The passage was 1 Corinthians 11, and the topic was head covering in the church. My conclusion after that time of study was that there was no reason for me to dismiss either the principle or the practice of headcovering as inapplicable to me as a Christian woman in twenty-first century America. All that was left to decide was 1) if I was willing to make a change to align myself with my understanding of this passage; and 2) figure out on a practical level how to do it - when, where, and how.
I shared a little more about this process in a "headcovering testimony" last year. But I thought I would address today what I imagine are some FAQs about this whole topic. Please note that I do not look down on anyone who has a different practice or think less of their Christian faith. I realize this is largely a matter of how one interprets 1 Corinthians 11.
The practice of headcovering is the habit of Christian men participating in corporate worship (prayer, songs, preaching, Lord's Supper, etc.) with an uncovered head and Christian women participating with covered heads. A man's uncovered head signifies the unveiled glory of God, and the covered head of a woman signifies the covered glory of man. It also signifies agreement with the headship order of God's kingdom, in which "...man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man" (1 Corinthians 11:8-9).
Why does this even matter? It seems an obscure passage and not a salvation issue at all.
It matters to me for several reasons.
First, I just couldn't get it out of my head. I believe that was the Holy Spirit confronting me with the Word of God, and when He does that, I need to pay attention, even if I don't understand why.
Second, although the topic is only in this one passage, it is not obscure, nor is it just a verse or two. It takes up a good chunk of Scriptural real estate in 1 Corinthians, and any exegetical study of the book has to deal with it, lest you just ignore it - and I am not comfortable just ignoring a whole section of Scripture.
Third, I agree that it is not a salvation issue - but that does not mean it is not important. Scripture was written to show us how to find God and come into relationship with Him, yes, but also to show us how to live out our faith here on Earth. This passage doesn't teach us how to get saved, but it gives instructions to God's people. That makes it important.
Finally, head covering as a practice matters because of the principle behind it - that of the headship order in God's kingdom. I believe in what has been termed a "complementarian" view of men and women. I firmly believe Scripture teaches that men and women are equal in standing before Christ, equal in value, and equal in our ability to reflect His image and to receive His gifts - salvation, the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, and anything else He wants to give us. But I also believe that Scripture teaches that men and women have different roles in the church, and that the way God set up His kingdom, beginning with Creation, is for men to have the primary role of leadership both at home and in the church, and for women to have a complementary role that is under male leadership, both in the church and in marriage. The specifics of that, and the Scriptural support for this position, are too many for this post (check out this article for an excellent summary of them).
This is clearly not a majority position in our culture today, or even among many Christians. To further muddy the waters, with recent cultural developments in the West, even the traditional, biological understanding of what it means to be male and female is being turned upside down, and any hint of belief in the primacy of male leadership brings accusations of "misogyny" and backwards thinking. This unbridled antagonism to what I believe is a sound interpretation of Scripture makes it all the more important to me - because anything Scriptural that invites that much attack must be something significant. And if headcovering is the God-ordained symbol of this headship order, as I believe it is, then perhaps it also is more significant than we think.
Some do cover for modesty's sake, but that is not my reason, and that is not the reason given in the New Testament. While I believe in dressing and behaving modestly, I do not think I need to hide my hair from the world. I also only cover during corporate gatherings for worship, study and prayer, which is my best understanding of the command that women cover while praying or prophesying (1 Corinthians 11:4-5). Some women believe they should cover to pray privately as well, and they cover all the time to either make that easier or because they always want to maintain an attitude of prayer, and I certainly respect my sisters who do that. I will sometimes cover during my general daily activities when I want to focus on prayer for a time, or when I am convicted of the need to have a more submissive spirit. For me, it is the exception and not the rule, when I want to have a constant outward reminder to me of an inner attitude I want to cultivate.
But surely the principle is the more important issue. Plenty of people believe as you do about male leadership without practicing headcovering. Why does a piece of cloth matter?
I believe it matters because the Bible says it does. There are many, many symbols in the Bible that have been ordained by God. The history of Israel, its pageantry of feasts and festivals, the entire sacrificial system, the drama of prophets and visions - all of this contains rich symbolism, "copies of the heavenly things" (Hebrews 9:23) and "a shadow of the good things that are coming - not the realities themselves" (Hebrews 10:1).
The same God who used symbolism to show His people about the coming of Messiah also set up symbols for His church - namely, baptism, the Lord's Supper, and, I believe, the symbolism of headcovering. I am not God and do not have a right to tell Him what symbols do or don't matter. I am not going to say that the symbolism of baptism is important, even though it is not necessary for salvation, but the symbolism of head covering is not. Yes, the principle is more important. To receive baptism without turning to Christ in one's heart is a mockery of that sacrament. To take the Lord's Supper but harbor bitterness toward another believer is to eat and drink judgment on ourselves (1 Corinthians 11:29). To follow the practice of headcovering while not observing God's kingdom order in our hearts empties the symbol of its meaning.
