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Should women wear head coverings?

For what it’s worth, this is why I don’t read the Gospel Coalition.

I’m going to venture some comments on this recent article by Benjamin L. Merkle at the Gospel Coalition.

Merkle rightly points out that evangelicals are inconsistent in how they treat Paul’s arguments from nature in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2. They take the latter argument, against women leadership, seriously; but they simultaneously dismiss the former argument, against women praying and prophesying with uncovered heads. I think he’s right about this inconsistency. Unfortunately, his efforts to defuse the tension are inept—to say the least.

I’m simply going to quote what I take to be Merkle’s central points, and illustrate how badly exegeted and/or reasoned they are.

Paul is not directly making the case that head coverings are needed for women when they pray or prophesy. He doesn’t say: “A woman must have her head covered when she prays or prophesies. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.” Instead, Paul uses the Genesis creation account to affirm his previous statement that “woman is the glory of man.”

But Paul’s point is to contrast the non-covering of a man’s head and the covering of a woman’s head. Therefore, for him to say, “A man ought not to cover his head” and then justify it with an argument from creation is rhetorically identical to saying, “A woman ought to cover her head” and justifying it the same way.

This kind of analysis, where a split hair is given a nose-job and made to look like a respectable distinction on which to build an argument, is simply mishandling the text of Scripture. It shows no sensitivity to the way language is used; to how rhetoric works. People with a tin ear shouldn’t undertake to share their opinions on the nuances of biblical texts. I’m not impressed by such weaseling.

To deal briefly with the supporting arguments:

(1)

The manner in which Paul introduces his discussion strongly suggests head coverings are not his main concern. In verse 3 he states, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”

Again, this is simply an incompetent reading of the text. Paul segues into head coverings by starting with the reason they are important. He wouldn’t have raised headship at all if he didn’t need to talk about head coverings. He is reminding his audience of this basic theological principle so as to have that foundation in place for his discussion.

(2)

Paul’s comparison of a woman who prays or prophesies without a head covering to a woman with a man’s haircut also signifies that the main issue at stake is gender and role distinctions, not merely a piece of cloth on one’s head.

If anything, this supports requiring head coverings; Paul draws a direct correlation between wearing a head covering and having long hair. If you won’t wear a head covering, you should cut your hair off. But if you think that’s a bad thing to do, then wear a covering!

Btw, I’m not convinced his point is entirely about gender distinctions here. I believe it is at least partly about the glory of the woman. He isn’t merely assuming that a woman wouldn’t cut her hair because it would make her look like a man, but because it would rob her of her glory. But since she cannot rightly “remove” her glory, she needs to cover it up when praying or prophesying—as a symbol of the authority she is under. Ie, she should not be flouting her glory as if it belonged to her, but rather she should respectful of the fact that it belongs to her husband by keeping it “contained”; keeping it “under submission”.

Notably, Merkle utterly ignores both the need for a symbol of authority, and also Paul’s cryptic comment about the angels. Yet both of these issues are clearly integral parts of Paul’s argument—so the entire enterprise of showing that head coverings are merely a cultural concern collapses without defusing these other reasons that he gives for requiring them.

(3)

Paul isn’t concerned with head coverings per se. Rather, he’s concerned with the meaning that wearing a head covering conveys.

This is just a non sequitur. The fact that a head covering is “passive” in itself, and Paul is actually concerned with what it represents, is utterly irrelevant—indeed, if anything, this again bolsters the argument for head coverings. This is like arguing that the NT isn’t concerned with water per se, but rather with what being immersed in it represents, and therefore it doesn’t matter if we baptize people.

(4)

Paul’s argument from nature, then, doesn’t directly prove women must wear head coverings but that the differences between men and women are part of God’s creational design.

This argument only goes through if you presuppose the exact point in dispute: namely that “Paul’s argument from nature, then, doesn’t directly prove women must wear head coverings but that the differences between men and women are part of God’s creational design”! Since Paul uses the argument from creation explicitly to justify wearing head coverings, it would seem the opposite conclusion is in fact straightforwardly taught in the text.

(5)

According to Paul, the wearing of head coverings wasn’t limited to the church at Corinth but was a custom in all the churches.

But the universality of the practice indicates that this is not a mere matter of Corinthian fashion; so again I am baffled as to why Merkle thinks this undermines the argument from creation rather than bolstering it.

