4 Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head.
5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved.
6 For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.
7 For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.
8 For man is not from woman, but woman from man.
9 Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man.
10 For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.
11 Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord.
12 For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.
13 Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?
14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him?
15 But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering.
16 But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.
(1 Cor. 11:4-16)
There are some sections of the bible that are notoriously difficult to interpret, these are the places where one is not absolutely clear what is meant or how it is to be applied. Unfortunately, 1 Corinthians 11:4-16 is one of those sections of scripture. It contains some things that are clear, and others that are famously difficult to understand and subject to a host of competing interpretations. For instance, verse 10 which in the Greek reads literally: “For this reason the woman ought to have power (exousia) on her head because of the angels.” In translating this verse, even the normally conservative NKJV goes ahead and makes a translation that is more of an interpretation rendering “power” as “symbol of authority.” The New Living Translation goes even further and renders exousia – “veil” and then adds, “because the angels are watching”, which moves it entirely from the realm of translation into an attempt at theological explanation. But verse 10 isn’t the only difficult to translate portion of these verses, as we shall see verse 16 is another famously “sticky wicket”.
But the fact that some sections of the scriptures are difficult to understand shouldn’t phase us. The Westminster Confession points out in Chapter 1 section 7:
“All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”
In other words, not everything in scripture is easy to understand, but by the grace of God, the main things in salvation are the plain things and critical doctrines like salvation through faith alone are clearly and plainly taught. The doctrines in this portion of chapter 11 are not things necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation and while no section of the bible is unimportant, technically someone on a desert island with a defective bible that was missing this portion of chapter 11 could correctly understand the Gospel and be saved.
However, the fact that we don’t need to understand this section in order to be saved doesn’t change the fact that we should seek to understand and apply what Paul teaches here about headcoverings. Now, a little further on in chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession in section 9 we are reminded that:
“The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”
Normally that is a wonderful rule and of great help, but unfortunately, this is the only section of scripture that really addresses the subject of headcoverings. There are a couple of sections that speak of people covering their heads as a sign of mourning (2 Sam. 15:30 and Esther 6:12 for instance) but none that speak of it in worship, and while I would dearly love to be able to ask Paul, “what did you mean here?” none of us will have that ability till glory, and at that point I believe we’ll know the answer to this and all things. This side of glory, we can be helped by the wisdom of godly interpreters, but you need to know they’ve come to some very different conclusions on this portion of the Word. So I’m going to have to tread carefully, and simply tell you that there are some sections of these verses where I am fairly sure I know what Paul is saying, and others where I am going to have to admit I’m making an informed guess. Over the years, I’ve listened to many pastors make dogmatic declarations and issue binding pronouncements regarding these verses, but I will freely tell you that while there are plenty of sections where I do feel comfortable doing that, this is not one of them.
So, with that long intro out of the way, let us get to the interpretation of these verses!
A Problem of Disordered Worship
Paul is dealing here with a problem in the worship of the Corinthian church. Some of the women were worshipping in a manner that challenged the local customs of Corinth and seemed to imply a denial of biblical headship. They were acting in a way that not only scandalized Greek culture, but which also went against the natural hierarchy that God established between the sexes. In some way, their manner of worship seemed to be eliminating the distinction between the sexes.
Now please keep in mind that Paul had already said that we should not offend against the cultural norms of a society if those customs were “things indifferent.” In other words, if a missionary went to a culture where it was the custom for men not to wear yellow clothes because only women wore the color yellow and it was therefore considered effeminate and offensive for a man to do so, he should listen to Paul’s instruction in 1 Cor. 10:32: “Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God” and in 1 Cor. 9:22 “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” and therefore not go about wearing yellow. However, if it was the custom of that society to go about naked, that is not a matter of indifference, the missionary must keep his clothes on no matter how weird or offensive it might seem to the natives.
In Greek society, in common with most places in the east, we know it was the custom of the women to have their head covered whenever they were in public; they normally wore a veil called the peplum which was thrown over the head. The only possible exception to this rule that we know of were women of ill-repute. Therefore for a woman to be uncovered in public would have been considered scandalous to the Greeks of Corinth. On the other hand it was the custom of Greek men to have their heads uncovered in public.
So after establishing the importance of headship in verse 3 Paul, starts out teaching from an opposite example. If a man were to cover his head while praying or prophesying, and the word prophesying (Prophetuo) speaking on behalf of God, lets us know that he means in the context of public worship, i.e. the public assembly, well then that man dishonors his Head, not literally the head on his own shoulders, but the Head set by the context of verse 3, that is Christ. This is because he would be appearing with the sign of male headship worn by women on his own head. He would be a man dressed as a woman, which would bring shame upon the church of Jesus Christ in the same way that a general appearing for an inspection dressed in an evening gown would not only be a shame to himself, he would be showing disrespect to the entire US military and his Commander in Chief.
