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What is the Head Covering in 1 Cor 11:2-16 and Does it Apply to Us Today?

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The following ‘exegesis’ (if we can call it that) is really no more than an attempt to wrestle with the major hermeneutical-pragmatic double question of this passage, viz., what is the head covering and in what sense is this text applicable today?

There are several views in vogue on the text, but within evangelicalism three or four come readily to mind:

(1) This text has no applicability to us today. Paul is speaking about a ‘tradition’ that he has handed on. Hence, since this is not the tradition of the modern church, we hardly need to consider this text.

(2) The head covering is the hair. Hence, the applicability today is that women should wear (relatively) long hair.

(3) The head covering is a real head covering and the text is applicable today, in the same way as it was in Paul’s day. Within this view are two basic sub-views:

  • The head covering is to be worn by all women in the church service.
  • The head covering is to be worn by women in the church service only when praying or prophesying publicly.

(4) The head covering is a meaningful symbol in the ancient world that needs some sort of corresponding symbol today, but not necessarily a head covering. This also involves the same two sub-views as #3 above.

My own convictions are that that view 4 is correct. The sub-view within this that I adopt is the second one: women only need to wear some symbol when praying or prophesying publicly. Below is a brief interaction with the various views, including a critique of each.

No Applicability View

This view is easy to dismiss. It is based on a faulty assumption about the meaning of ‘traditions’ (παραδόσεις) in v 2, as well as ‘custom’ (συνήθειαν) in v 16. A better case could be made from v 16, but only if one ignores v 2.

The term in v 16, συνήθειαν, is the more malleable of the two. It generally has to do with a habit. The word is used but thrice in the NT (here, John 18:39, and 1 Cor 8:7). In John 18 especially the term seems to convey just a noble practice (that of releasing a prisoner during Passover). Although it might be possible to conclude that the custom in John 18 was rooted in Jewish oral tradition and hence, for the Jews, elevated to the status of a binding law (something akin to the scape goat), we have no evidence that this is the case. Morris says that the practice is “shrouded in mystery.” It, however, might be alluded to in Pesachim 8.6 (in the Mishnah), but this is problematic. Nevertheless, we simply do not have enough evidence to conclude that it was a binding custom. First Corinthians 8:7 is similar. New converts who were formerly accustomed to idols need to be handled with kid gloves when it comes to the issue of meat offered to idols. Their ‘custom’--which they, as Christians, are still somewhat observing--is not something that Paul endorses. He would certainly rather that they all be strong Christians and not have such a custom. Hence, the custom here is not binding either. It is one borne of personal preference or attitude. In sum, when someone looks just at 1 Cor 11:16, a good case could be made that the practice in the early church of women wearing a head covering may well have been no more than a community-wide habit. Once, however, v 2 is examined, it is evident that v 16 is saying much more.

In v 2 Paul praises the church because they maintain the traditions (παραδόσεις) that he has handed down (παρέδωκα) to them. In v 3 he launches into one of those traditions (transitional δέ). That this is one of the traditions is seen in the repetition of the verb ἐπαινόω in v 2 and v 17. The same theme is in mind: how the church is following Paul’s instructions regarding corporate worship. (Apparently their obedience in the head-covering issue was greater because he does not explicitly ‘not praise’ them, while in v 17 he explicitly does ‘not praise’ them concerning the Lord’s Table.)

What is significant in v 2 is the richness of the terms παραδίδωμι and παραδόσις. The verb is used very frequently for passing on the truth to the next generation. Paul uses it 19 times. In positive contexts (i.e., other than those involving the ‘handing over’ of a criminal, etc.) the verb carries the force of doctrinal commitment every time. Cf. Rom 6:17 (“you became obedient from the heart to that pattern of teaching to which you were committed”); 1 Cor 11:23 (“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you”); 1 Cor 15:3 (on the death and resurrection of Christ). The other instances (negative) suggest a commitment of one to prison, death, etc. There is a certain applicability even here: the basic force of the verb is that one commits not just his mind, but his life to something. Christ gave himself up for us (Gal 2:20; Eph 5:2, 25).

The noun παραδόσις is no less rich in its theological implications. It is used but five times in Paul, but when it has to do with the traditions that he embraces as a Christian, such are intended to be binding on all. In 2 Thess 2:15 Paul instructs the believers to stand firm and hold on to the traditions that he had passed down to them. In 2 Thess 3:6, believers are commanded to stay away from any believers who do not abide by Paul’s traditions. Thus, the verb παραδίδωμι and its nominal cognate, παραδόσις cannot be treated lightly. They do not mean ‘tradition’ in the modern English sense of the word of a nice custom that one can dispense with if desired.