A final comment: You might think I am being harsh here, but I disagree. It is obvious to anyone who stops for a moment to think about it that we wouldn’t even be having this discussion if third wave feminism hadn’t had such a radical effect on the church. The Gospel Coalition is trusted by millions of Christians for teaching the word of God. Yet here they are, publishing what can only be described as a hack job. We should hold them to a higher standard, just as God will judge teachers more strictly.

14 comments

  1. steve hays

    Men who defend headcoverings need to wear hardhats when they are clobbered by evangelical feminists.

  2. Eric

    Hey Dominic. Thanks for making this website. It’s one of the very few blogs that I actually read from time to time. I just want to point out that your tone and language seems pretty angry and not very winsome. All that to say, I think your argument would be more easily heard if you didn’t make people jump through your “bad attitude” hoop to get to your actual argument. In Paul’s epistles, many times he starts with some sort of encouragement to build up his brothers before he tackles a deep sin issue (Think 1 and 2 Cor). Paul gives you grace and truth together, similar to Jesus (full of grace and truth). I’m not sensing much grace. This is clearly a tough biblical passage and anyone who doesn’t think so is sort of delusional. Usually, when tough or fringe teachings cause people to get angry enough to divide, it is a problem. It sounds like you’ve taken a stand against the Gospel Coalition because of articles like the one you are criticizing. I don’t think that’s good. You are removing yourself from lots of solid Christian teachers because you want your women to wear hats. Please, at least think and pray about your tone, your heart, and your motives here. With grace and love,

    Eric.

  3. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Eric, thanks for your comments.

    I do actually begin my article with a positive comment about Merkle. But to be honest, there are times when one has to call a spade a spade.

    I’m not against TGC because I want women to wear hats. I’m not against TGC in general at all. Indeed, if they were to publish a good article in favor of the cultural theory re head coverings, I wouldn’t have a problem with that.

    I’m against shoddy teaching that can lead millions of Christians astray—and unfortunately TGC seems to have very patchy standards in that regard.

    Paul tells us to have speech that is gracious but seasoned with salt. Well, this article is mostly salt, because there’s not much to be gracious about. If this were just a layman offering his personal take on the passage, I would be much gentler. But it is not; it is someone who has set himself up as a teaching authority for millions, but has then proceeded to lead them astray and demonstrate that he is incompetent for the task he has taken on.

    That requires a very different, much sharper response. Better an open rebuke than hidden love—especially where false teaching is concerned.

    I worry that many Christians are far more concerned about how someone says something than what they say. Obviously both are important, but in the matter of teaching, ultimately it is the actual truth or falsehood of it that counts most.

    I also worry that many Christians, like yourself, want to say that it is impossible that this passage be straightforward. It must be “tough”. Indeed, I am “sort of delusional” if I think otherwise.

    But what precisely is tough about it? Again, if we were living in any other culture, any other time, where radical feminism had not become an accepted part of social discourse, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Even if we didn’t entirely understand Paul’s reasoning, we would say, “Clearly he considers head coverings important. Clearly we cannot say with any certainty whatsoever that it is a cultural convention, since he not only uses an argument from nature rather than culture, but also says that head coverings are for the sake of the angels. Clearly we don’t understand his point. Therefore, we should err on the side of caution and simply use head coverings.”

    What is tough about that? Absolutely nothing. It is only “tough” inasmuch as it contravenes current social mores—mores which are manifestly anti-biblical.

    It’s not “tough” to say we should obey the Bible.

    So I’m genuinely curious: what do you see as being so “clearly” tough about this passage? Why am I “sort of delusional” for thinking otherwise? You must have a very strong case to say such things—yet I can’t even imagine what it might be!

  4. Matt

    Good post. I grew up in a church where the women wore head coverings, but haven’t attended a church like that for a long time. I can’t say it keeps me up at night, but it does bother me a little that the practice isn’t followed anymore, as I agree that while there are some confusing things about the passage, the head covering requirement seems straightforward. I also agree that modern attempts to get around it are largely fueled by feminism. However, there seem to have been competent theologians before the rise of modern feminism who accepted the cultural argument. Do you think some cultural pressure other then feminism was influencing their exegesis? Here’s a summary if you’re interested-
    http://www.reformedpresbytery.org/books/headcovr/headcovr.htm

  5. Eric

    Dominic,

    Thanks for your fiery response. First, I have a few questions about your bent, your influences, and your position. What denomination are you a part of? Who are some theologians that you study? Who’s commentaries do you read? Are you a pastor, or a layman? Are you a teacher in your local church? I’m just trying to understand your website, ministry, and intentions. I’ll answer these for myself, to be fair. By God’s grace, He saved me when I was 15, I’m 33, married for 12 years, 4 kids, own a recording studio, been working towards pastoral ministry for the last few years, part time staff at a southern baptist church in Cincinnati, OH, and I am a calvinist who believes in the continuance of the gifts of the spirit. I’m also a complimentarian. Just thought some context could help you see where I’m coming from.

