Head Covering: A Revelation of Jesus Christ

He is the head of the body, the church. Col. 1:18

I’ve just finished reading Frank Viola’s Reimagining a Woman’s Role in the Church: An Open Letter.

As always, Frank makes some good points. And he does it in an extremely readable way. I like what he says, and I would certainly recommend his article to anyone interested in the debate.

Yet there may be more to this issue. As Frank writes in his conclusion: “Perhaps more rounds are needed, but this is all I have time for at the moment. Maybe someday I’ll try to redress the deficiencies. So please accept it in that vein: It’s a stab at something, not a finished product.”

So this led me to write and share what is on my heart.

The Unbelievable Importance of Head Covering

No, that’s not a typo. And please don’t stop reading. Head covering is important. Extremely important. More important, I think, than what we have ever even begun to realise.

And yes, it is in the Bible.

Does this mean that I think the ladies should have scarves handy during times of fellowship? Not necessarily. (Did I hear a sigh of relief?).

Form, Essence, Kisses and Feet

Perhaps an explanation will be in order. When something is important it does not mean that its form is immutable. For instance, brotherly love is an extremely important issue in Scripture. Paul feels so strongly about this that he commands us to greet one another with a holy kiss. Not once, but four times! (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26). Likewise, Peter tells his readers to greet one another with a “kiss of love” (1 Pet. 5:14).

How about that? The Bible speaks more about the necessity of kissing one another than it does about ninety percent of the things most Christians are happy to split churches over. To make matters worse, Augustine and other early Christian primary sources tell us that the holy kiss was a mouth to mouth affair and not, as is oftentimes assumed, mouth to cheek or cheek to cheek.

I once knew an elderly gentleman who took these verses extremely seriously. Before services he guarded the front door of the Pentecostal church I frequented like a lion guarding a fresh carcass. No one made it past him without receiving a sudden forceful kiss.

Imagine being slapped on the mouth with wet sandpaper. That’s what it felt like. Twice on Sundays and once on Wednesdays.

The experience was neither holy nor very loving. In his sincere effort to preserve the form of brotherly love the elderly brother lost its essence. His actions had a reverse effect. Ironically, he would have been more faithful to Paul and Peter’s instructions if he hadn’t stuck to their formula. A big old bear hug (holy hug?) would have communicated far more love than one of his kisses.

And then… there is the issue of foot washing. Remember Jesus’ crystal clear command? “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13: 14-15).

Nothing ambiguous here. Yet there is a broad consensus amongst most Christians that you would probably be a far greater blessing to your neighbor if you washed his car instead of his feet.

The principle is simple. You cannot read the Bible without considering its cultural context. Frank has done a superb job clarifying this in his open letter, so I won’t elaborate on it. Suffice it to say that brotherly kisses and foot washing were as common in Jesus’ time as Google searches are in ours. And so they were ideally suitable as vehicles to communicate certain gospel truths.

Hairless Harlots

Now here’s an interesting point – the myth that the prostitues in Corinth had a habit of shaving their heads and that this had something do with Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians.

I have never heard a single person argue that Jesus commanded foot washing because pimps had dirty feet. Or that Peter and Paul’s obsession with kisses on the mouth sprouted from an earnest attempt to distinguish the early Christians from the cult of Basilius whose members kissed one another in the neck.

Yet the issue of head covering has birthed some of the most outlandish eisegetical acrobatics ever.

Why? Because it is easy to figure out why kissing and foot washing were important to the early Christians. To conclude that there are more preferable methods by which we can greet and serve one another today does not require much thinking either. And so Christians don’t generally see a need to come up with all kinds of reasons to explain their seeming disregard of a Biblical imperative.

On the other hand, the symbolism behind Paul’s instructions regarding head covering has always been a fuzzy for most Christians. Oh, we understand that head covering for women was as much a part of the first century Christian experience as was kissing and foot washing. What we do not understand is the spiritual significance behind it. We get the form of the thing. It is the essence that befuddles us. And so it is very difficult to adapt the form whilst preserving the content.

This means that we are hard pressed to come up with explanations as to why it is no longer necessary to take 1 Corinthians 11 seriously. Our theological confusion prohibits us to find a suitable contemporary alternative or corresponding symbol for whatever the point was that Paul was making, and so we simply wish the whole thing away. But we dare not do so without reason, and so we come up with novel rationalisations that transmogrify themselves into ecclesiastical myths before too long.

You might have heard that Corinth’s ladies of the night had the strange habit of shaving their heads, and that this is the reason why Paul said that a woman without head covering might just as well go ahead and rid herself of her locks.

This information has proven to be a relief for many who have struggled with the issue, and the reason is obvious. If we can prove that the reference to the shaved head was merely a Corinthian issue, then it becomes much easier to suggest that the head covering was as well, for the two are clearly inextricably linked in Paul’s mind: “Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved.”

Yet the historical evidence backing the prostitute theory is flimsy, to say the least. Most contemporary commentaries that take this line simply quote from other (usually slightly less contemporary) commentaries. Understandably so, for real historical evidence is hard to come by. Furthermore, a brief survey of the subject in question reveals that there are many versions of this idea (as is the case with most urban legends), with some of them quite contradictory.

