The only passage that discusses this is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.
The passage appears to state that head coverings for women were essential in first century churches whenever they “prayed and prophesied” (“prayed and prophesied” equates both activities as spoken, out loud). There is no verse which indicates that this rule applied to women who did not “pray and prophesy”, nor to women who listened to communal prayer and said ‘Amen’.
Some churches (including most, but not all, of the local congregations of the church sponsoring this website, The Christadelphians) take from 1 Co.11:2-16 that women in the early church probably wore head coverings at formal meetings even when they were not praying and prophesying. It is commonly inferred that Paul is making an argument from the required practice in prayer and prophecy meetings which would go beyond the immediate issue — praying and prophesying — and by analogy (other occasions) or typology (headship of Christ) to be an argument for women wearing head coverings as a matter of personal “conscience” (cf. Christadelphian Magazine editorial, Sept 1997).
Paul’s list of arguments
This is the full text of the section dealing with covering of head for women, and uncovering of head for men, in prayer and prophecy meetings:
2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. 3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man,[a] and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. 7 A man ought not to cover his head,[b] since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own[c] head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
It may be helpful to break those down into a list of the actual arguments Paul uses.
A – 2 “holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you”. = i.e. Paul already established this rule in Corinth when he was there.
B – 3 “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God”. = an argument of hierarchy.
C – 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. = an argument about shame. Praying or prophesying with an uncovered head is shameful. Just as a shaved head for women was shameful in the 1st Century.
D – 7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. = an argument from priority in the creation of man
E – 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. = an argument which probably relates to the role of angels in charismatic praise and prophecy in charismatic synagogues as documented in Alexandrian Jewish texts.
F – 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. = a restatement of the creation argument
G – 13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. = an appeal to contemporary Roman standards.
H – 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God. = Paul’s final argument, do it because we say so, and because the other churches do it.
The break down A-H above is slightly arbitrary. These are not really 8 separate points in Paul’s argument, but a flow of argument that begins (A) and ends (H) with the bookend arguments “do as I established” and “even if you disagree do anyway, because we say so”. However some breakdown is necessary, and the above helps to see the mix of quite serious arguments, B hierarchy with God and Christ, D and F from Genesis, ….. mixed with what to the reader today are quite trivial arguments – C shaved heads, E angels, G Roman hair length, H “because the other churches do it”.
It is this mix of apparently very serious arguments rooted in creation and the heavens, with very transient arguments related to charismatic Jewish practice, Roman hair styles and what other churches do which creates a large part of the difficult for a modern reader in judging how to read this section of 1 Corinthians. And that is before the even more difficult question of how, if at all, to apply it today.
Hierarchy of the cosmos and creation
The more serious, long term, arguments from Paul commence with a passage which includes (11:3) an argument based on a hierarchy of authority: God — Christ — man — woman, with each described as the “head” of the next. The issue of covering or not covering one’s physical head was, Paul argued, to do with treating your allegorical/spiritual head respectfully. So a man covering his head is like covering Christ, and a woman covering her head is like covering the man. The first is inappropriate, while the second is deemed appropriate when she is praying or prophesying.
To our modern sensibilities this seems grossly sexist. Which in modern terms it is; to say otherwise is to be in denial, or even dishonest. But again, there are passages that are worse. This passage 11:2-16 actually allows 1st Century Christian women more freedom to “pray and prophesy” in praise contexts, than Paul allows those same women in the full/formal church (“silent in church”, 1 Corinthians 14:34), and in teaching (“not allow a woman to teach”, 1 Timothy 2:12), or even in Paul’s today non-PC language elsewhere (“silly little women”, 2 Timothy 3:6).
Some of those who have tried to judge Paul’s words from 1st Century context rather than 21st standpoint have proposed that one positive allegorical reading of 1 Co.11:2-16 in Paul’s time would have been that a head covering is demonstrating that a woman can come to Christ without going through her man (i.e., husband or father). If this was the case, then in our western world today, this now seems like an odd thing to say as women are assumed to be independent. But in the ancient world, it was not like that. But at the time it would have been a positive message.
