Signs of the Headship of Christ

P. W. Parsons, London

Category: Study

With the Lord’s oral ministry at an end, there remained much more to be taught after His ascension. Included in this further truth was much concerning the Church and the local churches. To the apostle Paul particularly was given the task of imparting ‘church’ truth; he was to ‘fulfil’ (i.e., complete) certain teaching as stated in Colossians 1. 25.

With the formation of the Church, new conditions were introduced; there needed to be clearly stated and regularized both the individual standing of men and women, and the relationship of the sexes in their gatherings. Individual standing is made clear in Galatians 3. 28, showing the position ‘in Christ Jesus’, but there still remain the practical relationship of the sexes, and other relationships such as parents and children, masters and servants, rulers and subjects.

1 Corinthians 11. 3-16 is the key passage relative to our subject. The Epistle falls into two main divisions, the earlier closing at verse 16 of this chapter. This former portion deals principally, though not exclusively, with what is personal and moral, and in chapters 7 to 11. 16 the way is paved for the main subject of the latter portion, namely the behaviour of Christians when they are ‘in church’,1 as verse 18 can be literally rendered. That this is the principal subject of the latter portion appears from the use of the term ‘come together’ no fewer than seven times, beginning at 11. 17.

Chapter 11 early emphasises headship and subjection; the actual word ‘head’ occurs nine times. The essential equality of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is indisputable, yet headship and subjection pertain even to the Godhead, the relationship being one of function and one willingly assumed. Thus

  • the head of the woman is the man,
  • the head of the man is Christ,
  • and the head of Christ is God, v. 3.

The Sign Displayed by Men

Verse 4 deals with the man praying or prophesying. Prophesying calls for an audience (although prayer may not), since the value of prophesying lies in the fact that others are edified. So a brother leading in prophecy (now superseded by teaching or exposition), or leading in prayer in a company should be ‘uncovered’; to wear a ‘hat’ would dishonour his head.

This was a complete innovation, since normally in religious meetings held by the Jews, which alone had been previously recognized by God, men were ‘covered’. Aaron wore the mitre, and the priests bonnets, Exod. 28. 4, 40. This was necessary because these men were looking on visible and tangible symbols of God’s presence. For the same reason today a Jew, taking the oath in a law court on a copy of the Old Testament, will cover his head, the copy of the Book being, in his view, a similar symbol. These symbols have now passed away, the Christian man himself having become invested with the dignity of being the image (or representative) and the glory of God, with no visible superior, v. 7. By covering his head in such circumstances (as though the ancient symbols were still before him not having been rendered obsolete) he would be disowning the honour newly given him by God, thereby dishonouring the Giver of the honour, even Christ his Head.

This principle would also apply to gatherings ‘in church’. In such a gathering, there is neither Christ’s visible presence nor Old Testament symbols of it. Moreover, every male Christian is deemed to be instantly available for the Holy Spirit to use in a public way, 1 Cor. 14. 26. Hence it would be appropriate for the men to be uncovered. In what may be termed ‘private’ or ‘non-church’ meetings, such as services at a graveside, or in the open-air, brethren who lead should have their heads uncovered.

The Sign Displayed by Women

This needs to be considered against the background of time-honoured customs accepted by God. Moreover, verse 14 states that ‘nature itself’ points the way, the phrase ‘nature itself’ meaning, as in Romans 2. 14, an instinct originally given by God to man and woman. The position is explained in a personal letter from the Librarian of ‘The Jewish Chronicle’:

‘The custom of women covering their hair is a very ancient one amongst Jews, dating back to the pre-Christian period, some say even to biblical days: nor was the custom restricted to the synagogual service alone. It was considered improper for a woman to appear in public without a headcovering. A woman who showed her hair was considered to have revealed her nakedness.

This custom is still maintained in the synagogue to this day. Very orthodox married women still observe the custom outside of the synagogue as well.’

Verse 5 turns to the head-dress, with which is associated the hair, of the woman. Here again, a meeting of some kind is in view since prophesying is mentioned. Women, however, are forbidden to lead ‘in church’, 1 Cor. 14. 34, since men would then be present, and this would be incompatible with the latter’s headship. This is restated in 1 Timothy 2. 12, in an Epistle which deals especially with order in the household of God. Hence the meetings in view must be informal - private gatherings from which men are absent.

