What Is the Bible Saying in 1 Corinthians 11 about Head Coverings?

Photo by  Julian Paul  on  Unsplash

Photo by Julian Paul on Unsplash

We might not always like it, but the fact of the matter is that our clothes make a statement. What you wear says something about who you are: your nationality, wealth, generation, occupation, and even your position on certain movements or issues in culture. After all, your clothes are the first thing people see, and you have to wear them.

We use clothes to make ourselves look “cool” and attractive, to identify with a certain group, or to rebel against our parents or authority. In fact, clothes can pigeon-hole us so much (especially in our pop-culture) that some people emphatically want to assert that clothes mean nothing: “It is not the outside that defines me but the inside.”

Yet, ironically, those who take such a dogmatic stand often end up being concerned with clothes just as much as the next person. Of course, it is good not to be vain (true beauty is of the heart) or too concerned about our clothes, but we cannot escape the fact that what we wear is a factor in who we are and how we interact with and respect other people.

In chapter 11 of First Corinthians, the apostle Paul brings up this issue of dress, especially in worship, and he calls us in Christ to respect and follow the order of God’s creation, an order through which Christ has revealed himself and his salvation to us.  

God is a God of order.

After commending the Corinthians for maintaining the traditions he gave them in 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul uses the occasion to instruction them on another topic. The Corinthians are holding to some of the apostolic traditions, but there is one more tradition with which they need help. And Paul begins this topic of instruction by setting forth the undergirding principle in verse 3:

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wifeis her husband, and the head of Christ is God. (1 Cor. 11:3)

Headship is the key truth that must be kept in mind through our passage. By head, Paul means authority. To be the head is to be the one over another, to be in leadership. Yet, Paul is not evoking some heavy-handed image of authority. Rather, head is an organic image.

Head is an organic image.

The head is over the body, but the head acts for the body. The body serves the head, but what is good for the head is good for the body—there is mutuality. Thus, this structure of heads does not negate equality. Surely, Christ is equal to God in power and glory, but God is the head of Christ. So also, man and woman are equal in value and worth, even though man is the head of woman.  

Certainly, there is a difference between Christ and man, but this verse shows that this structure of different heads is not about inherent worth, but about order. The apostle is setting for an order that God ordained and through which he works. In any army or business, there are levels of structural authority: workers, middle management, senior management, and a CEO. So also, God’s kingdom has a structural authority.

Indeed, since Christ is essential to the structure of heads, it is clear that Paul is thinking primarily of Christ’s kingdom—the church. Paul will bring in creational order as well, but the crosshairs of his instruction are aimed at the church. 

Of course, when we hear that man is the head of woman, we immediately wonder how this is worked out? What is Paul saying specifically here about “headship”? 

In order to understand Paul’s argument here, it is critical to know the world, or cultural context, in which Paul and the Corinthians lived, especially how they dressed, for the Greco-Roman world was one that had a defined dress code. People’s clothes were to be in accord with their status. As historian Thomas A. J. McGinn comments in Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome, “you were what you wore.” [1]

Yet, the Greco-Roman world was quite diverse, and the dress varied between cultures. Greeks did not dress exactly like Romans, and the difference between Romans and Greeks would have been especially felt in Corinth, which was a Roman colony in the middle of Greece. It would be like working at the United States embassy in Egypt—your different dress would be noticeable.

The church has a dress code for men.

Paul begins with men—yes, Paul is concerned with men just as much as he is with women in this passage:

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head” (1 Cor. 11:4).

First, Paul identifies a very particular activity of men: praying and prophesying. By prophesying, Paul is referring basically to preaching God’s word—to pray and prophesy is to be officially active in public worship.

Paul states in the above verse that the man who prays and preaches in public with his head covered shames his head. This head covering looked basically like a hood: the fabric covered the back of the head, not the face, with a piece of robe going over the head. But why is this so shameful?  

It is clear that Paul is being a pastor to a church in the context in which they lived. For God commanded that Aaron and all the Old Testament priests had to cover their heads as they ministered in the temple. Aaron, as high priest, had to wear a turban, which covered his head.  So, Paul’s point is not some universal prohibition against wearing hats in worship; rather, he is focusing on something different.

