Does 1 Cor. 11: 2–16, requiring women to wear hats in church, apply today?
The passage does not speak of hats as such, but of head–coverings––which may or may not be hats. Nor is its application confined to ‘in church’––a woman “prophesying” (v5) in the assembly uncovered, would not only be flouting the apostle’s teaching here, but also the inspired word requiring women to “be silent in the assemblies” (1 Cor. 14: 34).
The popular interpretation of these verses assumes that they can only be understood in the light of the Corinthian culture prevailing when they were written. Those conditions no longer exist it is said, and hence Paul’s teaching regarding the head–covering is deemed to have no direct, practical relevance for Christians today. Thus the modern Christian woman feels perfectly at liberty to pray uncovered (though, strange to say, the reverse situation of men praying with their heads covered is almost never found).
The danger of using culture (or any other external source of information such as archaeology or science) to interpret Scripture, is that we are using the fallible to interpret the infallible. We are relying on the accuracy of mere human knowledge to provide an understanding of what is divine. What a sorry situation to come to! It may be that because of our circumstances we are unacquainted with the views of the ‘experts’. Are we poorer because of that? No, for the Bible is its own interpreter. Background knowledge is interesting, and sometimes enlightening, but it is never indispensable.
If we stick to what God tells us (rather than what historians tell us), we find that “every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered puts her own head to shame” (1 Cor. 11: 5). Note that word “every”. You can argue about the how extensive its meaning was intended to be, but in the absence of Scriptural evidence to the contrary, the word ought simply to be left to mean what it says––every. Not just the Corinthians, but every woman praying (as well as the reverse injunction with regard to the men––though that has largely been spared attack). This fact is strengthened by verse 16, “if any one think to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor the assemblies of God”. Some in Corinth might contend with the apostolic teaching on head–coverings, but elsewhere such contention was absent. The implication is that the doctrine was not merely of local application, but universal.
So why every woman? It has to be every woman because it is based on the order set down in creation: “For man indeed ought not to have his head covered, being God’s image and glory; but woman is man’s glory. For man is not of woman, but woman of man. For also man was not created for the sake of the woman, but woman for the sake of the man. Therefore ought the woman to have authority on her head” (vs 7–10). This has nothing to do with culture or tradition or even religion. It is creatorial. The woman was of the man (see Gen. 2: 22), and she ought to recognise his headship. She admits it by keeping what nature has given her––her long hair (see 1 Cor. 11: 15); she positively affirms it by covering her head when praying.
If the injunction was for the Corinthian situation only, what are we to make of verse 10 which speaks of the woman having authority (that is, a head–covering) “on her head on account of the angels”? Immediately preceding this verse is what we have just been speaking about, namely that the doctrine of the head–covering is based on God’s creatorial order. That order, seen in the women wearing head–coverings when praying, is surely what the angels are to witness. That this should only be in Corinth and not elsewhere, (or not today) is clearly nonsensical. What the angels witness today is largely an insubordination to God’s order. You may say that you admit the headship of the man over the woman, but what the angels are presented as looking for here is the head–covering and if you do not have it you are in disorder––whatever you may say. Yes, it is only an outward symbol, but, just like baptism, it is a symbol with meaning.
The passage also teaches that “Christ is the head of every man ... and the Christ’s head God” (v3). Man recognises the headship of Christ over him by praying to God in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (see John 16: 24). Now is Christ’s head still God? Yes! Is man’s head still Christ? Yes––a fact we acknowledge by praying in His name. But this is not all: “woman’s head [is] the man”, and this fact is just as much operative today as the others. That being so, we must join with the apostle in saying “Therefore ought the woman to have authority on her head” (v10).