What do we make of the requirement of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11v2-16

The issue at hand.

The instruction: Women having their hair long for the sake of involvement in worship.

Two things first need establishing:

1/ What is praying and prophesying? It could refer to the whole worship service. But that would be an unusual description. In chapter 14 it refers to the elements of the service an individual might contribute to by speaking. Prayer is of course to speak to God. At its most basic, prophesying was to speak a Spirit-given message to the church. This would predominantly be given in a vision, and seems to have been more prevalent in the time of the apostles. But the term might have encompassed a spontaneous sharing of scriptural truth too.

2/ What is the head covering in mind? We are not entirely clear what Greek, Roman or Jewish practices were in the 1st century (Thistleton, 823), so this cannot help us in any definitive sense. As the head covering seems to be something that is only required when the woman is speaking, we might expect it to refer to a shawl or veil. However, the focus on praying and prophesying could simply be because it is when the woman is standing out from others and in some sense leading the congregation that the issue at hand really matters. What is often not realized is that the phrase translated “with the head covered” literally means “have down on the head.” In the 3rd century Mishnah this phrase did refer to a veil (Barrett, 249), but that doesn’t mean it did in the 1st century. It could well refer to having hair hanging down. Wearing it long would certainly explain the emphasis on cutting hair and hair length in what follows (Blomberg 210), and is strongly supported by Paul’s conclusion to his argument where verses 13 and 15 bracket verse 14. The brackets seem to equate a woman not being “uncovered” as not wearing long hair, with the center stressing the shame of a man wearing his long. And this note about the man corresponds with the dishonour of a man having his head covered in verse 4, again suggesting to be covered is to wear long hair. These verses make less sense if cloth coverings (or even long hair being done up on the head) are in mind. And the final word in verse 15 couldn’t be clearer: A woman’s “hair has been given her for a covering.” There “covering” could be translated “clothing,” and implies a Christian woman’s hair is the equivalent of the Greek hair-shawl (Blomberg, 214).

We should note that commentators do differ on this question, and it is very difficult to call. Verses 13-15 could instead be a supporting analogy. The point would then be that even nature shows the fitness of women not men veiling their heads in worship because God has given women not men the natural covering of long hair. But if this is the case, it is hard to see from the text why a further covering would be necessary as the distinction of genders would already be apparent in hair length. The only reason could be a cultural one – such as uncovered long hair implying immorality, as may be implied by verse 6 (mentioned below). But if that were the case, then in a culture like ours where that isn’t the implication, head coverings would no longer be needed as long as women had long hair.

The head covering movement offers a number of other reasons why they take Paul to be referring to a veil rather than hair length:[1] First, they take issue with verse 7 being understood as saying long hair can be in place of a veil. But we would agree with them that Paul is arguing for equivalence: The long hair is the covering – and so the natural veil God has given women, which is the very reason why Paul need not require a cloth veil. Second, they ask if being uncovered means not having long hair, then why would such a person be told she should cut her hair short (v6) as it would already be short? But this is to be pedantic. The literal rendering is: “A woman with an uncovered head is the same as one having been shaven (perfect passive), and so if she won’t cover her head then she should cut her hair (aorist middle). But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut her hair (aorist middle) or be shaved (present passive), let her cover her head.” This reveals that cutting and shaving are being used as two ways of describing the cropping of hair – the former being done willingly by the woman and latter done to her, as was the case for immoral women. The point is that if a woman doesn’t wear her hair long, it is like she is an immoral woman and so she should go the whole way and cut whatever short hairstyle she does have off too. This is a very Pauline way of speaking, similar to when he says that those so into circumcision should go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Gal 5v12). Recognizing this parallel gives further support to the idea that short hair is what is meant by the uncovered head. Third, it is said Paul has a different covering to merely long hair in mind in verse 10 as it is described there as a symbol of authority. We have concluded that verse is better rendered “a wife ought to have authority over her head.” However, there is no obvious reason why long hair can’t be both a woman’s glory and a symbol of authority. Fourth, it is noted that around 150 years later veiling was common practice. This is not insignificant. But it is quite possible over that period that the veil was added as the interpretation of the passage because cultural practices encouraged it. If the passage is about hair length, it says nothing that forbids wearing a veil too. And if that was expected by the wider culture, it could come to be justified from chapter 10v32-33.

