One evening earlier this year, we had some friends over to watch the National Football Championship, and as we were getting ready to pray before the meal, one of the guys asked, “Hey, why do we always remove our hats to pray?” It is something we were taught to do, and some of us do it almost unconsciously now. Some might say it is tradition, that it is simply a sign of respect, and they are right. However, there is a deep, theologically-rich foundation for such an action that Paul reveals in the book of 1 Corinthians.
In this letter to a struggling church, the apostle addresses many issues: exulting human leaders, human wisdom, flippant attitude towards sin, ungodly lawsuits, the list goes on and on. Running through all of this is the subtle root of pride, and it is by focusing upon the simple truths of the gospel that Paul deals with each problem.
Though it is not as blatantly obvious as other issues, pride is also a the root cause behind the problems in Chapter 11. Paul begins this section by reminding believers that they need to understand the natural order of authority in creation: God the Father, Jesus Christ, the husband, the wife (1 Corinthians 11:3). The Father “is the head of Christ,” Jesus “is the head of every man,” who is in tern “the head of a woman.” The word “head” here means authority, and it does not mean that those under authority are of any less importance than those over them. If it did, it would mean that Jesus was somehow inferior to the Father, which we know He is not, for He “and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Paul is simply speaking of who has the final authority in various relationships.
He follows this statement immediately by this precept—
“Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head.”1 Corinthians 11:4
The head referred to at the end of the verse means Christ, so we could read it as saying that a man praying with his head covered disgraces Jesus. But why does it? Why does it shame Christ for a man to pray with something on his head? Paul does not offer an explanation here in the text itself, but if we look at the full Biblical context, the reason starts to come into focus.
For our study, we have to start all the way back in the Old Testament with the Levitical priesthood. When God was instructing Moses about how Aaron and his sons were to serve in the tabernacle, the Lord describe the clothing that the priests were to wear, and included in that was “a turban” (Exodus 28:2-4). The turban, along with the engraved plate of gold on it, was to “always be on his forehead” (Exodus 28:36-38). It was an essential part of his service, and Aaron could not minister in the tabernacle without it.
This was so important, the priest could not even participate in the normal signs of grief in that culture. After two of Aaron’s sons were killed, Moses commanded Aaron and his surviving sons, “Do not uncover your heads…so that you will not die” (Leviticus 10:6). The Lord was serious about this, and Aaron could not compromise God’s command for anything.
One reason for this was that the priests were the leaders of worship in Israel. They were the ones who brought the blood of the sacrifices to the altar, an act they had to constantly do morning and evening (Exodus 29:38, 39). This was a perpetual ordinance, “for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Atonement was made for sin by the sacrifice, but the blood of those animals never saved the Old Testaments saints. Salvation came through belief in Messiah, but that is another study.
The point is that the priests, and the people they represented, were never fully cleansed. Every time they sinned, their guilt returned, and they could never fully rid themselves of the guilt of Adam’s sin. The caps and turbans the priests wore symbolized this fact, showing that they were acknowledging they were not fully pure and did not have free access to God the Father. The pagan cultures did a similar thing when they worshiped their idols, pulling a prayer shawl over their heads. This is the historical context of 1 Corinthians 11.
Now Paul was not calling us to be irreverent in uncovering our heads in prayer. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The reason it disgraces Christ for a man to pray with his head covered is because it basically says that Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself was not sufficient for the total removal of sins. Let me explain.
In the book of 1 Peter, that apostle adamantly affirms that “Christ also died for sins once for all…so that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). The writer of Hebrews picks up this thought when he says that Jesus “does not need…to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself” (Hebrews 7:27). Salvation is complete and final, and His death brought us free and open access to the Father.
We see this in Hebrews as well, for the Scripture says we can “drawn near with confidence to the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16). Paul affirmed this truth in one of his letters, reminding believers that for Jews and Gentiles, “we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father” through Jesus (Ephesians 2:18). The veil has been torn, we are free to come before the Father directly through prayer. We do not need a human mediator, such as Mary or one of the apostles, for the only mediator between us and God is Jesus Christ Himself (1 Timothy 2:5). We have access through His blood, for it alone has completed our salvation, and that work is finished forever.
This is why praying with our heads covered disgraces Christ. In essence, we are denying the fact that we have this privilege and gift to come before the Father Himself through the blood of Christ. Of course, we do not live in a culture that covers their heads when they pray to idols, but this is the Biblical context and imagery of the act. This is a command in Scripture full of theological significance for us, and we ought to obey it.
And Jesus did not just give this free access to men alone. Rather, we know that He “broke down the barrier of the dividing wall,” and though the context of that phrase involves Jewish and gentile relations, we know the same is true for the relationship between men and women (Ephesians 2:14). There used to be several courts around the temple, and the women could only stay in the outer courts, but now “there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ” in terms of standing before the throne of God (Galatians 3:28). Paul was not denying the role differences between men and women, but instead, was stating the truth that men do not have “more access” to God, or that He would rather listen to a man than a woman. He desires to hear from all His children, regardless of gender (Philippians 4:6, 7). In that sense, there is no distinction in Christ: we are all one in Him.
So what a great privilege we have in our Savior! We have free, open, and immediate access to God the Father in prayer, not because of anything we have earned or achieved, but because of our Lord’s blood shed on our behalf. It is a great gift that we should never take for granted. Let us gratefully embrace this privilege and honor Christ in it.