Zac Poonen was formerly an Indian Naval Officer who has been serving the Lord in India for nearly 50 years as a Bible-teacher. He has responsibility for a number of churches in India and abroad. He has written more than 25 books and numerous articles in English - which have been translated into many Indian and foreign languages. His messages are available on audio CDs and video DVDs. He is an integral part of the Christian Fellowship Church- www.cfcindia.com
What does the Bible teach about head-covering for women in the church meetings?
This has become a controversial subject in churches in Western countries and among Westernized Christians in India.
It would probably be true to say that 99% of sisters who cover their heads when praying and prophesying do not know why they do so; and 99% of brothers who keep their heads uncovered when praying and prophesying do not know why they do so.
We begin this study with the conviction that the entire message of the Bible is the Word of God without any error.
There are two fundamental truths that we must bear in mind as we seek to understand God's Word for us today.
- On the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), God abolished the old covenant and began to deal with man thereafter under the terms of the new covenant (Heb.8).
- There are historical and teaching sections in the New Testament. We must find the basis for new covenant doctrines only in the teaching sections. The historical sections merely tell us what the apostles and early Christians did. Many false teachings have developed from doctrines based only on the Acts of the Apostles - two examples being: (i) all believers must speak in tongues (based on Acts 2:4); and (ii) all believers must share a common purse (based on Acts 2:44).
Jesus told His disciples just before He went to the cross, "I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear (understand) them now. But when the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth" (Jn.16:12, 13). Jesus wanted to teach His disciples many more truths than He did while He was on earth. But they would not have been able to understand them until the Holy Spirit came to dwell within them and renewed their minds and gave them revelation. Some of these truths are what we find written in the New Testament epistles. So the epistles also contain commands from the Lord Jesus, but given through His apostles.
If we reject any command in any of the New Testament epistles, saying it was only for the time and place when it was written and not for us today, then in order to be consistent, we must give equal freedom to other people to reject other commands in the epistles and in the teachings of Jesus as also being only for that time and not for us today. For example, we must, in that case, give freedom to people to teach that forbidding homosexual behavior and same-sex marriages and divorces and premarital sexual intercourse, etc., were only for the first century and not for us today. Otherwise we will be inconsistent.
It is inconsistent, therefore, to say that every command in the New Testament is relevant for us today, and then to reject just this one command to women to cover their heads when they pray or prophesy (1 Cor.11:1-16).
(Note: We must distinguish between commands given by God and mere greetings given by the apostles. For example, the apostles give greetings and good wishes such as these in their letters: "Greet one another with a holy kiss" (Rom16:16) and "I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers" (3 John 2). These were obviously mere greetings and good wishes and not commands or promises given by God, for there is no Divine principle taught in those verses, as is the case with head-covering, water-baptism and breaking of bread (Rom.6; 1Cor.11)).
Meaning of head-covering
There are at least three reasons given in the New Testament why a woman should cover her head when she prays or prophesies in the meetings of the church:
First: The Bible says, "A man should NOT cover his head." . and the reason given is: ". because he is the image and glory of God". In contrast, we are told, "but the woman is the glory of man" (1 Cor.11:7). The glory of man must be covered in the church, and since woman is the glory of man, she testifies to this fact by covering her head. This is the plain and simple meaning of this verse.
Second: The Bible says , "A woman's long hair is her glory" (1 Cor.11:15). The glory of the woman also must be covered in the church, just like the glory of man, And so she must cover her head which has the glory of her long hair. Almost all women are conscious that their long hair is a major part of what makes them look attractive, and that is why even among those women who do put a covering on their heads, most of them cover only a part of their hair!! If a woman does not want to cover her head, then the only alternative that the New Testament offers is to remove that glory, by shaving her head completely: "If a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head" (1 Cor.11:6).
Third: TheBible says: "Man was not created for the woman's sake, but woman for the man's sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels" (1 Cor.11:10). The head-covering symbolizes the fact that a woman accepts her God-appointed role as having been created "for man's sake" as his helper and therefore her willingness to be submissive to male authority - whether as a wife to her husband, or as a daughter to her father, or as a sister in the church to the church-elders. It is significant that the disappearance of the head-covering from women in Western churches (on a large scale) coincided with the time that the movement for "Women's Liberation" (a phrase used in a book in 1949) began to spread in Western countries, about 60 years ago. The "angels" mentioned in this verse could refer either to the fallen angels or to the angels in heaven. So it could either be a reminder to women to bear in mind that the fallen angels fell because they were not submissive to authority, or it could mean "A woman should wear a covering on her head as a sign that she is under man's authority - a fact for all the angels (in heaven) to notice and rejoice in" (as The Living Bible paraphrases that verse).
1 Corinthians 11:16 says that every church that is a church of God, will insist on this head covering for women when they pray or prophesy. The Holy Spirit recognized that 20 centuries later this would become a controversial issue; and so He made Paul to state (in this same verse) that if anyone was going to be argumentative about this matter, he would not argue with such a person. He would just allow that person to continue on in his/her disobedience and inconsistency.
Some may say that the head-covering is only a symbol and therefore not so important, but baptism and the breaking of bread are also only symbols. The first half of 1 Corinthians 11 (v.1-16) explains the meaning of the symbolic head-covering for women. The second half of the same chapter (11:.20-34) explains the meaning of the symbolic breaking of bread. In the same way, Romans 6 explains the meaning of the symbol of water-baptism. Would we say that the Lord's table and baptism also are unimportant, because they are only symbols? If we insist on baptism and breaking of bread as essential for believers, then we are inconsistent if we say that head-covering for women is not essential.
