What the Early Christians Believed About
The Head Covering
Transcript of cassette sermon by
David W. Bercot
The first time I visited a Mennonite church one of the first things I noticed was that all of the women wore these certain caps on their heads. Now I had no idea why. I thought it was just some sort of costume they were wearing, and I never gave much more thought to it until 1985 when I spent a whole year reading the 10-volume set of the Ante-Nicene Fathers. And one night during that year I was reading a work of Tertullian entitled “The Veiling of Virgins.” And it was that work that suddenly opened my eyes to what the scriptures teach about the “prayer veil” or the “head covering”.
The scripture passage that Tertullian was discussing was 1 Cor. 11:1-16, and I want to read that whole passage to you. If you have your Bible handy I would encourage you to get it out and read along with me. I am going to be reading from the NKJV.
The interesting thing I noticed in reading Tertullian’s essay or tract on the subject of “veiling” was that there was no issue in the churches of his day on what 1 Cor. 11 meant. The only issue that was there was whether Paul’s words applied to all mature females, or whether it applied only to married women. So that was what he was discussing in his work.
Let’s read that passage together. 1 Cor. 11 starting with verse 1.
“Imitate me just as I also imitate Christ. Now I praise you brethren that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to know, that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying having his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God. But woman is the glory of man. For man is not from man, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. For this reason, the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman nor woman woman independent of man in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman. But all things are from God. Judge among yourselves, is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her for her hair is given to her for a covering. But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.”
That was the passage I went and read again after reading the work that Tertullian had written on this subject. And one of the things that came to me, back there in 1985 when I had just read Tertullian and I had gone back and read this passage, was—You know, its strange; this passage is hardly ever discussed today in our churches. I am talking about conventional Evangelical churches or Protestant churches, liberal, Catholic or whatever. I can’t think of ever hearing a sermon on that subject. I can think of a couple of times, either in group discussions or Sunday school class where the topic came up. And in each instance, this whole passage of 1 Cor. 11 was simply brushed aside as though it were merely a cultural issue that applied in the first century but has no real application today.
For example, when I was in a liberal church, I remember the pastor saying, “Well back there in the first century, to come to church without a veil on your head would be the equivalent of today a sister coming to church without a blouse—coming topless—or something like that. It was just a shocking scandal, and the women were doing this in Corinth so Paul writes to address that. In other words, it was shocking because of their culture, and so they needed to follow their culture. But since our culture doesn’t expect women to wear a veil in public, we don’t have to follow that either.” But the pastor said the principle still applies. It would be wrong for a woman to come to church in a bathing suit, or something like that. That would be shocking to people.
OK. When I was in a so-called Bible-believing Evangelical church I was told that, “Well back in Corinth, the only women who didn’t go around with a veil on were prostitutes. And so Paul was giving his counsel so that the women there would not be mistaken for prostitutes, or cause disturbance in the community because they were there without being veiled.”
Now, at the time I heard those explanations I had not questioned them. I had accepted them as being valid. But then years later, like I say in 1985 when I was going back and looking at this, having just read this writing of Tertullian, and having read much of the early Christian writings, several things struck me about those explanations.
Number 1. Paul didn’t say anything about those situations. He didn’t say, “This is shocking to the community that you are coming to church without a veil on your head.” In fact we will talk about this later, he doesn’t say anything about coming to church or not coming to church. He never mentions it there in that passage that we read. He doesn’t say anything about prostitutes not wearing a veil, and the Christian sisters causing a scandal in the community. He doesn’t mention that at all. And of course I knew way back that the scriptures didn’t say this, but I thought there must be some writings of the early Christians that explain all this. Well, I had just read the primary early Christian writing that discusses this in detail, and it doesn’t say anything about that. And there’s no mention among any of the other writings about any such thing.
Furthermore Paul didn’t give culture as the reason. When he gave those instructions he didn’t say, “A woman should not pray or prophesy with her head uncovered because of the culture.” He didn’t say anything about culture. The reason he gives is God’s order among men and women.
Well after further digging and trying to get to the bottom of this whole thing, to find why I was told that, I finally realized that there was no historical basis whatsoever for those statements! They were something someone just made up. And because they tickled the ears of today’s hearers, because they were what people wanted to hear today, then they were passed around without objection, even though there was absolutely no historical basis whatsoever for those statements having been made.
In fact, they are not even accurate. That’s because we have a lot of paintings. The paintings are mainly frescoes, which are paintings on wall made on wet plaster. And we have lots of sculptures of Greek and Roman women. There are numerous ones around the world, and even if you can’t visit all the places where they are, the pictures of these frescoes and of these statues are in all kinds of books. I’ve seen many of them with my own eyes in the British Museum where there are many articles there. And it is clear when you look at them that it wasn’t scandalous for a Greek or Roman woman to appear without a veil because in so many of these pictures they are not wearing a veil.
