Should You Cover Your Head During Prayer?
IT WAS a cold, windy day when the friends of the deceased widow stood in the snow around the open grave. The balding minister offered some brief, comforting words and then prayed.
Had you been there, would you have felt that during the prayer all present should remove anything covering their heads? The question might be especially pertinent in such wintry weather. But, really, do you feel that whenever you pray you should uncover your head? Or, might you believe that during prayer you definitely should have your head covered?
Prayer is important. God wants us to pray. (Ps. 145:18; 50:14, 15) Understandably, ours should be proper prayers, offered to the right One, on fitting matters and in the correct manner. While the Bible does not list endless rules about prayer and praying, it does offer specific counsel about having one’s head covered when one is praying.
That counsel is not in the pre-Christian Scriptures, for God did not require that all Israelites cover their heads when praying, though some may have done so out of reverence. He did, however, direct the Israelite priests to wear headgear, the high priest even having a special turban. (Lev. 8:13; Ex. 28:40; 39:27-29) They evidently wore head coverings as a sign of submission to God all the time that they were serving at the temple, not just when praying.
‘But do not Jewish people today cover their heads when praying?’ some may ask. Yes, now most do. Yet the ancient Jewish Talmud shows that covering the head for prayer was optional. Thus Professor Jacob Lauterbach said: “The custom of praying bareheaded or with covered head is not at all a question of law. It is merely a matter of social propriety and decorum.”
For Christians, though, this matter is much more than a mere local or religious custom. The Christian Scriptures (or, “New Testament”) give pointed advice on the subject, saying: “Every man that prays or prophesies having something on his head shames his head; but every woman that prays or prophesies with her head uncovered shames her head, for it is one and the same as if she were a woman with a shaved head. For if a woman does not cover herself, let her also be shorn.”—1 Cor. 11:4-6.
What is the reason for that? And when does it apply?
WHY COVERED OR UNCOVERED?
As to understanding what the apostle Paul wrote about head covering and prayer, consider the verse before: “I want you to know that the head of every man is the Christ; in turn the head of a woman is the man; in turn the head of the Christ is God.” (1 Cor. 11:3) Yes, Paul was discussing the divine principle of headship, and particularly its application in public worship.
As the apostle explained, the Creator assigned to the man, whom He created first, headship and authority over his wife, who was made from the man’s rib. In respect to headship, the man was “God’s image and glory” for he was not assigned another head on earth. His wife and children, though, do have an earthly head to whom they are in relative subjection.—1 Cor. 11:7-10; Eph. 5:22-24; 6:1.
The principle of headship also applies in congregational activities. Paul wrote that women should respect and strive to cooperate with the men who are to do the teaching and praying. (1 Cor. 14:33-35; compare 1 Timothy 2:11, 12.) Therefore, in most instances, a woman back in the first century C.E. would not preach or pray in the congregation.
Why, then, did Paul discuss head covering? When was such appropriate and when inappropriate? And how does that apply today?
Paul wrote that when praying a woman ought to wear a head covering—be it a hat, scarf or head veil—as “a sign of authority.” (1 Cor. 11:10) It was to be an evidence that she recognized the principle of headship. But when would she need to cover her head? Consider these three situations:
In Paul’s day Jehovah’s holy spirit gave miraculous gifts to some Christians, such as the ability to prophesy or to speak in tongues. For example, at a meeting in the first century the spirit might have impelled a Christian woman to prophesy. (1 Cor. 12:4-11; Acts 21:8, 9) Or, it might have been that only women were in attendance at a congregation meeting. With no baptized male to take the lead in prayer or in teaching, a Christian woman might have to do so. Then again, a Christian wife might have an unbelieving husband and on occasion be expected to pray or teach the Bible in his presence. In any of these situations a woman would have worn a head covering, “a sign of authority,” thus manifesting her recognition of the headship principle.
We can better appreciate the need for Christian men as well as women to comply with God’s directions about head covering by noting what could be the effect if they did not.
Recall that the apostle wrote that a man who prays “having something on his head” is doing something. What? The original Greek text says that he “is shaming the head of him,” or, “shames his head.” Similarly, a woman who “prays or prophesies” with her head uncovered “shames the head of her,” or, “shames her head.” Who or what is being referred to as “head” in each case?