Still, it is easier to overlook these facts than to live with the implications of accepting that Paul was perhaps making a deep and spiritually profound point. And so we resort to shoddy exegesis to override our cognitive dissonance. We would rather trivialise Paul than revert to a tradition that would make us the laughing stock of the evangelical world.

But would God really put us in such a predicament? I doubt it.

Why We are Confused

Perhaps this is a good opportunity to allow Paul to speak for himself. (When last have you read this passage attentively?).

Note that I have digressed from the conventional numbering of the verses and divided the passage into six paragraphs. Each is followed by a commentary:

1. I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.

Need I say more?

2. Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

Here, I believe, lies the key. Note that Paul is expressing a wish. He wants us to realise that there is a divine order. The man stands under the headship of God and Christ. The woman does so too, but she also stands under the headship of the man. She has “two heads” whilst the man only has one (for the purposes of this discussion I shall refer to Christ and God as a single “head”.)

Now here we need to note something. Even though women regularly wore head covering in the world of Jesus and Paul, there was no unanimity as to what exactly was symbolized by it. A quick glance at the literature of the period makes that abundantly clear. Furthermore, men regularly also wore head covering, and they were oftentimes expected to do so when praying. We cannot therefore assume that Paul was reinforcing a well-known and generally accepted understanding of the meaning of head covering in this passage.

Also, take into account that the so-called ”ancient world” might seem like a homogenous society from our point of view, but that it certainly was not. In this regard I highly recommend Josh Spiers online article “A Spontaneous Post About ‘The Bible Days”.” It is a concise but helpful commentary on the glib way in which we use the term, and a profitable read for anyone interested in the debate (or in the Bible, for that matter).

The point is that we find ourselves on very shaky ground when we attempt to explain what Paul “really meant” in this passage by appealing to the cultural peculiarities of one Roman city in 1st century Greece. To make matters worse, in this case we are speaking about a single cultural peculiarity.

Do we really think that a trivial and insignificant temporary measure would have found its way into the majesty of what we know as First Corinthians? Do we really think Paul would have introduced it with the two sentences above and concluded it with the statement in paragraph 6 of our text (verse 16) if that were the case?

Lastly, even if it can be irrefutably proven that some damsels of ill repute shaved their hair in Corinth, how do we know that this was the inspiration behind Paul’s comment? Have we never heard of circumstantial evidence?

Allowing Scripture to Interpret Itself

What would happen if we forget about trying to find some cultural cause behind Paul’s statements and rather look for an explanation in the passage itself? What would happen if we assumed that Paul was in fact interpreting the symbolism behind head covering not from an existing cultural understanding but from a whole new vantage point, namely the hitherto unheard of order of authority above? Does that not make more sense, especially in light of the fact that he starts this sentence with “I want you to know that…”?

I believe it does. I also believe that the passage pretty much interprets itself when we take Paul’s three levels of authority as a paradigm for unlocking the mystery.

But before we consider this, let us look at the third paragraph:

3. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.

The important words in this passage are “just as though”. A woman’s uncovered head during prayer or prophecy is so similar to a shaved head that she might as well go right ahead and shave her hair off.

Now why might that be? If we disregard the prostitute theory, and limit ourselves to the text, the explanation is embarrassingly obvious. It follows in the fourth and fifth paragraphs:

4. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.

5. In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.

Note the last sentence: “For long hair is given to her as a covering.” This sentence has proven so befuddling to some commentators that they concluded that the entire covering issue is resolved if a woman has long hair. The long hair is thus seen as the covering spoken of in paragraph 3.

But this is not what the text says. Paul says that the absence of a head covering is “just as though her head were shaved.” He likens the two by saying that they are similar, not that they are one and the same thing. Long hair is not “the” head covering”, but “a” head covering”. And herein lies the key to Paul’s “just as though” statement. If a woman does not honour the principle of head covering spoken of in paragraph 3, then neither should she honour the principle of head covering spoken of in paragraph 5. Disregarding the one is exactly the same as disregarding the other. That is how great the similarity is!

This raises a question: How is a head covering made of fabric “similar” to the natural head covering of hair? Obviously they both “cover” the head of the woman, but what does this mean?

The answer, as I have pointed out, lies in Paul’s introductory statement regarding God’s order of authority. Let us look at it again:

Do you see that the woman has “two heads”? Now note that Paul defines a head covering as “a sign of authority” in paragraph 4. Authority is a rather abstract concept, and so it needs to be signified, which is what a visible covering is all about. And herein lies the key:

2 Heads = 2 Authorities = 2 Signs of authority = 2 Coverings.

A woman has two heads under whose protection and covering she finds herself, and so two symbols are required to distinguish between the two. The covering of fabric (COF) represents one of these, and the covering of hair (COH) the other. It is, I believe, as simple as that.

Which is Which?

This raises another question: “Which is which?”

One way of answering this is to look at Paul’s instructions regarding the COF. This covering becomes operational when a woman prays or prophesies, that is, when she speaks directly to God or when God speaks directly through her. Clearly she finds herself directly under the authority of God in both cases, and so we can safely assume that the COF is a sign of God’s authority.

On the other hand, Paul forbids the women in Corinth to speak in the assembly and instructs them to “ask their husbands at home” if they desire to learn (1 Cor. 14:34-35). This type of speaking is clearly distinguished from chapter 11’s admissible ministry of prayer and prophesy (assuming that Paul was referring to the assembly of believers in paragraphs 3 to 5 above), and herein the woman is to respect the authority of her husband.

