The Christian Woman’s Veiling— A Tradition of Men or an Ordinance of God?

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Picture with me a group of young people standing in the hallway of a large shopping complex. The singing is wonderful. The look on their faces shows an inner joy that cannot be hid. The Christmas hymns they are singing say nothing about Santa Claus or sleigh bells; Jesus the Christ Child is the message they bring. We notice the clean, well dressed young men, but our focus is quickly drawn to the young ladies. Their clothing is modest and simple, yet neatly made. But what are the little white caps that they are wearing on their heads?

Drawn by the heavenly music and joyful faces, we pause and listen, if just maybe someone will share an explanation of the strange appearance of these youths. The group takes a short break, and out of curiosity we walk over to one of the young men.

“Excuse me, sir, but who are you and what do you represent? We noticed the little white caps on the young women and are curious what they mean. Are they just a tradition of your church, or is there a deeper meaning?”

If you were the young man who was addressed in this way, what answer would you give? Would you be able to convince a curious onlooker that the Christian woman’s veiling is an ordinance of God? More importantly, are you convinced from the bottom of your heart that this is more than just a Mennonite tradition; that it is a Bible command and therefore a direct command of God?

As we look around us, we see many professing Christian people who seem to be on fire for God, taking a very different view on this subject. While it is not our responsibility to judge them, I believe it is important to realize that to be in the center of God’s will, we must be willing to follow God in every area He has revealed to us.

In our Mennonite history we see a direct connection between the loss of the simple traditional practice of this ordinance and the downward spiral of apostasy. While the covering alone does not save us, its placement and size can often be a spiritual thermometer of the heart of the one who is wearing it.

Most of us at some point have been challenged about our stand on the Christian woman’s veiling. We are faced with such responses as these:
1. “If Jesus requires it, why isn’t it recorded that He spoke directly about this ordinance in the Gospels?”
2. “Verse 15 of First Corinthians 11 says that the hair is the covering.”
3. “It was just a cultural thing. It isn’t relevant to our day.”
4. “It isn’t an ordinance; it is only a preference of Paul.”

In First Corinthians 11 we find the only mention of this ordinance in the Bible. Other scriptures bring out the order of headship God has designed, but none of them mention the veiling as a token of submitting to God’s plan. How do we know this is an ordinance of God and not simply a Mennonite tradition? Webster says a tradition is, “The handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, etc., from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth or by practice.” The definition of an ordinance is more forceful: “an authoritative rule or law. An established rite or ceremony. An outward symbol of an inward experience.”

It is so important that we view this practice in the right light. If we view it as only a tradition, we will easily lose it. But if we view it as a divine ordinance of God, then we realize the value of keeping this practice. As new generations come on, we must continually teach and explain the doctrine of God. as I studied this subject, I became more deeply convinced that while the practice of the veiled head for women was in many ways a common practice in most of the world in Bible times, the command in First Corinthians 11 goes much deeper than that.

We have several references to the use of a veil in the Old Testament. Remember the story of Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24. At the end of the chapter, when Rebekah was preparing to meet Isaac, it says she covered herself with a veil. History tells us that in Old Testament times a bride would cover her face in preparation for her wedding. As part of the ceremony she would remove the veil from her face and lay it on the groom’s shoulder; then she would say, “The government shall be upon his shoulder.” This was to signify both that she was willing to submit to him and that he was accepting his role as the leader in the home.

The Jewish women wore a type of covering on their heads when in public to signify their humility and bashfulness before men. They were normally quiet around men and were slow to visit with strangers. In many ways the woman behaved themselves as servants. During a meal the women would serve the men first, then serve themselves.

As we look at the normal lives of the Jews, I think we find an answer to why Jesus and his disciples never mention the Christian woman’s veiling in their teaching. It was so much a traditional part of the lives of the Jews for the woman to be in subjection to her husband and to have her head covered that no Jewish woman would have thought to do otherwise. But what was so different about the Christians at Corinth that they needed direction on this issue?

As we look into the history of Corinth, we realize it was a wealthy port city where there was a lot of industry. With the port, they had many people traveling from all over the known world. This, along with the wealth of the city, brought in many temptations to the people living here. It is said that in Corinth prostitutes were common. Many of them shaved their heads and wore blonde wigs with the hair uncovered to attract men. History states that when the Christians started realizing that they now had freedom in Jesus, they too allowed their women to remove their head covering. Then in Chapter 11 of First Corinthians we have Paul addressing this issue. This was not a new thing Paul was instituting, as many people may try to claim, but God’s people were practicing this ordinance as a tradition before. In verses 4-6 Paul says the woman should be shorn if she doesn’t wear a head covering. The word shorn means more than just trimming the hair; it speaks of shaving the head completely, as they did for a wig, therefore exposing the bald head. In verses 7-12 Paul talks about the dependency of the man and woman on each other. Both are necessary for the furtherance of the human race. Verse 10 is sandwiched in between these other verses. It says, “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.”
I believe that when spiritual beings, especially evil beings, are around a properly veiled Christian woman, they are restricted in what they can do. God puts a hedge of sorts around those who are willing to identify with Him and His plan. I believe it also causes the angels of God to give them special protection. Therefore they have power on their heads against the forces of evil. Moving on down to verse 15, we read, “But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.”

Many people read this verse and say the hair is the covering, so what’s the big deal? If you study into the two kinds of veils Paul is talking about in this chapter, you will see the one in verse 5 means a veil that you put on to cover completely. The word covering in verse 15 indicates something that can be arranged to be used as an ornament. This verse does not contradict the earlier part of this chapter, but simply shows that a woman is given long hair as a glory for her. When she arranges it simply and covers it with a covering, she is showing to the world that she accepts God’s order of authority and is willing to submit to it.

So how can we know this is an ordinance of God and not just a tradition of men? What does the Bible say about it? Second Timothy 3:14-17 says, “But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.”

God’s Word is inspired by God. We can be assured that God put it on the heart of Paul to write about this ordinance to the Corinthians. I believe God looked ahead to our day, knowing that we would lose the practice of His order of headship, as well as the beauty of the symbol of subjection, if He didn’t develop this ordinance and inspire Paul to write of it in his letter to the Corinthian church.

What is the practical outworking of this ordinance? While Paul gives no size or style of covering necessary to be in God’s will, the words used for the covering in this chapter give us a little insight into what God expects.

1. The word used for covered means “to cover completely.” By this we assume the veiling is to be more than just a small symbol but large enough to cover the extra hair.

2. Because it is to cover the hair, which is a glory to the woman, we assume the covering is to be made without ornamentation that would attract attention and therefore distract from its purpose.

The traditional covering we as Mennonites have held dear for quite a number of years has proven to be very effective. While we dare not judge others who practice a slightly different veiling that meets the requirement of covering the glory of the woman, we need not be ashamed of upholding our traditional practice. Our traditional coverings provide an unmistakable message both of our acceptance of God’s order of headship as well as what type of church we represent.

Practicing an ordinance in itself does not save us. It only has true meaning when it is an outward expression of what is in the heart. Sisters, as you place your covering on your head, may you be challenged to wear it with an honest heart. May your hair arrangement be such that would complement—not hinder—the message it sends to the world. May God bless each one of us as we find our place in His Kingdom!
~ Salem, OH
May 2013