Given these explanations, the flow of argument in 1 Corinthians 11 itself has to be the decisive factor, and to my mind this leans more towards Paul referring to long hair as the head covering rather than some form of veil. This seems the only reasonable explanation of his saying so much about hair length in v5-6 and v14-15, and would mean that his requirement was just that wives should wear their hair long to distinguish them from their husbands.

The language of dishonour and disgrace in not doing so has immoral connotations. Different reasons are suggested by commentators for this, but the one that applies to both men and women in the culture of the day is that of long hair implying a man was homosexual and short that a woman was a lesbian (Blomberg, 210-211, Barrett 257). This may explain why Paul appeals to the “nature” of things – a word he uses with regard to same-sex relations in Romans 1v26-27, which he also describes with the very same words of “dishonourable” and “shameful” that are found in in 1 Corinthians 11v4 and 14. The point would be that throughout the Greco-Roman world where hair length could imply something about one’s sexuality, how it was worn in worship especially mattered (and whether or not a man or woman then covered it with clothing according to the custom in their time and place). There is certainly evidence of Hellenistic Jews around this time being concerned about the role of hair in affirming one’s sexuality and gender (Thistleton, 824-825). And it would make sense of the claim that nature teaches men should have short hair and women long. Obviously, it doesn’t in any fundamental way. But, the differences bound up with creational design do teach that men should not seek to look like women, nor vice-versa.

The wider argument.

The context: A concern for not offending those in the church or culture.

We must read the whole passage in context. What is in Paul’s mind is the tension between Christian freedom and other’s consciences. He has just made the point that although his readers are free to eat meat that may have previously been used in pagan sacrifices, if doing so would cause offence to a fellow believer they shouldn’t. He then concludes:

31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” (1 Cor 10v31-33)

This may be important in understanding our passage on head coverings. The flow of thought naturally moves from Paul’s example of limiting his Christian freedom for the sake of those within the church and culture to a commendation of their imitating him (11v1). This supports the sense that what follows is not necessarily a matter of righteousness, but of expedience – so as not to offend those in or outside the church. This is further supported by the passage immediately following. It begins with a concern for church unity and putting other’s needs before one’s own (1 Cor 11v17-22). Paul does give creational reasons for what he says, but he wants it to be adhered to in part so that Jews and Greeks in and outside the church aren’t provoked by how the Christians present themselves.

It is possible he sees the instruction he gives as a “tradition” (11v2,16), which can have moral force (2 Thess 2v15, 3v6). But his point in v2 may be that having commended them for keeping the traditions he wants them to abide by what he is about to say too – perhaps because in this matter they are taking their freedom too far and going against tradition (Blomberg, 208).

The principle: Upholding and affirming gender distinctives.

Verse 3 then sets up the theological principle that governs what follows. The words man/woman can be translated husband/wife, and the prominence of ideas of headship make the latter most likely, as does the fact that this is the meaning in every other place where they are paired, except perhaps 2 Timothy 8-15 (Blomberg, 209).  The idea of “head” is that of both authority and source. But in Hebrew thought the latter implies the former. So, Christ is the head of all men in the sense that Adam was made directly by the Son, but that means man is also subject to the Son (Col 1v15-18). In a similar sense, woman is from man as Eve was made from Adam. But that also means wives are subject to their husbands. The point is of an ordered hierarchy: wife-husband-Christ-God (Barrett, 249), in which each in some sense reflects (is the glory of) the one they are from. This ordering fits Paul’s teaching that the wife must submit to her husband’s will and that he is responsible for her growing in spiritual splendour (Eph 5v22-35). In other words, Christ’s authority and excellence is delegated to and displayed in the husband, and the husband’s to and in the wife, just as God the Father’s is delegated to and displayed in Christ. (Note, however, that the God-Christ relationship being a model for the husband-wife one means that it is not one of inequality or inferiority, but equality and interdependence, as v11-12 stress.)

This focus on husbands and wives implies that the requirement may not have covered unmarried girls or women. Nevertheless, the wider references to creation and the nature of things suggests it would, but is especially important for husbands and wives because breaching it dishonours one’s spousal head by confusing one’s place in the order of things (v11-15).