We can thus safely assume that the COH is a sign of the husband’s authority. This is the “natural” state of affairs and explains why women worldwide are generally associated with having long hair. Nature itself has provided the female species with a “sign of authority” on their heads, signifying the universal truth that “the head of the woman is man”. Men need no such sign, and so their hair is designed to thin and fall out. This explains why it is a “disgrace” for a man to have long hair.

These observations are vital. But there is actually a much simpler way to get to the same answer. We merely need to compare Paul’s levels of authority with the physical order in which the coverings appear on the woman to find it:

The answer is the same as the one above, and the message is clear: A woman wearing a head covering is a living, walking, talking representation of God’s order of authority. When she ministers she does so under the covering of one who covers both her and her husband. Her ministry is never an independent one. It is not done apart from her husband, but rather under the authority of one who is greater than both her and her husband.

This is the meaning of the sentence “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman” (Par 5 of our text). When a woman ministers she remains under her head, but for the duration of her ministry her head is covered by the greater head of God and Christ. As the symbols clearly communicate: She still has her hair, but it is not seen. Rather, God’s authority is seen. And so her ministry is legitimised and sanctioned by the calling and gifting of God. She is “in the Lord”, and yet she is not “independent of man”.

This explains why a woman who does not acknowledge the symbolism of the COF might just as well be consistent and deny the symbolism of the COH. If she does not want to indicate God’s authority during times of prayer or prophecy, then neither should she indicate het husband’s authority during the rest of the time. She might just as well shave her head. Denying one symbol of authority is tantamount to denying the other.

The Mystery of Ephesians 5

The symbolism makes it possible for women to minister powerfully in the Lord without undermining one of the greatest doctrines of Scripture, namely Paul’s “great mystery” of Ephesians 5.

The picture of the man leaving his father’s house to cleave to his wife is really a picture of Christ and the church, Paul says. So is the ensuing marriage relationship. Wives should submit to their husbands in everything as the church submits to Christ, and husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

Marriage is a picture of the relationship between Christ and his bride. The church is the “wife of the Lamb”, we read in Revelation 19. Similarly, the wife is the body of the husband as the church is the body of Christ. They are “one flesh”. The woman “came from man” and were “created for man” (par 4 of our text). They came from “one flesh” (She is “flesh of my flesh”, Adam said in Genesis 2:23) and were separated with the express purpose of becoming “one flesh” again (They shall “become one flesh”, God said in Genesis 2:24).

Why was the separation necessary? Even though the woman was “in the man” in the beginning, a relationship between them was impossible. He was regarded as being “alone”, which was “not good” (Gen. 2:18). The only suitable helpmeet, it turned out, was one that had not been “formed out of the ground” (2:19) but from Adam’s own bone and flesh. The woman had to come “from man” in order to be suitable “for man”.

In this sense the woman is the “glory” of man. Her existence speaks of her origin, and so glorifies it, just as the man is depicted as being the “glory and image of God” in the same paragraph. She once was covered by man, but then uncovered to be covered again, albeit in a glorious form the second time around. The man is to cover her as Christ covers the church. He is to love and protect her with his very life, just as Christ did.

Throughout all of the above, the mystery is revealed. The church, who was chosen “in Him, before the foundation of the world” in Ephesians’ first chapter, is presented “to Himself glorious” in Ephesians’ fifth chapter.

The refrain of Ephesians, of course, is the term “in Him.” The church is born from the spirit, not the flesh. She has her origin in Jesus Christ Himself. She was taken out of Him, as it were, in order to become one with Him. She is both “from Him” and “for Him”. She was uncovered for the express purpose of being covered “in Him” yet again.

It is for this reason that the issue of “covering” is no small one, as pointed out at the beginning of this article.

Man Born from Woman…

The beauty of this story concluded with an interesting remark. Note again the sentence in paragraph 5: “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.”

Even though the woman was taken out of the man, the man in his present state cannot exist without the woman. He is “born” from her, even as Jesus Christ was “born from woman” (Gal. 4:4). This reveals the remarkable place of the woman in God’s eternal purpose. It also provides the most probable explanation as to why God has created the hair of a woman as a symbol of the man as her “covering.” Even though she is covered and protected by it, it is something that miraculously traces its origin to her own body, that begins within it, comes out of it and grows to ultimately cover it.

She births her own hair, to put it differently.

Women and Ministry

As mentioned earlier, the symbolism of the two “coverings” makes it possible for women to minister powerfully in the Lord without undermining that which is symbolised by marriage. The authority of a woman’s husband is never removed during her ministry, but rather subjected to an even higher authority, namely one who “covers” both the woman and the man.

Clearly this is the issue underlying Paul’s statements about women and ministry. In writing to Timothy, he says: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”

The order of creation, which has as its purpose the revelation of Christ and the church, must remain intact during the assembly of the saints. That is Paul’s main concern. The mystery of marriage is now revealed, and so the headship of Christ and submission of the church must be consistently modeled in the relationship between men and women throughout the churches. This may explain why the passage is concluded with the following sentence:

6. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

This has nothing to do with sexism, discrimination or cultural peculiarities, but with God’s eternal purpose in Jesus Christ. Just as God has called some to be apostles and others to be evangelists, he has assigned different ministries to the sexes as far as headship and submission are concerned. Women are created as the “weaker partner” (1 Pet. 3:7), a fact that is so evident and indisputable that we do not even need a spiritual voice like Peter’s to inform us of it. The Wimbledon finals can do that. (Note: Some commentators seem to have found this statement offensive. What I meant was that the physical biological differences between the sexes are so obvious that women and men compete in different categories throughout the world of sports.)

