Is Head Covering Related to Spiritual Gifts? A Response to Barry York
“On Headcoverings” is the title of an article published on the reformed blog Gentle Reformation. The essay was written by Barry York, who serves as the General Editor of the blog and president of Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He introduces the question that the article seeks to answer:
From colonial times even up to our fathers’ generation, our culture, which was undeniably influenced greatly by Biblical Christianity, saw women regularly don caps, bonnets, hats, and veils in the church. So it raises the question. Are head coverings necessary attire for the Christian woman?
He answers the question by sharing that his wife does not wear a head covering “because she is not a prophetess.”1) York, Barry. “Why My Wife Does Not Wear a Headcovering.” Gentle Reformation, 29 Apr. 2019, https://gentlereformation.com/2019/04/29/why-my-wife-does-not-wear-a-headcovering/ This is a view that connects head covering to the use of miraculous spiritual gifts, rather than to common prayer or worship. In this article, I provide a response to argue that the context of the head covering passage (1 Cor. 11:2-16) is not related to miraculous gifts but to corporate worship.
What is the “Spiritual Gifts” View?
According to this view, women in the Early Church were given prophetic gifts and thus would stand in front of the congregation “communicating on behalf of God with prophecies and perhaps visions.”2) Ibid. Since this is normally a function of male leadership, Dr. York believes the head covering was needed in order to “remind prophetesses of their great privilege and need for continued submission.”3) Ibid. Thus, a prophetess would wear a head covering to show that even though she is standing up in front of everyone and being the mouthpiece of God, she recognizes God’s design for male leadership and submits to that.
This view has similarities to the “Cultural View” of head covering but differs in one key area. The Cultural View sees head covering as limited to a particular place, namely wherever it is culturally expected for women to do so. By contrast, the Spiritual Gifts view sees head covering as limited to a particular era, namely the unique window in redemptive history when the miraculous gifts of the Spirit were functioning. Both views come to the same conclusion: head covering no longer needs to be practiced.
A core belief underlying the Spiritual Gifts view is a doctrine called cessationism, which holds that the miraculous gifts (such as healings, prophecy, and miracles) have now “ceased.” Cessationists believe that the ending of these gifts came with the death of the last apostle or the completion of the New Testament canon.4) MacArthur, John. “The Case for Cessationism Stands.” Grace to You, 5 May 2014, https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B140505/the-case-for-cessationism-stands. (John MacArthur, a notable cessationist, said: “After the New Testament era, we see the miraculous gifts cease.”) That would be sometime in the beginning of the second century, which means they would see the head covering instructions given by Paul as only needing to be practiced in a literal sense for less than seventy-five years.
Barry York explains his reasoning this way:
[G]iven the context the use of the word “praying” when Paul tells the women to wear a covering when “praying or prophesying” must be seen not as common prayer, but the special praying of a prophetess in her communication to God.
The entire Spiritual Gifts view of head covering rests on this word “praying.” If praying in 1 Corinthians 11:5 does not specifically refer to spiritual gifts, then the whole argument is nullified.
What Does It Mean to “Pray” in 1 Corinthians 11:5?
I want to start by affirming an assumption of York’s argument, which is that we can’t just read the word “praying” in this verse and assume it refers to all prayer. For example, Jesus says, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door” (Matt. 6:5). He obviously does not mean that all prayer has to be done privately in one’s room. He’s speaking of a specific manner of prayer in contrast to praying “to be seen by others” (Matt. 6:5 ESV). My wife does not wear a head covering 24/7 for this same reason. I likewise see the context of 1 Corinthians 11:5 as limited rather than referring to all prayer “at all times” (1 Thess. 5:17).
But how are we to know whether or not the prayer in 1 Corinthians 11:5 is referring to a miraculous kind, as performed by a prophetess? To gain a sense of Paul’s context, we should look at how he refers to prayer throughout this letter. When we do that, we see he only refers to it in three places (1 Cor. 7:5, 11:2-16, 14:13-15). In these instances, we see that he talks about prayer in both a common fashion (1 Cor. 7:5) as well as prayer that is connected to spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 14:13-15). When he speaks of it in a common way, he simply refers to it as “prayer” (eg., “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer” in 1 Cor 7:5). In contrast, when he wants to speak about miraculous prayer, he qualifies it with the words “pray in a tongue” (1 Cor. 14:14) or “pray with my spirit” (1 Cor. 14:15). Therefore, when we come back to 1 Corinthians 11:5, we see no such indication that Paul has in mind a supernatural kind of prayer.