How do we reconcile 1 Cor 11:2 with 1 Cor 11:16? Verse 2 governs v 16. That is to say, because the practice was a παραδόσις, it was put on the level of orthopraxy. It was a doctrine that the early church followed. Since it was on this level, most of the churches followed it religiously. Hence, Paul could appeal to what other churches were doing (v 16) as an appeal to the reasonableness and pragmatic outworking of this ‘tradition.’ This would be like saying, “Christ died for you; therefore, you should observe the Lord’s Supper. Besides, other Christians are already doing this and none have a different practice.” The practice puts flesh to the doctrine.

In sum, the view that 1 Cor 11:2-16 has no relevance today is based squarely on the English text, but not the Greek. It assumes that such traditions are optional, while Paul used words to describe them that he had reserved for the tradition of the death and resurrection of Christ. Surely, such ‘traditions’ are not optional with Paul!1

Head Covering = Hair

One of the most popular views today is that the head covering was actually the woman’s hair. This view is more difficult to assess. The exegesis of the text that adopts this view keys in on verse 15:

ἡ κόμη α᾿ντὶ περιβολαίου δέδοται--‘her hair is given [to her] in the place of a veil’

Often the assumption is that vv 2-14 describe a woman veiling and unveiling herself. If so, then the point of v 15 is that her hair is that veil. Often Numbers 5:18 is brought into the picture. Hurley argues:

The suspected adulteress of Numbers 5:18 was accused of repudiating her relation to her husband by giving herself to another. As a sign of this, her hair, which was done up on her head, was let loose. The Hebrew word which is used to describe both the letting loose of the hair and being unveiled (פרע) is translated in the Greek Old Testament by akatakalyptos, the word which Paul uses for ‘uncovered.’ Could it be that Paul was not asking the Corinthian women to put on veils, but was asking them to continue wearing their hair in the distinctive fashion of women?2

The statement from Hurley seems to imply that the LXX of Num 5:18 has ἀκατάκαλυπτος. If so, then Paul could possibly have been thinking of that text in 1 Cor 11. However, that term is not used in the Numbers text! Indeed, not much can be based on the the LXX’s use of this adjective, as it occurs in only one verse--and that in a textual variant (Lev 13:45 in codex Ac; B has ἀκάλυπτος and A* has ἀκατάλυπτος). To argue that Paul, in 1 Cor 11, means by ἀκατάκαλυπτος ‘let loose’ is akin to the argument that ‘all Indians walk single-file. At least the one I saw did.’ Further, BAGD gives for the meaning of this word in 1 Cor 11 uncovered, without even entertaining the possibility that it means ‘let loose.’ This definition is based on the available Hellenistic and classical evidence.3 Thus, Hurley’s argument lacks sufficient basis.

On the other hand, two points are significant: (1) No word for veil occurs in vv 2-14. Thus, that the hair is regarded by Paul as a veil in v 15 is not necessarily an argument that the hair is the same as the head covering that he is describing in these verses. (2) Throughout this pericope, Paul points out the similarities of long hair with a head covering. But his doing so strongly suggests that the two are not to be identified. Precisely because they are similar they are not identical. Note the following verses.

11:5-- “but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head--it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved.”

11:6-- “For if a woman will not cover herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should keep it covered.

11:7-- “For a man ought not to cover his head . . .”

11:10-- “For this reason a woman ought to have [a symbol of] authority on her head”

11:13-- “Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?”

11:15-- “but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory . . .”

Several points can be made here. (1) If ‘covering’ = ‘hair,’ then all men should shave their heads or go bald because the men are to have their heads uncovered. (2) If ‘covering’ = ‘long hair,’ then v 6 seems to suggest a tautology: “if a woman will not wear long hair, then she should cut off her hair.” But this in no way advances the argument. (3) The argument caves in by its own subtlety. To see ‘hair’ = ‘head covering’ means that one has to go through several exegetical hoops. In short, it hardly appears to be the plain meaning of the text. (4) Verses 10 and 15 would have to be saying the same thing if long hair is the same as a head covering. But this can hardly be the case. In v 10, a woman is required to wear a ‘symbol of authority.’ Such a symbol represents her submission, not her glory. Paul begins the verse by pointing back to v 9 (διὰ τοῦτο in v 10, ‘for this reason,’ is inferential). Because ‘woman was created for the sake of man’ she ought to wear a symbol of authority on her head. But in v 15, a woman’s long hair is her glory. The Greek is even more emphatic: the dative αὐτῇ is a dative of advantage. A literal translation would be: ‘it is a glory to her’ or ‘a glory accruing to her,’ or ‘to her advantage.’ Surely this is not the point of v 10!

