Women and Head Coverings

What in the world do you do with 1 Corinthians 11:2-16? 

I am preaching through 1 Corinthians on Sunday mornings and this passage totally racked my brain. I vaguely remember studying it in Bible college but back then I didn't have to do anything with it except try to memorize a few points for a test. When you have to preach it on a Sunday morning to a congregation of people (men and women, members and visitors) it is a whole 'nother story. 

One biblical commentator has said that "throughout church history, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 has been one of the least understood and therefore most controversial passages in all of Scripture" (MacGregor). I don't know how big of an issue this passage was in church history, but I do know that it is hard to understand and controversial for today…particularly in our culture.

Here is the basic gist of the passage.

Paul commends the Corinthians for following his oral teaching, then tells them that he wants them to know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God (11:3). This statement leads into a long discourse on the need for women to wear a head covering when they pray or prophesy in the church gathering. Paul talks about women having their head shaved (if they are not going to wear a head covering), being created for man, being the glory of man, and having long hair…and he talks about men not covering their heads, being the image and glory of God, being dependent on the woman, and not having long hair. And Paul throws in an obscure statement about angels just to make it more interesting. 

Thanks, Paul.

How is someone supposed to preach through that? 

Well, most preachers simply don't. It is a hard passage that is difficult to understand, doesn't seem relevant, and is bound to create controversy. Perhaps the only people who preach on it are those with a specific agenda to subjugate women and make sure they wear a head covering on Sunday mornings. 

As I wrestled through this passage this past week…and even as I wrestled through it as I preached…I began to understand it a little more and to see its relevance for today.

Here are three basic things that I think Paul was trying to teach in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

1. Be culturally sensitive. 

I read many different interpretations of 11:2-16 but most of them seemed to ignore the context of 1 Corinthians 8-10. The common interpretation is that 11:2-16 begins a new section on public worship and so the ties are to 1 Corinthians 11-14 more than to 1 Corinthians 8-10. But I think there is a greater tie to these previous chapters than is often emphasized. 

In 1 Corinthians 8-10, Paul is teaching the Corinthians to be culturally aware and sensitive. The issue is idol meat and whether it is okay for a Christian to eat it. The Corinthians were convinced that it was okay to eat it because of their freedom in Christ. Paul didn't disagree with them in principle, but he did want them to see questionable issues like these on a higher plane. The question is not just, "do I have a right and freedom to do this?" but rather "what is the impact of this action on others?" In other words, our ethics should not be based on "my rights" but on love. 

Love willingly enters another person's world. It willingly gives up its own rights for the benefit of another. Christ exhibited the heart of love when He willingly left the glories of heaven and took on human flesh in order to be a servant and to die for our sins on the cross. Paul followed this pattern when he became all things to all men so that by all possible means he might save some (9:22b). This kind of mindset recognizes the needs of another, reaches out to them in compassion, and removes all obstacles that would hinder them from seeing the love of Christ.

It is being sensitive to the culture in order to be effective for the gospel. 

Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks, or the church of God–even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ (10:32-11:1).

Or as Paul says in Romans 12:17b, Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes.

So when we come to the issue of headcoverings, we are entering an area of cultural sensitivity. What was "honorable" for a woman in that society was to wear a headcovering in public. It was a sign of modesty, purity, and femininity. It was also a sign that a woman was in right relationship to her husband. For a woman not to wear a headcovering in that society would indicate that she was either sexually promiscuous (and proud of it) or "available" and looking for someone. 

Paul's concern in 11:2-16 is on what is "honorable" and what is "shameful" in that society. If it is shameful for a woman to be without a head covering, then why would the believers at Corinth ignore this? Why would they have a public gathering, where visitors might be present, and purposefully ignore the connotations of their actions? Apparently the Corinthian women were so intent on their freedom in Christ that they were not thinking (or caring) about the message they were sending to others. They might be praying to God and talking about God but, based on their appearance, many of the people were hearing, "I am a sexually free woman. Are you interested?"

Which leads to the second message of 11:2-16. 

2. Be modestly dressed. 

Whenever you look at parallel passages to 11:2-16, the message is the same to women. Be modest in your appearance (1 Timothy 2:9-10; 1 Peter 3:3-4). This is always the emphasis…not head coverings per se. In fact, no other passage mentions head coverings for women. And in the OT, men serving in the priesthood were the ones expected to wear head coverings (Ex. 28:4, 37-38, 39:28; Ezek. 44:18). So the issue of head coverings for women is almost certainly cultural not universal. 

