Problem Passages: 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 (Part 2: Head Coverings)

This post is a part of the series comparing the teaching on various gender passages in the Bible. Read more about the series here.

1 Corinthians 11:3-16 says,

3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

7 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 did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.

13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.

Summary of Disagreements:

Although there is a lot of disagreement about what the individual verses mean; the main arguments, that refer to gender, center around three points.

  1. What does head mean? And how does that affect women in worship? (Part 1)
  2. What is the principle that can be applied in our culture? Women may pray and prophesy, but should they cover their heads in those activities today? What kind of covering is required – spiritual or literal? (Part 2)
  3. How should verse 10 be translated? As authority on the woman’s head or a symbol of authority on the woman’s head? (Part 3)

This post will detail point #2, what is the principle of head coverings?

Culture of wearing head coverings

Fashion, what we wear, indicates time and social constructs. Of course, there is much variety in fashion over the centuries and cultures. What was Paul’s culture at the time? Does it matter to us today? Do we imitate Corinth culture or find a principle to apply in our own way? These are the questions that drive the debate about head coverings.

  • Paul might have been referring to a Corinthian custom of pagan worship when he gave these  instructions about shawls, hair and baldness.
  • He might have been addressing  the Jewish worship customs of prayer shawls and clothing traditions.
  • He might have meant these apparel instructions are important for ALL men and women regardless of culture.
  • Theologians and historians don’t agree. We just don’t know for sure.
  • What we do know, is that most ancient cultures used veils, shawls and cloaks more commonly than we do today in the western world. It was as common for them as a hoodie is for us today.

Either way, we have been influenced by the fashion of the Corinthian culture. The custom of the western world  to remove hats for prayer or for witnessing a solemn ceremony  comes from this passage.  Traditionally,  women did not remove their headwear. Today, this is changing. The Armed  Services require men and women soldiers to bare their heads in respect. But in most churches, men are bareheaded and women keep their hats on.

Complementarian’s application of head covering

Complementarians are divided over the application of head  coverings.

Because Comps believe this passage details an authority hierarchy (verse 3), all Comps agree the principle Paul is teaching is that gender distinctions are important in worship for all time and cultures. Why? Because of the order of creation – man was created first-  and also because angels, who are the guardians of the worship of God, want women and men to act appropriately when they worship.

Where Comps disagree is to what extent they apply the woman’s head covering literally.

  1. Some ask their women to wear hats or kerchiefs (which literally means to cover the head).
  2. Some say long hair is a sufficient covering.
  3. Others have abandoned hear gear and the long hair debate entirely as a cultural reference, and say the principle is that as long as a woman prays or prophecies under a man’s spiritual authority (or covering), she is okay.

All Comps agree that if a woman prays or prophecies on her own authority, she is disgraced.  That is not God’s will for women. For instance, Beth Moore believes she may teach men because she is under her husband’s and pastor’s authority or spiritual covering. Some teachings call this an “umbrella” of authority.

Because Comps believe gender distinctions are important in worship, they  have differing interpretations of what it means to prophecy. Since Paul allows both men and women to pray and prophecy, they  limit what prophecy means. Comps believe 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34 limit (or silence) the voices of women in church. Some veer away from the speaking aspect of prophecy, even if the woman is covered. Some say prophesy is a spontaneous word from God which should be applied today as Scripture reading. Women may read Scripture aloud, but not prepare a lesson from it. Others believe a woman teacher is allowed as long as the responsibility or authority for her lesson is given to a man. Comps are a little vague and varied on what exactly that means.

Further Reading:

An article that advances the metaphorical spiritual covering of man’s authority over women: http://www.beingvirtuouswomen.com/cms/about_bvw/quill_penfaq/husbandfather_covering_his_wifedaughter.php

An article that teaches a literal head covering and refutes the common arguments against the literal covering at all times: http://www.biblicalresearchreports.com/headcovering-today.php

Egalitarian belief about head coverings

This passage, to an Egalitarian, is not about whether a woman should wear a head covering, but how Paul gave women freedom to pray and prophecy the same as men.

Egals interpret Paul’s words to emphasize the relationship between the sexes, not the authority structure of gender. Egals believe that Jesus forbids His followers to excercise authority over another; even to call a human your authority or your leader. (Mat 20:25-27; 23:8-10) Jesus does not want us to follow the worldly model of top-down leadership. Instead, Jesus presents a bottom-up model of servanthood to all people. Because Egals believe so strongly in this “upside down” model, they interpret the principle of headcoverings as this:

Our actions (apparel even) in worship should bring honor to the Lord Jesus and each other, not shame. 1 Corinthians 10:32

In our modern western culture, even unbelievers consider it shameful to limit a person based on gender, race or nationality. Egals believe limiting a woman’s ability to speak (pray and prophecy) simply because she is a woman brings shame, not honor.

Verse 11 – 12 says,

Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.

