One of the most familiar chapters in the Bible to a conservative Anabaptist is 1Corinthians 11. We particularly know these two verses well:
“Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.””But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head.”(1 Cor. 11:4-5a KJV)
These familiar verses seem pretty simple. When a woman is praying or prophesying, she needs to have her head covered. When a man is praying or prophesying, he needs to have his head uncovered.
We men have it pretty easy. No one has ever accused us of being legalistic when we take off our hats to pray (or at least not in my personal experience). We don’t have any rules given to us about how often or long we need to keep our heads uncovered. We are trusted to follow this simple directive as a follower of Christ in a conservative Anabaptist church. No one in the brotherhood checks up on us or confronts us if they see us wearing a hat.
This is a good thing.
We are free to wear a warm hat on cold winter days, we can wear a hat to keep the sun out of our eyes, it’s even okay to wear a hat just because it’s faster than combing our hair (or to cover the lack of it). We often wear hats that advertise a specific company that we like or support; or we just wear one just because we like how we look in a specific hat. We could even walk into our church house wearing a hat, as long as we removed it before going into the service.
So why do we regulate and impose so many applications for the verse to the women? Are they not as trustworthy as a man? Do we view them as being incapable of thought or do we doubt their desire or ability to obey God?
I read an interesting quote written in the late 1920’s, by a Mennonite man named Oscar Burkholder, addressing head coverings and dress. The following was printed in the Gospel Herald and the Christian Review, “It would seem that the woman is still bent on dragging man down; she was the one who first tempted man, and she is still at the same old game.”1
This quote was during an era of when Mennonites were beginning to impose increasingly more mandates for head gear for the women. If this mind set toward women played into the motivation for the extra rules we enforce for our women, then my question is, “Is this still what we believe about women?”
Is this a Biblical mind set? Somehow I just can’t see words like this ever coming from the mouth of Jesus, Who set an example for us on how we should view and treat women.
If we deny having an attitude like this toward women, then why do we persist in having a double standard regarding these two commands?
We expect the women to wear a head covering at all times, because we all know, of course, that she is to “pray without ceasing” (1Thess 5:17). But yet we interpret that same verse differently for ourselves. Why do we apply this verse differently to a man than we do for the woman?
Some of us wear a hat most of the day and only remove it for a brief prayer at meals. But wait– shouldn’t we be “praying without ceasing”?
What if we would view the verses directed at women the same way we do the men? What if a woman only covered her head when she prayed? What if there were times we would see her putting it on in public as she went into prayer? What if we allowed her to make the choice about when she was covered– just as we allow the man to choose when he is uncovered?
This goes against everything we have been taught and believe about the head covering. Why?
It is because we have added so much to this simple directive. We have assigned values, ideals, and reasons for wearing the head covering that are not in given in Scripture– so for us we can not allow it be worn in this kind of way.
We want the woman’s head covering to give a statement of representation of which Anabaptist church she belongs to. Her specific covering can tell us a lot about her beliefs. We want her to wear the covering because of modesty and humility. We believe the covering will empower her to live a more righteous life. We have faith that her covering will grant her extra protection from angels. It will keep her from free of molestation from men with evil intentions.
We believe it is a sign that she is separated from the world– and even separated from non-Anabaptist believers. We want our women’s head coverings to save our culture, our community, and our identity from being taken over by the rest of the world.
In some churches, the color of the covering may represent her marital status. For some, the head covering may announce that she has been baptized and is a member of the church. For others it is a sign of salvation.
We even take it so far as to question a woman who would wear another type of hat over– or instead of– her “prayer covering”. A woman who wears a winter hat for warmth in public often has her motives questioned by others. “Are you ashamed of your covering? Are you trying to hide who you are?”
The wearing of a specific prayer covering is held so highly that to be ashamed–in any way- to wear it at all times is considered to be equal with being ashamed of the gospel of Christ.
Have we elevated a God-given directive to the status of an idol?
How can this be something that God approves of? God will not share His glory, His might, His grace, or His righteousness with a mere piece of cloth that we have decreed to hold a position of power that only He could ever hold.
Only the grace of God can empower any woman or man to live a righteous life. Only the omnipotence of God is the deciding factor for what is allowed–good or bad– into our lives. If the only thing that sets a woman apart from the unbelieving world is a piece of cloth on her head, her religion is in vain.
What did Jesus say is evidence of being a follower of Him? He said in John 13:35, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” But we attempt to make Him a liar by instead replacing that with, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if your women wear the church-prescribed head covering.”
A head covering was never meant to be the evidence of salvation.
We have elevated it so much that we have lost the simplicity of the command. We’ve focused on the application of it to such an extent that we turn people off from wearing it altogether.
We then take our applications and teach “commandments of man” for “doctrine” –just as the Pharisees did with their pet commands that Jesus reprimanded in Mark 7. We have turned a simple command into a recondite doctrine and caused the covering to be more of a burden than a blessing.
But even than, many of our women wear their banner of “humility and modesty” quite proudly. “We are not ashamed to wear this,” they boast with pride.
The Bible gives reasons for wearing it, but it is not because of the extra reasons we have assigned to it. Isn’t it about time we let the Bible speak for itself? Aren’t the reasons God gave for wearing it enough?
It is time to put this commandment back into perspective, let God be God, and let His Word stand alone.
Author’s note: My purpose in this post is to point out where we have erred. Read 1 Cor. 11 if you want the right reasons for praying with a covered head (women) or praying with an uncovered head (men)
1. Oscar Burkholder, “The Devotional Covering,” Gospel Herald 23 (17 April 1930): 67-68; “As it was in the days of Sodom, Attention women!” Christian Review 2 (October 1928): 14