out was how they violated common social customs of drinking and shaving. But God doesn’t look at this practice as dishonorable. Entirely the contrary.

Uh-oh… a bible difficulty. Well, I leave that for you to fret over.

Human culture was definitely against men with long hair, but nature has its own ideas. Consider the lion. Male lions have manes; lionesses don’t. Male birds tend to be more colorful than females (i.e. peacocks); the better to attract them. Nature is notoriously inefficient when it comes to deducing God’s will. It’s why we shouldn’t dabble in omens or augury.

So, neither nature nor God shares the apostles’ hangup about hair. But the apostles effectively cut off anyone who wanted to debate the issue further: “We just don’t have such a custom. Not in God’s churches.” 1Co 11.16 And that’s that. Don’t argue. Just do it.

If we didn’t believe 1 Corinthians to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, we’d ordinarily look at this argument and respond, “Sorry; not convinced.” And no doubt various Christians look at it and still figure, “Not convinced.” The problem is when we won’t admit this is their attitude—when we claim we adhere to everything the bible teaches, but it turns out we only follow the parts we like.

Christians don’t live only for ourselves.

Okay, back to the verses I skipped over. Like I said, it’s an excellent argument: Consideration for one another.

1 Corinthians 11.11-12 KWL
11 Still, neither a woman with no man, nor a man with no woman, in the Master:
12 Just as woman came out of man, likewise the man comes from woman. And all out of God.

To paraphrase John Donne, no Christian’s an island, entire of one’s self. We have to take fellow Christians into consideration and submit to one another. Ep 5.21 Women have to take men into consideration. And men with women.

So if a man gets up in church, and he’s dressed in such a way as to distract all the women—he’s showing an awful lot of skin, and it’s getting the ladies to think impure thoughts—that’s not cool. He needs to remember gathering in church is not about making himself look good, nor attractive, but to direct the worship towards Jesus. He needs to take his fellow worshipers into consideration, to leave at home all the things in his wardrobe which might unintentionally (or deliberately) tempt them.

Yeah, I realize our culture thinks just the opposite. Making a man feel guilty for leading women’s thoughts astray, especially if he never meant to do any such thing—but even if he totally did—is called “slut shaming.” ’Cause in our culture, men have the right to wear whatever they please. Blaming a man for how women think about him and what he’s wearing?—he has no control over that. And it’s on the women to exhibit self-control. Didn’t their fathers raise them better than that?

Y’know, in these previous two paragraphs, you may frequently need to swap the genders. Still applies though.

True, people need to exhibit self-control, and stop blaming others for their own lack of it. But at the same time, people need to exhibit self-control, and stop flaunting their freedoms in front of weaker Christians. Ro 14

In Paul and Sosthenes’ case, the problem was weak middle eastern men, suffering from a culturally conditioned hair fetish. So if a gentile woman stood up in church with her hair exposed, it was gonna drive these middle eastern perverts wild with lust. In Christian love, the right thing for this woman to do would be to help her twisted brothers in Christ, and keep her hair out of sight when in church. Yeah it’s inconvenient and weird. But compassionate of her, ’cause she’s helping her brothers stay on the straight and narrow.

This is what needs to be our takeaway from this passage. People have hangups. Let’s not demand, “You need to get over it,” and taunt them, tempt them, or torment them till they can’t worship. Till they deal with their hangups, the more mature Christian needs to submit to their weaknesses: Hide the thing that offends or arouses them, and help them deal with it.

And in the meanwhile, they really do need to deal with it. We shouldn’t have to accommodate weak Christians any longer than a few months. Turn it into a permanent practice, or mandatory rule, and we wind up turning their hangups into idols, and we certainly don’t want that. They need to grow up; not stay immature and demand baby food forever. They might need counseling or therapy. Though often all they need to learn, is to not be jerks.

But back to hair.

If you wanna insist this passage isn’t about being a litmus test for how people interpret bible, or isn’t about the apostles being tone-deaf about cultural standards, or isn’t about taking other people’s issues into consideration—if you insist this passage is only about hair, and either we love God and are gonna follow it, or we don’t and won’t—fine.

Really. It’s fine. Go ahead and cover your women. You’re far from alone. Plenty of Christians do mandate that women in their churches veil themselves. In certain countries, that’s just what the majority of Christians do, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox. It’s a cultural thing.

Which was kinda my point, y’know.