When it comes to Christian head covering, I begin by realizing that there is a whole lot more to it that we don't know than we do. What we do know can be found in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. It is Paul's response to the concerns the Corinthians sent in their letter to him. We do not know if Paul quoted anything from the letter in order to confirm it or to refute it because the letter to Paul was lost a long time ago. We can only guess based on Paul's answer what the other half of the conversation might have been like. We can only guess the nature of the problem with or without the head coverings that precipitated the letter to Paul. We can only guess if there was a problem with custom or fashion or both or neither. We can only guess because of what we do not know – the Roman law and custom regarding but not limited to: the duties expected of men and women in the expression of worship as a function or citizen of the state, fashions for men and women at the time the letter was written, the type of worship or the exact nature of the problems within the church, the origin of head covering, the symbolism and meaning of head covering to the people of that day and age prior to the letter being written, and we also don't know if the letter was written to solve the problems one church was having at one point and time was not meant to be a binding principle upon all people at all times and in all places.
Most statues that survive from ancient Roman times show that there were circumstances in which both men and women practiced head covering and there were also circumstances in which both men and women did not practice head covering. But as far as I can tell, all the women have hair – covered, uncovered, or put up in elaborate hairstyles but never lose or down. The Vestal Virgins, for example, did have a practice of wearing a head covering that involved an elaborate braided hairstyle that helped hold the head covering in place called the seni crines. This was also the hairstyle of brides (who also wore a similar head covering), meant to spiritually protect them as they transferred out of the protection of her father's household and into her husband's household. Another hairstyle that originated in ancient Rome is one still worn today – the chignon, a simple bun that is never shown covered by a veil or head covering in various statues. There are also many braided hairstyles that are shown on statues without head coverings. It was well known that a wealthy Roman wife would often wake up several hours early to have her hair-dressing slaves begin making that day's masterpiece. From a woman's hairstyle for the day, you could see how wealthy and how important she was. Going out in public involved wearing your best hair so that it would be seen - it would not have been common for a woman to wear the same hairstyle each and every time they went out in public, they had many different styles that they would wear to enhance their appearance - and their hair-dressing slaves were skilled with many different methods of styling hair with braids and twists. Many men are also shown without head coverings, but in religious ceremonies, there are some statues of men wearing head coverings specifically in a religious context. I learned that it was practice called capite velato:
It has been argued that the Roman expression of piety capite velato influenced Paul's prohibition against Christians praying with covered heads: "Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head." (wikipedia)”
Remember, Paul identifies himself as a Roman citizen with a Jewish background. He would have been familiar with capite velato and could very well be asking the men to stop the practice altogether. But there seems to be more to head covering than telling men to not cover their heads. Some would point out that temple prostitutes were not known for head covering and it was a matter using the practice of head covering to tell the two groups of women apart. Paul however, didn't say: “Women, wear a head covering so that you all are not mistaken for prostitutes.” Perhaps Paul was trying to tell the believers a principle about being Christians by not bringing in a Roman tradition that was not found in any other church and by establishing a practice that might have been commonplace in other churches.
Paul was well aware that there was a Jewish practice that basically taught that a woman ought to have her hair completely covered in public based off of Numbers 5:18 – suggesting that for a woman to have her hair let down or shaved (as in the case with captive women) is both public humiliation and dishonor. The Romans would not have obeyed Jewish teachings though, it would have had to be a Christian practice for them to take it up. But, of all the places where hair is discussed in the New Testament, 1 Timothy 2:9-10 and 1 Peter 3:3, head covering does not come up as a practice to be reminded of, commended for, or instruction - not even as a part of the household codes. Head covering only appears as instruction is 1 Corinthians, not even in 2 Corinthians is it brought up again.
Paul must have had quite the conundrum. He could not reinforce the Jewish belief on the non-Jewish believers, but he could not tell the Jewish women to not wear their head coverings as that was ground for divorce and quite immodest. He knew his audience – the Corinthians could care less about Jewish oral law – and would not have understood it even if it were referred to or quoted from. So we can conclude here that he is, in fact, not teaching head covering as continued Jewish practice in churches with a non-Jewish background.
Paul begins by pointing to what is known as creation order. Simplified, creation order goes like this: 'God is the head of Christ is the head of Man / Adam / Husband is the head of Woman / Eve / Wife'. It is referred to in 1 Corinthians 11 and also in 1 Timothy 2. We already know that Paul chose not to cite the Old Testament or oral law that supported head covering – instead he choose creation order. What would the Romans have known about creation? Only what they were taught by Paul when they first became believers – the Roman creation teachings related to their pantheon of gods and how humanity was created that was radically different than what the Jewish believers would have heard growing up. (But to get an idea of how part of it goes – watch the beginning of the Disney movie Hercules.) But wherever I see this teaching, I realize that it's not always completely consistent and it's an overview for an entire lesson that nobody today would have ever heard. What we have are the important sections, but without the whole teaching, it does lose some ground.
