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Why people are weird about head coverings
My friend and co-author Michael Foster recently posted about how a heavy emphasis on head coverings tends to be associated with troubled, weak, or immature marriages.
This is not a hard rule, but a pattern he has observed in over twenty years in patriarchal circles. Like him, I have seen a similar pattern.
He suggests the following reasons:
Head-coverings are an external and an easy way to sign to the world that your husband is a leader or that your wife is submissive. That makes them attractive to wear when that hasn’t been or still isn’t the case.
Also, many people see it as a sort of first step in correcting an out of whack marriage. But, as we all know, signs don’t automatically produce what they signify.
Head-coverings, in and of themselves, don’t produce a gentle and quiet spirit in a woman.
And the fact that a man’s wife submits to him by wearing head-coverings doesn’t mean he is leading well elsewhere.
I think this is often true. Michael and I disagree on the significance of head coverings—he is ambivalent on the matter, and holds tentatively to a much narrower application than I do, where prayer and prophecy are supernatural gifts. I think that interpretation is…screwy.
But, I have seen the same problems that he has, with those who make a big deal out of head coverings. The key phrase in his piece is “heavy emphasis.” These are the people who behave in conversation like their operating assumption is:
If only every Christian believed in the necessity of veiling, everything else in the Western Church would fall into place, and proper hierarchy and piety would be restored.
I do not suggest that they really believe this, but they often behave as if something like this is going on in the backs of their minds.
Here’s my thesis:
They are following the Enlightenment logic of our age, atomizing symbols and abstracting them out to become sole instantiations of a spiritual pattern. Consider a similar pattern of thinking on the other side of the aisle. Think of how complementarians treat the issue of male pastors. Rather than it being one symbol of a larger spiritual pattern that goes all the way down to the bottom of creation, and all the way up to heaven, it gets atomized—it becomes the only thing left of that pattern.
It therefore has to bear the full weight of that pattern. The pattern becomes intensive, focused on the one symbol, rather than extensive, expressed through many symbols.
This is why there is often an inverse correlation between emphasis on the symbol, and integration of the pattern into the whole of life and thinking. E.g., complementarians tend to act like everything else about gendered piety can fall away—as long as male pastors are upheld, it will be OK. Whereas, on the other side of the aisle, unstable patriarchalists are a mirror image: as long as veiling is upheld, everything else about gendered piety will fall into place.
That said, it is significant that head coverings specifically have become the symbol on which gendered piety is hung. Symbols don’t get chosen by cold logic. They are intuitive and primal. So those who are downplaying the importance of head coverings are ignoring a creational liturgical instinct, just as much as those over-emphasizing the importance of head coverings are ignoring the holistic meaning of the symbol.
Head coverings are extremely important, because they are a natural, instinctual representation of the hierarchy of creation. But they are not a replacement for participation in that hierarchy of creation. It’s both/and, not either/or. Such externals as veiling matter because they represent the spiritual patterns that Christians want (or ought to want) to participate in. The form of our worship really does means something, and so rejecting these externals is bad. Such rejection has been the neo-gnostic norm in the church for generations. But equally, treating the externals as a substitute for the internals that they point to is bad. And this is the over-correction to which many immature or cage-stage Christians will be tempted. They mistake the true magic of liturgy for pagan magic, which ipso facto achieves the result it symbolizes.
Veiling is part of a much larger liturgical/symbolic…shambles…that the Western church needs to work out. Even if everyone were suddenly to agree that 1 Corinthians 11 requires a physical head covering in worship, that would not restore the symbolic foundation that the practice is based on: the concept that we here call true magic, but which really just means that the physical forms of our way of life and worship have meanings that point to and participate in spiritual realities. In fact, I would much rather see a widespread and thoughtful return to a holistic and symbolic understanding of creational forms, which somehow overlooked veiling, than see a widespread and purely exegetical return to veiling, which overlooked the symbolic view of creation on which it is grounded.
The latter would be far more likely to deal with the source of the problems we face, because it would discern the extensive spiritual patterns we must participate in, rather than blindly tokenizing those patterns in a single symbol. For instance, at a practical, pastoral level, one of the reasons for the the weirdness around veiling is the disintegration of society that we talked about in our last episode on clothing:
The failure of our constitutive bodies—the household, and the church as a household (cf. Ga 6:10; 1 Ti 3:5)—means that most churches are not acting as integration points where immature Christians can form their models for piety. So these poor schmucks are left with having to do all the meaning-making themselves. Inevitably, they oversteer or overbalance because they lack the perspective and spiritual inner ear to do the job that God allocated to groups of pastors and brothers.
It’s true that they need to be told to stop it—but they also need to be shown the right way.