Regardless whether you believe St. Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians about headcoverings are still binding today, there are still many good reasons a Christian woman might want to cover her hair, whether just at church, all the time, or to any extent in between. Some of those are actually mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11, and some are only discovered as one engages in the practice, like taking a walk in the summer for your health and being rewarded by finding wild, sweet blackberries and blueberries along the path. Again, it’s not my purpose here to debate whether St. Paul’s injunction remains binding for us; I simply want to share some reasons a sister might find this practice spiritually fruitful for her.
- A symbol of headship. I think most conservative, Bible-believing Christians would agree that regardless whether headcoverings are still necessary for women in church (and forbidden for men), the principles of headship laid out in 1 Corinthians 11 do apply. Though many today would posit a wedding ring as a symbol of this order, it must be pointed out that (1) both husbands and wives wear wedding rings, and (2) a ring on one’s finger is neither as noticeable nor as pertinent to the head as is a headcovering, or lack thereof. Furthermore, only those who are married (or perhaps widowed) wear a wedding ring, but any woman can wear a headcovering. The unmarried woman is not excluded from God’s beautiful order of creation; she is just as much a part of it as the married woman. Whether a woman is married or not, she, too, can wear a symbol of the beautiful relation between man and woman, between Christ and His bride, the Church, whose sins have been covered by her Redeemer and Lord.
- It directs the glory to God. The 1 Corinthians passage is all about glory. St. Paul tells us that a woman’s glory is her hair. But in the Divine Service, we should be giving glory to God, not to ourselves. Wearing a scarf or some other modest covering over one’s hair both reminds us of this principle and conceals that which Scripture calls our glory–a fitting thing to do in the presence of God. (It can also be a reminder of God’s promise of restoration made in the Old Testament, where it is written in Isaiah 4:5, that “over all the glory there will be a covering.”) A woman who chooses to cover her hair even outside of church can likewise be reminded to give glory to God always.
- It can help us focus on prayer. This is one of the blessings that may not come right away, if one is initially so self-conscious about the covering that it distracts us from prayer. But I would encourage those who are starting out to persevere, because the self-consciousness will likely fade with time and practice–even if it takes longer to get used to than you expect. (It’s also important to choose a style of covering that is secure on your head so you won’t be worrying about it falling apart or slipping.) If you choose to cover more than just at church, wearing a headcovering can be a reminder to pray more often than you might otherwise. You can even think about it as carrying a little prayer tabernacle with you throughout your day.
- It can remind us of proper Christian deportment and God’s created order. This is especially a blessing for those who cover outside of church. Wearing a headcovering is a reminder to us of all the things a headcovering symbolizes, and more. When we are wearing a headcovering, it is a physical reminder to submit to our husbands, fathers, and pastors in the Lord; to observe God’s created order in all things; and to guard our conduct so that it reflects well on our Lord (we don’t want to be that head-covering Christian woman who loses our temper with the kids in Walmart). It is also a reminder to dress and behave modestly; many women who begin head-covering also start covering more of their bodies around the same time since the two principles are related (though I would argue that St. Paul is not chiefly concerned with female modesty in 1 Corinthians 11). One other aspect I have been thinking about lately is that wearing a headcovering also can remind us of our God-given authority over our children. Just as we are under the authority of our male heads, we have authority over our children, per God’s created order, to bless them, instruct them, and discipline them. The headcovering can be a symbol of that authority even as it is a symbol of the authority above us.
- It can be beautiful and feminine. Even today, brides typically wear veils on their wedding day. Great attention is often taken to making this a thing of feminine beauty. Likewise, a liturgical veil (and here I mean a veil over the hair, not the face) or other headcovering worn in or outside of church can be beautiful and feminine and is another way to adorn ourselves in a becoming yet modest way. I would suggest that, in keeping with a spirit of feminine modesty, we avoid any headcovering that is too flashy or attention-getting, but I don’t believe it has to be plain, either. (I personally love autumn colors and paisley and floral patterns.) Something simple yet lovely that complements our outfit or resembles the color of our hair is both modest and tasteful.
- It can provide an opportunity to witness to Christ. This is another blessing that especially pertains to those who cover outside of church. If someone asks you about your headcovering, you have an open door to share your faith with that person. If you live in an area where it is not unusual to encounter women of other religions who cover their hair, head-covering can be a bridge to reach out to them. Or a woman in cancer treatment who covers her head because of hair loss might desperately need the message of hope found in Christ our Lord.
These are only a few good reasons a woman might choose to cover her hair, whether just sometimes or all the time, even if she is not convinced that St. Paul’s command to the Corinthians applies to us in Western countries today. Whether or not it does, such an ancient, apostolic tradition of the Church can no doubt be of benefit to us even twenty-one centuries later.