Is Your Husband Your Spiritual Covering?
SYMBOLISM & LITERALISM
In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul provides instructions for two important symbolic practices within Christianity. The most well-known is the Lord’s Supper, also called “Communion” or “the Eucharist.”
The Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.1) 1 Cor. 11:23b-26, NASB.
The death of Jesus — the powerful event behind our salvation — is symbolically portrayed here in the Lord’s Supper. And just as Jesus commanded, this personal and meaningful tradition has been regularly practiced by the Church for the last 2000 years.
Unfortunately, though, some Christians have mistakenly understood this passage to mean that during the Lord’s Supper, the bread literally becomes Jesus’ body, and the drink literally becomes Jesus’ blood. This belief is called “transubstantiation” and is often associated with the Catholic Church. In effect, transubstantiation substitutes the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus (Heb. 10:10) with a recurring sacrifice of His “real” body & blood during the Eucharist portion of each Catholic Mass.2) “The Eucharist performs at once two functions: that of a sacrament and that of a sacrifice… the sacrament is intended privately for the sanctification of the soul, whereas the sacrifice serves primarily to glorify God by adoration, thanksgiving, prayer, and expiation [atonement for sin]. The recipient of the one is God, who receives the sacrifice of His only-begotten Son; of the other, man, who receives the sacrament for his own good. Furthermore, the unbloody Sacrifice of the Eucharistic Christ is in its nature a transient action, while the Sacrament of the Altar continues as something permanent after the sacrifice.” Pohle, Joseph. “Sacrifice of the Mass.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 24 Mar. 2019 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10006a.htm>.
In addition to the statement, “This is my body,” Jesus made a variety of other comments that were also intended figuratively. For example, He said, “I am the door” (John 10:7), “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35), and “I am the true vine” (John 15:1). These words were obviously not meant to be understood literally, but rather as figures of speech. However, an opposite type of confusion can also occur: Christians sometimes disregard the plain (and literal) statements in Scripture, as they seek to discover “deeper” figurative or symbolic meanings behind those statements.
UNDERCOVER: A CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY
This specific confusion sometimes occurs in relation to another symbolic practice that Paul taught, just prior to his statements on the Lord’s Supper.
“Every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head… if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head.”3) 1 Cor. 11:5-6, NASB.
In response to this text, some propose that a “covered” woman is one who is in submission to her “head” (that is, her husband). In other words, rather than a physical cloth worn on her head, the woman’s husband is considered to be a “spiritual covering” for her.4) eg., “Is this a literal covering of the head or is it illustrating a spiritual aspect?… The covering (or uncovering) is describing a spiritual relationship… [the husband] is required to bridge the gap so to speak between the LORD and the woman… the woman must have some kind of spiritual cover (or authority) over her… for her spiritual protection.” George, Davis. The Woman Is the Glory of the Man. Westbow Press, 2012. 202-208. This idea of a “spiritual covering” is sometimes associated with some parts of the Charismatic movement.
Several important truths about biblical womanhood are symbolized by a cloth head covering. However, multiple interpretive problems are created when being “covered” is used as a reference to being under the husband’s spiritual leadership.
COVERED: A SYMBOL ON THE HEAD
The primary difficulty with this interpretation is that it equates the woman’s head with the woman’s head covering — even though each is discussed separately within the passage. More specifically, this passage teaches that the woman’s biblical role is symbolized by a covering, not that the husband’s role is a covering.
This can easily be seen by considering the actual definition of the Greek verb that Paul used (katakalupto) when he described the wife covering her head. The term simply means “to cover up, to veil, or to cover one’s self.”5) Thayer, Joseph. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Harper & Brothers, 1889. 331. Of course, a cloth garment could indeed “cover up” or “veil” a woman. But Paul is obviously not saying that a husband should be used to “cover up” or “veil” his wife. The husband is not the “covering.”
Along the same lines, most scholars agree that Paul’s symbolic use of the word “authority” (1 Cor. 11:10) is a reference to the covering.6) Obviously, authority is not something that can be literally placed on a person’s head, and so Paul intends this symbolically. Many English Bible translations reflect this by helpfully adding the phrase “sign of” or “symbol of” prior to the word “authority.” In this verse, Paul teaches that this symbol of authority is to be “on”7) The Greek word epi is commonly translated “upon” or “above.” the woman’s head. This “covering on the woman’s head” is easy to picture if Paul is referring to a piece of cloth, but much more difficult to picture if Paul is referring to the husband.
CONCLUDING NOTES ON BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION
In this passage, Paul discusses both the husband and the head covering. But to equate the “covering” with the “husband” requires a non-literal, “spiritualized” interpretation of the passage. This method of reading literature is often called “allegorical interpretation” and is often used by those who seek “deeper” (or hidden) meanings within Scriptural statements. However, most evangelical Christians employ a more common historical-grammatical method of reading the Bible, which doesn’t allow for allegorizing passages that already make plain sense when understood literally.
As with any doctrine taught in Scripture, our responsibility is to handle the Word carefully and accurately (2 Tim. 2:15). Whenever we fail in that, we are liable to cause much confusion. In the case of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, the husband may indeed have some of the spiritual leadership responsibilities implied by those who view him as the “spiritual covering” for his wife. However, nothing in this text requires (or even implies) that the woman’s “covering” is her husband.
Because of the interpretive roadblocks that come with this proposal, it has remained a minority view within Christianity. Instead, the passage provides very clear indication that Paul was referring to a cloth head covering used during times of prayer or prophesy. This has, therefore, been the primary view of the Church for the majority of the last 2000 years.