In Western culture, it has always been considered rude or disrespectful for a man to wear a hat inside a building, including a church building. Even a generation ago, when men commonly wore hats, the headgear was removed indoors, or even outdoors in the presence of a woman. In contrast, women’s hats have long been a standard part of a stylish or formal outfit, and wearing a hat indoors is acceptable for a woman.
This cultural tradition most likely has its roots in the Bible itself. The apostle Paul talks to the Corinthian church about this matter, saying, “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God” (1 Corinthians 11:7). A few verses later, he says, “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him?” (1 Corinthians 11:14). In verse 14 Paul is speaking specifically of “long hair,” rather than hats, but both are considered a “covering” for the head. Most modern churches would not consider long hair on a man to be disrespectful; nevertheless, this passage calls it a disgrace because long hair is inherently feminine. Since “long” is a relative description, we apply this according to the culture in which one lives. In the Corinthian culture, for men to wear any kind of head covering in church was for them to take on the role of the women, which is not the order God designed for spiritual headship (1 Corinthians 11:3).
Women have worn hats in church for centuries and still do so without it being considered disrespectful. Again, this goes back to the biblical idea of head coverings (probably veils) being used as an outward, cultural symbol of an inward attitude. However, nowhere in the Bible does it say women must wear hats or veils or kapps in church. The passages in 1 Corinthians 11 that seem to suggest women ought to have a head covering in church are better interpreted as a mandate for women to follow cultural norms, to show respect for one’s husband, and to maintain a distinctly feminine appearance. Many Bible scholars believe the only required covering for the woman is her hair (1 Corinthians 11:15). In either case, it’s difficult to be dogmatic about this passage. Some scholars say this passage is one of the most difficult in the whole New Testament to thoroughly understand.
What is important is that we are communicating Christian principles within the culture in which we live. It is traditional in Western culture for a man to take off his hat when entering a building or saluting the flag (with the exception of uniformed members of the military). Christians living in Western cultures should be aware of that tradition and show due respect in the customary way. During the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a civilian taking off his hat communicates respect (to the flag); during a church service, it communicates respect (to God). Similarly, in Eastern cultures, it is respectful to take off one’s shoes when entering a home or place of worship; Christians living in Eastern cultures should follow that custom, even if there is nothing in the Bible that specifically commands it.
Taking off one’s hat in church is simply a cultural way for a man to show respect and honor to God. Rather than bucking tradition and “doing our own thing,” we should usually follow the cultural rules, being careful to communicate respect for God in every way possible.
It is certain that God is much more interested in the posture of the heart than any outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:7). Any woman is capable of wearing elaborate head coverings without having any genuine reverence for God’s established order of authority. But godly women who recognize that submission toward their husbands is as submission to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22) are the women God is pleased with. Whatever we do, motive is important. Whether or not a woman chooses to wear a head covering, let it be done with a genuine spirit of thanks to God in the name of the Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:17).
Of course, it is possible for a man to wear a baseball cap in church and yet have a heart full of reverence and awe for the Lord. And it is also possible for a man to remove his hat in church yet disdain God in his soul. God sees the heart. But the issue, sometimes, is what our actions communicate to others; people cannot see our hearts, so we must often show them our respect by what we do.