"1 Cor. 11:2-16 clearly states that women should have their heads covered while praying or prophesying. It also ranks among the most difficult of all passages in the NT. The intent of this article is not to give an exhaustive analysis of this passage, and so no attempt will be made to deal with every issue that surrounds this passage. Rather, this chapter will show whether or not Paul sees head covering as a normative church custom; or indeed, whether Paul sees this as a valid custom for any church, even for those of his own time.
Interpreters of this passage have found themselves in one of two camps when deciding what relevance this passage has for the church today. On the one hand, there are those who see this passage as having relevance for churches in Pauls day (though perhaps not all churches in Pauls day) and either no relevance for today or a modified relevance for today. Those in this camp include Christian feminists who see absolutely nothing in this passage to speak to the church today, as well as traditionalists who see an abiding principle of headship and submission but no binding custom of head coverings for women. In the other camp are those who see not only headship of men and submission of women, but also a command from Paul that head coverings for women are to be a custom of church practice throughout the ages.
Concerning the position of those in the first camp, it is unwise to explain away NT commands using the guise of cultural relativity. Cultural relativity is a very dubious principle upon which to operate. It can, in fact, be used to dismiss any or every part of the NT. Needless to say, we cant have that!
But even if one wanted to make an exception to the rule that commands in Scripture cannot be considered culturally relative, there still is no basis for doing so in this passage. There is absolutely nothing in this passage to suggest that Paul sees a cultural limitation to his injunction about head coverings. On the contrary, every reason Paul gives for his injunction is arguably timeless and universal in scope. His reasons include the chain of headship (God-Christ-man-woman, v 3), the priority of creation (vv 8-9), the angels (v 10), and nature itself (v 14). None of these things is temporary or culturally limited, but rather timeless, and indicate that Pauls injunction must be seen as timeless. Moreover, Paul calls this practice a custom of the church (v 16), and a tradition which he has handed down and to which he expects churches to hold (v 2).
Those of the second camp (i.e., those who see head coverings as a binding church practice) obviously enjoy the luxury of being able to argue the previous points. They also have the advantage of taking Pauls words at face value and can apply the passage without compromising hermeneutic integrity. Theirs is the stronger position based upon the preponderance of evidence. However, four or five points of grammar in this passage force a look at a third position.
Before positing the third position it will be necessary to look at several key elements of Pauls argument in this passage. First, it is notable that Paul takes one tone from vv 3-10, but from vv 11-16 takes quite another tone. Verse 11 seems to be the pivot point of the two tones. The key phrase in v 11 is In the Lord, however. In the passage immediately preceding this phrase Paul makes several observations that, after v 11, he seems to balance. For instance, in vv 8-9 Paul seems to be arguing that man is completely independent of woman and, indeed, that woman is completely dependent on man (for man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man). Pauls point seems to be two-fold: 1) man does not rely upon woman for his existence, and 2) woman does rely upon man for her existence, and, indeed, her existence is for the very purpose of benefiting man.
Yet, beginning with v 11, Paul seems to add balance to what he said in vv 8-9. Paul argues in v 11 that, yes, while it is true woman is not independent of man, in the Lord neither is man independent of woman. The statement in vv 8-9 is true in itself, but does not go quite far enough. Man and woman are interdependent; neither one can claim independence. Paul expands upon this in v 12. In essence he says, yes, it is true that woman was made from man, but also the man is born of the womanhence, interdependence, and hence, vv 8-9 are balanced by vv 11-12.
One last balance seems to be between v 7 and v 12. In v 7 Paul seems to argue that man was made in the image of God but woman was not. Instead, she was made in the image of man. The phrase image and glory is what is technically referred to as a hendiadys (lit., one through two) and means simply that Paul uses two words to refer to one thing. So, when he says that man was created in the image and glory of God and that woman was created in the glory of man, he means the same thing in both instances (Paul uses only one word, glory, in the second phrase to represent the entire phrase image and glory). However, the idea that woman was made in the image of man (not untrue in itself, but misrepresentative of the fact that both man and woman were made in the image of Godsee Ge 1:27) is balanced in v 12: But everything comes from God. If v 9 makes the point that woman has her source in man, v 12 places it in proper perspective by pointing out that everything (i.e., both man and woman) has its source in God.
