In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 Paul says “every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.” But “a man ought not to cover his head” while praying. Should Women Cover Their Heads for Worship?
William M. Ramsay on cites Dio Chrysostom to the effect that the custom of women going veiled in Tarsus was an oriental and non-Greek custom, Paul is merely reflecting his own (Jewish) background by requiring women wear head coverings (The Cities of St. Paul, 201-5). Because of the popularity of Ramsey’s works on Paul, this theory is often repeated in modern commentaries, but it seems odd that Paul would impose this one Jewish custom on congregations when he frees them from so many other Jewish customs. On the other end of the spectrum, A. C. Wire argued Paul was a male chauvinist who is arguing against a radical female group led by a Corinthian woman prophet. Marg Mowczko has collected man of these sayings on her website.
The application of this rather obscure command in most American churches is usually some vague platitude that women should be dressed modestly. If the culture includes head coverings in this then the woman ought to not offend the culture. No one ever points out that if this is the true application, then a woman visiting a culture which is comfortable with public nudity is free to “fit right in” when they visit the beach.
I seriously doubt modesty is the issue Paul is trying to get at in 1 Corinthians 11. There is clear evidence in the Greco-Roman world of prostitutes wearing head coverings. There are several artistic representations of groups of women with or without head coverings. There is simply no evidence that head coverings were universal in the Greco-Roman world.
Based on his study of Roman statues, D. W. J. Gill suggested it was a Roman convention to cover the head while praying or offering a libation. There are two well-known statues from Corinth, one of Nero and one of Augustus with their heads veiled. The leader of a prayer or sacrifice that would cover their heads, the congregation (if any) would not necessarily do so. Gill argues the social elite in Corinth also practiced head covering while praying or participating in a sacrifice. Since the passage in 1 Corinthians 11 seems to include the whole congregation, perhaps it is only the prophets addressing the congregation that are covering their heads while prophesying.
“The practice of men covering their heads in a context of prayer and prophecy was a common pattern of Roman piety and widespread during the late Republic and early Empire. Since Corinth was a Roman colony, there should be little doubt this aspect of Roman religious practice deserves greater attention by commentators than it has received.” Oester, “Use, Misuse, and Neglect of Archaeological Evidence,” 68.
As with many of the other issues in 1 Corinthians, the Christians are (continuing) to take their cues for worship from the pagan world. Paul’s command “women cover their heads” and men keep them uncovered distinguishes Christian worship from Imperial worship. They are worshiping in the same way that they would have in a pagan rite, Paul is rejecting this mixing of the world with the Church.
If the problem that is at the heart of the veiling of men / unveiling of women is taking worship cues from the pagan world, then there is a most serious application possible. How far we want to take this application is quite controversial, from the mega-church movement to modern praise and worship services, it is possible that the American church has taken its cues from the pagan world rather than from the Bible. The modern American church seems to be following MTV rather than the NIV.
There is always a tension between cultural relevancy for the sake of evangelism and participating in the world because we enjoy it. It is possible that is what was happening in Corinth. The members of the church of Corinth were routinely acting like the world without taking into consideration how their new Christian world view speaks to their culture (sexual ethics, lawsuits, feasts and banquets at temples, visiting prostitutes, etc.)
So Should Women Cover Their Heads for Worship? The veiling of women or non-veiling of men may seem like a minor problem to use (“it’s just cultural”). But that misses the whole point. If the Corinthian Church was indistinguishable from the world in their worship, how were they going to effectively evangelize their culture?
D. W. J. Gill, “The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” Tyndale Bulletin 41 (1990): 246-60.
C. T. Thompson, “Hairstyles, Headcoverings, and St. Paul: Portraits from Roman Corinth” BA (1988): 99-115.
R. E. Oster, “Use, Misuse, and Neglect of Archaeological Evidence in Some Modern Works on 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 7:1–5; 8:10; 11:2–16; 12:14–26).” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 83 (1992):52–73.
20 thoughts on “Should Women Cover Their Heads for Worship? 1 Corinthians 11:2-16”
I find this fascinating, but am having a little difficulty understanding (pardon my slowness). If “it was a Roman convention to cover the head while praying or offering a libation,” and Paul affirms the wearing of head coverings, then how can it be that “the problem that is at the heart of the veiling of men / unveiling of women is taking worship cues from the pagan world”? I might have guessed that identifying such a Roman convention might cause interpreters to conclude, instead, that Paul wanted the Corinthians to imitate the Romans in order to avoid offense (although I do not find that argument convincing for other exegetical reasons).
Are you suggesting that the church was wrong in veiling worshiping men (taking cues from the Romans) rather than ONLY veiling worshiping women?
I’d like to chime in with a few thoughts.
