If you come from a conservative Mennonite background, like my own, you have likely heard many sermons stressing the importance of a woman covering her head. The headship veiling is one of those is simultaneously loved and hated topics. Many have become completely tired of hearing about it every other week and yet would, if challenged, defend the practice more vigorously than the incarnation or as if the salvation of the world depended on a few inches of fabric pinned to a female’s coiffed hair.
I’ll try not to beat a dead horse here. If you are tired of endless discussions and debates (or even church splits) over the size or style of veils, please hold your groans to the end, because I hope this is a fresh take on this all too familiar topic. But first I’ll get to the basics of the passage itself and what I believe 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 says about the veil based on both the text itself and also the historical understanding of the text according to early church leaders.
First the text:
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.) That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels. (Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.) Judge for yourselves; is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her pride? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If any one is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God. (1 Corinthians 11:1-16 RSV)
Now we need to answer the what is being said, why it is being said, and then, lastly, how it applies to us…
Does “her hair is given to her for a covering” mean that this passage is not truly about veiling?
Note, first off, this translation clears up the controversy over whether or not a woman’s hair is her covering. It uses the word “unveiled” where some other translations do not. This difference in words is reflective of the different Greek words used in the original manuscripts. In verse 5, for example, where it says that “any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head,” uses a Greek word “akatakaluptos” (ἀκατακαλύπτῳ) whereas verse 15, “her hair is given to her for a covering,” uses a word “peribolaion” (περιβολαίου) instead—which suggests the translation above is more accurate than those translations which obscure those two different words.
That alone is not enough evidence to dismiss modern commentators who say that this passage is only about a covering of long hair and not a separate veil over a woman’s hair. I’m not a Greek language expert and certainly not enough to say with authority that the two words are not basically synonymous or that the distinction (between the hair covering and a veil) of the RSV translation is incorrect.
However, the logical argument against hair being the veil gives a very strong backing to my rudimentary analysis of the words that are used. That argument being the fact that a woman’s being “covered” is paralleled with a man being “uncovered” in the same context. If the covering was the hair then all men, in order to pray and prophesy without being in violation of this practice, would need to shave their heads. So, in other words, these modern commentators, to be consistent in their perspective that a woman’s hair is her covering, would need to also require that all men shave their heads and thus by shaving would be “uncovered” according to this hairy (or, perhaps, heretical?) logic.
Still, the strongest argument is how leaders in the early church understood the practice, and what had been the established practice in both Catholic and Protestant religious traditions, and what continues to be the practice of the Orthodox Christians in most parts of the world—including North America and Europe. It is only very recently (the past century) that this practice has been questioned and dropped by many professing Christians in the West. There is a long list of Christian commentators from the early church to this very day that pushed the practice. That list including St John Chrysostom (349-407 AD), whose liturgy the Orthodox still use, and wrote this concerning the veiling of women:
“[Christ] calls her to become one with Him: to come under his side and become flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone. […] The covering of the head with a veil symbolizes the reality of woman sheltered in the side of her Source and becoming one with Him. She becomes covered and hidden in her Divine Spouse.”
A beautiful picture.
So, why was the veil dropped in the West?
The knee-jerk response of many Biblical fundamentalists (at least those that don’t mock the practice, like Micheal Pearl) is to blame feminism. After all, the passage is about headship order, right? And clearly, it makes women subject to male authority in a way that is out of step with modern ideas. The passage describes women as being created for men, it says “the head of a woman is her husband,” and that certainly does not jive well with feminism, does it?
However, good men do not blame women. A man who takes his role of spiritual head seriously will take responsibility for those under his authority and will take a deeper, more introspective, look at the issue. Sure, in some cases there is shared blame for failure, it is hard to be a leader of someone who does not want to be led. However, could it be that feminism, at least that part that has taken root within the church, is directly related to a failure in male leadership? Could this be part of an attitude, first adopted by men in the West, that has now trickled down to women, their children, etc?
I’ve heard many red-faced pulpit-pounding sermons from men, speaking to itching (conservative) ears, decrying feminism, disrespect for authority, and pushing stricter dress standards. But it seems that in this hobby horse obsession with a few favorite verses (about veiling or female modesty in general) there is also something missed. The loss of the Christian veiling tradition, in my opinion, is merely a symptom of a greater disease. The issue isn’t the feminism of the past century, no, it is the abuses of men in authority and also the attitudes of men who refuse to submit to anyone besides themselves.
1) Being the “head” means being the better example, whether others follow it or not, and not making excuses.
The discussions of 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, that I recall in a conservative Mennonite setting, more often than not, revolved around female obligation and with scant (if any) mention of what it means to be a man under the headship of Christ. Sure, there might be something said, in passing, of how men should uncover their heads to pray, should not have long hair, etc. But the passage is generally treated as pertaining primarily to women and any look at what headship means for men (besides that brushing glance or blink and you’ll miss it mention) is conspicuously absent from the discussion.
Now, that said, I’ve known many disgruntled (and faithful veil wearing) females express their frustration with the legalistic extra-Biblical requirements or making suggestions about retaliatory legislation adding to the male dress code. (A wrong approach IMO) And, yes, I do acknowledge that popular women’s styles have evolved more dramatically in the past century than that of common men as well. However, very little attention is paid to the question of authority and submission that 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, that it is absolutely about male headship over women (not a comfortable topic) and, more significantly, is a passage about men falling under the authority of other men.
