Head Coverings and Hairstyles in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16


I believe that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is one of the most perplexing passages for Christians living in 21st century America. I say that in part because a major assignment in my college course on the letters to the Corinthians was a ten page paper (1.5 spaced) on this passage, discussing all the parts that were confusing and/or debated among scholars. I had a tough time keeping it that length! I also say it is difficult because I have looked at a number of sermons (though not a ton, as many pastors won’t touch this passage!) and books and noticed that pastors and scholars will often say things like, “To be honest, we aren’t exactly sure what this is referring to or what this means” (especially in v. 10 and the reference to the angels).

All that being said, we as a church want to look at all Scripture, even the confusing passages, which is a reason why we chose to examine this text as we considered “Neighboring Across Gender Roles” in our Neighborly sermon series. Knowing that a sermon can’t address every issue or detail in this passage, this post seeks to clarify some details about the passage concerning head coverings and hairstyles.

Head Coverings

One of the things that stands out in this passage is the discussion of head coverings: “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 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.” (11:4-5, ESV). It is natural to then ask what these head coverings were and whether this is a command that should continue to be practiced. 

To understand what Paul is saying, we have to understand the significance of head coverings and hair in the culture. Women’s hair apparel is not a common philosophical or religious topic in our day and age, but it was in the ancient Mediterranean world since many cultures viewed a woman’s hair as an object of lust. Therefore, in a number of cultures women wore some sort of covering on their heads or wore their hair up; wearing one’s hair down was a sign of immorality (loose hair meant one was a loose woman). Furthermore, women who had shaved heads were either slaves, prostitutes, or those who had committed adultery. Therefore, one’s hair and head attire was not just a manner of fashion but of morality and status. This is particularly relevant for Corinth, a city known for sexual immorality (and its allegiance to the goddess Aphrodite) with many prostitutes.

Knowing the cultural background explains a bit of why Paul talks about this topic, but it is still a bit confusing because Paul does not explain what this head covering is. He assumes his audience knows what it is (similar to how we can reference a stocking cap and you probably know what I am talking about, but someone 2000 years from now might not!). Because Paul doesn’t describe it in more details, scholars have sought to uncover what exactly he is talking about. Was it a hat? Was it a veil? A shawl? A cloak? Some have even argued it could simply be their hair (with the covering being wearing their long hair up). To be honest, if you read a few scholars you will find arguments for many different ideas, as there were different practices in different areas and among Greeks, Romans, and Jews. My examination of the evidence leads me to think it was a veil, but I am not dogmatic about that conclusion. I do not think we need to know with certainty what Paul is referring to since Paul’s concern is less the object and more the symbolism – what people would think of someone wearing or not wearing it.

There is wider agreement about its significance, as it was worn by women who were married as a sign of their marriage and their relationship to their husband. It seems that women were taking this off when they were praying and prophesying in their worship services (verse 5), and in so doing were effectively rejecting the authority of their husband (as discussed in verse 3) and eliminating the differences between the gender. People could view the lack of a head covering as an indication that the woman was open to an extramarital affair (which would not seem like a far fetched idea for many in light of the sexual mores of Corinth and prostitution found in their worship). This “unveiling” may have been happening because people in the Corinthian church were being influenced by Gnosticism, which said that the body does not really matter and thus one can do with it whatever one wants; this Gnostic influence seems to have caused sexual immorality (as discussed in chapters 5 and 6 of 1 Corinthians) and may have led people to say that there is no longer any difference between men and women. 

While we might get distracted by the topic of head coverings, the bulk of the passage focuses on the why and not the what – the reason for the women to keep their coverings and men not to adopt the coverings (which may be a hypothetical scenario to parallel or may indicate that men were adopting a Roman practice of pulling the toga over one’s heads). This “why” is found back in the account of creation (Genesis 1-2), that men and women are different (see verses 3, 8 and 9). Men and women are distinct and have different beginnings, with their different origins indicating that the husband is the head of the wife (verse 3). Their cultural practice of head coverings expressed this differentiation between men and women (and headship in the marriage), and when one rejected the differentiation between men and women, one was dishonoring the other gender, oneself, and God (verses 5 and 6). 