    Now, I will say what I think is the right approach to this text. We need to interpret Scripture with Scripture. We interpret less clear verses with more clear, and when we find a single passage in all of Scripture concerning head coverings, we understand that passage in light of the rest of Scripture. We look at the context and what the Corinthians were doing and what the main point of the letter is. We also interpret within the lens of church history. We simply don’t have any other Scriptural texts that relate to physical head coverings (hats, veils, shawls, etc…), and their proper place in worship. This is it. It’s not like we are asking if Jesus’ blood was sufficient for our sins, or if God was man in Christ, or even if women and men are distinctly different in their roles in family and church. We are talking about whether or not Women should wear fabric on their head during worship. I can’t think of another explicit command that has to do with our physical appearance. Maybe you think you can? Modesty is cultural, the way people dress is cultural in general. God doesn’t command us to have a mustache, beard, or pony tail. When we look at levitical laws, there are specific commands on attire, especially for the priesthood. But we’re talking about the new testament.

    Even food is not governed by specific dietary restrictions. We must use biblical principles and our conscience to make good eating decisions. In light of the rest of Corinthians, the whole NT and OT, when being read with the gospel as the main point, this passage cannot be taken to be prescriptive for all Christians. (Insert disagreement). The character of God and the commands of God are directed towards our hearts, the internal command centers of all of our decisions, thoughts, and actions. The principle of 1st Corinthians 11 is based on the foundational statement in verse 3: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife1 is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” Maybe where you are from, a woman’s head being covered is a sign of godly submission to her husband. This isn’t the case in America, and particularly in Cincinnati, OH.

    The danger of head coverings is this: It misses the point. It turns an important issue, submission to God given authorities, into a petty issue of whether or not a woman should wear a head covering in church. What color should the head covering be? What should it be made out of? I’m proposing that “head covering” should be taken as a cultural sign of submission to a woman’s husband, and therefore to the church, to Christ, to God. In America, a wedding ring, modest dress, and a quiet, submissive spirit is all you need to show you stand behind your man. It is important for women to dress in a way that doesn’t draw attention to themselves intentionally, especially in a worship gathering. In our culture, wearing a head covering, at least the type in my imagination, would draw more attention to the woman than no head covering.

    My appeal to you is to not make your stance on head coverings a divisive issue. Merkle’s article doesn’t undermine the gospel. He is elevating God, Christ, men, and women in that authoritative order. This is praising to Christ and His good news, not undermining it. If a woman wants to wear a head covering because it is a sign of submission to her husband, the church, and God, then that’s her choice, although if it were done in our church, it may be a distraction for those worshiping and for outsiders.

    Thanks for reading this far. I don’t expect you to agree, but I hope you will loosen up a little bit, take a step back, and drop the sword on this matter. Thank you and may grace and truth fill you.

    eric

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Matt, not being a historical theologian, I’m not really able to address your question. I suppose there could be varying reasons one might take the cultural view; moreover, just because a theologian is generally competent doesn’t mean he is always competent ;)

  7. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Eric—

    We simply don’t have any other Scriptural texts that relate to physical head coverings (hats, veils, shawls, etc…), and their proper place in worship. This is it.

    Which is what we would expect if the practice was universal and uncontested. Why would the NT comment on something that everyone takes for granted?

    You seem to be implying that a lack of passages equates to a lack of importance. Yet the Bible never once mentions baptizing infants, and look how many Christians consider that important.

    It’s not like we are asking if Jesus’ blood was sufficient for our sins, or if God was man in Christ, or even if women and men are distinctly different in their roles in family and church.

    You seem to be implying I’m making this issue more important than it is. So why don’t you search for “head coverings” on this blog and see how much I’ve actually written on it?

