April 29, 2007 Q & A

Head Coverings for women


I was greatly blessed to grasp a better understanding of the issue of head coverings by reading "May Women Speak in Church?" where James W. Scott in New Horizons January 1996 explains that 1 Corinthians chapter 11 is "best understood as regulating the circumstances for delivering inspired speech in church ..." as in speaking in tongues. I also see that Matthew Henry's Commentary supports head coverings to be worn by women, "who under inspiration, prayed and prophesied." Since speaking in tongues and praying or prophesying as an inspired utterance no longer occur, does this negate the head coverings? Can you refer me to any other resources that support this meaning? How can we know that women do not need to wear head coverings today?

Thank you in advance for your response!


I remember the discussions in the January 1996 New Horizons. Unless you return with questions covering that disagreement between Mr. Scott and Dr. Richard Gaffin (I believe he was on the other side of the disagreement), I'll just deal with your question as to the OPC understanding of 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.

I'll speak first to the obvious understanding of those words as far as women coming into worship with or without their heads covered. Then I'll attempt to give a biblical justification for the present practice.

I well remember that, in my childhood (going back to—and even before—the 1920s), women (and girls as well) invariably wore hats or other head coverings in church services. I don't remember that the reason given was because of the Scripture before us, but I assume that was the reason. I can remember as late as the 1950's one minister of the OPC (not then a pastor) said that if he, as a pastor, met a woman entering his congregation without a head covering, he would suggest that she return home and get one. But even by then, the practice was being abandoned, and by the 1960s it was gone altogether. I do recall one OPC which strictly required female head covering in worship. There may be others, though I don't know if even that congregation has continued the practice. But is that, as far as the OPC goes, an abandonment of following a Scriptural requirement?

The teaching of 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 has not been abandoned. For example, because we are a biblical church, we hold to male headship in the home and the church. And that is what the Apostle is teaching in this passage. It is that there is subordination in rule of the woman to the man in both church and family. The lack of covering on the part of the man and the need for covering for women was the sign of this subordination. God is Head (with no one between) of the man, therefore no covering. Woman is subject to the authority of man, therefore the head covering.

As a matter of fact, the OPC does not ordain women elders or ministers. This prohibition is clearly taught in 1 Timothy 2:12-15. And the reasons given by Paul for that strong prohibition are that man (Adam) was first created, then woman (Eve) out of man's substance (Genesis 2:18-22). And the woman was first in sin, then the man (Genesis 3:1-6). These differences are grounded in creation and in the fall, being fundamental as to the nature of mankind and the need for redemption.

But Paul does not so ground his admonition with regard to head covering in worship in the Corinthian passage. It is true that the reason for male rule and authority are similarly grounded in verse 9. Adam was made ruler of the Garden or Eden. Eve was created as his suitable helper (Genesis 2:9). And, by way of digression, the man shares his headship in the home with his wife: "Honor your father and your mother ...." Nor does this distinction of headship demean the women. 1 Corinthians 11:11-12 says, "Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, so also man comes from woman; but all things are from God."

So all this is the official doctrine of the OPC because that's what the Bible teaches; and our doctrinal standards agree. Then why do we not continue the earlier practice of head covering in worship? Because head covering doesn't "say" the same thing in Paul's day that it does today. A harlot was recognizable in New Testament times by the way she dressed, but especially by what she didn't do with her hair. To let it loose and fall down was the sign of brazen independence then. Covering, on the other hand, was a sign of submission to her place in Christian society.

In verses 13 & 14, Paul says, "Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?" Paul was appealing to custom or culture to make his point. He says as much in verse 16: "But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God."

Now I still don't like a man wearing long hair. Yet I don't judge him for doing so any more than I judge a woman for having her hair cut short. But customs have changed! Nor does the apostle appeal to creation or the fall to make his point.

Some serious interpreters equate the "covering" required by the passage as woman's long hair versus man's short hair. That puts a different interpretation on the whole matter. Also the passage before us refers to prophesying and praying with heads covered (women) and uncovered (men). So what you remark on at the beginning of your question may narrow this passage even to the exercise of then legitimate prophesying and speaking in tongues. And, as you say, these are no longer in the church; they were temporary gifts that ceased with the end of the apostolic era.

Yet prayer is still an important part of public worship. And women do not lead in public prayer in our worship services, though many invite both men and women to take part in prayer sessions during informal services.

All of this adds up to minor differences of opinion between sister congregations on these issues. And there I will leave it. I hope I have answered your question satisfactorily. Please feel free to return with further questions.



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