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The true meaning of headship and head coverings for women

Iraqi Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter Saturday at the church of the ancient Mar Matta monastery of Saint Matthew in the village of Bashiqa, some 30km northeast of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, during the night of April 23, 2022.
Iraqi Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter Saturday at the church of the ancient Mar Matta monastery of Saint Matthew in the village of Bashiqa, some 30km northeast of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, during the night of April 23, 2022. | SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images

In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, the apostle Paul addresses the topic of head coverings for women, a subject that has sparked much debate, confusion and substandard interpretations throughout history. In order to truly understand Paul's meaning, my goal is to provide a proper exegesis and interpretation that upholds the purity of the text and lends itself to how we are to show unity and equality among men and women.

Contrary to misconceptions, Paul's intention was not to demean women or diminish their role in the home or society. Instead, he addressed the issue of proper respect within marriage and worship. However, before delving into 11:2-16, turning back to the previous chapter is only appropriate to set the stage.

In 10:31-33, Paul writes, "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved."

Before discussing the topics of "headship" and "head coverings," Paul establishes a fundamental principle to guide Christians in their daily lives. We are to honor God in everything we do and to love others as we share the Gospel with those who are perishing.

Keeping this guiding principle in mind, let us try to understand what Paul meant in 11:2-16.

From the context, it is clear that Paul is attempting to rectify the misuse of freedoms leading to division and inappropriate behavior. His primary concern is not about men and women (in general) but rather about the testimony of a husband and wife faithfully living out their marriage before God in church and society.

In verse three, Paul writes, "But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God." To understand the word "headship" used by Paul, we must understand its historical and cultural context. The Greek word is kephalé, which translates as "head" but also carries broader meanings such as "authority" or "source."

Paul's approach is intriguing because he refers to the relationship within the Triune Godhead before acknowledging the esteemed roles of a husband and wife.

Paul does this to connect our relationships that ought to reflect the perfect unity shared with the Triune Godhead.

Each Person of the Trinity is a subsistence of the same substance. Yet, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are distinct (not divided) in their functions (operational roles) in the economy of salvation. In 1 Corinthians 15:28, Paul elaborates on this very point, "When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all."

Similarly, Paul emphasizes the significance of headship within the framework of God's divine order in the context of marriage. Paul refers to husbands' and wives' unique roles and responsibilities, reflecting the unity and diversity within the Triune Godhead. He did not imply that headship means a husband ruling over his wife or suggest that qualitative differences between women indicate they are inherently inferior to men. 

In Ephesians 5:21-33, the apostle Paul emphasizes the sacrificial love that husbands should have towards their wives while highlighting the importance of wives voluntarily respecting their husbands. This passage explains that marriage is meant to exemplify Christ's relationship with his Church, where both husband and wife have distinct roles but are equal in value before God. Therefore, having a harmonious partnership where both spouses honor and support each other is essential.

The second controversial verse from Paul is as stated: "For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. but since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head" (11:5).

To fully grasp the meaning and underlying principles behind head coverings in this passage, it is essential to explore cultural and historical contexts. 

It was not customary for Corinthian women to cover their heads as it was for Jewish women. Many of the upper-class Greek women would flaunt their hairstyles, causing a clash with less privileged women and Jews. In Paul's day, it was customary for women (in the ­­Ancient Mediterranean) to cover their heads in public or among strangers as a symbolic representation of modesty and submission. In Gen. 24:65, Rebecca veiled (Hebrew tsaciph) herself in the presence of Isaac.

By wearing a veil or covering their heads during worship or public gatherings, women demonstrated their acknowledgment of societal norms and their commitment to honor their husbands as leaders within their homes. If a Jewish woman revealed her long hair in public, she was either in mourning or she was being publicly humiliated as an accused adulteress. Additionally, if a woman took off her head covering (veil or scarf) in the worship service, it could be a sign or suggestion that she was withdrawing from her husband and "available." Because of that, if a wife were participating in church, she would keep her veil over her head to avoid people thinking several things: 1. she was abusing her freedom, 2. rejecting honor to God, and 3. disrespecting her husband by making a public gesture that she was promiscuous.

Furthermore, when Paul was writing, temple prostitutes were known for wearing their hair very short and not covering their heads. Thus, giving weight for Paul to advise against adopting a similar appearance to avoid giving the wrong impression and causing others to stumble.

It is important to understand that the topic of head coverings was related to cultural norms and not a command given by Paul for Christians today. The underlying principle behind the advice of wearing head coverings is to behave with dignity, avoiding actions that might lead to division or cause others to stumble.

When we honor God and strive to do good for others, our witness is beyond reproach in marriage, family, and society, as Paul mentions in his overarching principle in 10:31-33.

In light of these considerations, it becomes evident that Paul's teachings on headship and head coverings are rooted in promoting harmony within marriage rather than enforcing gender inequality. 

Although cultural practices may differ across different societies and periods, what remains crucial is the need for mutual respect and honoring one another in our relationships, particularly in marriage.

By understanding these principles, we can appreciate the importance of head coverings and uphold equality and respect between spouses in accordance with biblical teachings.

Jason Jimenez is the founder and president of Stand Strong Ministries and is a respected Christian-worldview speaker, and faculty member at Summit Ministries. He is the best-selling author of Hijacking Jesus: How Progressive Christians Are Remaking Him and Taking Over the Church, Challenging Conversations: A Practical Guide to Discuss Controversial Topics in the Church, and Parenting Gen Z: Guiding Your Child through a Hostile Culture.

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