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Head Coverings and Decorum in Worship: A Letter by John Murray

Head Coverings and Decorum in Worship: A Letter by John Murray
John Murray (1898-1975), a native of Scotland, studied at Princeton Theological Seminary under J. Gresham Machen and Geerhardus Vos. Murray left Princeton to help found Westminster Theological Seminary, where he taught Systematic Theology from 1930 to 1966. Murray was also an early trustee of the Banner of Truth.

Badbea, Bonar Bridge, Ardgay, Ross-shire IV2 43AR, Scotland
16 November 1973

Mr. V. Connors,
Presbytery Clerk,
Evangelical Presbyterian Church,
Australia

Dear Mr. Connors,

I am in receipt of your letter of the 8th. I very deeply appreciate your request even though I may not be able to provide any definitive advice on the questions asked. Allow me to give my judgement on the second question first.

If the Presbytery becomes convinced that a head covering for women belongs to the decorum governing the conduct of women in the worship of God, then I think Presbytery should declare accordingly. I would not suppose it necessary expressly to legislate. I think it would be enough to make a resolution for the instruction and guidance of ministers, sessions, and people. A higher judicatory has both right and duty to offer to those under its jurisdiction, guidance respecting divine obligation. This has been recognised in Reformed Churches throughout the world.

Your main question turns, of course, on the interpretation of I Corinthians 11:2-16. Permit me to offer some of my reflections in order.

  1. Since Paul appeals to the order of creation (1 Cor 11:3b, 7ff), it is totally indefensible to suppose that what is in view and enjoined had only local or temporary relevance. The ordinance of creation is universally and perpetually applicable, as also are the implications for conduct arising therefrom.
  2. I am convinced that a head covering is definitely in view forbidden for the man (1 Cor 11:4, 7) and enjoined for the woman (1 Cor 11:5, 6, 15). In the case of the woman the covering is not simply her long hair. This supposition would make nonsense of verse 6. For the thought there is, that if she does not have a covering she might as well be shorn or shaven, a supposition without any force whatever if the hair covering is deemed sufficient. In this connection it is not proper to interpret verse 15b as meaning that the hair was given the woman to take the place of the head covering in view of verses 5, 6. The Greek of verse 15 is surely the Greek of equivalence as used quite often in the New Testament, and so the Greek can be rendered: “the hair is given to her for a covering.” This is within the scope of the particular argument of verses 14, 15 and does not interfere with the demand for the additional covering contemplated in verses 5, 6, 13. Verses 14 and 15 adduce a consideration from the order of nature in support of that which is enjoined earlier in the passage but is not itself tantamount to it. In other words, the long hair is an indication from “nature” of the differentiation between men and women, and so the head covering required (1 Cor 11:5, 6, 13) is in line with what “nature” teaches.
  3. There is good reason for believing that the apostle is thinking of conduct in the public assemblies of the Church of God and of worship exercises therein in verse 17, this is clearly the case, and verse 18 is confirmatory. But there is a distinct similarity between the terms of verse 17 and of verse 2. Verse 2 begins, “Now I praise you” and verse 17, “Now in this . . . I praise you not”. The virtually identical expressions, the one positive and the other negative, would suggest, if not require, that both have in view the behaviour of the saints in their assemblies, that is, that in respect of denotation the same people are in view in the same identity as worshippers. If a radical difference, that between private and public, were contemplated, it would be difficult to maintain the appropriateness of the contrast between “I praise you” and “I praise you not”.
  4. Beyond question it is in reference to praying and prophesying that the injuctions pertain, the absence of head covering for men and the presence for women. It might seem, therefore, that the passage has nothing to do with a head covering for women in the assemblies of the Church if they are not engaged in praying or prophesying, that is, in leading in prayer or exercising the gift of prophesying. And the implication would be that only when they performed these functions were they required to use head covering. The further implication would be that they would be at liberty to perform these functions provided they wore head gear. This view could easily be adopted if it were not so that Paul forbids such exercises on the part of women and does so in the same epistle, (I Cor. 14:33b-36): “As in all the Churches, for it is not permitted to them to speak” (1 Cor 11:33b-34a). It is impossible to think that Paul would, by implication, lend approval in chapter 11, to what he so expressly prohibits in chapter 14. Hence we shall have to conclude that he does not contemplate praying or prophesying on the part of women in the Church in chapter 11. The question arises: how can this be, and how can we interpret 11:5, 6, 13? It is possible to interpret the verses in chapter 11 in a way that is compatible with chapter 14:33b-36. It is as follows:a. In chapter 11 the decorum prescribed in 14:33b-36 is distinctly in view and Paul is showing its propriety. Praying and prophesying are functions that imply authority, the authority that belongs to the man as distinguished from the woman according to the ordinance of creation. The man in exercising this authority in praying and prophesying must not wear a head covering. Why not? The head covering is the sign of subjection, the opposite of the authority that belongs to him, exemplified in praying and prophesying, hence 11:4, 7. In a word, head covering in praying and prophesying would be a contradiction.b. But precisely here enters the relevance of verses 5, 6, 13 as they pertain to women. If women are to pray and prophesy in the assemblies, they perform functions that imply authority and would require therefore, to remove the head covering. To do so with the head covering would involve the contradiction referred to already. But it is the impropriety of removing the head covering that is enforced in 11:5, 6 & 13. In other words, the apostle is pressing home the impropriety of the exercise of these functions — praying and prophesying — on the part of women by showing the impropriety of what it would involve, namely, the removal of the head covering. And so the rhetorical question of verse 13: “Is it proper for a woman to pray to God unveiled?”c. This interpretation removes all discrepancy between 11:5, 6, 13 and 14:33b-36 and it seems to me feasible, and consonant with the whole drift of 11:2-16.
  5. The foregoing implies that the head covering for women was understood to belong to the decorum of public worship.
  6. The above line of thought would derive confirmation from I Cor. 11:10. Admittedly the reference to the angels is not immediately perspicuous. But a reasonable interpretation is that the presence of the angels with the people of God and therefore their presence in the congregations of the saints. What is being pleaded is the offence given to the holy angels when the impropriety concerned mars the sancity of God’s worship. But, in any case, the obligation asserted is apparent. It is that the woman ought to have upon her head the sign of the authority to which she is subject, in other words, the sign of her subjection. But this subjection pertains throughout and not simply when in the exercise of praying and prophesying according to the supposition that such is permitted. I submit, therefore, that the verse concerned (1 Cor 11:10) enunciates a requirement that is general within the scope of the subject with which Paul is dealing, namely, the decorum of worship in the assembly of the saints.