For the Romans, when their priests officiated in worship—praying and sacrificing—they would cover their heads. The male Roman priests would drape their togas over their heads. The emperor Augustus (and others after him) would do this as well, since he also performed pagan priestly duties. Augustus covered his head in prayer to show that he was also the religious head of the empire, and numerous statues have been found around the Roman Empire depicting Augustus with his head covered while praying. This image is also found on coins, as it was a form of Roman propaganda—showing Caesar as a religious head.

As this image was propagated in the Roman Empire, men started to copy it in their dress while praying. To copy the emperor was a way to elevate your own status. It said, “Look at me—I am noble as the emperor.” Therefore, the Corinthian men were copying a pagan dress as they conducted worship that stated, “look at me and my high status. I am elite.”

Besides copying pagan worship, the Corinthian men also were copying female clothing by covering their heads.

There was another thing wrong with this male covering of the head in worship. When the Greeks looked at a man with his head covered, they thought he look like a woman. The normal dress for a married woman was to wear a covering over her head.

There is one relief of Augustus praying with his head covered next to a woman with her head covered, and being clean shaven, he looks just like the woman. For a man to cover his head was effeminate; it was to blur the line between genders for Greeks. 

So, the Corinthian man who was wearing a head covering was officiating in worship in a manner that said, “Look at my high status,” but everyone in the congregation was thinking—he is dressing like a woman. It is no wonder that Paul says that a man who does this shames his head. And in light of 1 Corinthians 11:3, there is double sense to ‘his head.’ As his head, it refers to the man himself—he shames himself. But the head of every man is Christ, so the man also shames Christ. He brings dishonor to Christ by drawing attention to himself and looking like a woman.

Paul then uses the hypothetical example of what it would mean for a woman to be leading prayer or prophesying with her head uncovered in verses 5 and 6:

But every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. (1 Cor. 11:5-6)

It is critical to note that Paul is clear in 1 Corinthians 14 that women should not be praying or prophesying in an authoritative role in the public assembly of the church; thus, he is not condoning such actions here in chapter 11. Rather, Paul is using hyperbole to show the men how inappropriate it was for them to dress like a woman via the example of a woman who is flaunting both cultural and church standards.

The church has a dress code for women. 

Again, we need to be familiar with the normal dress for women in the Greco-Roman culture. First, to get married was known as “putting on the veil.” So only married women wore the head covering (hood-like; not over the face). Young girls got married at about 14, when they hit puberty. So women did not cover their heads until they were married, and young girls did not go out in public. Widows and prostitutes did not wear the cover. Wives, however, did not wear the cover at home, where they spent most of their time. The head covering was specifically for married women in public settings.  

This covering told everyone that you were an upright and devoted wife, who honored your husband—so do not touch. The covering was a crucial part of being a modest and self-controlled woman. It was so important that many Greek cities had a local official called the “controls of women” who policed how women dressed in public.

In fact, Roman law stated if a married woman went out in public without a head covering and a man made advances toward her, it was her fault. Not wearing a head covering advertised that the woman was looking for a man (e. g. she was a prostitute).  

Paul was addressing the “new women” of the first-century Roman empire.

In Paul’s day there was a movement by some women/wives to be more like men—historians call them the “new women.” (For more on this topic, please see Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities by Bruce W. Winter.) They were trying to act and dress more like men. A wife who prayed in public with no covering was declaring she was free from all restraints—she was promiscuous. She was rebelling against the rules of propriety by dressing and acting like a man. In fact, for a wife to go out in public without the head covering would indicate that she was looking for another man and was thinking about a divorce. 

Paul states at the end of verse 5 that such a woman is the same as one with her head shaven because the shaving of a woman’s head was a punishment for adultery—it shamed the woman in public as an adulteress. This is why Paul says a wife praying uncovered in public shames her head.