This may be understood in the light of the verse before. There Paul said that “the head of every man is the Christ” and “the head of a woman is the man.” (1 Cor. 11:3) Hence, it may be reasoned that a man who prays with his head covered in a sense dishonors Christ. By wearing a head covering when praying a man would be acting as if he were a wife with a visible head on earth rather than being accountable to Christ as his head. Correspondingly, a woman who prayed with her head bared may be said to be shaming her “head” in the Christian arrangement, her husband (if she is married), her father or the headship of Christian men in the congregation.
Some commentators offer another viewpoint. They call attention to the fact that First Corinthians 11:4, 5 states that every man who prays or prophesies with something “on his head” shames “his head” and a woman who prays or prophesies with “her head uncovered” shames “her head.” In both instances the person’s own physical head is mentioned immediately before referring to the “head” as being shamed. So, they express the thought that Paul may have meant that a Christian man or woman who acts inappropriately as to head covering shames himself or herself.
In the Hebrew Scriptures we read of persons being given back or bringing on their own head reproach, badness, trouble, violence, bloodguilt and injury. (Neh. 4:4; 1 Sam. 25:39; Ps. 7:16; 2 Sam. 1:16; 1 Ki. 2:32, 44) In these cases the head represents the person himself, being that part of the body most responsible for his actions.
Additionally, when discussing the matter of head covering, Paul said that if a man has long hair, “it is a dishonor to him.” And he wrote that “it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn,” as if she were a slave or had been caught in immorality; the one disgraced is the woman herself.—1 Cor. 11:14, 6.
In view of Paul’s introducing this whole subject by emphasizing the divine arrangement of headship, it seems clear that when a Christian man flouts this headship principle, he definitely dishonors Christ; similarly, a woman might dishonor her husband, her father or the males in the congregation. However, at the same time it is true that the person who disregards God’s arrangement of headship and subjection simultaneously brings shame upon his or her own head.
HEAD COVERING DURING PRAYER
Paul was primarily discussing what was proper in “the congregations of God,” particularly at meetings. (1 Cor. 11:16, 20-34) Hence, his directions about head covering during prayer basically relate, not to prayer when a person is alone, but to prayer in a group, in public worship. This is borne out by the inclusion of prophesying along with prayer. It is not likely that a person back then would prophesy alone in his room where he might be saying his personal prayers.—Matt. 6:6.
Accordingly, neither a man nor a woman would Scripturally be obliged to apply the directions about head covering when saying a private prayer to God. If a woman with head uncovered were doing housework and paused to pray, she would not need to cover her head. Similarly, a Christian man walking down the street with a hat on might offer a prayer to God. If his own personal feelings urged him to remove his hat, he should do so. But God’s counsel about head covering does not specifically require it.
What about prayers in congregational activities or in the family? In line with the principle of headship, if a baptized man is present, he should offer prayer with his head uncovered. That is true in the family even when just husband and wife join in prayer.
There might be occasions, though, when a Christian woman would have to cover her head to pray. As in the first century, a sister might have to pray aloud at a meeting because no brothers are present. Or, an unbelieving husband may ask his Christian wife to pray aloud for the family at a meal. In such situations a sister would be handling a function that normally would be cared for by someone having headship over her, a brother in the congregation or her husband. Consequently, she should wear a head covering. In doing this she would show her respect for the divine principle of headship and avoid ‘shaming her head.’—1 Cor. 11:5.a
Finally, what about head covering when you are part of a group but not personally voicing the prayer? Consider, for example, the prayer at the graveside that we mentioned. Would a woman present during the prayer have to cover her head? No, for she would not be taking the lead in public worship or performing a function that a male member of the congregation would normally be expected to handle. She would be listening to the prayer and saying “Amen.” Hence, whether she covered her head or did not would not reflect on her respect for the principle of headship. Likewise, a man listening to the prayer at the gravesite would not Scripturally need to have his head either uncovered or covered. He could do either, but likely would consider his own feelings and what would be inoffensive to others. If a man felt that he should take his hat off when represented by another’s prayer, he, of course, can follow the dictates of his personal conscience.
How fine it is that, without setting down an encyclopedia of rules, Jehovah has provided in his Word some guidance about prayer! By having this in mind we can approach the Supreme One of the universe and at the same time manifest our respect for one of his fundamental principles, that of headship.
a For more details regarding a woman’s teaching in the congregation or in the presence of a brother or her husband, see The Watchtower of July 15, 1972, pages 446 and 447.