To argue, then, that long hair is the woman’s head covering seems to miss the very point of the function of the head covering and of the long hair: one shows her submission while the other shows her glory. Both of these are contrasted with an uncovered head while praying or prophesying, or a shaved head at any time: such would speak of the woman’s humiliation and shame.

Real Head Covering, Applicable Today

The argument that a real head covering is in view and that such is applicable today is, in some respects, the easiest view to defend exegetically and the hardest to swallow practically. Since it is never safe to abandon one’s conscience regarding the truth of Scripture, I held to this view up until recently. Quite frankly, I did not like it (it is very unpopular today). But I could not, in good conscience, disregard it. Essentially, this view assumes three things: (1) that a real head covering is in view;4 (2) that Paul’s argument has a greater foundation than mere convention; and (3) that the head covering itself is an essential part of his viewpoint. Note the following arguments in support of this.

  • Verse 2 (παραδίδωμι, παραδόσις) indicates that Paul’s instruction is part of the traditional package of doctrine that he was passing on to the Church (see discussion above, under ‘no applicability view’). But Paul here does not give any details of the instruction. That is picked up in the rest of the passage.
  • Verses 3-9 base this instruction on a theological hierarchy and on creation. God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of the man, the man is the head of the woman. It is important to note that Paul is in no way arguing for the ontological inferiority of the woman to the man, for he roots his convictions in the Godhead. Christ is only functionally subordinate to the Father, not ontologically subordinate.5 The wife, too, is functionally subordinate to the husband, but in no way ontologically inferior (vv 11-12).
  • Verse 10 bases the  woman’s symbol of subordination on a fine point of angelology (one that escapes us today, though conjectures abound).
  • Verses 13-15 roughly constitute an argument from nature.
  • Verse 16 is an argument from the collective wisdom of the church universal, for Christians elsewhere have no other practice.

Thus, the argument is a general theological conviction (as opposed to a mere sociological convention), though growing out of several key doctrines: (1) Nascent trinitarianism, (2) creation, (3) angelology, (4) general revelation, and (5) church practice. Thus, for Paul, disobedience to his instructions about the head covering smacked of a deficient angelology, defective anthropology and and ecclesiology, and a destructive trinitarianism, and ran aground on the rocks of general revelation. Further, to focus on v 16 as the sole basis (as the ‘no applicability’ view does) is to slide right through the heart of this pericope without observing anything.

The specific applications of this approach are generally two: (1) applicable whenever a woman is in the church service; (2) applicable whenever a woman prays or prophesies publicly. In brief, I take the second to be in view simply because it is explicit (vv 4-5). After the initial theological statement (vv 2-3), Paul introduces the topic at hand: men and women praying or prophesying in the assembly. That this same topic is in view is evident by its repetition in v 13 (‘if a woman prays’). It seems unwarranted to expand the application beyond what the initial topical statement (vv 4-5) suggests. That is to say, all of the arguments and all of the principles are geared toward and applicable to women praying and prophesying in the public setting. Incidentally, if this restriction is correct, this constitutes another argument against the ‘long hair’ view, for a woman cannot swap long hair for short and vice versa in a moment’s notice, as she could a head covering.

One thing remains: a critique of the real head covering as the normative symbol today.

The Meaningful Symbol View

This view adopts the exegesis of the real head-covering view with one exception. It does not regard a real head covering as essential to the view. This is the view that I currently adopt. In essence, it is based on an understanding of the role of head coverings in the ancient world vs. the modern world. In the ancient world head coverings were apparently in vogue in some parts of the Graeco-Roman empire. Some groups expected the men to wear head coverings; others expected women to wear them. Still others felt that such were optional for both men and women. It is not important to determine which group did what. The important thing to note is that the early church adopted a convention already in use in society and gave it a distinctively Christian hue. That Paul could say that no other churches had any other practice may well indicate how easily such a practice could be adopted. This finds parallels with baptism in Israel. The Pharisees did not ask John, “What are you doing?” Instead, they asked, “Why are you doing this?” They understood baptism (even though John’s baptism was apparently the first to be other-baptism rather than self-baptism); what they didn’t understand was John’s authority and what his baptism symbolized. In a similar way, the early church practice of requiring the women to wear a head covering when praying or prophesying6 would not have been viewed as an unusual request. In the cosmopolitan cities of Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece, no one would feel out of place. Head coverings were everywhere. When a woman wore one in the church, she was showing her subordination to her husband, but was not out of place with society. One could easily imagine a woman walking down the street to the worship service with a head covering on without being noticed.

