1 Corinthians 11:2-16: The Heads Up on Head Coverings

5:00 AM

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God. -- 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Peter noted that some of the things Paul wrote "are hard to understand."

Understatement of the millennium.

I studied this passage a while ago and made no headway with it. My hair has always been long (by preference, not conviction), and I've never desired a pixie cut, so I didn't feel pressed to study this passage. I avoided discussions on this topic, as some contenders seemed intent on incendiary quibbling (e.g. ditching the head covering causes divorce rates to climb). But then I got curious and started looking into the passage more.

My first impression: This passage is packed with symbolism. The husband-as-the-head metaphor pops up here again; head coverings are a symbol of authority; hair stands in for the same. It's also clear that Paul is making use of standard cultural understandings both in the culture at large and the early church itself. I don't mean to say that this passage merely ebbs and flows with the culture but that Paul references cultural practices without explicitly stating what they are. I am not certain that Paul meant to back up those cultural practices with 100% apostolic authority, because some of what he says differs from other Scripture. He says that "nature itself teach[es] you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him ... ."

It may very well be that in that culture (and even in ours, for the most part), men wore short hair and women wore long. Nature means "the recognized constitution of things" (Vincent's Word Studies). Universally men wore short(er) hair than women, perhaps for no other reason than that, well, everyone did. It's what was natural. Paul does not point to a specific command; indeed, Nazirites (both men and women) were commanded not to cut their hair while under their vows (Numbers 6:5). In that case, long hair was a symbol of dedication to God: "his separation to God is on his head" (6:7). This of course reiterates that long hair is, in a way, symbolizing submission to authority, but this practice seems to contradict the inherent shamefulness and impropriety of men wearing long hair.

Because of this, I think Paul isn't primarily concerned with head coverings and hair length. Here's his train of thought:

The Corinthian church had major problems, especially with corporate worship. Believers ignored the big issues of love, holiness and order and quibbled over the small things. They flaunted their Christian liberty to the detriment of weaker Christians. The women disrespected established authority. Their worship was chaos. Their theology was jumbled. Top that off with an arrogant attitude, and ladies and gentlemen, you've got the Corinthian church.

Paul just finished straightening them out regarding food sacrificed to idols, establishing that while food itself is not holy or unholy, eating without regard to conscience is definitely prohibited. All things were to be done to the glory of God and for the edification of the Jews, the Greeks and churches everywhere. He aimed for their arrogance and nailed it.

In that context of glorifying God and maintaining peace with the world and church at large, he turns to another issue: headship. Perhaps there were issues with women stripping off their head coverings -- I don't know. The text implies that some women's refusal to wear a cultural symbol of authority belied a deeper problem: the Corinthian women had issues with headship. I want to think that for the most part, the Corinthian church kept up the outward appearance of headship: the men didn't pray or prophesy with their heads covered thanks to nature. There was some semblance of understanding this tradition of male headship in the church -- after all, they just earned commendation for maintaining the traditions Paul passed onto them.

He starts out his reordering of their chaotic worship with something they've kind of got right: "But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God."

Don't miss that. That's the clearest command, developed more in this passage with and without reference to visible symbols as well as reiterated in Scripture. With that in mind, Paul begins using symbolism and slight wordplay to bring home this primary point. He argues from the cultural understandings they already have: if it seems dishonorable to them for men to cover their heads during prayer or wear long hair, then it follows that women ought to cover their heads and wear long hair. They recognize the impropriety of shorn women and long-haired men; hair length is something they easily identify in their culture as referring to distinctly male and distinctly female.

The interchangeability (and let's face it -- downright confusion) of Paul's references to long hair and visible head coverings leads me to believe that he's using them as examples of a deeper, transcendent spiritual truth: the husband is the head of the wife, and she ought to recognize that authority while praying or prophesying in church. To do otherwise would be to bring dishonor on her head -- her own and her husband's, who is her head. Woman is the glory of man, for she came from him (though he's quick to clarify that man is not independent of woman).

That's a truth the arrogant Corinthian woman may have swallowed with difficulty. Paul tries to lessen the "shock" and "novelty" of this basic truth by pointing again to another visible symbol: this time hair. "Does not nature itself teach you...? ... For her hair is given to her for a covering."

To recap really fast: Paul's goal is wanting them to "understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God" -- reestablishing an order in worship the Corinthian church ignored. He first uses the symbol of the head covering, vested with cultural implications of authority, to demonstrate the shamefulness of a woman stepping outside her husband's headship. Then he shifts from pure culture to nature itself as another example of the same truth: long hair was given to woman as a covering even at the very beginning of creation to symbolize headship.

Frankly -- and this may raise eyebrows -- I'm not sure the head coverings were the issue. Perhaps the Corinthian women and men got the physical symbol right, the "tradition" of head covering established by the churches and culture. That highlighted their ignorance of headship, their failure to follow the spirit of the matter instead of mere outward conformity. Again and again Paul asks them to consider for themselves whether it is proper for a man to have long hair or a woman short hair or for a man to cover his head and a woman to cover hers. He knows they know the answer. He knows they get that right. It's in their culture, it's in their tradition. He uses that basic understanding to strengthen his argument on something they don't understand.