The biological peculiarities of a woman’s physical strength and hair, and even the temperamental peculiarities that have given rise to books about the sexes and the planets, all testify to the fact that she has a very specific calling regarding God’s great declaration of the relationship between Jesus Christ and the church. The mother of all grand narratives needs to be proclaimed, and for that to happen the actors and the script must be in place. The woman has been given very specific lines in this drama, and it was the scriptwriter’s prerogative to do so.

And so, when it comes to issues of leadership and authority, the woman’s calling is not to lead but to submit “as the church submits to Christ”. This submission is so much a part of her calling that it should even be evident during those times when God uses a woman powerfully in the assembly of the saints. Hence Paul’s extremely practical, albeit it novel interpretation and application of the well-known tradition of head covering.

The principle is clear: A woman’s exclusive calling regarding the above was never intended to inhibit her ministry. Rather, it was to define it according to the overriding message of the Bible. God’s eternal passion is for his bride, and he has chosen the woman as the glorious portrayal of her. This is not to inhibit her ministry, but to expand it beyond anything imaginable.

A Contemporary Corresponding Symbol?

This brings us to the question posed at the beginning of this article. Once we understand the essence portrayed by a now culturally defunct symbol, such as brotherly love communicated through holy kisses, how do we find a contemporary corresponding symbol, such as the “holy hug”?

Is there a present-day symbol that can do for us what head covering did for the early Christians?

To answer this, let us consider some of the practical implications of head covering during a Corinthian church service. The moment a woman covered her head it would have been an indication to men and angels that she was about to minister ”in the Lord”. She was not going against Paul who did not allow women to speak in church and she was not dishonouring her husband. Her head covering was a “sign of authority”, pretty much like a policeman’s uniform that represents the authority of the state. As such she would immediately have an audience, and no one would wonder what she was about to do or why.

Whilst part of this arrangement clearly expresses the timeless symbolism associated with head covering, it would appear that another part does not. In Corinth, it seems, the head covering doubled as a measure to maintain some sort of order during the assembly of the saints, according to first century standards. This included the enforcement of culturally excepted norms regarding the way in which women were expected to behave in public. It may also include Paul’s instruction regarding a specific problematic situation in Corinth.

The obvious way to do this was to apply the principle of head covering as a measure. Paul was not acting outside of his apostolic jurisdiction and he was not using God’s word as some sort of a weapon. Rather, he was merely applying a spiritual principle to regulate a meeting in accordance with culturally accepted norms, or to address a problem specific to the church in Corinth.

But we live in different times, and in our day and age it is not improper for women to speak in public meetings. And so there is no need to regulate their speaking or to inhibit them in the same way that Paul did, and certainly no need to use some or other symbol in doing so.

Yet this does not mean that the symbol of head covering can go the way of the Dinosaurs. This fact has been missed by many expositors of the passage. As we have seen, head covering represents infinitely more than a temporary and circumstantial application to regulate the order of a service according to culturally accepted norms. To reduce it to such a level is to miss Paul’s point altogether and to make the baby part of the bath water.

For example, Jesus’ words “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” contain a timeless principle applied in a specific cultural setting. Christians today need not be concerned with looking for Caesar, but that does not mean that they don’t have to pay their taxes. Similarly, a woman’s ministry is still subject to the high calling of reflecting the church’s position as the bride of the groom, and in this sense the symbolism of head covering remains relevant.

So how do we substitute that? How we transfer the timeless truth of Paul’s teaching to the church of today?

To be honest, I don’t think we can or should. At least not by using some or other material substitute, ritual or ceremony. If we agree that it is not advisable to reinstitute a Corinthian type of head covering, then we are left with the bare essence of Paul’s teaching, and that should be enough. We are to view and accept this matter in faith, and apply the principle without the benefit of its form.

Most of us no longer wash the feet of the saints with water and soap, but we adhere to the timeless principle underlying it through random acts of loving service. In the same way, the picture of Christ and his bride must remain intact during the assembly of the saints. This will do justice to Paul’s teaching.

Of course there is a practical implication here. And certainly some discussion is called for, which is what I hope to stir up with this post. What does “submission” look like when the saints gather in the 21st century? If we believe this to be a timeless, non-negotiable principle that must be modeled at all times for the sake of revealing the mystery of Ephesians 5, how do we do it? How does it impact on the public ministry of the sexes?

Remember that we are not arguing here for or against the principle of submission. My request for comments is based on a very definite hypothesis: The submission of a woman to her husband has absolutely nothing to do with the cultural peculiarities of the “Bible times” or the ungodly suppression of women, the latter being a conclusion that is so obvious in my mind that I do not even wish to touch on it. Rather, God has ordained it for the purpose of revealing the grand narrative of the ages in and though the single institution that pretty much makes the world go around: The relationship between a man and a woman, especially as it culminates in marriage.