She not only shames herself, but she also shames her husband by making the statement that she sleeps around. For a wife to go out in public without her head covered would be similar to a wife today posting on Facebook that she is looking for sex partners. And it appears that these wives were doing this in the Corinthian church, which also dishonors Christ. To further attempt to lead prayer or prophecy dressed without a head covering would be especially appalling. 

Paul grounds his point about dress in worship in creation.

Thus, a man should not cover his head while officiating in worship because he is the image and glory of God: 

For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. (1 Cor. 11:7)

By image, Paul is not thinking so much about the image of God—for women as well as men are created in the image of God. Rather, Paul is using image in terms of a picture or portrait, as that which reveals or makes visible something unseen. This fits with glory, which is the visible manifestation of God’s perfections.

The same sense is found in Col. 1:15, “Christ is the image of the invisible God.” Christ makes visible the unseen God. Now God is not a creature, so gender does not ultimately belong to him, but God has always and only revealed himself to us as a man. Christ is a man. Our Lord is God, not a goddess.

Ministers represent God. 

As a man is officiating in worship, he is especially representing God. Therefore, he cannot look like a woman, which a head covering made him look like in first-century Corinth. If the minister looks like a woman, this brings dishonor to God who reveals himself through the minister as a man.

Thus, Paul is not ultimately concerned about men wearing hoods or hats, in or outside worship, but he is clear that no cross-dressing is permitted, which a head covering was for a man in Corinth. A man should not dress like a woman—especially the minister in church who officially represents God and Christ, his head. 

The wife reveals the honor of her husband.

In keeping with the headship structure of 1 Corinthians 11:3, if man is to reveal the honor of his head, Christ and God, so a woman is to reveal the glory or honor of her head, man. That is, she is to help her husband be honorable, and act in a way that respects him and upholds his good name. As the saying goes, behind every great man there is an even greater woman. The wife reveals the honor of the husband. 

And this truth that man is the image of God and woman is the glory of man Paul roots in creation. As he states, man is not from woman, but woman is from man, since Eve was formed from the rib of Adam. The first man named her woman for she was from him, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. (1 Cor. 11:8-9)

Likewise, woman was created for the sake of man, not the other way around. God created the woman to be a helpmeet to the man. It was the man that needed the help. This is the creational order that establishes the truth that the head of woman is man and that she is the glory of man, while the man is the image and glory of God.

Christ upholds the created order in his kingdom.

Christ, then, in his kingdom upholds this created order. Even though we belong to Christ’s heavenly kingdom, this heavenly kingdom does not undo the differences and order between the genders. In terms of equality and worth, there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, but we are all one in Christ (Gal. 3:28).

But in terms of order and structure, the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. We still live our lives within the good created order that God ordained by his good and perfect will.

What is Paul saying about angels in verse 10?

It is for this reason Paul states,

That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. (1 Cor. 11:10)

In Corinth, for a wife to be uncovered while praying in public does not just dishonor her husband, but it also disrespects God’s ordained order in the church. The praying and uncovering woman says, "she is like a man, officially representing God.” So the authority on her head is for her to be in submission to the God-ordained structure of headship of 1 Corinthians 11:3.  

By the phrase “because of angels,” Paul most likely is referring to the truth that when the church worships, it is taken up to a heavenly plane. On this heavenly plane of worship, we are with the angels. The angels join in with our worship of God on the Lord’s day. Therefore, for a woman or a man to throw off the headship order in the presence of angels is especially shameful, since God’s heavenly servants are witnessing such a flagrant denial of God’s good order.  

Paul’s point about hair length has to do with gender differences in the Corinthian culture.

Paul brings up hair length in verses 14-15 to make a point about gender differences. For it was the common presupposition for both Romans and Greeks that men have short hair and woman have long hair.  

Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. (1 Cor. 11:14-15)

By nature, Paul means “the customs of a given society or culture.” This is clear if you think about Old Testament Israel. The Nazirite had long hair by law. Absalom was famous for his long, thick hair. And if you saw pictures of the Assyrians, the men’s hair was down to their shoulders (probably close to Israel’s length). Israelite priests especially wore their hair longer.