1) Looking only at the practice of a Roman colony such as Corinth doesn’t take into consideration it was the practice of all churches, everywhere (1 Cor 11:16). How does this interpretation that Paul didn’t want them to imitate the custom of men sacrificing with their heads covered apply to churches in Jersusalem? Iconium? Antioch?
2) The archaeological evidence also suggests that in Roman Corinth during Paul’s day it was perfectly acceptable for women to appear in public without a head covering. (Cynthia L. Thompson, “Hairstyles, Head-coverings, and St. Paul: Portraits from Roman Corinth,” Biblical Archaeologist, June 1988) This interpretation doesn’t fit Paul’s command for women to be covered in worship.
3) The interpretation that Paul was asking the men to not imitate Pagan worship doesn’t square with the reasons Paul himself gives. He says it’s apostolic practice (v.2), the practice of all churches (v.16) and appeals to nature, the creation order and angels. All which are transcultural.
Just some food for thought.
First of all, I was only vaguely aware that there was a Head Covering Movement in the modern. I had a student who began to wear a head covering after she got married. But other than that one experience, this whole thing is completely off my radar. You seem very professional and organized, since you managed to hit this post almost immediately after it was posted.
You are obviously correct that the two statues I mention as illustrations of practice in Corinth cannot be taken as indications of empire wide practice. I simply point out that I am working on the context of the Corinthian letter, not the whole Empire, the social situation in Corinth is my subject here. There are a number of images from Greek kraters showing both veiled and unveiled women, but I have not done an exhaustive search of all Greco-Roman art.
I would also point out that my intention here is not to comment on the practice of head covering in a contemporary church. To be honest, I do not really care if some woman chooses to follow this practice or not. My point in this short post was to point out that taking worship cues from the culture is fraught with danger. For your ministry, that means women should cover their heads. In my context, there are far more dangerous things worming their way into the church than uncovered heads. My post mentions worship, but sexual ethics are certainly a serious issue for contemporary young adults. I get far more questions about tattoos and peircings than head coverings for women from college students these days.
I also think that you could argue that virtually every culture had some sort of head covering for women until relatively modern times, regardless of whether the motivation is biblical or not. Middle eastern cultures seem to have practiced veiling from antiquity without any sort of scriptural mandate.
Thanks for the reply Phillip. Appreciate the time you took to respond.
My point was that there is no “standard practice” in general society, so a woman might wear a head covering, or not. I refer above to krater images showing women with or without head coverings, both normal women and prostitutes. My point was to distance myself from the usual dodge of making this text mean “dress modestly.”
I’d like to throw out another question here, in case anyone wishes to respond. It’s an honest question I’ve puzzled over for a while.
I notice that in 1 Cor. 11:14 Paul appeals to “nature,” saying it instructs his readers that long hair is disgraceful for men but glorifying for women. I also notice that in Romans 1:26 Paul appeals to “nature,” arguing that same-sex relationships are shameful and immoral. I notice that the same Greek word is used in both verses: φύσις.
Regarding the Romans passage, Moo argues that “Paul’s use of the word ‘nature’ in this verse probably owes much to Jewish authors, particularly Philo, who included sexual morality as part of ‘natural law’ and therefore as a divine mandate applicable to all people… The heterosexual desires observed normally in nature are traced to God’s creative intent. Sexual sins that are ‘against nature’ are also, then, against God, and it is this close association that makes it probable that Paul’s appeal to ‘nature’ in this verse includes appeal to God’s created order.” Moo then confirms that final clause from other contextual evidence. (NICNT, 114-15)
Regarding the 1 Corinthians passage, Garland writes, “When Paul speaks of ‘nature’… he means what his society understands to be natural. Since male hair grows the same way as female hair does, he must be referring to hair that conforms to societal expectations concerning male and female hairdos. In general, it was dishonorable for men in this culture to have long hair.” Garland then summarizes historical evidence from Horace, Juvenal, Petronius, Epictetus, Philo, and surviving statues by saying, “Long hair is unnatural for Paul because in his cultural context it conveys sexual ambiguity and hints of moral perversion.” He then briefly demonstrates the cultural appreciation of women’s long hair. (BECNT, 530-31)
I think I am right that the interpretations provided by Moo and Garland are widely accepted among evangelical scholars. If so, then why the differing understandings of the significance of Paul’s appeal to “nature” in these two passages? Paul seems to be using “nature” in a very similar way in both passages. In both cases he (a) indicates that nature teaches us something and (b) ties nature closely with God’s creative acts (note in 1 Cor. 11:15 the phrase “her hair is given to her”). It would seem that a consistent interpretation of these two passages would either (a) accept Paul’s argument against same-sex relations is based on changeable cultural norms, or (b) accept that Paul’s argument against men’s long hair is based on God’s created intent. (Given our cultural climate, perhaps it is helpful to clarify that I am not trying to argue for the first option.)