If this is really the issue, and if Paul’s instructions on head covering was a vital teaching to illustrate and enforce this, how does it impact on the way we meet today? Does it restrict a woman’s public ministry in any way? If so, how? Is Paul’s practical instructions to Timothy, regarding women and teaching, still valid today? Are their forms of ministry that are incompatible with the calling of reflecting the position of the submissive “bride”?

I have some thoughts on this, such as that the “elders who rule” were men for this very reason, and that they should remain so in our day and age. But mostly, I would like to hear what you think, and I would especially like to hear from my sisters in Christ. I believe the above interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11 provides a perspective that calls for a new type of discussion, one that is free from the typical politics that have plagued these debates in the past.

I suspect we have lost sight of the main issue. If so, it would be refreshing to explore this topic yet again with the main issue back in its place.

Looking forward to hearing from you.


16 thoughts on “Head Covering: A Revelation of Jesus Christ

  1. Jim Puntney (@JimPuntney) May 30, 2012 / 3:05 am

    Thoughtfully, and lovingly presented this topic seems to be boiled down to surrendering our will to that of Gods will. The cross is essential in our coming together, and in Him we can do all things.

    • naturalchurch May 30, 2012 / 3:42 am

      Thanks for pointing this out, Jim. There is so much in our faith that requires death to self and a denial of the ego. Why would it be different here? Both instructions in Ephesians 5, to “submit as the church submits to Christ” and to “love as Christ loved the church”, demand exactly this. For this living parable to remain intact a constant and continuing work of the cross in both the woman and the man is vital.

  2. Sanet May 30, 2012 / 9:11 am

    This is very miserable Tobie, and the style deviates from much of your previous excellent posts. You warn against the trend of over-examining fuzzy messages from scripture in a desperate attempt to fit it to current cultural norms, which is a good point by the way. However, your own explanation is nothing new, and countless women encounter this way of thinking, ad nauseum, which is, to me, discouraging and an unnecessary hindrance.
    I am a great fan of Paul, but I recognise that he was a fallible human like all of us, and subject to the views of his time, although he was certainly a great thinker and even comparatively liberal. Yet, I find it amusing when a man, having had no experience of what it means to be a woman (indeed Paul was not even married), tries to explain what all women should be (and the same goes for women who stereotype men). In case you think I am missing his main point, I have noted his symbolism and find it fascinating. However, when viewing today’s interpretations of his philosophies, I am in principle critical of arguments posed in the style of “all men this”, or “all women that”, or “all anything”, not only because there are always exceptions, but more because there is always variety. Personally, I would much rather wear a head covering and be required to dress modestly, than be classified as a creature of secondary worth, even if this implied headship by men is dressed up as being under the “protection” of a man, which is not actually comforting in any way (see my last point).
    I could go on and on with so many counterarguments and examples that you have probably already anticipated, but I would rather bring to your attention something that seems to be neglected in arguments about gender roles, whether spiritual or otherwise: what about people who are born as hermaphrodites or pseudohermaphrodites (note: not simply homosexual)? With everything we have been taught by the church on gender roles and the sanctity of marriage and family, and what we are told is the “natural” course of life, i.e., as planned by God, where would these people fit in? They might be a minority group (they are not extremely rare), but their mere existence, and the fact that they have been created by God in this way, weakens any argument in favour of stereotypical “God-ordained” gender roles. These messages and symbolism would also be rather less meaningful to such atypical people and situations.
    In this context, Paul’s symbolism should perhaps be used with more caution and not expanded too far beyond the particular situation in which he first proclaimed it. If we over-use gender symbolism in attempting to understand God’s mysterious plan, we run the risk of misuse of this scripture. This popular discussion on the authority of men in contemporary times have left me with a very bad attitude and impression, and I have trouble seeing beyond this: in my opinion, most men who repeat these old arguments are simply afraid of relinquishing the power that they have always believed to be God-given. Many women can see their fear and it does not encourage respect. It also contradicts one main message found throughout the Bible: that all are dependent on God and none of our power is inherent.
    I apologise if this comment is overly long and apparently abrasive. I did not aim it against you specifically, but attempted to discuss more generally, and to fill in some gaps in your discussion.

    • naturalchurch May 30, 2012 / 10:17 am

      Thanks for your comments, Sanet. I can assure you that my views have nothing to do with stereotypical gender roles, or the “power” of men, or any such thing. They are based on Paul’s own testimony that the relationship between the sexes signifies the relationship between Christ and his bride. I would be untruthful to my own conscience if I were to disregard teaching that Paul himself regarded as revelational. The way in which this fundamental premise works itself out in our day and age is another story, and that is what this discussion is all about. The only way to completely ignore the question “What does the submission of Eph. 5:22 look like in the 21st century?” is to conclude that the entire passage (verses 22-33) is no longer relevant, and I simply cannot get myself to do this. Regarding your reference to hermaphrodites: Of course there are exceptions to the norm, but that is not what I have in mind here. My focus is on the reasonable, godly man and woman who stands in a loving, Christian relationship of marriage.

      • Sanet May 30, 2012 / 11:47 am

        I hate to point this out but: “This has nothing to do with sexism, discrimination or cultural peculiarities, but with God’s eternal purpose in Jesus Christ. Just as God has called some to be apostles and others to be evangelists, he has assigned different ministries to the sexes as far as headship and submission are concerned. Women are created as the “weaker partner” (1 Pet. 3:7), a fact that is so evident and indisputable that we do not even need a spiritual voice like Peter’s to inform us of it. The Wimbledon finals can do that.

