Years ago I was present at a conference being held in a local church. No Psalms were sung and our time together was not opened with a call to worship or closed with a benediction. Clearly the format was that of a lecture, not the public proclamation of God’s Word. In such a context I felt comfortable wearing my hat, even though the conference was taking place in the church’s sanctuary. However I was reprimanded by an older man afterwards who thought this to be inappropriate. I respectfully disagreed with his reasoning but did not don my hat again, lest I cause my brother offence.
Yet despite being comfortable wearing my hat in a church, I never would have thought of wearing my hat in the worship service myself. And, for that matter, never once in all my life as a Christian have I seen a man wear a hat in worship. What accounts for this practice?
I think that this is likely a residue of a custom that we haven’t shaken yet. The head covering for women has been cast off but not the non-head covering for men, perhaps for no other reason that the former is physically or visually significant but not the latter. That being the case, we might think it is something that we should be indifferent to. Yet as we examine 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, we see that it addresses both men and women. In fact, the practice of head covering has much to teach women and men about their place in God’s world and the public assemblies of Christ’s church.
First some context. Head covering is an ordinance or tradition of the apostles (1 Corinthians 11:2). In this passage the word is rendered in the plural, meaning that this is one of many traditions. So this is not a local issue (an ordinance) for one church (as some have made it out to be) but originates from apostolic teaching and authority for the catholic, or universal, church.
Secondly, it is not a private matter because it pertains to the churches (vs. 16 – not families or individuals). Compare Paul’s language here with how he speaks to Timothy: “that mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church the living God…” (1 Timothy 3:15). Whatever you may be convinced (or not) concerning when head coverings are to be used, this is a matter that primarily, if not exclusively, refers to the worship of the church in her public assemblies.
This ordinance, however, is not a mere commandment. It is true that Paul has to remind the Corinthian Christians of these things because they seem to be contentious about the matter (vs. 16). But the head covering that Paul requires is grounded in the relationship between men and Christ, the relationship between men and women (husbands and wives especially), and the relationship between Christ and God (vs. 3).
Now a man whose wife headcovers may tend to focus on how his wife’s head covering proves her submission, but how much does the man think of his submission? Paul’s argument in vs. 3, after all, is not theoretical. Although we may quickly jump to vs. 5, Paul addresses the men first in vs. 4 by saying: “Every man praying and prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.” “His head” could be his physical head (as in the first part of the text) but I think it is more natural to relate this to Christ, as per the previous verse.
In other words, what makes the practice of head coverings significant is a relationship, not the act itself. Headcovering and non-headcovering is subordinate to the idea of submission. A woman who wears a head covering publicly testifies that she is under submission to her husband in Christ. But we also see that a man who does not wear a head covering in worship testifies that he is in submission to Christ (vs. 3). He is claiming to be under lawful authority and lives as a servant to Jesus, his saviour, redeemer and Lord.
So when men do not cover in the worship service, they do so not merely for the sake of appearances but because “he is the image and glory of God” (1 Corinthians 11:7). Though this is true of both sexes it only applies to the woman derivatively: “the woman is the glory of the man” (ibid.). Paul is not denying that women are made in the image of God, but he does not say that women are the image and glory of God, but the glory of the man. Indeed, though both believing men and women are under the headship of Christ (Ephesians 5:23), men are more reflective of the Lord in terms of their appointment to headship or head of their family (Ephesians 5:22-23).
How is it that men are the glory of God? And what does it mean that women derive this glory from men? Does this mean that men are better than women? In these questions we (also) encounter the modern debates between complementarians and egalitarians. The latter wants to uphold the inherent equality of men and women in essence and function and the former the inherent equality of their essence only. But, judging the matter from the perspective of Paul, both are wrong. Women are in essence and function not equal to men, at least when viewed from the perspective of glory and image bearing.
Paul explores this in 1 Timothy 2:13: “For Adam was first formed, then Eve.” This, it seems to me, is primarily what Paul is aiming at in 1 Corinthians 11:7: man being created originally or singularly, the creation of the woman is not only after him but from the original creation of the man (Genesis 2:21-23). For Paul confirms this in the following verse when he says: “For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man” (vs. 8). Which is to say, she has her existence and, by God’s design, her image bearing status from her husband. And thus she is his crown, his glory (Proverbs 12:4).
Similarly, man (Adam) was told to dress and keep the garden before the woman (Eve) was even brought into the world (Genesis 2:15). And so even though Eve tempted him to fall, he was whom God called (Genesis 3:9) and the one by whom all humanity (men and women) are cursed to death (vs. 19) and the one whom it is said was driven from the garden (vs. 22 “the man,” vs. 23 “him” vs. 24 “the man”), though obviously Eve was as well. Thus as the glory of man(kind) was compromised by man, it is his honour in Christ to uphold it once again.
Thus far from being irrelevant to our day and age, it becomes rather obvious that this is a matter that sorely needs to be addressed by churches in light of our free-fall from scriptural values. Our problems in the church and the culture at large have everything to do with our departure from God’s rule.
Though one may feel as we have diverted from the main topic before us, it is Paul that has introduced the subject of headcovering in this way. And thus we return to the truth that a man who does not cover his head in worship is therefore reflecting the image of his God by worshipping in a way that pleases him. To uncover his head in worship is an acknowledgement that he owes his image and glory to God. He is not superior in these respects than the woman because he is a man, but because his creator has made him so. The relationship of men to women reminds us of our mutual ownership by God. It is not glorying in self, but a glorying in God.
To summarise, the matter of the non-headcovering of men in worship testifies: 1) his redemption by Christ 2) his submission to God in Christ 3) his special image bearer status 4) his relationship to his wife 5) his submission to the ordinances of the church & 6) his contribution to the unity of the church. Should we, then, yet think that this is an insignificant matter? If we have treated it so, it could be that we have not thought much (or of much) about what Paul has said.
1. If not offensive to our modern ears and hearts.
2. Perhaps as much by those who are convinced of head coverings for women as those who are not.
3. Though the word tradition is used negatively in many places in scripture, here I mean in it a positive way. cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6.
4. Note that the term for ordinance is paradosis. Compare this to how Paul uses the cognate verb (paradidōmi) in 1 Corinthians 11:23 to speak of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper: “I delivered unto you…” Headcovering is part of the apostolic church’s legacy for the church of all ages.
5. Anymore than any other God gives us in his word. They all have meaning and importance to teach us, beyond bare obedience.
6. Which, it seems, is borne out in 1 Corinthians 14:34 as well.
7. It may be exegetically significant that Paul uses the article in front of the word head, suggesting man’s primary head: τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ. At the very least, it should be implied that disobedience to this command dishonours Christ since he is, through Paul, requiring it.
8. It should be noted that, in this relationship of submission, tyranny may be possible (knowing the inclinations of the sinful heart) but it is not lawful for any man, especially those who claim to belong to Christ.
9. How could he, after all, when scripture affirms it? See Genesis 1:27.
10. “the women was created for this purpose – that she might be a distinguished ornament of the man… He establishes by two arguments the pre-eminence, which he had assigned to men above women. The first is, that as the women derives her origin from the man, she is therefore inferior in rank. The second is, that as the woman was created for the sake of the man, she is therefore subject to him, as the work ultimately produced is to its cause. That the man is the beginning of the woman and the end for which she was made, is evident from the law. (Gen. ii. 18.) It is not good for a man to be alone. Let us make for him, &c. Farther, God took one of Adam’s ribs and formed Eve. (Gen. ii. 21, 22).” John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians Volume I. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1981, pages 357-358.
11. Compare to Genesis 1:27. “So created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him (זָכַר); male and female created he them.”