Now it wasn’t strange for them to go out in public in a veil. That wouldn’t have caused any uproar either. That was a fairly normal thing to do as well. But in other words, there was no scandal either way. There was no law, or commandment, or religious teaching that a woman had to have a veil on her head when she was either worshiping or when she was in public.
So it simply isn’t true that for the Corinthian women to have appeared in public or come to church without a veil on their heads was causing a scandal, because it wasn’t scandalous to the pagans. The only issue was to the Christians.
OK. So with that explanation and mention of what the passage doesn’t mean, and correcting some misinformation, I think it would be appropriate to go through this and explain exactly what this passage DID mean to the early Christians.
Now I am going to read back through it verse by verse, but the second time through, instead of reading from the NKJV which we have just gone through, I am going to read from the New American Bible. Its translation certainly fits a lot more clearly how the early Christians were understanding this passage.
Paul starts off:
“Imitate me as I imitate Christ. I praise you because you always remember me and are holding fast to the traditions just as I handed them on to you.”
OK so this is the beginning. And in these first two verses Paul sets forth the basic premise of what he is going to be talking about. He is telling them to imitate him, that previous to writing this letter he had already handed down orally certain teachings to them, and he commends them that they are still holding fast to those traditions. Now he is about to rebuke them, because they are not following him in everything that he said. But like Jesus in His letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation, he starts off commending the Corinthians.
In verse 2 is his basic topical sentence. “I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is the Father.” So what is about to follow concerns headship. He points out that there is headship in the entire structure of the universe. It goes all the way back into the Trinity, that there is a headship there of the Father over the Son. And then he mentions that Christ is the head of man, and either, depending on how you want to translate it, man is the head of woman or a husband is the head of his wife. The reason I said that is that it depends on how you translate it. Although there are Greek words which specifically mean “husband” and mean “wife”, it was normal to refer to a husband by the word “man” and to a wife by the word, “woman”. This has just vaguely been preserved in English. I think about the only expression in which we still have some remembrance of this is in a wedding where the minister says, “I now pronounce you man and wife.” I have heard people say, “Why does he say ‘man’ and wife and not ‘husband’ and wife?” I am sure the minister doesn’t know, but originally “man” and “husband” were used interchangeably. And so saying “man and wife” is the same as saying “husband and wife”. Or you could say, “I pronounce you husband and woman,” which would be the same as husband and wife.
As I mentioned, this was the only issue that was around when Tertullian wrote around the year 200. Tertullian was answering the question as to whether Paul was talking about all women, or whether he was talking only about married women. Tertullian makes a case that Paul is talking about all females, and we’ll get to that in a little bit.
Then, with verse 4 Paul gets into the specific application. He has given the principles of headship, so he says, “Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered brings shame upon his head.” In other words, for a Christian man to pray with his head covered, that is with a veil on his head, or a hat, or something, is an affront to God, because it is ignoring His pattern of headship. The veil on a man’s head would symbolize that he has an earthly head over him, and that would be contrary to God’s whole arrangement. No, Christ is your head. You don’t have a head here on the earth, at least not in the family and in spiritual matters. So this is a command not only on women but on men as well. And men are commanded not to wear anything on their head when they pray.
Now let’s address for a minute this whole argument that is made today to rationalize this whole passage that, “Oh, this was all a matter of culture.” I would like for somebody to show me evidence of any culture that existed in Paul’s day in the world where he was, in the Mediterranean world, where it was considered wrong for a man to pray or to worship with his head covered. It certainly wasn’t a Greek or Roman custom. In fact we have paintings, we have sculptures, friezes that is, of pagan priests offering sacrifices, pagan priests praying to their pagan god, and they always show the priest with a covering on his head. Now this perhaps would not have been true down in Egypt where the priests shaved themselves totally bald, but there in the Corinthian area and in that Mediterranean world that Paul is writing to, it was not the custom of any of the pagans to forbid a man to cover his head when praying.
Well, what about the Jews? There is nothing in the Old Testament that says a Jewish man was not to pray with his head covered. In fact, part of the vestments which God prescribed for Aaron and for all of the high priests after him was that they would wear on their head a turban, or a head-dress. Turn with me to Exodus 39:27-31.
