The Bible has been written that not only scholars can understand sound doctrine, but also the ordinary people. With this in mind, let us look into I Corinthians, chapter 11 and apply scriptural principles to interpreting the scriptures. One of the basic tenets in understanding the Word of God is to build precept upon precept with the scriptures.
Through misinterpretation of some of the verses in this chapter, many feel they have found their stronghold for the erroneous teaching of a material head covering for women. But doctrinal teachings must be built on proper Bible hermeneutics, rather than on an unsound tradition of a particular movement or sect.
While we respect those who, in the fear of the Lord, adhere to such a practice because they sincerely believe it to be required as they have been taught, we do not believe the Bible teaches such. While we would not ask them to remove their covering if they came to our assemblies, we could not allow them to teach others to wear them.
Let us consider who it is that the apostle Paul was writing to and why. Corinth was a city that had various cultures, being a major trading center of the known world at that time. The congregation at Corinth was composed of Jews and Greeks; people of diverse cultural practices. This particular congregation had some problems, as one can see when reading Paul’s first epistle to them. In chapter 11, the apostle is addressing a cultural question that arose among the believers in this locality. There was contention over a social custom involving some of the women wearing a head covering. Sad to say, some today are turning that social custom into a Bible doctrine.
The scriptures clearly state that “if a woman have long [or uncut] hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering” (I Cor. 11:15). When God sent Eve out of the garden, she was fully dressed by God (Gen. 3:21). She had the long hair which God had given her, but no material head covering, and God told her, “thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Gen. 3: 16). The submission of the wife to her own husband was here ordained, yet no head covering was commanded. The power on a woman’s head because of the angels (I Cor. 11:10) is in the woman’s submission to the Word of God. The power is not in a piece of cloth or a cap worn on the hair that may or may not fall off at any time. Some of the women which wear a sect-ordained covering on their hair, trim, cut, or style their hair, thereby doing damage to the natural covering that God has given them. “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 [power with God] to her, for her hair is given her for a covering!” I Cor. 11:14, 15.
Verse 16 states, “But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” Paul is clearly meaning that the church had no custom that the women had to wear a material veil or head covering. The only reason the question arose was because of the secular custom among some cultures at Corinth. It was becoming a source of contention in the congregation, as some questioned if the women should be required to wear it. For the sole sake of avoiding offence, Paul advises the women to wear the veil while publicly praying or preaching. This is done in accordance with the principle that Paul taught this congregation in chapter ten, where he went to great lengths to exhort them to seek not their own, and to give no offence to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God (as long as it would not violate scriptural principles), that many might be saved (I Cor. 10:32-33).
Paul, who became all things to all men that he might save some, felt it best for the women of this locality to wear a veil while publicly praying or preaching, otherwise they would be viewed as women of ill repute by the local people who adhered to such a custom, and being thus offended, would be hindered from receiving the gospel. It was for this reason only that the wearing of the veil was here enjoined. It was by no means a requirement of the church, for they had no such custom as wearing a veil, but it was a matter of social propriety in this particular city.
The present teaching by advocates of the material head covering has inconsistencies. I Cor. 11:5 is not taken in its entirety. If they allow women to pray with a head covering, why is it that they do not allow her to prophesy or preach with her head covering, as they were allowed at Corinth and elsewhere? Paul does not censure the women for prophesying here, but rather, instructs them while doing so to wear this item of dress, that they might be more effectual in that community. Those advocating the head covering today do censure women along this line, even though the Bible clearly reveals that there were women in the ministry. On the day of Pentecost, every person in the upper room, including Mary and the women, were filled with the Holy Ghost and publicly prophesied to all that were present in fulfilment of Joel 2:28: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and daughters shall prophesy.”
The teaching is also inconsistent because in most instances the hair piece is not even covering the hair it is on. There are many different styles of hair pieces–stiff white hair nets, a piece of black lace, a black or white scarf tied or clipped on the hair, a hat, or mix and match scarves to match the dress one is wearing that day. Really, these are nothing but a superfluous adornment or mark of the denomination or group to which one belongs. It is actually in direct opposition to scriptural teaching regarding the plainness of hair and dress, and even biblical unity, because of the schisms caused over what type to wear within the religious groups holding to such a teaching. The Bible addresses the hair (I Tim. 2:9, I Pet. 3:3), yet not once defines a head covering as a Bible doctrine. In fact, to the contrary, Paul said, “we have no such custom.”
Many will call their head piece a “veil” and some groups will sell a “veiling pattern,” which is deceptive, because it is not a true veil. The veils in question at Corinth were, no doubt, mostly analogous to the full wrappers of different kinds in which some Eastern women envelop themselves when they leave their houses. These are very voluminous, and among the common people, of strong and coarse texture, like that with which Ruth carried home her six measures of barley (Ruth 3:15). The women in Corinth were dealing with this type of veil, which today’s women need to wear, if they believe this is a Bible doctrine. Some would argue that the modern day head covering is just symbolic, but that would be analogous to a woman wearing abbreviated clothing to symbolize the wearing of modest clothing. There is no scriptural principle in that thinking.
Next, the teaching is inconsistent on when to wear the covering. If a woman is to pray without ceasing, it is vital that she wear a head covering without ceasing. If she is to wear the head covering for public prayer and prophesying only, then she need not wear the head covering for any other purpose, private or public. Some that adhere to this standard have been noted to put a book, a sweater, or any other object nearby if caught in spontaneous public prayer, which certainly brings no glory to her head whatsoever! This is not reasonable.
Much of the scrupulousness in respect of the use of the veil may date from the promulgation of the Koran, which forbade women appearing unveiled except in the presence of their nearest relatives. The few instances of a woman wearing a long veil in the Old Testament were a reflection of some traditions of that time in certain places, such as a woman in betrothal, or a loose woman in concealment. Some proponents of a material covering today would consider their “covering” vital to a woman’s salvation; denying them baptism or “church membership” without it.
In the Complete Writings of Menno Simons, not once is the superficial head covering even addressed.
Those who do not want to believe that the hair is the God-ordained covering or veil for women, as is plainly stated in verse 15, would argue that yes, the hair is a covering, but not the covering referred to in verse 6, believing that the covering of verse 6 is something to be put on, while the covering in verse 15 is something that is on, as two different Greek words are used in each verse. This they do, obviously, to discredit the fact that the apostle said the hair is the covering, or the veiling.
Now, we do believe that in verse 6 the apostle is in fact referring to a veil. As was stated already, he thought it best they adapt this item of local clothing while they exercised publicly in prayer and preaching, to avoid the reproach and offence it would bring if they did not. He continues on in verse 15 to clarify, though, that this is not a custom of the church, for the only covering God gave the woman is her hair. Though two different Greek words are used in verse 6 and 15, a search into their original meanings quickly refutes this erroneous theory, as they mean the same thing.
Conclusively, the biblical head covering is the long or uncut hair, “…for her hair is given her for a covering” (vs. 15). God’s church has no doctrine or even a custom regarding a material head covering. The current teaching concerning a material head covering is inconsistent in its actual practice. The saints throughout the ages have never taught the necessity of wearing such a covering as a Bible doctrine. A proper understanding of what the apostle wrote to the Corinthians should free honest souls who will rest on the authority of the scriptures, rather than the unbiblical tradition of a sect.