So, why does Paul make statements in vv 7-10 that he later must balance in vv 11-12? Before answering this question it will be necessary to reconstruct the occasion of Pauls response in this section of his letter. The best starting point is in v 16. There Paul gives us a clue as to what is going on. He says, If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practicenor do the churches of God. It seems relatively clear from Pauls words that someone (or, perhaps more likely, some group) was insisting that the church take a specific position on womens head coverings. Most standard translations (including the NASB and the NIV) render Paul as saying, we have no other practice. This would indicate that the contentious group was insisting that women should not wear head coverings. Paul then would be correcting this group by appealing to a universal church custom of head coverings for women. What is so surprising (and what is the very thing that caused me to rethink this passage) is that the Greek word translated other in v 16 (toioutos) never means other anywhere else; and, in fact, means only such (we have no such custom). Needless to say, this drastically changes the meaning of Pauls words. If Paul is saying we have no such custom of women wearing head coverings, then obviously the contentious group was insisting that women should wear head coverings.
Moreover, when viewed this way, it becomes increasingly clear why Paul would make several points before v 11 only to counter them after v 11. It also explains why at the beginning of this passage Paul praises the Corinthians for not giving in to the pressure of the contentious group but, instead, for holding to the teachings just as I passed them on to you (v 2).
Based upon this information we may assume the following to be true of the Corinthian situation. The contentious group had been trying to get the rest of the Corinthians to adopt a custom of women covering their heads with some kind of garment when praying or prophesying. The Corinthians, uncertain as to what to do in this situation, include a section about this teaching in a general letter which they wrote to Paul (see 7:1 for evidence of this letter). In the letter they may have said something to this effect: There are some Christians who have come to us and told us that we are supposed to have our women wear head garments during the meeting. We dont recall you saying anything about this. So far we have not changed the way we have been doing things, but we would like to get your thoughts on this teaching. To which Paul replies, I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings just as I passed them on to you. In other words, I praise you for not changing the way I taught you to do things, especially in light of the fact that you were under pressure by this group to modify your meetings.
Paul then begins to outline in vv 3-10 the building blocks upon which those in the contentious group have built their teaching that women need to wear garments as head coverings. The important thing to remember here is that Paul does not disagree with the building blocks used by those in the contentious group to develop their theology of garments as head coverings. On the contrary, he agrees that a woman does indeed need a head covering when praying or prophesying. Everything that Paul says through v 10 is something that Paul firmly believes. He believes that woman was created in the image of man; he believes that woman is dependent on man and that man was created independent on womanhe believes all of this to be true. But he does not believe it to be the whole truth. Yes, woman was, in a sense, created in the image of man (v 7) (it was from Adam that Eve was created), but ultimately she, too, was created in the image of God (v 12). Yes, woman is dependent upon man for her initial existence (v 9), but so is man dependent upon woman for his further existence (vv 11-12).
So, while Paul does not disagree with the theological foundation of those in the contentious group, neither does he think they have gone far enough in building their theology. At best they have a lopsided view of a womans status before God. Likewise, Paul does not disagree that, on the basis of male headship, women should have a covering on their heads when praying or prophesying. His disagreement is with the application of this principle (i.e., the type of covering).
All through this passage (vv 3-10) Paul has been insisting that a woman must have a covering on her head. The Greek word he uses here is katakaluptos. Here he is in agreement with those of the contentious group. They, too, have been insisting that a woman have a covering on her head. But then Paul shifts his tone in v 11: In the Lord, however, and from that point on begins to explain how this principle correctly applies to the church.
In vv 13-14 Paul asks the Corinthians two questions: 1) Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?; 2) Does not the very nature of things teach you that . . . if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? The two questions are to be answered as a set. The second question is intended to buttress the first. In other words, by answering the second question first, the answer to the first question should then be obvious. A wise sales manager might ask his sales team: Is an increased sales effort something that we want to do away with and then buttress that with: Dont we want to see an increase in our bonuses next month? By answering the second question first (yes, we do want to see an increase in bonuses), the answer to the first question then becomes obvious (no, an increased sales effort is not something that we want to do away with).
Paul uses the same reasoning here. To answer the second question first: yes, a womans long hair is her glory (that is, it keeps her from the shame of being uncovered). This makes the answer to the first question obvious: no, it is not proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered.