Egals believe these verses are the great equalizer for worship in churches. As Christians, man and women find their origin not in Father Adam or even in their female mothers…but in God himself. In the Lord, we are interdependent on each other.  God is every Christian’s head (source/ origin).

Egals believe the English translations have suffered from patriarchal bias, and make these following points:

  • Verse 2 : Paul describes the practices he taught the Corinthians as traditions. This word describes a set of precepts passed along from person to person. Some Egals believe headcoverings should not be applied to us because it is not an issue of sinful consequence, but of cultural practice. And as Jesus said, it is better to keep God’s commandment if it is in conflict with the tradition of men. (Mark 7:9) Egals believe God has gifted women equally as men. To limit a woman’s sphere because of gender, not by ability and giftedness, is following a tradition of man.  Egals believe literal and metaphorical headcoverings is a tradition of non-consequence for us today.
  • Verse 13: Paul asks us to judge for ourselves the propriety of a woman praying to God uncovered. Egals believe the judgement is affirmative. It is proper for women to pray uncovered.  Because a woman brings glory to her man, why should that glory be hidden? Jesus says let your good works show so it will be bring glory to God. (Matt 5:14-16) A women brings glory by being seen, not by covering up.
  • Verse 14-15: Nature teaches us a man’s hair and a woman’s hair will grow the same, unless cut.  Egals stress the Greek sentence  structure and lack of punctuation in this verse. There is controversy whether this verse should ask a rhetorical question. Instead, Egals claim it is a statement that hair is a suitable head covering, and prefer this translation:

Nature itself teaches you neither that it is disgraceful for a man to have long hair nor that hair is a woman’s glory, for hair is given as a substitute for coverings. (ISV)

Egalitarians use this passage to not only to dismiss the idea of women needing a special covering, but to show that Paul encourages
women to pray and prophesy along with the men. Women should not be silent as that ancient patriarchial society practiced. Does this contradict Paul’s statements 3 chapters later? No. Egals believe it only proves Paul gave specific instructions for an incident that was occurring in the Corinthian church (chapter 14), but is not an indictment for all women since he instructs them to speak here, in chapter 11.

Further Reading:

A verse by verse article on this passage: http://www.cbeinternational.org/?q=content/1-corinthians-112-16

Is short hair a sin for women?

My verse by verse explanation: Jewish worship customs of prayer shawls

1 Corinthians 11:3-16

Egals Believe… Comps Believe…
Head means source or origin. means authority or leader.
Head Covering Principle Honoring relationship is important in worship. Our clothes or behavior should not bring shame. Gender distinctions are important in worship.
Head Covering Applied Paul explains a woman’s hair is sufficient covering. Her glory should not be hidden. Women should either cover their heads literally with a hat, or metaphorically by being submissive to a male authority.
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9 thoughts on “Problem Passages: 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 (Part 2: Head Coverings)

  1. I read a book yesterday about various issues facing Islamic ‘churches’ (for lack of a better term for the ulama and various schools of thought). It’s pretty remarkable how similar some of these issues end up being – clothing and modesty issues, gender roles in the family and public spheres. There are even modern scholars pointing out that Muhammad established a very egalitarian system compared the pre-existing cultures and that since that time fundamentalists in the religion have undermined and ignored that original message. Sound familiar? (For example, about half of the Hadiths likely originated from one of Muhammad’s wives, which is comparable to finding out that Romans, Galatians, and Phillipians were actually composed by a woman and Paul simply transcribed them).

    Anyways, nothing to add to your actual post. You’re right and Brent’s wrong 🙂

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  2. paul was resolving a division between jews wearing coverings and gentiles not wearing coverings. he is clear that a man should have short hair and a woman long but makes the point that in the nt church traditions of men dont hold up. why would jesus require a gentile to follow a jewish tradition not commanded by god. vs. 15 uses the word [ante] which is translated instead of but its never put in the english finished product as such. woman do not need to wear a head covering because their long hair is the covering is what paul is saying. and the headship stands god, christ, man, woman because its clear in timothy and peter.

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  3. “. . . the headship stands god, christ, man, woman because its clear in timothy and peter.”

    I really don’t think any such chain of “headship” is clear at all, and certainly not in 1-2 Timothy or 1-2 Peter, unless you read the Bible through the lenses of certain presuppositions already in place.

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  4. Ok, sorry! It’s seeming like Blogger members can comment, but not others. Try commenting using “Annonymous” and just adding your name as part of the comment. I’m not too tech savvie but I think that might work until the problem gets fixed. 🙂

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  5. What Paul is teaching is eternal. The reasons laid out are not cultural; i.e. the order of the creation of man and woman, because of the angels, these are thing concreted in time eternal which cannot change. Feminism cannot make the Word of God change in order to suit your fancy.

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    1. Feminism cannot change the Word of God, agreed. Jesus said, Love your neighbor, and do unto others as you would like them to do to you. As Christians, our goal is to conform our culture to this law. Hopefully, we both agree to that!

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