Perhaps I should be reluctant to jump into this topic! There are so many interpretations of 1 Corinthians 11 that it’s a little scary that we can’t seem to agree. Did Paul mean all women, all the time? Is a woman’s long hair her covering? Why wear a separate covering, and what kind?
To my thinking, the Anabaptists have a firm understanding of the significance of both long hair on women and the head covering. (See their materials at http://www.anabaptists.org.) I’m not quite on the same page in their headship interpretation, but I don’t disagree either! I think the significance of “covering” goes deeper than the Reformers thought it does.
What is long hair? For the purposes of 1 Corinthians 11, it means uncut hair, not just hair longer than a “short” length. Uncut hair grows to a certain length, and then starts to shed and be replaced. This hair cycle is about seven years, sometimes longer. Hair generally grows at the rate of 1/2″ per month. These rates can vary, depending mostly on genetics, just as the number of hair follicles and how long they will produce hair is mostly genetically pre-determined. Various other factors come into play, as well, such as nutrition and environment. (When I was about twenty-six, I had a bout of stress-induced alopecia – significant hair loss. Quitting one of three jobs and changing houses finally reduced the stress and the thin patches filled in.)
It was the expectation in the early church that women would look like women, that sexual differences would be honoured. Paul gave the women in the church good reasons for keeping their long hair, while prohibiting them from turning it into an object of vanity. So for generations Christian women followed this precept, and kept their hair long and uncut. Some achieved great lengths of hair, which had to be braided and wound up under caps and veils. (“Braided” and “broided” are not the same word. “Broided” means fancy work in the hair.) This is still the case in some sects, but those who have practiced this for time immemorial don’t make much of it. It’s the world that looks at naturally long hair as something freakish.
How long is too long? My own hair doesn’t get much past waist length before it starts to break. I have fine, fragile hair, so it will never grow to knee-length anyway, and if it should, there still wouldn’t be much mass. This is the case for many women, so the question of cutting doesn’t come up. We would never consider anything as decorative and frivolous as a bang (or “fringe”, as our British cousins put it.) I just brush it from a center part, pull it back with one hand, twist it into a bun, and pin it in place with bobby pins. Times when I have my hair down, I gather it back into a low ponytail.
Some women simply cannot grow their hair long. Women of African descent often have fragile hair that doesn’t get a great deal of length, and they should not be shamed into thinking that they need to get extensions or they are somehow inadequate . For those with hair that has a lot of curl, or very fragile hair, it may make sense to keep it at a manageable length and use pins or clips to keep it back. It might be good to braid it close to the head in “cornrows”, a very old practice which is very practical for those whose hair doesn’t fall straight. A practiced braider can put up cornrows very quickly, and they don’t need more than a little maintenance day by day. This is not license for women with European ancestry to indulge in the long, beaded braids, though!
For women with very thick, heavy hair, reducing the length may be necessary to avoid the excess weight. I think it is allowable when very long, heavy hair is causing neck strain and head aches, if the hair can be kept at near waist length, or at least a feminine length below the shoulders, long enough to gather back under a cap or veil. It is ridiculous to endanger one’s health by legalism.
But that is not license to cut the hair off for fashion reasons! Most women who cut the hair short do so, they say, because it is more practical. They don’t want to “fuss” with long hair. How fussy is it to put long, one-length hair in a bun and drop a cap on it? The entire process takes me less than five minutes. I don’t even need a mirror. Women with short hair have to wash it, comb it into shape, possibly curl it with a hot iron or blow-dryer, spray it with some sticky stuff, and check regularly in a mirror to see if any of it is out of place. Those who choose the butchered hair look without any of the fussiness often appear, as my mother would say, as if someone had dragged them backward through a hedge.
The Apostle was, in simple terms, telling women (all Christian women, not just the Corinthians) that they were to set aside vanity and keep long, unfussy hair, with no ornamentation (which would include dying) and properly covered so that it is not a temptation to vanity for the women or to lustful admiration for the men.
Hair care is big business. Those of us who have opted out of it are threatening the economy! We don’t go to hairdressers or salons or spas. We don’t buy hair dyes or those silly kits to add “highlights” or “streaks” or “chunks” of different colour to our heads. We don’t need conditioners and gels and picks and blowdryers. We have a packet of hair pins and a few ponytail holders, a half-dozen clippies to keep caps and veils in place and that is it, besides a good quality brush and a de-tangling comb. We buy baby shampoo, not some fancy bottle with a salon owner’s name on it. We don’t buy hair-style magazines or watch television to see what Hollywood babe is doing to her head.
There are theological reasons for covering besides the practicality and the killing of vanity. The Lord gives women an honour in allowing them to be covered before the altar. Even bishops must uncover completely when they stand before the sacrament at the altar. Women, receiving or serving, should be covered. This, first, indicates that they are under the headship of Christ. While the headcover also indicates that they are under the headship of a husband, this is not the case for single women, who must still cover before God. The second-class position women often suffered under ancient custom outside the church is thus removed. For while woman is under the headship of man, as the first woman came from man, her position of equality before the Lord is restored in that the Son of Man came from woman. We honour His mother in emulating her humility in veiling before her son, our Lord.
It is obvious to me from scripture and the early church fathers that in the apostolic church women preached and prayed publicly, although Paul admonished some to stop interrupting the service, and hold their questions for later! The Holy Spirit speaks through women as well as men, and ministry is not limited to men, or the first Christians would not have appointed widows to minster, an important commission from Christ Himself. A witness is a witness, whether it is from a gold-draped, venerable bishop or a little girl of ten in pinafore and bonnet. God does not distinguish between His children in bestowing His gifts of the Spirit. A right heart and a steady faith are more than merit in the eyes of the Lord.
I believe all Christian women are called to the public witness of unshorn, unadorned hair and the blessing of the headship covering. It tells the world that we are Christians, and not afraid to be identified as such. We may have to compromise occasionally, when that witness is not accepted, but we are to pray for the blessing all the more. It is right to wear a full cap, with just a little hair showing, or the sisters’ veil, sometimes known as a charity veil, and wear them with modest, womanly dress. These are readily obtainable, by purchasing from some God-fearing sister who sews or by making them ourselves. It is not difficult. On occasions when it is necessary to wear workclothes that exclude a skirt, then a covering suitable to modest pants should be worn, such as a scarf or soft hat. The unveiled hair is just for our families, and particularly for our husbands, who should love this feminine expression of our modesty.
Sisters, be bold in wearing the prayer cap and the veil! As much as possible, wear this symbol of our witness. It is now a revolutionary thing to do, to say in our way, “The Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the good news!”