Paul therefore calls for women to keep their heads covered to show that there is a difference between men and women, pointing out that this was the practice of other churches (see verse 16). While some Christians have taught that this means women should continue to wear head coverings, Paul is not saying that women in all times and places should have this head covering but rather that the cultural ways of delineating between men and women should be upheld and not overthrown when one becomes a Christian. For the Corinthians, this was head coverings, but for us it will be different things (and not head coverings, which do not have the same symbolic significance). The need to look at the principle and not the cultural practice is not unique in this passage, as we do the same thing when we do not greet one another with a holy kiss like Paul told churches to do in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26 – and Peter in 1 Peter 5:14). 

Long Hair

Another common question that comes up in this passage is whether it teaches that men should always have short hair and women long hair in light of these words: 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” (11:14-15, ESV). Something to remember in the discussion is Paul does not name how long hair must be for it to be “long.” How many inches (or cubits)? His concern does not seem to be mathematical as much as the fact that the culture expressed the natural impulse for men and women to be different in hair styles, with women having longer hair (as short hair had a particular reference to the morality of the woman, as discussed above) and men having shorter hair (with longer hair signifying in Corinth that a man was a prostitute or was an uneducated barbarian). The command against long hair for men cannot be absolute, as Numbers 6 talked about men taking a Nazirite vow and growing out his hair (something Paul seems to have done at one point – see Acts 18:18). Again, it seems that Paul’s concern is less about the hairstyle itself and more about maintaining that there is a difference between men and women that Christians should not erase but rather uphold, as this difference is part of God’s design. 

In noting that this impulse for different lengths is taught by “nature” (verses 14 and 15), Paul indicates that there is an innate understanding in humans that men and women are different and thus will look different. One can think of the fact that in many species, male and females have some natural differences in how they look, and that gender roles might differ in different cultures but overall cultures maintain there are distinctions between men and women. Therefore, both special revelation (the Bible) and general revelation (nature and experience) show that men and women are different, with Paul discussing hair length here not to lay down rules for grooming but rather to support the argument for head coverings, which stems from the fact that men and women are different and should maintain a distinction.

Surprising Things We Might Overlook But Need to Remember

Paul also says some things that would have been shocking to the original audience that we might gloss over because of our focus on head coverings and haircuts. One notable item is having women praying and prophesying (something they did not do in the Jewish synagogue). Another is the note in verses 11 and 12 that men and women are dependent upon each other. This statement (as well as 1 Corinthians 7:4, when Paul says the marriage relationship is reciprocal in that the husband’s body belongs to his wife and vice versa) was counterculture in that women were often viewed as inferior to men. Paul does not say that here, even in places where it might seem to be the case. For example, in saying that women are the glory of men (verse 7), Paul is not saying that women are inferior but rather that men should see value in women and their connection to men. In addition, noting that the woman was made “for” man (verse 9) is not showing her to be his servant as much as saying that she comes alongside of him to fill what he lacked to accomplish God’s call given to humanity (“helper” in Genesis 1-2 does not mean inferiority, since the same terms is used of God in the Bible). Finally, the note that the husband is the head of the wife should not lead to mistreatment but rather sacrificial service, as shown by Paul directing husbands to the example of Christ in Ephesians 5:22-33. Therefore, this is a passage that points to differences in men and women while also affirming their equality and dependence upon each other; only as we embrace both differentiation and dependency are we able to live out God’s design for humanity in this world and His work of redemption.

Remember the Overall Point of the Passage

We might be intrigued (or fascinated) by the cultural practices that stand in the background of this passage, but let us make sure we remember the point that Paul is trying to make: men and women are distinct and dependent upon each other. We should embrace the differentiation between genders and model the dependency upon each other by seeing one another as necessary allies, not adversaries, that help us in our work of glorifying and honoring God and having this world reflect His will and purposes. Hair length and head coverings as ways that the people of Corinth would reflect this idea of men and women are different; we are wise to think of what that means for us today so that we can show the differentiation between genders that leads to dependency upon each other. 

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