And yes, one can certainly be a Christian without ever being baptized, taking the Lord's Supper, or observing the practice of head covering. But to combine both the reality and the symbol is a powerful witness - to ourselves, to other believers, to those outside the church, and even to those in the unseen realm. One of the verses in this passage, in fact, mentions the angels as a reason for observing headcovering (1 Corinthians 11:10). What does this have to do with the angels? I have no idea. But I can't explain it away either. It matters, even if only God and the angels know why.
No, because one's commitment to following the practice of headcovering is unavoidably tied to one's interpretation of this passage, and I realize this differs from person to person. If another believer does not practice it, I must assume a) she has never read or studied this passage; b) she has studied it and used different rules of biblical interpretation to come to a different conclusion; c) she believes she should cover, but lacks the courage, confidence, or conviction to follow through. I don't believe any of these necessarily indicates an immaturity in Christ (although I do hope that those who lack courage in this area will be encouraged by what I share here!). Most of my Christian women friends, in fact, do not practice head covering. I don't know why because we never talk about it, and I don't think I am more mature or better in any way, or that my prayers are more effective than theirs, or anything like that.
In many ways, I see this in the same way I see baptism. Whether one believes in credo-baptism (believer's baptism) or paedo-baptism (baptism of infants or children) depends largely on how one interprets certain passages in the Scriptures. I figure that as long as we agree on baptism as a symbol of salvation and not the means to be saved, we are basically on the same page where it counts the most. Important? Yes. But not worth losing friends over.
I still think discussion, and even friendly debate, about the topic of headcovering is healthy, because some of the ways skeptics of this practice interpret this passage in order to dismiss it could also be used to negate other more widely accepted Christian beliefs and practices. For the sake of clear biblical interpretation alone, it is worth talking about.
It is important enough for me to be able to practice this that I would not want to be in a church that did not allow it (I have heard of this happening), but I don't care if the church I am in promotes it or not.
Sorry, but this sounds awfully legalistic. And it also sounds oppressive of women.
That depends on what you think legalism is. In my understanding, legalism erupts when you think your specific actions and beliefs, whether biblical or not, will make you more acceptable to God than someone else is who doesn't have the same perspective. Grace plus anything to get salvation and love from God is legalism. It is also when a person or group insists that you must follow A, B, and C (even though it is not in the Bible) or you are sinning against God.
Could head covering get legalistic? Sure it could, but so could nearly anything else if it gets elevated as a condition of God's love and acceptance. Yes, it has been linked to some hyper-conservative groups that also do insist on certain standards of dress and behavior that could also be seen as legalistic, but that does not make this practice legalistic on its own. It's all how you implement it.
As far as this being oppressive of women - well, that goes back to the Scriptural teaching about the value of men and women in the eyes of God. I believe the Bible teaches our value and position before God is the same, but our roles in God's kingdom are not. That is no more oppressive than it is for one person in an airplane cockpit to be deemed the pilot and the other the copilot. (That is a very short answer to an involved question, and I am happy to talk more about this in another forum!)
Okay, I get all that and this is very interesting. But seriously? No one does this anymore. Aren't you afraid you're just drawing attention to yourself, which seems to go against this whole submissive attitude you want to have?
First, it's not true that no one practices headcovering any more. While it is true that it no longer the norm in much of the West, it was up until the 1950s and 1960s. Even today, it is the standard practice in many denominations in the West, and it has never fallen out of practice in many churches in the Eastern hemisphere. So it was actually the normative standard for all of Christendom for all but the last fifty years or so in North America and Western Europe. Given the way our society has drifted from most biblical truths in that same time period, that is not much of an endorsement! And the practice is actually going through a bit of a revival these days, as you can see from websites like www.headcoveringmovement.com and a growing number of online shops with veils or covers for Christian women. As far as drawing attention to myself - if you know me personally, you know that I despise that. But I want to walk in obedience to the Scriptures as I understand them, and so I cover, but in an understated and attractive way that I hope will attract as little negative attention as possible.
How exactly do you cover?
I generally wear a wide headband tied or clasped behind my head, one that can be bunched up on top of my head or spread out to cover more of it - but normally I wear it so the back of my head still shows (and maybe a bit of Lilla Rose decoration!). Paul's letter to the Corinthians does not dictate a certain style or even how much of the head it must cover. Many of my friends who cover wear hats, some wear turbans, and some wear lacy veils or wide headbands, like me. My favorites are ones I purchased from Garlands of Grace, but I also have many I've gotten for just a few dollars from Wal-Mart.
Is there an FAQ I haven't thought of that you would like to know the answer to? Feel free to ask below or to share your thoughts on this topic. Maybe this is just a curiosity to you, or maybe it is something you have studied as well. Either way, I enjoy a friendly "iron sharpens iron" give and take!