Should women cover their heads while worshiping God?
1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is the passage which deals with this question. Contextually, this falls right after 1 Corinthians 8-10, the record of Paul instructing Christians to be willing to give up personal liberties such as eating meat offered to idols in order to avoid being a stumbling block to spiritually weaker brethren whose consciences would be violated. We must keep this in mind.
The historical context is also important to remember. In the Roman culture of Paul’s day, all respectable women always wore a veil over their head in public as a sign of being in subjection to men, a custom still in practice in most Middle Eastern cultures today. During Paul’s day, the only women known to go about with their heads uncovered were prostitutes, who were also known to go so far as to have their heads shaved.
The church at Corinth generally kept God’s commands, but needed to respect God’s arrangements concerning male authority in the home and in the church (1 Cor. 11:2-3). In Roman culture, a man wearing a veil would appear effeminate, thus showing disrespect for his gender role and thus showing disrespect to God (1 Cor. 11:4, 7). A woman not wearing a veil in that culture would not only show disrespect for her gender role and thus to God, but would also be assumed to be a prostitute, thus bringing more shame to her and to the church (1 Cor. 11:5-10).
In the church (“in the Lord”), men and women each have their respective gender roles and depend on each other (1 Cor. 11:11-12). They must not ignore their gender roles as defined by the customs of their culture, even though God did not command the universal church to observe those particular customs, because doing so would harm the influence of the church (1 Cor. 11:13-16; cf. vs. 4-10). This is in keeping with the context of chapters 8-10, where Paul urged them to give up personal liberties to avoid being stumbling blocks to others.
How does this apply to the church today?
The universal church was given no command for women to cover their heads (1 Cor. 11:16). Thus, doing so is a matter of conscience and personal judgment, both of which must be respected by all (1 Cor. 11:13; cf. Romans 14:1ff).
God hasn’t specifically command that we observe non-sinful customs of our culture. Yet practicing our freedom to ignore them will likely harm our influence for Christ and bring shame upon ourselves and the church. If such should be the case, God wants us to give up our freedom and observe the non-sinful customs of the day in order to avoid being a stumbling block to others.