In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 the apostle Paul gives instruction on how men and women in the Corinthian church should act when they meet together in worship.
The text is as follows:
“2 Now I praise you because you always remember me and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.
3 But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ.
4 Every man who prays or prophesies with something on his head dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since that is one and the same as having her head shaved. 6 So if a woman's head is not covered, her hair should be cut off. But if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, she should be covered.
7 A man, in fact, should not cover his head, because he is God's image and glory, but woman is man's glory. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman came from man. 9 And man was not created for woman, but woman for man. 10 This is why a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.
11 In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, and man is not independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman, and all things come from God.
13 Judge for 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 disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her as a covering.
16 But if anyone wants to argue about this, we have no other custom, nor do the churches of God.” (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
In this passage one of the main things Paul talks about is head coverings in public worship. He tells the Corinthians that men shouldn’t pray or prophesy with a covered head, and that women shouldn’t do these things with an uncovered head.
Today, a large majority of evangelicals think that what Paul says here doesn’t apply to Christians universally in every culture and every century of the church. They say that in the culture of Corinth in the first century it was appropriate for women and men to cover or not cover their heads as Paul teaches. But they claim that this wouldn’t necessarily be the case in a different cultural context.
A much smaller group of evangelicals claim that Paul’s instruction on head coverings does apply universally to all churches in every century. They say that it is a general principle that in public worship women should cover their heads and men shouldn’t.
In what follows, I will do two things. First, I will argue that Paul’s teaching on head coverings does apply universally to all cultures and every century of the church. And second, I will argue that even though this is a universal principle, it is a mistake to implement it without further consideration.
MEN NOT COVERING THEIR HEADS
To begin with, then, we need to ask if what Paul says about head coverings in this passage is a universal principle or just one that is dependent on culture.
We will start by looking at what the passage says about men not covering their heads. The teaching on men is both clearer and shorter than the teaching on women. So it makes sense to begin with this.
Paul first refers to the issue of men not covering their heads in v. 4, where he states:
“Every man who prays or prophesies with something on his head dishonors his head.”
In v. 3 Paul has just said that Christ is the head of every man, so “his head” at the end of v. 4 is a reference to Christ, and this phrase may also have a secondary reference to the man’s literal head.
Therefore, in v. 4 Paul is saying that a man who prays or prophesies with a covered head dishonors Christ and possibly also his own literal head as well.
In v. 4, then, Paul says what the result is of a man praying or prophesying with a covered head: it dishonors Christ. However, he gives no reason why doing this dishonors Christ.
However, when we come to v. 7, he does tell us why. Paul says:
“A man, in fact, should not cover his head, because he is God's image and glory . . .”
The argument of those who take the majority evangelical view
Those who claim that Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor. 11:2-16 about men not covering their heads is something that depends on culture often argue in this way about v. 7:
When Paul says that a man shouldn’t cover his head because he is God’s image and glory, his point is that men should act like men and not like women. In Corinthian culture, to cover the head in worship was a feminine thing to do. It is wrong for a man to act in a feminine way, so in that culture it was wrong for a man to cover his head. If a man did this effeminate thing, he would be failing to live out being the glory of God and would dishonor Christ (v. 4). This means that in v. 7 Paul is not giving a universal principle about men not covering their heads in public worship. Rather, his point is that men should please God by not doing something that the culture they live in finds effeminate.
There are, however, three big problems with this interpretation.
First, there is good archaeological evidence that in Greco-Roman religions of the first century men often did cover their heads while engaged in public worship.
This means that in first century Corinth it is doubtful that men who covered their heads during Christian worship would have been seen as doing something feminine. So it seems unlikely that Paul’s concern in this passage is men acting in an effeminate way.
Too much reading between the lines
Second, to accept the argument given by those who say that not covering the head was about fitting in with culture, we have to do too much reading between the lines.
When Paul says, “A man . . . should not cover his head, because he is God's image and glory,” it is far more natural to take him to mean simply that being God’s image and glory is the direct reason that a man shouldn’t cover his head.
Actually, the reference to men being God’s image here seems to be a kind of aside that doesn’t form part of Paul’s argument. At the end of v. 7 he will say, “but woman is man's glory,” where he notably doesn’t say that woman is man’s image and glory. Paul would, of course, have agreed with Gen. 1:27 that men and women are equally in the image of God. So women are as much God’s image as men, yet Paul makes it clear in this passage that women should cover their heads. Therefore, the real reason Paul is giving in v. 7 for why men shouldn’t cover their heads is surely just that they are God’s glory, not also that they are His image. And it is very natural to take him to mean simply that being God’s glory is the direct reason men shouldn’t cover their heads.
