Why do they only wear head coverings at the assembly meetings?
The teachings in Christendom about a head covering for women range from dismissing it as a mere cultural tradition to insisting that a woman wear it 24/7. To some, it is to be worn only when a women is praying and to others, only in the presence of males. Some link the teaching of headship with the man who is the head of the family and to others it is linked with headship in creation. In most cases, there is no lack of sincerity and devotion in those who hold these varied beliefs. The only way to establish the answer is to turn to the Word of God and review its teaching about headship.
Clarity of the Context
The only mention of the head covering in the New Testament is in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Even though God established creation headship and family headship in the Old Testament, He makes no mention of the symbol of head coverings. In the New Testament, the head covering is not taught in Colossians where Christ is Head of the church which is His body (1:18). It is not taught in Romans or Hebrews either where Christ is the head of creation. It is also most noticeable, that head coverings are not mentioned in Ephesians where the headship of the husband is taught.
Within 1 Corinthians, Paul includes the teaching about head coverings specifically in the section of the epistle where he deals with church practices (11-14). Even more precisely, he places it right next to the undisputable church truth of the symbols of the bread and wine in the Breaking of Bread meeting.
Within the section in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, he corrects the practice of women being uncovered and then reminds them that if anyone is against the practice, “we [the apostles] have no such custom, neither the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16). Notice it is the practice of churches and not of families.
Significance of the Symbol
The Old Testament is rich with symbolic sacrifices, garments of the priests, and rituals in the tabernacle and the temple. Yet, there is a clear absence of the symbol of head coverings. The Lord Jesus introduced a new system of spiritual worship (John 4). The only four symbols in the New Testament are baptism, the bread and the cup at the Lord’s Supper, and the head covering of the woman. There are absolutely no symbols connected with the family in the entire Bible.
1 Corinthians 11:3 gives the divine order. Man is head of the woman. However, the principle point is that Christ is head which is why He is mentioned first in the verse. Thus, the spiritual head (man) of the woman is covered and is symbolically out of sight when the women covers her physical head. The man leaves his head uncovered symbolizing that his spiritual head (Christ) is on display in the assembly. The symbolism is not intended to stress that man is head of the woman, but that Christ is head of the man. That headship is on display in a local assembly. Therefore, Paul concludes that a woman “ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels” (v 10 ESV). The head covering is a symbol that the assembly subscribes to divine order, which is of great interest to angelic beings.
Dealing with the Difficulties
Some feel that the appeal to creation in 1 Corinthians 11:7-12 makes this applicable to all of life even outside assembly gatherings. If that were the case, then, we would also have to apply the use of creation as a basis in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 for the silence of the women. To be consistent then, we would have to insist that only men speak in the home or anywhere for that matter. That hardly seems to be what God is intending.
Paul uses creation to show that he is not inventing something new when he distinguishes between males and females in the assembly. God made a difference in creation, making the man before the woman; yet every man is born of a woman. This establishes that, even though the symbols express a difference, both males and females are equally important and necessary in the local church.
The other confusion comes over connecting the head covering with the prayer of the woman or prayer in the presence of males. Paul deals with one issue at a time as he sorts out the confusion in Corinth. In chapter 11, he clarifies the distinctions in the symbolism of headship. In chapter 14, he deals with the audible participation of women (chapter 11 could have referred to a woman’s personal, silent prayer during assembly gatherings). So, the act of a woman praying does not in itself require the head covering. Nor is it an issue of a man praying. The issue is whether or not it is an assembly gathering where angels are looking on and where the headship of Christ should be on display. Therefore, he is not talking about a man’s giving thanks for food in a home, but an official assembly meeting.
Application of the Answer
The teaching that a head covering is required only for prayer by a woman makes emergency or spontaneous prayer a practical difficulty and impossibility. The teaching that a head covering should be worn 24/7 would also require that a man never cover his head as well. The Bible was written for people in the frozen regions of the north so this would put men in danger of severe frostbite. The only practical belief that allows for consistency and practice in all times and places is that women are to wear head coverings only in the assembly meetings.