Some may say that head-covering for women is mentioned only once in the New Testament. Breaking of bread also is mentioned only once in the epistles. Likewise, the truth that God loves us as much as He loved Jesus is also mentioned only once in the whole Bible (Jn.17:23). But once is enough, to know this glorious truth. If Almighty God has given a command, then even if it is given only once in Scripture, that is sufficient. The importance of a command is determined by the importance of the Person Who gave it.
In ancient Babylon, Daniel stood for a law (Dan.1:8) that had been commanded only once in the Scriptures (about food in Lev.11; and wine in (Prov.23:31). In the same way, in the midst of Babylonian Christianity today, we also stand for the commands of God, whether small or big, whether mentioned once or many times.
Some say that since we are commanded to pray at all times (Lk.18:1; 1 Thess.5:17), therefore a woman should cover her head all 24 hours of the day. Scripture must always be read in its context, if we are to understand it aright. The entire section (1 Cor.11:1-34) is dealing with the meetings of the church (Verses 16 and 18 make that clear). So it is obvious that the Holy Spirit was referring to church meetings when He gave this command. If we add to that, and insist that women should cover their heads at all times, then we will be adding to the Scriptures.
And further: If those who preach a 24-hour head covering are consistent, they must also teach that men (who should also be praying at all times) should never cover their heads at any time - and therefore should never wear a cap or a hat, at any time, whether it be hot, raining, or snowing. Such teachers must also then teach that women should keep their heads covered even when sleeping or showering/bathing (=24 hours). But they do not preach that, proving that they are inconsistent in their teaching. We can safely ignore such inconsistent teachers.
I have also observed that many sisters who practice a 24-hour head covering do not cover their entire heads. They cover only the back portion of their heads or just the small part of their hair that is tied up in a bun at the back of their heads, so that the glory of their hair is still visible. A small piece of cloth at the back of the head however is only an excuse for a head-covering, and not a head-covering at all, because the head and the glory of the hair are still not covered. Such " namesake head-coverings" are worn by legalists only to ease their conscience and to appear "holy" before others. But their teachers do not object to this, because they themselves are inconsistent in their teaching.
Some say that the hair itself is called the head-covering for women in 1 Cor.11:15. If one has understood the Divine principle taught in the first 14 verses of this chapter, then this verse will not cancel out the need for a woman with long hair to still cover her head with a covering. Paul could not possibly have taken 15 verses merely to teach that a woman should have long hair! That could have been stated in just one sentence! What does not come out in the English translation of the Bible is the fact that in the original Greek language (in which Paul wrote his letters), the Holy Spirit prompted him to use a different Greek word for "covering" in verse 15 than the one He used in verse 6. The Greek word used in verse 6 is katakalupto; whereas the word used in verse 15 is peribolaion (which is translated as "mantle" in Heb. 1:12). This makes it crystal clear that the mantle of hair referred to in verse 15 is not the head-covering referred to in verse 6 or in the rest of the chapter. Another proof of this is: If hair is the "head-covering" being referred to in this section, then every man who prays or prophesies would have to have his head completely shaved, if he is to obey this Scripture that tells him not to have his head covered!! The clear teaching of the Holy Spirit in this chapter is that the "mantle of hair" that nature has given a woman as her glory must be covered with a covering, when she is praying or prophesying.
Finally, we must bear in mind that:
- - If we ignore any command of God in Scripture (however small) we will suffer some eternal loss (Rev.22:19).
- - Those who cancel (or teach against) the smallest command of Scripture will be called "the least in the kingdom of heaven" (as Jesus said in Matt.5:19).
- - The truths of Scripture are hidden from the clever and the intelligent and revealed only to the humble ("babes" -Matt.11:25 with Matt.18:4). The teaching of 1 Cor.11:1-16 will be simple and clear to the humble, childlike person. But one who depends on his human cleverness and intelligence will argue against the plain meaning of these verses.
- - God tests our honesty in the way in which we deal with such verses of Scripture. He does not see whether we understand everything in His Word, but He does see if we are honest in dealing with His Word. The Lord says, "To this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word" (Isa.66:2).
If a sister is still in doubt about what this passage of Scripture teaches, let her consider this: Isn't it better for her to do more rather than less - and especially so, when there is no inconvenience or cost involved. What will she lose by covering her head when she prays and prophesies? Nothing. But think of what she will gain by covering her head, if she discovers at the judgment-seat of Christ that this was indeed God's command? She will have the joy of having pleased her Lord on earth, in spite what other Christians taught and practised. So, every woman, if she is wise, will cover her head with a covering, when she prays and prophesies.
And in conclusion, as to the practice in our churches: We do not force any sister to cover her head (against her wish/conviction) in our meetings, because if she does this under compulsion, it will be a dead work; and God wants only cheerful givers of obedience (2 Cor.9:7). We will not judge such a sister either. We will graciously assume that she does not have light on this subject. But at the same time, if she does not cover her head, we will not permit her to publicly pray or prophesy in our churches, because we understand this to be the command of God, as explained in this article. We also believe that this is how it is practiced "in all the churches of God" (1Cor.11:16). We do not judge other churches that do things differently from us, in this or in any other area. But we fear God and desire to obey Him fully, even if some sisters (or their husbands) are offended by our stand on this matter and as a result, leave our churches.
" If anyone is truly determined to do God's will, he/she will definitely know whether this teaching is from God" (Jn.7:17).
Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.