Wearing Head Coverings in Corporate Worship (1 Corinthians 11:1-16) Printer Friendly Version
by Erik Wait
There are a number of theological issues related to 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 which I could spend a great deal of time discussing.  However, the purpose of this paper is to address Paul's instructions for women to wear head coverings in corporate worship. In doing so I will discuss what the cover refers to in 1 Corinthians 1:5 and 15 and whether his instructions are applicable to Christians today.
Not long ago the practice of women wearing a cover (a bonnet or a veil) on their head in corporate worship in the church was a common practice. But today this Biblical practice has for the most part fallen by the wayside. Some women refuse to wear head coverings because they are convinced by the feminist movement that such a practice was of a bygone oppressive patriarchal era. Others argue that this practice, while good and necessary in the first century, is no longer relevant for the church today. Yet there are others who argue that the practice was never a mandate of Paul but rather the custom of women wearing head coverings in post-apostolic times is the result of a misinterpretation of his instructions to the Corinthian church. In contrast to these notions I believe that Paul prescribes the wearing of a head covering by women in corporate worship, not a merely as a cultural convention but as a normative practice which is to be observed in the church in all ages.
1 Corinthians 11:1-16
Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. (vv. 1-3)
The context of this chapter is within Pauls instructions to the church at Corinth on how to conduct orderly worship.  In chapter 10:14-22 he discusses the Lords Supper and he does so again in chapter 11:17-33 in which he states the context of his instructions is, when you come together (11:33). He then goes on in chapters 12-14 to discuss orderly and loving corporate worship. In fact, in verse 4 Paul establishes the context for the exhortation for he refers to prophesying with the head covered which is a corporate practice for nobody prophesies privately to oneself. Whether or not his instructions concerning head coverings apply to women praying privately is not stated and therefore I cannot be dogmatic on the issue. There are things that are permissible in private worship which are not appropriate in corporate worship. A woman may pray in her pajamas or a nightgown in the early morning at home whereas it would not be appropriate to do so in corporate worship. Also, there are often times when a woman may be driving in her car without a head covering and yet pray because of an immediate need. For example, if she were to see a car accident she may want to pray for the victims even though her head is not covered. In such cases the immediate need to pray outweighs the need to have ones head covered, unless one should argue that her ought to always be covered. Likewise, a man who is a soldier in the heat of battle may want to pray a quick prayer for help. In such an emergency I dont think soldiers should remove their helmet in order to offer a quick prayer to God for help. Thus it may be permissible for her to pray without her head covered and for him to pray with his head covered in private or in emergency circumstances whereas in corporate worship it is not.
In this chapter Paul has two different meanings of the word head (kephale). One is a reference to the physical head, the skull, of the man and the woman. The other is a reference to the source and authority of Christ, the man and the woman. Using the same word with different shades of meaning in the same context is a common practice in the Bible. Throughout Scripture the writers often use a play on words (paronomasia) as a means of making a point. In doing so they can use the same word in both a literal and symbolic fashion.  For example, in 1 Corinthians Paul uses the word body (soma) to refer to the physical body of Christ and as the bread in the Lords Supper (11:24) as well as a references to the entire church now you are the body of Christ (12:12-27). Thus the body of Christ can refer to that which arose from the grave and is seated at the right hand of the Father, it can refer to the bread in the Lords Supper, and it can refer to the entire Church as a whole which is made of many parts. Yet, these are not three unrelated meanings for they are all tied together. The unified corporate body of Christ (the Church) partakes together of the body of Christ (the bread) which signifies or symbolizes the physical body of Christ. Likewise, Pauls use of head (kephale) has a double meaning which ties the symbol (the head) with that which is signified (the authority).
The first meaning of head in verse 3 refers to the Christ as the head of man. There are two possible interpretations here. However, it cannot mean the literal physical head (the skull) for that would obviously be nonsense. Simon Kistemaker argues that it could either mean source or authority.:
Commentators are divided on the meaning of the Greek word kephale (head). Some interpret it to mean source, while others maintain that it signifies authority. Some scholars have examined the evidence and discovered that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, records a number of places where the term head figuratively means chief or ruler. Two examples are, You have preserved me as the head of the nations. People I did not know are subject to me (II Sam. 22:44), and for the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is only Rezin.... The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is only Remaliahs son (Isa. 7:8, 9). The accumulated evidence from the Septuagint, Philo, and Josephus is impressive. Still other scholars question whether the Hebrew word rosh (head) metaphorically denotes chief or ruler. They state instead that kephale means source in Greek literature, and that the expression head derives from the Greek usage that connotes source. In fact, one writer asserts that there is simply no basis for the assumption that a Hellenized Jew would instinctively give kephale the meaning one having authority over someone. 
