Are Christian women neglecting the command for head-coverings in church? Many believe that 1 Corinthians 11 teaches that women must wear cloth coverings hanging down from their heads when practicing their faith around men. The interpretations of this passage vary among believers concerning whether the covering is spiritual, garment, or hair.
Some consider this section of Scripture as completely cultural and identify all parts as the custom of contention (1 Cor 11:16). However, Christians cannot avoid that the apostle Paul commanded that Christians must maintain traditions just as delivered to them (1 Cor 11:2). Does the apostle Paul mean that head-coverings are a part of maintaining traditions from God? Are head-coverings a custom according to 1 Corinthians 11:16?
Covering and Glory
Hair is the only covering that Paul specifically mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11. The text reveals, “But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering” (1 Cor 11:15). Verses 6 and 7 use the Greek word katakalupto, which literally means “to cover downward” (Gingrich and Danker’s lexicon, BDAG). By a woman’s head being uncovered, this was the same personal shame as having her hair sheared or shaved (1 Cor 11:4–6). Starting from verse 4, this passage is about what will personally shame the woman’s head. Verse 5 indicates that a personal shame for a woman to shear or shave her head. As other scriptures explain, the woman who elaborately arranged her hair uncovered her head and disregarded her God-given glory and God’s headship. With long hair being a glory to the woman, the Scriptures teach that the Christian woman should cover her head by letting her hair down in subordination to God’s order of headship and thereby glorify God, Christ, and man (1 Cor 11:3–6). Furthermore, “woman is the glory of man” because man is the “glory of God” (1 Cor 11:7). God made each gender in His image and yet He has given each a different glory.
Humility, Modesty, and Hair
The woman who washed Jesus’s feet demonstrated how a woman letting her hair down was an act of humility (Luke 7:36–50; cf. Matt 28:9). Lazarus’s sister, Mary, demonstrated humility by wiping Jesus’s feet with hair and anointing Him with oil in preparation for His burial (John 12:1–8). In the Journal of Biblical Literature, Charles Cosgrove cited numerous ancient sources depicting how women let their hair down as an act of humility within the Greco-Roman and Jewish societies.
First Peter 3 and 1 Timothy 2 present how the Apostles instructed modesty and humility among women in 1 Corinthians 11. In 1 Peter 3:1–6, Peter also applied caution to the external decorating of hair and clothing where a woman’s adornment must exist within her heart. First Peter 3:3–4 explains, “Your adornment must not be merely external —braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God” (NASB). The braiding of hair appears to put up the hair against the head rather than hanging down from the head.
In Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Ferguson noted,
Portrait sculpture of the Flavian period gives specificity to the type of hairstyles and jewelry forbidden in 1 Timothy 2:9 and 1 Peter 3:3. The braiding of the hair was very elaborate and ostentatious, quite unlike the simple braid of modern times. The items mentioned in the biblical texts were characteristic of the wealthy upper classes and those who imitated them.
God also instructed the Christian women in 1 Timothy 2:9–10, “Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided [woven] hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.” The apostle Paul described elaborately adorned hair as immodest, insubordinate, and not proper for a woman’s claim to godliness. The immodest women in the church at Corinth had either a cropped hairstyle that resembled men or were elaborately adorning their hair woven with gold and pearls demonstrating immodesty, wealth, and authority.
While garment coverings may be an alternative, hair was the covering in 1 Corinthians. In Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Everett Ferguson reported,
In which cultures in the first centuries women wore veils in public, in what numbers, and with what significance are not perfectly clear now. Jewish sources rather uniformly call for women to be veiled in public, but Greek and Roman sources are mixed in their evidence. In classical Greece the veil was worn outside the house by women who had reached sexual maturity — married and young women of marriageable age, and Jewish sources may be read the same way. In depictions in a Greek wedding, the bride lifts her veil to her husband. A Roman woman on her wedding day was a given a red veil. Statuary makes clear that the Greco-Roman veil was the top of the garment pulled over the head; one should not think of the modern Arabic and Islamic veil that covers most of the face as well as the head. In Roman religion the men as well as women were veiled when offering a sacrifice. The Jewish custom for men to cover their heads when praying and studying the law is later than New Testament times.
