This article will look at the contentious issue of whether women should wear a covering on their head in church, through a study of the first part of 1 Corinthians chapter 11. It will consider various aspects of first century Greek culture, as well as touching on the controversial issue of the roles of men and women.
Context of the passage
The head-covering passage comes at the start of a major section of 1 Corinthians which continues for four chapters (11-14). Paul addresses three main issues, all connected with order in public worship. In chapter eleven, Paul responds to two issues that have probably been reported to him by the people who brought news of the church to him in Ephesus - Stephanus, Fortunatus and Achaicus (16:17). For the first issue, the wearing of head-coverings, Paul commends the church (11:2-16), but for the second issue, the celebration of the Lord’s supper, Paul has some strong criticism and warnings for the church (11:17-34). Chapters twelve to fourteen contain Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts, given in response to a question asked by the church, shown by the introduction, "now concerning" (12:1). He has brought these three issues together in the letter because they all cover the wider area of order in public worship.
It is this section of the book that probably generates the largest number of disagreements, with different groups and denominations within the church coming to widely differing opinions over these issues. Each of the three issues have caused deep divisions in the church. So we need to look at the text carefully, attempt to determine what situation Paul was addressing in Corinth, and seek to bring out principles we can apply in today’s church.
The first part of chapter eleven is a difficult passage to interpret and apply, being one of the most problematical passages in Paul’s letters. There are questions about the meaning of words in the text, as well as cultural elements which are either unknown or still under debate.
Prayer and head-covering in Greek culture
Many studies have been done on the covering of the head in Roman and Greek culture, with conflicting results. Because of this, different commentaries on this passage come to a variety of different conclusions. Many studies focus on women covering their heads, or not covering their heads, in different social and religious situations, but tend to ignore that this passage also mentions men covering their heads (11:4).
It is surprising that Paul first mentions the veiling of men. High-born Roman men had the habit of raising folds of their toga so it covered their head while praying or sacrificing to a pagan god. This statue of Emperor Augustus in the museum in Corinth shows him offering a sacrifice with his toga covering his head. In Greek and Roman culture the social elite took the lead in pagan worship, so covering the head became a sign of their higher social status. So for a Christian man to cover his head while praying or prophesying in a church meeting would draw attention to his higher social status, and would be dishonouring to his head (Christ).
Greek men tended to make a distinction between wives and mistresses or prostitutes. Wives were for bearing children, and for social respectability, while mistresses and prostitutes were for sexual pleasure. A Greek wife was expected to remain faithful to her husband, even while her husband was continuing to have sexual encounters with prostitutes. This would often be in the context of social banquets, where foreign women or slaves would be provided by the host for the enjoyment of his guests. In later years, many Greek wives rebelled against this social expectation and became promiscuous themselves, becoming known as 'new women', or 'new wives'.
It seems that Greek women were expected to wear a veil, or some sort of covering, on her head when appearing in public, as a sign of their status as a married woman. This normally covered all or part of her hair. If a man appeared in public with an unveiled woman, it would suggest that she was not his wife, but was probably a prostitute. At the banquets, an unveiled woman would be a man’s social and sexual companion for the night. The 'new women' threw off the social conventions and also began to appear in public without a veil.
At home, a Greek wife would not need to wear a veil. This would cause interesting questions if the church met in a person’s home. Should the wife wear a veil, at what is now a public meeting even if it is taking place in a private house? A married woman visiting a friend in her house would not normally wear the veil once inside the house. So would attending a church meeting in a friend’s house be considered the same?
Paul has heard news of the Corinthian church through verbal reports and expresses his praise that they are maintaining the traditions that he passed on to them. Before the writing of the New Testament, the stories of Jesus and the essentials of the Christian Gospel were transmitted orally, and were known as the 'traditions'. What Paul had received from the Lord and the other apostles, he passed on to the churches he founded, as he noted concerning the Lord’s supper (11:23) and the resurrection (15:1-2).
1. The theological basis (11:3)
Before addressing the issue of head-coverings, Paul begins with a theological statement about head-ship. "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." There are at least two difficult questions about how this statement should be translated into English and how it should be understood.
Woman or wife?
It is not clear whether the Greek word should be translated woman or wife. Most English translators use the general term 'woman', while a fewer number use the more specific term 'wife'. The Greek word describes a woman who is older than her mid-teens, but who is not engaged or a widow. Because Paul mentions veils in this passage, the immediate association in first century Corinth would be with married women. We should also remember that remaining single into adulthood at that time was very unusual, so the vast majority of adult women would be married, normally between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. It was the serious responsibility of the father to ensure suitable husbands were found for his daughters. A father would have failed in his responsibility if his daughters remained unmarried into adulthood. Because of this, it is most likely that Paul is writing about married women who were not wearing the veil when praying or prophesying in a public church meeting.
Does 'head' mean authority or source?