The passage does not indicate whether the women in Corinth were veiled or unveiled when leading such a private gathering in either prayer or prophecy, yet certain principles to be observed are laid down - the women are to be veiled or covered when they take the lead. Even though men are not present, the recognition of the woman’s subordinate position is shown by her having ‘power’ (that is, authority) on her head, v. 10. As authority is an abstract thing, it cannot be worn physically, so the phrase can only mean ‘the sign of authority’ on her head, showing that she comes under authority, as she physically comes under the head-covering.

The question both of long hair and head-covering involves a deep difference between the sexes, in that

  1. the man is ‘the image’ of God, that is the visible tangible representative of God, v. 7, and therefore has no superior to be acknowledged by a head-covering, but
  2. the woman is not the image of God (see the ‘but’ in verse 7) and therefore by covering her head when and where necessary she should acknowledge that the man is.

Nothing in this implies that individual women may not be superior in spirituality to individual men; rather, the question is one of constitutional order. So the Son, equal to God and being ever God, took in humanity a position in which He could say, ‘my Father is greater than I’, John 14. 28.

Sometimes it is thought that a woman need not wear a head-covering since her hair is given her for a covering, v. 15. The hair is a mark of distinction between the sexes wherever women may be, but in gatherings for spiritual purposes the head, and therefore the hair itself, needs to be covered. The word ‘covered’ and its variants in reference to the head can only refer to something that can be donned and doffed as necessary.

It has been suggested that Paul had a temporary and local custom in view, according to which an uncovered or shorn head of a woman had an untoward implication. If this were so, a similar implication would be conveyed by the covered head of a man or by his having his hair long, concerning which the Bible uses the strong words ‘dishonour’ and ‘shame’, vv. 4, 14. Of these implications, neither Scripture nor profane literature gives a hint. The fact is that the Holy Spirit, through Paul, is dealing with matters of permanent and general application. The phrase ‘because of the angels’ lifts the subject above the level of local and temporary customs or fashions; these pass away, but angels still look on.

That the principles should be adhered to in actual ‘church’ gatherings is even more important. An assembly is intended by God to be a display (see Eph. 3. 10; 1 Tim. 5. 21), and among the striking features displayed to angels would be order, headship and subjection, with the saints (both men and women) keeping to their appointed spheres, and maintaining the signs of it in the absence or presence of a head-covering, and in having short or long hair. Some angels in the past had not kept to their appointed sphere, Jude 6, and had been judged and chained up. The lessons which these angels had not learned are now emphasized to the remaining holy angels, as they see God’s order maintained in an assembly. The abiding presence of angels as onlookers justifies the present continuance of what Paul has laid down. If the status of the man was to be recognized by women in his absence, how much more so in his presence! The question is sometimes asked, ‘Where is a scripture for insisting that women are to wear a head-covering “in church”?’. It would be more appropriate to ask, ‘Where is the scripture which says that women may discard a headcovering?’, it originally being the custom for women to wear one in religious gatherings. There is no such scripture, and Paul leaves matters where they were; evidently ‘in church’ women continued to wear head dress, and there was no need for correction.

In Corinth in Paul’s day, the subject was as acute for the man as for the woman, if not more so; today, perplexities arise since the passage is usually regarded as difficult to understand. For men, the response is more negative since it is easy to uncover the head; at the same time, there is a danger that this can be a mere custom (particularly if one does not normally wear a hat outside!) instead of being done consciously and heartily as to the Lord. For women, the response is more positive, the kind of head-covering and the length of hair sometimes presenting difficulties. In order to help those who seek guidance, it is suggested that a complete covering is more appropriate, and this not to avoid offending brethren but with the higher motive of pleasing God. As far as hair is concerned, it is sometimes said that this can be shortened without its being either shorn or shaven. Yet the hair is a woman’s ‘glory’; it is something that contributes to her beauty and distinguishes her as the complement of the man; the tenor of Scripture is that it should be allowed to grow as long as possible, long enough if possible to enable its owner to do what Mary did, were the occasion to arise, John 12. 3. With the eye of faith upon the Lord, individual questions of hygiene, convenience and fashion would vanish away.

1 Believers are always ‘in the Church’, but only ‘in church’ when they are gathered together for collective spiritual activities of worship, etc., as a local church.

An expanded version of this paper may be obtained from the author at 3 Leafield Road, Merton Park, London, S.W.20.