A helpful pastoral discussion of headcoverings...

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(Tim) We're now up to 85 or so comments under the post Because of the Angels, and those comments contain the only helpful discussion of headcoverings, and the visual cue they present within the corporate worship of the People of God of the submission of women, generally, to the authority of men, generally (Calvin's way of expressing it), that I've heard or read. So despite the length and (sometimes) heat of the discussion, I encourage everyone to go and read the comments.

Still, I must admit I've been wholly unsuccessful in getting anyone to read Calvin's doctrine of headcoverings, despite repeated attempts. So now, here is a compilation of Calvin's doctrine considerably shortened from what was put into the prior post. I do hope you'll all take the time to read this condensed version. There's really no substitude for Calvin's explanation of Scripture in any place, let alone one of the most controverted texts and themes in all of Scripture....

From Calvin's Commentary on 1Corinthians 11

The error of the Corinthians was the occasion of his showing, what part it was becoming to act in this matter. With the view of proving, that it is an unseemly thing for women to appear in a public assembly with their heads uncovered, and, on the other hand, for men to pray or prophesy with their heads covered, he sets out with noticing the arrangements that are divinely established.

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Hence, as regards spiritual connection in the sight of God, and inwardly in the conscience, Christ is the head of the man and of the woman without any distinction, because, as to that, there is no regard paid to male or female; but as regards external arrangement and political decorum, the man follows Christ and the woman the man, so that they are not upon the same footing, but, on the contrary, this inequality exists.

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Because he is subject to Christ, with this understanding, that he is to hold the first place in the government of the house — for the father of the family is like a king in his own house. Hence the glory of God shines forth in him, in consequence of the authority with which he is invested. If he covers his head, he lets himself down from that preeminence which God had assigned to him, so as to be in subjection. Thus the honor of Christ is infringed upon. For example, If the person whom the prince has appointed as his lieutenant, does not. know how to maintain his proper station, and instead of this, exposes his dignity to contempt on the part of persons in the lowest station, does he not bring dishonor upon his prince? In like manner, if the man does not keep his own station — if he is not subject to Christ in such a way as to preside over his own family with authority, he obscures, to that extent, the glory of Christ, which shines forth in the well regulated order of marriage. The covering, as we shall see ere long, is all emblem of authority intermediate and interposed.

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Prophesying I take here to mean — declaring the mysteries of God for the edification of the hearers, (as afterwards in 1 Corinthians 14.) as praying means preparing a form of prayer, and taking the lead, as it were, of all the people — which is the part of the public teacher, for Paul is not arguing here as to every kind of prayer, but as to solemn prayer in public. Let us, however, bear in mind, that in this matter the error is merely in so far as decorum is violated, and the distinction of rank which God has established, is broken in upon. For we must not be so scrupulous as to look upon it as a criminal thing for a teacher to have a cap on his head, when addressing the people from the pulpit. Paul means nothing more than this — that it should appear that the man has authority, and that the woman is under subjection, and this is secured when the man uncovers his head in the view of the Church, though he should afterwards put on his cap again from fear of catching cold. In fine, the one rule to be observed here is to prepon— decorum. If that is secured, Paul requires nothing farther.

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Every woman praying or prophesying. Here we have the second proposition — that women ought to have their heads covered when they pray or prophesy; otherwise they dishonor their head. For as the man honors his head by showing his liberty, so the woman, by showing her subjection. Hence, on the other hand, if the woman uncovers her head, she shakes off subjection — involving contempt of her husband. It may seem, however, to be superfluous for Paul to forbid the woman to prophesy with her head uncovered, while elsewhere he wholly prohibits women from speaking in the Church. (1Timothy 2:12.)It would not, therefore, be allowable for them to prophesy even with a covering upon their head, and hence it follows that it is to no purpose that he argues here as to a covering. It may be replied, that the Apostle, by here condemning the one, does not commend the other. For when he reproves them for prophesying with their head uncovered, he at the same time does not give them permission to prophesy in some other way, but rather delays his condemnation of that vice to another passage, namely in 1Corinthians 14. In this reply there is nothing amiss, though at the same time it might suit sufficiently well to say, that the Apostle requires women to show their modesty — not merely in a place in which the whole Church is assembled, but also in any more dignified assembly, either of matrons or of men, such as are sometimes convened in private houses.

For it is all one as if she were shaven. He now maintains from other considerations, that it is unseemly for women to have their heads bare. Nature itself, says he, abhors it. To see a woman shaven is a spectacle that is disgusting and monstrous. Hence we infer that the woman has her hair given her for a covering. Should any one now object, that her hair is enough, as being a natural covering, Paul says that it is not, for it is such a covering as requires another thing to be made use of for covering it. And hence a conjecture is drawn, with some appearance of probability — that women who had beautiful hair were accustomed to uncover their heads for the purpose of showing off their beauty. It is not, therefore, without good reason that Paul, as a remedy for this vice, sets before them the opposite idea — that they be regarded as remarkable for unseemliness, rather than for what is an incentive to lust.