“They made tunics artistically woven of fine linen for Aaron and his sons, a turban of fine linen, exquisite hats of fine linen, short trousers of fine woven linen, and a sash of fine woven linen with blue, purple and scarlet thread made by the way as the Lord had commanded Moses. Then they made the plate of the holy crown of pure gold and wrote on it an inscription like the engraving of a signet, ‘Holiness to the Lord.’ And they tied to it a blue cord to fasten it above the turban, as the Lord had commanded Moses.”
Alright, so the high priest of Israel, when he was offering sacrifices, when he was praying before God, had a head-dress, a turban, on his head. So there was nothing cultural about this at all. This was a new teaching made by God just to Christians! To my knowledge there is no other place before this time where God had made such a teaching. And perhaps it would have been inappropriate before Christ, because Paul says, “The head of very man is Christ.” So perhaps, before Christ had come, in anticipation of that head, men were supposed to have their heads covered when they prayed. But now that Christ was here, now that they had been set free, and their head is in heaven now, God gave this new commandment.
The early Christian writings are very clear that men were conscious that they were not to pray with their head covered. And interestingly, this commandment is still followed by Christian men today. It is even followed by men in our culture even if they don’t claim to be Christians. It has become that ingrained. If you are at a ball game or some place where prayer is offered in public, what happens? Well, all the men immediately remove their hats, don’t they? You know, whether it is at a funeral, at a cemetery, just any place where there is a public gathering. Now they probably don’t know why. They would say, “This is just what is appropriate for a man to do.” They couldn’t give you the biblical reason. But this is why they do it. The reason has been lost, but the practice continues today anyway. Now let’s look at verses 5 and 6 that concern women.
“Similarly, any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered brings shame upon her head. It is as if she had had her head shaved. Indeed, if a woman will not wear a veil, she ought to cut off her hair. If it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, it is clear that she ought to wear a veil.”
So in God’s arrangement it is likewise an affront to God for a Christian woman to approach Him in prayer with her head uncovered, because the uncovered head is a public statement before God, before man, before angels, that “I do not recognize myself as having a head here on the earth. I want to stand before God the same way as my husband or other men do.” And Paul is saying that is an affront to God; that is contrary to God’s arrangement.
Now again on the issue of culture, I am not aware of any commandment in the Old Testament that said that women had to cover their heads when they prayed. I think as we are going to see, Jewish women would have normally had their heads covered because they normally wore a veil, but I am not aware of anything I’ve come across in the writings of the ancients, Greek or Roman writers, certainly nothing in the early Christian writings, that would indicate that in pagan religions it was considered improper for a woman to pray with her head uncovered. Now again, I am talking about in the area of Corinth, the Graeco-Roman world, the northern Mediterranean world there. People who say this was culture can’t point to something in culture that dictates either one of these two commandments.
Now some say, “Well, how do we know he is really talking about a veil, etc?” Well let me just read to you a couple of portions from that work of Tertullian’s I referred to. If you have the Ante-Nicene Fathers, you can find this in volume 4, and I’ll be reading from page 37.
He says, “For some, with their turbans and woollen bands, do not veil their heads but bind them up.” Now he is very critical of women who didn’t wear a full veil. And apparently in many places, and he was in North Africa, in Carthage, and apparently there it was not particularly common for women to wear a veil, and so Tertullian is arguing that the veil should be a real veil, not just a symbolic thing. But ignoring his views for right now, notice what he says about what Christian women were doing. He says some of them put on turbans or bands so they were kind of binding their hair up. He says, “They were protected indeed in front, however they are bare where their head properly lies. Others are to a certain extent covered over the region of the brain with linen doilies of small dimensions which do not quite reach the ears. Let them know that the whole head constitutes the woman. Its limits and boundaries reach as far as the place where the robe begins. The region of the veil is coextensive with the space covered by the hair when unbound.” So the issue again was not wearing a veil or not wearing it but what kind of veil she was wearing. He was saying that a veil should cover your whole head and go down to your shoulders to where your robe would begin. It should cover the length of your hair when it is unbound. Now again, I am not saying Paul commanded that. I am saying this is what Tertullian is arguing. But it is interesting, whether you agree with his argument or not, that nobody was arguing that women weren’t to wear a veil when they were praying.
He says, “Arabia’s pagan females will be your judges. For they cover not only the head but the face also.” Now if you are like me, I always thought that Muslim women were veiled because of the teaching of Mohammed; that he is the one who introduced these teachings about veiling. But no, in Tertullian’s day, a couple of centuries before Mohammed, Arabian women were already wearing veils. So that wasn’t something Mohammed brought. This would be something maybe as a descendant of Ishmael, as a descendant of Abraham, that those women wore the veils that they still do today.