There are a few problems with this approach to determining the meaning of the word kephale. First, so-called scholars often import meanings of Greek words from extra-Biblical sources without recognizing that the writers of the New Testament did not always use words in the same manner as Philo or Josephus. The New Testament writers often baptized Greek words with Hebrew thought. The Hebrew Bible which the apostles often quote is the Septuagint. Thus their meaning of Greek words such as logos (word), baptizo (baptize), presbuteros (elder), ekklesia (church) has a Jewish and not a Hellenist connotation. Therefore we ought to consider kephale from the Septuagint long before we consider the works of pagan philosophers or non-Christian historians of the first century. Second, Paul was Jewish Jew and not a Hellenized Jew (Philippians 3:5). Third, to draw a radical distinction between source and authority is unnecessary for who is our authority but the One who is also our source? Finally, just as archae can mean beginning (John 1:1) it can also mean head or authority over (Revelation 3:14; 21:6; 22:13). Thus the One who is the beginning of creation (not the first thing created) is the head or authority over creation. Likewise, Christ is the creator or source of man, thus He is the ruling authority over the Christian husband. Likewise, the woman (Eve) came from man (Adam) thus he is the source and authority over the woman. Of course, Adam did not take his own rib and create Eve but rather God created her from Adam. Consequently both the Christian husband and wife have Jesus Christ as their ultimate source and authority.
The hierarchical headship of the man over the woman is economic, not ontological. In other words, Christ is God but as the Son He is subordinate economically in redemptive history to the Father. Likewise, the wife is ontologically equal with the husband but she is economically subordinate to her husband in the household (Ephesians 5:22-24). Also, children are ontologically equal to their parents but economically they are subordinate to them, thus they are to honor and submit to them (Ephesians 6:1-3). In this same way lay people are ontologically equal to their elders but economically they are subordinate to them in the church (Hebrews 13:17). Note that this order is not the natural order as in verse 15. Rather this is the order in the Church for non-Christians do not have Christ as their head nor God as their Father. Rather they are children of wrath and have the devil as their father (John 8:44). Therefore, to combine what is of the natural order in verse 15 with that which is of the supernatural order in verse 5 is to ignore the context of the two different orders which Paul appeals to in order to make his case. Then he goes on to write:
Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying, disgraces his head. (v. 4)
This verse is a little difficult to translate into English. If we were to translate it word for word it would say, Every man praying or prophesying having [something] down over his head shames his head. Gordon Clark takes this to refer to a man having long hair (cross referencing it with verse 15).  However, if that were the case couldnt Paul simply say, Man ought to have short hair? He has no problem referring directly to women needing to have long hair in verse 15. In addition, as I shall argue later, if the cover is hair in this verse the following verse becomes nonsensical because he would be telling women without hair to cut their hair off. Marvin R. Vincent states that this phrase is:
Referring to the tallith, a four-cornered shawl having fringes consisting of eight threads, each knotted five times, and worn over head in prayer. It was placed upon the worshippers head at his entrance into the synagogue. 
Many commentators make similar statements and discuss various customs of praying while wearing different apparel in the first century. Many of these customs are opposite of each other. The Romans have one practice, the Greeks have another. The Jews have one practice and now by apostolic instruction the church has another. This makes sense for Romans would want to distinguish themselves from Greeks and Jews would want to distinguish themselves from Gentiles. Also Christians might want to distinguish themselves from Jews who deny Jesus as the Messiah. However, this method of interpretation requires a sociological explanation which requires extensive material from outside the text to make ones case for a proper understanding of the passage. I prefer to stick as close to the text as possible without having to make my case from extra-biblical sources.
There are two different ways we could understand disgraces his head in verse 4. Paul could be saying that for the man to pray with his physical head covered he dishonors his physical head, i.e. he disgraces himself.  But given the context of headship from the previous verse and the symbolic tie between the physical head and the authoritative head I believe that he is stating very strongly that for a man to pray with his physical head covered he disgraces his authoritative head, Jesus Christ. However, it may not be necessary to draw a strong distinction between the two for his physical head is a symbol of his authoritative head (Christ) and signs are often spoken of as if they were that which they signify. Hence we can rightly say that the bread of the Lords Supper, mentioned later in this chapter, is the body of Christ. Likewise, the mans physical head in the worship service is the authority of Christ. In symbolic language the sign and the thing signified are so closely related that they are spoken of as if they were one and the same.