Today, however, the situation is quite different, at least in the West. For a woman to wear a head covering7 would seem to be a distinctively humiliating experience. Many women--even biblically submissive wives--resist the notion precisely because they feel awkward and self-conscious. But the head covering in Paul’s day was intended only to display the woman’s subordination, not her humiliation. Today, ironically, to require a head covering for women in the worship service would be tantamount to asking them to shave their heads! The effect, therefore, would be just the opposite of what Paul intended. Thus, in attempting to fulfill the spirit of the apostle’s instruction, not just his words, some suitable substitute symbol needs to be found.

Two questions remain. First, how can we justify a different symbol of authority on a woman’s head if the head covering is now a symbol of humiliation? Second, what symbol should we use?

First, the justification comes from several angles. (1) It is in keeping with the spirit of 1 Cor 11 and explicitly with two of Paul’s arguments (nature, convention). If forced to make a choice, it is wiser to take a view that is in keeping with the spirit of the text rather than the letter. (2) The broader spirit of Christianity is clearly against symbols for symbols’ sake. The NT writers do not seem to push ritual and symbol, but reality and substance. (3) The reason, I suspect, that head covering was implemented in the early church was simply that it was an already established societal convention that could be ‘baptized,’ so to speak. That the symbol of head covering fit into Paul’s argument about the headship of God, Christ, and husband, is what seems to have suggested this particular symbol. But even if the symbol loses some of its symbolism, the point needs to remain the same. (That is, whatever symbol a woman is to wear should indicate her submission to her husband and/or [if not married] the male leadership of the church.8) (4) An analogy with the Lord’s Table might help. It is appropriate because there is much that is symbolic in the Eucharist and this celebration is also one of those traditions that Paul handed down (1 Cor 11:17ff.). The symbols of the wine and unleavened bread are taken directly from the Passover. In the first century the Passover involved the use of four mandatory cups of wine, lamb, bitter herbs, unleavened bread. The part of the meal that Jesus turned into the first Lord’s Supper was apparently the third cup of the Passover and the unleavened bread. The lack of leaven was an important symbol, for it represented Christ’s sinlessness. And, of course, real wine was used. Is it necessary for us today to use unleavened bread and real wine? Some churches make this a mandatory practice, others an optional one. Still others would be horrified if real wine were used. Few today have unleavened bread (saltine crackers do have some yeast in them). Should we pronounce an anathema on these folks because they have broken from the tradition--a tradition which has both historical and biblical antecedents? If the implementation of such an important tradition as the Lord’s Supper can be varied, then should not the much less important tradition of the specific role (and garb) of women be allowed some flexibility, too?

Second, if the actual symbol used is not the issue, but what it represents is, what symbol should we use today? There can be no universal answer, simply because the ‘meaningful symbol’ approach is a recognition that conventions change. If we were to canonize one symbol--especially one not mentioned in the Bible--then we would be in danger of elevating oral tradition to the level of Scripture and of externalizing and trivializing the gospel. Having said that, each church needs to wrestle with an appropriate symbol for the present time. Quite frankly, if you (and your church) think that what I’ve suggested in this paper has validity, then the leadership of the church should probably do some creative brain-storming. I would like very much to hear from you!

Still, some controls do exist. As much of the spirit and symbolism of 1 Cor 11 as can be conveyed ought to be. Some have suggested that a wedding ring would be an acceptable symbol. There are some good points to this. It is a symbol that is accepted in large segments of society. A woman would not feel self-conscious wearing a ring. It certainly shows her bond to her husband and therefore picks up the force of 1 Cor 11:9 (co-dependency!) well. However, there are problems with this symbol. The ring is insufficient for the following reasons: (1) using this as the symbol presupposes that only married women are in view; (2) it is not a symbol distinctive of women; married men would also wear such a ring; and (3) unlike a head covering, it is not a very visible symbol.

