Are Christians neglecting the command for head-coverings in church? Many are convinced that 1 Corinthians 11 teaches that women must wear garment head-coverings when practicing their faith around men, but the Greek text reveals something different just as James Coffman’s commentary among other Greek linguists. A woman’s long hair “is given to her for a covering” (1 Cor. 11:15), and when her hair is so short, cropped, or shaved, she is dishonoring her head. A garment would be necessary cover short hair. Yet, the garment covering is not specifically mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11.
The Apostle Paul revealed God’s tradition for Christians to show respect according to this custom. Paul had previously addressed eating meat possibly offered to idols and how a Christian may respond within a pagan culture (1 Cor. 10:24-33). Showing respect to others while eating with others and dressing to show submission to authority are Christian commands that conform to customs now as then. The Apostle also taught about such customs, “And if anyone thinks to be a contentious person, we have no such custom nor the churches of God” (1 Cor. 11:16). See, these were the customs of other for which Christians were to show respect and not contention. The respect for showing glory and not dishonor must be considered, so that Christians present themselves as humble and respectable rather than dishonoring authority.
Here is what Coffman had to say about a woman’s hair being her covering:
Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoreth his head.
Having his head covered…
Here is where the misunderstanding of this passage begins. This clause, as rendered in the popular versions, is commentary, not Bible. As Echols noted:
‘“Having his head covered” is a commentary, not a translation. Lenski translated the sense correctly: ‘having something down from his head.’ What the ‘something’ is is neither stated nor implied in 1 Corinthians 11:4.
The logical understanding of this would refer it to ‘long hair,’ being long enough to hang down from the head, as clearly indicated by the apostles’ words a moment later: ‘If a man have long hair, it is a dishonor to him’ (1 Corinthians 11:14).
The ancients accepted Paul’s dictum on this and went so far as to define the length of hair that was considered an infraction of Paul’s words.
‘The hair of the head may not grow so long as to come down and interfere with the eyes … cropping is to be adopted … let not twisted locks hang far down from the head, gliding into womanish ringlets.’
Significantly, the words ‘hang far down’ strongly resemble Paul’s words ‘having something down from his head.’ The above is from Clement of Alexandria and was written in the second century.
The notion that Paul in this place referred to the [Hebrew: tallith] (shawl), or [Greek: yarmelke] (skull cap) worn by Jewish worshipers is refuted by the fact that the Greek New Testament does not indicate in this verse an artificial covering of any kind. This does not mean, however, that Paul would have approved of the use of either in Christian worship. ‘For Paul such a covering probably symbolized that the Jewish male continued in spiritual darkness, from which Christians had been liberated.’ We may therefore interpret this verse as a simple admonition that it was a disgrace for any long-haired Christian male to participate in praying and prophesying; and this interpretation certainly harmonizes with verse 14. History has certainly vindicated this view; because universal human behavior has departed from it only in isolated instances and for relatively very short periods of time” (emp. added).
Does “covering” mean a garment, cloth, or veil? Referring to verse 5, Coffman wrote,
“With her head unveiled…
The word here rendered ‘unveiled’ is [Greek: akatakaluptos]. ‘There is no intrinsic meaning in this word which suggests either the covering material or the object covered; it is simply a general word.‘ (See under 1 Corinthians 11:15.) Only in 1 Cor. 11:15 does Paul mention any kind of garment ([Greek: peribolaion]) and even there he stated that the woman’s hair took the place of it.’ [Katakaluptos] means covered completely. [Akatakaluptos] means not completely covered. Thus again, the passage falls short of mentioning any kind of garment. To suppose that Paul here meant ‘mantle’ or ‘veil’ or any such thing is to import into this text what is not in it. We have seen that he was speaking of ‘hair’ in 1 Cor. 11:4; and that is exactly what he is speaking of here. ‘Not completely covered’ would then refer to the disgraceful conduct of the Corinthian women in cropping their hair, after the manner of the notorious Corinthian prostitutes; which, if they did it, was exactly the same kind of disgrace as if they had shaved their heads. It is crystal clear that Paul is not speaking of any kind of garment; because he said in 1 Cor. 11:15, below, ‘For her hair is given her instead of a covering.’” (emp. added).
David Lipscomb addressed this very subject saying,
“I understand that long hair serves as a veil or token of her subjection to authority; and if she has not long hair, she must cover her head when she approaches God in worship. I understand this to refer to her approach to God in private or in public assembly when others lead in worship. Many interpret this to mean that she is to do these things when she leads in public worship, but the Scripture says nothing of this” (Q & A, emp. added).
Within this previous context of hair being the “covering”, Lipscomb concluded this statement, “We understand verse 16 to say that the churches of God have no such custom as the women appearing in worship with uncovered or shorn heads.” The expectation was for women to have long hair.
Why did Paul say “covered” instead of “hair”? Still, some may ask about verses 5-6, which seem to imply that not having a garment covering is like a woman’s hair being cropped or shaved. Actually, these verses are misinterpreted by readers to imply that a covering must be a garment covering when Paul specifies that long hair is also a covering in verses 14-15. Let us not assume. A literal translation is,
“But every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered [without long hair, v.15] dishonors her head; for it is the same thing as being shaven. For if a woman is not covered, also being cropped: and if it is a shame to a woman to be cropped or shaven, let her be covered” (1 Cor. 11:5-6).
Coffman said in agreement,
“If Paul meant ‘hair,’ why did he use the word ‘covered’? The answer is that in the vocabulary of the Old Testament ‘to uncover the head’ was to shave off the hair. When Nadab and Abihu sinned (Leviticus 10:1ff), God commanded Aaron not to ‘uncover his head’ in mourning at their death; and this meant not to cut off his hair (the customary sign of mourning). Job shaved his head when he learned his children were dead (Job 1:20). Many examples of this usage could be cited” (emp. added).
“[I]f it is a shame to a woman to be cropped or shaven, let her be covered” clearly refers to a covering of hair as seen in 1 Corinthians 11:15, “And if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her long hair is given to her for a covering.” There is an equivalence made here between having short hair to having cropped hair or being shaved. This is all customary for showing glory to the head, and avoid such contentions about women praying and prophesying before other men with short hair.
What about verse 10′s reference to angels saying, “because of the angels“? This is what we can know. Verse 10 is referring to authority, so looking to the context, see what is said about women having authority on her head toward God and man. The woman, who prophesies, receives revelation from God through angels to be able to prophesy (Heb. 2:2, Rev. 1:1) and the woman is having her prayers delivered by angels (Rev. 8:3-4). Therefore, “every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered dishonors her head” (1 Cor. 11:5). The dishonor is to herself being that she is created to be the glory of man in addition to being created in God’s image. Remember 11:3, “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” The woman is subordinating to the man by her covering, and she is neither disregarding the man to communicate with God nor disregarding God’s communication with her through the angels for her to prophesy. Her long hair hanging down is a glory of man. This is how she honors her head.
Again, I must say that if any are contentious about this, then we have no such custom (1 Cor. 10:16).