Sunday, January 17, 2016

Why the Christian Head Covering Movement is Wrong

I’ve been coming more and more across videos like this.

They advocate restoring the New Testament cultural practice of head covering. The fact that this whole discussion is even necessary is probably evidence that most theologians and pastors don’t really take their lip service to interpret the Bible in its context seriously or have even been trained by their seminary to know what that would look like. I don’t care what Wayne Grudem’s Systematic says or what interpretation some sage pastor thinks God laid on his heart. You actually need to consult linguistic databases and first century literature to know what's going on here.

Frankly, we know why women were expected to cover their hair in the first century. Hair was scientifically considered an erotic organ. We have medical texts which explicitly explain the mechanics of this. The language of these texts highly corresponds with Paul’s language. The throwaway, “because of the angels” line fits like a glove with Second Temple literature on this interpretation (the New Testament authors took supernatural traditions like Enoch a lot more seriously than we do), and it perfectly explains why Paul thought nature dictated women ought to have long hair and men short hair. Troy Martin’s article in the Journal of Biblical Literature is a good place to get acquainted with the context I’m talking about. “Paul’s Argument from the veil in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15: A Testicle Instead of a Head Covering.” JBL 123/1, (2004), 75-84. (Thanks to Michael Heiser for making it available online.)

But why would God allow Paul to defend bad science?

Imagine you are an ancient Corinthian. You and all your pagan neighbors in the Las Vegas of the ancient world think that female hair is literally an extension of genitalia (thanks Aristotle)—that there is a one-to-one correspondence with hair length and feminine fecundity in your culture’s science.   Because of this belief, your educated culture has wisely instituted head coverings for women as an expression of sexual modesty.

Imagine then, some guy Paul comes to your hyper-sexualized culture and some new God you’ve never heard of called the Holy Spirit gives him a divine science lesson. Paul then runs around telling his church not to care about covering the genitalia on their head because it’s bad science. Now you have a church exposing what all their neighbors think are genitalia in the name of the Holy Spirit.

I’m sorry if those “serious exegetical studies” people read by 18th century pastors haven't equipped them to incorporate scientific condescension in their understanding of inspiration, but God didn’t care to give David a divine physiology lecture in Psalm 16:7 when he praised God for instructing his kidneys (If that reference is confusing, here's another journal article), and he doesn’t seem to care to do so here. If your cool theology, Reformed or whatever, forces you to take these things as mere metaphor then your theology prevents you from interpreting the Bible correctly in its context. Your theology disables you from understanding the Bible and that's a problem.

What’s the take-away?

In the English world, giving someone a thumbs-up is a good thing.  In some Arabic countries it is a vulgar symbol—the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger.  It would be morally ok for me to go around flaunting the symbol in one culture and not ok in the other.  Our culture attaches nothing like sexual promiscuity to displaying hair because we don’t have the complex 1st century scientific apparatus that supplied that connotation in the ancient world.  This verse can be taken then as a warning against appearing or being sexually immodest.  All this applies to hair length on the interpretation I’ve offered too.  The form may not translate to our culture but the meaning does.


  1. Can't περιβολαιον mean that rounded shape without hair which results from old men's balding? Looks like English doesn't have a word for it but some other languages do.

  2. Such a great article! Thanks a lot, i'm writing an essay on the topic of head coverings so this is extremely helpful!

  3. No where in this entire passage does Paul cite the sexual culture of the Corinthians as the basis for his argument that women should wear head coverings. That is a total eisegesis of the text. Paul himself gives the reason why women should cover their heads which instead pertains to spiritual authority, submission and hierarchy. In v.3 Paul writes "I want you to understand....which underscores the basis for his argument. That understanding has nothing at all to do with culture but the timeless order of God's creation which the head covering symbolizes.

    1. The whole point of the article is that Paul drags sex in when he refers to the Enoch tradition and first century language about the nature of hair length. That's the historical context which best explains his words. To say this is eisegesis without interacting with the reasons the article gives for excepting this context is merely a repetition of a party line. This thesis was the fall out of a nine year scholarly debate in a leading peer review journal. It deserves more than a handwave.

    2. Don't read the text partially, read the whole text - there is a conclusion in the end, which is very clear:"But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering." In addition, you will find nowhere in the Bible that women should cover their head, except for this place, not even in the low of Moses. So of course, the passage from 1 Corinthians 11 refers to a particular culture.

