If you walk into almost any church in North America this Sunday you will not see many (if any) women wearing a head covering. However, 1 Cor 11:2-16 seems to indicate that head coverings should be worn by women during the church service. To further complicate matters, one of the reasons given in 1 Cor 11 is because of God’s created order. If Paul is supporting head coverings from the created order, are we not obligated to continue this practice which all the churches of Paul’s time observed (1 Cor 11:16)?
This is notoriously one of the most difficult passages to interpret. Some people claim that because of the many exegetical difficulties, this passage should not be used for discussion on gender and roles. However, despite some of the contextual difficulties, I think the passage is clear enough to trace the overall argument and make an informed theological decision regarding head coverings.
Because we cannot interact with every part of the passage, here are a few observations:
First, the main subject matter is laid out in 1 Cor 11:3, indicating that distinct gender roles are the main issue in view.
Some interpreters imply that head coverings are the main issue in 1 Cor 11:2-16. However, head coverings are only addressed because of the principle laid out in 1 Cor 11:3. If 1 Cor 11:3 is not true, head coverings would likely not be discussed. In other words, head coverings is an indirect (albeit important) part of the argument which Paul is laying out in addressing the misunderstanding of gender roles in the Corinthian church (cf. 1 Cor 14:34-36).
Second, the use of “head” indicates that gender function/inter-relationship is also in view.
The idea of “head” carries with it the idea of authority, and therefore, subordination on the part of another. This description of these three relationships (man and Christ, woman and man, and Christ and God) indicate that there is a hierarchy of roles involved where one party is head and has authority over another.
Third, the emphasis on praying and prophesying indicates that function is in view and not merely the symbol of a head covering.
In this passage there is an emphasis on men and women praying or prophesying. This seems to indicate that head coverings are being described in relationship to how men and women function. Again, this seems to put the emphasis on the gender roles and function rather than on merely acceptable dress.
Fourth, because the head coverings were a widespread practice, there is an underlying universal principle.
Because all the churches used head coverings (v. 16), then this was a widespread practice. As a rule, widespread practices are grounded on universal principles. There are two main options here in thinking through what the universal principle is:
(1) The universal principle is wearing head coverings itself, as a symbol of God’s created order.
(2) The universal principle is the gender roles and distinctions which are built into creation. Thus, men and women are not to rebel against the natural outworking of those distinctions [which in this case, includes wearing or not-wearing a head covering].
Option (1) indicates that we should expect to be able to trace a biblical theology of “head coverings” from the Old Testament/intertestamental era onward. This is the case with both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which were both in existence in nascent form before the birth of the Church.
However, because there is no other mentions of head coverings in Scripture, the universal principle at play is likely option (2)—an emphasis on the natural outworking of gender roles and distinctions in the culture. This is confirmed by Old Testament sources, notably, Deuteronomy 22:5, which forbids women dressing like men, and men dressing like women. This is perhaps a close parallel with what we find in 1 Cor 11:3-16 since the emphasis there is also on maintaining a distinction between gender roles and function.
Thus, because God has created both men and women with distinct differences and roles, the creation principle is that we must function in line with those gender distinctions. The application of this principle to the situation at Corinth was that men should dress like men, and women should dress like women.
Below, I have included a summary of what I believe traces Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 11:3-16:
Claim: Because men and women have different gender roles [built into creation], women should wear head-coverings (v. 3ff).
Reason 1: Every man who covers his head brings shame to his authority [Christ] (v. 4)
Reason 2: Every woman who uncovers her head brings shame to her authority [husband] (v. 5)
Evidence: A woman having an uncovered head is the same as shaving her head (v. 6)
Reason 3: Man is the glory of God, but woman is the glory of man (v. 7)
Evidence 1: Woman comes from Man (v. 8)
Evidence 2: Woman was created for man (v. 9)
Summary: Because of the above claim and reasons, woman ought to have the symbol of authority on her head (v. 10)
Claim 2: Although man and woman have distinction and different functional roles, they are not independent of one another, but interdependent (v. 11).
Reason: Just as woman comes from man, so man comes through woman—both being dependent upon God (v. 12).
Claim 3: It is natural and fitting to observe gender role distinctions by having the woman cover her head while praying (v. 13)
Reason 1: Nature teaches us long hair [ie., looking like a woman] is a dishonor (v. 14)
Reason 2: Nature teaches us long hair [ie., looking like a woman] is a woman’s glory (v. 15)
Reason 3: All the churches observe head-coverings to mark gender distinctions (v. 16).
In summary, I believe that the head covering was a cultural symbol of the distinctions between men and women. I think the flow of Paul’s argument supports this, as well as the absence of any OT or other NT references to head coverings.
That is not to say churches should not practice head coverings. I remember visiting churches in South Africa where all of the women wore head coverings. In a situation like that, I think it is proper to wear a head covering. But where head coverings are not used, men and women should endeavor to act in agreement with their gender roles as defined by Scripture, and to a certain extent, culture.
For further reading:
Benjamin L. Merkle, “Paul’s Arguments from Creation in 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 and 1 Timothy 2:13-14: An Apparent Inconsistency Answered” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, no. 3 (Sept 2006): 527-48.
Mark Taylor, 1 Corinthians, New American Commentary.