Paul then talks about angels. I'm not certain that the Romans believed in angels or had a concept of angelic beings – they had many lesser gods and godesses that might have been similar to angels in some fashion, but could not be completely equal to the Christian notion of angels. Firstly – let's assume angels means angel angels. Is he referring to the whole Nephilim problem where fallen angels fathered children with women? Is he referring to the accounts of angels in heaven being covered even in God's presence? Is he suggesting that angels can't tell the difference between women and men without the assistance of head covering? Is he saying that angels will report to God who is wearing their head covering and who is not? If he's not talking about angels, is he referring to people in a messenger capacity? Or something else? Even today nobody is really quite sure what exactly he means. Each question poses a specific problem: If it's Nephilim, why don't we see any walking on our streets today? If Angels can't help themselves but be filled with lust as the sight of a woman's hair, does that not suggest a fault in the angel's DNA? (Women, apparently, would be too awed of an angel to say no according to some of the church fathers.) If it refers to the angels that are covered in God's presence, then is not so that God gave them their covering? Or are they expected to remove their wings when not praising God? Or, like the angels being given wings as their covering, are women also given hair as their covering? If an angel can't tell the difference between men and women without head coverings – would that not pose a problem again in the Nephilim scenario? Furthermore, how could they be trusted to send the right messages to the man or woman? Aren't angel's above the mistakes that come with human nature including lust? Why would God need angels to report to Him who is and who isn't wearing a head covering – should He not already know? As to the non-angelic possibilities, there's really no knowing about tradition. We do know that Roman policy was to keep crowds small – gatherings were carefully watched to prevent uprising, more-so in the outer regions like Jerusalem, odds are that there was far less scrutiny in the interior – the heart of their empire. But there might be a few people who would be out to increase their status by reporting possible rebellions and would target small groups to take down.
Next Paul points to nature. Nature is something that the Romans would understand without filtering it through the lenses of Jewish beliefs or Roman beliefs. Roman men kept their hair short because a natural style was associated with barbarians. Roman women had very individualistic hair styles, often though, it was necessary to grow their hair out long – waist-length, in order to have plenty of hair for their hair-dressing slaves to spend hours turning into a hair-style. Having such a lengthy grooming session for a man would have been taboo for a man. Paul affirms that having such hair is a woman's glory.
Then he talks about what the other churches practice – not being contentious about this. Perhaps because head covering was the normal that went without saying. The Jewish churches especially, the non-Jewish churches in modern day Turkey, probably (if any current tradition is an indication), so he might have suggested head covering to bring the church in line with the rest. Even so, it has a vastly different meaning to the Roman church than would have been taught to either other churches.
But these verses just stand out to me: 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head … 13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? … For long hair is given to her as a covering.
Believe it or not, around the outbreak of WW2, female Nazi collaborators had their heads completely shaved in public and were then paraded through the streets barefoot in France – you can find silent online videos of the whole process. Women without hair is accepted in the case of chemotherapy (though I understand a new cooling cap might soon put an end to hair loss during radiation therapy.) But in general, a woman who chooses to be bald might be seen as unfeminine probably because of these very teachings. Hair is said to be a woman's glory. Some Christian women refuse to cut their hair because they might have need of it to honor Jesus like Mary did.
Judge for yourselves, is it proper for a woman going through chemotherapy to pray without any hair on her head? Yes. Is it proper for a woman to pray with her hair covering her head? Yes. Is it proper fro a woman to pray with a cloth covering the hair covering her head? Yes.
But let's face it – we can't apply the Roman teachings and traditions to Modern where-ever you are. Ancient Rome and pretty much everything that went with it fell a very long time ago. It was replaced with a Christian Europe that was pretty much a theocracy. That led into the Dark Ages and finally got us to where we are now.
Historically, head covering was pretty much required in public. There were laws put in place that required that poor women wear cheaper veils than richer women. (Head Covering and veils are often interchangeable in the Church Father's writings.) From head coverings to wimples to bonnets to hats – it was a changing industry that thrived only offering choice as to which style and color. But once it became a matter of fashion – it began to lose it's meaning. By the mid 21-st century – the world had changed and women had something that they didn't want to give up – the choice whether or not to wear one as it had become acceptable to not wear them at all. Head covering quickly ceased to be a thing and fell away within a generation or two. I asked the oldest woman I know of if she remembered head covering and what she remembered about them. She was a little girl when women stopped wearing them and she said that they were just for fashion, they didn't make the wearers more spiritual or more humble or more Christian and they didn't seem to make the non-wearers less spiritual or less humble or less Christian. She, for one, is thrilled that they're not required and she's probably not the only one.