The head covering argument is generally framed under the assumption that head coverings are the issue and that women were stripping them off en masse. It could be implied, but Paul doesn't state that as the problem, and he uses head coverings and hair in his argument for headship, not vice versa. In my opinion, we've been getting the argument wrong. If Paul truly wanted Christian women to cover their heads, if that was the plague of the church right up there with abusing the Lord's supper and spiritual gifts, why was he not clearer? Why did he not specify what constituted a head covering or elaborate on how exactly they were to obey this head covering command?

It is not like Paul to place so much weight on mere symbols. He recognized cultural implication (food sacrificed to idols, for instance) and urged believers to use caution and love in determining whether or not to "go with the flow," so to speak. There is nothing wrong in wearing a cultural symbol of submission (wedding ring, head covering, etc.), but it contradicts New Testament grace to place more emphasis on the letter than the spirit of the law in such a minor matter. That solidifies my belief that Paul was not addressing a head uncovering epidemic but a heart issue in the Corinthian women.

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10 impressions

  1. Thank you so much, Bailey. This is a post I'll have to go back and read more thoroughly later to solidify my thoughts with regard to it, but it's wonderful.

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  2. Excellent, thoughtful analysis. I enjoyed reading it.

    Adele

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  3. Can I just say that I have been avoiding writing this same thing for quite some time? Thanks for writing it for me.

    I agree. With every.single.point.

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  4. Very interesting take. I think you're spot on that the big issue is the principle of headship.

    That said, I don't think Paul's writing allows us to throw out all the stuff about hair and head coverings as cultural- he appeals to nature, which transcends culture. I don't know if that's what you're arguing for, but that's kinda what I'm hearing.

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  5. I don't know, Gabriel...is it what's universally apparent or just apparent to that culture? African women wear their hair cut short because of their hair type and their culture. It's not "natural" to them that they should wear it long. In Norse and Germanic cultures, both men and women wore their hair long -- that's what was natural to them.

    To be honest, Scripture -- and anybody else -- confuses me when it talks about what's "natural" and "self-evident" and "common sense"...because it's not. If it was, why doesn't everyone in every culture agree to it?

    Your thoughts?

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  6. I've heard that long hair and head coverings symbolized purity. In Corinthian times, prostitutes of the temples would shave their heads. That's why new female believers would cover their heads. It's only a symbol of the heart's attitude.

    Also, I know of women who have "followed" this passage by wearing ornate hats and other head coverings. That is a blatant disregard for the gentle and quiet spirit: not that the hats were wrong, nor was it wrong to wear them, but they took the head covering, a symbol of quiet submission, and turned it into a display of fashion.

    I ride the middle line on this issue: if you want to wear a head covering, that's fine. You're following your interpretation of Scripture, and if you do it quietly it's fine by me. Just don't become legalistic about it. I do not wear head coverings because we don't face the same cultural issues with hair today. I dislike bringing culture into the Bible, but in this case, it's true. We're not expecting men to revert to togas because that's what Jesus did. Therefore, we shouldn't need to use cultural symbols of the ancients to show our submission to God. In our culture, we uncover our heads to show respect!

    Thanks for the post!

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  7. I found what you said very interesting Melody. Your last sentence, "In our culture, we uncover our heads show respect!", is partially true, but I've found the observance of that is quite different. While in some "politically correct" circles both men and women might uncover their heads for a prayer or a flag, in most places men uncover their heads and women do not . Open your eyes sometime during a graduation or a rodeo prayer or watch when the flag goes by, and see who takes their hats off. The first time I sat above a college graduating class as they bowed their heads my eyes popped when I saw all the guys take their caps off, but the girls never did. So perhaps this isn't as much of an ancient cultural tradition as some think. =)

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  8. I would hesitate to take the exceptions of a few heathen cultures and use them to overturn the overwhelming pattern that we see- women have beautiful hair. They care for it and cherish it.

    At a deeper and more important level, when we start speculating about what is and isn't "natural," aren't we taking liberties with The Text?

    This:

    "Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering."

    Doesn't seem to leave much wiggle-room... I mean, if God says it's natural, it's natural. :-D

    Further, Paul makes a big deal about this symbol. I agree with you that this passage is about a lot more than head-coverings (be it cloth or hair)- but I don't think that it's anything less.

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  9. All these issues - headcoverings, women speaking in church, women in leadership - were clearly understood by our Christian ancestors. It has only been in recent times with the advent of the feminist movement that the church seems to be in confusion. I fear we are taking our cues from society and not Scripture.

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  10. Great post Bailey!
    I absolutely agree with the leadership part of your analysis but I do want to point something out though. If it was a cultural issue, Paul would have clearly stated it (as he does with many of his other books). But he doesn't - which leaves us to think this head covering issue was across the board.
    All the the churches of God covered their head - not because of culture, but because it's a symbol of worship.
    Also, you stated that hair was a symbol of authority. This passage doesn't say anything about it being a symbol of authority - it only states that the covering is!
    A women's hair is a glory to her and it would be a shame to her if she were to shave it. Women today need to take pride in their hair ... don't cut your hair like a guy ... keep it long!

    You can read more about this in my post about head covering:
    http://alishainprogress.blogspot.com/2015/08/covering-your-head.html?m=1

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