The purpose of the letter : reuniting the Cephas and Apollos factions in Corinth
There’s very little in 1 Corinthians that should be read without relating it to the main theme and cause of the letter; namely the culture clash between a Jerusalem-looking conservative group of Jewish Christians – the ‘Cephas’ faction, and an Alexandria-looking liberal group of Jewish Christians – the ‘Apollos’ faction. The use of Peter’s Aramaic name ‘Cephas’ is a blatant signal of identity with the mistake Peter made when he stopped breaking bread with Gentile Christians in Antioch, and with the lobby of “brethren from Jerusalem” who put pressure on Peter and Barnabas to make that mistake. Likewise the use of the name ‘Apollos’ is a clear flag of solidarity not just with Apollos, but with the liberal charismatic and cosmopolitan synagogues we find in the works of Philo and other texts of Alexandrian Judaism.
The tension between these two groups – conservative vs liberal, judaizing vs hellenizing, legalistic vs charismatic – underlies every chapter of 1 Corinthians. The purpose of Paul’s letter as a whole must be remembered when pulling any section of the letter (including 11:2-16) out of its fraught Cephas vs Apollos context. When looking at the headcoverings issue, we must begin and end with remembering that what we are looking at are chunks of a ‘unity letter’ where each chunk is part of Paul’s end of objective of putting two defacto fellowships in Corinth back into one body.
Avoiding extreme conclusions
If we’re honest it’s inevitable that all Christian readers revisit 1 Co 11:2-16 looking for confirmation of their own practice. It’s equally likely that many readers searching ‘head coverings’ on a website like BibleQ are to some extent looking to know – does this web article support what I want 1 Co 11:2-16 to mean?
Yet more or less most honest readers are already familiar enough with 1 Co 11:2-16 to know that the passage does not lend itself to extreme conclusions.
Anyone who reads that list of Paul arguments and takes away only the timeless arguments (B hierarchy with God and Christ, D and F from Genesis) and then seeks from it to make head coverings an all-time rule outside of historical or cultural context is taking an extreme view. It doesn’t help their case that even rules as set in stone tablets as the Sabbath, which of course is revoked in the New Testament, are not timeless when context changes.
Likewise someone who reads the Paul’s litany of reasons to be covered when praying and prophesying and then singles out only the arguments that are weakest due to the passage of 20 centuries of culture (C shaved heads, E angels, G Roman hair length, H “because the other churches do it”) and takes that to mean that the entire section 11:2-16 is redundant, is also not being fair to the text. An honest appraisal of the sum of Paul’s arguments must recognize that the apostle was trying to enforce a behaviour (i.e. appropriate attire and demeanour of the genders at prayer and prophecy meetings in a 1st Century church) with a set of arguments including those rooted in the fabric of heaven and earth.
Both sets of readers need to recognize the timelessness and time-limited nature of the arguments which Paul mixes together as one.
Head coverings and unity
To go back to the main point of this article; 1 Corinthians is a unity letter. The section 1 Co 11:2-16 may be applicable to today in some respects. It certainly does represent Paul’s views on decorum when women are praying and prophesying. Paul himself would have been a witness of this in other contexts than Corinth, as Luke records his and Paul’s visit to the house of Philip the Evangelist in Caesarea (Acts 21:9) where Luke’s record “he had four unmarried daughters who prophesied” is strongly reminiscent of the musical prophecy of the three daughters of Job at the end of a key contemporary text from Alexandrian Judaism the so-called ‘Testament of Job’, a work of fiction, but a valuable window into the musical prophecy practiced by women among Alexandria’s liberal and charismatic Jews. But before and beyond all this 1st Century Jewish context the main point remains; 1 Corinthians is a unity letter.
What Paul said to the Corinthians does not only represent Paul’s view on the subject, it also supports Paul’s overall objective in his letter of restoring unity between the charismatic Apollos group and the conservative Cephas group.
Now the problem is with applying this today is that the mechanism of how Paul achieved unity in Corinth may not be the same as the mechanism by which Paul would achieve unity in a different church in a different culture in a different century.