In the explanations of Moo and Garland, the only reason I can see that may explain the differing interpretations is Garland’s comment, “since male hair grows the same way as female hair does.” By this comment, Garland seems to be excluding the possibility that Paul is indeed arguing from physical reality as an expression of God’s creative intent. However, I find this problematic for at least two reasons: (1) Men’s hair and women’s hair does indeed commonly grow differently; the term “male pattern baldness” is a reflection of this reality. In my experience, it is much less common to see a bald woman than to see a bald man. (2) Garland’s argument opens the door for the argument that same-sex desires are natural, since some individuals do indeed seem to be born with a greater tendency to these desires.
As I see it, the argument from nature is similar in both cases. Paul seems to be saying that MOST people naturally experience opposite-sex attraction, and that MOST women naturally grow (or retain?) longer hair than most men. He then uses this general observation from what is “natural” as an indication of God’s original creative intent for human behavior.
In summary, here again is my question: Why the differing understandings of the significance of Paul’s appeal to “nature” in these two passages?
(I’m not trying to high-jack this post, just throwing out an honest question in the presence of better-trained minds.)
Personally, I believe that Paul is quoting a faction of men who wrote him in verses 4-6. There are two reasons why I believe that verses 4-6 are quoted. First, the rebuttal portion (vss. 7-16) completely contradicts the quoted portion. (Note: The average person does not realize that verses 7-16 contradict verses 4-6 because the translators have added words in the rebuttal portion (that are not in the original Greek) in an attempt to harmonize it with the quoted portion.) And the second reason is that Jesus Christ (not man) is the image and glory of God. (See 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 1:3, Rev. 21:23.) Paul, in verse 7, is using Jesus Christ as a correlation as to why women should not be veiled. So Paul has placed the quote of the men (vss. 4-6) in between his model (vs. 3) and his rebuttal (vss. 7-16) to explain exactly why women are not to be veiled. Anyway, this is just what I believe. Take care and God bless.
Phillip, you may be interested to include the study by Richard Oster, “When Men Wore Veils to Worship: The Historical Context of 1 Corinthians 11.4,” New Testament Studies 34.4 (1988): 481-505. His study was published around the same time as Cynthia Thompson’s article – with both of them not having knowledge of each other’s research. It is also a study put out before Gill published his article.
Thanks, Jeremy. I have that article in my larger set of notes on the issue (along with quite a few more). It has been a while since I read Oster’s article, so I just obtained a copy to re-read this afternoon.
Longenecker proposes that the reason for this teaching on head coverings has to do with either (1) distinguishing female worshippers/prophetesses from the wild, loose-haired pagan prophetesses or (2) establishing/maintaining clear differences between male and females in the church. The first of these assertions would match Paul not wanting the Christian church to be taking worship cues from paganism. I had also read somewhere (I can’t remember where) that this passage was indeed an argument for modesty in dress as hair was often considered to be part of the female genitalia in ancient near-eastern cultures (I believe part of that reason was that long hair was associated with fertility, but again I cannot remember the exact arguments). However, it seems as though – since we do have paintings from the time with prostitutes wearing head-coverings while being fully nude – that the modesty argument indeed falls through. Longenecker’s second reason does make sense based on the context, as it seems to make the most sense that Paul would go from explaining the order of creation (the Father, Christ, man, and then woman) to making an argument for reinforcing clear distinguishing points between proper masculine and feminine dress, and it would not make as much sense for him to jump from the ordering of creation to the distinguishing of Christians from pagans. The argument from male and female distinguishing seems to give clearer meaning to the immediate context, both before and after the verse (since both speak of the natural order of creation). However, I think that it is wrong to say there is one clear meaning and all others are not implied by the passage/believed by Paul at all.
I agree with P. Long this is a weird cultural practice. I think it’s segregation; this practice segregates women from men and gives power to the men to have over the women, and I wouldn’t say it was for religious reasons. There were logit reasons for it from a cultural perspective but not a religious perspective.
The women covering their heads symbolize that she is unavailable sexually and is married.
Imagine being a woman, a feminist perhaps, and a fledgling Christian and turning to this passage. ‘Women ought to cover their heads in church,’ is hardly a message of love and redemption. At first glance, this verse is a turn off to many, especially for people of the postmodern culture. Christians have to be mindful of passages like these and always be ‘ready to give and answer’ for them. Which is difficult when we can’t be sure where Paul’s instructions come from. Is he imposing a Jewish custom? Not likely, and it’s hardly the massage of acceptance of the gentiles that Paul preaches elsewhere.