But here Paul is thinking about a specific kind of covering. Up until this verse Paul has consistently used the word katakaluptos (covering) to insist that a woman be covered while praying or prophesying. Paul agrees with the contentious group that a woman does need a covering. What he disagrees with is their application. The contentious group insisted that the covering be a garment (a veil or shawl), whereas Paul is arguing that, in the case of the church (In the Lord, however, v 11), the covering is the womans own hair. Long hair, Paul argues, is the glory of a woman (v 15). he further argues this point in the very next phrase: For, long hair is given to her as a covering. The word as here is anti, and means literally instead of. The word for covering in this verse is not the same as has been used by Paul up to this point. Everywhere else in this passage Paul has used katakaluptos, which is a very generic term for covering. Here Paul uses the word peribolaios, which means literally that which is wrapped around [the head].
In other words, Paul is saying that, yes, women do need coverings (katakaluptos) on their heads when praying or prophesying. But, in the Lord that covering is not a peribolaios (cloth wrapped around the head) but rather the womans own long hair. In fact, in the Lord (i.e., in the church), long hair is given to a woman instead of (not as) that which is wrapped around the head. Women in the church have a ready-made covering and are therefore not necessarily in violation of the principles expressed in vv 3-10. Overall then, 1 Co 11:2-16 is a very liberating passage. In it, women are freed from the bondage of wearing religious head garb.
On which side of this issue do I then fall? In practice I do not at all differ from those who see this passage as culturally relative and who therefore do not practice garment head coverings for women. Hermeneutically, I am more closely allied with those who see no cultural relativity in this passage and who believe Paul is here laying down a custom for the church of all ages and cultures. Although I disagree with it regarding the exegesis of this passage, this view is far more faithful to Pauls intent than is the former view. Still, neither view seems to grapple with the literary structure of this passage (the point/counterpoint dialogue that pivots around v 11) or the points of grammar brought up in this chapter (the use of anti [instead of] in v 15, and the use of toioutos [such] in v 16). My reconstruction, though admittedly not without its own inherent weaknesses, goes much farther in unraveling a difficult passage about which there is much dispute. I hope that it will be of help to those who seek to follow apostolic tradition."
Scripture is the supreme interpreter of Scripture. We must consult other passages to confirm our interpretation of a particular passage. If there appears to be a conflict, we must seek to reconcile them in a way that respects the principle that God is always consistent. If a passage under consideration could be taken a couple different ways, then it is our job to look at the rest of the revealed Word to guide our interpretation.
In the case of head coverings, we search in vain to find any other reference to the practice. Scripture itself expounds the principle that a matter is established by the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deut. 19:15; Matt. 18:16), but there is no other witness to this practice at all, much less to its being a universally binding obligation for all times and places. It is not that God has to repeat himself to be taken seriously, but when there is a question of interpretation we may rightly expect another passage to confirm the correct reading of a text.
The evidence points in the opposite direction from that espoused by those who teach head coverings. Two other New Testament passages address the precise issue of womens dress in the context of submission to male authority (1 Tim. 2:9-15; 1 Pet. 3:1-6) and neither of them mentions the head covering. If this were an ordinance of the church for all ages, is it likely that it would not be mentioned in these passages or anywhere else in the holy pages? It is more reasonable to conclude that in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul was correcting an errant practice in a local situation.
Another way in which the rest of Scripture fails to support the pro-head-covering conclusion is in its consistent emphasis on the internal over the external. Even in the Old Testament with its plethora of types and signs and outward observances it was the heart that God was interested in, not the mere external practice (1 Sam. 15:22; Isaiah 1:10ff.). In the New Testament the emphasis is even stronger on the internal character of our faith. The Law is applied beyond the outward behavior, to the heart (Matt. 5:21-28ff.). The Old Testament external forms of temple, priesthood, sacrifice, etc. are cast aside because the fulfillment, Jesus Christ, is here (Hebrews 2-10). Christian worship is not tied to place but is in spirit and truth (John 4:21-24). External observances are reduced to a bare minimum as the new emphasis is Christ in you (Col. 1:27), and Christians are warned against those who would bind them by external observances (Col. 2:16,17,20-23; Gal. 5:2ff.).
In this context it would be extraordinary indeed for God to mandate a dress code for his people. It would run counter to even the Old Testament (which does not mention the head covering), much less the New. Does the context of the whole New Testament lead us to expect a regulation about clothing? Quite the contrary, it leads us away from such external definitions of holiness. It is not that dress is unimportant to holiness; it is just not regulated by rules but rather by principles to by applied under the Sprits guidance. These considerations mitigate against taking 1 Corinthians 11 as an ages-long rule for the church.