The second area of disagreement is what Paul meant by the word 'head' (11:3). The Greek word used here is the normal word for a human head - 'kephale'. In certain places in the passage the word 'head' is referring to the physical head of a person's body, when in the same verse it is apparently being used metaphorically. An example is verse four:
Head meaning authority
The first understanding is that "head" means authority over, or rule over. If the brain controls the human body, then the head is being used as a metaphor for rule or authority. Paul’s statement would then read as follows: "Christ is the head of (has authority over) every man, and the husband is the head of (has authority over) his wife, and God is the head of (has authority over) Christ." This would give a clear hierarchial structure: First God the Father, second Christ, third the husband, fourth the wife, giving a basis for teaching the submission of women to men.
One problem with this understanding is that first century Greeks did not have the same understanding of the human body as we have today. They did not know that the brain controlled the rest of the body, so Paul could not have had this in mind when he wrote this. They normally thought of the abdomen as being the centre of feelings and thought. We should point out that Paul does not use the normal Greek word for ruling, and does not speak at all about the man having authority over his wife. In this passage, the only people stated as having authority are the women (11:10).
Head meaning source
A second possible meaning is that head means the source, like the head of a river being the source of the river, where the water in the river comes from. In this case, 'head' in this verse would become a metaphor for source of life. Then Paul’s statement would read as follows: "Christ is the head (source of life) of every man, and the husband is the head (source of life) of his wife, and God is the head (source of life) of Christ."
It is difficult to see how God the Father can be the source of life of Christ, when the clear teaching of the New Testament is that both God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ are eternal beings. Jesus was not created by the Father. People who prefer this second meaning of head being source have difficulties with the idea of God having authority over Jesus, saying that this would deny his deity. However, a clear distinction should be made between the deity of Jesus and his voluntary submission to the Father. During his ministry, Jesus stated that he only does what he sees the Father doing (Jn 5:19), also Jesus submitted to the will of the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk 22:42) and was obedient even to death on a cross (Phil 2:8).
In today’s society there is great confusion between value and role, and this confusion has come into the church. In God’s sight everyone is of the same value, but we have different roles. Within the Trinity, all three persons are equal, but there is a difference of roles, with a submission of Jesus to the Father, and of the Holy Spirit to both Jesus and the Father. Between male and female, the biblical principle is equality in value, but difference in roles. In the next chapter, the same is true with spiritual gifts. We are all members of the body of Christ, but have different gifts. Some gifts are more prominent, but that does not mean that the person with that gift is any more important before God.
There are a number of places elsewhere in Paul’s letters where he uses this same word for head (kephale), particularly in the context of Christ being the head of the church. In several of these it can be understood in both ways, Christ is the head of the church, meaning that he is the ruler with authority over the church, but then he is also the source of the church. He is the head of the church (Col 1:18). We as the church are called to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (Eph 4:15).
In other places, Christ is described as the head of every ruler and authority (Col 2:10). In the context of the letter to the Colossians, which has such a great emphasis on the supremacy of Christ over all other belief systems and spiritual powers, it would be extremely doubtful that Paul was saying that Christ was the source of life of these rulers and authorities. Rather he was stating that Jesus rules over, and has authority over every evil spiritual power, and has triumphed over them through his death on the cross (2:15). Paul also stated that God put all things under Christ’s feet and made him head over all things for the church (Eph 1:22). This would also refer more to authority and rule over all things, rather than being their source of life. In his letter, Peter quoted Psalm 18 saying that the stone rejected by the builders has become the head of the corner (1 Pet 2:7, quoting Ps 18:22). Again this would be better understood in terms of authority rather than source. Paul makes a similar statement about the husband being the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church in Eph 5:22-23, but the same arguments will arise over this passage.
2. First argument from culture - what is disgraceful (11:4-6)
As noted above, if a man covers his head while praying or prophesying, he is drawing attention to his social status, and worshipping as he would do in a pagan temple. This is dishonouring to his head (Jesus). If a woman does the same without a veil, she is behaving like an immoral 'new woman', and dishonouring her head (her husband). The shaving of the head was the punishment for an adulterous wife. It was a public humiliation, reducing her to the status of a prostitute. Therefore she would wear the marriage veil.
We should note here that the women were praying and prophesying in the church meetings, and that Paul makes no objection to them doing that. He is only giving instructions concerning how they should be dressed.
3. First argument from creation (11:7-9)
Twice Paul uses the word 'ought' (11:7,10). In Roman society the word used here had a much stronger meaning. It was associated with the Roman Laws of Obligations. These were the part of Roman Law that determined a person’s conduct in relation to other people, whether in friendship, between slaves and masters, or within marriage.
He says that men ought not to wear a veil because he is the image and reflection of God (11:7), made in the image of God (Gen 1:26). For them to wear a veil while praying dishonoured Christ as their head (11:4), as well as failing to meet their obligation to him. In contrast, women ought to wear a veil (11:10) as the sign of her marriage. Not to wear a veil dishonoured her husband as her head, and failed to meet her obligations to him. The obligations to their head come from creation. Man was a direct creation of God himself, and the woman was made from man for the sake of man, to be his helper (Gen 2:18).
4. Woman ought to have symbol of authority on her head (11:10)
One of the most mysterious parts of this difficult passage is where Paul says a woman would wear a veil because of the angels. Numerous different suggestions have been given for the meaning of this sentence.
