Understanding the “Head-Coverings” in 1 Corinthians 11

Are Christian women 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. Yet, the text says that the covering is hair in verse 15, and the covering is not indicated to be a garment. The Greek text also confirms the covering to be hair as noted by James Coffman among other Greek linguists. A woman’s long hair “is given to her for a covering” (1 Cor. 11:15), and by not letting her hair down, this was the same as having her hair cropped or shaved. By not letting her hair be long, she was arranging her hair and claiming authority by social custom, and thus she dishonored the headship of God, Christ, and man. With hair being the glory of women, the Christian woman should let her hair hang down in subordinating to God’s headship and thereby glorified God, Christ, and man. The scriptures below will make these affirmations clear.

Remember that Christian women were instructed  in 1 Timothy 2:9-15 to be modest not adorning their hair with braided hair and with gold and pearls. The passage is clear that this behavior was immodest and insubordinate. By not letting the hair hang down, women would dishonor God’s headship. By braiding the hair up, women were or appeared to be in rebellion to subordinating to the birthright of men to lead and teach. Also, 1 Peter 3:1-6 applied this to a wife’s subordination to her husband where she was not to be insubordinate by arranging her hair and be adorned in gold. See, this was their custom and culture that powerful women of authority would dress as though higher than others even in pagan worship. Remember that women in this time led worship to Diana and Dionysus. The Diana temple contained vault safes (Morton, “Deceiving Winds”). Apparently, some Christian women still arranged and adorned their hair upon their heads rather than letting their long hair hang down showing the glory of God, Christ, and man (1 Cor. 11:15). The Spirit of Christ taught through the Apostles that a woman’s hair was to hang down in such a way that is modest and glorified herself, her husband, Christ, and God.

In 1 Corinthians 11, the Apostle Paul revealed God’s tradition for Christians to show cultural respect contrary to this ancient custom that was a rebellious and factious in promoting an authority over God’s headship. Likewise, Paul had previously addressed eating meat that may have been offered to idols and how a Christian may respond within a pagan culture (1 Cor. 10:24-33). The Apostle also taught that such social customs were not matters of contention (1 Cor. 11:16). Christians are to present themselves as humble and respectable to God by glorifying God first contrary to local practices of presenting social authorities. Today, long hair is still a woman’s glory from God despite that short hair shows no loyalty or claim to pagan or modern social authorities. A woman’s arrangement of hair today can still boast of wealth and power. Such must be avoided.

Consider what James Coffman had to say about a woman’s hair being her covering:

Verse 4
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).

Referring to coverings in 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 hanging hair in that society to show honor to the headship from Christ to God, man to Christ, and woman to man.

Still, some may ask about verses 5-6, which seem to imply that not having a garment for a covering is like a woman’s hair being cropped or shaved. Actually, these verses can be misinterpreted by readers to imply that a covering must be a garment when Paul specified that hanging hair is also a covering in verses 14-15. Let us not assume. A literal translation is,

But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered [Gr. without hanging hair] dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered [without hanging hair], let her also be cropped. But if it is shameful for a woman to be cropped or shaved, let her be covered [with hanging hair]” (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.

What about verse 10’s reference to angels saying, “because of the angels“? This is what can be known. 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 has her prayers delivered by angels (Rev. 8:3-4). This instruction has to do with the woman’s service in prayer and teaching before God. She is to apparently be serving with respect and modesty. Therefore, “every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered dishonors her head” (1 Cor. 11:5). By not observing customs of respect, the Christian woman dishonors herself being that she is created to be the glory of man in addition to being created in God’s image. Remember verse 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 modesty and covering. Her hair hanging down is her glory for she is the glory of man. This is how the Christian woman honors the headship of God, Christ, and man.

Again, I must say that if any are contentious about this, then we have no such custom (1 Cor. 10:16).

About Scott Shifferd Jr.

Minister, Dean Road church of Christ in Jacksonville, FL. Husband and father of four. Email: ScottJon82[at]yahoo.com
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556 Responses to Understanding the “Head-Coverings” in 1 Corinthians 11

  1. To discuss Christ and Deity go here or I can make another post for discussion. Thank you.

    http://godsbreath.net/2009/07/09/jesus-is-god/

  2. Michael R. Baggett says:

    Using 1st Corinthians 11:16 to teach that we shouldn’t argue about customs presents several problems for your position. First of all, if the custom you are referring to is the head covering as in veil; then, you have just admitted it was more than the hair. Second of all, Paul taught the same things everywhere in every church; if Paul is telling them to keep their own custom but we (apostles) and other churches don’t have such a custom; then Paul contradicts his won teaching found consistently throughout the letter to the Corinthians (See 1st Cor. 4:16,17; 17:17; 14:33; 16:1,2). Third of all, if Paul is authorizing an “existing custom” for Corinth, as some teach; then, you have just found an example of denominationalism (1st Cor. 4:16,17). The truth is Paul is saying that he doesn’t have a custom or practice such as that of a woman praying with her head uncovered (1st Cor. 11:13): a practice the contentious man would set forth. Paul has already taught earlier in the text in no uncertain term that a woman should have her head covered when she prays or prophesies (1st Cor. 11:5). She is to do this in direct relation to what is said about man being her head in verse 3 (Cf. 1st Tim. 2:11,12–over the man). She is to do this because of the order in creation (v. 7), and because of the angels (v. 10). Neither reason has anything to do with man’s custom. The commentaries and brethren you reference are clearly wrong. May God bless our own continued personal studies of these matters. I believed basically what you said in your article for about 30 years, but not any longer. Why? Because I seriously studied it and stopped repeating what I had always heard. The treatment of the doctrine of the head covering is the single most abused doctrines in the churches of Christ, for it is basically denied and ignored; yet, we beg others to speak where the Bible speaks and to be silent where it is silent. May we be consistent in our practice.

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