1 Corinthians 11 – Why Head Coverings for Women? Does it apply today?
1 Corinthians 11:3-12 – The Head Coverings.
Must women cover their heads to pray? Must men remove head coverings?
That is what this passage says, but does it apply today?
1 Corinthians 11:3-12 is responsible for more than its fair share of column-inches in commentaries and text books. The reason is that Paul is appealing to some cultural mores and other contemporaneous ideas, many of which we do not have fully documented. Most commentators admit at least some degree of ignorance. A few go further, accusing Paul of being unclear, confused, or mistaken. But given the large body of material which makes up the Pauline corpus, and the reputation that it establishes for the author, it is unwise to suppose that he has lapsed so severely only here! It is wiser to suppose that the misunderstanding lies with the reader.
The preponderance of commentators, although ranging widely in their opinions about key aspects of the passage, all agree on one thing about 1 Corinthians 11:3-12: We do not have sufficient information to definitively interpret all of Paul’s thoughts.
Having studied the passage (details below), I am convinced of this (from the conclusion):
The timeless application for either gender would be, “pray in a contemporarily decent way, noting that Jesus Himself is present, and you are watched by the angels”.
The instructions to women to cover their head is a cultural norm, which would be considered the proper and decent thing to do in the presence of their male family members. It is roughly equivalent to wearing modest clothing. For men, however, to uncover their head is a theological statement that Christ is present at worship, and this invokes another cultural norm for men: to have their head uncovered when praying in the presence of a superior. Paul does not articulate all of this because it is assumed knowledge.
Here is my “workings”:
Has Finney stumbled on the answer?
The quest is to locate a suitable interpretive key which presupposes and therefore reveals the erudite work of the Apostle, as he has established across the wider corpus. In his research into the variety of situations and customs with respect to head coverings in 1st Century life, Finney may have located this key. It seems, however, that he has not recognised it among the many other wonderful cultural artefacts he unearthed in his study.
If his description of these manners and customs is correct, the key to unlocking the bulk of this elusive passage could consist in one unspoken premise in the Apostle’s theology: that Christ is present at our worship. This is sufficient to explain Paul’s instructions respectively to men and to women, and makes sense of his illustrations and rationale.
How this passage fits in
We do know that much of I Corinthians is written in response to a number of matters which came to Paul’s attention via messengers from Corinth (1 Cor 1:11; 16:15-18), and that it presupposes previous correspondence (1 Cor 5:9). We do not, however, know precisely the situation or question Paul is addressing in this passage, except that it relates to the manner in which worship is conducted, and relates in some way to head coverings. Paul’s instructions do reinforce a clear distinction between males and females, but this arises from a set of reasoning which commentators find difficult to define. Hays calls it, “by any standard – laboured and convoluted”, and in part, “completely cryptic”. He detects a “theological quagmire”, and even suggests that Paul “recognizes the weakness of his own rather fragmented argument”.
But another thing we know from elsewhere in the New Testament is that Paul is both erudite and masterful in his argumentation and rhetoric. Any confusion, therefore, should be assumed to reside in the reader, and not in the writer of this passage. We may yet lack the proper interpretive keys to fully discern Paul’s intent, but had we those keys available, as Garland alludes, we should expect to find Paul’s clear and logical argumentation revealed, and Hays’ criticisms to rebound on himself.
The primary areas of confusion include: the range of meanings for the term, “κεφαλὴ” (literally, “head”); the meaning of “κατὰ κεφαλῆς ἔχων” (literally, “down from the head”); the potential ambiguity of “ἀνήρ” (literally “man”) and “γυνή” (literally “woman”); the intended meaning of “ἐξουςίαν” (“authority”); and also the purpose of Paul’s reference to the angels. Importantly for modern interpreters, the possible range of hermeneutic exposition includes both the explicit subordination of women on one hand, and their complete liberation on the other.
Is it about both men and women?
The whole passage 11:3-12 makes important statements both about men and about women. The men here are no mere hypothetical foil against which to understand instructions about women, contra Garland.
