In every age of church history, questions have arisen which have grown into issues of great concern. The role of the woman is one such issue. Today, as in the past, there is scarcely a local church, or church leader, who has not discussed the place and service of women in the church. The sheer frequency with which the woman is mentioned in Scripture provides evidence for the significance of her role and importance. Moreover, the place of the headcovering has occupied an important place in this debate. Leaders in the church, both past and present, have argued for its continued use. Furthermore, in the New Testament the apostle Paul sought to win the obedience of women because of the high place they occupy in relation to angels (1 Cor. 11:10).
The principle of biblical headship and the teaching of the covering for a woman are closely intertwined. In 1 Corinthians 11:3, Paul teaches that headship is ordered: God-Christ-man-woman (see l Cor. 11:3). The most accepted meaning for the term “headship” is to have authority over. In context, Paul is speaking of relationships between the man and the woman and between Christ and the church. The Bible teaches that the headcovering is a symbol of a woman’s obedience to God’s purpose and design in creation and the church. To disregard this is an affront to the biblical order God has designed for His “Bride,” the church. This point has not been missed by church leaders through the centuries.
One of the great leaders of the early church was Tertullian. He was born in Carthage, North Africa, the son of a Roman army officer. Although trained as a lawyer, he was a leading figure in the church between 195 and 220 ad, and his writings served as a rudder to steer the church through the theological tempests of that day. His writings in opposition to the Arian controversy (which denied the deity of Christ) and on the role of the woman in the church are considered his finest works. Tertullian believed that the covering for women was not bound by culture or time, but that it was a timeless biblical principle.
Writing about 160 years after Paul’s 1 Corinthian letter, he states, “For throughout Greece, and in certain of its barbaric provinces, the majority of churches keep their women covered. So let no one ascribe this custom merely to the Gentile customs of the Greeks and barbarians. The Corinthians themselves understood him (the Apostle Paul) to speak in this manner. For to this very day the Corinthians veil their virgins. So, on both sides of the matter, the apostle has written with sufficient clarity, in fact he says quite succinctly, ‘every woman.’ What does ‘every’ mean if it doesn’t mean every class, every order, every condition, and every age.”1 It is notable that Paul never appeals to the customs of the day in his arguments for the use of headcoverings. The practice of headcoverings as described in 1 Corinthians 11 was not a specific Greek, Asian, or Roman custom. The failure to wear a headcovering would not have caused a scandal among the local population. Paul’s appeal to nature, creation, and angels indicates that the veiling was the most appropriate expression of headship in the church in every age.
A contemporary of Tertullian was Titus Flavius Clement, born in Athens of parents who were Roman citizens. Clement later settled in Alexandria, Egypt. Soon after his conversion he became an able teacher of the Scriptures, and in time succeeded Pantaenus as the principal of an early Bible school. In the prime of his life (189-231 ad) he was considered to be one of the early church’s leading theologians. Clement’s writings covered a broad range of biblical themes; one was the role of the woman in the church.
Clement saw a spiritual connection between devotion to Christ and a woman’s wearing of a veil. In his book, “The Instructor,” Clement writes, “Women and men are to go to the assembly decently attired, possessing unfeigned love, pure in body, pure in heart, fit to pray to God. Let the women observe further. Let her be entirely covered, unless she be at home. And she will never fall, who unites devotion and modesty with her veil. For this is the wish of the Word, since it is becoming for her to pray veiled.”2
Nearly two hundred years later, one of the most important theologians in the history of the church appeared, Augustine (354-430), the great spiritual leader from the city of Hippo, North Africa. Augustine’s doctrinal authority helped shepherd the church flock in Africa as never before. His impact on his generation and the generations to follow would be immeasurable.
Martin Luther once remarked that his study of the writings of Augustine was a decisive factor in gaining his reformation insight. Augustine wrote extensively, penning over 97 books, not including his sermons and letters. His two most well-known works were his Confessions and the City of God. In writing to his friend, Possidius, an elder in a local church, he details the relationship of spiritual headship in the home and spiritual headship in the church: “Those who belong to this world have also to consider how they may please their wives if they be husbands, their husbands if they be wives, with this limitation, that it is not becoming for women to uncover their hair, since the apostle commands women to keep their heads covered.”3
John Wesley (1703-1791) will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the greatest evangelists of all time. The prince of Bible expositors, Dr. Alexander Maclaren, once commented as he stood before a portrait of John Wesley, “Now, I have seen the man who moved England.”4 The founder of Methodism was also a writer, evangelist, and missionary. His tireless efforts had a profound and lasting effect on the church. His teaching on the role of the woman in the church was much different than many others who had come before him. One great area of difference was that John Wesley encouraged women not only to become involved in the ministry of the church, but also to become preachers of the gospel. He thought deeply and wrote extensively about the role of the woman in the church. Although women were allowed to preach in the Methodist ministry, the veil covering a woman’s head was required as a sign of her headship to Christ. Concerning the theological significance of the veil, Wesley wrote, “For a man indeed ought not to veil his head because he is the image and glory of God in the dominion he bears over the creation, representing the supreme dominion of God, which is his glory. But the woman is a matter of glory to the man, who has a becoming dominion over her. Therefore she ought not to appear except with her head veiled as a tacit acknowledgement of it.”5
The practice of women covering themselves with a veil has been an accepted spiritual exercise throughout the history of the church. Scholars, teachers, and leaders from the very earliest day down to the present have explained with passion and precision its biblical relevance and spiritual significance. The scope of this article does not allow us to go into the writings of other great leaders and their views concerning the head covering. Church leaders and scholars, such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, Menno Simons, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox and others, all have written persuasively on the biblical practice of the veiling of women.
The following comment by Matthew Henry (1662-1714), summarizes well the accepted practice of churches in almost every age. His words also express the weight and gravity that should be rightly attached to the headcovering, for its use demonstrates the Headship of Christ in the Church. He writes, “It was the common usage of the churches for women to appear in public assemblies, and join in public worship veiled; and it was manifestly decent that they should do so. Those must be very contentious indeed who would quarrel with this or lay it aside.”6
In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul exhorts the Corinthian church to adhere to a custom he had taught them: Women were to veil themselves in the public assembly of believers. This was a uniquely Christian custom observed out of respect for the principle of headship. The reasons Paul gives for this custom are cross-cultural and eternal. The headship principle is so fundamental, so central to the functioning of the New Testament church that it must be expressed symbolically in the church’s public gatherings by the use of headcoverings. The biblical teaching of the New Testament regarding the woman’s role is difficult to understand and accept amid the current cultural values and trends in our society. The God of the Bible is not interested in oppressing women. On the contrary, women are truly liberated, and thereby truly fulfilled, when they willingly place themselves into the pattern of God’s unique design. “Ascribe ye greatness unto our God…His work is perfect; for all His ways are judgment; a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is He” (Deut. 32:3-4).
1. Tertullian, On the Veiling of Virgins, translated by David W. Bercot, Scroll Publishing, Tyler, TX: 1991, p. 138.
2. Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 3, T & T Clark, Edinburgh Scotland: 1989, p. 290.
3. Augustine, To Possidius, the Elder, Letters of Augustine, #238, T & T Clark, Edinburgh, Scotland: 1989, p. 588.
4. A. Skevington Wood, The Burning Heart, Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, MN: 1978, p. 25.
5. John Wesley, Notes on the Bible, Francis Asbury Press, Grand Rapids, MI: 1987, p. 517.
6. Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, Hendrikson Publishers, Peabody, Mass.: 1991, p. 453.