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First Corinthians: Head Coverings

January 25, 2008

What I am about to say here is not the most popular view of the passage. I was persuaded to this view by my two daughters after they studied the subject in some depth. I am well aware of contrary views, having read many of them. I have been unable to get around the plain meaning that I think I see in this chapter. I invite you to consider a perspective which you will not hear in many places these days.

How we got here

Paul began the letter addressing divisions in the church. Then he admonished the church to expel an adulterer. Next he challenged them about lawsuits among believers, and about sexual immorality. Then he turned his attention to a list of questions he had received from the church.

The first of those questions was on the subject of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Next was a question on the subject of meat sacrificed to idols.

Moving on

As Paul transitioned to the next topic, he wrote:

1Co 11:2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.

Apparently this was in response to some comments accompanying the list of questions. Amidst all the problems, there were some areas in which they were worthy of praise. They remembered some things Paul had taught and were remaining faithful to those teachings. It is easy to miss the good when focusing on problems.

Paul then turns to their next inquiry. It seems that there was a controversy about the practice of head coverings (1 Cor 11:16). Just as in Paul’s day, this teaching is controversial today. Let’s take a methodical approach to understanding what Paul said. As we go along, try to answer these questions:

  • What did Paul expect the members of the Corinthian church to do regarding head coverings?
  • What were his reasons?
  • Were his reasons valid when he wrote them?
  • Do his reasons still apply?

The basic instruction was not complicated. Women should wear a head covering (Gk κατακαλυπτεται, cover by hanging down from the head) whenever praying or prophesying. Nothing is said about the time or place where this instruction applies. So it meant wherever and whenever a woman prays or prophesies, she should cover her head.

To emphasize the point, Paul said that if a woman would not comply, her hair should be shaved off. And if she would be ashamed to have her hair shaved off, she should comply with the teaching on head covering.

Some people attempt to sidestep the issue of head coverings by saying that the woman’s hair is her covering (taken from 1 Cor 11:15). However, that cannot be what Paul was talking about. Verses 5 and 6 make no sense if the covering is her hair. Furthermore, in verse 15, Paul says that her hair is given to her as a περιβολαιου (a wrapper, something wrapped around.) But in verses 5-6 Paul said she needs a κατακαλυπτεται (something covering, hanging down from the head.) Although English translation often use the same word in both places, the original Greek used two different words. It is evident from early church writings that those who were native speakers of Greek did not think Paul was saying her hair is sufficient covering.

Paul proceeded to explain to them why women should wear head coverings when praying or prophesying, but men should not. (1 Cor 11:3-16) He offered the following reasons:

1) God is the head of Christ; Christ is the head of man; and man is the head of woman.

Modern western culture does not embrace that teaching. But Paul asserts that it is so, and it is supported by many other passages of scripture. (Eph 5:22, Eph 5:24, Col 3:18, 1 Tim 2:11-12, 1 Peter 3:1, 1 Peter 3:5-6). If we accept those passages as authoritative, then Paul’s first reason still stands.

2) Man was created in the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.

This follows from the first reason. God is the head of Christ, but Christ brings glory to God. Christ is the head of man, but man brings glory to Christ. Similarly, while man is the head of woman, woman brings glory to man. The purpose behind creation has not changed since Paul wrote these reasons, so this point also stands today.

3) Woman came from man.

Eve was created from the rib of Adam. (Gen 2:21-22) The creation account has not changed since Paul wrote this, so this reason still stands.

4) Woman was made for man.

Eve was created as a helper suitable for Adam (Gen 2:18) Note that, by inspiration, Paul interpreted that to mean Eve was created “for” Adam. Again, the creation account has not changed since Paul’s time, so the reason still stands.

5) Because of the angels

Angels are actively interested in Christians. (Heb 1:14, Heb 12:22, Heb 13:2, 1 Pet 1:12) Angels are witnesses to what Christians do and say. (1 Tim 5:21) Those angels who reject authority are fallen and doomed. (2 Peter 2:4, Jude 1:6) Submission to authority is apparently a very sensitive issue among the remaining good angels. Whether or not this explanation conveys Paul’s original meaning, we have no evidence that his reason applied only in his day.

6) Nature teaches that long hair is inappropriate for men, but is the glory of women.

Paul may have been referring to the tendency for women to have longer and thicker hair than men. Or he may have been referring to a universal tendency across cultures. It does seem consistent, in many different cultures, that long hair is characteristic of women and short hair of men. Regardless, we have no basis for thinking Paul’s reasoning is less applicable today than it was when he wrote it.

What do we do with this?

It seems plain that Paul expected the women in the first century Corinthian church to wear head coverings whenever they prayed or prophesied. I’m not aware of any credible Bible scholar who disagrees with that. The disagreements generally come in another form.

1) Some believe Paul was just wrong in saying this. That would mean his writings are not verbally inspired by God. If that were correct, then we could not rely on the Bible, and therefore we would have no reliable standard for truth regarding what God has done and what he calls on us to do. We would be left with the varying opinions of man. I don’t think God has left us there. I believe Paul was exactly right when he wrote these things — no matter how much I don’t like what he said.

2) Some people believe what he wrote only applied to the Corinthian church, because of some unique characteristics of that church and its environment. I don’t think that is a viable conclusion, because Paul ended the section by saying:

1Co 11:16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice–nor do the churches of God.