    I can’t think of another explicit command that has to do with our physical appearance.

    Agreed. There is only one explicit command about our physical appearance. So why are you suggesting we shouldn’t obey this explicit command, rather than praising God for how blessed we are in not having to obey others?

    Modesty is cultural, the way people dress is cultural in general.

    This begs the question against what Paul actually, straightforwardly says. You’re assuming the exact thing you need to prove.

    Even food is not governed by specific dietary restrictions.

    Except for abstaining from blood.

    In light of the rest of Corinthians, the whole NT and OT, when being read with the gospel as the main point, this passage cannot be taken to be prescriptive for all Christians. (Insert disagreement).

    You anticipate my disagreement because you know that you’ve built absolutely no case for your position at all. You have a question-begging assertion in lieu of an argument. But what is freely asserted can be freely denied.

    Maybe where you are from, a woman’s head being covered is a sign of godly submission to her husband. This isn’t the case in America, and particularly in Cincinnati, OH.

    Begs the question.

    The danger of head coverings is this: It misses the point. It turns an important issue, submission to God given authorities, into a petty issue of whether or not a woman should wear a head covering in church.

    Begs the question.

    I’m proposing that “head covering” should be taken as a cultural sign of submission to a woman’s husband, and therefore to the church, to Christ, to God.

    And I’m rejecting your proposal out of hand as obviously unbiblical, given that you have given us no reasons to believe it, and no counterarguments to my demolition of the cultural view.

    In America, a wedding ring, modest dress, and a quiet, submissive spirit is all you need to show you stand behind your man.

    Unfortunately, in the Bible it is not.

    My appeal to you is to not make your stance on head coverings a divisive issue.

    Aside from the ironically divisive nature of your appeal, you simply don’t get to lay the charge of divisiveness at the feet of people who expect Christians to obey the straightforward teaching of the Bible. If you want to get worked up about division, talk to people like Merkle who are making controversial claims about what the Bible teaches, and are unable to support those claims with arguments or exegesis that hold a drop of water.

  8. Roberto

    I quite like the tone and content of this post.

  9. Toni

    I would like to read a more extensive article from you on this subject. Or maybe you can recommend something.

  10. Barry Wallace

    Toni, here’s an article that I think represents good thinking, good research, and good exegesis on the subject.

    Bnonn, delete this if you consider it inappropriate or would for any reason rather not link to it.

    http://www.reformedonline.com/uploads/1/5/0/3/15030584/web_head_coverings.pdf

  11. steve hays

    That article relies on very dated scholarship. While dated scholarship can be useful for documenting a traditional position, it’s problematic when attacking the opposing position.

  12. Kinuko

    Dear Brother Dominic,

    Hello, thank you for this post. I was impressed by your courageous stance, which reminds me of Tertullian and John Knox. Today, I wrote about Mr. Benjamin’s article on my Japanese blog and linked your post to my readers. I also wrote a short testimony in English entitled:

    “The Recovery of Headcovering Practice (1 Cor 11) Uplifts And Furthers Complementarianism”
    http://japanesebiblewoman.blogspot.gr/2015/08/the-recovery-of-headcovering-practice-1.html

    It is so encouraging to see that among complementarian brothers, there is a brother like you who boldly defends this timeless, trans-cultural biblical truth of headcovering. May God bless you abundantly.

  13. Diana

    Loved this article – thanks for posting! I am thankful that someone posted a well-written response to the above-quoted article.

    Diana
    (Practicing headcovering for three years and counting!)

  14. Jessica

    I know I’m really late to the conversation here but I just want to say that I’m often shocked by the way “theologians” back up their teachings. Eric said the following:

    “If a woman wants to wear a head covering because it is a sign of submission to her husband, the church, and God, then that’s her choice, although if it were done in our church, it may be a distraction for those worshiping and for outsiders.”

    REALLY? I struggled with the issue of head covering for years and for a long time I didn’t wear one for this very reason. I thought that I might be too much of a distraction and it was not my desire to distract at all during worship because taking glory from God is serious business. But after reading a book on head coverings by K.P. Yohannan (free online), I was convinced that this was what I must do regardless of whether it was a distraction or not. It is sad that as a church we have strayed so far from the truth that to obey it is a distraction! I hope our “shepherds” will humble themselves and seek the truth with teachable hearts and not be blinded by their pride.

    Jessica

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