Gender Roles in Church: Headcoverings


In my previous posts, we’ve been exploring how God created men and women with differences and how these differences give them different roles in society. Since Christians have their own society in the church, we can apply these principles to gender roles in church. The Bible has much to say of gender roles in church. However, these passages of the Bible are some of the most controversial and poorly understood. Let's take a look at each of them to gain a better understanding.
But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head.
For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God.
Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.
But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.
It's easy to read this passage and think that it's demeaning to women by taking away women’s authority, keeping her from participating in the Assembly, and making women seem less valuable than men. But what is Paul really saying? 

Glory Versus Authority

Paul is writing about an order of glory. All glory originates with God. God’s glory is man, and man’s glory is woman. When we think about it, doesn’t this make sense? A butterfly is a caterpillar's glory because that’s where it came from. A painting is a painter’s glory because he painted it. A crown is a king’s glory. Children are their parent’s glory. The thing that comes from something else is the glory of where it came from. Woman is man’s glory because that’s where she came from. With each step from God, to man, to woman, there is increasing glory. God made man in his image, then he took the most beautiful parts of man and made them into woman. As a result, woman is the most beautiful, glorious thing in all of creation. And I don’t think any man would disagree!

We also see that there is an order of authority going the opposite way. It begins with woman and ends with God. This is because the thing that comes first is the authority over the thing that comes from it. Parents are the authority over their children. A painter is the authority over his painting. Woman was created for man as his helper, so man is the authority over women. This is why men have been pioneers and leaders throughout history. The role of men in society is to take the lead. The role of women in society is to support the men because woman was created as man’s helper. This doesn’t mean that a woman can’t have her own purpose, but it shouldn’t be her focus.

There seems to be a principle at work here. God, men, and women lie on a continuum with glory at one end and authority at the other. It’s almost like the more glory you have, the less authority you have, and vice versa. Women have more glory and men have more authority.

Gender Roles in Church

Gender Roles in Church

These principles don't just apply to society in general, but also to Christian society, the Assembly. In explaining the interactions between men and women in Assembly, Paul seems to be making a play on words. Since Christ has more authority than man, Christ is his head. Therefore, a man shouldn’t talk to Christ with his head covered. That would be like covering up the one he's talking to, which is a dishonor.

But since man has more authority than woman, man is the head of woman. Can a woman talk directly to Christ without man getting in the way? Absolutely! She just needs to cover her head. Therefore, a headcovering allows her to bypass the authority of man. By covering her head, she is covering her glory and trading it for authority. For this reason, Paul calls a headcovering “symbol of authority”. In fact, the words "symbol of" weren’t written by Paul, but added by modern editors. Paul says that a headcovering literally is authority for women.

When Headcoverings Should Be Worn

This is not about dishonoring women or putting them under authority of man. Rather, Paul is saying that a headcovering gives women authority to pray and prophecy directly with Jesus. Paul is very clear that a headcovering brings honor to a woman. Further, notice that Paul never says woman is created in the image of man. He says that woman is the glory of man, but scripture is very clear that men and women were both created in the image of God.

So does this mean that women can never pray or go to church with their heads uncovered? Paul says that long hair is a natural headcovering given by God. So a headcovering worn over the hair isn’t for God nor the woman wearing it. Who then is it for? Paul says it’s worn for the angels. The word "angels" is actually translated from the word "messengers". A messenger is an apostle, so it could be a reference to men in authority. A headcovering gives a woman the authority to lead a prayer or give a prophecy right there along with the men in charge. It also serves as a reminder that even though she is praying and prophesying directly with Christ, she is still under the men’s authority. I don’t believe there is any reason for women who are praying to God by themselves to wear a headcovering since her long hair is a natural headcovering. Similarly, I don’t believe there is any reason for a woman who doesn’t have a leadership role to wear a headcovering. However, a headcovering should be worn by all women leading an Assembly in prayer or prophecy.

But we would be remiss to get distracted by headcoverings and miss what a headcovering means. What's the point of wearing a headcovering if women don't submit to men's authority? What's the point of wearing a headcovering if men don't treat women with respect as their glory? What's the point of wearing a headcovering if women aren't given the opportunity to participate in the Assembly? We need to not let debate over Paul's tradition interfere with having the right heart before God. But if our hearts are right and we do honor the gender roles in church, then there's no reason for women not to wear headcoverings.

Do Gender Roles Apply Today?

Some have argued that Paul's rule is based on the gender roles of the Corinthian culture at that time and therefore no longer applies to gender roles in church today. But there is little, if any evidence that women were expected to wear headcoverings in their culture. Further, Paul didn’t care about cultural considerations; this is the guy who said, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”.

More importantly though, Paul clearly gives his reasoning for this instruction and it’s not based on culture. He gives three reasons for his argument: 1) The order of creation, which is just as true for us today as it was for them. 2) This was practiced in every Assembly outside of Corinthian culture -- “we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God”. 3) Nature, and our instinct that women's hair should be longer than men's. Still today, most women wear their hair long and men wear their hair short. This is across almost every culture, so it must be due to our nature which was created by God. It is still a dishonor for women to have a shaved head. It is still normal for men to show respect by removing their hats, and women still relax by "letting their hair down". The command for godly women to pray and prophecy with authority worn on her head is just as relevant to gender roles in church today as it always has been.

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