The Covered Head (part 1)

The Text Of 1 Corinthians 11

Ryan Goodwin




          I was asked once why it is that some women cover their heads during church, or at least during certain portions of the worship. There are as many answers to that question as there are different women who choose the head covering over the natural length of their hair. Every individual seems to have a different reason for doing it or not doing it – and every reason is valid if one is convicted by her conscience (Romans 14:14, 1 Corinthians 8:7,10, James 4:17). In dealing with this issue, which can be contentious and heated at times, it is important for us to be careful not to judge another person’s heart, for motivation is an area that we cannot fully discover (1 Corinthians 2:11). We should be tactful and kind, always willing to give others the freedom that is due them in Christ:


·        If we agree that things like eating meat (1 Corinthians 8) and celebrating days not commanded are acceptable, then we should treat this subject in a similar way.

·        It does not hurt anybody to wear a head covering, but it does hurt the work of the Lord to force your opinions on somebody else. “So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Romans 14:19).

·        A subject like this should not become contentious. It should not split a congregation, or tear families apart. Even the apostle Paul – who had all the authority to be as contentious as was necessary – states very clearly in 1 Corinthians 11:16 that he would not be contentious and had no definitive regulations on the matter of the head covering.

·        If one chooses to wear the covering, it should be done for the right reasons. There can be just as much rebellion, ill will, and attention-seeking in a symbol of humility as anything else.


          Because Paul refused to be contentious on the subject, so will I. I would never assert that women either should or should not wear a head covering at any time, either in prayer or at the worship service. It is a choice that must be made by women, and they are given the prerogative by God to use their sense of decency in making an informed decision. “Judge for yourselves…” (1 Corinthians 11:13).


The man is the head of the woman


          1 Corinthians 11:3-16 is the most extensive section of scripture that describes the issue of women covering their heads at any point in a Christian context. The problems that the church had been having are evident: women of the congregation, primarily Gentiles converted to Christianity, were casting aside their symbols of humility because of their misunderstanding about the Kingdom. Because of teachings by Paul and others, the women may have assumed that Christianity would be a religion with absolutely no distinctions. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). However, this is taken out of context. It is not that Christianity removes distinctions, or makes men and women the same – it only means that from a spiritual standpoint, God values the souls of men and women equally. Just because God values our souls the same, however, does not make our differences suddenly disappear. As long as we are living, we are still men and women, and that is made clear by the statement, “Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:3).

          This is a simple, basic Godly truth that has its manifestation in a number of earthly ways. Men are supposed to be the head of the household (Ephesians 5:22-24). Men are to have the leadership responsibilities in the church. Men are to be the primary bread winners of the family. And women need to show the respect they have for their husbands in whatever way society seems to uphold. This is a key to the debate over the head covering, because it stems from misunderstandings about the roles of men and women. The women in Corinth did not see the need any more for their veils because they believed that there were no more distinctions in the church.


The Context


          While some will disagree with this assertion, it is important for us to always consider the societal or scriptural context of a passage very carefully. We do this with passages pertaining to meat sacrificed to idols, the “holy kiss” between brethren (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 1 Thessalonians 5:26, etc., the Sabbath rest (Hebrews 4:9), and giving money to the poor (Galatians 6:10). So we need to be careful when we take this section of scripture and immediately apply it to us today.

          First, is the “praying and prophesying” in this text referring to the worship service or not? Because Paul does not assign a time or location to his exhortation, then it is only safe for us to avoid it as well. We know that women were not allowed to speak in the assembly (1 Corinthians 14:34), which means that any of the praying or prophesying that was being done had to be in a context away from the assembly and with only women. Otherwise, these women would have to be listening to the praying and prophesying being done by men in an assembly. Looking at the context only, it seems to me that the head covering in this case only applies to women who are praying or prophesying. But what about women who wear the head covering for the entire worship service, or women who do not wear one when praying in private, or women who do not wear them while praying in only the company of women? To apply this section of scripture consistently, the context seems to indicate that the Corinthian women were exhorted to wear their veils while praying or prophesying, regardless of the situation.


What does the Corinthian head covering mean?


          Based on our text, we need to determine what the head covering of 1 Corinthians 11 means. What does it represent? In short, it is a symbol of the authority that men have over women. It shows the way that a woman wants to look feminine, submissive, and respectful. We are not talking about prison chains or a “kick me” sign, but a garment that is worn by women – by choice – to distinguish themselves and show their submission to their role as the man’s helper. “For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the glory and image of God; but the woman is the glory of man” (11:7). Because Adam was created before Eve, and because she was created from a part of Adam’s flesh, he has the authority in the relationship.

          This is not to say that women are worthless, or even worth less than men. They are valued and loved by God for their beauty, their character, and their abilities. They are unique from men, and a special part of God’s creation. He wants them in heaven as much as men, and sees no difference in their worth in a spiritual sense. For the sake of structure in this world, and division of labor, men and women simply have different roles.


·        Many of the Corinthian women may have seen the casting aside of their coverings as sort of a liberation from bondage. Even feminists today say they want to be “independent” like men, as if being under no authority makes both sexes the same. Feminists fail to realize, though, that men are not independent. They are under bondage, too, just a different kind (11:3).

·        We all have to be subservient in some way (work, family, church, etc.), so why do so many people look down on it?

·        The real issue is selfishness. The head covering was only the outward manifestation of what was happening on a deeper level. Any time we choose not to serve, we are casting off our metaphorical “head covering.” There is no ideal higher than that of a servant (Galatians 5:13, Matthew 20:28).


          On a more practical level, the head covering in Corinth had some very specific applications. This was not a vague custom of that region, but a very specific one that meant female submission. The primary goddess in Corinth was Aphrodite, the Greek deity of love. The women who served in her temple wore a veil that covered the head from the top to well below the shoulders. Other writers confirm this regional tradition:


·        “Lit., having something hanging down from his head” (Vincent p. 246); "Lit., having a veil down from the head" (Robertson p. 159). The covering was the veil, that which hanged down from the head and covered the head. “Paul has in mind a veil which covers the whole head and in particular conceals all the hair; something worn on top of the head like a present-day cap or hat does not really come within the scope of his argument” (The New Century Bible Commentary I & II Corinthians, F.F. Bruce p. 104).

·        “It ought to be apparent that for a man to appear in public with a veil would be womanish, but that this would not be true of a mere head covering, i.e. a hat or turban. The Greeks had a word for hat or cap” (“The Veils of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16”, Restoration Quarterly, Vol. 3: 186-187, J.W. Roberts).

·        “Veils came in all shapes and sizes. There were those, which were suspended so as to cover the face. Some were on the head and flowed backward down over the shoulders. Some completely hid the woman's head and shoulders. Some hid the whole woman from head to foot. Many were like shawls, which were placed on the head and wrapped around the shoulders. There were veils designed for different times of the day and for different occasions. The one thing on which all the authorities unite is this: Veils were ‘an essential article of female attire’. Paul did not bring the veil to Corinth. It was there when he arrived. It already had the significance it had before Paul was around to have any say in the matter” (The Book of First Corinthians, McGuiggan p. 143).

·        “In NT times among both Greeks and Romans, reputable women wore a veil in public and to appear without it was an act of bravado (or worse); Tarsus, ..Paul's home city, was especially noted for strictness in this regard” ('Veil', International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 3047).

·        According to Plutarch, the Roman rule was that usually women cover their heads and the men uncover them, when they go outside the house. Valerius Maximum asserted that one of the first causes of divorce was a wife’s appearing outside bareheaded. “In Greek, as well as in Eastern cities, it was customary for women, except those of bad character, to cover their heads in public” (Dummelow).