    3. To appeal to the historical context is irrelevant as Paul explicitly stated what his subject/context was. If as you claim that hair length was Paul's topic then how easy it would have been for Paul to begin this discourse by saying “Every man who has long hair while praying or prophesying, dishonors his head. But every woman who has short hair while praying or prophesying, dishonors her head.” But he did not say that. He does not even mention hair until he gets to the end of his discussion and he chooses to give a NATURAL illustration to support the practice of the church. To refrain from eisegeting the text and discern Paul’s topic we must limit ourselves to that which he explicitly states when he introduces his topic: “Every man who has SOMETHING on his head while praying or prophesying, dishonors his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, dishonors her head.” It is highly unlikely that the 'something' Paul referred to was a man's hair. If hair length was the topic, Paul would have used the word 'hair'. He did not, so clearly Paul was referring to something else besides hair - namely a head covering.

      Moreover, v.15 can be translated as "and a woman, if she have long hair, a glory it is to her, because the hair instead of a covering hath been given to her;" (YLT). This verse contains the Greek prepostion 'anti' which can mean in exchange for, in place of, instead of; as seen in other occurrences of this preposition in Jn. 1:16; in place of, Mt. 2:22; in retribution or return for, Mt. 5:38; in consideration of, Heb. 12:2, 16; on account of, Mt. 17:27.
      If one accepts this translation of this verse then Paul's intent of this passage becomes clear. Since long hair is a woman's glory (v.15), she must cover her long hair with an external covering as a symbol of authority and witness before the angels (v.10). In covering her long hair, she demonstrates her obedience and submission to the created authority and government of God as a witness to the angels - some of whom left their estate and rebelled against God's authority and government. While praying or prophesying in covering her long hair, she properly covers her glory since the woman is the glory of man (v.7). The man however does not put on a head covering while praying or prophesying since he reflects the image and glory of God (v.7). The glory of man remains covered while the glory of God remain uncovered hence the woman is to cover her hair while the man does not cover his head while praying/prophesying.

    4. I’m at a loss for how to reply because you’re repeating positions that the article interfaces with without actually countering its arguments. (Why do you feel the need to cite 5 examples of a preposition translation the article agrees with?) I can only assume you haven’t read it.

    5. You are correct; I did not see the link to that article. I now better apprehend your perspective after reading it. However, if one accepts the author’s premise that Paul is instructing women to cover their long hair since it is an extension of their genitalia, then the question becomes why would Paul then only limit this practice to praying and prophesying? Would not a woman in a gathering of the church, have her head covered as soon as she entered into the presence of the brethren and not just during times of prayer/prophecy? Moreover, in a society where hair was highly sexualized would not a Christian woman demonstrate her modesty by covering her head all of the time whether inside or outside of the church? Yet, Paul specifically limits his instruction to the act of praying and prophesying. Thus the article goes to great lengths to propose a cultural slant to the passage; yet it still fails to demonstrate its practical applicability which ultimately undermines the author's premise.

    6. Were you to read the Talmud, in the section about the Kethuboth includes a verse that says that any woman who violates the Law of Moses (OT) or Jewish practice can be divorced without having her dowry returned to her - going out with an uncovered head is deemed as a violation of the latter. Just because something isn't mentioned in the Bible, it doesn't mean that it wasn't being carried on to some degree.
      Not only that, but Romans tended to believe that men and women should have a separation in worship: men should lead and women should follow, if both men and women are doing the same function, women should do it in a way that differentiates themselves from the men. Ideally, they would worship in two separate spaces, but when they have to share the same space - men and women must be different. The Romans tended to establish a hierarchy where men have higher spiritual authority than women. What is interesting about this passage is that it fulfills the basic premise of Roman ideas about worship: men and women must be different, men must have authority over women.

  4. Not full of yourself or anything are you, Ben?

  5. More importantly, if Holy Scripture says you do it, you don't rationalize or put your fallen human instinct in front of the word of God! In the Orthodox churches, the women cover their heads. End of story -your presumption to be above the word of God is nothing less than blasphemous! -Fr. John+

  6. This is great! I first learned of this through Hesier's podcast! Thanks for the post!