What About Head Coverings?

19 12 2013

I wanted to teach a detailed lesson on the subject of headcoverings but I found one by my favorite preacher H.A. Ironside and I thought it would be a bigger help to present his teaching on the subject:


“In order to understand this portion properly we need to try to visualize conditions existing in those distant days. Corinth was a loose, dissolute city. I question if any of the other great cities in which the apostle preached the gospel were worse in character. We are rapidly getting into the same condition, for we are living in a day when everything like purity and chastity is looked on as a joke, and people are utterly cynical and indifferent in regard to personal morality. The literature of our day reeks with filth, pictures are vile and lewd, and plays and movies are just as bad. Low standards of behavior are prevalent. But Corinth was even worse.

Therefore the apostle desired that Christian women especially not do anything that would cast the least cloud on their reputation for purity. Loose women in those days went about bareheaded and were found in the streets unblushingly seeking those who might be companions with them in their sin and wickedness. Women who sought to live in chastity and purity were very particular never to appear in public unveiled. The unveiled woman was the careless woman, the immoral woman; the veiled woman was the careful wife or mother who was concerned about her character and her reputation.

It seems that after Christianity came to Corinth and converted women rejoiced in a liberty they had never known in the old pagan days, some of them were inclined to be rather careless and indifferent about the customs of the day. They perhaps were saying, “We are all one in Christ; Paul himself has taught us that in the new creation there is neither male nor female, and so there is no reason now why Christian women should be subject to any of the conventionalities of the day. We can go unveiled and bareheaded in public places, and we need not be concerned about it.”

The Corinthians wrote to Paul to get his judgment in this matter and he introduced his answer with this comment: “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.” In other words, “I am about to give you instruction, instruction that I have a right to give as a divinely appointed apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. I seek in all things to be subject to Christ. When He speaks, I endeavor to obey. Now I trust that you will have the same spirit in regard to the guidance I am about to give you, that you will seek to follow me, to be led by me just as I seek to be led by the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Then Paul praised the Corinthians for their obedience to instructions he had given them in the past. “I praise you, brethren,” he said, “that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.” He was the one who under God had founded the church at Corinth, and before leaving them he had taught them what they needed to know to carry on. Now he had to approach a rather delicate subject and give them directions that some might resent, but first he gave them credit for all their past cooperation.

When Paul used the word “ordinances,” he was not referring simply to the two Christian ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper, though these would certainly be included. It is unthinkable that any Christian should ever set them to one side, but the word here has a much wider meaning. It refers to the instruction given to the Corinthians regarding a great many things that have to do with the happy fellowship of saints. A little while ago these people had been idolaters, led by Satan, captive at his will; now they were redeemed and seeking to walk together as Christians.

They needed to subject themselves to the revealed will of God if they were to have joyful fellowship in the church. As we study Paul’s teaching here about woman’s place in nature and in the church, I wish you would bear in mind that he was not speaking, as he does elsewhere, of woman’s place in the new creation. In the new creation, as already intimated, there are no distinctions. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). We were all sinners alike; we have all been redeemed alike; we are all indwelt by the Holy Ghost alike; we have all been baptized into one body alike. All distinctions vanish as we think of one another as members of Christ. We are all one in Christ.

But this does not alter the fact that we still have our natural place, which we must maintain. The Christian is not to be careless as to his responsibilities and you will see how important this is if I illustrate it as follows: According to the Word of God I am a heavenly citizen, but if I say, “Since I am a heavenly citizen, I have no responsibilities to any country here on earth,” I will soon have to reckon with the tax collector and other authorities. The governors of this world will soon teach me that I have earthly relationships that must be maintained. Likewise, although there is neither male nor female in the new creation, we have our distinct places to fill in nature and in the church.

“I would have you know,” Paul wrote, “that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” Someone may ask, “But is not Christ the Head of every woman?” Yes, in the new creation Christ is the Head, and men and women are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones, but here Paul was speaking of creation, not the new creation.

In creation the Head of every man is Christ. When God said, “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26), He had Christ in view, and when the first man came into the world, he came as the type of Him who was to come. And so the Head of every man is Christ, and man is to be subject to Christ and to represent Christ. But God did not leave man alone in the world. He said, “I will make him an help meet for him” (2:18), and He created woman. “Thy desire,” He said to the woman, “shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (3:16). When God gave Eve to Adam, she saw Adam as her head, and that relationship still exists: “The head of the woman is the man.”

