1 Corinthians 11:12-16 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 New Testament. The intent of this chapter 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 only for churches in Paul’s day (though perhaps not all churches in Paul’s 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, I feel that it is unwise to explain away New Testament 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 New Testament. Needless to say, we can’t have that! But even if one wanted to make an exception to the rule that a command 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 Paul’s 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 Paul’s 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 Paul’s 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”). Paul’s point seems to be twofold: 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 woman” – hence, interdependence, and hence, vv 8-9 are balanced by vv 11-12.
One last balance seems to be offered 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 God – see 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 Paul’s 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 practice – nor do the churches of God.” It seems relatively clear from Paul’s words that someone (or, perhaps more likely, some group) was insisting that the church take a specific position on women’s head coverings. Most modern translations (including the NASV 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”; see KJV). Needless to say, this drastically changes the meaning of Paul’s 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 (traditions) 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 don’t 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 woman – he 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 woman’s 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: “Don’t 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 woman’s 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 woman’s 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.” Further, 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 woman’s 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, 1Co 11:2-16 is a very liberating passage. In it, women are freed from the bondage of wearing religious head dress.
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, however, 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 Paul’s 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.
— Eric Svendsen
Summary of Salient Points
- Paul, during the 1.5 years he stayed in Corinth (Acts 18:1, 11), taught a women’s head should be covered when praying or prophesying as a sign she was in submission to her husband (11:10). Paul taught the proper head covering was long hair.
- After Paul left Corinth, someone else contended that the proper covering should instead be a garment worn over the long hair, 11:16 (religious clothing!).
- The church resisted the garment contention and instead continued to practice Paul’s tradition of long hair as the only covering needed, 11:2. However, the church wrote Paul to ask him about it. 1 Corinthians 11a is Paul’s response.
- Both Paul and the contender agreed that a woman’s head should be covered when praying or prophesying (11:3-6) as a sign she was under the authority of her husband (11:10). Paul built a strong case for head coverings in general, incorporating the arguments of the contender (11:7-10) and then added in some of his own arguments by way of balance (11:11-12). The strong contrastive “but” in 11:11 flags the start of Paul’s balancing comments.
- The reasons given for a head covering are not cultural, but timeless (11:3, 7-9). They are based on the order within the Trinity and the creation particulars of man and woman.
- As part of his teaching on long hair as the only necessary covering, Paul wrote of four different hair lengths: long hair (which he calls covered), short hair (which he calls uncovered), shorn hair (super short) and shaved hair (razor smooth). There was not a problem in the church with women’s hair length. All the sisters had long hair. Paul merely used the various hair lengths for illustrative purposes. The real problem was the contending view of the proper covering (hat or hair).
- The NIV’s marginal translation captures the sense of long hair as the proper covering: “Every man who prays or prophesies with long hair dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with no covering of hair on her head dishonors her head — she is just like one of the ‘shorn women.’ If a woman has no covering, let her be for now with short hair, but since it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair shorn or shaved, she should grow it again. A man ought not to have long hair . . .”
- Prior to 11:15, the Greek beneath the verbs cover or uncover are variations on the generic verb katakalupto (which specifies no particular cover). A lid over a man hole is a cover. A bed spread is a cover. Clouds can be a cover. Paul did not identify the covering. After listing his arguments for head coverings in general, Paul finally specifically stated that a woman’s long hair was given to her instead of a head garment (11:15). The Greek underneath “as” in 11:15 is anti and means instead of or in place of. The Greek underneath covering in 11:15 is peribolaion, which literally means to throw around (as a cloth around the head) and refers specifically to a garment.
- Paul concluded by stating that the churches had “no such practice” (11:16) of making women wear a garment as a head covering.