Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God (1 Corinthians 11:2-16 ESV).
1 Corinthians 11:2-16
The topic of head coverings can be controversial and difficult. Almost no-one I know believes that head coverings are required today, but that doesn’t mean they’re not! We want to be faithful to Scripture, and so we need to be very careful to interpret this passage in its literary and historical context. Only then can we accurately apply it to the twenty-first century.
The overall structure is that 2 has a Concessive relationship to 3-16. Paul praises the Corinthians in 2, that they have listened to his teaching, believing the gospel and living it out according to what he taught them. But even though they are doing this, yet they need to fix a problem in their worship, which he will outline in 3-16.
Within 3-16, there is an Id-Exp relationship, where 3-12 are the Idea, and 13-16 the emphasized Explanation.
The emphasis in the arcing relationships shows that 6d is the core affirmation of 3-12 (a wife must cover her head), and 13b is the core affirmation both of 13-16 and of all of 3-16: It is not proper for a wife to pray to God with an uncovered head.
It is interesting that my arc corresponds with Garland’s point that verses 6 and 13 are the only places with an imperative (David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003], 508). These verses are central in importance.
More support for the importance of 6 and 13 is seen in that only in 13 is a woman not contrasted with a man, but mentioned on her own. This gives us a clue to the emphasis of the passage. Also, in 11:10, “Paul adds another, though highly enigmatic, explanation for why women should be covered: ‘because of the angels.’ No comparable explanation is given for why men should not be covered. The best explanation for these breaks in the pattern is that the problem that Paul wishes to correct has to do with what the women were doing with their heads” (Garland, 507-08).
The emphasis of the passage, therefore, is clear: women, specifically wives, should cover their heads in worship. The reason why is given in three Grounds: headship (3), glory (7-10), and nature (14-15).
Notice how Paul starts talking about their worship without making clear the specific issue. Instead, he starts with a theological assertion about headship in verse 3. The word “head” could mean “the one out front." “Head” carries connotations of authority and hierarchy, but this doesn’t have to be confrontational or debasing! There is an ontological equality between men and women, which Scripture is clear on. Equally clearly, there is a hierarchy of authority within marriage.
Christ, as the perfect man, submitted himself completely to God’s authority. And Paul teaches in Ephesians 5:24 that wives are to “submit in everything to their husbands.” So should men submit in all things to Jesus Christ, as his will is revealed in his written Word.
Following Paul’s explanation of headship is the reality of glory in 7-12. (We’ll come back to the Inference from the twofold Grounds of headship and glory in 4-6 in a moment.)
This reality is similar to that of headship: a wife, in the context of worship, is under the authority of her husband (10a), as one created to be a fitting helper for her husband. If I’m bold enough to explain it this way, her primary relationship is to her husband, while his primary relationship is to God. She is her husband’s glory, while he is God’s glory (7b-c).
And a man who covers his head in worship brings shame upon his metaphorical head, God, while a woman who does not cover her head in worship brings shame upon her metaphorical head, her husband.
I’ll explain why this is the case in a few minutes; for now, we should just recognize that that motifs of headship and of glory and shame are the foundation for why Paul insists on women covering their heads in worship.
(One of the hardest verses in the Bible to interpret is verse 10! Angels covered their feet and face in the presence of God (Is. 6:2). This is perhaps what verse 10b is referring to. They are part of God’s created order, and they keep order; therefore, so should men and women.)
The third Ground is in 14-15. The reason why it is not proper for a wife to pray in public with an uncovered head (13) is because of what “nature itself” teaches believers.
But “nature” cannot mean what occurs naturally, because both men and women can grow long hair. It seems that “nature” here (φύσις) means social convention, the regular or established order of things. Paul is speaking of the order of things in culture. This isn’t necessarily about hair length, but about the distinctions between men and women in this culture.
“For a Hebrew woman to go out uncovered was widely regarded as a disgrace (3 Macc. 4:6; b. Ned. 30b) because a covered head was a sign of modesty (b. Yoma 47b). To go out with loose hair in public (m. B. Qam. 8:6) was a greater disgrace and considered grounds for divorce (m. Ketub. 7:6; b. Ketub. 72a). Paul is not imposing Palestinian customs on the Corinthians, however. The Corinthian culture also looked askance at women going out in public without a head covering. The literature suggests that it was taken for granted that respectable women would wear some kind of head covering in public (Conzelmann 1975: 185; cf. Plutarch, Mor. 232C, 267A)” (Garland, 520).
Also, “[a]ccording to Tacitus (Germania 19), the husband of an adulterous wife cuts her hair, strips her, and banishes her from the house (see also Dio Chrysostom, Or. 64.3; cf. Jer. 7:29; Ezek. 7:18). The shame attached to the shorn head of a woman runs deeper than that she might appear mannish. The shaved head is imposed upon the adulteress to expose her publicly (Winter 2001: 128–29). Paul resorts to hyperbole to make the point that if a woman appears bareheaded, it is as shameful as being shaven (Delobel 1986: 376). Since it is shameful, she needs to be covered” (Garland, 520).
In Paul’s day, for a woman to have an uncovered head would shame her “head,” her husband - and this ought not to be. Her is Paul’s point: Because of creation order - of headship and glory - a wife ought to follow social customs that do not shame her husband.
To apply this in 2020, we need to discern what our culture says about the distinctions between men and women. Obeying this verse requires us to read not only our Bibles but also our culture.
The principle is that women should honour social conventions; in Paul’s day, that meant that women should cover their heads in public. In our day, however, for a 21st-century woman to wear a head covering would not be necessarily modest, nor would a lack of such a covering shame her husband - I speak from experience as a husband! But if my wife dressed immodestly, mannishly, outrageously, immorally, I would be shamed and embarrassed. So women in the West today should follow the principle of this passage instead of covering their heads. They should not dress in revealing clothing, or in outrageously rebellious clothing, or in ostentatiously wealthy clothing.
The head covering of the first century was culturally contingent. In the 21st century, if a woman’s head is uncovered, is this shameful? Is she suggesting sexual availability? No, it doesn’t, and she isn’t. But God’s creation design is not culturally contingent; it is a universal principle. Woman still came from man; this is a permanent and unchanging fact.
For help applying this with clothing, see 1 Tim 2:9-10.
The principle of headship in the home, of authority, of love (husbands) and respect and submission (wives) - basically of order founded at creation - was very important to Paul. And it should be to us also, in spite of our egalitarian, distinction-levelling culture. Men and women are whom God made them to be, not whom we wish we were. We must all submit to God’s wise plan, his will, in our bodies and natures as men and women. That way lies freedom.