Rob Slane, another proponent of this view, has said, “‘Praying and prophesying’ seem very much to be connected and therefore part of the same package.”5) Originally posted on American Vision but since removed. Quotations preserved here from my response to him in 2013: https://www.headcoveringmovement.com/articles/a-response-to-of-hats-and-head-coverings-by-rob-slane-as-posted-on-american-vision The argument he’s making is that since we know prophecy is miraculous, the other part must be miraculous as well. However, that’s an assumption made about the text rather than a necessary implication derived from it.
New Testament scholar Gordon Fee says, “The two verbs ‘pray and prophesy’ make it certain that the problem has to do with the assembly at worship… the two verbs are neither exhaustive nor exclusive but representative.”6) Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2014), 558. The two terms are likely a figure of speech called a synecdoche, in which a part is used in order to refer to the whole. For example, people refer to cars as “wheels” or say they need “all hands on deck” to refer to people. Wheels and hands in these instances are each part of something that is to be understood as referring to the whole. Paul does this himself when he says we don’t wrestle against “flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12). Flesh and blood are parts of a person, which he uses as a synecdoche to refer to the whole person. As Fee mentions, the terms “prayer” and “prophecy” are representative of the worship service and Paul employs them as a synecdoche to refer to the whole church service. Even if one were unconvinced that Paul is employing this figure of speech, the fact remains that there is no exegetical reason to suggest that miraculous praying is in view here. In fact, it is the less likely option since whenever Paul speaks about miraculous praying, he calls it prayer “in a tongue” or prayer “in the spirit” (1 Cor. 14:13-15).
Historical Argument Against the Spiritual Gifts View
One reason Christians often disagree on issues of biblical interpretation is that we don’t have access to the original authors or audience to ask them our questions. Imagine how many theology debates would have been settled if we could sit down with the apostles or the churches that received their letters to ask them what they meant. Theologians still scratch their heads as to why head covering is “because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:10), but a conversation with the church that received the letter would likely clear matters up. The reason I bring this up is that we do have one piece of historical information available that is key to the head covering debate.
Tertullian was a Christian apologist who lived from 160-220 AD. One of the books he wrote was called “The Veiling of Virgins,” in which he argued from Scripture and tradition that all women are to be covered, not just those that are married. There’s one very helpful statement that he made about the church in Corinth in his day, approximately 150 years after Paul wrote his first letter to them. Here is what he said:
So, too, did the Corinthians themselves understand him. In fact, at this day the Corinthians do veil their virgins. What the apostles taught, their disciples approve.
7) Tertullian – On The Veiling Of Virgins – Chapter VIII.
Having observed the third century Corinthian church, Tertullian said the original church that received Paul’s letter understood exactly what the apostles taught and put it into practice. Not only that, but 150 years later, both married and unmarried women in the congregation still continued to wear a veil on their heads.
This piece of historical knowledge nullifies quite a few modern views. It nullifies the Long Hair view, which argues that it was not a material covering in view, but long hair. It nullifies certain cultural views that argue that head covering was a cultural sign of being a faithful married woman, since Tertullian pointed out that all their virgins (unmarried women) veiled. It also nullifies the Spiritual Gifts view, because this is evidence that the original recipients of Paul’s letter continued to practice head covering after the spiritual gifts ceased. It was also not the lone woman who went to the front of the congregation to speak, but all ladies, both married and unmarried, who veiled.
This historical evidence should not be taken lightly. It’s also worth mentioning that head covering was practiced in the majority of the Church for 1500 years and remained the dominant practice in the Western world until the feminist revolution in the 1960s.8) Christian head covering continues to be practiced in much of the Eastern world today, most notably in Eastern Orthodoxy. The Spiritual Gifts view is an extremely recent hypothesis, not advocated for in any Bible commentary I’m aware of, and probably only a few dozen years old. As the old adage goes, “If it’s new, it’s not true; if it’s true, it’s not new.”
In summary, the Spiritual Gifts view rests entirely on an assumption that the word prayer in 1 Corinthians 11:5 refers to miraculous prayer, based on an assumed connection to prophecy. When Paul wants to refer to miraculous prayer, he qualifies it as such (pray “in the spirit” or “in a tongue”) and no such qualification is given in this passage. It is better to understand these terms as representative of vertical and horizontal communication between God and people, and employed by Paul as a synecdoche to refer to the worship service. This understanding fits better with the church’s unanimous practice of head covering in worship for 1500 years. The Spiritual Gifts view is a hypothesis applied to the text, rather than a view derived from it. It is also contradicted by the Corinthian church’s own understanding of the letter they received, who continued the practice of veiling all women, even after the age of miracles had passed.
- Is Head Covering Related to Spiritual Gifts? A Response to Barry York - July 5, 2023
- A Husband’s Authority is Limited (He is Not Pastor or King) - November 14, 2022
- Statement from Jeremy Gardiner: Leadership Transition - September 26, 2022