The term “spiritual covering” has been made popular in the past twenty years, although its idea and practice have existed within the church for much longer. This teaching can take several different forms, but at its root, the message that women need a male “spiritual covering” derives from a belief that the Bible forbids women from ministering publically. According to this teaching, women act contrary to the will of God when they preach or teach within the church—especially if there are men in the audience. Furthermore, according to the teaching of women’s “spiritual covering,” it is only appropriate for women to participate in Christian ministry if they are properly “covered,” or in other words, under the authority of a male who is present. Thus, men must provide oversight of all women’s service in the church—even women’s Bible studies and prayer groups. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians are often interpreted to support this premise. However, when examined, we find that his intention was in fact completely unrelated to these assumptions.
To understand the teaching of “spiritual head covering,” it is important to know why Paul was encouraging women to cover their heads in 1 Corinthians 11. Jewish faith, from which Christianity derived, was characterized by extensive, specific, and strict rules and laws. These rules and laws guided the actions of Jewish believers and distinguished them from the larger world. For Jews, these laws were necessary and important aspects of faith, for being in right relation with God.
Jesus taught however, that those who follow him no longer needed to obey these laws; instead, righteousness was based on faith. As early Christian believers abandoned many of their traditional Jewish customs, their newly-expressed freedom proved controversial for early Christians. Paul wanted those who had stopped practicing the customs of their Jewish faith to live in accord with those who maintained the laws of Judaism.
Paul’s concern for the church in 1 Corinthians, therefore, is unity and mutual love. “I have the right to do anything—but not everything is constructive,” he says in 10:23-24, “no one should seek their own good, but the good of others.” By asking these women to cover their heads while they worshiped, Paul was encouraging respect for the religious and social culture around them, and to create harmony in the church. This is why in 11:13 Paul says, “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?” Paul is asking them to consider how their actions are affecting all believers, as well as the wider culture’s perception of the Christian faith.
Scholars believe that Paul was specifically addressing the practices of a religious cult of his day. The women of Dionysus, a popular cult in Corinth at this time, were known to let their hair down to “prophesy” or pray, and were also known for their sexual promiscuity. Thus long, untamed hair was often associated with sexual immorality; Paul did not want the church to be associated with the immoral activities of this cult.
Moreover, because praying with an uncovered head had sexual connotations at that time, the reputations of these women’s husbands were at stake. Paul was reminding these women that because they were married, they had an obligation to respect and honor their husbands in the way that they worshiped.
In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul was not setting forth universal norms for Christian dress, and he was not prohibiting women from teaching within the church. Paul was not saying that women couldn’t pray and preach apart from the authority of their husbands or fathers, and he was not telling women that they must have a spiritual authority over them. Paul’s concern was unity and respect in the church. In actuality, this passage affirms women’s ability to publically pray and prophesy. In verse 5, Paul assumes and accepts that women are publically prophesying, praying, and teaching in the church.
Don't forget to read Part 2 as well!