I have heard many even in very conservative circles say that the Christian woman’s headcovering (while distinct from the long hair itself) is a spiritual thing only. Sometimes a woman may say “my husband is my covering,” which is a statement I would agree with, but not if they say he is their only covering besides their long hair. They will sometimes cite verse 3 of chapter 11 in 1 Corinthians and say something to the effect of because there is a spiritual context, the part about the headcovering is to be interpreted only spiritually, so the word “covering” only refers to something spiritual and unseen, being the authority of the man over the woman.
Here are the reasons I believe this interpretation is not biblical:
1. It is selective spiritualization
There seems to me to be a selective spiritualization on the passage by those who hold the view that the covering is only symbolic. Those that hold this view do not interpret the part about hair being solely spiritual. They believe that the hair being talked about is physical. Therefore they believe women should wear long hair and men cut their hair. Why is the headcovering spiritual but the hair isn’t, if the entire passage ought to be interpreted spiritually? What scriptural justification is there for such an interpretation? What is stopping me from spiritualizing the hair as well, and saying it is fine with God for women to bob their hair?
Some may say, “It is because verse 10 says the women ought to have ‘power on her head.’ Power is not a physical thing that is visible, is it? Therefore we should reinterpret the passage with only a spiritual covering we can’t see and let the women’s glorious long hair be flaunted.”
There are several reasons the use of the word “power” in this manner does not discredit a physical veil, but rather is congruent with it.
1) Its use in this phrase does not require changing interpretation of the surrounding verses. Even if the interpretation of “power” is correct in referring solely to something spiritual, it doesn’t discredit the physical headcovering. All three may be present harmoniously – the physical hair, the physical headcovering, and the spiritual power. It doesn’t contradict anything, rather it would expound on the two before. What is the symbol of authority in 1 Corinthians 11? It is not long hair. It is not the veil itself. It is the covered head.
2) Using the word “power on her head” to discredit the veiling and relegate it into oblivion causes one to miss many key points from the chapter. Removing the physical covered head darkens the many layers of meaning throughout the entire passage. Just for grins, let’s plug in that interpretation of only the hair being the physical covering (with no headcovering) and power being only spiritual. Does it make sense? It all runs pretty smooth until verse 5. And then the wheels really come off when we start looking at verse … It defeats the entire purse of the symbol of covered glory. Covered glory is the point, not the long hair and not just spiritual submission.
3) It makes the most sense to interpret the term “power on her head” here as an instance of metonymy. This is a figure of speech where the subject itself substituted for the unseen symbol. This is like saying the crown instead of the office of royalty for a king, which would not be talking about an actual crown itself.
2. Spiritual relegation is not Scripturally justified for this passage.
There is a time and a place to spiritualize things, but only when other Scriptures can be brought in to prove one must reinterpret something physical to be spiritual in order to be biblically consistent. Otherwise what is stopping me from spiritualizing the rest of the of the verses that say if a man have long hair it is a shame unto him? I could just write that off as a spiritual allegory too and say the long hair is just a metaphor for being femininely submissive, so as long as a man still acts masculine he could still wear long hair, and I would have just as much basis for saying this as I would that the covering spoken of in verse 6 is spiritual, or that long hair on women is a spiritual allegory that you can take or leave as you like. Let’s take it a step further… what is stopping me from spiritualizing other passages that begin with a spiritual context? Reinterpretation of verse 6 is not necessary because verse 3 is not being contradicted. They blend in perfect harmony taken for what they say at face value. Again, Paul is using physical things to describe spiritual truths he previously introduced, with the headcovering and long hair being a depiction of authority and glory. Get rid of the physical headcovering and you lose half of the physical allegory.
On a side note, unnecessary reinterpretation is what has given us liberal, New Evangelical theology and the total mess of the modern church today, from spiritualizing the Genesis account of creation to spiritualizing the resurrection of Christ or (as the Quakers) spiritualizing the body of Christ. I mean, it will take you anywhere, when you aren’t bounded by the Scriptures. I say “reinterpreting” because veils and coverings were an established concept from the Bible, which brings me to my next point.
3. Physical headcoverings for women can be found throughout the entire Bible
The passage is written from the perspective that the Corinthians already understood what a covering was. Headcoverings were very common in the ancient world as well, and Paul’s audience would already be aware of that. Why would they suddenly absolve?
Number 5:18, Isaiah 47:2, Ruth 3:15, and Genesis 24:65 are some of the more prominent instances, though there are many others that are not as direct.
4. It is inconsistent to reinterpret this element of modesty as only spiritual and not others.
Understanding clothing to have such deep scriptural meaning, why wouldn’t we interpret clothing as spiritual too? More is actually said about the headcovering than other items of dress. What’s interesting is Titus 2 starts out with a spiritual context as well.
“I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.”
Those are verses 1-5. It even sets the stage by talking about authority, which is not by accident, before getting into the topic of women’s modesty in apparel. The “therefore” in verse 8 is referring to what came before it, which is the spiritual groundwork, even the mediatory work of Christ, whereby we have the grounds to pray for God’s will to be done. Some may say, the context is not spiritual, it is daily life, a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. No, that is what is being prayed for. See verse one. The context is prayer. Now because the context is prayer, does that mean women should only be modest when they pray? No, but it is of even more importance at that time. Nearly the identical context is in 1 Corinthians 11 for the headcovering! What is it? Prayer and prophesying. Should we only pray at church, or at certain times by ourselves? No. We are told to pray without ceasing. And prophesying can happen many times at home in daily life. So the context still overlaps in both passages with practical living. I’m pulling this in as an example of a passage that starts out with a spiritual context, talking about things that are unseen, then transitions into things that are seen.
No, like clothing, the headcovering is the physical symbol of the spiritual reality. And only until recent years among Christian people has the headcovering disappeared from the Christan woman’s wardrobe. In fact, the headcovering was also found worn among heathen people (like clothing) for centuries. Which brings me to my final point.
5. Physical headcoverings are found all throughout history.
It’s not just a cultural thing; the headcovering bridges almost every culture and region. It is especially prevalent in ancient Christian society and denominations all up until the last 150 years. There is ample evidence that the headcovering was practiced and received as a part of a woman’s daily attire. Were all of these Christians wrong all these years and now we’re the “enlightened” ones? I doubt it, because when change happens it is usually moving away from God and His Word rather than towards it. Read the writings of solid Christian authors and they also mention the physical veil for women. Overall they didn’t really make a big deal out of it because it was accepted in Christian society just like wearing a dress used to be, but it is there if you search for it. Knox, Bunyan, and many other great writers of the faith hold to it as being a physical covering, not that they should be the final authority by any means, but something worth at least considering.
Many times you will hear people say that 1 Corinthians 11 is a tricky passage, and I would say the reason they say that is because they don’t take it for what it plainly says. The writings of early Christians show that they thought the passage was so simple a child could understand it, and thought Paul actually belaboured the point. It is only in our modern age that we’ve sought complex reinterpretations because we don’t want to embrace something so strange to us.
Again, the veiling is not the symbol. The hair is not the symbol. While both of these are symbolic, the symbol of authority in the passage is the covered head.
You may enjoy my Meaning of Modesty series which goes into more detail about the headcovering, 1 Corinthians 11 and common objections to the sisters’ veiling.