Is it about head coverings, or hair styles?
There is some support for understanding “κατὰ κεφαλῆς ἔχων” as a reference to hair, since literally it means “down from the head”. But this view confuses the illustration of shame and honour associated with hair (vv 5-6), with the application that it illustrates: a matter of liturgical head coverings. Furthermore there is no contextual cue to suggest that Paul is treating a woman’s hair as part of her genitalia as the equivalent of testicles, contra Martin.
Did Paul suddenly just make something up on the fly, or is this passage deeply theological?
Finney details Greco-Roman and Jewish traditions of head coverings in various settings. He concludes that Paul is proposing a “radical alternative”, in his instruction for men, but may be missing a vital element in his own reasoning. Innovation is, to say the least, uncharacteristic for Paul, and in this case would be especially strange given the subsequent appeal, not to some divine insight, but to tradition (v2), nature (v14), and theological precedent (vv7-9, 12). If all Finney’s research is correct, then by his own reasoning a solid conclusion can be drawn: whereas in a worship setting, in the presence of non-kin, a head covering is appropriate for a woman; for a man, a head covering would be appropriate only if nobody deserving of greater honour were present. It is not clear why Finney fails to suggest that Pauline theology presupposes that Christ is present at worship (cf. 1 Cor 5:4), rendering head coverings unambiguously inappropriate for men.
11:3 – But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.
“θέλω δὲ ὑμᾶς εἰδέναι” (“I want you to know…”) indicates that Paul is teaching something. Either it was part of the παραδόσεις (“traditions”, or “teachings”) of verse 2, or something not previously mentioned. Paul outlines here the intent of this passage through to verse 16: to teach something about the relationship of Christ to man, man to woman, and God to Christ.
That relationship is bound up in the meaning of the term “κεφαλή”. It has been argued that this expression indicates some kind of authority, or even supremacy, or alternatively that it means “source”. In subsequent verses it also refers to the physiological human head, in connection with hair (v5). In this sense it is a “polyvalent” term, and indeed, is being employed as a pun, in the “Hebrew poetic convention” of parallelism, in which Paul was no doubt versed (Phil 3:5).
Lowery sees the whole passage as being about “subordination”. Such views earlier made it a “favourite Arian text”, since that would diminish ὁ Χριστός (“Christ”) with respect to ὁ θεός (“God”). However, this verse can’t support the idea that Paul intended the linear “chain of command”, consisting of God-Christ-Man-Woman, that Lowery supposes. The clauses in this sentence deal nominatively, first with Christ, then with man, then with God. This mitigates against such a linear interpretation. Garland finds the references to Christ as a “frame”, and similarly concludes that the sequence vitiates the argument for reading “authority”.
Paul also explicitly disclaims the inference that κεφαλὴ could mean “source”, in verses 11 and 12: in albeit significantly different ways, men and women are described effectively as the source of one another, and the source of both [equally], is God.
Another suggested understanding is “pre-eminence”, which involves the notion that “glory and shame flow upward”. This is not directly an authority hierarchy in the way Ciampa suggests. In terms of authority hierarchy, shame sometimes flows “downward”, too. God can bring shame on his people (Jer 23:40), and shame can flow between authority-peers (Prov 25:9-10). The honour-shame concept is involved in, but not necessarily coterminous with outright authority. Thiselton, describes it as a “more complex frame”, but succinctly put, one’s “status and value is summed” in one’s κεφαλὴ.
The presence and absence of definite articles varies across the main clauses of this sentence. The man is definite, as is Christ, whereas the woman is not. Colwell’s rule relies on locating the verb, but unfortunately, the clause concerning “woman” only implies the verb. The differences could lend support to translating “ὁ ἀνήρ” as “the” husband, per NRSV, but the NRSV also translates “γυναικὸς” as definitely “the” wife. It could remain indefinitely “a” woman and still make sense. “few commentators defend” the translation, “husband”, but Blomberg attempts it.
11:4 – Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head,
“Προφητεύων” (“prophesying”) refers to uttering an intelligible (1 Cor 14:6) message, given by God to the speaker.