So who still head covers? Certain ultra-orthodox and ultra-conservative religious groups like the Amish and Hutterites. Some more conservative Catholic churches do as well, though in recent years the chapel veil has been used as a political symbol for the ultra-orthodox – causing non-political individuals who do wear head coverings to be mistakenly associated with them because they share the same practice. Other groups have taken up head covering in recent years, among them the Reformed and Presbyterian churches – but they don't represent the majority of Christians like Southern Baptists and Methodists that aren't into head covering but do represent the majority of Christians.
There is some concern, because there is no agreement in Christianity one might think: “If head covering is cultural and it relies on creation order teaching associated with complementarianism, then isn't complementarianism also cultural and not a binding principle upon all believers for all time everywhere?” This is probably because head covering is long considered an ignored teaching. Here's another: “ Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? “ (1 Corinthians 15:29) The Baptism of the Dead is a lost teaching of the early church that was at one point considered heretical and banned by the majority of the church fathers. Like head covering, it only exists being specifically mentioned in 1 Corinthians. Paul didn't condemn or commend people that were baptized for the dead. Granted, it does exist in a form, but not one accepted by the majority of modern Christianity. The truth is, there are many specific teachings and practices – the sorts of things that Jesus taught his disciples who taught their disciples in person that just didn't get passed down to us – much has been lost through the decay of time and history, because of unscrupulous people that liked to change anything that they could use for financial profit, or slightly alter as a means of keeping people in control. Anyway, the words in the book might not change, but the words we use can change their primary meaning in a few decades – and that's just in our language. Over the centuries slang and idiom tend to disappear first – only the scholarly use of words tends to survive through careful preservation. Some idiom used in Scripture would have no meaning to us, like saying “a one stop-light town” would have no meaning to people who had no idea what stop-lights where and what it meant to have just one of them. The point is, that not everything that is in the Bible is enshrined as a binding principle to practice for all time.
Or is it like the 'greet one another with a holy kiss' – is Paul giving us a specific method to greet other Christians by affirming the per-existing normal cultural greeting as the standard for all believers for all places at all times? Or are we fulfilling the meaning to greet each other warmly when we shake each others hands even though we do not carry out the specific action? Likewise, can we fulfill the meaning or symbolism of head covering without actually making all women everywhere wear something on their heads?
Generally speaking – you can tell a woman's religion by her wardrobe. Many religions do have special clothing that sets men and women apart. Why are women taught to wear their religion? Should it not be more important to be their religion? All of the Abrahamic religions do have a teaching on head covering and a similar stance on women in general – but Christianity has set itself apart from the others only to decide to switch it's position and try to match some of the teachings of the other two religions when it comes to women in recent years. If Christianity is ultimately headed to having a gender segregated faith with men on the right and women on the left, or men at the front and women at the back, then it has lost an important part of what makes it different. And if it's not different then it might as well become one or both of the other two Abrahamic religions.
I'm not a theologian, a scholar, a scribe, or knowledgeable in Greek, Latin, or Aramaic – I'm just a regular person, but even I know that even if the Bible never changes, people do. Not even modern Jews strictly hold true to the all their ancient teachings. For some of them, it's quite impossible without the reconstruction of the temple. But as a Christian, I know that each and every believer is a temple unto God. A temple is a building without gender, it's not built to be covered by people. Only Jesus is the covering for each and every one of us. He's the 'new man' in every man and woman, putting off the 'old man'. He's the covering for any person that doesn't fit the traditional nuclear family (one husband, one wife, and two children) and he always sides with the oppressed and underrepresented – with the orphans and widows in their distress.
Other teachings, like communion were at least instituted by Jesus at the last supper, or taught from Jesus to his disciples (prayer), they are not just in one book of the Bible, but mentioned time and time again, verse after verse, book after book. Both of these, by the way, are said to be sacraments, sacred in and of themselves and sanctifying to those that practice them.
So that's my position on head covering: I choose not to commend or condemn or participate in it's practice. I will, however, always speak against any teaching that takes away choice - God gave us free will, I will fight to give others a chance to have it too. It seems to me that he's far more interested in us choosing to agree to salvation than making us live out one accepted Christian lifestyle. Yes, Head covering in the Bible, but as we have seen, not everything Biblical is accepted even by the church fathers or their modern counterparts. Yes, women carried on the practice for a very long time because there were laws that made it a matter of obeying the state and not God. It eventually lost all meaning. One does not need to carry out a biblical action to fulfill a biblical symbol or meaning. Head Covering is said to be an ordinance – a bylaw that is an outward expression of one's faith, but not a saving requirement that is sacred in and of itself. Many Christians have such strong faith that outward expression of faith is not needed or required for them to feel connected to God. So that's where I end up, realizing that there is a whole lot more to head covering that I don't know than I do.