Is Corporate Worship Limited to the Sunday Service?
Determining “where” women should cover their heads is one of the more difficult and less-clear aspects of the passage. As we’ve articulated here, we believe that the symbol is meant for corporate worship. But how broad or narrow should we define corporate worship? Is this just the Sunday church meeting or does it have application for other settings? In this article we’d like to provide some thoughts to help determine if a woman should cover her head in a particular context.
Before we talk about specifics, it’s important that I first share my guiding principles. These are the questions I ask myself about a situation to determine if my wife should cover her head (and if I should remove my hat).
1) Is this meeting of believers under the authority of the elders/local church? If so and if there is corporate participation then I’d say yes it is corporate worship.
2) Does this meeting pattern itself after a church gathering (praying and singing together, preaching etc.)? If so, I’d say it is corporate worship.
3) Will there be corporate singing to the Lord together? If so, that’s a strong indication that it may be corporate worship.
4) Would it be appropriate in this setting to take part in the Lord’s supper? If so, that’s a strong indication that it may be corporate worship.
5) Would it be inappropriate for a woman to be the speaker/leader of this gathering of Christians? If so, that’s a strong indication that it may be corporate worship.
The more of these elements that are present, the more sure I am that a woman should cover in that setting.
I am operating under the assumption that “prayer and prophecy” is not limited to the person taking the lead but is even for the people praying along in agreement. I believe Paul mentions “prayer and prophecy” to emphasize the specific time when we’re participating corporately in worship. During Paul’s time there were no church buildings and if you’ve ever worshiped in a house before, you’ve likely seen there was a time of worship but also a time when the body is still gathered together, but not worshiping. The head covering is then not required for any time the church assembles, but only when we’ve begun participating in corporate worship. I also see “prayer and prophecy” as a summary of the things we do in worship (vertical/horizontal), rather than an exhaustive list. Because of that I see the need to be covered more often than when praying to God or sharing a prophetic word, but rather for the entire time we are worshiping together (this will include, but not be limited to, taking the Lord’s Supper, singing, or sharing a testimony).
There is nothing special about a church building. It is not a temple and women are not instructed to cover their heads when they enter through its doors. Women are to cover when they partake in worship acts (praying and prophesying) not when they are present in a location (like inside the church building). So it’s not “where” you are but “what” are you doing. So whether your church meets in it’s own building, in someone’s home or even in a cave–women should cover their heads wherever the church is assembled to worship together.
This means that if you’re in the church building, but not worshiping (like watching babies in the nursery or cleaning) or if the church has not yet begun worshiping together (like fellowshipping in the foyer before the meeting starts) there would be no need to cover. Some churches view the post-service fellowship and/or their corporate meal together as an extension of their worship. If it is viewed as that, women should keep their coverings on in those instances. I was once part of a church that had a 15 minute break for fellowship in-between the singing and the sermon. This fellowship time was intentional and a part of the worship meeting. In that situation my wife kept her covering on.
A local church will often have gatherings outside of the Sunday service. If these meetings are under the authority of the elders and if they consist of believers worshiping together (like praying, singing or hearing God’s word taught) then a woman should cover. Some examples of these situations would be Sunday school, bible studies and prayer meetings. If a local church gathers together but is not worshiping, there would be no need to cover. Examples of these situations would be serving the community (yard work, homeless kitchen) or watching a movie together.
Conferences and Chapels
There are a few different gatherings that pattern themselves after a local church meeting. These would include but not be limited to Christian conferences and school chapels. In these settings believers will gather together and worship God with prayer, singing and preaching–much like they do during a Sunday service. Since it is a gathering of believers that patterns itself after a church gathering, a woman should cover her head. Having said that, I’d be fine with my wife not covering in Bible college classes or conference breakout sessions where there is not bible preaching (how to be a better writer, how to choose homeschool curriculum etc.) Prayer before the teaching does not turn it into corporate worship.
There are bible studies and conferences that are exclusively for women. Should women cover in that situation since no men are present? While 1 Corinthians 11 implies both genders are present, that doesn’t preclude the fact that if a unique situation appears that is foreign to the Bible (like a women-only conference) that the symbol shouldn’t be practiced. While the symbol pictures their relationship to the proper male authority in their life, the symbol is not exclusively for the man. It’s a picture for the gathered believers and to the angels too (1 Cor 11:10). I think if a man is preaching to a all-female audience then she should be covered. However, if there truly is no males participating then it’s not as easy to determine. Sometimes you can help arrive at your answer by flipping the question, which is, would you be comfortable if a man wore a hat to an all-men’s meeting? In situations where you’re unsure, it’s always better to practice the symbol than to not.
How to Determine the Rest
There will be numerous other scenarios which you will have to think through yourself. How about a Christian concert? How about a funeral or a wedding? What about a workplace Bible study? I don’t want to pretend that all of these are clear-cut. To help you sort through the numerous gray areas and unsure situations here is a final question and an overarching principle.
1) Does my conscience tell me I should cover?
If it does, do it. Don’t worry about if it’s officially corporate worship or not. If you’re having private devotions in your closet and you feel like you should cover your head, do it. In Romans 14 Paul is talking about eating something that is biblically permissible, but the person doing the eating has doubts that it’s okay. He says of them: “he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.” (Rom 14:23) So applying that principle to this situation, if you’re not sure if you actually need to cover but your conscience is prompting you to, go with your conscience.
2) It’s safer to, than to not (when unsure).
R.C. Sproul said, “if you treat a custom as a principle, the only guilt you bear is for being overly scrupulous. But if you take a principle of God and treat it as a local custom, and don’t observe it, you have sinned against God.” What Dr. Sproul is saying is if you do something you don’t have to do, you’re only being extra strict. But on the flipside, if you don’t practice something you’re supposed to, it’s sin. So if in a particular situation you’re unsure if you need to cover or not, just remember it’s better to, than to not.