Christ is τὴν κεφαλὴν (“the head”) of πᾶς ἀνὴρ (“every man”), and would therefore be disgraced by men covering their heads at worship if he is present at worship, under Finney’s understanding, hence the simple statement of this verse: “Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his [physical] head disgraces his [sociological] head”
11:5 – but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved.
Using Finney’s logic above, the pun concerning κεφαλὴ here becomes simple to understand. To pray or prophesy with her κεφαλὴ uncovered means to eschew her veil. This would disgrace her κεφαλὴ, which refers to her male kin (from v3). The disgrace is equivalent to having been shaven, which would only normally occur as a form of public humiliation.
The humiliation of being shaven is not because a woman thereby becomes “like a man”, Contra Fee, Thiselton, and others. To be likened to a man may indeed be a rare honour. Instead, the humiliation relates to the diminution of womanhood, and would therefore more closely be related to the shame of the barren (Gen 30:23), and the eunuch (Isa 56:3-5).
11:6 – For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil.
Paul summarises his assertion in language equivalent to: “Since we all agree that a shorn woman would be thoroughly shameful, and since we all agree that worshipping without her veil is precisely the equivalent, let’s all agree that at worship she should wear her veil.”
“κείρασθαι“ (“let her shear herself”) and “ξυρᾶσθαι” (“to be shaven”) differ in voice. Κεἱρασθαι is middle, and ξυρᾶσθαι is passive. Κεἱρασθαι may therefore denote a woman’s self-abasement, whereas ξυρᾶσθαι may be something imposed on her. Or, it could be a rhetorical escalation from shortish hair in the one instance, to none at all in the second. But in the absence of other clues, the difference could merely be colloquial. The two could be being used as “virtual synonyms”.
Alternatively, Paul may be saying, “If a woman wants to pray with her head uncovered, let her cut her hair to be like a man, which of course would be disgraceful. She should act like a woman”.
11:7 – For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man.
This sentence introduces the following two verses as another distinct rationale for Paul’s instructions on head coverings, without reference to hair.
“Man” here is compared to “God”, and not “Christ”, as he was in verse 3. This is therefore no longer a discussion about the κεφαλὴ under the same pun as before. This reinforces that the main question was never one of “hairstyles”. The relationship is instead now described on the basis of εἰκὼν (“image”) and δόξα (“glory”, or “reflection”), which are Creation motifs, as the following verses make clear.
Commentaries spend a lot of ink discussing εἰκὼν and δόξα, much of which is disclaiming questions of inferiority between men and women, but Paul provides verses 11 and 12 to purposely underscore gender equality. There is no suggestion here that women are inferior.
11:8 – Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man.
Paul is talking about honouring the sequence in which men and women were created (Gen 2:7,21-23). Very simply, from the Creation narrative, “man is not ἐκ (“from”) woman, but woman is ἐξ man”. Paul is establishing the idea of sequence.
11:9 – Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.
This is a repetition of the idea of verse 8, still focused on sequence. The Genesis account records that the situation of a man without a companion was “not good”, and therefore the woman was required for proper order to be established (Gen 2:18-20), the result of which is “very good” (Gen 1:31). The nuance of “ezer” (Gen 2:18,20) is that the woman is ‘his “counterpart,” one who corresponds to him and is suitable to him’. Again, there is no suggestion of inferiority of women, but merely sequence.
Because of the sequence in creation (“διὰ τοῦτο”, “because of this”), the woman has an obligation “ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς”, a phrase which literally means, “to have authority on/over/upon her head”. What does this mean?
Early patristic witnesses provide an early commentary when they substitute κάλυμμα (“veil”) for ἐξουσιάν. This is as an “explanatory gloss”, but not a genuine textual variant, as it does not occur in the major uncials, just a “smattering of versions … and early fathers”.
Fee outlines the contours of the scholarly propositions about this, all of which fail to account fully for the expression:
- ἐξουςίαν is a metonym for “veil”
- it means someone else functions in authority over her
- “freedom to worship”
- Or even, in contradiction to the whole passage, freedom to choose whether or not to cover her head.
