Is Headcovering Legalistic?
Many who practice head covering today are viewed as legalistic. In order to comment on this charge, it’s important we first define the term. The word “legalism” isn’t found anywhere in the Bible nor is anyone in the Scriptures referred to as “legalistic”. It’s a word we’ve coined that refers to an incorrect view of law-keeping. Generally speaking, when someone is legalistic they’re doing one of two things:
- They believe their law-keeping makes (or keeps) them in a right-standing with God.
- They make laws out of issues that a Christian has liberty to decide for themselves.
For the first definition, it’s possible to be legalistic about any teaching in Scripture. Head covering should not be singled out, as no command is immune from this error. Anyone can think that one’s obedience earns justifying favor with God, no matter the issue. But let us be clear, this is a heretical view. No amount of good works or law-keeping can make us (or keep us) right with God. Our salvation is a free gift, based upon the perfect life and death of Jesus in our place. Faith in Christ is what saves us, not obedience to Christ. We obey God out of love for Him (John 14:15), not to be loved by Him. Therefore, one can practice head covering without being legalistic in this sense.
The last definition of legalism is turning issues of Christian liberty into commands. Christian liberty (or freedom) is a Christian’s right to make their own decision on issues that are not commanded by God. Some areas of liberty would be their style of fashion, what media they consume (television, music, news) and how they vote in elections. For these types of issues there are biblical parameters that limit our choices and biblical principles that should inform our choices, but there is not one correct Christian answer. One Christian may abstain and one Christian may participate and both can be glorifying God in their respective choices (Rom 14:6). Head covering on the other hand is not a matter of Christian liberty so it cannot be legalistic in that sense. Let’s review several reasons from this article on why we believe that to be so:
- 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 (Rom 14:6) 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.
Since it’s not a symbol that one can choose if they want to obey, I don’t believe that this definition of legalism can apply. It would be like saying, “it’s legalistic for you to tell that new Christian she must be baptized”. That would be a misapplied charge since Baptism is a command, not a practice you decide if you want to partake of or not. When one is exhorted to adhere to a Scriptural command, that is not legalism, it is biblical Christianity. Though head covering does not affect one’s salvation, we care about everything God says, not just the big things. Jesus said, “if you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15) and since “all Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim 3:16), we cannot dismiss this teaching on head covering. So while it is possible to practice this symbol legalistically, the source of legalism would be in the heart of the one who practices it, not in the symbol itself.