        The biological peculiarities of a woman’s physical strength and hair, and even the temperamental peculiarities that have given rise to books about the sexes and the planets, all testify to the fact that she has a very specific calling regarding God’s great declaration of the relationship between Jesus Christ and the church. The mother of all grand narratives needs to be proclaimed, and for that to happen the actors and the script must be in place. The woman has been given very specific lines in this drama, and it was the scriptwriter’s prerogative to do so. ”

        I find this passage restrictive and packed with stereotypes (and no I did not consider it out of context, it is only one example). Even so, it is just same old same old and it doesn’t really bother me that much.

        Rest assured, I did read your entire post with great attention and also viewed it as a whole. I realise that some essential points always go astray when putting thoughts to paper or screen. Also rest assured that I have nothing against a Christian marriage, and will be part of one soon. I am very grateful that I encounter no sexism at my work or my church or from my husband to be. I simply care for those, man and woman, who still have to live with it. Above all, I did not try to point out exceptions to the rule, but rather variety. I could have used many other examples. In my experience, nothing in our world or our relationship with God is clear-cut and easy to categorise and His purpose for us is unpredictable. I would not have it any other way. I can not help but notice deviations from the culturally accepted norms, and then analysing it in all contexts. In fact, this view has enhanced my appreciation of Scripture and the Hand of God, and did nothing to break it down. This includes Paul’s teachings.

    • Revien van der Westhuizen May 30, 2012 / 11:08 am

      “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped…” Phil 2:5&6. “…and the head of Christ is God” 1 Cor 11
      Why do we women find it so offensive when we hear the words “submit to your head/husbands, when we are told to have the same attitude as Christ Jesus, who did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself and submitted as God the Son to God the Father as His Head?
      Just a little by way of testimony: When I started studying the Word by the grace of God, I occasionally wished that God had rather created me a man so that I could partake in the various interesting biblical discussions and debates the men always seemed to have (rather than exchange Muffin recipes with the women) (no offense intended)). So I must confess that I did feel rather ‘inferior’, and thought the same as Sanet regarding Paul: that perhaps he did not “understand” women and “He was not even married” I was often told! Till the day that I understood that the Word was written by men moved by the Holy Spirit, and every Word was God breathed – (literally translated “God-breathing” i.e. in the present tense – still relevant for today). Wow, God, in His wisdom, created me a woman. He chose to make me the “weaker” vessel (not inferior), with a gentle and quiet spirit which is “very costly” in (His) sight (1 Pt 3:4 & 7) and to find my place beside my husband as his helpmeet. To submit to him as my head and covering as he loves me and gives himself for me. What a blessing! Does this make me the inferior person in my marriage and in the meetings of the saints? Not at all! Rather, it gives me a boldness and a confidence as I take my God-given place under the covering of my husband and my God.
      Thank you for this post Tobie, it is a blessing.

  3. David Bolton May 31, 2012 / 3:27 am

    Tobie, thanks for the time that you put into this post and for the courage to plunge into the fray on a very significant, yet extremely “hot” topic. I printed it out and read it through once. I will go through it again and chew on it a little more. I wanted to give some initial feedback though, and share some thoughts. First, I appreciated the spirit in which you engaged with this subject. It was respectful of others, but unashamed of stating your convictions, even when taking a rather unpopular position in the eyes of many who may follow your blog. This is a subject that is so fundamental to the functioning and testimony of the Church, and yet so fraught with personal and even apparent Scriptural difficulties that it really calls for the absolute best out of all of us to work it through in a spirit of unity. Secondly, I appreciated the insights that you brought to the table, a number of which I had not heard or considered before. Thirdly, I appreciate your desire for open dialogue. If we all would come with those three things to offer, the Body of Christ could make some real headway in discerning the mind of the Lord, and rightly dividing His Word in controversial subjects such as this. So, thank you.

    I would also like to add a few words of encouragement to those who are wrestling with and working through the realities and ramifications of these things. First, we need to get our understandings, convictions and beliefs from that which is pure, and that which is sure. We should never base our pursuit of truth on a reaction to error or a negative experience. This will only cause us to pendulum swing to the opposite extreme. The Psalmist said, “In your light, we see light.”, not, “In reaction to error and pain we see light.” We need to go to the pristine source of God and His eternal purpose and find “light” there. In regards to this subject of headship and submission, we do have some pure examples to learn from too. We have the example of how the Father covers, and is the head of His Son.; and how the Son submits to the Father. What can we learn from this example in this matter of authority and submission?? Much! Secondly, we have the pristine example of how Christ covers the Church and is her Head; and also how the Church is to submit to Christ. What does that teach us about these matters?? Much, as well. Thirdly, we have the acts of creation to be our teacher, especially before the fall. What do we learn of male and female from Genesis 1 and 2, and in the creation realities of God making man male and female in His image?? These are all purely positive sources for revelation and truth.

    We also need to keep in our minds that God works from the inside out. He is ever more concerned with the matters of the heart than with outward acts or appearances. Man tends to look on the outward things, but God looks on the heart. If the heart is right, then the outward will follow. Let’s major on the inner man mirroring the submission of Christ to the Father, and of Christ laying down His life for the Church in our relationships with one another. The outward expression then will develop naturally.

