What does “because of the angels” mean (1 Cor. 11:10)?
In discussions of how assembly (church) meetings function the subject of whether women should wear a hat or mantilla or some other headcovering is often brought up. This is actually a relatively new concern. When I was young it was customary for women to wear a hat to church or other formal gatherings. No one thought anything about it. It was just part of being formally dressed or stylish.
A tradition in Russia
On a business trip to Russia during the winter some years ago, I visited a landmark Russsian Orthodox church as a tourist. It was very cold in Moscow and I was wearing a hat. Upon entering the church a lady pointed to my head reminding me that I had to remove my hat. This is just the “flip-side” of the issue we are looking at here. This was only a few years ago, and the traditional custom was maintained.
We were not too far past the midpoint of the last century when women began to express dislike for this custom. Those of us who attach importance to it might be quick to associate this trend with the so-called “women’s liberation” movement. However, I acknowledge that convenience and style may be often the reason rather than any attempt to make a “political” statement. However, this change in custom may have resulted in a very worthwhile reanalysis of why the custom has continued in some Christian fellowships. If we have a tradition that has a real Scriptural basis then we ought to understand that relationship and not just maintain the practice as a mere tradition. That is the subject of the analysis of this Q&A.
Just a tradition?
There are many questions that may come up with respect to the custom of wearing a headcovering or not wearing a headcovering. Is it just a tradition? (Remember my experience in Moscow.) The symbolic nature of this custom may lead us to simply disregard it as not very important. Or, we may regard it the way some regard the ancient custom of foot-washing (Jn. 13:1–17). We may assume that it is the symbolic lesson that counts, and so we can dispense with the actual practice as long as we remember the lesson. We will examine this proposition later but first, we will look at the basis of the custom.
The Scripture passage on which the practice of wearing a headcovering is based is 1 Corinthians 11:2–16. It is important to consider the entire passage.1 The apostle begins by giving the essential teaching of order in verse 3. Later in verse 14 he asks “Does not nature itself teach you…?” Throughout nature there is order. This order is so striking that those engaged in apologetics ministry describe the fine-tuning of the universe as one major evidence for it being produced by a grand designer.
Order in any context requires distinguishing things (or persons) and identifying relationships between them. What is so striking about the passage in 1 Corinthians 11 is that in verse 3 Christ Himself is considered in relation to God. Without question, the Son of God is equal to God the Father. In John 10:30, the Lord Jesus insists on his essential equality with the Father. Yet, here we are told “the Head of Christ is God.” This should amaze us when we consider the persons who are being identified. We should be impressed by the truth that by coming in human form the Lord Jesus voluntarily took a subject place (Lk. 2:51, 12:37; Phil. 2:5–8). Yet, this in no way diminished or impinged his personal value or dignity. This fact must be considered as we consider the relation put before us in connection with headcovering.
In addition to not being an infringement of the person, taking the subject place testifies to the work of the Lord Jesus Himself; it is part of His glory as the verses in Luke and Philippians referenced above show. In the case of the headcovering, it does not reflect any kind of inferiority but rather shows an outward acknowledgment of the humility shown by the Lord Jesus. Hebrews 5:8 reads, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” This verse puts before us two contrasting facts: He held the dignity of being a “son”, yet took a place of “learning obedience” even through suffering. We really need to think about this. The Son of God was never in a place of being subject before. It certainly was not as if He had to learn by “trial and error” as we do, but rather that He went through the experience of being subject and even suffering for it. Wearing the headcovering is an outward sign of a willingness to follow the Lord in this respect.
This is why it is so important to recognize the place of dependence that the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth voluntarily took when He came into the world as a man (Jn. 1:14). And, in that place, he was subject to God (1 Cor. 11:3; Jn. 5:19) to accomplish redemption. More amazing, taking this place was not just temporary, as 1 Corinthians 15:27–28 and Luke 12:37 show.
However, we do not retain the practice of washing each other’s feet in spite of our insistence on the importance of the symbolic meaning of that practice. So, why do we encourage the actual use of the headcovering? The answer is actually quite simple and is given by the phrase “because of the angels” (v 10). For the Lord to wash the disciples’ feet was a witness to them of the attitude they should show to one another. In contrast, wearing a headcovering is a public witness to the angels (and others) that the individuals themselves acknowledge their place in the assembly. That the angels are witnesses of the activities we engage in when assembled as a Christian company should not be overlooked. Ephesians 3:10 tells us that the angels learn the “manifold wisdom of God” through the activities of the assembly.
We should not undervalue any display of God’s wisdom that we are able to demonstrate.
Grant, L. M., Honoring Our Head.
1. I once read a book which included a few paragraphs that questioned the necessity of wearing a headcovering. Most significantly, the author only quoted vv 4-6. This way he was able to ignore the basis of the doctrine and could argue that the practice was merely cultural. The whole passage is important.