Headship and Head-Covering
By not letting their hair hang down, women dishonored God’s headship by dishonoring the man who is head of woman. This headship is not dominance of one over another, but like God’s headship is to Christ or Christ’s headship to man. Headship implied servant leadership (Mark 10:42–45). By elaborately braiding and adorning hair with gold and pearls, women behaved or appeared as wealthy and immodest, and thus some women exercised authority over men. Thereby, they appear to reject the man’s God-given instruction to lead and teach because God created man first for this purpose (1 Tim 2:13–14; cf. 1 Cor 11:3, 7–9).
While culture is not an interpreter of Scripture, the pagan custom was for powerful women of authority to braid their hair with gold and pearls and dress as though higher than others. Pagan women in this time led worship to Diana and Dionysus, and thus women exercised power and influence through the cults. Among the churches, some women arranged and adorned their hair with gold and pearls, and they did not let their long hair hang down to show the God-given glory of woman and the glory of man in woman (1 Cor 11:7, 15). The apostles taught that a woman’s hair was to demonstrate modesty and humility to glorify her, man, and God’s headship. However, the shame of a woman cutting her hair short was her personal shame. The Greek word kataischuno appears in verses 4 and 5, and this word specifically refers to a personal shame or humiliation among people. This word also appears in 1 Corinthians 11:22 where those who partook of the Lord’s Supper without waiting for other Christians were trying to humiliate and shame them (cf. 1 Cor 1:27).
Custom and Contention
If someone is contentious concerning the custom of women praying to God with heads uncovered, the apostle Paul affirmed that the churches of God have no such custom (1 Cor 11:13–16). Christians must avoid contention over customs. The context of 1 Corinthians 11 is not offending another conscience with one’s liberty (1 cor 10:23–33). For many, there remains confusion. Was Paul saying that the churches have no such custom of the head-covering or no such custom of women praying while uncovered? One is permissive and the other excludes women praying with their heads uncovered by modesty. Not matter the position, the message is a matter of modesty between men and woman under the headship of God and Christ. Christian women must also display godly principles of modesty and humility even in dress.
Furthermore, the use of the word “proper” indicates the custom for which Paul is referring, which is whatever is modest and respects authority. In 1 Corinthians 11:13, Paul expressed, “for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?” (NSAB). In 1 Timothy 2:10, Paul revealed what is proper that Christian women are to adorn themselves with good works “as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.” The translators interpret “proper” from the Greek word prepo meaning “becoming,” “appropriate,” or “fitting” (cf. Matt 3:15; Eph 5:3; Titus 2:1; Heb 2:10; 7:26). Therefore, these Christian women were to pray with their heads covered as is proper or fitting for demonstrating the headship that God established. In this setting, these Christian women were to allow their hair to hang down in humility because long hair is a God-given covering and glory. Otherwise, the cover may include coverings any cropped hair or elaborately braided hairstyle.
These Scriptures guide Christians to present God’s headship as God is head of Christ, Christ is head of man, and man is head of woman. Christians should remain considerate of demonstrating humility and modesty.
Furthermore, consider the insight of James B. Coffman who comments upon a woman’s hair as 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)
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)
However, some may ask about verses 5–6. These verses seem to imply that not covering with a garment is like a woman’s hair being sheared or shaved. Paul is simply affirming that short hair and hair drawn up on the head is the same as a cropped or shaved head. A literal translation is:
Every woman praying or prophesying with head uncovered disgraces her head; for this is also one and the same as being shaved. For if the woman is not covered, she must also become sheared; and if this is a disgrace to the woman to become sheared or shaved, she must remain covered. (1 Cor 11:5–6)
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)
“If it is a shame to a woman to be cropped or shaven, let her be covered” in verse 6 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.“
Because of the Angels
What about verse 10’s reference to angels: “because of the angels”? Verse 10 is referring to authority. This scripture shows how women should have authority on her head. The woman who prophesies also receives revelation from God through angels to prophesy and angels also deliver prayers (Heb 2:2; Rev 1:1; 8:3–4). This instruction has to do with the woman’s service in prayer and teaching before God. She is to serve with apparent respect and modesty. Therefore, “every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered dishonors her head” (1 Cor 11:5).
By not covering her head, the Christian woman dishonors herself being that God created her as the glory of man and in the image of God. 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.
- Charles Cosgrove, “A Woman’s Unbound Hair,” JBL 124 (2005): 675–92.
- Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) 97.
- Bruce Morton, Deceiving Winds, (Nashville: 21st Century Christian, 2009).
- Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 97.
- James Burton Coffman, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11.” Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament, <www.studylight.org/commentaries/bcc/1-corinthians-11.html> (Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, TX) 1983-1999.