Tertullian considers: “How severe a chastisement will they likewise deserve who during the psalms and at any mention of God remain uncovered. Even when about to spend time in prayer itself, with the utmost readiness, they place a fringe, tuft, or any thread whatever on the crowns of their heads, and suppose themselves to be covered.”
OK. For now we are going to ignore Tertullian’s viewpoint. It may well be a defensible viewpoint. We will talk maybe more about that later. But the important thing about this regardless of whether you like his viewpoint or not, is that in arguing that the veil should be a larger piece of cloth that covers the whole head, he reveals that everywhere Christian women were covering their heads when they were about to pray. Even if it wasn’t covered before then, they would put something on their heads, even if it would be a little handkerchief or a tiny piece of cloth, something like that. Even if it wasn’t a part of their culture to be veiled, they recognized the commandment there in the Bible and covered their head. So from that testimony it is clear what the early Christians believed about the woman’s prayer veil. Or in other words how they understood Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, that women are to wear a covering when they pray or prophesy.
Now some Christians today, who are conscientious and do want to follow the scriptures, argue that, “Well, he is not talking about a veil, he is talking about long hair. That if a man has long hair, that’s wrong for him, and if a woman has short hair, then that’s wrong.”
Well, first thing off the bat, from Tertullian’s writings that’s not how the primitive church understood it. And they were the ones closely linked to Paul’s culture and they were the ones who spoke Paul’s language.
But let’s just see from the context itself if that makes any sense. I am going to substitute “long hair” here or “short hair” as the case may be instead of “covering” or “veil.” Verse 4:
“Any man who prays or prophesies with long hair brings shame upon his head.”
Now please explain to me how a man can pray or prophesy with his hair being long if it is not already long at other times? In other words, how can Paul say “He shouldn’t pray or prophesy with long hair,” indicating that it is OK that at other times to have long hair. How does he do that? How can his hair be long at other times and then he would have to cut when he is about to pray. It doesn’t make much sense, does it?
Or what about verse 5:
“Similarly, any woman who prays or prophesies with short hair brings shame upon her head. It is as if she had had her head shaved. Indeed, if a woman will not wear long hair, she ought to cut off her hair. But if it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut off, or her head shaved, it is clear that she ought to have long hair.”
Again, why would he give these specific instructions about prayer if he is talking about hair, because a woman can’t have long hair when she is praying and short hair the rest of the time. It is a little redundant for him to say “When she is praying”, because her long or short hair would be something she would have all of the time.
How much sense is it to say, “If she is going to wear her hair short, she might as well have her hair cut off.” In other words, if she wants to wear it short, she might as well have it short. This does not make sense. He is contradicting himself there if he says that. And again he gets through saying, “If it is shameful for a woman to have short hair, then she ought to have it covered.” Well if it was shameful for women to wear short hair, then the Corinthian sisters would not have been wearing short hair, would they? Because it would have been shameful for them.
No, his argument only makes sense if you put “veil” in there and understand “the covering” to be a garment worn on the head. That if you are not going to wear a veil, then you ought to go ahead and cut your hair off as well.
Let me read you some other passages from the early Christians to make it clear that this was not long hair. Tertullian, once again this is from Vol. 4 pages 27-29, and page 33, says, “It behoves our virgins to be veiled from the time they have passed the turning point of their age. This observance is required by truth. Therefore no one can impose any condition on it. No space of time, no influence of persons, and no privilege of regions.” Interestingly now he is saying, “No, this isn’t cultural. It doesn’t have to do with this part of the world, this century. It is true for all times.” “Throughout Greece and certain of its barbaric provinces the majority of churches keep their virgins covered.” Again, the only issue that he is arguing, or the only two issues, are how long the veil should be and whether it applies to virgins or only to married women.
“There are places too beneath this North African sky where this practice is also followed, lest anyone ascribe the custom to Greek or Barbarian Gentile-hood. But I have proposed as models those churches which were founded by apostles or apostolic men. Still until very recently among us” that is, the North African Christians, “females following either custom were admitted to communion with comparative indifference. The matter had been left up to choice for each virgin, either to veil herself or expose herself.” So he is saying there in Carthage the practice was for a virgin, an unmarried woman, to either veil herself or not veil herself and the choice was left up to her because of the question whether Paul meant this to apply to all women or only to married women.
Tertullian goes on to say, “We ought to look at the churches where the apostles taught and see what those churches do.” They could follow the example of the apostles, they could hear Paul further explain what he meant and to institute a practice there. In fact he says, “Let’s go and look at the church in Corinth, whom Paul wrote to.” If you want to know what Paul meant, why not go and see what the church in Corinth does? So he says this, “Likewise the Corinthians themselves understood him in this manner,” meaning that they understood him to be talking about all females, virgins and married. He says, “In fact, at this very day the Corinthians do veil their virgins. What the apostles taught, their disciples approved.” That last quote can be found on page 33 of volume 4.
