Answering Difficult Bible Questions

The Head Covering (1 Corinthians 11:1-16)


This has got to be one of the more difficult texts I have encountered and tried to come up with an explanation that does not run into problems. Most scholars note that no matter what interpretation one comes up with, there is some sort o problem that comes up. We are going to look at 1 Corinthians 11 and I am going to do my best to explain this text. I would like to take this text as an exposition, essentially verse by verse, and then make some concluding points and arguments after going through the text.

I.The Exposition

The thesis statement (vs. 3)

Here is Paul’s opening statement about the order of things and this is the basic principle: “But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” Christ is the head of man, man is the head of woman, God is the head of Christ. Here the operation of authority is clearly stated. Christ has authority over man and man has authority over woman. This passage lays out the direction of where we are going in this text. This is the overriding rule.

An important point to notice about the authority man has over the woman. That authrity is compared to the authority that God has over Christ and Christ has over man. Too many men take this passage to show that they can be a dictator over women or some sort of boss. But we see clearly from the scriptures how this authority is to be used. Christ used his authority over man by doing what? Dying for mankind. Sacrificing himself, giving himself, loving us (Ephesians 5:25). Does Christ push us around and act unreasonably because he is head over us? No. Along the same lines, since God is head of Christ and therefore has authority, does that mean that God the Father becomes an merciless dictator, running roughshod over Christ? Of course not. Instead they show there authority by love and care. So also, just because man is head and has authority does not mean he can act however he wants. Instead man is to act like Christ did for the church and God does for Christ.

Praying and prophesying (vs. 4-5)

“4 Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved.”

Notice the similarity of the statements made by Paul. They are essential the same, following the same format, and are therefore talking about the same actions. Paul is talking about spiritual gifts in this text. Prophecy was only by the power of God, and was only done through spiritual gifts. And this prophecy is tied to prayer. So it seems that Paul is talking about the spiritual gifts of prayer and prophecy. We know that women were praying and prophesying and had the power of spiritual gifts. See the four virgin daughters who prophesied in Acts 21:9. Now there are a couple of very important points that need to be presented in this text.

When is a woman to have her head covered?

When she prays or prophesies. We cannot miss this point that Paul is making, otherwise we cause ourselves problems. The rest of this section of text is strictly dealing with and men and women who are praying and prophesying. The text says nothing about the need for covering at any other time. And this leads into the second critical point.

Where are the women to be covered?

Many take this passage to mean that women are to be covered in the assembly. Is this scripturally possible? What did Paul says for the women in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 about what women were to do with their spiritual gift while in the assembly? Be silent. The women who had these spiritual gifts were not allowed to use them in the assembly. Remember the context of 1 Corinthians 14, women who spoke were taking the lead in the worship when using their spiritual gifts. Paul says that is inappropriate and to remain silent with regard to those gifts. Now come back to 1 Corinthians 11. Paul says to pray and prophesy with the head covered. Can this be referring to in the assembly? It cannot refer to being in the assembly. If it is, then what is Paul talking about in chapter 14? In chapter 14, why does not Paul just say women, wear a covering when praying and prophesying? No, that would be out of subjection and usurping authority from the man. So this text must be referring to outside the assembly, in public. I think this makes the text make more sense as we go along by having this understanding. Two keys points, be covered when praying and prophesying, but cannot be in the assembly. Man, then, has the same exact point. Men when praying and prophesying in public must be uncovered. And we must note that obviously this means they are leading the pray and prophesy and not listening to it. This must be the assumption from the context. Now the question is why? Why must men be uncovered in public, while women are to be covered? The following verses answer this question.

Authority of God (vs. 6-10)

“6 For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered. 7 For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man is not from woman, but woman from man. 9 Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. 10 For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.”

Man should not cover his head because he has the authority of God to pray and prophesy and needs not to have any sort of symbol upon him to show that he has that authority. This is not true for women. Women who were exercising their spiritual gifts in public needed to have some sort of symbol upon their head to show that this was authority from God and that they are not usurping this authority from man. It seems that these women had taken their new freedom and liberty in Christ to mean that they could go against the culture and norms of the day. But not being covered in public while performing these functions brought shame upon the woman, which brought shame upon the husband, but especially brought shame upon God. It is tantamount to discrediting the gospel of Christ by our actions. It would be as if I went out preaching the gospel of Christ without any clothes on. I may be doing what is right by preaching the word, but I bring shame upon the church, upon my family and especially upon God for these actions, and I obviously discredit the message I teach by violating such a standard in our society. Both men and women are to live in such a way that brings honor to the Lord.

It would be shameful for a woman to take upon herself such power as the gift of prophecy and not cover her head to show that she has authority from God for this action. The order of creation is to be remembered and where the authority is needs to be remembered. Verse 10 makes this statement clear because it is the explanation of verses 6-9, when it says “for this reason women ought to have authority on their head.” Women were to have this sign of authority for what they were doing, otherwise they would be bringing shame upon the Lord for being uncovered. It is important to notice a few things in verse 10. First of all, the word there for “authority,” means authority. Many commentators including conservative ones have tried to make this mean a symbol of subjection. Literally the text reads “For this reason the woman ought to have authority on her head because of angels.” So we cannot state that the covering is a symbol of subjection. We cannot treat the covering as a symbol of subjection. It is a symbol of God’s authority for a woman to pray and prophesy with the spiritual gifts she has been given in public.

