John Murray – Birthday and Head Coverings

John Murray was born 110 years ago today. In honor of his birthday, I’d like to present the following excerpt from a letter he wrote on the subject of head coverings. The full letter is available at Pastor Sherman Isbell’s web site (link), to whom I am indebted for bringing this letter to my attention.

*** Excerpt from Letter ***

If the Presbytery becomes convinced that a head covering for women belongs to the decorum governing the conduct of women in the worship of God, then I think Presbytery should declare accordingly. I would not suppose it necessary expressly to legislate. I think it would be enough to make a resolution for the instruction and guidance of ministers, sessions, and people. A higher judicatory has both right and duty to offer to those under its jurisdiction, guidance respecting divine obligation. This has been recognised in Reformed Churches throughout the world.

Your main question turns, of course, on the interpretation of I Corinthians 11:2-16. Permit me to offer some of my reflections in order.

1. Since Paul appeals to the order of creation (vss. 3b, vss. 7ff.), it is totally indefensible to suppose that what is in view and enjoined had only local or temporary relevance. The ordinance of creation is universally and perpetually applicable, as also are the implications for conduct arising therefrom.

2. I am convinced that a head covering is definitely in view forbidden for the man (vss. 4, & 7) and enjoined for the woman (vss. 5, 6, 15). In the case of the woman the covering is not simply her long hair. This supposition would make nonsense of verse 6. For the thought there is, that if she does not have a covering she might as well be shorn or shaven, a supposition without any force whatever if the hair covering is deemed sufficient. In this connection it is not proper to interpret verse 15b as meaning that the hair was given the woman to take the place of the head covering in view of verses 5, 6. The Greek of verse 15 is surely the Greek of equivalence as used quite often in the New Testament, and so the Greek can be rendered: “the hair is given to her for a covering.” This is within the scope of the particular agrument of verses 14, 15 and does not interfere with the demand for the additional covering contemplated in verses 5, 6, 13. Verses 14 and 15 adduce a consideration from the order of nature in support of that which is enjoined earlier in the passage but is not itself tantamount to it. In other words, the long hair is an indication from “nature” of the differentiation between men and women, and so the head covering required (vss. 5, 6, 13) is in line with what “nature” teaches.

3. There is good reason for believing that the apostle is thinking of conduct in the public assemblies of the Church of God and of worship exercises therein in verse 17, this is clearly the case, and verse 18 is confirmatory. But there is a distinct similarity between the terms of verse 17 and of verse 2. Verse 2 begins, “Now I praise you” and verse 17, “Now in this . . . I praise you not”. The virtually identical expressions, the one positive and the other negative, would suggest, if not require, that both have in view the behaviour of the saints in their assemblies, that is, that in respect of denotation the same people are in view in the same identity as worshippers. If a radical difference, that between private and public, were contemplated, it would be difficult to maintain the appropriateness of the contrast between “I praise you” and “I praise you not”.

4. Beyond question it is in reference to praying and prophesying that the injuctions pertain, the absence of head covering for men and the presence for women. It might seem, therefore, that the passage has nothing to do with a head covering for women in the assemblies of the Church if they are not engaged in praying or prophesying, that is, in leading in prayer or exercising the gift of prophesying. And the implication would be that only when they performed these functions were they required to use head covering. The further implication would be that they would be at liberty to perform these functions provided they wore head gear. This view could easily be adopted if it were not so that Paul forbids such exercises on the part of women and does so in the same epistle, (I Cor. 14:33b-36): “As in all the Churches, for it is not permitted to them to speak” (vss. 33b-34a). It is impossible to think that Paul would, by implication, lend approval in chapter 11, to what he so expressly prohibits in chapter 14. Hence we shall have to conclude that he does not contemplate praying or prophesying on the part of women in the Church in chapter 11. The question arises: how can this be, and how can we interpret 11:5, 6, 13? It is possible to interpret the verses in chapter 11 in a way that is compatible with chapter 14:33b-36. It is as follows: —

a. In chapter 11 the decorum prescribed in 14:33b-36 is distinctly in view and Paul is showing its propriety. Praying and prophesying are functions that imply authority, the authority that belongs to the man as distinguished from the woman according to the ordinance of creation. The man in exercising this authority in praying and prophesying must not wear a head covering. Why not? The head covering is the sign of subjection, the opposite of the authority that belongs to him, exemplified in praying and prophesying, hence 11:4, 7. In a word, head covering in praying and prophesying would be a contradiction.