    Lastly, we need to approach this “Christocentrically”. He is the repository of all Truth in unity, fullness, purity and balance. He is the Source and the Subject of all Scripture. He is also the only One who can live it out, and will do so in us as we yield to Him. As you said, Tobie, this matter of male/ female authority/submission/ function/ covering/etc.. is about Christ and His Church. That is the mystery that we are to be exploring and proclaiming with our lives and relationships. For men and women, both, it means a taking up of the cross, a putting to death the “I will ascend” spirit, a laying down of one’s life in service to Christ and each other. It’s not about us. It’s truly about Him!

    That is kind of a rough collection of thoughts, but I put them out there in hopes they may be helpful to this discussion.

    Thanks again, Tobie for what you have brought to the table in this post. I’m still chewing on some of the finer details, but I greatly appreciate the main course!

    Love in Him,

    • naturalchurch May 31, 2012 / 1:32 pm

      Thanks for your reply, David. It is much appreciated. As far as your reference to Christocentrism: I cannot imagine approaching the issue of “head covering” from any vantage point other than the statement “He is the head of the body, the church” (Col. 1:18). That places 1 Cor.11:3-16 straight back in the Bible for me, and turns a vague, irrelevant symbol into a magnificent one: We minister under the headship of Christ! Verse 15 of the same chapter says “He is the image of the invisible God”, and so explains why the headship of God is included in the symbol of Christ’s headship. Truly, as Watchman Nee said, Christ is the sum of all spiritual things!

  4. Dan July 26, 2012 / 3:29 pm

    I am rather let down by this article, because at first it appeared that you were going to uphold the biblical teaching of headcovering. In looking for modern equivalents of biblical details, you throw the teaching out altogether, and regard the Bible as not really inspired. What Paul and other biblical writers wrote about headcoverings, holy kisses, modesty, women speaking in church, footwashing, etc. should be understood to mean just what he said. Otherwise, you are making up your own religion, and should call it something other than Christian.

    • naturalchurch October 31, 2012 / 7:34 am

      Thanks for your comment, Dan. This is a secondary issue to the perspective I have put on the table. We need to separate the two. The first issue we need to work out is “What did Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 11?” (The question of essence.) The second is “How does that apply today?” (The question of form.) I would like to know if you agree with my answer to the first question, and I am very open to discuss any views re a possible answer to the second question. I held your view for a long time, as a logical conclusion to my interpretation of the essence of Paul’s teaching. But I am rethinking its form for our day and age, and I would like to do so without detracting in any way from the essence of Paul’s teaching. Remember what I said about paying Caesar. And remember that what I wrote up here is extremely far from a “liberal” approach or a “new religion”. In fact, (as you will see from some of the comments) most Christians today would regard my view as “fundamentalist”, rigid, discriminatory and even bigoted. Those of us who wish to preserve the authority of Scripture should stand united in our convictions whilst having the liberty to debate our differences as far as the practical outworking of those convictions are concerned.

  5. david evans August 17, 2015 / 11:16 am

    Thank you very much for taking the time and energy to write this. I really enjoyed the new thoughts and will be meditating on this for some time!

  6. david evans August 17, 2015 / 11:43 am

    I love the tie back to the symbol and principle of marriage. I am always humbled and challenged when I read how men are to love their brides like Christ loves the Church. What a standard! I think if we focused more on that and challenged men on that, there would be less argument over women’s roles 🙂

  7. Tobie August 17, 2015 / 4:11 pm

    Thanks for he comment, David. Much appreciated!

  8. minussie December 29, 2016 / 2:43 pm

    Hi Tobie.

    Every now and again I indulge myself by going through your old posts. I never comment on them because I imagine the issues to have been laid to rest by now – as if they ever will.

    This one could not have been easy! So I wanted to affirm that I was really touched by the idea that we should hold to the spirit and perhaps reinterpret the letter. It never occurred to me before that our ‘reinterpretations’ of washing feet and holy kiss is in actual fact the same issue. I am once again intrigued by our collective psychology. I will tell Carla about this tonight after I have given her a holy kiss :-),

    That said – I think you’re right. The biological differences are undeniable and we have to find a way to ‘make this work’ without being either overly oppressive or denying the healthy and natural (for lack of a better term) order. And the problem is getting bigger and bigger. One has to only spend a few hours on Youtube watching videos on feminism to get the idea that as a culture the Western world is in deep trouble.

    But I will say one thing. Even though I have tried my utmost to make my marriage as equal as possible certain ‘patriarchal archetypes’ seemed to have just slipped through the back door. Even though Carla carries the bank cards for example and she never asks me for money even though I am the only one with a full time job. Yet we have slipped into such habits as her taking my clothes out of the closet every morning and preparing my lunch. My house would set any modern day feminist on fire :-). The only difference is that I would go to the planks defending the idea that these behavioral aspects simply came natural to us and that we behave in this manner free from any compulsion. God forbid, but we would say that it simply came naturally to us? My kids always come to me first when they want to be affirmed and even though I am the doctor they run to Carla for first aid and TLC. What’s that all about ?!

    I know this isn’t what the original discussion is all about but I confess I don’t have anything of value to add. As somebone who is guilty of oppressing those I love these gender issues are close to my heart because I want to atone for the past without going the other extreme. Indeed very difficult.



