28 1Corinthians 11:2-16 Should women wear head coverings?

by | Jan 8, 2020 | 01 Podcasts, Corinthians

When a woman participates in a public worship service, is it proper for a her to uncover or head?  This podcast gives an overview of what (I think) Paul meant to say and what it means for us today. If you only want the bottom line, listen to this podcast. The next several podcasts cover the details and the controversies.

1Corinthians 11 is one of the more difficult passages of Scripture. Even though everything I say in this podcast is debated, I will not begin every sentence with “I think” — that is implied. While I have reached a level of certainty in my thinking, I acknowledge there is a greater than average chance that I am wrong because this is a very difficult passage. 

My standard advice on difficult passages, especially those which cover controversial issues is twofold: 

  1. Make it your goal to know what you believe and why.
  2. Mke it your goal to understand the other side (or sides) well enough to know why they fail to persuade you. 

As you listen to the podcast, realize I am giving you my educated but good-for-nothing opinion.  It’s my best shot and I may be wrong.


We are in a section of the letter where Paul is responding to specific questions the Corinthians have asked him.  The phrase “now concerning” signals the start of a new question. We don’t have a “now concerning” here instead we have “Now” in 11:2 which I understand to be short for “now concerning.”

1Corinthians 11:13 suggests the question he’s been asked is:  When a married woman is participating in a public worship service, is it proper for a her to pray to God with her head uncovered or should she keep her head covered? 


11:2Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. 3But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every husband, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. – 1Corinthians 11:2-3

  • Unlike the other sections, Paul praises them for the way they are trying to handle this situation. His tone is quite moderate.
  • “Traditions” in 11:2 implies this is not a matter of getting the gospel right. Rather he’s talking about practices and conventions (e.g. music, dress, meeting time, etc).
  • In this passage, I would translate “man” (ἀνήρ Strong’s G435) as husband and “woman” (γυνή Strong’s G1125) as wife. The words mean both man/husband and woman/wife respectively. Context determines which the author means.
  • This passage turns on the meaning of the word head (κεφαλή Strong’s G2776). Entire books have been written on this question. I will explore it in 2 later podcasts.
  • It is critically important not to read the historical abuses of patriarchy into this passage.
  • I think to be the head means to be the one who will be held accountable and is charged with the responsibility.
  • Paul gives 3 pairs of relationships with a lack of symmetry. Within each pair, the two differ in role and responsibility. 
  • In the relationship between the God and His Messiah, God is the responsible party.  God designed and is responsible for the plan of redemption even though Jesus implements the plan.
  • In the relationship between Jesus and mankind, Jesus is responsible for redeeming and rescuing His people. 
  • In Jesus we see the clearest example of the proper exercising of headship (Mark 10:43-45 for example). 
  • In relationship between husband and wife, God will hold the husband accountable for their life together in a way He will not hold the wife accountable. We’ll explore this more in a later podcast. 
  • That difference in responsibility implies a certain kind of honor or respect from the one not held responsible in the pair.  Showing that respect is the basis for this tradition in their culture which is creating the problem.

11:4Every husband who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. 5But every wife who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as a woman whose head is shaved. 6For if a wife does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a wife to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. – 1Corinthians 11:4-6

  • At that time in Corinth when men stood to pray, they removed their head covering as a sign of respect for God.
  • At the time in Corinth, married women kept their heads covered in public as a sign of respect for their husbands.
  • A married woman is in two of these relationship pairs. Christ is her head in one relationship. Her husband is her head in another relationship. What should she do when she stands to pray? The cultural symbols conflict.
  • This is a new problem because Jewish women did not participate in the worship service.
  • Similar to his advice about meat sacrificed to idols, Paul’s answer is: How would your culture interpret her actions?  If she removes her scarf, would they say, “there’s a woman who is honoring God?”  Or would they say, “there’s a woman who’s dishonoring her husband?” They would say she’s dishonoring her husband, so keep your head covering on. 
  • Speaking to the side who is arguing for remove their head coverings, Paul says removing her scarf is sending the same message as cutting her hair or shaving her head (both of which were considered disgraceful in their culture).
  • 11:5 to prophesy (προφητεύω Strong’s G4395) means to speak for God (rebuking, encouraging, reminding, etc.). I think it means what we think of as teaching today.

11:7For a husband ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the wife is the glory of her husband. 8For the husband does not originate from the wife, but wife from husband; 9for indeed the husband was not created for the wife’s sake, but wife for the husband’s sake. 10Therefore a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the message. – 1Corinthians 11:4-10

  • Paul is NOT a wife unlike her husband is not the image and glory of God.  That is not compatible with the rest of Scripture and Paul’s other teaching.
  • We know from Genesis that both genders are created in the image and glory of God.
  • IN ADDITION to being the image and glory of God, a wife has an additional role as the glory of her husband. 
  • Just as children can bring honor or disgrace to their parents, employees can bring honor or disgrace to their companies, students can bring honor to their teachers, etc., so mankind can bring honor to God’s name and wives can also bring honor to their husbands.
  • 11:8-9 refer to Genesis 2 (which we’ll look at in another podcast) to defend this idea of roles within marriage.
  • 11:10 I would translate “angels” (ἄγγελος Strong’s G32a) as “message. The word means messenger (either human or divine). I think this use is a metonymy where the word messenger has come to stand for the message itself.

11:11However, in the Lord, neither is the wife independent of her husband, nor is the husband independent of his wife. 12For as woman originates from man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. 13Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, 15but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God. – 1Corinthians 11:11-16

  • “In the Lord” means in a biblical marriage.
  • A biblical marriage is a partnership of equals before God even though they have different roles within the marriage.
  • Both of husband and wife should view themselves as in this relationship where they love, serve, honor and nurture each other.
  • 11:13 “Judge for yourself” indicates this is a cultural issue. Paul would never write “Judge for yourself is murder right or wrong?” because murder is always wrong.
  • 11:14 -“nature itself”: Paul is appealing to their cultural expectations. In that culture men who wanted to dress and act like men were expected to have short hair.  If he had long hair, he was dressing and acting like a woman, which they considered dishonoring.
  • In that culture women who wanted to dress and act like women grew their hair long and married women kept their hair up and covered in public. To do otherwise they considered shameful.


  1. Women can pray and prophesy (that is teach).
  2. Women and wives do not need to wear a head covering today unless they are in a cultural situation where it would be expected and not to do so would be shameful.
  3. We need to seriously consider the message our actions send to our culture and make sure we are not confusing the gospel.

For more detail and explanation, please listen to the podcast.

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