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An Open Letter to Complementarians about Head Covering

An Open Letter to Complementarians about Head Covering

I am a complementarian. This means I believe that while men and women are both created in the image of God and are equals in value and worth; they each serve a different function. In the home, the husband has been given the authority (headship) to lead his wife whereas the wife was created to help her husband and follow his leadership (submission). I believe the authority and submission in the home, pictures the relationship between Christ and His church. I also believe this was God’s original design; a pre-fall masterpiece, not a post-fall disaster.

I am encouraged by the large resurgence of complementarians and the numerous biblical scholars who defend this truth. They uphold male authority and female submission in the home and believe the office of elder (pastor) is for men only.

Within complementarianism, I hold to what is now a minority position. I believe that the functional difference between men and women should be symbolized to both men and angels when the church gathers together for worship. Yes, I believe that head covering (as taught in 1 Corinthians 11) is a timeless, transcultural symbol for Christians under the new covenant.

Throughout church history this belief in head covering has been the majority position. In America it continued to be practiced roughly until the 1960’s when feminism gained popularity. Both Christian and secular observers have noted the connection between feminism and the decline of head covering. The New York Times published an article showing how feminism was largely responsible for shutting down the industry of millinery (manufacturing of hats and headwear). They said:

“But as the beehive hairdo gained popularity in the 1960’s and the feminist movement made it acceptable for women to leave their hats at home, the industry faded.” 1) Carrie Budoff – Headgear as a Footnote to History (New York Times, April 6, 1997)

With the rise of feminism, egalitarian thought permeated the church, popularizing the belief that men and women serve no functional difference in the home. The man does not have a God-given responsibility to lead and the woman does not need to submit to her husband. Within the church, all offices are open to women.

In recent history, complementarians have fought to restore the biblical roles of men and women. The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was formed in 1987 and men such as Wayne Grudem have spent much of their life responding to egalitarian objections. I am grateful for and supportive of these efforts.

When it comes to head covering however, complementarians (in large) have not sought to restore it. Complementarian leaders such as Wayne Grudem, Thomas Schreiner and John MacArthur have argued that while the principle of male headship continues, the symbol of head covering was a cultural practice.

Why is this an issue?

One issue that concerns me with this view is the very argument for male eldership (the pre-fall creation order) is the same argument given by the Apostle Paul for head covering.

In a previous article I made this point:

Before we examine the next verse I want to challenge my Complementarian friends. I know the arguments you use for male eldership & husband headship. I agree with you fully. In 1 Timothy 2 it explains why a woman cannot “teach or exercise authority”, doesn’t it?

But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. (1 Tim 2:12-14 NASB)

“The reason is based in creation” you would say, “therefore it isn’t cultural”. Agreed. But now I want to challenge you to remain consistent as we examine this next verse.

For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head… (1 Cor 11:7-10a NASB)

Paul says why women must have a have a symbol of authority on their head: because of the created order.

While I understand that many complementarians would object to marrying principle and symbol together here, we must remember that the head covering is the imperative (command) of the text, not the roles of men and women. The principle of headship is what Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand (1 Cor 11:3) but it’s the actual practice of head covering that he wants them to do (1 Cor 11:4-6).

Because of this, I believe the simultaneous acceptance of complementarianism and rejection of head covering is inconsistent. Most of us hold to at least some inconsistent beliefs. I’m thankful that we often don’t follow the harmful ones through to their logical conclusions. My concern however is that future generations will see the inconsistency and abandon Biblical manhood and womanhood. What complementarians do with head covering will be the test.

Wayne Grudem as I previously mentioned, does not believe that head covering is a timeless symbol for the church. He has however publicly pointed out an inconsistency in egalitarian thought. He sees the re-interpretation of Biblical passages concerning the roles of men and women as an undermining of the Scriptures and a path towards liberalism. He’s thankful that many Christians who hold to an evangelical form of egalitarianism, reject a liberal view of the Bible. Having said that, he highlights his concern that while many egalitarians today hold fast to conservative biblical theology, future generations may not:

I realize that a person can adopt one of these [egalitarian] arguments and not move any further than that single step down the path to liberalism for the rest of his life. Many of these leaders have done just that. But I think the reason they have not moved further toward liberalism is that they have not followed the implications of the kind of argument they are using and have not taken it into other areas of their convictions. However, others who follow them will do so. Francis Schaeffer warned years ago that the first generation of Christians who lead the church astray doctrinally change only one key point in their doctrinal position and change nothing else, so it can seem for a time that the change is not too harmful. But their followers and disciples in the next generation will take the logic of their arguments much further and will advocate much more extensive kinds of error. 2) Wayne Grudem – Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism? (Crossway, 2006) As quoted from the Introduction found here: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2013/06/12/an-open-letter-to-egalitarians-about-liberalism/

I have this same concern for complementarians who reject head covering. Unfortunately, it’s not a hypothetical concern.

Some Christian feminists such as Rachel Held Evans have caught the inconsistency:

Anyone who says that Paul’s instructions regarding the women at Ephesus are universally binding because he appeals to the creation narrative to make his point can be consistent in that position only if they also require women in their church to cover their heads, as Paul uses a very similar line of argumentation to advocate that. (See 1 Corinthians 11.)

and some complementarians have begun to question whether appeals to creation are a strong argument for male eldership in light of the head covering issue:

…I have grown to see that my own treatment of, say, I Timothy 2:9-15 has not always reflected a sensitivity to the points made in an egalitarian exegesis of this passage. For example, I used to think that Paul’s mandate here is obviously trans-cultural because it is rooted in his doctrine of creation. Then I realized that Paul’s instruction about head coverings in I Corinthians 11 (which I have always accepted is culturally conditioned) is also rooted in creation. There is no reason in principle why exhortation grounded in the doctrine of creation must necessarily be trans-cultural.

I’m concerned many more will also see this inconsistency and instead of embracing head covering, will leave behind complementarianism. It’s not too late to make a change. If we restore the practice of head covering, I believe complementarianism will be embraced by more and will increase its longevity throughout future church history. The Lord’s supper was given to us as a picture and a reminder. When we partake of it, it reminds us and causes us to think about what Jesus did for us on the cross. In a similar way, head covering is a picture and a reminder to the gathered church. It reminds us and visually teaches us that God has designed men and women to fulfil a different function. At the Head Covering Movement we hear from women regularly who after embracing this symbol, are more vividly reminded of this truth.

To give an example, Laura (from Washington) said:

“My prayer at church changed because now I am worshipping through prayer with an outward symbol and reminder of submission to God and to my husband. The devil makes it tempting not to submit to either, but when I wear the symbol of authority, I can’t help but remember and be humbled.”

So to my complementarian brothers and sisters, will you devote some time to thinking through this issue? Will you with an open mind, listen to the best case for the timelessness of head covering and consider thoughtful responses to common objections? My hope is that you will, because more than a symbol is at stake.

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Resources For Further Study

Recommendations for further study:

Lastly, here are a few articles I’d like to recommend that deal with popular objections.


 Carrie Budoff – Headgear as a Footnote to History (New York Times, April 6, 1997)
 Wayne Grudem – Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism? (Crossway, 2006) As quoted from the Introduction found here: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2013/06/12/an-open-letter-to-egalitarians-about-liberalism/
Jeremy G.

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