3) Some people believe that Paul’s teaching on this subject applied in his day, but no longer applies because our culture is different from the culture of his day. I don’t accept that reasoning for a couple of reasons. First, our culture is not so different from Corinth. This teaching was contentious in Paul’s culture also, but it still applied despite the culture. Second, the reasons Paul listed for the practice have not become unsound. If they were sufficient to prove the point in Paul’s day (and remember, Paul wrote them by inspiration of the Holy Spirit), then they are sufficient today. It seems that some people just don’t think the reasons are strong enough. To hold that position, I think one has to find fault with God.

I know some women who believe the instruction about head coverings only applies when you are praying out loud. They take “prays or prophesies” in verse 5 to mean speaking a prayer or a prophecy out loud, with others present. That may be right, or it may at least be close to right. We’ll say more about this when we get to chapter 14.

As I said at the beginning, I know this is not the predominant view today among Christians. I do not consider this an issue that should divide Christians. Romans 14 should be applied here. The women I know are practicing their convictions, some on one side of the question and some on the other. The greatest danger is for those women who, deep inside, believe as I do but do not practice it. I hope at least this has helped some people to wrestle with a passage we often avoid.

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11 comments

  1. My sister once held to this conviction, but I don’t think she does anymore.I have to admit that I find the arguments for it a little forced, but I can’t say that it’s because I don’t want to believe it or not. The logic seems to follow, but it feels like a path of logic where the end is so far from where you started, you wonder if you made all the correct turns a long the way.Then again, maybe I just would prefer to disagree, so I do.I’m always surprised when folks I look up to and respect come out with contrary opinions to what I believe on something. Of course, it mostly means nothing on matters oc conscience such as this.Still, I feel a moments twinge of doubt. Pavlovian response from the days when we all had to agree on everything.


  2. To me this seems to be the plain and obvious meaning of the passage. The views that eliminate the need for head coverings are the ones that seem forced to me.


  3. I should clarify. I agree, that a woman should cover her head is the plain reading of the text, no doubt.What seems disconnected is how it relates to the culture of today. It seems to come from left field. There’s no mention of such coverings in the rest o the NT for sure, and I cannot recall it being mentioned in the OT either. It certainly isn’t common today, so I wonder where it comes from.So while it seems plain as day what he was directing the Corinthian women to do, how it connects to us now is much more tenuous for me.


  4. I think it connects to us today in the same way that any other biblical teaching connects to us. If we can discard the woman’s head covering because things are somehow different today, why not also discard the teachings on subjects like homosexuality, or adultery, or baptism, or communion, or any other subject on which we would like to do things differently?


  5. salguod:Historically speaking, it has only been in the last half century or so that women have not worn coverings regularly. Up until the 60’s, it was extremely common to see married women wearing hats or bonnets or something – especially in church. And think how common it is for men to take off their hats before doing something they consider solemn, like coming into church or taking a vow. The nun’s habit is a modern version of the clothing that many women wore in the Middle Ages. And, going even further back, the early church had issues with this passage, too. Tertullian wrote about the veiling of virgins, debating whether it was only married women who needed to be covered, whether the covering could be sheer (like a bridal veil of today), and whether a woman should even wear the coving in the privacy of her own house. But at that point in church history, there was no doubt that the passage still applied.Also, Paul is very reluctant to give commands based on culture. And when he does, he uses reasoning more like that of Romans 14 (do it for the sake of your brother) than the more universal reasoning he uses in this passage.I’ll be honest: I don’t like this passage. I tried for about 6 years to get around it. But in the end, I couldn’t do it.


  6. To Harmony:good points, though I found interesting this quote from bible commentator Matthew Henry written in 1706: “To understand this, it must be observed that it was a signification either of shame or subjection for persons to be veiled, or covered, in the eastern countries, contrary to the custom of ours, where the being bare-headed betokens subjection, and being covered superiority and dominion. And this will help us the better to understand, ….” I mention it only to say that there have been different views throughout history about meaning of a headcovering.


  7. Hi MellieThanks for adding to the discussion. I do think Matthew Henry’s comment would be more persuasive if the scriptures themselves made the command conditional upon the current customs, as MH did. I’m not comfortable allowing a fallible human judgment to be given precedence over what is literally stated in scripture.


  8. hi my 2 bobs worth goes like this. paul says its a sign of authority or power on the womans head when she prays or prophesies and also its because of the (angels) one more thing if the man prays or prophesies with his head covered he dishohours JESUS, i cannot see any of these things as cultural, or for the times past, as men, women, praying, prophesing, covering, angels, hair, power ,or heads, men, GOD, JESUS, have changed, but what has changed is mens stedfastness to do GODS will, i red an interesting scripture this morning in john 8-44 where JESUS refers to satan when he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources. i believe given the warnings for the days we live in, we need to not speak out of our own resources or understanding but pay the more earnest attention to the things that are written in GODS word its interesting we seem to be going up a track that israel went up many times where they all did what was right in there own eyes, or resources, how instead of saying its no big deal to pray or prophesy with our heads covered so just in case we will cover them, if it has something to do with the angels i dont think its worth the risk of erring on the side of slackness thats all i want to say thankyou


  9. Hello brother in Christ from your North River Sister.I found your blog in my search for head coverings info on the net. I have spent hours after hearing Bercot last week.I think I am at the same conclusion as you.


  10. Greetings,i have just started covering my head now when go to church or bible study ppl say I look like a muslim oh well. Im trying to make sure that I reach God when I pray so GOD let your will be done in my life and in others life. I just want to do what GOD says to do ppl may stare I dont care I love GOD that much to obey him obiendance is better than sacrifice. So God bless all the woman thats just start to cover there heads.


  11. […] » First Corinthians: Women in the Assembly January 28, 2008 Just as in the case of head coverings, I am about to explain an unpopular position on the subject of women being silent in the church. I […]



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