by Bob Wheeler
The Truth of Headship and Its Symbolic Practice:
A Study of God’s Grace & Government
Spread the Word
50 pp.; pb
Stephen Hulshizer raises a question about a practice not often observed today, viz., the practice of women wearing headcoverings in public worship. Years ago it was a common practice for women to wear hats in church, yet nowadays it is rarely seen except in a few small groups such as conservative Mennonites with their distinctive coverings. Yet there is a passage of Scripture that seems to enjoin it – I Corinthians 11:2-16. Is this, then, a practice we should be observing today?
Mr. Hulshizer is associated with a fellowship of believers known to outsiders as the “Plymouth Brethren.” In his booklet “The Truth of Headship” he argues the case for women wearing headcoverings in public worship. It is a thought provoking study to say the least.
Mr. Hulshizer begins by laying out the general principles of God’s government of the universe. From the very beginning the universe was structured in such a way that everything was subject to some sort of authority, with everything ultimately subject to God’s authority. Mr. Hulshizer traces the great biblical themes of creation, fall and redemption to show that the governing principle is “loving authority and willing submission.” When man fell he rebelled against God’s authority and created a dysfunctional state of affairs as a result. The purpose of redemption, by the same token, is to restore creation back to its original state of harmony, and with it the basic principle of authority and submission. This observation is especially striking, coming as it does from a teacher from among “the brethren in the assemblies,” since the sharp dispensational contrast between “law” and “grace” can be traced back to one of their early leaders, John Nelson Darby.
Mr. Hulshizer points out that the Father is the Head of Christ, Christ is the Head of man, and man is the head of woman. This sounds like a radical proposition today, but it goes right to the heart of what ails contemporary society – our casting aside of authority altogether. We talk endlessly about “freedom” and “equality,” but cannot make a marriage work with all of its duties and responsibilities.
With all of this in mind Mr. Hulshizer turns to the passage in question, I Corinthians 11: 2-16. On the surface the passage seems clear enough: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head [i.e., her husband . . .] (v. 5; NKJV). But there is a problem here. The passage seems to imply that a woman may pray or prophesy as long as she has her head covered. But I Cor.14:34 specifically states, “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak . . .” The commentators have long puzzled over this. John Calvin took the position that “when the apostle disapproves of the one thing here he is not giving his approval to the other” (Commentary on passage). Mr. Hulshizer takes a similar position. In his view I Cor. 14:34,35 absolutely forbids women to speak in public worship. Thererfore, in Mr. Hulshizer’s view, I Cor. 11:4,5 condemns two different things simultaneously: women leading in prayer and having their heads uncovered in public worship. But his exegesis here is forced. Passage is clearly describing a woman praying or prophesying. It tells us how she should comport herself when she does so. It does not say that she should not pray or prophesy.
The answer, as we have suggested before, is that I Cor. 11 apparently small private gatherings where the Lord’s Table was observed, while I Cor. 14 discusses what should happen when “the whole church comes together in one place” where unbelievers might be present (vv. 22-24). In fact, it could be argued that the whole purpose of the headcovering is to permit women to pray or prophesy while still recognizing their husbands’ authority. Prophesy was clearly a spiritual gift that some women had (Acts 21:9), and was a gift that should be encouraged (I Cor. 14:1, 5; I Thess. 5:19,20).
But does the passage in I Cor. 11 require women to wear some sort of hat or scarf on their heads? Mr. Hulshizer points out that “there is a definite action implied in the text with regard to being covered or uncovered” (p. 38 – you “covered” your head or “uncovered” your head, implying that you are putting on or taking off something). He also notes that simply having long hair was all that Paul had in mind verse 6 would be a nonsense statement (“For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn,” i.e. if she is not covered, let her be uncovered). The Greek terminology that Paul employs in the passage suggests that what he had in mind was some sort of shawl or mantle that a woman can pull up over her hair, effectively covering it.
But isn’t the practice of a woman covering her head merely a cultural adaptation? Something that applied to ancient Middle Eastern society, but not to us today? But Paul goes back to the order of creation, appeals to the sensibilities of angels, and concludes by saying “But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” (v. 16), all of which transcend local culture and custom.
What shall we say, then? Mr. Hulshizer raises an important question but gives a faulty answer. Women praying and prophesying in small private gatherings are clearly in view in I Cor. 11, but they are required to wear something on their heads when doing so.
The passage should clearly be given more serious consideration than it is today, and we are grateful to Mr. Hulshizer for raising the subject.