Perhaps then, as you propose, this was a Roman practice. Head coverings are evidenced to be a normal part of prayer in Roman culture. I compare this to the modern equivalent of men taking their hats off during prayer or putting your hand over your heart for the pledge of allegiance. I agree also that the church (then and now) often adapts aspects of secular culture (Drums? In church?!), but whether head coverings were as important a matter as some of the other things Paul mentions (sexual immorality, divisions in the church, etc.) is up for debate. I don’t think it matters that much; just like I don’t think God’s going to smite you for wearing a hat during prayer and certainly not for kneeling during the national anthem.
Why exactly Paul addresses the issue of head coverings is unclear to me. And the fact that he does is problematic to the modern reader. There are a few reasons he may have felt the need to address this, but compared to the other issues Paul addresses in Corinthians this seems unimportant. But if that is the case, and indeed this is a minor issue, why does Paul bother addressing it at all?
Although I have personally struggled to understand this passage in 1 Corinthians 11:3-6, the commentary by Enduring Word provides a simpler explanation of the passage and has allowed me to understand the passage more clearly.
1 Corinthians 11:3 states that, “the head of every man is Christ, the head of every woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” Here, Paul makes it clear that God has established principles of order, authority, and accountability. The term head is in relation to headship or authority. Therefore, just as Christ is the head of the church, men are to be the head figure over a woman within the context of marriage and church order. It is important to understand that being under authority does not equal inferiority for Jesus was under the authority of God the Father (John 5:19 and 8:28), yet Jesus is equally God (John 1:1, 8:58, and 10:30). When God calls women in the church to recognize the headship of men, it is not because women are unequal or inferior, but because there is a God-ordained order of authority to be respected. Continuing through the rest of the passage, Paul adds that, “every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. 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. For if a woman is not covered, it would be as if her head was shaved” (1 Cor. 11:4-6). Because of this order of authority, it is inappropriate for men to pray under a head covering, and inappropriate for women to pray without a head covering. The idea of a head covering was important because in many cultures the head covering was a public symbol of being under the authority and protection of another. As for “every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head” (1 Cor. 11:4), for a man to do this reveals that he is not in authority but under the authority of others. While in contrast, “every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head” (1 Cor. 11:5), a woman reveals that she is not under the authority of man. As a result, for a woman to not have her head covered while in the presence of men was as if her head was shaved (1 Cor. 11:6). In which in some cultures, the shaving of a woman’s head was the punishment given to an adulteress.
Praying with head coverings has to be one of the more obscure for the modern Christian, especially because it is something that we do not practice currently. It is also something that I have seen unbelievers use to say that Christianity is evil and hates women. I also noticed that in the article you said that the application is typically used to say that women should dress modestly which is funny because every time I’ve heard a sermon on this (twice which is at least one more than you would expect), the application has always been about modesty and only ever for women. If prostitutes at the times were wearing head coverings, then certainly the application must have nothing to do with modesty at all if those who are considered to be the least modest people are doing it too. I definitely agree that the application is that we should not mix church and culture. The church is supposed to be indistinguishable from the culture and the issues of head coverings is truly about that. I think that Christianity has fallen too far close to what culture is and is sometimes indistinguishable. Our worship services can just look totally like a modern concert. Our pastors preach about self-improvement and Moralism rather than about what Jesus has done. I just think that there is so much room needed for the church to be different from culture.
my last sentence got cut off lol.
I find it interesting that during this time period, women were intended to pray with head coverings. Although I know that head coverings were a cultural factor than anything else, but I find it fascinating that it would be a thing to do while you pray. In my perspective, I’m curious to know whether or not having head coverings was a sign of other’s leaving them alone, so that they could have a closer relationship with God while they prayed. While having a visual perspective of what others are doing helps you understand that they are in need of quiet time while not having anyone interrupt them. However, this would only be beneficial to the women because it was the women who were intended to pray with head coverings, not men. There is much more to learn and have a understanding of regarding this passage, but it’s hard to know the evidence that “head coverings were universal in the Greco-Roman world” (Long, 2019, para 3).
I find it interesting how Paul preaches about redemption in Christ and is disappointed at the Church that they are not at the same spiritual level as he is. But then, he refers to one of the many rituals that the Torah had. Jewish law in Biblical times and currently commands that women in the Church who are married should cover their heads. If Christ died for the Christians, then the old law is unnecessary.
The fact that women were required to wear the head coverings while in prayer makes me wonder how much they were able to value that time of prayer. I really like the idea that Sarena shared about maybe the head coverings offered the women a time of solitude or grow more with God individually. I think back to the times when we were required to wear masks in class and how many distractions we were able to get away with while having our faces covered, the biggest example is of course the use of our cellphones.
I believe that it was a faction of men who wanted women to have their heads covered while praying and prophesying (vss. 4-6). In Paul’s rebuttal he states that hair has been given instead of a covering. Paul freed the women of that day from the oppressive practices that men put on them.