One of my favorite parts of the Come Fill Your Cup retreats is always the Friday night Q&A. I love the challenge of answering questions. I love the hearts of women who are seeking to know more, to be more, and willing to humbly ask for help in these pursuits. In the past few years, the question of whether or not headcoverings are required has come up often, and I jump at the chance to answer with scripture since, for a time, I wore a headcovering myself.
In discussing headcoverings, the main scripture in consideration is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Paul begins a new topic in this section, marked by “Now…” in verse 2. He praises the Corinthian brethren for holding firmly to the traditions he has given to them. Some today want to dismiss the practice of headcovering right off the bat, based on Paul’s referring to it as a tradition. While it is true that the word refers to traditions which can (and in some cases, should) be discarded, this is not exclusively so. In 2 Thessalonians 2:15, and 3:6, Paul uses this same word to refer to the good teachings which they ought to hold on to rather than the unruly life they lived before. The word simply means “the content of instruction that has been handed down” (Arndt 763). The worth of the tradition is determined by the context. To dismiss the practice of headcovering based solely on this word is not valid.
1 Corinthians 11:3 is critical to our understanding of this passage because Paul announces exactly what he wants to discuss: authority and headship, specifically when a woman is praying or prophesying (teaching). Throughout the passage, there are a few key words. “Head” occurs nine times, and is translated from KEPHALE. Paul uses it with a double meaning to refer to the physical head, as well as one’s figurative head or authority. In reference to the physical head, it means the whole head (not simply the top of the head). For example, in Mark 6:21-28, John the Baptist’s KEPHALE is brought to Herodias’ daughter after she danced for Herod. Another key word is KATAKALYPTO, translated “cover,” “uncovered,” “covered.” This verb is a compound word, made with KATA (down from, down upon) and KALYPTO (to hide, conceal, cover). In the Septuagint (LXX), this word is used in Jeremiah 51:42, translated in our English versions as “engulfed.”
Though it occurs only once, “covering” in verse 15 is significant as well. This is the word PERIBOLAION, referring to a shawl, or other partial covering. In the LXX, this word is in Deuteronomy 22:12, referring the the garment the Jews were to add tassels to. KATAKALYPTO is a verb which necessitates a covering that is complete, and comes down from the head. It is much like the burqa we see our Muslim neighbors wearing. The types of coverings here can be compared to table cloths. Consider a round table with a table cloth hanging down to the floor, and a square topper decorating it. The bottom cloth would be the sort required by the word KATAKALYPTO; it covers the entire table, hanging down from it. The square topper is more akin to the PERIBOLAION; it is a partial covering, insufficient by itself.
Many are quick to dismiss the practice of headcovering as cultural, but cannot explain how they know it is cultural. This is where logic and hermeneutics (rules for interpreting scripture) come into play. We know that there is one standard of judgment for all people since the time of Christ— His word (John 12:48). Therefore, anything that was binding (required for obedience/ salvation) on any one Christian of the first century is also binding on us today, and vice versa; anything that was notbinding on any one first century Christian is not binding on us today (excepting gender differences, of course). Thus, if I can show in scripture an authorized example of others not practicing headcovering, it becomes clear that the practice is cultural, and thus not binding today.
Consider 1 Timothy 2:9. In context, Paul is giving instructions to the young preacher, Timothy, who works in Ephesus, on how one ought to conduct themselves in the household (family) of God (1 Timothy 1:3, 3:15). In 2:9, Paul instructs that women’s adornment should be modest, and discrete, not including braided hair. If the women of Ephesus were wearing the covering required by KATAKALYPTO, their hair would not be visible at all. Whether or not it is braided would be irrelevant. Consider also the surrounding context of 2:9. In 2:8, prayer is under discussion. In 2:11, 12 authority in teaching is under discussion. Paul is addressing all of the same issues in 1 Timothy 2 as he addresses in 1 Corinthians 11— prayer, dress (including the head), authority, and teaching— yet he does not mention the headcovering at all. We can infer from this that the Ephesian women are not wearing headcoverings.
Consider also 1 Peter 3:3. In context, Peter is writing to alien Christians throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (much of the Roman Empire South of the Black Sea). He encourages them in their suffering and discusses the proper behavior of those who are called to salvation. In 3:3, he admonishes the women concerning their adornment, and—almost verbatim what Paul said— says that it should not be based on externals, including braided hair. Again, if the women were practicing headcovering, their hair would not be on view whatsoever. Also similar to 1 Corinthians 11, the broader context is of the headship of the husband. Here we see a third passage which addresses not only attire (including the head), but also addresses authority yet does not reference the headcovering at all. It is reasonable to conclude that the women of Peter’s audience are not wearing headcoverings.
When we look at the whole of the New Testament’s teaching concerning women’s authority, one truth is clear: the husband is to be the head. When we look at the whole of the New Testament’s teaching concerning women’s attire, however, we see differing practices, but one constant principle: it should be modest and discreet, bringing glory to her head— both her own as well as those in authority over her (husband, Christ, and God). In Corinth, bringing honor to her head included wearing a headcovering. In the other regions, this was not the case. In America today, it is also not the case. Wearing a headcovering in the Western world today does not communicate submission to one’s head; if anything, it communicates affiliation with one of a number of headcovering faiths. Much like those in Ephesus or in the region South of the Black Sea, a headcovering is unnecessary for American women today.
This article is not an extensive discussion of 1 Corinthians 11; it is only a discussion of the headcovering. You, dear reader, may go away from this article with more questions, and that is wonderful! Pondering God’s word should always cause us to… ponder. I would encourage you to seek out those answers, and if you find it a challenge— good. If you find it too much of a challenge, ask someone to help, but always remember… A BIBLE QUESTION DESERVES A BIBLE ANSWER. Do not accept less! Opinions and “I think” are not acceptable on matters of doctrine. May you be blessed as you continue to mine God’s word for its treasures. May your cup be filled, and may it overflow.
By Erynn Sprouse
Arndt, William et al. 2000 : 763. Print. Moulton, H. K. The Analytical Greek Lexicon. Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1977.