Most churches today, at least outside the Pentecostal movement, no longer have prophetesses, they do not have women who pray and prophesy as the Jewish ‘Miriam’ choir-mistress and ‘daughters of Miriam’ did in the Therapeutae synagogues described by Paul’s near contemporary Philo in ‘On the Contemplative Life’. Churches today do not indulge in angelic tongues as found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Therapeutae Testament of Job. Churches today are more like to have mixed congregations where women sing from the same printed hymnbook as the men and say ‘amen’ to prayers given from the pulpit or lectern.
The other issue unavoidable in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is visibility. Typically (from surviving accounts) the prophetesses in charismatic synagogues were highly visible – at the front, standing up, prophesying, praying, playing instruments. A sister among the audience saying ‘amen’ is not at the same level of visibility in the church.
Unity requires a degree of diversity
The penultimate point to be made in this discussion is also that unity requires both a common ground on important things – the main message, vision and purpose of the church – but also a certain amount of tolerance, flexibility and diversity on the small things. We see in Paul’s letters an astonishing amount of diversity allowed on many issues which can be the fuse to explosive confrontation in churches – feasts, meats (Romans 14:15), even some areas of doctrine – such incredibly as some baptized members in Corinth hanging on to fear of idols and demons (1 Co 8:7) .
All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. (Phil 3:15)
Paul’s respect for diversity may not be immediately apparent in that long list of arguments A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, to impose head coverings on the women praying and prophesying in Corinth. That clearly is an imposition on those in the church in Corinth who wanted to have some space in the activities of the church during the week where women could pray and prophesy. But it is easy to miss the wood for the trees here. It is also Paul imposing on those in the church in Corinth who would not want any space at all in the activities of the church for Jewish Christian women doing something that clearly is related more to converts to Christ from the Alexandrian Therapeutae school of Judaism (“of Apollos”) than those from the Palestinian Pharisee school of Judaism (“of Cephas”). Seen in this light it is quite possible that the re-imposition of head coverings is – when seen from Paul’s overall objective in this unity letter – merely a small concession from the Apollos group to the Cephas group to allow their prayer and prophesy meetings to continue.
The conclusion to the question “Should women still wear head coverings?” is really, “What are we trying to achieve?”
This article doesn’t provide that easy yes/no answer. If someone really wants a fits-all-times-and-places absolute rule, then the book to be looking in is Leviticus, not 1 Corinthians.
But then, we are no longer bound by law, but by love.
A couple of related technical questions attach to this passage:
1. What is prophecy?
Despite some Victorian commentaries having spread the idea that “prophecy can mean foretelling or forthtelling”, this is contrary to all Hebrew and Greek textual evidence. Prophecy in the Bible is always inspired speech, inspired poetry, or inspired musical performance. This is also the case in pagan texts, since not a single Greek text in the two main academic databases (UC Berkeley, and Duke Database of Documentary Papyri) provide any evidence for “prophet”, “prophetess”, “prophecy” or “prophesy” meaning anything in classical Greek other than what we would expect from the Bible — inspired speech. Prophecy does not have to be future looking. Of course, in the Bible it usually is, since Bible prophets and prophetesses were able to predict events, which pagan prophets were not. In contrast, prophecy in Greek context is either mystery, or simply nonsense (such as documented a century after Paul by the sceptic Lucian in his exposure of the Galatian pseudo-prophet Alexander and his python).
There is however a second string to “prophecy” in Judaism which is musical prophecy or praise prophecy. In the Bible, this starts with Miriam, who “prophesied with the tambourine”, then the song of Deborah, Saul making music with the prophets, Elisha asking for a lute before he would prophesy, and the sons of Asaph who “prophesied” with musical instruments (1Chr.25:1-2). After the last of the OT prophets, the gift of future prediction faded, and the practice of musical prophecy increased. Luke and Paul’s stay with Philip at Caesarea probably indicates the difference between these two types of prophecy. Philip had “four virgin daughters who prophesied” which probably indicates a talented musical band, but a specific future prediction (an OT prophet style “prophecy”) had to wait for the arrival of Agabus at Caesarea. Likewise, the unique NT references to musical instruments in 1Co.14 suggests a possible musical element in the prophecy at Corinth.
2. “Hair for a covering”?