For those who argue that the relevance of this text only applies to the culture of the first century, thus women are free not to wear head coverings in corporate worship, I have yet to hear anyone say that men are therefore free to wear hats in the corporate worship service of the church. Yet to maintain that women today do not need to wear a sign of authority in corporate worship is to succumb to the spirit of our age in which men are abandoning their husbandly duties and women are seeking to overturn the created order. 
Given that man is not to have his covered with a veil or yarmulke  in corporate worship when he prays there are circumstances in modern society which Paul does not anticipate. For example, what if a man is naturally bald and decides to wear a toupee? Should he remove his toupee when he goes to church on Sunday? Or, what if a woman wears a wig? Should it be considered a head covering as prescribed by Paul? The answer to these questions is rather simple. The toupee and the wig are intended to be a replacement of what is usually provided by nature. The wig or toupee is expected to be thought of as natural (though I have yet to see a toupee that didnt look like a road kill) and therefore they do not have any sort of symbolic meaning. Therefore the woman ought to have the symbol of authority over her wig and bald men are free to wear dead rodents on their head and pretend that they look like natural hair.  Pauls concern isnt about wearing a head cover in and of itself but rather the symbol and message which is conveyed by it. Therefore, if the wife appears to not have her head covered, because it looks as if the wig is her natural hair, then she ought to wear a head covering over the wig as a symbol of her authoritative head. Paul then goes on to write:
But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. (vv. 5-6)
Following the same pattern as the previous verse the woman (wife) who prays with her physical head uncovered disgraces her husband, her authoritative head. Therefore she is to have her head covered. Paul asserts that a woman (wife) praying without her head covered is as disgraceful as a woman who is shaved bald.  Here Paul is making a somewhat hyperbolic and sarcastic statement as he does in Galatians 5:11-12:
But I, brethren, if I preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished. Would that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves.
In other words, if these Judaizers think circumcision justifies they ought to go all the way and castrate themselves. Likewise, if the woman (wife) does not cover her physical head and thereby disgraces her authoritative head (her husband) she ought to go all the way and disgrace herself by shaving off that which is a glory to her (cf. v. 15). She is a glory to her husband, and her hair is a glory to her. Her hair is not a glory to her husband. Rather, she herself is a glory to her husband. Mans hair is not a glory to himself or to Christ, but rather man himself is a glory (image) of Christ as he states in the next verse. If the cover referred to here is her hair, as in verse 15, then Paul is making a nonsensical statement for he would be saying, If the woman doesnt have her physical head covered with hair she ought to cut off her hair. Obviously if her head isnt covered hair she doesnt have anything to cut off. In addition, if Paul is merely insisting that women are to have long hair then why the qualification, while praying or prophesying? If his concern is merely that women are not to have a butch hair cut then stating the context of corporate worship is irrelevant for it would be a shame for to have a mans hair style at any time. However, his concern is more than just women having short hair, his concern is that they are to have their glory covered while praying or prophesying in corporate worship. Paul then goes on to write:
For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. (v. 7)
It is clear that Paul is saying that the Christian husband is not to wear a head covering over his hair when he prays in corporate worship. If the cover is hair in verses 5-6 then for a man to pray with hair on his head disgraces Christ. Therefore, according to this interpretation (if it be maintained consistently) all men ought to have their head shaved before they pray or prophesy in corporate worship.  But unless one is willing to follow this interpretation then we must conclude that Paul cannot be referring to hair as the cover in these verses as he does later in verse 15.
Man is image and glory of God and the woman (wife) as a derivative of the man is the glory of her husband, thus women are created in the image of God as well (Genesis 1:27). Then Paul states the reason why this is so:
For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the womans sake, but woman for the mans sake. (vv. 8-9)
Paul explains here the reason why men ought not to cover their head and women ought to have their head covered when praying or prophesying in corporate worship. The appeal is not to cultural convention but rather to the created order in Genesis. However, there are at times cultural practices referred to in the New Testament such as the humble service of foot washing (John 13:5-14). Such practices are not based on the created order but they arise out of a practical need (sandals and dirty feet) and it was a very lowly task. To wash someone elses feet was the humble act of a servant. In some cultures to show someone the bottom of your foot is a great insult because of the association of what is on the foot. For those who insist that Paul is merely speaking of a cultural custom which symbolizes headship, where is their modern counterpart? I can easily demonstrate numerous counterparts to foot washing as a service of humility (like changing someones babys diapers) But where is their modern cultural counterpart to head covering?