Anyhow, at this point, some independently-minded men might be ready to exit. Some who have endured corrupt church leadership, others who just plain don’t like accountability due to their own rebellious hearts, (or a combination of both, I’m not here to make a judgment call as far as that) and might not want to hear this. For those men, especially them, I urge you to hear me out. This may not tickle your ears like a message that, distilled down, amounts to blame shifting, denial of personal responsibility and/or need to be accountable. Nevertheless, it is a message that is completely Biblical and could serve the church far better than another rant about female immodesty or against feminism.
What does the passage say about men and headship?
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. “ (1 Corinthians 11:1)
St Paul, right off the bat, establishes his authority on Christ and instructs the reader to follow him as he follows after Christ. That statement (similar to his instruction to “imitate” him in 1 Corinthians 4:16) cuts two different ways. First, it suggests, rather than just take his word for it, we should check his authority against the example of Christ. Second, he is making an explicit claim of having authority himself, as the one writing the letter, as a church leader and one under the authority of Christ.
And, as if to emphasize his point, he continues with praise that they had submitted to his prior instructions (ie: “maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them”) and that they have remembered him. So, Paul, in his introduction to the topic of Christian headship, establishes himself as an authority over his audience, their head, and then goes on in the next verse:
“…the head of every man is Christ…” (1 Corinthians 11:3)
Some men today might read that (out of context) as being a contradiction to what Paul just said prior.
It is not.
Those who take it as an excuse to say “you’re not the boss of me” to church leaders, or to claim that they only need to be accountable to Christ (as their head) and refuse to submit to anyone else, are terribly mistaken. Because, while it is true that Christ is the ultimate head of the church and the one who will be our final judge, we are also told to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ“ in Ephesians 5:21.
And also this:
Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17 RSV)
It is, in fact, a theme in the letters of Paul and the apostles that we show our love for Christ in our love for each other, and we show our love for each other in our submission to each other and also in our obedience to church leaders. There is no evidence anywhere in Scripture that a man has authority based on only his own personal interpretation of things. There is, however, ample evidence that our obedience to Christ is found in our interactions with the church body and, in particular, our submission to the church elders and ordained as leaders over us.
The call Paul, a church leader, makes to the Corinthians is for the unity of the church:
I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12 RSV)
Did you ever stop to consider why Paul may have included “I belong to Christ” in this listing?
Isn’t belonging to Christ the goal of Christianity?
I believe the point being made is that some men use Christ (or rather their own personal interpretation of his teachings) as an excuse for their own unsubmissive attitudes, as a means to escape accountability to others and to create divisions within the church. In other words, these men refuse to truly fall under the headship of Christ because they refuse to fall under the authority that he established in the church (the collective body of believers together) and thus they are truly living in rebellion despite the obedience that they profess. Truly belonging to Christ means seeking unity with the church and living in submission.
It should be remembered that 1 Corinthians 11 is part of a collection of pastoral letters. These letters were compiled, along with the Gospels, by the church and thus their own authority is derived from the authority of the church. We don’t follow after one man nor do we live by our own individual understanding of a book. But there is a spiritual power given to the church collectively, an authority exercised by church leaders, and found where two or three gathers in the name of Jesus. The headship of Christ and submitting to the authority of his church might not be exactly the same thing—nevertheless the two are very closely related and both have authority over individual men.
Finally, Paul rests his case for headship:
If any one is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God. (1 Corinthians 11:16)
That is an appeal, not to the authority of Scripture, not to Christ directly or the Spirit either. It is rather an appeal to the authority of church leaders (ie: “we”) and the “churches of God” as a collective entity. Paul establishes his case for headship squarely on the authority of church leaders and on the consensus of the church. Yes, in arguing for the veil, he does make appeals to nature, the creation narrative, angels, etc. However, he starts and ends with the notion that the church and leaders in the church (and himself specifically) collectively hold authority over individual men and that is significant in a discussion of headship.
2) The rejection of church authority in favor of individual interpretations of Scripture has undermined Christian headship.
Headship is where the Protestant experiment has gone very very bad. Sure, we can agree that this rejection of church authority was the result of corrupt leadership in Rome and I can’t say it was unjustified. When one of the five patriarchates of the church decides to be unaccountable to the rest and elevates themselves as the sole arbiter of truth, it is no surprise when others under that leadership protest and eventually do the same. And that is the clear pattern that has emerged in the West. The pattern has been more and more rejection of accountability and ever-increasing division in the church—which goes completely against the message of love, submission, and unity that leaders, like Paul, preached.
Sadly, there are many, in the Western church today day, who are “disposed to be contentious” and it started with men. It started with men who had a legitimate complaint with the authority over them and has grown, like a cancerous tumor, into a complete rejection of Christian authority or any claim to headship other than their own. Is it a big surprise when women have begun to follow this lead and declare their own understanding of Scripture or Christ alone to be their only head?
Whatever the case, men who do not fall under established authority themselves have no business demanding that their wife or children be subject to them.
It is incumbent on men to lead by example.
Men must submit to each other and submit to their elders in the faith (past and present) before they ask anything of anyone else. If we get that right, if we lead with our own submissive example, then everything underneath our own spiritual authority will fall into place. Truly, only men who have made themselves subject to Christ and his church, men who can themselves be led, are fit to lead.
But, when we give ourselves license to do as we think is right in our own eyes, to live only by our own interpretations, then we should not be surprised when others follow our lead and disregard our headship over them.
Feminism is not a product of female rebellion so much as it is the result of male abuses of their own authority and their unChrist-like attitudes. As the saying goes, more is caught than taught and continuing rebellion against established authority will have far-reaching consequences.