Does the Bible tell women to wear head coverings?

I recently learned about the “Head Covering Movement” through a post asking about it on the Christians for Biblical Equality Facebook group.  In response to this movement, I’d like to use this post to make clear what I believe is the biblical teaching on this subject:

Women who wear head coverings are choosing to do something that the Bible says they should always be free to choose.  

But they are not doing something that the Bible commands all women to do.

This is the conclusion of a detailed study I made some years back with Laurie C. Hurshman on Paul’s teaching about the subject of head coverings in 1 Corinthians.  The study was published in Christian Ethics Today and it was later reprinted in Priscilla Papers, the journal of Christians for Biblical Equality.  I will summarize it here; you can read the longer version at the link just provided.

Paul’s assertion that “a woman ought to have exousia over her head” is the key statement in his teaching about head coverings, and the meaning of the word exousia is the key to understanding this statement.

Paul uses this term frequently in 1 Corinthians in both the noun form (exousia) and in the impersonal and personal verb forms (exesti and exousiazein, respectively).  Everywhere else in the epistle, the term refers to authority exercised, specifically in the sense of “being able to do what one wishes.”  (In the examples below, the English translations of this term are italicized.)

– When correcting the Corinthians for going to temple prostitutes, Paul says, “I have the right to do anything” (probably quoting the Corinthians’ slogan back to them) “—but I will not be mastered by anything.  More literally, “I can do whatever I wish, but I will not have anything do whatever it wishes with me.”

–  In the very next section of the letter, when discussing the Corinthians’ belief that it was somehow spiritual to abstain from sexual relations in marriage, Paul writes, “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.”  Again, more literally, “the wife does not have the right to do whatever she wishes with her own body, nor does the husband with his body, but they are to share their bodies with one another.”

–  As Paul continues his discussion of marriage and addresses engaged persons, he says that the one who “is under no compulsion but has control over his own will” can postpone marriage.  Once more, the reference is to one who has the freedom and the power to do what he wishes with his own will.

–  When talking about food offered to idols, Paul acknowledges that those who are spiritually strong may eat this food without danger, but he immediately adds, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”  Exousia here means the freedom and ability to eat the food without stumbling.

–  As Paul continues this discussion of food offered to idols, he uses the term exousia several times to describe his own rights as an apostle so that he can illustrate the principle of voluntarily giving up rights.  He asks, “Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us? . . . If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?” But then he adds that “in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights.”

– Finally, in his discussion of the resurrection, Paul describes how Jesus will destroy every opposing “dominion, authority and power.”  In this case exousia describes a being who exercises authority.

Since exousia means authority exercised consistently throughout 1 Corinthians, there’s no reason to believe that when Paul talks about head coverings, the same term means authority submitted to, without any qualifying language indicating that Paul has suddenly given it an opposite connotation.

No, Paul is saying that “a woman ought to have freedom of choice regarding her head,” as Gordon Fee translates this statement in his commentary on 1 Corinthians.  In other words, she should be free to wear a head covering, or not, based on her own convictions before God.

The NIV translation is quite accurate here:  “A woman ought to have authority over her own head.”  By contrast, in my view, translations like the ESV, “A wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head,” badly miss the point.  They turn a proclamation of freedom into a restriction.  (The words “a symbol of” appear nowhere in the Greek; they have been added by the ESV translators.)

So why did this question arise in Corinth in the first place?  I think it’s a reasonable deduction that if Paul is insisting on a woman’s freedom to wear a head covering if she wishes, it’s likely that the Corinthians were forbidding women to wear head coverings for some reason.  (There’s a fuller discussion of one possible reason in the published version of our study and in my guide to Paul’s Journey Letters.)

But whatever the reason, since the essential point of Paul’s statement is freedom, it would be just as incorrect today for anyone to require women to wear head coverings as it was for the Corinthians to forbid this.  The principle should be, as Paul wrote to the Romans about all such matters of individual conviction, “Each one should be fully convinced in her own mind.”

So if a woman feels that she is honoring God (and perhaps her husband, if she’s married) by wearing a head covering, no one should forbid or discourage this.  But if a woman feels that she does not need to do this in order to honor God (or her husband), no one should require or even encourage this.  But full information about the choice, based on a sound interpretation of the relevant biblical material, should be provided to all who are interested.

And then, “A woman should be free to wear a head covering, or not, based on her own convictions before God.”