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...the man is the beginning of the woman and the end for which she was made...

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"She is subject," says he, "let her then wear a token of subjection." In the term power, there is an instance of metonymy, for he means a token by which she declares herself to be under the power of her husband; and it is a covering, whether it be a robe, or a veil, or any other kind of covering. ["C’est la couuerture de teste, soit un chapperon, ou couurechef, ou coiffe, ou chose semblable;"—"It is a covering of the head, whether it be a hood, or a kerchief, or a coif, or anything of that kind."]

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Because of the angels. This passage is explained in various ways. As the Prophet Malachi 2:7 calls priests angels of God, some are of opinion that Paul speaks of them; but the ministers of the word have nowhere that term applied to them by itself — that is, without something being added; and the meaning would be too forced. I understand it, therefore, in its proper signification. But it is asked, why it is that he would have women have their heads covered because of the angels — for what has this to do with them? Some answer: "Because they are present on occasion of the prayers of believers, and on this account are spectators of unseemliness, should there be any on such occasions." But what need is there for philosophizing with such refinement? We know that angels are in attendance, also, upon Christ as their head, and minister to him. When, therefore, women venture upon such liberties, as to usurp for themselves the token of authority, they make their baseness manifest to the angels. This, therefore, was said by way of amplifying, as if he had said, "If women uncover their heads, not only Christ, but all the angels too, will be witnesses of the outrage." And this interpretation suits well with the Apostle’s design. He is treating here of different ranks. Now he says that, when women assume a higher place than becomes them, they gain this by it — that they discover their impudence in the view of the angels of heaven.

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Thus the man has no standing without the woman, for that would be the head severed from the body; nor has the woman without the man, for that were a body without a head. "Let, therefore, the man perform to the woman the office of the head in respect of ruling her, and let the woman perform to the man the office of the body in respect of assisting him, and that not merely in the married state, but also in celibacy; for I do not speak of cohabitation merely, but also of civil offices, for which there is occasion even in the unmarried state."

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...the woman is a needful help to the man, inasmuch as a solitary life is not expedient for man. This decree of God exhorts us to cultivate mutual intercourse. 

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But all things of God. God is the Source of both sexes, and hence both of them ought with humility to accept and maintain the condition which the Lord has assigned to them. Let the man exercise his authority with moderation, and not insult over the woman who has been given him as his partner. Let the woman be satisfied with her state of subjection, and not take it amiss that she is made inferior to the more distinguished sex. Otherwise they will both of them throw off the yoke of God, who has not without good reason appointed this distinction of ranks.

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16. But if any man seem. A contentious person is one whose humor inclines him to stir up disputes, and does not care what becomes of the truth. Of this description are all who, without any necessity, abolish good and useful customs — raise disputes respecting matters that are not doubtful — who do not yield to reasonings — who cannot endure that any one should be above them. Of this description, also, are those (akoinwnhtoi) would be singular persons who, from a foolish affectation, aim at some new and unusual way of acting. Such persons Paul does not reckon worthy of being replied to, inasmuch as contention is a pernicious thing, and ought, therefore, to be banished from the Churches. By this he teaches us, that those that are obstinate and fond of quarrelling, should rather be restrained by authority than confuted by lengthened disputations. For you will never have an end of contentions, if you are disposed to contend with a combative person until you have vanquished him; for though vanquished a hundred times, he would argue still. Let us therefore carefully mark this passage, that we may not allow ourselves to be carried away with needless disputations, provided at the same time we know how to distinguish contentious persons. For we must not always reckon as contentious the man who does not acquiesce in our decisions, or who ventures to contradict us; but when temper and obstinacy show themselves, let us then say with Paul, that contentions are at variance with the custom of the Church.

From Calvin's Commentary on Genesis 20:16

For Sarah is taught that the husband to whom she is joined was as a veil, with which she ought to be covered lest she should be exposed to others. Paul says, that the veil which the woman carries on her head, is the symbol of subjection. (1Corinthians 11:10.) This also belongs to unmarried persons, as referring to the end for which the sex is ordained; but it applies more aptly to married women; because they are veiled, as by the very ordinance of marriage.
From Calvin's Commentary on Genesis 24:64

Moses also says that she took a veil: which was a token of shame and modesty. For hence also, the Latin word which signifies "to marry," is derived, because it was the custom to give brides veiled to their husbands. That the same rite was also observed by the fathers, I have no doubt. So much the more shameful, and the less capable of excuse, is the licentiousness of our own age; in which the apparel of brides seems to be purposely contrived for the subversion of all modesty.

