Is Head Covering Christian Liberty or a Command?
What is Christian Liberty?
Christian liberty is a Christian’s right to make their own decision on issues that are not commanded by God. With these types of issues there are biblical parameters that limit our choices and biblical principles that should inform our choices, but there is not only one correct answer for all Christians. This idea is taught in Romans 14 where the Apostle Paul says:
One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. (Romans 14:2-6)
Paul says that God doesn’t command a certain diet or ask us to esteem certain days. Therefore, one person can eat vegetarian while another can eat meat. One can observe a day as special while another can treat all days alike. Both can hold to their contrary views while bringing glory of God. Some other areas that are a Christian’s liberty would be their style of fashion, what media they take in (television, music, news) and how they vote in elections. These issues will have Scriptural parameters and principles to help guide our choices, but there is no command which would only allow for one view.
So in summary, an area of Christian liberty 1) is not commanded by God and 2) allows for Christians to hold contrary positions while still glorifying God.
Is Head Covering Christian Liberty?
In 1 Corinthians 11, head covering is defended as a biblical imperative to bring conformity in practice (1 Cor 11:16). Because of this I don’t believe it would be right to classify it as a matter of Christian liberty. Here are five reasons why I understand head covering as a command:
- Head covering is teaching that was “held firmly” by the church because it was delivered with apostolic authority (1 Cor 11:2). Liberty issues are left to the Christian, not delivered to the churches for them to hold to.
- Paul tells anyone who would disagree with head covering that the churches have only one view and that’s their practice of it (1 Cor 11:16). Liberty issues are marked by multiple views, not an exclusive position.
- The sentence structure commands an action: “But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head.” (1 Cor 11:6 ESV). Liberty issues are marked by the absence of a direct action-command.
- Paul says to not practice head covering is dishonorable, disgraceful and comparable to a woman having a shaved head (1 Cor 11:4-6). Liberty issues are marked by a plurality of choices which can bring glory to God while Paul’s choice of language suggests that in this instance only one choice can.
- Paul defends head covering by appealing to the creation order, nature and angels. Liberty issues are marked by their silence in the Scriptures, not by a defense.
For these reasons I believe head covering is a biblical command that should be practiced by all Christians.
We “Ought” to Practice It
Some has suggested that head covering is not a biblical command because Paul tells us that we “ought” to practice it, not that we must. The Greek word behind “ought” is opheilo and it occurs 35 times in the New Testament. In it’s various occurrences it’s translated as owed, obligated, ought, should and even must (with a few other words that are closely related). In all instances, opheilo is meant to lead the person to one practice only. It doesn’t carry the connotation of choice, but of obligation. For example, Paul says “husbands ought also to love their wives” (Eph 5:28) and John says “we also ought to love one another.” Those are biblical commands, not issues of liberty. One cannot withhold their love from their spouse or fellow Christians while still glorifying God. When Paul tells us that a man “ought not to have his head covered” (1 Cor 11:7) and that “the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head” (1 Cor 11:10) he’s speaking of something we need to do, not something we can choose if we want to do.
What Difference Does It Make?
Having made a case for why head covering should be understood as a command, let’s now look at what difference this makes. What do we mean (and not mean) when we call something a command?
Being a Biblical command…
does not mean you cannot disagree with the interpretation (and thus not observe it)
does not mean it must be enforced by another (although this may be perfectly acceptable depending on the circumstance, IE. a pastor over his flock)
Having said that, there are some important differences for how we interact with a command in contrast to an issue of Christian liberty.
Being a Biblical command…
means if you are convinced that it’s being interpreted correctly, you are obligated to observe it
means you can persuade and exhort others to observe it (without being legalistic)
I understand that calling something a command may be uncomfortable to some who read this. After all, aren’t we under grace and freed from the Law? I’m not suggesting a return to the old written code which we have been released from (Rom 7:6 ESV). However, I am emphatically stating that Christianity is not a religion of lawlessness (Mat 7:23). Paul said that we are under the “Law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21) and Jesus said “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15). That means Christianity and commandments are not antithetical. Though head covering was taught by Paul (not Jesus) we are told that “All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim 3:16) and that the Apostle Peter considered Paul’s writings to be Scripture too (2 Pet 3:16). That means the black letters are no less inspired than the red. Since 1 Corinthians 11 is authored by God, believers must study this passage with the same vigor they do with the rest of the Scriptures. If they are convinced that a cloth covering is in view and that it is a timeless symbol, they are obligated to observe it and can teach and exhort others to do the same.