Now that is an extremely important piece of historic evidence, that in Corinth, the people to whom Paul wrote this letter, that number one, they understood him to be talking about a veil, not long hair, and number two, they understood him to be talking about all women, not just married women.
Clement of Alexandria comments briefly on this passage, you can find it in Vol. 2 p. 290, of the Ante-Nicene Fathers. He says “This is the wish of the word. For it is becoming for her to pray veiled.” Hypolitus, this is not in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, it is in The Apostolic Tradition of Hypolitus, a separate work because it wasn’t discovered until after that set had been put together, he says, “Let all the women have their head covered with an opaque cloth, not with a veil of thin linen, for this is not a true covering.” He is saying not just any piece of cloth but something that is really a covering for the head, if it is going to meet the symbolic expression that Paul says it is meant to be.
So for Christians today to say, “This is long hair, it is not a veil,” I would have to say this: If that is the case, how come nobody, nobody whatsoever in the Christian world, ever understood it that way until the last century? That is when that teaching became popular. How come the very people Paul wrote to didn’t understand it that way?
As most of you know, I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness and one of the reasons I read the early Christian writings, which was about ten years after I had left them, was that I wanted to know what the truth was. I had been indoctrinated by the Witnesses, and then by the liberals, and then the Evangelicals, and they all would make all these kind of claims, “Well this is what this passage means” and all of that. And I thought “I want to know what the truth is. I want to go back and see historically how did Christians understand these things.” I recognized that the Witnesses were in error to think they knew more than everybody who had come before them, that they had the hidden light on the scriptures that had lain hidden for 1800 or 1900 years. That didn’t fit what Jesus said about being with His people all the days until the end. Nor the fact that Jesus would build His church on a strong foundation, not on something that as soon as soon as the apostles died the basic teachings would be lost and hidden for 1900 years.
So I am shocked when I find that Evangelicals who will ridicule the Witnesses and chide then on this, saying “you come up with your own peculiar interpretation of scripture in so many instances,” that they do the same thing when it is convenient for them. And they will ignore whatever historical evidence that anyone can present if it doesn’t fit what they want to hear.
So again, coming up with teaching like it is long hair, as if everybody who came before the 1900’s, whether it was the reformers, whether it was the first generation after the apostles, the Christians in whatever age, the people like the Waldensians—all of those people misunderstood the scriptures and it wasn’t understood until the mid 1800’s—I have a problem with that because it is the whole Witness scenario all over again.
OK, then—Why are all these rules made about the head covering? We read what it said there concerning headship. Let’s go over it again. Again I am reading from the New American Bible this time. I will go back to verse 6.
“Indeed, if a woman will not wear a veil, she ought to cut off her hair. If it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, it is clear that she ought to wear a veil. A man, on the other hand, ought not to cover his head because he is the image of God and the reflection of His glory. Woman in turn is the reflection of man’s glory. Man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason a woman ought to have a sign of submission on her head, because of the angels. Yet in the Lord, woman is not independent of man, nor man independent of woman. In the same way that woman was made for man, so man is born of woman, and all is from God.”
Now, I realize that what I’ve just read is terribly politically incorrect—to say that woman was created for man, and man not for woman—but it isn’t something I’ve made up, it is what God’s word teaches. Of course as you probably say, “It is terribly religiously incorrect.” Because really what has happened in the visible church today is that whatever is politically incorrect, within a decade or so it becomes religiously incorrect as well. And because the teaching on headship is not popular today, this passage has been virtually ignored in most churches, or it has been explained away.
The liberals scoff at this passage. One commentary that I have says, “Paul believed that women are inferior to men,” so Paul gives all of these commands. Well, excuse me, Paul didn’t say that whatsoever! He talked about God’s order of things. He wasn’t putting anybody down, or talking about anyone being superior or inferior to anyone else. He talked about headship, which the Bible talks about in many places. And headship isn’t based on the superiority of one person over another, but rather on arrangement or order. There is headship within the Trinity. Even though there is an equality of nature, there is still order in the Trinity, as Paul says, “The Father is the head of Christ.” Likewise on earth there is to be order, there is to be governments, and we are to obey our government leaders, not because we are inferior to them, but because that is God’s order. Children are to obey their parents and be subject to them, not because children are inferior to adults, depraved more than adults are—not at all. But because this is God’s order and arrangement which will work for the best for everybody. It is for our good as well as anybody else’s. It is for our good to obey the government. It is for the good of children for them to obey their parents. It is for the good of the home, and for the good of a woman, for a woman to be subject to her husband. This is God’s arrangement, this is what He will bless if we will follow His arrangement.
