Question: Some accuse Christians of being hypocritical in their attitude toward Muslim women wearing burkas, since 1 Corinthians
7:2-16 seems to teach that Christian women should also wear head coverings: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved” (1 Cor. 7:5).
What does the Bible teach concerning head coverings for men and / or women?
Answering this question requires that we look not only at the content of 1Cor. 7:2-16, but also at the context and culture surrounding this instruction to Christians.
1 Corinthians 7:2 – 14:40 gives teaching and instruction specifically concerning the church in worship: (Head Coverings, 11:2-16; The Lord’s Supper, 11:17-34; and using the Spiritual Gifts, 12-14). Since that is the focus, the instructions do not necessarily become principles for Christian behavior beyond the worship setting.
Verse two distinguishes between “traditions” passed on and the principles behind those traditions. A tradition is not a Law. A specific “tradition” may change over time while still faithfully communicating the principle it represents. With the Lord’s Supper, for example, the “bread” and the “cup” shared by believers across time and cultures changes in various ways, yet without losing their significance in memorializing Christ’s sacrificed body and shed blood.
The use of a veil or head covering by NT women in the worship setting (v.5) is one such “tradition.” Veils (head coverings) were a common practice among Jewish women, especially during public worship, as a symbol of respect to their husbands and to God. This was not the case among the Gentile women. Consequently, when the Gentile believers mingled with the Jewish believers for worship the Jewish women would be easily offended by Gentile women who prayed and prophesied without veils. To Jewish eyes, these unveiled women were flaunting their sexuality rather than showing modesty and humility in worship.
1Cor. 11:2-16 teaches a three-fold spiritual principle:
(1) Headship: God has established an administrative hierarchy of roles:
1Cor. 11:3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
(2) Equality Under God:
1Cor. 11:11-12 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
(3) As Male and Female, Honor God:
1Cor. 11:14-15 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.
Out of respect and honor to God, women should neither hide their femininity nor seek to look male (“have her hair shaved”, v. 6)—that would be a “disgrace” (v.6)—nor flaunt their femininity in corporate worship (her long hair is her God-given glory—v. 15).
That’s why, in that cultural setting, “…if a woman does not cover her head…it is a disgrace” (v.6). For the same reason, men were to keep their heads un-covered during corporate worship, and not have feminine-looking hair (“it is a disgrace to him” — v.14).
For men and women alike, worship is about honoring Christ, their head, even as Christ honors God who is His head (vv. 3-5). Both the context and content show that the “tradition” of women wearing head coverings was not required outside of the corporate worship setting, nor was it intended as a “law” for all time.
Likewise, the tradition of a head covering during corporate worship was an appropriate means in that culture for reinforcing the spiritual principles of headship, equality, and giving glory to God.