I suspect there are some modern women who resent that; they would like to make the woman the head of the man. They resent the thought that God has given to woman anything that looks like an inferior place, but let us put aside any suggestion of inferiority. The point is that it is the responsibility of the husband to care for and to protect the wife—the husband “giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel” (1 Peter 3:7).

When a woman marries and agrees to take her husband’s name, she tacitly consents to Paul’s teaching. Some women do refuse to take their husbands’ names. They say, “We will not subject ourselves in any way, and in taking our husbands’ names, we would be subjecting ourselves.” I believe that a woman should not marry a man until she is willing to accept him as her head and assume his name. If she is not willing, it would be far better for her to remain single so she can run things to suit herself.

If a woman had said to Paul, “I refuse to take that place of subjection,” he would have replied, “The Head of Christ is God.” In other words, “Remember, the Lord Jesus took the place of subjection. He humbled Himself, but it is His glory to be in that place. When the Son of God became man, He assumed that position and He will keep it for all eternity.”

Paul continued, “Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoured! his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoured! her head.” If a man should stand up in public to pray or to preach (the word translated “prophesieth” here really means “preach”) wearing a covering on his head, he would be dishonoring his Head—not that which is above his neck, but his Head who is Christ. If I stood in this pulpit preaching with my hat on, every one of you would rightfully say, “Has he no respect for the Master whom he professes to serve?” When I come into the presence of God and Christ and the angels who are learning the wisdom of God in the church, I remove my hat.

For the same reason when a woman comes into the church, she keeps her hat (or head covering) on to honor her head. Who is her head? The man. To uncover her head would be to show that she wants to be like the man. She dishonors her head if she says, “I am not going to be subject to such a rule; I have as much right to have my head uncovered in a public meeting as a man has.” Paul did not say that she dishonors the Lord Jesus Christ. She may be quite unconscious of dishonoring anyone, but I am telling you what the Word of God says. Concerning this and other matters it has well been said, “Some things are commanded because they are right; other things are right because they are commanded.” “Thou shalt not steal” is an example of the former. The commandment did not make it wrong to steal; it was always wrong to steal. “Let her be covered,” on the other hand, is right because it is commanded. God has spoken and it is often in little things like this that our state of mind is revealed—either our self-will is still at work or we are ready to be subject to the Word of God.

In that pagan city of Corinth it would have been a great shame and disgrace for a woman to appear in public with her head uncovered; it would have marked her out as an immoral person. Of course we must recognize that customs change, but the principle of this chapter remains the same. God is calling Christian women to modesty of deportment so that they may be distinguished from worldly women.

Paul emphasized his point by saying, “If the woman be not covered [veiled], let her also be shorn.” In other words, “If she does not have a covering over her hair, let her really be like a man. Let her go to a barbershop and have her beautiful locks cut off.” I do not understand why a woman would want to be so manlike anyway; a womanly woman is one of the sweetest creatures God ever made. I like a womanly woman and a manly man, and I wonder if anyone really admires a manly woman or a womanly man. Let each one keep his proper place in God’s creation.

The apostle went on to explain: “For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.” She is superior to the man in so many ways that she lowers herself when she gets out of her own sphere and tries to take the place of the man. I wonder sometimes whether women have any idea how even worldly men express their disgust at the manlike behavior of women in public places these days.

When a woman takes out a cigarette and begins to smoke, I hear even unsaved men say, “What are we coming to? I am glad I did not have a mother like that.” Men hate to see women aping men, and Christian women should be absolutely above reproach. The woman was taken from man—“The man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man.” An old writer said, “When God created man, He made him of the dust of the ground; when He created woman, he took her from the man. He did not take her from his head in order that she might lord it over him; He did not take her from his feet that he might trample on her; He took her from his side, close to his heart, in order that she might be his companion and that he might love and care for her.”

And so we read, “Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man… Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man [through creation], even so is the man also by the woman [through birth]; but all things of God.” So everyone has his place to fill in creation and none can take the place of the other.

We have skipped over 11:10, which comes in parenthetically: “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.” Admittedly this is a somewhat difficult verse. A marginal note in some Bibles reads, “Power—in sign that she is under the power or authority of her husband.” I think that marginal note was probably inserted by some worthy brother in years gone by who may have had a little difficulty in maintaining his position as head of the house! I question that this is what “power” means here. You see, if a woman in a city like Corinth appeared in a public place with her head uncovered, she would at once be exposed to insults. But if when going shopping or visiting friends or going to the Christian services, she put a veil over her head, she walked down the street unmolested. Her covering was her power.

