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Uncovering the Head Covering Debate

Oct 1 2013
What happened to Scripture’s call to cover our heads in worship?

I grew up in Arabic churches where women wore lace head coverings, a tradition still practiced in some Eastern Orthodox, pre-Vatican II Catholic, and Middle Eastern churches. When I questioned my mom about it, she told me she covered her head out of respect to God. Years later, at a non–denominational megachurch, I was taught that "none of that stuff applies anymore."

In a culture where a vast majority of Christian women never consider a veil or hat for Sunday service, Bible verses addressing head coverings get quickly dismissed as irrelevant.

But there remain important questions for the church to consider about what has become a largely dated practice: If Paul, in inspired Scripture, asks the wives of the church to cover their heads to show that their submission to their husbands as a part of decorum for corporate worship, why don't we modern complementarians do so? And why, for example, is this small but well-advertised headcovering movement trying to bring it back? This is a tough issue, not least because it's difficult to detangle the historical aspects from the timeless ones.

Theologians such as Wayne Grudem say contemporary Christians no longer need to wear head coverings because veils, hats, and other types of hair coverings do not designate submission in our culture. But what does? He and others have likened the contemporary use of wedding bands to head coverings in Corinth. It's a valid position, but the wedding band, today's typical symbol for marriage, does not necessarily show the headship–submission model the passage refers to, since both men and women wear them.

Paul writes, "But I want you to understand that the head of every man (that is Christian men and women) is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. 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" (1 Cor. 1:3-6).

While styles changed, the practice of head covering continued even up to the early 20th century. Christian leaders believed the head covering called for in 1 Corinthians signified women's modesty and submission, so they continued to wear whatever type of covering was in fashion at the time. Some women wore bonnets, shawls, or hats, as a part of modest attire or to designate the married from the unmarried. By the 1960s in the West, the biblical practice had become merely a tradition, so when hats fell out of syle, the practice was dropped in Christian churches too.

Related Topics:Church; Gender; Marriage; Worship

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