The Question Of Head Coverings: A Study Of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

This passage is one of the most difficult passages in Scripture. For many, its difficulty has caused them to gloss over it or accept what others say about it without studying for themselves. As Christians we must study and teach the whole counsel of God (2 Timothy 2:15; Acts 20:27), and should therefore, make our best effort to understand God's Word. This writer does not claim to know all there is to know about these verses. Only through much studying and handling the Scriptures correctly can we glean from all of God's revelation, and especially from such hard passages (2 Peter 3:14-18).

When studying a particular passage it is beneficial to remember the overall theme or point of the book to which it belongs. The book of 1 Corinthians was written by the apostle Paul to strengthen the church at Corinth and correct some major problems the congregation was having, such as, divisions (1 Corinthians 1:10), fornication (1 Corinthians 5:1), abuse of the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 11:20), abuse of miraculous gifts (1 Corinthians 14:1), and other problems. He also addressed some questions they had written to him (1 Corinthians 7:1). One of the main themes in 1 Corinthians is Christian liberty (1 Corinthians 10:23, 24), and how there are things that are lawful but under some circumstances would be sinful (one example was a stronger brother causing a weaker brother to stumble by eating meats offered to idols – 1 Corinthians 8:1-13). Some of these are based upon cultural settings and some are based upon timeless principles of God's Word. To determine which is the case in a given passage we must consider the context and the Scriptures in their totality.

Concerning the text at hand, the apostle begins by praising the church at Corinth for following God-approved traditions (Paul often gave praise before reproving – compare 1 Corinthians 11:17). These are traditions given by the apostle himself, therefore, not mere traditions of men but of God (2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6 versus Mark 7:1-13; Galatians 1:14; Colossians 2:8). Next, in 1 Corinthians 11:3 Paul states a well-known fact, namely, the order of headship taught in the Scriptures: God, Christ, man, and woman. This verse is key to the whole passage, and as we try to understand the other verses, the principle of headship should be in the front of our minds. It is a timeless principle because, as we will see, Paul refers to Genesis to make his point. Headship is the underlying principle of the text and whatever is believed about the following verses - this truth cannot be compromised.

In 1 Corinthians 11:4 the apostle writes that a man praying or prophesying with his head covered is dishonoring his head. Do not miss this point. Paul begins by addressing the men first. It seems the case that some at Corinth were trying to make men wear head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:7 supports this). Historical documents show that the Romans and the Greeks had different practices when it came to men (and women) wearing head coverings (The city of Corinth in the 1st century was a Roman colony inhabited mostly by Greeks. Thus, conflicts between the two cultures could arise). Paul goes on to say, on the other hand, that a woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head (1 Corinthians 11:5). On a side note, we see that women had miraculous ability to prophesy, of which Joel and Peter had spoken (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17). This is not contrary to other Scriptures. What is contrary to the Scriptures is when one attempts to pull out of this verse the idea that women can lead prayer and prophesy in a mixed assembly or other spiritual activity that involves a mixed audience. Claiming this is saying the exact opposite of Paul's point here and elsewhere (1 Corinthians 14:34, 35; 1 Timothy 2:12). In the text, he goes on to say that if a woman is not covered then she might as well be shaven. Clearly, it was a shame for women to have their hair cut short in the 1st century. Probably, the reason was that temple prostitutes shaved their heads, kept short hair, and went without veils (as opposed to respectable women). A Christian woman would not want to even appear to be associated with prostitution. The reader might benefit from studying further these cultural aspects of the Greco-Roman world (Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary on the Whole Bible. Accordance electronic ed. 6 vols.; Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software, 2004, n.p.).

As mentioned before, it is possible that some in Corinth were saying that men and women needed to have their heads covered. In 1 Corinthians 11:7, Paul is saying that man is under no such obligation. Man was created first, and woman was created from his side as a helper. This appeal to creation makes the headship of mankind a principle that transcends time or dispensations. For this reason (woman was created for man) the woman is to have "authority on her head" (1 Corinthians 11:10). Women should comply with all things that show their subjection, including God's law as well as essential, societal customs (that are not contrary to the Word). By wearing a covering, the 1st century Christian women were showing their submission to their head – man (and Christ), and making a distinction between themselves and the local prostitutes. The reason: "because of the angels" (the exact meaning in uncertain). Angels ("messenger") are submissive creatures to God. They are concerned to some degree with the redemption of mankind (1 Peter 1:12) since no salvation is offered them if they rebel against God (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 1:6).

In 1 Corinthians 11:11, 12, Paul returns to his underlying point as he elaborates in case anyone attempts to take what he writes to the opposite extreme. Just because the woman is in subjection to man does not mean she is any less valuable. Man and woman are equally valuable in their service to God. They have different roles and the woman is to be submissive to man in the church and in the home. Both men and women are responsible for knowing and understanding God's Word (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 5:22).

Paul tells the Corinthians to "judge among yourselves" whether it is "proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered" (1 Corinthians 11:13). He appeals to nature (the collective practice of a society as in Romans 2:14; Ephesians 2:3). The natural practice of that culture taught that men have short hair and women long. Woman's hair is "given to her for a covering" (1 Corinthians 11:15). The apostle's reference to nature is further evidence that the requirement of a head covering is based on a cultural setting. Furthermore, does Paul's use of the word "dishonor" (1 Corinthians 11:14) mean that it is a sin for a man to have long hair? It cannot be the case that long hair on men is always sinful (consider the Nazirite - Numbers 6:5). Therefore, concerning hair length and head coverings, Paul is speaking of a social custom during that time. He concludes by saying that neither he nor the church practices such (referring to 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 – that is, men having long hair and women wearing short). Clearly, someone was being contentious about the matter. As seen in 1 Corinthians 11:7, it seems that some were trying to claim that this was a practice of the church and not a social custom. Paul is saying that the church has no practice of men wearing a head covering.

In conclusion, the principle set forth in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is timeless (since Paul refers back to Genesis 2), namely, the headship of man and woman (1 Corinthians 11:3). Women of all cultures and all times are commanded to be submissive to their husband, father, and men in the church since this was established at the beginning (1 Timothy 2:13, 14). The application that Paul makes in answering a problem the 1st century church faced (men and women wearing head coverings) is not universal. If wearing a head covering is a timeless practice of how women show their submission to their head then women would need to do so everywhere since women are to be in submissive at all times and in all places (Ephesians 5:22; Titus 2:5; 1 Timothy 2:11). It is noteworthy to mention there is no Old Testament commandment for women to wear head coverings. Would this be the case if this were a timeless practice? How might we apply this issue today with our different cultural customs? Christian women (and men) should not want to dress, act, or say anything that would associate themselves with the evil of this world, and therefore, cause a brother or sister to stumble. Specific examples would be different depending on the culture, and one would not be bound on another (unless firstly God's Word binds it). How we present ourselves (in knowledge of His Word, dress, and action) tells the world if we are being the submissive women that God seeks (1 Peter 3:1-6).

Questions to Study:

  1. Could it be that Paul is writing with the understanding that the women would be praying or prophesying before other women only (that is, not in a mixed assembly)?
  2. For most cultures today, is short hair on a woman looked down upon or associated with something improper?
  3. An American tradition has been that men take their caps (or hats) off when they come into a building or pray. This may or may not come from this passage, and it may be changing to some degree. Is it a sin if a man keeps his hat on?
  4. In our culture today, does wearing a veil (or a hat of some kind) symbolize anything on a woman?

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