I spent the first six years of my Christian experience as an officer in The Salvation Army. In those days I often had occasion to see how that beautiful little blue bonnet was the power of the Salvation Army lassie. One day when I was seeking the lost in a saloon on the Barbary Coast in San Francisco, two of our Salvation Army lassies appeared and I noticed that everyone treated them respectfully except for one man, a half-drunken sailor. When the Salvation Army girl approached him with a tract, he turned toward her and made a movement as though he would have kissed her. As she drew back, five of those ungodly men immediately sprang to their feet, knocked the sailor down, thrashed him within an inch of his life, and threw him out into the gutter for the police to pick up. Her bonnet was “power on her head.”

Lots of other girls were in that saloon—God help them—whom nobody would have fought for or protected. There they were with their brazen faces and uncovered heads, lacking the lassie’s power, and proving the apostle right. So Paul was saying, “Women, you are not belittling yourselves when you show proper respect by appearing in public places with your heads covered. You are simply availing yourself of that which is your protection against insult.”

But what does the expression “because of the angels” mean? It is a little difficult to know nineteen centuries later just what was in the mind of the apostle. Many think he meant that whenever Christians are gathered together, God’s holy angels in Heaven are looking down with delight on the scene; that the angels note with approval everything that savors of subjection and obedience to the Word of God; and that they also observe with disapproval everything that savors of self-will and insubordination. However, since we are told that angels are learning the wisdom of God in the church, the apostle may have been saying, “Let the angel hosts see in Christian women a reverence, a modesty, and a respect for holy things that are not found in the women of the world.” If that is the meaning of Paul’s words, it is very beautiful.

Isaiah 6:2 refers to a class of holy angels called the seraphim, each of which “had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.” The apostle may have been picturing these angels, who cover their faces in the presence of God, looking down to see the covered women sitting in reverence and modesty in the presence of God. That may be the meaning of “because of the angels.”

William Thompson had another suggestion. In his work The Land and the Book he pointed out that from the days of the apostle John the word “angel” was used for the minister in a church. Dr. Thompson said that no one who has not seen for himself the conditions under which the ministers in eastern churches worked can understand why the apostle told Christian women that they should keep their faces veiled “because of the angels.” Until recent times in oriental lands the women and men were segregated as they gathered together so that there would be nothing to disturb the equanimity of the men, but the “angel” or minister stood on a platform and saw both groups. Probably he had never looked at the uncovered face of a woman other than his mother or sister or other near relative, and therefore if the women were not veiled, he would be so disconcerted by looking into all those unveiled faces that he might not be able to keep his mind on his message!

Moving on in the passage we read, “Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?” Paul was saying, “Should she not take a reverent attitude? It is perfectly right for me to pray with my head uncovered, but a woman is to cover her head as a sign of reverent subjection.” Going back to nature the apostle said, “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.”

Someone may say, “That settles the question. Her hair is her covering.” But the apostle said earlier that if she does not cover her hair, she is to let it be cut short. She has that natural covering which distinguishes her from man and over that she is to put a veil. Why? Because a woman’s hair is her glory. Is not that most striking? In the presence of God she is to cover her chief beauty so that no mind may be turned from Christ to her beautiful hair. It is precious to think of Mary of Bethany and of the poor woman in Luke 7 who anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped them with their hair. They cast their glory at His feet.

Closing this passage, Paul wrote, “If any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” He was saying, “If people are going to make a fuss about a matter of this kind, all I have to say is that we have no such custom. If women will persist in being disorderly in this way, you cannot discipline them; you cannot put them out of the church. I have laid down God’s Word. Now let the women settle it themselves; let them decide how far they will subject themselves to the Word of the living God.”

What is the real importance of head coverings? It is the test of whether our wills are subject to God or whether we are going to be subject to the fashions and customs of the day in which we live. The Christian is one who has forsaken the world for Christ’s sake; he has turned his back on “the fashion of this world [that] passeth away” (7:31) so that he may subject himself to another, even the Lord from Heaven. I beg of you, my brother and sister, remember Romans 14:22: “Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.” Settle with God just how far a passage like this, having to do with customs of long ago, has authority over your conscience at the present time, but do not go beyond conscience. In all things seek to be obedient to the Word of the living God, for this is the path of blessing. “



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