The woman therefore who enters into worship without a covering is doing the same thing. She is appearing in public worship in a manner that dishonored her head, which is the man. By doing so she puts herself in the same category as a woman whose head had been shaved, which until fairly recently was a universal sign of disgrace for women. For instance, it is interesting to reflect that throughout Europe, in France, Italy, Holland, and so on, following their liberation from Nazi occupation, women who had collaborated with the Germans were disgraced by having their heads shaved.
Clearly, being shaved was also a disgrace in Greece, so let them therefore have their heads covered
Not a Justification for Women Preaching in Public Worship
Now as we shall see in I Cor. 14:34 Paul is not saying that it is ok for women to prophesy in public worship, he is merely noting that they did so. He will judge and condemn that practice later in explicit terms. His disapproving of the one, says Calvin, does not mean approving of the other.
Paul then goes on to say why the natural order ought to be upheld in the way we act, in a way that would indicate to us that a sinful egalitarianism was being displayed. Man was created in the image of God, therefore his calling was to glorify God by exercising dominion. The woman was also created in the image of God, but she was created by God not to exercise dominion, but to act as a help-meet to the man and to voluntarily submit to him. By doing so she glorified God. The fact that the woman was created from a rib taken from the side of the man reinforces that help-meet role.
Now regarding verse 10, “For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels” what Paul is saying is that the woman ought to have a symbol of her submission to that authority on her head, because as they were worshipping in the presence not merely of men but of the unfallen Angels, who would naturally be offended by rebellion.
The feminists are fond of claiming that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, and that the woman is independent, but Paul points out that in Christ the sexes are interdependent not independent. After the initial creation of man from the dust of the earth, man has always been born from woman. We both depend on each other and need one another, even in the Christian faith. Redemption does not change the fact of creation, and we all depend on God and need to submit to the Lord’s rule and ordering which is something our rebellious hearts have trouble with.
Paul goes on to point out that even nature goes against the upsetting of God’s hierarchy for it teaches us that it is unnatural and a disgrace for a man to have long effeminate hair. Therefore it is wrong for a man to dress or appear in public as a woman, or for a woman to appear to dress as a man.
The Point of these Verses
In concluding his instructions, Paul addresses the issue of someone rebelling against this practice. What if, for instance, a male comes in to worship with long flowing hair and refuses to cut it? Now there are two ways, of translating the critical phrase in verse 16:
- a) “We have no such custom” or b) “we have no other practice”The difference between these phrases may seem insignificant, but they have vastly different meanings. For instance, if I were to ask you, “Do you eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?” and you were to answer with phrase a, I would assume you didn’t, while if you were to answer with phrase b, I would assume you always did. Now of great importance is whether this verse deals with being contentious or being veiled in worship. John Calvin is favor of the former, while commentators like Kistemaker are in favor of the latter.The critical issues here are ones of propriety and headship, but unfortunately most people simply want
to know if hats and veils are mandatory which is not actually the point of these verses, the point of the verses is that in all of the things we do in worship, including the way we dress, we would seek to honor our head in worship and display our willing submission. In ancient Greece, veils for women were a clear sign of male headship, and casting them off was a sign of rebellion or immodesty and therefore it was appropriate that women wear a veil in worship. But is that still the case in our own society? Similarly we need to ask is merely having hair below shoulder length feminine? If that is the case we have just condemned many Puritan and Scots divines (including John Owen, Samuel Rutherford, Thomas Boston, George Gillespie, Thomas Manton, John Flavel, and Thomas Watson) and the majority of the founding fathers! I would argue that the long hair these men had was no more a sign of femininity than the fact that highlanders wear kilts!
In fact, I would argue that the quickest way to demonstrate that the central issue is headship and not merely wearing a hat is to ask what approach Christian missionaries should take when entering a culture where wearing something on your head is a sign of headship and not wearing anything is a sign of submission. Would a pastor insist that his congregants appear to be teaching that the women are in charge and the men are submissive by their dress? Also, what pastor would not be cognizant that many of the women from that culture (and the men!) would be as happy at this appearance of role reversal as the Greek women in Corinth were to scandalize their own culture by taking off their headcoverings?
What is clear is that both Christian men and women, in whatever culture they dwell should be doing those things that clearly show their willing submission to their heads and not think that merely by following an anachronistic custom they have done all that is necessary in this respect.