On these grounds my judgment is that presupposed in the Apostle’s words is the accepted practice of head covering for women in the assemblies of the Church, that apparently this part of decorum was recognised, and that the main point of verses 5, 6, 10, 13 was the impropriety of any interruption of the practice if women were to pray or prophesy, for, in that event, it would be necessary to remove the covering in order to signify the authority that praying and prophesying entailed, an authority not possessed by women, a non-possession signified, in turn, by the use of the covering.

If you so desire I could send you two copies of the Westminster Theological Jounal in which opposing interpretations are given, one by Noel Weeks and the other by James B. Hurley. My interpretation has been proposed by Noel Weeks and I acknowledge my debt to him. But the argument as developed is my own. If I send you these copies of the Journal they would have to be sent by surface mail and might take two months to reach you.

With my kind regards to you and the members of your Presbytery,

I am Sincerely yours,
John Murray

Jeremy Gardiner

Jeremy is the founder of the Head Covering Movement and the author of Head Covering: A Forgotten Christian Practice for Modern Times. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and is a member of Fellowship Baptist Church. He is a husband to Amanda and father to four young children. Jeremy is also the founder and operator of Gospel eBooks, a popular website that provides alerts for free and discounted Christian e-books.

Latest posts by Jeremy Gardiner (see all)

  • David Yvinec

    Could you make available on your website the articles by Noel Weeks and James B.Hurley?
    Thank you

    • Jade

      I also would love to be able to read those two articles, if they are available. Any chance of posting them or at least linking to them elsewhere online?

    • Well, James Hurley’s article advocates the “hair pinned up” view so we won’t be posting it on the site as an article. With regards to Noel Week’s article, he clarified to me that his article wasn’t a defence of an artificial head covering but rather “long hair” as the covering. When I read his article I didn’t understand that was the position he held and apparently, neither did John Murray. So because both articles are not in support of covering we won’t be posting them on the site. I’m not aware of where they can be read freely.

