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No. 54: The Woman’s Head Covering in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 54
October, 1993
Copyright 1993, Biblical Horizons

I have received a number of letters asking for my comments on this difficult passage. Here is my best shot!

This statement opens a new section in 1 Corinthians that extends through chapter 14. This section deals with disorders in worship connected with prayer and the Lord’s Supper, and especially with miraculous Spirit-given gifts.

Paul mentions the traditions of the Church here, by which he means God-given structures of order that should be observed everywhere. He mentions them again at the end of this discussion (v. 16), and also in 11:23, 14:33 (cp. 14:40). What Paul does in 11:3-15 is to give an explanation of the requirements regarding headgear, but he ends in verse 16 by saying that if anyone is contentious and does not want to accept his explanations, the fact is that what he is requiring is the universal custom of the Church and is to be obeyed whether you like it or not!

The word "man" here is not generic but refers to males. The head of every man in the Church is Christ. Similarly, the head of every woman is some man. Often this will be a husband, but it may be a father or brother. In the case of widows it might be the elders of the Church.

Does this make women inferior to men? No, because Paul adds that the head of Christ is God. Christ is in fact also God. Christ is not inferior to God, but the Son rejoices in His role as the glory of the Father under the Father’s headship. In the same way, women are not inferior to men, but they will find their greatest happiness in being the glory of their men.

This passage has to do with "praying or prophesying" (vv. 4-5). In 1 Corinthians 11-14, prophesying refers to the special gift of prophecy, which has ceased with the completion of the canon of Scripture. Similarly, the only other reference to prayer in this book is to praying in tongues in 1 Corinthians 14. Thus Godet and some other commentators have suggested that both praying and prophesying here refer to the temporary gifts of the first phase of the New Covenant era, which ceased in ad 70.

We notice that these verses do not say anything about the rest of the worship service. There is no requirement about headgear for the Lord’s Supper or for the teaching part of the service. Thus, these verses do not teach that "women should wear hats in church." The most they could teach is that women should cover their heads during prayer (assuming what is in view is plain prayer, and not praying in tongues).

There is a play on the word "head" in these verses. Verse 3 establishes that the "head" over someone is the authority over that person. Here in verse 4, the meaning is that if a man covers his head during prayer, he shames his Head, that is, Christ. Why this is so, we shall discuss below.

If a woman prays or prophesies with her head uncovered, she shames her head, which is her man (husband, father, brother, elders).

Nobody knows for certain what covering the woman’s head means. Scholars are divided between two alternatives: Either the woman’s head is covered by having her hair bound up on her head and not left loose (compare Numbers 5:18), or her head is covered with some kind of shawl or veil. (Wearing a hat to church does not fulfill the particulars of this passage.) Since we don’t know what is actually being commanded here, we cannot obey it.

I draw from this that if God were concerned that the Church of all times observe the letter of this paragraph, He would have provided the Church with enough information to know what was being commanded. He did not do so, and so we are not supposed to worry about the particulars. (Similarly, nobody knows what it means not to round the corners of your head in Leviticus 19:27, so it is impossible to obey the letter of this command, which was only for Israel anyway.)

Paul’s argument seems to be this: How would you ladies like to have your hair cut off? If that would embarrass you, then consider that when you pray in tongues uncovered, you embarrass your man. Or to put it another way, if a woman will not honor her man by covering herself while prophesying, then she should be dishonored by having her hair cut off. Moreover, whether these women realized it or not, by shaming their men they were shaming themselves before God, and so they might as well have their hair cut off.

Commentators routinely discuss customs in Corinth at this point, but I don’t think that is what is in view. The Spirit-given gifts in operation in the Corinthian church were part of the activity by which God was knitting Jew and Gentile into one new man in Christ during the interim period of ad 30-70. The symbolism Paul is requiring of men and women in this passage is tied to the special gifts of prayer and prophecy, not to the life of the Church in general. Tongues were a sign to Israel, according to chapter 14, and both tongues and prophecy were part of the Church-forming and Bible-writing activity of the interim period. Thus, the more probable background for the symbolism is the Sinaitic law. (Moreover, as a general rule I think we should interpret New Testament statements in the light of the Old Testament as much as possible, instead of immediately running out to real or supposed customs in the Greco-Roman world.)

Paul says in verse 15 that the woman’s hair is her glory. Glory shines forth, and hair grows forth from our body. Thus, when David’s men had their beards pulled out, their glory was gone and they were shamed (2 Sam. 10:4-5). The warbride has her head shaved and her nails cut, indicating the removal of the old glory of her old life, and then she grows new hair and nails in the new household (Dt. 21:12).

So, Paul’s point is that if a woman removes glory from her man, then her glory should also be removed: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, glory for glory.