The phrase, “because of angels” is probably the most difficult to understand. What does Paul mean by this is not clear. Many have taken guesses at it. But it seems simplest to say, and I believe, that this means that even the angels understand their need to keep their proper position and authority (see Jude 6). Others state that this phrase means it is a symbol of the authority delivered by angels. The authority of God is on their heads. Others say even the angels understand authority and so women also wear this symbol of authority in keeping with the principle in verse 3.

Equality of men and women (vs. 11-12)

“11 Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. 12 For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.”

Now despite the fact that there is an order in creation, and man is the head of woman, and woman was created for man (vs. 9) and woman was created from man (vs. 8), the scriptures do not allow us to get carried away. Again the founding principle is given in verse 3 that God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of man, and man is the head of woman. But to make sure that we understand authority, Paul is going to tell us that there is equal standing men still have with women.

Verse 11 tells us that man is not independent of woman and woman is not independent of man. They are meant to be together, again an argument from creation that it is not good for man to be alone. The two in the Lord are meant to be together and not independent. Man cannot stand up and say look at me I have all of this power and authority for this only has come from God (vs. 12). This distinction between men and women is not to lead to a war of the genders but is to lead for men and women to complement one another for that is what they are built to do. We are co-dependent upon each other even thought the man is the head of woman.

Argument from culture (vs 13-16)

“13 Judge among 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 dishonor to him? 15 But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.”

Paul returns to his previous argument about the culture and custom of the day. Paul wants the men and women who are praying and prophesying with their spiritual gift in public to judge these things for themselves.

Paul first asks if it is proper for a woman to pray with her head uncovered. The word “proper” is a strong word to speak about custom. Paul asks what is the decorum of the day. Is it proper to go and pray uncovered? The answer is no. It would be like asking us if going outside in a loincloth would be proper? The answer is no, yet there are some places where it is proper. I am thinking of some of the tribes in Africa where that is proper. But in this country it is not proper. So now Paul argues from custom, that it is not proper for women of that day to do things like prayer without a covering. Paul goes on and argues from custom by asking if nature teaches a man that long hair is a dishonor. What do we mean by nature? Learned environment, the same thing that we mean when Paul speaks in Ephesians 2 about being “by nature children of wrath.” We are children of wrath by doing what our culture and environment around us teaches us. So also the culture and environment during that time taught that a man having long hair was a disgrace and was dishonor to him. And so Paul uses this to show that if a long hair is a dishonor, then so also is a long covering. Something covering the head was dishonor. But to a woman, having long hair is her glory. Paul is pointing out the opposite point to women. Long hair was dishonor to a man but glory to a woman. So a covering on a man was dishonor to a man, but glory to a woman, for it is a symbol of authority. And Paul clearly says it here that the issue of the covering is a custom of the day that needed to be enforced while women were praying and prophesying in public so as not to be a discredit to the gospel and the work they were doing.

II.Applications & Answering Objections

Does not apply today

After looking at this passage, I do not see the things contained here apply to today. Here are my reasons. First, I believe the text is referring to women using the spiritual gifts of prayer and prophesy (vs. 5). This is directly who Paul is talking to in this text. As we know from 1 Corinthians 13:8-12, spiritual gifts ceased at the completion of the revealing of the gospel (the perfect had come, the part will pass away). This text even names prophesy as one of the things that will pass away. Since spiritual gifts have ceased, then the things contained in this text cannot apply. But suppose you do not understand this text to be talking about spiritual gifts, though I think it is clear by the message. But suppose you do not. The text I believe still clearly states that these traditions were given because of the culture of the day. Consider how many times Paul refers to the customs of the day in his arguments for the use of the covering. Verse 6 argues that being uncovered is like having your hair cut short or shaved, which was a shame in those days. Verse 13 asks what is proper. Verse 14 asks about nature, the environment. Verse 16 is the clearest of all, where Paul flat out calls the wearing of the covering a custom. This is clearly a custom that Paul is asking the women to do because it was a custom of the day and he did not want them going against that custom.

Does a covering convey the same thing today?

Another point to notice is what does the covering today represent to people in public. Does it mean anything to them? The answer is no. A covering does not mean anything to our society, and that was the reason for wearing it then, because it was the culture of the day. Does the covering show people around us a symbol of authority from God? No. Along the same lines, does nature teach us anymore that a man have long hair is a dishonor? No, nature and culture around us does not teach that anymore. Does nature teach that women with short hair or a shaved head are dishonor and a shame? If so, then you better not have short hair. Obviously nature no longer teaches us these things.

The argument: The hair is the covering

Some have argued from verse 15 that the hair is the covering. But that cannot work in this text. If the hair is the covering, then what is the man to do when he wants to pray or prophesy? The man would have to be bald or have his head shaved if hair is a covering for his head is not to be covered. You see all the things we get in trouble with when we do not pay attention to the context. Paul started this whole talk to the men and women who were praying and prophesying outside of the assembly in public. The hair cannot be the covering. Instead Paul is using this as an illustration of the difference between men and women and their perception in culture.

A true covering

If you are still convicted to believe that the covering is still in force today, then you must fully obey this passage and the customs found with the covering. A covering was something to cover the head and face, not the hair only. Many who practice the covering do not do so properly for Paul clearly says in verse 5 that the head is to be covered. Thus, a covering is that which we see in the Middle East where the women have coverings that you can only see their eyes and nose. A covering is not a lace cloth on the top of the head. But I believe the scriptures teach us that the covering was for women who were praying and prophesying with spiritual gifts in public and therefore is not necessary for us today, since miraculous, spiritual gifts have ceased.

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