Paul discusses symbols in 1 Corinthians 10-11, the Lords Supper and the head coverings. If you make the command merely cultural and only relevant to the initial recipients then the head covering will be dismissed as well as the command to examine oneself and discern the body of the Lord before partaking of the Lords Supper. Thus the head covering is the symbol of authority and the bread and wine is the symbol of body and blood of Christ. Both of which are to be thoughtfully observed. Then Paul goes on to state a second reason why women ought to have their head covered:
Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. (v. 10)
If we were to translate this verse word for word it would read, Therefore the woman ought to have a power (exousian) on her head, because of the angels. Frederic Godet translates this verse as, For this cause ought the woman to have a sign of power on her head because of the angels.  The word symbol or sign in most English translations is supplied by the context. If I were to say to you, Were out of wine and you were to respond, Ill go to the store even though you did not specifically state, ...and buy some wine it would be understood from the context of the statement that the full meaning of what you said was, Ill go to the store and buy some wine. Likewise, from the context of Pauls instructions concerning head coverings and later the symbols of bread and wine in the Lords Supper we can supply symbol as he is not asserting that women are to have some sort of an electrical outlet on their head or a person of authority on their head.
The reference to angels seems somewhat enigmatic for Paul does explain the statement. Perhaps he is saying that the wife ought to be a testimony to the angelic beings who are witnessing the history of redemption or who are joining the worship service though they are unseen.
However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman; and all things originate from God. (vv. 11-12)
The husband and wife are one, they are a compound unity. Though the woman (Eve) came from man (Adam), he himself came from God and therefore both are from God.
Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with head uncovered? (v. 13)
Just as we are to examine (dokimazeto, test) ourselves when we partake of the Lords Supper (cf. 11:28) so also we are to judge (krino, test, discern, judge, critique) what Paul is saying in light of Scripture. This does not mean that it is up to us to determine whether or not to obey Paul, but rather we are to think about these things and then follow him and his teaching.
Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, (v. 14)
A man with long hair disgraces himself because he looks like a woman. The antecedent to the pronoun him is not Christ but the husband himself. Notice that Paul does not say, If a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to Christ. Paul is not making the point here which he made in verse 4, Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying, disgraces his head (Christ). Why then does Paul begin to talk about men with long hair and women with shaved heads? Was this a problem at the time? No, but rather he is pushing his somewhat sarcastic statement in 6 to its logical conclusion.
I wont comment at length as to what Paul means by, Does not even nature itself teach you but he is not making an assertion from natural law. Rather we are to consider how God has ordered creation. The main point is not to have a measuring tape to determine what is considered long but rather men are to look like men and women are to look like women. Androgyny is a sign of rebellion against Gods created order.
but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. (v. 15)
Some might be tempted to take this verse and slap it together with verse 5 and then conclude that the cover referred to earlier is her hair. If that were so, then it would be a disgrace for men to have hair on their head when they pray. To assert that the cover in this verse is the same as that in verse 5 is an exegetical fallacy called collapsing context in which one takes two similar, or the same, words in two verses and slaps them together assuming they are referring to the same thing. What makes a distinction between the cover mentioned in verse 5 and in verse 15 is the pronoun her. Pronouns (he, she, we, they, it) are very small and can easily be overlooked. But it is extremely important to pay close attention to their antecedent (what they are referring to). The woman (wife) is a glory to her husband in verse 5 and thus her head is to be covered with a symbol. The womans hair is her glory and therefore it is to be long. But if she is going to disgrace her authoritative head then rather than displaying her glory in corporate worship (as a sign of rebellion) she ought to disgrace herself by shaving her physical head. Thus the woman has two covers: Her hair which is her glory and covers her physical head (her skull), and the cover over her hair which is a symbol of her glory to her authoritative head (her husband). These two covers ought not to be confused just as the two heads (skull/husband) ought not to be confused.
Others might be tempted to interpret this passage by comparing it to another which speaks of letting our light shine and not hiding it (Matthew 5:16).  They then assert that the wifes hair is her husbands glory (rather than her glory) and therefore she ought to let it shine rather than hide it under a bushel (Matthew 5:15). However, in Matthew 5 Jesus is referring to doing good works of the law as He teaches them and not the displaying of hair as a supposed symbol of her husbands glory. Again, her hair is her glory not her husbands, she herself is her husbands glory which she demonstrates by her humble submission signified by the symbol of authority over her head and hair.