In the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures, to "let down your hair" had sexual connotations (hence the scandal of Luke 7:38). So when a woman in the Corinthian congregation was standing up in front of others with her hair down and no head covering, she was sending a message that was hard for others, particularly men, to ignore. 

This is why I think Paul mentions the fact that women are "created for man" and are "the glory of man." Feminists often hate these words but they are actually quite beautiful…and true. When Adam first saw Eve, he started spouting poetry (Genesis 2:23) and when Solomon looked at his bride, he poured out praise for her body from head to toe (4:1-15, 7:1-9). 

Men are visually oriented and they are attracted to the glory of a woman's body. Most women cannot fully fathom how a man thinks when it comes to seeing their beauty (though advertisers obviously do). "Why don't they just clean up their minds?!" Yes, many men struggle with lust and pornography and need to make a covenant with their eyes not to look lustfully at a girl (Job 31:1). But, just as many men need to clean up their minds, many women need to cover up their bodies. By dressing immodestly…and often provocatively…many women enjoy the "attention" of men but it is not the attention that they really want. It is the attention that my dog gives to a piece of meat. It is ravenous, selfish, lustful, out-of-control, consuming, and eventually destructive. 

So, in ancient Corinth, a woman in the church gathering with an uncovered head and long flowing hair was as provocative as a woman today standing in a chuch service with a short skirt and a tight or low-cut shirt. That woman may be sincerely worshipping God, but many men around her are mentally worshipping her. 

That's why I think Paul mentions the "angels" (11:10). The angels are so protective of God's glory, as they gather around His throne and worship Him night and day, that they would be shocked and offended that in the middle of a "worship service," there were many women drawing attention to themselves and many men drawn to their beauty rather than to God's. 

Do you think this has any relevance for today? Many worship services are times for people to show off their physical appearance…and admire the physical appearance of others…rather than to glorify God. Of course, this doesn't mean that we should come to church looking homely, disheveled, and miserable (cf. Matt. 6:16). This too draws attention to ourselves rather than to God. The standard is modesty. Not too extravagant. Not too frumpy. But culturally appropriate. 

That's why head coverings in America today would have the opposite effect of what Paul is intending. Paul was concerned about women drawing inappropriate attention to themselves. He wanted them to do what was "normal" and culturally "proper." In our own society, that would mean dressing in a modest way and seeking not to be a distraction in worship, whether one is male or female. 

That leads to Paul's final point. 

3. Be genderly content.

Okay, "genderly" is probably not the best word but it conveys the thought. Paul was concerned that, in the Corinthian church, several women were acting and looking more like men…and apparantly some men were acting and looking more like women. That seems to be Paul's whole point in his analogy about women with long hair and men with short hair (11:13-15). I think Paul is basically saying this:

"Judge for yourselves. If you walked into a room of people and all the men had long, flowing hair and all the women had short crew cuts or were bald, wouldn't you be shocked? Wouldn't you think that something was wrong with this picture?"

In Paul's mind, this was exactly what the Corinthians were portraying with the women not wearing head coverings and apparently some of the men wearing them. It was a complete gender reversal. And it showed that the Corinthians did not have a proper understanding of gender identity and roles. 

So Paul reminds them of God's design for gender.

God created us "male and female." We are equal in essence (Genesis 1:27). We are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28). We are mutually dependent on one another (1 Cor. 11:11-12). There is no room for arrogance or dominance. Both genders are made for each other and need each other (as evidenced in reproduction). 

But though we are equal in essence, we are different in design. We were made for different roles. Man was made primarily for a task (Genesis 2:15) while woman was made primarily for relationship (Genesis 2:18-22). Yes, we both share in the task and in the relationship (Genesis 1:28) but there is still distinction in our purpose and design. To ignore these distinctions is to our own detriment. Men have a heart bent more toward strength. Women have a heart bent more toward love. 

Because of sin, men often look for strength illegitimately, becoming abusive or angry, or they abdicate their strength, becoming passive and apathetic. Women, on the other hand, often look for love illegitimately, becoming provocative or clingy, or they deny their love, becoming bitter and domineering. And strangely enough, provocative and clingy women often end up with abusive, angry men and domineering and bitter women often produce passive, apathetic men. 