From Calvin's Commentary on Isaiah 4:1

Let thy name be called on us. It may be rendered, Let us be called by thy name; for when a woman passes into the family of her husband, she is called by his name, and loses her own, because the husband is her head. (1Corinthians 11:3.) Hence the vail is a token of subjection, and Abimelech said to Sarah, Thy husband Abraham shall be a covering to thy head. (Genesis 20:16.) But if she remain unmarried, she is concealed under the name of her family.
From Calvin's Sermons on Election and Reprobation; Seventh Sermon on Genesis 26:6-10

For marriage is as a safeguard, (as we have said) and God would have it honored in all ages. And although adulterers would abandon it, as Swine and Asses: yet notwithstanding they have always had remorse in it: and evermore even amongst the Painims [pagans, heathen], adulterers went not unpunished. It is known that if ever anything in this world was privileged, it was marriage: yea, and thefts and other crimes ought a great deal rather to be borne with, than such enormities

From Calvin's Institutes, IV.10.29-31


As a consequence, we shall not say that decorum exists where there is nothing but vain pleasure. We see such an example in the theatrical props that the papists use in their sacred rites, where nothing appears but the mask of useless elegance and fruitless extravagance. But decorum for us will be something so fitted to the reverence of the sacred mysteries that it may be a suitable exercise for devotion, or at least will serve as an appropriate adornment of the act. And this should not be fruitless but should indicate to believers with how great modesty, piety, and reverence they ought to treat sacred things. Now, ceremonies, to be exercises of piety, ought to lead us straight to Christ.

Similarly, we shall not establish an order in those trifling pomps which have nothing but fleeting splendor, but in that arrangement which takes away all confusion, barbarity, obstinacy, turbulence, and dissension.

There are examples of the first sort in Paul: that profane drinking bouts should not be mingled with the Sacred Supper of the Lord [1Corinthians 11:21-22], and that women should not go out in public with uncovered heads [1Corinthians 11:5]. And we have many others in daily use, such as: that we pray with knees bent and head bare; that we administer the Lord’s sacraments not negligently, but with some dignity; that in burying the dead we use some decency; and other practices that belong to the same class.

Of the other kind are the hours set for public prayers, sermons, and sacraments. At sermons there are quiet and silence, appointed places, the singing together of hymns, fixed days for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the fact that Paul forbids women to teach in the church [1Corinthians 14:34], and the like. Especially are there those things which maintain discipline, such as catechizing, church censures, excommunication, fasting, and whatever can be referred to the same list.

Thus all ecclesiastical constitutions which we accept as holy and salutary should be reckoned under two heads: the first type pertains to rites and ceremonies; the second, to discipline and peace.


Now it is the duty of Christian people to keep the ordinances that have been established according to this rule with a free conscience, indeed, without superstition, yet with a pious and ready inclination to obey; not to despise them, not to pass over them in careless negligence. So far ought we to be from openly violating them through pride and obstinacy!

What sort of freedom of conscience could there be in such excessive attentiveness and caution? Indeed, it will be very clear when we consider that these are no fixed and permanent sanctions by which we are bound, but outward rudiments for human weakness. Although not all of us need them, we all use them, for we are mutually bound, one to another, to nourish mutual love. This may be recognized in the examples set forth above. What? Does religion consist in a woman’s shawl, so that it is unlawful for her to go out with a bare head? Is that decree of Paul’s concerning silence so holy that it cannot be broken without great offense? Is there in bending the knee or in burying a corpse any holy rite that cannot be neglected without offense? Not at all. For if a woman needs such haste to help a neighbor that she cannot stop to cover her head, she does not offend if she runs to her with head uncovered. And there is a place where it is no less proper for her to speak than elsewhere to remain silent. Also, nothing prohibits a man who cannot bend his knees because of disease from standing to pray. Finally, it is better to bury a dead man in due time than, where a shroud is lacking, or where there are no pallbearers to carry him, to wait until the unburied corpse decays. Nevertheless, the established custom of the region, or humanity itself and the rule of modesty, dictate what is to be done or avoided in these matters. In them a man commits no crime if out of imprudence or forgetfulness he departs from them; but if out of contempt, this willfulness is to be disapproved. Similarly, the days themselves, the hours, the structure of the places of worship, what psalms are to be sung on what day, are matters of no importance. But it is convenient to have definite days and stated hours, and a place suitable to receive all, if there is any concern for the preservation of peace. For confusion in such details would become the seed of great contentions if every man were allowed, as he pleased, to change matters affecting public order! For it will never happen that the same thing will please all if matters are regarded as indifferent and left to individual choice. But if anyone loudly complains and wishes here to be wiser than he ought, let him see with what reason he can defend his over-scrupulousness before the Lord. This saying of Paul’s ought to satisfy us: that it is not our custom to contend, or that of the churches of God [1Corinthians 11:16].