Glory is something that shines forth. This will be clearer when we consider verses 8-9:

Now we have some relationships: Man comes from God, and thus is the shining forth or glory of God. This is in fact equally true of men and women. Woman comes from man’s side, and thus is the shining forth or glory of man. For this reason, a man’s glory is not his hair but his woman. For a man to glory in his hair is unnatural, for it involves a rejection of woman. It is essentially homosexual. We shall return to this below. Similarly, a woman’s glory, what shines forth from her, is her hair.

Verse 9 also explains how the woman is the glory of the man. The man was made first, but needed a completion. The woman completes the man. He is primordial and unglorious; she is eschatological and glorious.

The authority on the woman’s head is signified by her headgear, and represents her man. We are now in a position to understand these relationships.

The covering in the Law is the firmament between God and man, signified by the veils of the tabernacle/temple and by the cover ("mercy seat") on the ark, between the ark (man) and the shekinah (God). The solidity of this covering between God and man was necessary because of the sinfulness of man.

This covering was the Law itself, introduced to protect the people until the time of full redemption came. The Law reveals the relationship between God and man, and during the pre-Christian eras has the effect of being a boundary between God and man for our protection. The Law was an authority on man’s head.

Because there was an authority between God and man, men were to wear coverings on their heads when they came near to God. I suggest that the headgear of the priest protected (covered) his head from the head-crushing wrath of God (Gen. 3:15): The priest bore the sins of the people (Ex. 28:38) and apparently the headgear was related to protecting him while he did this. When King Uzziah invaded the sanctuary in his sins, without the headgear, God struck him with leprosy on his head (2 Chron. 26:16ff.). To continue to wear headgear in the New Covenant is to deny that God’s wrath has been satisfied in the work of Jesus Christ. God no longer threatens to crush our heads if we are in Christ. If we want the no-longer-threatening fire of the Spirit to come on our heads (Acts 2), we must uncover them.

To put it another way, the veil in the tabernacle has been rent and the temple has been opened (Rev. 11:19). It is not appropriate for a man to wear a covering on his head now because there is no longer any barrier between God and man. There is no authority between God and man. The Law has been removed as a "middle wall of partition" between God and man. Thus, the headgear on the man disappears and men are face to face with God.

If a man continues to wear a covering on his head, he shames his Head, Christ, by denying symbolically that Christ has removed the barrier between God and man.

Now this is just as much true of women as of men, at one level, but there is an additional dimension to the life of woman. She does have an authority between her and God in some aspects of her life, for she is under the authority of her man. Compare the laws of vows in Numbers 30. Thus women were to wear coverings, representing the authority of their men, while praying in tongues and prophesying. If a woman refused to cover her head, she was shaming her head, her man, by openly and outwardly rejecting his authority.

Verse 10 says that women are to have authority on their heads "because of the aggeloi." All translations I know of render this word "angels." Thus, virtually all modern expositors (indeed, all that I know of) assume that somehow the covering on the head of the woman is something observed by spirit angels. This interpretation, however, is probably incorrect, for it has nothing to do with the passage’s universe of discourse.

Older expositors note that "angel" simply means "messenger," and is used for human beings quite often. For instance, the pastors of the churches in Revelation 2 & 3 are called "angels" or "messengers." Thus, older expositors suggest that the covering on the woman’s head served to affirm the order in the Church, with the pastors as heads of the congregation.

There is another possibility. Verse 9 says that "man was not created because of the woman, but woman because of the man." Then verse 10 says, "therefore, the woman ought to have authority on her head because of the messengers." If these two verses are strictly parallel, then the messengers might be the husbands. As Paul writes later on in 14:34-35, when it comes to teaching the women are to be silent in the congregation, and to learn from their husbands. Thus, the husbands are messengers of the covenant in the sense that they provide instruction and direction to their wives.

At the same time, to fulfill such a parallel construction we would expect verse 10 to read "because of the messenger (s.)" rather than "because of the messengers (pl.)," if the husband-interpretation is correct. All in all, then, I tend to favor the pastor-interpretation. The symbolism to be observed with respect to head coverings, says Paul, affirms the order in the Church, with Christ as head over all, pastors as heads of congregations, and husbands as heads of wives.

This theme of order will be explored a bit more fully below.

These verses affirm the essential equality and reciprocity of man and woman. Verse 11 says that they cannot really be separated. A man has no glory before God apart from woman (and if a man is unmarried, then his "woman" will be the Church); and a woman has no protective covering before God apart from her man’s authority (whether father, brother, husband, or elders).

Verse 12 says that the woman glorifies the man because she comes out from him, and he takes pride in her. But at another level, women give birth to sons, and those sons become the glory (or shame) of their mothers. All things come from God, and thus all things are a rainbow of glory around Him.