We see this in our own society. As gender lines are blurred (and even left up to personal choice), we are producing more and more angry and passive men ("checking out" from the family and often reality) and more and more aggressive and depressed women (carrying the load of the family or rejecting it altogether). These are not the marks of a healthy society…or one that will last.

Instead God calls men to lead and take responsibility, with a servant's heart, in the home and in the church. And He calls women to respect and support male leadership, with a submissive heart, in the home and in the church. This obviously grates the nerves of some people but, again, it is a beautiful design when it is exercised with grace. Husbands subordinating their agenda out of sacrificial love for their wives and women subordinating their agenda out of supportive respect for their husbands. Both meeting the deepest needs of the other. Both, paradoxically, finding greater contentment and joy in giving up their selfish rights and demands…and learning what it means to be "male and female" to God's glory. 

So if we can get past the cultural issue of head coverings, we can see the universal relevance of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. The church of Jesus Christ should be the one place where male and female display the beauty and order of God's design…being sensitive to their culture (so as to increase the effectiveness of the gospel), being modest in their dress (so as to keep the focus on God in worship), and being content in their gender (so as to experience the fullness and joy of God's design). 

Hats off to you, Paul. You hit the nail on the head. 

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2 Responses to Women and Head Coverings

  1. Dianne says:

    You have spoken so much truth about gender in this.  We as a society, and sadly as a church turned God's plan for us upside down.  Women are taking authority in the home and men are reacting just as you say either becoming apathetic and in effective, or in frustration lashing out in anger.  We woman then blame the men, and thereby "empower" ourselves, to our own detriment, and to that of all around.  

    This thinking has divided chuch familys, which is so against God's plan for us to be characterized by love and unity.  It breaks my heart.  Thank you for speaking so boldly and clearly.

  2. Hi Steve,
    My personal belief is that Paul is responding to a faction of men who want women to be veiled while praying or prophesying. I believe that Paul is repeating the words of the men in vv. 4-6. The men are making a literal head argument saying, “4Every man who has [anything] down over his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his [own] head. 5But every woman who has her head unveiled while praying or prophesying disgraces her [own] head….” This is why the men give a correlating example of how the woman disgraces her [own] head. Because Paul disagrees with them, he sandwiches their words in between his model (v.3) and rebuttal (vv.7-16). He gives his model with the figurative meaning of “kephale/head” (source/origin). So, in verse 7, Paul says, 7For a man indeed ought not to veil his head, since He (Christ, v.3) is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of man….” Therefore, I believe that Paul is using Jesus Christ as a correlation as to why women should not be veiled. He is saying that a man ought not to veil his head (see vs. 3) since He (Christ) is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of man [so she ought not to be veiled either]. I do believe that “hyparchon” (V-PPA-NMS) is referring to “Christos” (N-NMS) in verse 3. I do not believe that it is referring to “aner” (N-NMS) in verse 7. The Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is the image and glory of God (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15, John 1:14, Heb. 1:3, Phil. 2:5-6, Rev. 21:23). Male and female are created IN the image of God, but only Jesus Christ IS the very image of God, because He is the Word made flesh.

    Also, I believe the ISV has the correct translation of vv.14-15. The ISV translates these verses as, “Nature itself teaches you neither that it is disgraceful for a man to have long hair nor that hair is a woman’s glory, since hair is given as a substitute for coverings.” So, Paul is telling the men that nature does not teach us that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him because God has allowed men to grow long hair if they so choose. If God did not want men to grow long hair, then He would have disallowed it through nature, just as He has disallowed women from growing mustaches or beards through nature. Also, Paul is saying that nature does not teach us that long hair is a woman’s glory (as many women have unmanageable hair – frizzy, flat, thin, etc.). Therefore, women may cut their hair if they so choose.

    Also, many scholars have acknowledged that Paul quotes throughout his letter to the Corinthians. Some other verses that scholars believe are quoted are 1 Corinthians 6:12a, 6:12b, 6:13, 7:1, 8:1, 8:8, 10:23a, 10:23b, 14:22, 14:34-35. Therefore, it would be odd in this passage if Paul did not include the content of the quote.

    Anyway, this is just what I believe. Thanks for allowing me to share.

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