Now as I said, the liberals have no trouble since they are not bound to believe the Bible is the word of God. They say, “Oh this is Paul; this is Paul writing this. And see, Paul, says this, and Paul was wrong. He had a wrong attitude towards women.” Now for Evangelicals, and other Bible-believing Christians, it is not so easy for them. Because they can’t write it off unless they are going to erode the whole foundation of why they exist, separate from the liberals that is. So what they are forced to do is to come up with excuses as to why this passage made perfect sense in Paul’s day—it was true in Paul’s day—but we don’t have to follow it today.
For example, I was talking to a well-educated Evangelical woman a few months ago, and she noticed that my wife was wearing a prayer veil. She does missionary work in Russia, but through a teaching position in a university, and she noticed that most Christians over there wear prayer veils as well. And she said she would even in a church where that was the custom. And she said, trying to defend what the scriptures say, “You know, if it is going to cause disorder or disruption for a woman not to have her head covered, then she should cover it.”
Well, the setting wasn’t such that I chose to get into an argument with her about it, but it was a nice way to explain away what Paul had just said. Paul doesn’t say anything about custom, he doesn’t say anything about disruption of services. He says this has something to with order, it has something to do with your husband, it has something to do with the relation of men and women. He doesn’t say anything about disruptions in a service or scandals or any of those sorts of things.
And when it comes to men, and most seminary professors and pastors are men, I clearly see in them what I call “The Adam Syndrome.” What I mean by the Adam Syndrome is that when it comes to choosing between having to please God or having to please women, most men, like our forefather Adam, will choose to please the women in our life and will directly disobey God in order to do that. And we somehow rationalize it as we do it. I don’t know what Adam’s rationalization was. The scriptures say he wasn’t deceived. He knew that he would die if he ate of it. But he would rather die, would rather be disobedient to God, than to face the displeasure or rejection of his wife.
And likewise, most pastors would rather disobey God, would rather teach disobedience to God, than to teach something that would put them at odds with the women in their congregation—that is their wives, their daughters, and the sisters who make up their fellowship. Because if they teach this, that is if the pastor in a conventional church got up one Sunday and taught this and said, “From now on, no woman is going to be served communion in this church if she doesn’t cover her head. No woman will be recognized as an obedient sister in the congregation, as having standing in a Sunday school class or any other meeting if she doesn’t have her head covered, at least during prayer.” Well that would cause such a commotion that he would most likely be fired from his position.
And so what pastors do, following in the footsteps of Adam, is that they make a ridiculous double standard when it comes to 1 Corinthians 11. Somehow, this chapter is still binding on men, not to cover their heads. I’ve been in places, conventional settings, where the pastor called down men who didn’t take their hats off when it was time to pray. I’ve been in plenty of places where the pastor instructed the men to remove their hats during prayer. You see, they are not afraid to offend men, because men will today generally be submissive on things like that. OK, if you know that men are do to this or that, the men of the congregation will do whatever the pastor says. But then out of fear for what the women will say, and the rebellion that he might have in his congregation, most pastors will say “It is not binding on women to cover their heads.” In other words, men have to uncover theirs, women are free either to cover or not to cover theirs.
The result is that women are then put on a pedestal above men. It is just the opposite of what the scripture is teaching here. Women are put on a pedestal above men. In other words, men have to uncover their heads. It is wrong for a man to pray with something on his head. But a woman can do whatever she wants. If she has a hat on, she doesn’t have to take it off. If she is not wearing one, she does not have to put it on. In other words, she’s the one who is on the pedestal; she’s the one who is being treated as if she were the head.
Yet, no one objects to this, because it is completely politically correct, it is completely religiously correct. So pastors go about their duties and no waves are caused by it, at least not in this life. Of course those pastors are going to have to answer to Christ as to why they clearly disobeyed a black and white commandment in scripture, and particularly in applying a double standard to it.