    • Tobie January 12, 2017 / 2:22 am

      Hi Marinus. Thanks for the insightful comment. Sorry I’m only replying now – we’ve been away for weeks and I’m just getting back into things up here. I had an interesting discussion over the holidays with an extremely bright Jewish man who is quite renowned in the international film industry for his art directing and set design. He is not religious and quite worldly and liberal. Yet, when we talked about Jewishness and the traditional role of woman therein etc., he simply said that he finds it glaringly obvious that the so-called traditional “exclusion” of women from certain aspects of Jewish life can be motivated and justified in one sentence: “They have better things to do.” I found it quite interesting coming from someone like him.

  9. minussie January 13, 2017 / 11:24 pm

    Thanks for replying anyway – did not really expect you to. Originally I just wanted to share some support because it occurred to me that this had to have been quite a difficult article to write. But now that I’ve got my foot in the door would you please allow me to pick your mind? It’s actually quite a privilege to have back door access to a theologian. I only recognize that you freely respond to almost everybody so I don’t feel too overly privileged 🙂

    What I wrestle with is how to make my little ‘patriarchal’ household fit into the real world. I fully intend on taking what I believe to be God’s views on health and healing to as many people as possible. The whole thing is of course taking much longer than I originally anticipated and so here I am wrestling with the reality that I am slowly growing closer to people, in general, again after having turned my back previously on as many of them as possible. I read your previous posts on going from traditional reformed to charismatic and now being stuck somewhere in the middle and it is all music to my soul.

    So, I have long been enamored with the concept of king Arthur’s round table. A group of equals would meet and vote by laying down their swords for an equal ‘democratic’ vote per sword. Now in my round table the representatives are male but each man carries a flower that is wrapped around the handle of his sword representing unity with his wife. And yes – a man without his flower’s vote is discounted. Also the whole thing revolves around an open space in the middle that contains both a wooden cross and an empty cave/grave. Carla foresees that she can come up with an actual design for this concept and I am quite giddy about it. Although it is only meant symbolically I have always enjoyed playing ‘pretend’ and the 8 year old in me kind of want to see how far I can push this 🙂

    But I recognize that the whole thing would be utterly offensive to our feminist sisters out there (apart from being completely childish but for that I do not apologize) and that is exactly my problem because I want to accommodate and include as many people as possible from as many walks of life as I can. And I do actually believe that “in Christ we are all one” so I stay away from identity politics in general as much as I can. But in the past I would have said that laws/principles on race, class and gender were included in new testament times because these structures were still very much ‘a thing’ – however, it seemed to me that as the Holy Spirit slowly ‘gained ground’ in the ministry of convicting the world of sin church principles on how to treat your slaves became redundant because the world slowly realized that it is self evident that ‘all men are created equal’. I actually believe that before the universal ministry of the Holy Spirit these things were not so self evident.

    So I include the possibility that the “laws” on ‘general submission of women to men’ which admittedly is not found in any context other than authority in marriage and authority to teach and debate (as far as I can find) are contextual because at the time it was perhaps not so self evident that there is no male or female but only unity in Christ.

    But then I run into the problem again of how my own house operates. Frankly I have told Carla in numerous ways that her ‘love’ does not mean a lot to me. It is simply her unconditional respect that I crave. And yes I actually think the best translation for the word is indeed ‘fear’ but I insist that this kind of fear has nothing to with oppression. I have no intention of oppressing my wife even though I admit that I often do. Only I repent and then we try again. My wife understands that our contract is mutually unconditional – I attempt to love her unconditionally regardless of how much she respects me and likewise she attempts to respect me regardless of how much I actually love her – this is a big blessing to me. But it is easy to tell a women who loves me that the best thing she can do for me is to ‘pretend that I am the boss’. I am completely at a loss for how to communicate this truth to a ‘foreign woman’ whom I have no intention of laying my life down for (at least not in the intimate sense) while expecting from her to respect me by not trying to ‘usurp’ authority from me. Ironically I have no problem following a woman in certain contexts and I am even willing to submit under one if circumstances require it but I very much hesitate to let the whole thing go up in flames because I do not want to fight for the respect that I so desperately need. Also I acknowledge your point that the Spirit of the whole concept is eternal regardless of the form that it is found in.

    So I suppose I would ask you

    1. How do you suppose unmarried women play into all of this? Do I give a girl without a husband a place at my round table? I have no problem doing this but it is interesting how, as soon as I made peace with the fact that I am never going to get it completely right, the little things became very important to me – as soon as the pressure was off. I really want to find the Spirit of the whole thing in my life ’cause I do think it make a lot of difference – especially how this relates to my future planned endeavors.

    2. Would you be willing to share how far you go in your own fellowship? Does anybody take the stage whenever they want to and presumably under the covering that they are comfortable with or do you guys have a set agreement of some sort? I know you did touch some of the principles of women ministering but I’m hoping I can coax you into sharing a bit more of your personal experience.

    3. What do you think is our responsibility towards ‘the women of the world/church’ as men. It does seem a bit unequal to me if girls are never allowed to ‘usurp authority’ but I don’t see a specific obligation from guys anywhere. Was this obligation perhaps ‘self evident’ in Biblical times?

    Ja so this comment ran away with me a bit 🙂

    Sorry for that..

    I am obviously not lying when I say I wrestle with these things 🙂



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