Now Paul invites them to wrestle with the question. If a woman rejects the authority God has set up for her protection, it is proper for her to pray to God? That is what the meaning would be for us today, and essentially that is the question Paul is asking them. If a woman will not wear the covering that represents her man’s authority over her when she comes to pray, then she is coming before God in a state of rebellion and autonomy. She is openly rejecting God’s principles, and then is so brazen as to want to pray in tongues and to prophesy in the congregation. Such a thing is not fitting.

I mentioned above that for a man to have long hair as his glory is, at a deep level, to reject having a woman as his glory. It is essentially a homosexual form of self-glorification. It is easy, because it does not involve the risk and pain of becoming involved with so alien a thing as a member of the opposite sex. Paul uses the same word "nature" in Romans 1:26, where he describes homosexual activity as "against nature."

We may say that for a woman to reject the covering of a man is the same kind of homosexual tendency. It is easy in a sense, because again it removes the pain and risk of involvement with the opposite sex.

The man’s sin is self-glorification; the woman’s sin is self-covering.

"Long hair" here and in verse 14 may mean "curly hair." It means hair that is glorious, not short.

Some have noted that since verse 15 says that the woman’s hair is given to her for a covering, long hair is all that is meant by a "covering" in this passage. This won’t work. Verse 4 says that if a man prays or prophesies with something on his head, he disgraces his head. Clearly this means some kind of covering on the man’s hair. Again, verse 5 says that if a woman prays or prophesies with her head uncovered, it is the same as if she were shaved; and this clearly distinguishes the hair from the head-covering. Verse 6 follows up the thought to the same effect.

Thus, the thought of verses 14-15 is that "nature" teaches short hair for men and long, glorious hair for women. In the interim Church, however, there was an additional symbolic requirement: uncovered heads for men and covered heads for women when praying and prophesying.

Thus, we have a creation ordinance and also a redemptive-historical symbolic ordinance in view here. As verses 8-9 say, the woman originated from the man, and because of the man, and this creation-relationship is signified by the woman’s long hair and the man’s short hair (vv. 14-15). At the same time, as a redemption-ordinance the woman is to signify her submission to Christ through her man by having her head covered (vv. 5-6 & 10), and the man signifies his submission to Christ through the pastors by having his head uncovered (vv. 4 & 10-12).

This might be read as Paul’s saying, "Well, if you don’t like what I said, don’t worry about it, because we have no such custom." Such a reading would contradict verse 2. Paul is rather saying that if you don’t like it, that’s tough! because all the churches agree that this is right.


1. These verses do not command women to wear hats or head coverings in church. The rule applied only to praying and prophesying, not to hearing sermons, singing, eating the Supper, etc.

2. Since we don’t know what kinds of head coverings are in view, we cannot make a rule for church life today from these verses. God has not seen fit to preserve a description of this headgear, and so has not bound us to observe the letter of this passage.

3. Prophecy has ceased, and it is very likely that the praying spoken of here was praying in tongues, which has also ceased. Thus, these rules in their strict sense applied only to the interim Church.

4. Prophecy was a Spirit-given gift. Paul is very concerned here and throughout this passage, especially in chapter 14, to affirm the orderliness of Christian worship. Why? The answer is that the Spirit works very indirectly and mysteriously, and thus is easy to counterfeit. How do we know when we are being led by the Spirit and when we are not? Paul’s answer is simple: The true Spirit leads to order, and the counterfeit spirits lead to disorder.

During this interim period, the Bible had not been completed and it was not clear what the new order in the Church was to be like. The Spirit was bringing that new order into being. It was a "chaotic" time, what ritual scholars call a "liminal" time, a time between two orders. The new position of women in the Church was being used by the counterfeit spirits to say that women no longer needed the covering of a man and that men could function independently of women. The true Spirit through Paul states that this is not the case, and enjoins upon the Church an outward sign of the continuing reciprocal relationship of men and women.

These requirements were in force only at those times when the Spirit was especially active in the congregation, during prophecy and tongues, because it was then that the distinction between the true and the false spirits needed to be affirmed clearly.

5. What does this mean today? It means that the distinction between men and women does not disappear during worship. Women worship as women and men worship as men. Men worship without any self-glory, and women worship as under authority. In a sense, men cannot worship apart from women, because God requires a glorious host to worship Him, and men need women for glory. Women cannot worship apart from men, because women need men for a covering. We don’t need an outward symbol of this during the prayers of the congregation, but we need to understand it.

6. As regards common life, women are to have relatively longer and more glorious hair than men. Men are not to have long hair or to glorify their hair. This is a creation ordinance.

7. Theologically, we are all part of Christ’s bride. We must not make our own coverings, or go before God uncovered, but we must have Christ as our headgear, our covering. At the same time, we are all sons of God. Thus, none of us should go before God in our own glory, but rather cut our hair and come in the glory that God gives to us.