Actually this is all part of a larger pattern that emerged in the 19th century. Today we often think of women’s lib or the feminist movement as something that started in the 60’s. No it didn’t start in the 1960’s, it started back in the early 1800’s. And the result of that movement that has swept both through politics and through the church is that churches have basically gone through the scriptures and nullified every single commandment that applies to women alone or particularly to women. At the same time, these same churches not only still insist that the commandments that are directed to men still be followed, they actually enlarge them. For example in several magazine articles and booklets that I have picked up in the last three or four years they have talked about the passage in 1 Peter 3:7 where it says, “Husbands, likewise dwell with them (talking about your wives) with understanding, giving honour to the wife as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.” Now in this verse there is some scriptural instruction that applies only to men. Now do we find that sort of thrown out because Peter does not say that about men and women equally so we will just throw that out, since that would be unfair? No. It is not unfair if it is men who are being singled out. In fact what happens, at least in these articles that I have read and sermons that I have heard in various churches, Peter’s simple counsel here is expanded into a great big thing so that when the minister or teacher gets through it sounds rather suspiciously like, “Husbands, submit to your wives in everything.” Honouring them somehow means this, it means that. I mean they come up with a big long list. I remember getting one article in the mail, and that is what it was, “What it means to honour your wife.” And it went down a long list of things that Peter wouldn’t even have been remotely thinking of because many of the things on the list were not even in existence in the days of Peter. For example, putting down the lid on the commode when you are finished. I rather doubt Peter had that in mind.
But this is what these Bible teachers and pastors do because it is religiously correct to do that. It takes no courage to do that. You can heap up commandments on men today and they will either silently take it or quit coming to church. But those same preachers will totally ignore the first six verses of Peter. They wouldn’t dream of telling the women in their church not to wear make-up, not to wear jewellery, as Peter tells them not to do. They would never dream of telling a woman to refer to her husband as “lord”, as Peter holds out as an example, and things like that.
So there is a real double standard that doesn’t apply just to 1 Corinthians 11. It is all the way through the scriptures. And like I say, it is Bible-believing churches as well as liberal churches that have fallen into this and have played such games with God’s word.
Let’s move on. There is a whole larger issue in 1 Corinthians 11, or at least in the application of it, than just prayer. Paul only commands when you are praying or prophesying, but it was the general practice of Christian women to wear a veil at all times, at least in public. Today when we think of women who dress very modestly and who are veiled, who do we think of? Well, I would think that with most people the first thing that comes to their mind would be Muslim women. Or maybe Hindu women in many regions. If they think of Americans at all they would probably think of Mennonite or Amish. I don’t think anyone would think of American women in general or western European women. No, not at all.
The simple truth is that today that in countries made up predominately of non-believers that women dress the most modestly, and still wear a veil. And yet originally, in God’s order, it was just the other way around. It was God’s women who dressed more modestly than nonbelievers. And the veil goes back probably all the way back to the time of Noah. Genesis 24:64, this is the passage concerning when Rebekah travels with Abraham’s servant to become Isaac’s wife, says:
“Then Rebekah lifted her eyes, and when she saw Isaac she dismounted from her camel for she had said to the servant, ‘Who is this man walking in the field to meet us?’ The servant said, ‘It is my master.’ So she took a veil and covered herself.”
So we see that this was a practice of God’s women long before Moses, long before Paul wrote that passage, that they would veil themselves in the presence of unfamiliar men. Now, often women did not do this at home with family members and with servants. But in public they would.
Tertullian made this observation. We find this in Vol. 3 page 95 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers: “Among the Jews, so usual is it for their women to have the head veiled, that they may be thereby recognized.” Now that is interesting. This was written about the year 200. He says that Jewish women could be recognized for their modest dress and that they wore a veil on their head. If you look at any Bible story picture book, how do they draw the Jewish women? Isn’t it nearly always with veils on their heads? And Tertullian, even after the Jews rejected Jesus, even after the creation of the church and all of that, the Jews still continued on in the practices that their forefathers had when it came to this.
It also shows that it wasn’t the custom of all women to veil themselves in public because if it were, Jewish women couldn’t be recognized because of their veils, could they?
Likewise Christian women dressed more modestly than the pagans around them, and they veiled themselves in public in all parts of the world. Clement of Alexandria writes: “It has also been commanded that the head should be veiled and the face covered, for it is a wicked thing for beauty to be a snare to men. Nor is it appropriate for a woman to desire to make herself conspicuous by using a purple veil.” This was written about the year 195 in Alexandria, Egypt. You can find that passage in volume 2 page 266 to the Ante Nicene Fathers.
So there in Egypt it was customary for the Christian women to wear a full veil, even one that covered much of the face.
He writes in another place, on p. 290 of that same volume, Clement says, “And a Christian woman will never fall if she puts before her eyes modesty and her veil. Nor will she invite another to fall into sin by uncovering her face.”
So Christian women were concerned. They knew the heavy teaching that Jesus had laid on men everywhere—the serious sin to lust after women. It also puts a responsibility on women to dress in such a way that it would not invite the lust of men or cause them to stumble. So Christian women normally veiled themselves, at least in that part of the world.
