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There have been whole denominations that have split over varying interpretations of one chapter of the Bible, which is: 1 Corinthians 11. This is the chapter that deals with women covering their heads when they pray.

Even the Catholics, who are not usually given to literal obedience to things that Paul teaches, have been drawn into this one. It is the reason that so many nuns wear elaborate headgear (called wimples when they cover the neck and chin). Little lace hankies are also worn on the heads of many Catholic women when attending mass.

Protestants, too, have laboured over just how far to take this chapter. Some have ignored it altogether while others require women to wear scarves almost constantly. (After all, the Bible does say, in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, to pray without ceasing, and so if they are going to cover their heads when praying, then they would need to cover their heads without ceasing too, wouldn't they!)

It is strange that American fundamentalists, who insist that every word in the Bible is of equal importance, have recently been so vocal in condemning Muslims for doing exactly what their own theologians have told them that this chapter is teaching Christian women to do, which is to keep their heads covered.

Of course, anyone who has read much of what we teach would probably guess by now that we are not going to teach what has been traditionally taught, even though it seems (on the basis of the various interpretations so far available) like the traditionalists are the ones acting most in accord with what the chapter is literally saying.

However, in our own approach to 1 Corinthians 11, we had a number of clues that something was being overlooked. One clue was just all of the divisions that have resulted over the passage. They couldn't all be right, and it was just as hard to believe that only one of them was right. Another clue that something was being overlooked was the apparent ability of many religious people to supposedly get it right on this one issue and yet be so far off on everything else that the Bible says.

But a third clue is simply the fact this is the only passage in the whole Bible that teaches the head covering doctrine. Jesus never mentioned it. Peter never mentioned it. And to my knowledge, Moses never mentioned it. The Bible says, "Let every word be established in the mouth of two or three witnesses." This principle is a good guide when it comes to any confusing or disputed doctrine. If it is built on only one passage of scripture, it is obviously not something of major importance. That doesn't mean that it is necessarily false, but only that it should not be regarded as a fundamental truth.

So with that approach, we decided to have a closer look at the passage that was causing all of the trouble. And the key to understanding it correctly jumped out at us in the very first verse on the subject (verse 3). Here it is: "I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ."

Remember that we are talking about "head coverings". Look for the word "head" in the passage above, and you are well on your way to understanding what the entire passage is really all about. You will also notice that the various interpretations have fairly consistently left out reference to the heads mentioned in this passage.

The next two verses (verses 4 & 5) say: "Every man who has his head covered while praying or prophesying, disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved."

The confusion comes from the final few words, about a woman with a bald head. Paul is referring to a "tradition" that exists throughout much of the world, of women having long hair and men having short hair. He acknowledges that it seems like "nature" has made this tradition almost universal, in verses 14-16, but he also clearly says that we as Christians have "no such tradition". So obviously, he is only using this tradition (or 'natural' tendency) as an illustration of something spiritual. He knows that people can identify with the idea of a woman being humiliated by having all of her hair shaved off her head. A bald woman, he is saying, is a bit of an oddity... something to gawk and laugh at. And he is saying that a Christian woman should be just as embarrassed to have her "head uncovered" when she is praying.

But remember that the "head" he is talking about being uncovered when she prays is her husband (or some other male leader if she is single). (NOTE: Even the idea of "male" vs "female" is, in our opinion, talking about a deeper spiritual truth and not just which kind of sex organs a person has; but we will not get into that in this article. We will write as though it is just talking about literal males and females, at least to begin with.)

So how should it be disgraceful for a woman to uncover her relationship with her "head" when praying or prophesying? Remember that in spiritual matters she is supposed to be acting in obedience to God or Jesus. She may have some kind of a submissive relationship with her husband in other areas of her life. (And even the most liberated married women need to have SOME kind of rules for co-operation with their husbands if their marriages are going to work.) But when it comes to spiritual matters the husband-wife relationship kind of goes into the background (or under a covering). It should not be lifted up and exposed as evidence of her spirituality. Male-female submission is just an attempt to organise a system of co-operation.

Sadly, the churches that teach most strongly about women covering their heads are often the ones most obsessed with actually FLAUNTING the headship of their husbands. So a piece of cloth on their heads does nothing to achieve what Paul was really talking about. In other words, the head covering teaching as Paul taught it should be more about FREEING women from obsessive teachings about submission to a human authority, and yet it has been turned into a teaching about making human submission even more oppressive and more visible.

I believe that what is being dealt with in this passage is really an important teaching about a paradox that exists in the real world, which can relate to far more than husbands and wives. I will try to explain.

We often find ourselves in situations where we must submit to or co-operate with other people. This submission is important in learning patience and humility. Even extremely liberated groups like the unprogrammed Quakers, with whom I fellowship, still have submission teachings of one sort or another. We are taught to seek out and respect the wisdom of the "meeting" in spiritual matters. We have clerks and elders. There is not total anarchy, and at times the authority that is exercised can be quite startling. All of this is good and necessary, and I fully support it.

But over and over again, throughout history, people have made the mistake of thinking that the human authority (i.e. 'the man' in Paul's way of reasoning) is the beginning and end of God's voice here on earth. And so the human authority is flaunted as the way to spirituality. When that becomes an end in itself, error almost always results.

Paul says that it is okay for 'the man' to uncover his head (Indeed, it is a shame if he does not), but only insomuch as his "head" is Christ. Far too often, all that we see being promoted (as the source of spiritual authority) by the many religious organisations that exist in the world today are other human beings. The particular religious system ends up being offered as the answer to the needs of the world in preference to what should actually be offered, i.e. the (professed) head of that system, which is Christ... or better still, God, who is the real head of Christ.

So the message of 1 Corinthians 11 is that we need to cover up our various systems of authority (in which various humans submit to various other humans) and promote submission to God as the ultimate answer to the world's problems. The political realities of organisations are not bad in themselves; rather they are quite necessary. But they are the means and not the end. If we leave God out of it, our spirituality turns into little more than political debate.

Although I believe strongly in the need for us to be in submission to one another, it is good common sense for each of us to minimise emphasis on that aspect of our Christian walk when trying to communicate what it is that we really stand for. In our relationship with God (prayer) and in our spiritual declaration to the world (prophesying), we should "cover" (or hide) the organisation and our various roles in it. The general public and the media often become obsessed with wanting to know who is in charge, what are the rules, where we meet, when our organisation started, etc. Such information is not secret, but it does miss the real point of our existence. We are not here to promote an individual or an organisation. We are here to build the invisible kingdom of God.

So let's keep our human heads covered and lift up our almighty omniscient eternal Head for the world to see.
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