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.