  • At the risk of disagreeing with John Murray as well as B.B. Warfield who takes the same position on 1 Cor. 14:33ff (see http://www.bible-researcher.com/warfield1.html), its hard to accept that Paul would mention women praying in church only in a hypothetical sense for the sake of making a different argument; just as it is hard to accept that a sister must not respond verbally to “good morning” if she is in church (nor sing, etc.). The keeping of silence, in accordance with the full counsel of Scipture and in the context of 1 Cor. 14:33ff rather refers to women speaking out so as to teach or have authority over men. This interpretation encompasses a biblically complimentarian perspecitve of role relationships which need not interfere with adherance to the head covering mandate.

    Charity to each other and glory to God in all things.

    • Nik

      Yes, thank you for this. I was stuggling to see Mr. Murray’s point of view. It just didn’t make sense to me.

    • For a contemporary treatment of this issue by a conservative presbyterian professor see this article: http://www.downloadpreken.com/artikelen/A356.pdf by J. Ligon Duncan III.

    • jennifer Galbraith

      Can I ask your take on removing the head covering to pray? This I think is what concerned me the most. As I stated in my response above, I believe that our lives should be a constant dialogue with God. If I was to remove a head covering every time I said a prayer, it would never be on my head.

      • Normal Education

        Hi Jennifer,

        I guess you’re really wanting Jeremy to answer this question, but I’ll just put in my two cents’ worth in the meantime! I think the point being made in the letter was that men need to have their heads uncovered in worship, and that a woman who took a leadership role in the service would follow suit. (The practice of liberal churches certainly bears this out.) By contrast, it is appropriate for a woman to have her head covered when she prays, which is why some Christian women do, in fact, cover all the time. This is actually a much harder teaching for men, when you think about it! Men in the old days used to wear hats and take them off whenever they prayed, but what about motorbike helmets, hard hats at work, etc.? Seems like there’s always something new to worry about!!

  • Kimberly Arms Green

    I too find it very hard to believe that Paul was saying that women don’t have the right or authority to pray to their creator, as men do, as this would contradict the whole old testiment, as there were many women who prayed to Yahweh and were answered.

    • Just wanted to offer a clarification Kimberley. While I personally don’t hold to Murray’s interpretation of 1 Cor 14, he would argue that it’s only in reference to public praying when the church is assembled. Not out-loud praying at home or private prayer (praying along/silently) in church.

      • Kimberly Arms Green

        Thank you for your clarification. That indeed would make much more sense.

      • jennifer Galbraith

        I am new to the head covering way of thinking (as in I still don’t practice it but I am exploring the biblical aspects of this). You are arguing that women should not pray aloud in church. What then of the Lord’s prayer and others that are recited by all during church. Are women not to say them? This article also implies that in order to pray to God, a woman must remove her head covering. Should not your entire life be a constant dialogue with The Almighty? While I have been leaning towards this thinking, this part regarding not praying while my head is covered concerns me.

        • Hi Jennifer, thanks for the comment. Would be glad to clarify.

          “You are arguing that women should not pray aloud in church.”

          That’s not our position but that is John Murrays position based on his understanding of 1 Cor 14:34-35.

          “What then of the Lord’s prayer and others that are recited by all during church. Are women not to say them?”

          I don’t believe John Murray would take issue with that. I believe he’d say 1 Cor 14:34-35 is only about women taking the lead/being a solo voice.

          “This article also implies that in order to pray to God, a woman must remove her head covering.”

          That is the take of of those who hold to Murrays interpretation of 1 Cor 14:34-35. Only those without a covering may pray/prophesy (men) and since women wear one, they cannot. That is not our take though. We believe if a women IS to pray/prophesy she must wear a covering.

          • jennifer Galbraith

            Thank you for your quick response.

  • Edith Wherton

    I have read and reread and rereread this article. To me what he is saying is he hasnt got a clue how to interpret this issue. Pardon me if i choose to cover in submission to God. No earthly male has anything to do with it. You all go on debating this while i cover my hair and go about the business of Our Heavenly Father. You know…. feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and caring for the fatherless and the widdows in their afflictions.

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