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The Head Covering God Gives Every Woman

This article appeared in the NT Restoration Newsletter (Sept. 1993), 2752 Evans Dale Circle, Atlanta, GA 30340.

The eleventh chapter of First Corinthians, for many reasons, ranks among the most difficult of all passages in the New Testament. The difficulties of this passage include, among other things, (1) the meaning of kephale ("head"—i.e., whether it means "source" or "authority"), (2) whether these instructions are intended for a church meeting or some other setting, (3) how Paul's allowance for women praying and prophesying here fits into his prohibition of women speaking in chapter 14, and (4) what is meant by "because of the angels" in v. 10. The intent of this article 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, the intent of this article is to show whether or not Paul sees head coverings 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.

The Two Traditional Ways of Interpreting the Passage

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 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.

We do not feel at all comfortable with the position of those in the first camp. We have pointed out in other writings the weaknesses of explaining away New Testament commands using the guise of cultural relativity, and we have concluded that cultural relativity is a very dubious principle upon which to operate, one which 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 commands 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 thus 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 his 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. Their's is the stronger position based upon the preponderance of evidence. This is the position that we once took and perhaps would still hold if it were not for four or five points of grammar in this passage that forced us to adopt 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 "However, in the Lord…." 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; for also man was not 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 the 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 (if not to controvert) 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 through the woman," hence, interdependence, and hence, vv. 8-9 are balanced by vv. 11-12.

One last balance seems to be 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 Gen. 1:27) is balanced in v. 12: "All things have their source in 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 "all thing" (i.e., both man and woman) have their source in God. The diagram above shows the literary structure of Paul's point/counterpoint dialogue.

The Occasion For the Letter

The question then becomes, 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 seems to be contentious, we have no other custom, nor do the churches of God." It seems 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 standard translations (including the NASB and the NIV) render Paul as saying, "we have no other custom." 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 us to rethink this passage) is that the Greek word translated "other" in v. 16 (toioutos) never means "other" any where else; and, in fact, means only "such" ("we have no such custom"). 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 fast the 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 veil 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 is a group of Christians who have come to us and told us that we are supposed to have our women wear veils 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, "Now, I praise you for remembering me in everything, and for holding to the traditions 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 this "contentious" group have built their teaching that women need to wear 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 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 of 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).

A Covering is Necessary, and the Hair is That Covering

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.

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 kataluptos. 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: "However, in the Lord," and from that point on begins to explain how this principle applies to the church.

In vv. 13-14 Paul asks the Corinthians two questions: (1) "Decide for yourselves; is it proper for a woman to pray to God without a covering?" (2) "Does not nature itself 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 might want to implement?" 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 (yes, an increased sales effort is something that we might want to implement).

Paul uses the same reasoning here. To answer the second question first: yes, a woman's long hair is her glory. The implied follow-up is, Why would a woman want to cover that which is her glory? This makes the answer to the first question obvious: yes, it is proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered.

But here Paul is thinking about a different kind of covering. Up until this verse Paul has consistently used the word kataluptos ("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 the 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 ("however, in the Lord," 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 for a covering." The word "for" here is anti, and means literally "instead of." 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 kataluptos, 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 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 hair. In fact, "in the Lord" (i.e., in the church), long hair is given to a woman "instead of" (not "for") "that which is wrapped around the head." Women in the church have a ready-made covering and are therefore not in violation of the principles expressed in vv. 3-10.

On which side of this issue do we then fall? In practice we do not differ from those who see this passage as culturally relative and who therefore do not practice head coverings for women. In terms of the interpretation of the passage, we are 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 we disagree with it regarding the specific 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 article (the use of anti ["instead of"] in v. 15, and the use of toioutos ["such"] in v. 16). Our reconstruction, though admittedly not without its own inherent weaknesses, goes much farther in unraveling a difficult passage about which there is much dispute. We hope that it will be of help to those who seek to follow apostolic tradition.

Translation of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

Following is a translation of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 by the editor of Patriarch. It begins with the NASB and adds [bracketed explanatory material] based on the interpretation given in the foregoing article. It is the understanding of the passage that we have come to, the only one that satisfactorily deals with all of the problems we have had with both traditional sides of the debate (cultural relativity vs. veiling): (1) Paul’s clear, forceful demand for a covering on the woman is preserved; (2) The universally-applicable, trans-cultural weight of his argument is preserved; (3) There is a satisfactory accounting for the clear transition in tone and content in v. 11; (4) The accurate translation of "instead of" in v.15 and "such" in v. 16 is preserved, rather than altered without justification as in most translations to "for" and "other" respectively (we supply the correct words below and underline them); (5) Paul’s conclusion that hair is a covering makes sense, rather than appearing as a confusing addendum to the argument. See what you think.


2 Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you [even in the face of pressure from the pro-veil contingent to have your women adopt their practice]. 3 But I want you to understand that [the pro-veilers are absolutely correct when they teach that] Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. 4 [To apply that general principle, I further agree with the pro-veilers that] Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying, disgraces his head. 5 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. 6 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. 7 [These pro-veiler arguments are true, too, as far as they go:] 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. 8 For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; 9 for indeed man was not created for the woman's sake, but woman for the man's sake. 10 Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

11 [I agree with the pro-veil arguments stated above] However, [there is more that must be taught to balance out their teachings, namely, that] in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. [And just as the pro-veil teaching leaves out some important truths, so their application is off target, as well, so:]

13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with head uncovered? [—i.e., (in context) uncovered by the veil that some are promoting? You will have to agree that the answer is "Yes, it is right to pray without a veil" when you ask yourselves:] 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? [Of course! So why would we cover her God-given glory?!] For [now you can see the conclusion:] her hair is given to her instead of a [wrap-around, veil-like] covering. [So while the pro-veilers are right that a woman must have a covering, they are wrong in their application, because God has given a covering to the woman in the form of her long hair.] 16 But if one is inclined to be contentious [and insist on women wearing veils], we have no such practice, nor have the churches of God.

From Patriarch's Magazine

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