I find it very difficult to believe that the Corinthians would have interpreted him in any other way. This is the interpretation that they would automatically have assumed as they read Paul’s words. To bring in a convoluted argument about culture looks very unnatural and forced, and involves a lot of unnecessary reading between the lines.
The logic of the passage
Third, if we understand Paul to be giving a universal principle, it makes perfect sense of the logic of men not covering and women covering their heads.
As I have noted, at the end of v. 7 Paul says: “but woman is man's glory.”
This clause is surely shorthand for “but a woman should cover her head because she is man’s glory.” That would be a parallel to the instruction on men not covering their heads in the first part of v. 7. And in view of how Paul has given parallel teaching on men and women in verses 4-6, we would expect this to continue in v. 7.
So we should have no hesitation in saying that in v. 7 Paul is teaching two things:
(1) Men shouldn’t cover their heads because they are God’s glory.
(2) Women should cover their heads because they are man’s glory.
What Paul seems quite clearly to mean is that during public worship God’s glory should be on display but man’s glory should be hidden. If a man covers his head, something of God’s glory is being hidden, and this isn’t good during a time of public worship. But if a woman has an uncovered head, something of man’s glory is on display, and this also isn’t good during a time of public worship.
This seems to be the logic of Paul’s argument, and it has nothing at all to do with cultural ways of dressing.
For three reasons, then, the idea that Paul’s instruction for men not to cover their heads is a cultural one appears to be incorrect. We do far better to take what he says as a universal principle:
Men shouldn’t cover their heads in public worship because they shouldn’t hide the glory of God (v. 7) and thereby dishonor Christ (v. 4).
WOMEN COVERING THEIR HEADS
Let’s move on now to think about women. Does this passage teach that women covering their heads in public worship is a universal principle or just something that applies in certain cultures?
There are good reasons for believing that it is a universal principle.
The teaching on women corresponds to the teaching on men
To begin with, in this passage Paul’s instruction on women in many respects corresponds to his instruction on men. In other words, the place of head coverings in the life of women is not a separate issue from the place of head coverings in the life of men. These are parts of one and the same topic.
So, given, as we have seen, that there are good reasons to think that the instruction to men is a universal one, we would expect the same to be true of the instruction to women.
Woman as the glory of man
Secondly, the third reason I gave above for why we should take the teaching about men to be universal also applies to women, as I have already noted:
When Paul teaches in v. 7 that a woman should cover her head because she is man’s glory, he quite clearly seems to mean that she should keep man’s glory hidden while the focus is on God in worship. And this has nothing to do with culture.
Nothing in the passage suggests that head coverings are purely cultural
It is important to note too that no part of verses 2-16 should lead us to think that the principle of women covering their heads is anything other than a universal principle.
Verse 10 is probably one of the most difficult verses to interpret in the entire Bible, and debate swirls around it.
Literally, the text in Greek reads:
“For this reason, the woman ought to have authority on/over her head, because of the angels.”
It is unclear whether Paul is saying that a women should have a head covering as a symbol of authority on her head (as in the Holman translation that I quoted above), or if he means that a woman should take control over what she does with her head. And it is also unclear in what respect the angels are involved.
Importantly for our purposes, however, there is nothing in this verse which suggests that the principle of women covering their heads is merely a cultural one. Nor does anything else in the passage as a whole point in this direction.
There are two good reasons, then, for thinking that the principle of women covering their heads in public worship is a universal one. And, although there are difficult interpretive issues in this passage, no part of it suggests that this principle is not universal.
I should say too that I am sure that if women in Western countries today did routinely cover their heads, the number of commentators who claim that Paul’s principle is just a cultural one would be far fewer. I think many have allowed themselves to believe what they want to believe on this topic, instead of allowing Scripture to speak freely.
In view of what we have seen, therefore, it makes sense to think that in 1 Cor. 11:2-16 Paul is giving two universal principles:
(1) When praying or prophesying in public worship, men should not have their heads covered.
(2) When praying or prophesying in public worship, women should have their heads covered.
Of course, many Christians, myself included, will find this teaching more than a little strange. To think that a bare-headed man will somehow enhance the glory of God in worship, while a bare-headed woman will detract from this, is not what most of us would expect the Bible to teach.
However, there are a couple of points to make here.
First, it is much more important for us to know what Scripture teaches than why it teaches it. Knowing why is very helpful and something we should strive for if possible. But it is far more important to know what it is that Scripture tells us to do.
Second, the Bible as a whole seems to teach that there is something deeply spiritual about gender. There is a lot of profound reality connected to gender that goes right to the heart of God’s creation of human beings. There is vastly more to this than mere physical differences. That is why, for example, homosexual practice or so-called transgendering are such grave evils in God’s sight.