Fee concludes, “we must beg ignorance”. But he gives no reason why we should not read it as:
“The woman should take responsibility, as outlined in the preceding verses, for her actions relating to her “head”, now fully polyvalent in meaning.”
Thiselton similarly concludes that it means women are to “keep control of (how people perceive) their heads”.
This is all “διὰ τοὺς ἀγγέλους” (“because of the angels”), and we don’t know what that means, but Paul’s readers presumably did.
Thiselton lists ideas that have been offered, including fallen angels gazing lustfully upon women, holy angels guarding the created order, the sense in which the angelic host participate in worship, and Jesus’ description of angelic ministry of Matthew 18:10. He cites the angelology of Qumran as finding an angelic presence in worship gatherings, and Revelation 2-3 descriptions of “the angels of the churches”, as possibly referring to priests or bishops. In addition, Paul has been talking about angels already, in 4:9, 6:3, and 10:10.
Rather than being reductionist about it, a more inclusive contemplation is possible. We could simply conclude that the expression “because of the angels” could evoke any or all of these motifs for the original hearers, any one of which would be sufficient to make the point: “because this is fitting”.
11:11 – Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman.
The point of this verse is to qualify earlier statements, categorically pointing out that neither the man nor the woman is independent nor unrelated to the other. Instead, there is a specific interdependence between them, to be explored in verse 12. “[A]ll the early major MSS” have the same word order as each other, but the KJV “follows D2, K, L, and the Vulgate in transposing the sequence”  of the man-woman, woman-man clauses. Sequence does matter, and it seems that some translators may have transposed the order to maintain masculine pre-eminence. But if Paul put women first, he did so precisely to reinforce the point by nuance, that masculinity does not have more importance.
The interdependence of men and women is “ἐν κυρίῳ” (“in the Lord”). This could be an eschatological ‘third “lens”’, but actually, Paul is about to return to Creation motifs in v12. It coheres with other simple statements about gender equality “in Christ”, for example in Galatians 3:28. In the world there may be inequality, but in the Lord there is none.
11:12 – For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.
Paul is as symmetrical as he possibly can be here, given the clear asymmetry of the sequence of Creation. Whereas the original woman is ἐκ (“from”) a man, men come διὰ (“through”) a woman. The woman is created directly from Adam (Gen 2:23), whereas men are delivered via a woman (cf. Gen 4:1). This sentence is designed to connect the asymmetrical priority of sequence in verse 8 to the symmetrical equality in verse 11. Verses 11 and 12 combine to say that, whereas there are gender distinctions in the church, there is no gender inequality, because, “πάντα ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ” (“all [these] things are from God”).
This passage is about the worshipping community as a whole. The topic of head coverings is the specific occasion for Paul to more fully explain how it is that some cultural distinctions of gender are preserved and others obliterated in Christ.
Finney’s logic provides a potential key for understanding Paul’s instructions, although he fails to make the final connection: Christ is present at worship. Cultural mores then dictate that men should have bare heads and women should wear liturgical veils, and the Angels are some kind of witness to this.
Paul goes on carefully to appropriate the Creation sequence of male-then-female as a gender distinction, yet affirms the radical gender equality of women and men in the church. The timeless application for either gender would be, “pray in a contemporarily decent way, noting that Jesus Himself is present, and you are watched by the angels”.
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Collins, Raymond F., and Daniel J. Harrington. First Corinthians. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1999.
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Interesting discourse, but it wasn’t clear what the conclusion was. I got the distinct feeling at the end that the questions asked in the title were never answered.
The “why” is due to a cultural imperative of the day, and the “does it apply” is essentially, “no” (except that it applies to men and women equally in that they should pray with modesty and decency).
I wondered if that’s what you were getting at. I think you went for brevity (understandable since you don’t want such an article getting too long) at the cost of clarity.
Yeah. It was actually an exegesis, and I was trying to make it marginally interesting for the non-technical reader by drawing a conclusion 🙂