Paul is referring to the cultural norm of the Greeks and Romans, who thought a man with long hair looked effeminate and weak. Thus, in their art, the Romans often pictured the barbarians being defeated with long hair as sign of their effeminate weakness, more like a woman. So also, for a woman to cut her hair short was for her to disguise herself as man.

Paul picks up this cultural norm in order to make the point: if a man looks like a woman it is shameful, and if a woman looks like a man, it is shameful. Her long hair is her glory and a sign that she is a woman, rightfully in her place of order. The Corinthians are cross dressing in worship, flaunting all norms of cultural modesty and decency. And their cross-dressing is destroying God’s created gender distinctives and the order of headship.

Paul affirms the equal worth of men and women. 

Even though Paul is stressing the proper order between men and women, even though he stresses the proper order of headship, he nonetheless is clear about equal worth of men and women:

Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. (1 Cor. 11:11-12)

There is a mutuality and interdependence between man and woman. Woman came from Adam’s rib, but man is born of a woman.

In the Lord, we are not interdependent of each other. The body needs the head, and the head is dead without the body. In marriage and in the church, both sexes are essential and necessary. In the Lord, men and women are fully equal as members of his covenant and heirs of his salvation. Everything is from God, so we must live in the order he has given.

How should Christian men and women dress today?

From our discussion of Paul, it becomes pretty clear what it means for us today. It means we should not cross dress. Men should dress and act like men, and women should dress and act like women. And especially in worship, the minister should not look like a woman.

The issue is not whether the minister has a hat on per se. Aaron had to wear one, but Paul forbids it in Corinth, for it is what women did. Hence, to fully appreciate Paul here, we must think critically about cultural norms. Culture is not sovereign or untouchable. We must be critical of our culture, and yet we cannot be a-cultural. We are always products of our culture.

So women should dress respectfully and modestly in their society, but this doesn’t come with a transcultural standard—such as her hair must be 15 inches long. In some cultures, the women have quite short hair. Many women can’t grow long hair, especially when they get older.  

Likewise, with men short hair is not always a sign of manhood. If you were an Assyrian, men wore hair down to their shoulders and a full beard. Think of the debates in our country during the last fifty years. One decade, long hair is down to your ears; another, it is shameful to have a beard; and in another, it is fine to have facial hair.

Nevertheless, aside from these variations, it is pretty clear in a particular culture what is cross-dressing. It may be fine to wear a kilt in worship in Scotland, but in many other places, a man should not do this. Whatever culture you are in, men should dress as honorable men.

And women should not dress like prostitutes but as modest and respectable women. Whatever the specifics, we must uphold God’s structure of headship and the created differences between the genders. Indeed, this is what Paul is doing in the context of Corinth. He is telling the Corinthian church not to offend outsiders by acting dishonorably through cross-dressing in worship.

Christ uses his headship for our good.

This order—that man is the head of woman, and the head of man is Christ and the head of Christ is God—should be precious to us, for it is the very order that Christ has revealed himself to us. Christ is the head of us as his church. Christ is our Groom, as we are his bride. 

This headship of Christ is the sweetest thing, because in it we find the very gospel. As Paul says elsewhere, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”

Christ’s headship of us is summarily comprehended in the gospel of our salvation. He rules us not with a rod of iron, but with the tenderness of his love and grace. Christ uses his headship for your good. He uses it so that you can be his glory.

Yes, you are the glory of Christ, as Christ makes his perfect righteousness and love manifest in and through you, as his body. Christ became poor so that you might be rich in him. Jesus humbled himself, taking on the shame of the cross, so that you might be glorious in him. Thus, the key attribute of being a head is to seek the good of the other.  

As the God-man, Christ died so that you might have life and glory in and through Him. Thus, as we keep to God’s structure of headship with its distinctions between the genders, we actually image and testify to the glorious work of Christ done for us and in us. As we submit to God’s order, we bring glory to our only Head and Savior, Jesus Christ. May God give us the grace to glorify Christ in this way.

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[1] Thomas A. J. McGinn, Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome, 2nd ed.(New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2003), 162.

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