And when deep truths are involved, there are bound to be things we find mysterious and difficult to understand.
WHAT SHOULD WE DO TODAY?
This brings us to thinking about the place of head coverings today.
In Western countries, of course, it is very rare for Christian men or women to cover their heads in public worship. This means that nearly every man follows Paul’s instruction in this passage. But it also means that nearly every woman doesn’t follow what he says.
In the rest of this article my focus will be on women, since this is where practice conflicts with biblical teaching. We need to ask what God’s will is on this issue. Should women always cover their heads at church services? And how important is this?
Those who just assume that Paul’s instruction should be implemented
From what I have read, most Christians who (rightly) accept that Paul’s instruction to women on head coverings is a universal one just assume that Christians should implement this teaching. In their view, the Bible teaches that women should cover their heads in public worship, so that’s what women should do, end of story.
Not so simple
I believe that things are not so simple. The fact that Scripture teaches a universal principle doesn’t necessarily mean that the principle should always be implemented.
I am not for a moment suggesting that there are times when we shouldn’t do the will of God. Rather, my point is that just because a universal principle is given in the Bible, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is always God’s will for the principle to be put into effect. Exceptional situations do arise.
Examples of exceptional situations
Nearly every Christian would agree that there are some exceptional situations when biblical principles should not be followed.
For example, the Bible teaches that God has designed sexual relations only for marriage (e.g., Gen. 2:24; 1 Cor. 7:9; Heb. 13:4). This is a universal principle, not one that depends on culture.
Yet there are exceptional situations when it is surely not a sin for a person to have sex outside marriage. For example, if, tragically, a woman is raped at knifepoint and told that she will be killed unless she cooperates, we shouldn’t hesitate to say that she commits no sin when she does so.
Similarly, Scripture teaches that people shouldn’t lie (e.g., Eph. 4:25; Col. 3:9), and this is another universal principle. Yet Scripture also contains several examples of lies that are apparently told in the will of God, in various extreme circumstances (e.g., Exod. 1:15-20; 1 Sam. 19:11-17; 2 Sam. 17:17-20).
We shouldn’t think that every single universal principle in the Bible must always be followed no matter what. Life is more complicated than that.
Exceptional situations and head coverings
It is true that the examples of not following universal principles that I have just given involve extreme situations. Nevertheless, it makes sense to think that there might also sometimes be less extreme situations when it is right not to follow a biblical principle. Some biblical principles are much more important than others. And if a principle is not of first importance, it seems reasonable to believe that even in non-extreme circumstances it might sometimes be God’s will for the principle not to be followed.
As a general rule, the more often a topic is referred to in Scripture, the more important it is, and 1 Cor. 11:2-16 is the only passage that tells Christian women to cover their heads. It therefore makes sense to think that the principle of women covering their heads in public worship is not among the most important biblical principles.
As I ponder this issue, it seems to me that God is probably often content for a woman not to wear a covering.
If a woman in a Western country chooses to cover her head for public worship, she will probably be the only woman at that service who does so.
However, most of us find it very embarrassing to be dressed differently from everyone around us. So a woman who did this on her own would probably find it a difficult and distressing thing to do. And it is likely that this would be her experience time after time.
Of course, as Christians we need to pick up our crosses every day and follow the Lord (Luke 9:23). Christian discipleship is costly and painful.
Nevertheless, each of us has a finite amount of strength. Sometimes we need to pick and choose our fights. There is only so much God calls us to endure.
I find it difficult to believe that it is often the will of God for a woman to cover her head if she gets very embarrassed about doing this. She would probably not look forward to worship services, and, if this happens, it seems to me that more is lost than gained by the covering. I really don’t think that this issue is important enough to warrant a woman going through embarrassment and distress on a regular basis.
There are plenty of moral issues that are important enough to warrant this, but I find it hard to believe that covering the head is one of them.
Those who are not embarrassed
Although most women would find it very embarrassing to be the only one covering her head in a worship service, this is not true for every woman. Some are not that bothered by it. In such cases, I think it is probably good for women to cover their heads.
I am not completely sure about this, however, because I have some concerns about the impact head coverings might have on visitors to churches. We should want non-Christian visitors to attend our worship services (1 Cor. 14:22-25). And I am concerned that if many women covered their heads, non-Christian women in Western countries might be put off attending.
On the one hand, then, it is good for women to cover their heads. But on the other hand, we don’t want to put unnecessary obstacles in the way of non-Christians visiting. I think the first of these points is probably the more important one, but I am not confident about that.
Anyway, each Christian woman would need to seek God personally in prayer for insight on how she should act.
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