Another reason we do not believe head covering is required is that we do not see it meeting the definitions of a New Testament church ordinance. The church is bound to only two simple external observances: baptism and the Lords Supper. These are the New Testament externals which apply to every time and place. Why? Because they were instituted by Jesus himself and confirmed by his hand-picked church builders, the Apostles (our two witnesses: Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38, etc.). And because they both are symbolic of the core of the gospel: union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Col. 2:12; 1 Cor. 10:16; 11:26).
The head covering pointed to a vital, eternal principle, but it did not speak directly in symbolism of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Nor was it instituted by Jesus himself. We are bound to follow the apostolic example even where it does not rest on the explicit words or example of Jesus (Phil. 3:17; 1 Cor. 7:12), but we tread on dangerous ground if we create another universally-binding external observance apart from very clear biblical warrant. First Corinthians 11 does not provide such warrant when viewed in light of the whole New Testament. There is ample support for baptism and communion; there is not for head covering.
Those who believe the church today is bound by the head covering obligation, to be consistent, must also insist that we observe the practice of foot-washing (some groups are thus consistent). Jesus said, after washing his disciples feet, Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed you feet, you also should wash one anothers feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you (John 13:14-15). Considering this passage apart from the rest of the Scriptures, we might conclude that Jesus expects all his followers to engage in literal foot-washing as part of their external observance of the Christian faith. Taken in itself, this passage carries a similar force to 1 Corinthians 11.
But here, too, we must consult the larger context of Scripture. Is there any other reference to foot-washing? The only one we know of is 1 Timothy 5:10 which describes the virtuous widows who used to wash the feet of the saints. This is clearly, in context, a reference to their life of service to others: helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds. Clearly foot-washing refers to the humble service of others and not to a specific rite of the church. Jesus concern for his disciples was that they serve one another in whatever ways were needed, including literal foot-washing in their case. His concern for us is not that we practice the culturally bizarre practice of literally washing the feet of other Christians (we dont travel dusty roads in sandals) but that we practice other appropriate, humble service for one another. Literal foot-washing is not meant to be an ordinance of the church any more than head covering.
Now we must grant that those who teach head covering appear to have an advantage on us: they appear to be taking the safest course in response to 1 Corinthians 11when in doubt, do exactly what it says. They may regard us as careless and unwilling to follow the simple sense of Scripture.
The question remains, however, what the Holy Spirit intends to teach us through the passage. It is not more virtuous to practice something God never meant for us to do. Also, the danger of defining the Christian life in terms of externals is a real danger indeed. It is not accidental that the groups mentioned earlier that practice head covering also enforce among their communities rules taught by men in dress and lifestyle matters, contrary to Jesus and the Apostles explicit warnings (Matt. 15:9; Col. 2:20-23). We value these brethren and are spurred on by their example in many positive ways, but such a focus on externals cannot be supported by the New Testament.
Jesus left us with two external forms which call us back to his cross and his victory over sin and death. As the Old Testament shadows pointed to Christ and his work, so baptism and communion point us to this core of the gospel of grace. Other externals, however strongly their proponents argue their Scriptural origin, risk taking our focus off of Christ and his work and onto the appearance of our outward obedience. The Pharisees, no doubt, began with a true desire for holiness; they ended up, however, far from the God who looks not on the outward appearance but on the heart.
A word to those who are considering the head cover:
The decision to implement this practice belongs to the head of the woman, her husband. One of the peculiar ironies in how this issue plays out in some homes is that it is often the wife (or daughter) who feels convicted to wear the cover and leads her husband (or father) to accept it; or worse yet, she wears it despite his disapproval, perhaps removing it in public! This is a doctrinal and lifestyle issue with important ramifications, and it belongs in the hands of the man. No woman should wear a head covering unless her husband directs her to. She can appeal to him to consider the matter, but it is his conviction, not hers, that should decide the case. Even if he is ambivalent but willing to allow her to follow her conviction, it would still be best for her to await his conviction that this is the right way to proceed. It would be strange indeed if this very expression of proper order in the home were in practice an expression of disorder.
END NOTE: Have any here on S.I. pondered the thought that here we have clear instruction from the Word of God regarding male and female roles, and yet women on both sides of this issue(as well as other issues of doctrine)not only attempt to teach men, but even insist upon doing so, as is evidenced here before many witnesses.