Tertullian writes, this is on p. 689 of vol. 3—“Why do you uncover before God what you cover before men? Will you be more modest in public than in the church? Be veiled, virgin, if you really are a virgin. For you should blush if you are virgin, shrink from the gaze of many eyes. Let no one admire your face.”
So Tertullian is saying that the practice there of the women in his community in Carthage, North Africa—now this was long before the Muslim invasion, so don’t think of Muslims when you think of North Africa in his day, think of women who were more Roman. And he says that what the virgins would do, because their church allowed them the liberty to be veiled or not veiled when praying, was to veil themselves in public—they didn’t want unbelieving men looking upon them, so they would cover themselves with a veil when they were out in public—but they would take it off in the church among their brothers.
The Apostolic Constitutions, which was compiled about 390, most of its teachings were preNicene teachings which were written down at this later date and probably compiled in Syria, says: “When you are in the streets, cover your head, for by such a covering you will avoid being viewed by idle persons. Look downward when you walk in public, veiling yourself as becomes women.”
So throughout the various parts of the ancient world, we see this same teaching or reference to the fact that Christian women normally veiled themselves in public. They were more modest than pagan women.
So you might be wondering then, “So why are not Christian women veiled today?” Well as I have mentioned, in the 19th century one-by-one virtually every single commandment in scripture that applies only to women, or especially to women, have been nullified by the majority of the Christian churches, or churches that profess to be Christian. Until then Christian women did not usually appear in public without some sort of veiling. For example, take a look at drawings of European women through the centuries, paintings made in the time of the Middle Ages and the Reformation and all of that. Now if they are paintings of highborn women, yes often their head is not covered. But their paintings of ordinary women, particularly women who would be viewed as Christians, religious women, spiritually-minded women—most of the time you will notice that they have a veil on their heads in the paintings. Often the painting was made in a home or something like that where a woman might not have necessarily worn a veil, and that is why sometimes the painting shows a woman unveiled if it is showing a house scene, but most of the ones I have seem the women have a veil on their heads.
I think of the cap the Puritan women wore. It wasn’t a costume. That was the prayer veil they were wearing, or the veils that were worn by Spanish women that you can look at pictures of.
The scarves that have traditionally been worn by eastern European and Russian women. Again, these are the Christian prayer covering, it is why they were wearing those.
However, eventually the veil or large scarf gave way to bonnets, around the beginning of the 19th century. At first those bonnets were very, very large and they were not decorative. For example the bonnet that Susanna Wesley would have worn—I have seen pictures of her— was a big bonnet that totally covered her head. It was black, not frilly, not fashionable at all.
However, as the 19th century progressed, the bonnets that women wore which were originally a type of prayer covering, became smaller and smaller and became more frilly with each decade. Eventually they were simply, by the end of the 19th century, a decorative fashion. Women were not wearing them with any thought of piety, but as a fashionable thing. No one even consciously associated these bonnets with 1 Corinthians 11 or with modesty.
Then the bonnets gave way to hats. And hats were almost always fashionable and they were designed either to enhance or to dignify a woman’s appearance. They were not a symbol of God’s pattern of headship.
Still, until around 1950 it was the usual custom in most churches here in America and in Europe for women to wear a hat in church. Few of them knew why that was the custom. They didn’t realize that it was 1 Corinthians 11, yet they followed the custom because it had been handed down.
When you have time, go back and look at some pictures of Christian church gatherings in the first half of the 20th century, and no matter what denomination it is, you will find that nearly all of the women will be wearing a hat in the service.
Now today I hear Evangelical Christians say that “Well, all that really matters is that we keep this teaching on God’s headship. Yes, we hold to that teaching. It is not important wearing a veil.”
Well, I have to say the simple truth. The practice of wearing veils has been discontinued because women have rebelled against God’s teaching on headship. It is not just some accident that this has suddenly fallen to the wayside just as the feminist movement has gained more and more strength. No, it has gone hand in hand with it. Christian women today don’t want to wear a veil because of what 1 Corinthians 11 says, because it would mean they would be wearing something that would be an outward sign that I respect my husband as my head, or that I respect man as the head of woman. That’s the very thing that Christian women object to today. So it’s not true that we can just follow the thought behind the teaching but you don’t have to follow it in all of its details.
You see, when we throw out the details of God’s word, it is usually very soon after that the entire basis for the commandment is totally done away with.
So let me just leave you with this exhortation. If this is new teaching to you as a Christian sister, I would really encourage you to do what Paul says. When you are praying, cover your head with some kind of cloth. Whether it is a scarf or something else, bring one to church with you and put it on during church. If anyone is going to ask you, say it is because this is what God’s word says. People may think you are a bit strange, but God will bless you for it.