b. But precisely here enters the relevance of verses 5, 6, 13 as they pertain to women. If women are to pray and prophesy in the assemblies, they perform functions that imply authority and would require therefore, to remove the head covering. To do so with the head covering would involve the contradiction referred to already. But it is the impropriety of removing the head covering that is enforced in 11:5, 6 & 13. In other words, the apostle is pressing home the impropriety of the exercise of these functions — praying and prophesying — on the part of women by showing the impropriety of what it would involve, namely, the removal of the head covering. And so the rhetorical question of verse 13: “Is it proper for a woman to pray to God unveiled?”

c. This interpretation removes all discrepancy between 11:5, 6, 13 and 14:33b-36 and it seems to me feasible, and consonant with the whole drift of 11:2-16.

5. The foregoing implies that the head covering for women was understood to belong to the decorum of public worship.

6. The above line of thought would derive confirmation from I Cor. 11:10. Admittedly the reference to the angels is not immediately perspicuous. But a reasonable interpretation is that the presence of the angels with the people of God and therefore their presence in the congregations of the saints. What is being pleaded is the offence given to the holy angels when the impropriety concerned mars the sancity of God’s worship. But, in any case, the obligation asserted is apparent. It is that the woman ought to have upon her head the sign of the authority to which she is subject, in other words, the sign of her subjection. But this subjection pertains throughout and not simply when in the exercise of praying and prophesying according to the supposition that such is permitted. I submit, therefore, that the verse concerned (vs. 10) enunciates a requirement that is general within the scope of the subject with which Paul is dealing, namely, the decorum of worship in the assembly of the saints.

On these grounds my judgment is that presupposed in the Apostle’s words is the accepted practice of head covering for women in the assemblies of the Church, that apparently this part of decorum was recognised, and that the main point of verses 5, 6, 10, 13 was the impropriety of any interruption of the practice if women were to pray or prophesy, for, in that event, it would be necessary to remove the covering in order to signify the authority that praying and prophesying entailed, an authority not possessed by women, a non-possession signified, in turn, by the use of the covering.

*** End of Excerpt ***


5 Responses to “John Murray – Birthday and Head Coverings”

  1. luvvom Says:

    Hey! I did a short study on this…I wasn’t voted “the coolest girl on the block” when people read it, but it was a cool study. What was the most interesting part of the comments were that the men had a harder time with my study than the women did! I’ll have to dig around my site and see if I kept it or not.

  2. Brother Jason Says:

    I believe whole heartedly in headcoverings. I am glad to see this article. I will link to it and point people this way. I am reformed and resultantly we are the ONLY family in our church who practices this. My wife at first got alot of stares, not she is just the lady with the headcovering. I would like to see reform in this area as well.Anything else I should know? Keep in touch, I began an exposition about 10 months ago and it has gone by the wayside, I’ll have to pick it back up again. You can see what I have done so far there at the blog. Peace,Brother Jason

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Seriously? Not trying to be rude or anything, but I don’t understand how a woman wearing a headcovering makes her any closer to God. It almost seems like it would turn people away, viewing her as a religious fanatic. Personally, I don’t think that I would be any more spiritual if I wore a robe and sandals everywhere like in Biblical times. I think people would give me weird looks more than anything.

  4. Turretinfan Says:

    “Seriously? Not trying to be rude or anything, but I don’t understand how a woman wearing a headcovering makes her any closer to God.” It is an outward sign of submission to God and to the authorities God has placed in her life.”It almost seems like it would turn people away, viewing her as a religious fanatic.” Possibly that is so. Impressing other people is not the reason for covering one’s head.”Personally, I don’t think that I would be any more spiritual if I wore a robe and sandals everywhere like in Biblical times.”Unlike head coverings, robes and sandals are not commanded in Scripture.”I think people would give me weird looks more than anything.”Don’t do it for other people – do it to obey God.-TurretinFan

  5. Henry Says:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: