Here are some of the most common arguments I get (online and in real life) against the idea of wearing a prayer covering, as well as my (current) responses to them.
Since the main backing for the teaching of headcovering comes from the first half of 1 Corinthians 11, most of the arguments are also based on that passage.
“It’s outdated – that passage was only talking to the Corinthians.”
There are two streams to this argument: (1) It’s isolated in time to the 1st-century Corinthians, and therefore not applicable to us in the 21st century, and (2) It’s isolated in geography to Corinth, and therefore not applicable to us in the “West”. I’ll deal with the second point first, because it’s the easiest.
I direct your attention to the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, where Paul in the first few verses introduces himself and states who he’s writing to:
“To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:2). Was Paul writing to the Corinthians? Yes. Did he intend for the things he talked about in the letter to just be for the Corinthians? I’ll let you decide.
As for the second point, well, this is also covered in 1 Corinthians 1:2 – “together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. That’s all Christians, everywhere, right? And anywhen?
But nevertheless, take a look at some of the other topics Paul covers in the letter. What does he talk about in the second half on 1 Corinthians 11? Communion? Is this also an outdated practice to be consigned to the 1st century?
“It’s all about oppressing women.”
Perhaps. Feminists can find stuff about oppressing women in every text, and the Bible is certainly no exception! By why is this passage a target? Here are a few thoughts:
(1) The religious group most known for headcovering today is the Muslims, and there’s been a lot of negative media about how they oppress their women. Might I just remind you that Islam and Christianity are not the same religion and have very different reasons for headcovering? In Islam it’s about not tempting men (or God). In Christianity it’s about praying and respecting God.
(2) The headship order is read as woman < man < Christ < God. Therefore, one surmises, it must be placing women as lesser than men, and therefore must be oppressive. Think about that for a minute. By that logic, Christ is less than God. Huh? Three equal parts of a triune Godhead? And one is less than another?
(3) In verses eleven and twelve, women and men are placed as equals. This is a common theme in 1 Corinthians – see Chapter 7, too – and was quite radical in its day. How can it be about oppressing women when men and women are described as equal? Even more unusually for the Bible, this whole passage doesn’t even talk about submission at all. It just talks about honour and dishonour. In verse twelve, men and women are equal, but both come from God.
(4) Quite apropos to nothing, we were reading through Proverbs 31 in women’s Bible study the other day, and a couple of the ladies, ardent feminists, got quite angry, talking about throwing their Bibles down and how horrible and outdated it all was. And I’m just sitting there going, “This is an incredibly empowering passage for women. She’s the one who’s in charge of all the finances, of buying goods and property, of basically running the world. What do they find so terribly patronising about that?” Basically what I’m saying is, you see what you want to see. If you’re determined to find an anti-feminist women-oppressing agenda in a Bible passage, you’ll probably see it if you look hard enough.
“It’s only mentioned in this one place.”
There are a lot of other lifestyle things which are only mentioned in 1 Corinthians. Not tolerating adulterous incest in the church (chapter 5), not taking each other to court (chapter 6), not visiting prostitutes (chapter 6), and so on. All these things seem so obvious they’re barely worth mentioning, and modern churched readers look at this and go, “He had to tell them this?” Do you think it might be possible that headcovering was seen as a similarly obvious thing not worth mentioning? Could it be in the same category?
“God doesn’t mention the Creation/Headship Order anywhere else.”
Genesis 1:26-28 hints at it – humans are made by/ come from God (1 Corinthians 11:12), but higher than fish, birds, and animals. If you’re determined to see some sort of female-oppressive regime going on, you really can’t go past Genesis 3:16 (“you husband… shall rule over you”) to find a hint of it. I haven’t even got past the first three chapters of the Bible yet.
Then again, the Trinity isn’t explicitly mentioned until you get to the New Testament, either, although Daniel 7 gets pretty close to it (more on that another time). But then, the Old Testament is peppered with references to the Trinity, if you read it already knowing about God’s triune nature. God is like a parent, feeding His children hints at the answer to let us work it out for ourselves, rather than just spoon-feeding the information to us and expecting us to accept it blindly. There are a number of threads of thought that start as occasional hints in the Old Testament and finally we’re told straight-out in the New Testament (presumably when we’ve become too stupid to work it out and God finally gave up patience).
“God didn’t detail it enough for it to be important.”
This argument I was given in the context of a comparison with the detail in Leviticus and Deuteronomy regarding the construction of the temple and how and when sacrifices are to be made. “God spared no detail,” I was told, “You would think that if headcoverings were equally important, God would have set aside more than the first half of 1 Cor. 11 to explain it in detail, but what we have is a confusing set of unclear metaphors that are indirect.”
Well, this argument just doesn’t make sense to me. Comparing the construction of the temple and the guidelines for sacrifices with the passage detailing women’s headcovering is like comparing oranges and pears, to use a metaphor. One is historic narrative discourse, another is a personal letter. One is from 1400BC to a group of escape slaves in a desert, another is in 55AD to a group of modern, affluent, urbanite Greeks. One details something that had never happened before (building a temple for the Lord) and in unusual circumstances (the Lord had literally just come down and His presence was actually, physically, in the middle of their campsite); another is dealing with a lifestyle practice issue which was so obvious they should have already known (see point #3).
“It was just a cultural practice in Corinth.” and “It was just an oriental custom.”
I’ve put these together because they contradict each other. Let’s go through some basic cultural background of 1st-century Corinth.
(1) Corinth was (and still is) a Greek city. Greece is in Europe. (This is being said just in case the second argument was based on the assumption that Corinth was in the Near East).
(2) The majority of the church at Corinth was ethnically Greek, not converted Jews (see 1 Corinthians 12:2). (This is begin said just in case the second argument was based around the idea that the church at Corinth was culturally Near Eastern).
(3) Corinth was known for its “modern” free-thinking and general laissez-faire attitude to everything (including sex). (Sound familiar?) In Classical times, the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth employed around a thousand temple prostitutes.
(4) Corinth was a very rich city because it was situated on a major trade route. It had two ports and had traffic from Rome, Athens, Turkey, Egypt, and the Levant (modern Israel/Palestine/Lebanon). People from all over the Mediterranean region called Corinth home. Think about similar cities today – is there just one cultural practice present in them?
“It’s just about public worship.”
Actually, it’s about praying and prophesying. Is there anywhere in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 which implies public cohortative worship at all, let alone exclusively?
I wear my headcovering all the time because Christians are called to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17). However, I know ladies who wear headcoverings for church services as well as for private prayer and small-group Bible studies.
“Long hair is the headcovering.”
My first rebuttal is that Verse 6 makes no sense if this is so. Let’s read it with the assumption that long hair is the headcovering, using the NIV translation (italics are the bits I have changed for the sake of this assumption: “For if a woman does not have long hair, she might as well have hair her cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should have long hair.” Yep, that makes perfect sense.
My second rebuttal is one of personal incredulity. Why do so many women who tell me that long hair is the only headcovering needed have short hair? And I’m not just talking about shoulder-length hair or bobs. Proper short one-or-two-inch mens’-style hairdos. Really short hair. If they honestly believe that long hair is the headocvering, then… what?!
“Well, that’s your conviction.”
Yes. Yes it is. It isn’t one I’ve just plucked out of thin air, either. And while I’d love it if you read your Bible and came to the same conclusion, I’m not going to force it on you. After all, as you’ve said, it’s my personal thing – my personal “act of worship”, as our parish priest put it today when she overheard me explaining it to someone. I understand I’m in the minority.
Headcoverings aren’t a salvation issue. In fact, I might even go so far as to say they’re optional. As Christians, we have a great freedom of conscience in many areas, and it doesn’t do to force one’s own opinion on others – we should leave that for God to do. As Romans 14:5 says, in the context of whether to fast or eat, whether to keep Sabbath or not keep Sabbath – “Let each be fully convinced in his own mind.” Whatever you do, do it in sincere praise and worship and thanks of God.
But, you know, read your Bibles and work it out for yourselves. Don’t just go with the flow. Being a Christian isn’t about blindly following. It’s about thinking and testing and working things out.
“What on earth is meant by the ‘angels’?”
Good question. If ever I work it out, I’ll… probably be dead, in heaven, and have just asked God himself. Until then, here are a few of the explanations I’ve heard.
(1) The angels in heaven that are worshipping God use one of their three pairs of wings to cover their heads and faces (Daniel, Ezekiel, Revelation, et c.). Therefore, we should follow their example and also cover our heads. I can’t say I find this particularly convincing, since men are told in 1 Corinthians 11 not to cover their heads in prayer.
(2) It’s to protect us from the fallen angels. They can see that we’re Christians and won’t touch us. Uh-huh. Like that’s ever stopped them. I’ll think you’ll find it’s having God’s indwelling Spirit in you that will stop the fallen angels.
(3) It’s so the angels know to protect us because we’re Christians. I heard a story of two ladies on a bus that was boarded by a gunman, but they were both veiled and at the front of the bus and the gunman said there was just a bright light at the front and he couldn’t see and left. That started off well, but it was a bit of an odd conversation with a Mennonite lady when I was visiting the US a few years ago.
(3) Angels are genderless and all the same. Humans, on the other hand, are more like God; made up of different sorts and very relational. The headcovering is representative of the Headship order, which tells us how to interact with each other and with God. By wearing the headcovering, we’re providing an example to the angels on how to relate to each other and to God. I like this one the best, so far.
Headcoverings are as varied as the Christian women who wear them. Pictured are women and girls from various Christian traditions, including Catholic, Orthodox, Amish and Mennonite, Ethiopian Orthodox, Anglican, Hutterite, Russian Old Believer, Messianic, and Non-Denominational.