If angels are in attendance during worship services, even though they are invisible, the women should behave in a dignified way before them. Some have even suggested that these are evil angels who will lust after unveiled women (as Gen 6:2), but why their lust would be limited to times of worship is a mystery.
The English word 'angel' comes from the Greek word 'angelos', which can either mean a supernatural being, or a human messenger or representative. If Paul is meaning a human messenger, then the situation may be reconstructed as follows: In contrast to pagan religion in which an individual attended the temple for worship, Christianity held regular meetings for corporate worship and teaching in people’s houses. Any such meeting would be seen as suspicious by the Roman authorities, as a potential threat to the peace and security of the empire. The authorities would send people to the church meetings to see what was happening, to determine whether there were any potential threats or subversive activity. Paul also mentions outsiders and unbelievers later in the book (14:23). In Roman eyes, meetings of the church would have political rather than religious associations. If the authorities thought the church was being subversive, they would close it down by force. Another possible situation was that if there was a member of the upper classes who was interested in Christianity, he would send one of his representatives to the meeting to "spy it out", before attending himself. It may be one of these two scenarios that Paul had in mind in this verse. He would want the Christian congregation to be seen to be behaving in order and the women to be respectable to any outsider, whether a representative of the authorities, or to a potential convert. He did not want the wives to be behaving like the immoral and promiscuous "new women", and give the church a bad name.
5. Second argument from creation (11:11-12)
Paul is not wanting to encourage subordination of the women, or for the men to dominate the women. In the Lord, neither are independent beings, but both come from him, so there is equality before Him. There should be an inter-dependence between the sexes. Again he points back to creation, even though woman originally came from man, now all men are born from a woman, their mother. Again he is showing the principle of equality, but difference, without saying one is more important than the other. Both are needed, both are important, and both are equal before the Lord.
6. Second argument from culture - what nature teaches (11:13-16)
Paul calls the congregation to judge whether 'it is proper' for a woman to pray with her head unveiled. The word he uses concerns social decorum, propriety or etiquette, which was of the highest importance in Roman society. If a Christian woman prayed without a veil, she was effectively identifying herself with the 'new women'. This would present a poor image of Christianity to the outside world, and would contradict the biblical teaching on marriage, where both sides were expected to remain faithful (7:3-5).
'What nature teaches' is a Stoic term, meaning what is right. In first-century Greek society, it was degrading and dishonouring for a man to have long hair. Young boys often wore long hair, but it was shaved off when they reached puberty and began to grow a beard. In popular Roman thought, a man with long hair was considered to be effeminate, and a denial of his masculinity. In statues, passive homosexuals were portrayed with long curly hair, as a contemptuous sign of their weakness. So a man with long hair would be thought of as a passive homosexual, and treated with contempt. For a woman, long hair was her glory. Statues of Roman women normally have long hair, which was elaborately styled and decorated.
Paul ends by referring to anyone who is disposed to be contentious (11:16). This comment would indicate that there were some in the congregation who were being contentious over wearing or not wearing a veil. Paul states that the behaviour he is expecting from the Corinthians is the same as same as in all the other churches. For the men to mimic pagan worship and draw attention to their social status, or for the women to act like immoral women was certainly not part of the apostolic tradition.
Conclusion - how to find practical application from this passage
In the church today there is a tendency to go to one of two opposite extremes with passages such as this one. One extreme is to say that we must take the Bible completely literally, and obey exactly what it says. This approach tends towards legalism, and does not take adequate notice of the cultural issue that Paul was addressing. Such a view would teach a rigid hierarchy of man and woman, and insist that women wear some sort of physical head-covering in church. The other extreme is to say that the whole issue is cultural, and limited to the situation in first-century Corinth, and therefore it has nothing to say to us today. This approach tends towards more liberal standards of dress and behaviour, but effectively ignores the passage altogether.
I am convinced that in any passage of Scripture there are principles to be drawn which are timeless and not bound by culture. Although actually referring to the Old Testament, Paul stated that "all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16), so even difficult and seemingly irrelevant passages such as this one still remain useful to us. We need to look at the setting of the passage in the first century and seek to determine how Paul intended the Corinthians to obey it, within their own culture. Then we need to find principles from the passage and apply them today, but avoiding the extremes of literal legalism. There are timeless principles to be found in any passage of Scripture, however obscure, or however difficult for us to understand today.
One important principle from this passage is very controversial today, which is that there should be a distinction between men and women. God made men to be men, and women to be women, equal but different. This is at completely at odds with the prevailing view of the world today that there are no real differences between men and women. The church should also resist the tendency towards unisex, the blurring of both the physical appearances and the distinct roles of men and women. The dress and appearance of men should be distinctively different from women, so there is no confusion between the sexes. However, details of dress or hairstyle will vary considerably in different cultures. We also need to affirm the different roles, and honour the woman’s unique role in child-bearing and being a mother.
There is also the principle that we should avoid dressing in ways that would identify the church in any way with pagan religion, or with immorality.
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Gundry-Volf, J, 1 Corinthians. Word Biblical Commentary. Nelson, Waco.
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Winter, B.W. After Paul Left Corinth. The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids / Cambridge 2001.