But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God. (v. 16)
This issue was not merely a local custom of Corinth, but rather it was the common practice of the entire Church. If anyone wants to contend with Pauls exhortation he states in verse 1, Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. Pauls exhortation is based on his own leading example as he imitates his authoritative head who is Christ. Thus if you have a problem with Paul, you have a problem with Christ Himself.
Summary and Conclusion
Paul states that Christ is the authoritative head of the Christian husband and that the Christian husband is the glory of Christ. The husband is likewise the authoritative head of the wife and she is her husbands glory. The womans hair on her physical head is her glory. Man is not to have his physical head covered when he prays in corporate worship for Christ is his authoritative head. On the other hand, if a woman prays without her physical head covered as a symbol of authority she disgraces her authoritative head and ought to go all the way by removing her glory by shaving her physical head. The hair is her glory, not her husbands glory. She herself is her husbands glory. But if she is not going to wear a sign of authority then she ought to go all the way and remove her own glory rather than displaying it in the corporate worship service. Wives are to show submission to their husbands and have a sign of authority on their head. Hair is not a sign of authority; it is the wifes glory. The hair mentioned as a cover of her skull in verse 15 cannot be the same cover mentioned in verse 5 for Paul says man is not to have a cover when he prays. Therefore if hair is the cover in verse 5 then man ought to shave his head before he prays. Also, if the cover of the woman in verse 5 is her hair then Paul would be saying, But her head isnt covered with hair she ought to not have her head covered with and shave it off. Such an interpretation is nonsense. Pauls exhortation in this passage is not a mere social custom for he appeals to the created order, not the various surrounding and contrasting local customs. If it were a mere local social custom of which its significance is to be maintained, what would its modern counterpart be if not a modern head covering? Finally, women are to have a symbol of authority on their head over their hair as a demonstration of submission to the husband as a testimony to the angels.
 Such issues include the meaning of tradition (paradosis) in verse 2, the continuation or cessation of prohesying today, and the mention of women prophesying in a corporate worship service whereas in 13:4 he states, The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak.
 Frederic Godet states, He now passes to various subjects relating to public worship, beginning with that which lies nearest the domain of liberty: external demeanour of women in public worship. in Commentary on First Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Pub., 1977), pg. 531.
 For an interesting discussion on wordplay see Anthony J. Petrotta, Lexis Ludens San Francisco: Peter Lang Pub.,1991. pg. 1-8 and Scott. B. Nogel (ed), Puns and Pundits: Word Play in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Literature Bethesda, Maryland: CDL Press, 2000.
 Simon Kistemaker, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), pg. 365
 Gordon Clark, First Corinthians (Jefferson, Maryland: The Trinity Foundation, 1975), pg. 170
 Marvin R. Vincent, Vincents Word Studies of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendriksen Publishing), pg. 246
 This is Charles Hodges interpretation in his commentary I & II Corinthians (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust), pg. 208. Or in the paperback edition Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), pg. 208.
 Unfortunately Leon Morris, an otherwise respectable theologian nd scholar, seems to have fallen into this error as he asserts, We may well hold that the fullest acceptance of the principle underlying this chapter does not require that in western lands in the twentieth century women must always wear hats to pray. in The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987). However, I fail to see how living geographically in the western hemisphere and chronologically in the 20th century (or now the 21st) frees us from obeying Biblical commandments!
 A yarmulke is a skullcap worn by Jewish men and boys, especially those adhering to Orthodox or Conservative Judaism.
 As a man who speaks from experience, I think it is time for men to get over their vanity and own their baldness.
 This not referring to women who for medical reasons (cancer surgery, brain surgery etc.) have to shave their head in order to be operated on by a surgeon. In addition, many commentators go on to argue why it is disgraceful for women to have shorn hair in that it resembled the pagan temple prostitutes of the day. However, that is not what Paul states is the reason for women to have long hair, which is that it is part of the natural order, i.e. they are to look like women and not men.
 Gordon Clark for example argues that Paul is not arguing that men are not to have hats on their head while praying and that women are to wear veils. Rather, men are to have short hair and women are to have long hair. Thus he interprets cover in verse 5 and 15 to have the same referent, which is hair as he states, ...there is no need to discuss hats or veils. Although the eastern custom was veils or mantles for women, and although some words in the last ten verses seem to refer to such coverings, it is now become evident that hair, not hats, is the important matter. God has given women long hair instead of veils... in First Corinthians (Jefferson, Maryland: The Trinity Foundation, 1975), pg. 175
 Frederic Godet, Commentary on First Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Pub., 1977), pg. 550.
 Matt. 5:16. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.