Why Headcovering is not about Modesty
Modesty according to one biblical lexicon is “the state of being appropriate for display”. 1) εὐσχημοσύνη, Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. This is propriety in clothing where our “unpresentable parts are [covered], which our more presentable parts do not require” (1 Cor 12:23-24). It is a command of Scripture to dress modestly (1 TIm 2:9-10). Sexual temptation is a real concern and while Jesus acknowledges that “it is necessary that temptations come” he warns “woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!” (Matt 18:7 ESV). So if by your dress you’re tempting people to lust, Jesus has strong words for you. Since we are all committed to dressing modestly we must ask is our hair an “unpresentable part” (1 Cor 12:23) and is that why women are to wear a covering over it (1 Cor 11:4-6)? I’d like to argue that Christian head covering is not commanded for modesty’s sake. Here are my reasons why:
- Modesty is not mentioned.
1 Corinthians 11 is the only chapter in the Bible that explains the practice of Christian head covering. Paul appeals in this chapter to the creation order, nature’s witness and angels as reasons to wear one. He tells us that this is a part of official apostolic teaching (v. 2) and is the practice of all churches, everywhere. In these 15 verses on head covering, modesty is never mentioned once. Nothing in this passage even hints at that. Rather Paul teaches that this is a symbol which reflects the created differences between men and women.
- It’s only for specific times.
If a head covering kept a woman modest, we’d expect Paul to say it needs to be practiced all the time. After all, lust can happen whenever one is seen. Paul instead only tells women to cover when “praying and prophesying” (1 Cor 11:5). Even if this symbol is not limited to church gatherings, he’s still not telling women to be covered at all times or whenever they’re in public.
- Women’s hair is a glory.
In 1 Corinthians 11:15 Paul calls a woman’s long hair “a glory to her”. If glory was permanently hidden, it could not in any meaningful way be called her glory. The Scriptures state that for the elderly their “gray hair is a crown of glory” (Prov 16:31). Glory is of no value unless it’s observed. People are supposed to see their gray head and honor them because of it (Lev 19:32). To further prove that showing your hair is not immodest, Jesus had no problem with a woman wiping his feet with her hair (Luke 7:38). Likewise, when he was instructing women how to be modest Paul said to avoid certain hairstyles (1 Tim 2:9-10), not that their hair couldn’t be seen.
I think it’s important for the sake of understanding to know why some women think showing their hair is immodest. To start, some hold to view (though it’s not as popular today) that the reference to angels in 1 Cor 11:10 is about fallen angels who would lust after them. Thus the headcovering is required to keep them modest so that they won’t be taken advantage of by demonic beings. We’ve already explained here why we reject that viewpoint. The other instance comes from a passage in Isaiah which says:
“Come down and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon; sit on the ground without a throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans! For you shall no more be called tender and delicate. Take the millstones and grind flour, put off your veil, strip off your robe, uncover your legs, pass through the rivers. Your nakedness shall be uncovered, and your disgrace shall be seen.” (Isaiah 47:1-3)
In this passage the city of Babylon is being personified as a women who’s being disgraced. Some people understand the removal of Babylon’s “veil” as being part of her “nakedness”. That’s an unlikely option since women were never instructed in the Old Testament to cover their hair. If exposed hair was nakedness, surely God would have told women to cover it. As mentioned earlier it’s also unfathomable that Jesus would allow a woman to wipe his feet with her hair if that was the same as her being naked. So then what does the removal of the veil signify in Isaiah 47? Well, it’s not explained. Headdresses and veils are listed as items of luxury that God would strip away in judgment (Isa 3:18-22). Since Babylon was going “sit in the dust…without a throne” (Isa 47:1) it may be referring to the fact that her luxury and position was being removed. Another option is taken from the place where it says Babylon would no longer be called “tender and delicate” but would now “take millstones and grind flour”. The removal of her veil may have signified she’s going from a position of comfort and respect to performing hard/slave labor in which women may not have worn veils.
Christian head covering is a symbol that communicates biblical truth. When women cover their heads according to the Scriptures they are displaying the differences between men and women in creation, not protecting their nakedness. We know this is the case because 1) modesty is never mentioned in the passage 2) it’s only commanded for specific times and 3) women’s hair is said to be a glory that is never looked upon as an “unpresentable part” in the Bible. If a woman desires to cover her hair because it makes her feel more modest, she is free too. But if she chooses to do this she would be using a head covering according to its common use2) Like a hat which can provide protection from the elements. , which is unrelated to the command in 1 Corinthians 11.
DISCUSSION: Does wearing a head covering make you feel more modest? When people ask you why you cover, what do you tell them? Tell us by leaving a comment below.