But what does this all mean for the matter at hand?

Paul’s play on words implies there is a link between the physical head as linked to one’s authority and one’s theological head who has authority over them. So, the husband who speaks with his head covered somehow dishonours Christ as his “head,” and a woman who does so uncovered dishonours the husband as her head. But why?

The following verses are hard to understand. Verse 14 tells us that it was considered a disgrace for men to have long hair, so the sense seems to be that for a woman to be uncovered is equivalent to having her hair cut or shaved because it is to be acting like a man (v6), and that matters because of the theological distinction between the sexes. Although by creation both men and women bear God’s image, given the order of v3, the man is the “image and glory of God” in the sense that he represents and reflects God’s authority and excellence through Christ in the congregation, and by doing so points people to him. If correct, this would mean that “woman is the glory of man” in the sense that her husband’s authority and excellence is to be represented and reflected in her in a way that affirms him. We are told that this dynamic is creational in that Eve was created from and for Adam – although it is stressed that this doesn’t mean they are independent of each other.

Verse 10 then literally reads: “That is why a wife ought to have authority on her head, because of the angels.” The “on” can be rendered “over,” and so could either refer to the head covering as a sign of authority on the wife’s physical head or of her taking authority over her physical head. Given Paul immediately stresses she is not independent of him or him of her, it could well mean it is a sign that as she speaks she bears an authority derived from her husband, and acknowledges to any watching angels that she is not a man. However, taking control of something is what is meant every other time the phrase is used in the New Testament (Blomberg, 212). So, most likely Paul means she should take charge of how she wears her hair in worship. Whatever is meant, verses 11-12 ensure that the distinctions between men and women being upheld are not taken too far as has so often been the case in history. Husbands and wives are interdependent and need each other, which is to be especially recognized and upheld by those “in the Lord.”

It is easy to assume the following statement that long hair on men is a disgrace but a glory to women is based on cultural precedence as the OT Nazarites famously had to grow their hair long out of devotion to God (Num 6v5), and others may have done so because of religious vows (Acts21v23-24). However, these were exceptions. Paul tells us his instructions are according to “nature,” and elsewhere that refers to created design and the resulting sense of conscience (Rom 1v26, 2v14, 11v24, Gal 4v8). This is supported by his saying hair is given to a woman by God “for a covering.” The sense is that this is God’s intent in creation that is borne out by general convention. The note that it is “her” glory may mean that it displays something of her particular excellence as a woman by marking her position in the divine order of things, as in verse 7 (Barrett, 257).

Putting it all together.

Paul’s point seems to be that the act of wearing long hair ensures that wives who pray or prophesy in church do so in a way that ensures clarity that they are women, and so affirms their husbands (or men in general) as the ones with the authority delegated from Christ. So, if her husband were to have long hair it would dishonour Christ as his head by not making clear he was the one who holds this delegated authority, and if the wife had short hair she would dishonour her husband as her head by claiming an equal authority with him which would effectively deny his God-given place.

This would suggest at the very least the importance of marking the difference between the sexes in how men and women dress for worship, and especially not dressing in a way that reflects cultural confusion of sex and gender – a big issue in our own day. Having said that, to my mind verses 13-16 do suggest there is something creational about women wearing their hair long as a God-given covering, with men keeping theirs short. I would therefore encourage this, but only tentatively because the meaning of the passage is so uncertain and debated. Yet it is interesting that the God-given “nature of things” means women’s hair is generally thicker than men’s, and due to baldness many men find themselves unable to have hair as a covering. Make of that what you will!

Finally, we should acknowledge a good argument can be made that Paul had veils in mind. But if that were the case, because women already had long hair as a covering, his reason must have been because of the cultural implications of their hair being uncovered. As there is no sense of that being inappropriate in our own day, it would seem that as long as differences in gender are apparent, it is no more necessary than saying women should always wear long dresses to church as not doing so was regarded as inappropriate 100 years ago. Instead, the principle for application is that what is worn in worship should be fitting and give no sense of offence to those in or outside the church, especially by implying immorality. In some cultures this might mean men should wear suits and women dresses. In our own, it is likely to depend on the demographic of the specific church.