What other symbols are available? At the present time--and I emphasize the tentative nature of this position--I think the wearing of a modest dress is an appropriate symbol. It does not pick up every correspondence in the passage, but it does do justice to many. In particular--and this is most important--a woman who wears a provocative dress (too feminine) or who pushes the boundaries of propriety in the other direction (such as jeans, business suit9) is often not showing proper submission in her very attitude.10 The symbol thus corresponds to its theological reality very neatly.11

I hope and pray that this paper is not too offensive to any who would read it. My concern at all times is first to be faithful to the Scriptures. And second, I wish at all times to be sensitive to real people with real needs. Some may object that this paper is not biblical enough; others may object that it is out of step with modern culture. If someone disagrees with my position, that is fine. But to convince me to change requires a refutation of the exegesis. I may well be wrong in my exegesis, but I will need to see it. As much as I sympathize with the feminist movement (and I sympathize with much in it), I cannot betray my conscience or my understanding of Scripture. I am open to other views on the text, but will not change simply because of ad hominem arguments. All believers need to be convinced of their views in light of Scripture; none should depart from what the Bible teaches simply because such views are not popular. The real danger, as I see it, is that many Christians simply ignore what this text says because any form of obedience to it is inconvenient.

1 In addition to vv 2 and 16, there are several theological arguments within the passage that indicate the seriousness of the head covering for Paul. See discussion below.

2 J. B. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981) 170-71.

3 LSJ also gives as the only meaning “uncovered.”

4 We are assuming that a real head covering is taught, due to the considerations against the ‘long hair’ view mentioned earlier. At issue here, however, is the combination of real head covering and present-day applicability.

5 If I may, I would like to add a personal observation. Much of the feminist viewpoint in the evangelical church today is based on a simplistic view of the Trinity, rampant among evangelicals (largely because, I suspect, in the church’s reaction to the rise of the cults of the last century, part of its theological convictions were suppressed). Evangelicals strongly affirm the ontological equality of Son with Father. Yet it is difficult to find doctrinal statements—either in churches or in seminaries—in which the Son is said to be functionally subordinate to the Father. Yet John 14:28; Phil 2:6-11; 1 Cor 11:3; 15:28 all plainly teach the eternal subordination of the Son (John 14 and 1 Cor 11 speak of his present subordination; Phil 2 speaks of his subordination in eternity past; and 1 Cor 15 speaks of his subordination in eternity future). Since these same books strongly affirm the ontological equality of Son with Father, the subordination in view must be functional.

6 I am assuming that the restriction was for women when praying or prophesying, although some who hold this view would argue that the passage does not restrict it to this. See discussion earlier.

7 It must be kept in mind that a head covering is not the same as a hat. A hat’s function is to show off the beauty of the woman, much as beautiful hair does. A head covering, however, was intended to veil her glory.

8 We have not discussed at all whether single women or married women are in view in this text. That will have to be left for another occasion. Suffice it to say that γυνή should be taken as woman (as opposed to ‘wife’) unless there are sufficient contextual reasons to argue otherwise.

9 I do not mean that women may not wear jeans! I mean, rather, that in some parts of the country for a woman to wear jeans to the worship service is tantamount to disrespect to those in authority. In the northwest, however, jeans are almost the choice of the fashion-conscious, even when attending Sunday services. (My brother has his dress jeans and his casual jeans . . . ) In that region a different symbol may well be needed. If it is difficult to come up with a good symbol that women can accept, then they should be responsible and creative enough to come up with one. Certainly this issue is one that requires some fruitful dialogue between men and women. Whatever symbol is chosen, it ought not to be one that humiliates, but simply displays the proper submission.

10 Ironically, long hair today has a similar effect. Often women who wear extremely short hair today do so to be treated like a man. Thus, even though it is not the meaning of the passage, it is possible that some churches will elect long hair worn in a certain way to be their meaninful symbol. There are still problems with this, however. For example, the tension between vv 10 and 15 would thereby be erased. And the fact of long hair—or even various styles of long hair—do not always communicate a sense of submission. Further, women who wear shorter hair for a variety of reasons would thereby be ostracized and cut out of public ministry. But climate and age often dictate the length of a woman’s hair. Ironically, if long hair becomes the standard today, the younger, less mature women would be permitted to minister publicly more than the older, more mature women.

11 At the same time, some may object to this because the symbol related to ‘head’ is entirely lost. But what head represents in the passage is authority. It is unwise to insist on one symbol because of its correspondence to another symbol, when in the process the real point gets lost in the shuffle. Such an insistence seems to smack of Pharisaism.

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