The first edition of the NIV NT (1973) included the possibility of “long hair” as an alternative footnote reading for “head covering”. However it is been widely agreed that neither the Greek text, nor 1st Century evidence allows such a reading, and the TNIV NT (2002) removed the footnote. The footnote is expected to also be removed in the new NIV (2011).
3. “Wife” or “woman”?
It is often difficult to distinguish “wife” and “woman” (or “husband” and “man”) in the New Testament because in Hellenistic-era Greek the grammar was less strict about the distinction between “his woman” (or “her man”) and “a woman” (or “a man”), than for example modern languages like French, Spanish or German, where the distinctions such as “sa femme” vs. “la femme“, etc. are more strictly observed. However the base case for translation of ancient Greek should still be that “woman” means “a woman” (and “man” means “a man”) when the grammar doesn’t specify “his woman” or “her man”. In the case of 1Co.11:2-16, there are four reasons to think that Paul meant “woman”:
- the lack of any possessives (as distinct from Eph.5 “his woman”, “her man”);
- the very different headship structure from the marriage headship example in Eph.5 (1-2-3-4 in 1Co.11, not 1-2, 1-2 as in Eph.5);
- the fact that the only examples recorded of prophetesses in the NT are not “wives” but “daughters” and a “widow”;
- in Jewish contexts, “prophesy” was also found more with “daughters” and “widows” than with wives.
4. “Because of the angels”?
This is the third of four distinctive references to angels in 1Co.11, and the second concerning the relation of the Corinthian church to angels (1Co.4:9;6:3;11:10;13:1). The most common argument made from this point is that “because of the angels” is an extension of the God-Christ-Male-Female argument in 1Co.11:3. Although, since the Corinthians were reminded that they were to “judge angels” in 1Co.6:3, the place of angels would be God-Christ-Male-Female-angel, which seems to contradict this idea.
A less common, and more controversial, suggestion is that “because of the angels” is specific to the perceived involvement of angels in the act of “praying and prophesying” by the women. In support of this is Paul’s subsequent mention of “tongues of angels” in 1Co.13:1, a possible reference to a musical prophecy by young women in Jewish charismatic house meetings (Testament of Job – 1st Century). However, against this is the fact that the only contemporary record of a liberal Jewish praise night, where “Miriam the prophetess” led the female chorus, contains no allusion to angelic involvement of any kind (Philo, On the Contemplative Life). Alternatively, a combination of the two ideas, whereby some women in Corinth were prophesying “under” the influence of angels (or so they thought 1Co13:1), but Paul wanted them to reverse this order and restore order in meetings. The reference remains obscure. However it is only 1 of 7 separate arguments that Paul lists — culminating with the eighth argument which is that all the other churches do it. So while we might not understand the logic of Paul’s “because of the angels”, it doesn’t diminish the fact that Paul very strongly felt that the prophetesses in Corinth should be covered.
5. “Does not nature teach you”?
Given examples such as Samson, it is difficult to argue that nature in itself teaches that long hair for a man is a shame (v14), or from the insult to Elisha that male baldness is a thing of pride. Therefore “nature” (Greek physis) most naturally would be understood culturally. (See this question for more on long hair.) The statement about what is “proper” (v13) implies this also. These observations appear to confirm the idea that there were cultural implications for females wearing or not wearing a head covering. However, evidence of universal wearing of head coverings in this period is lacking, and Christian illustrations (on catacomb walls for example) typically show the women standing, praying or prophesying — with uplifted hands and in some cases open mouths, not seated listening.
6. Sunday morning or other context?
Paul concludes his section 1Co11:2-16 with “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.” This indicates that the other Mediterranean churches had a custom of women wearing head coverings when prophesying, but does not confirm that the time or place of their prophesying was Sunday mornings. Given Jewish practice, it would be unlikely that the other Mediterranean churches had women prophesying during the formal breaking of bread — even if the Corinthians were doing that (1Co14:34-35 suggests that the Corinthians were, but that doesn’t mean that the other Mediterranean churches must have all been doing likewise).
The notable lack of any use of the set-phrase “when you come together” in 1Co.11:2-16, and the heavy presence (5x repeated) of this phrase “when you come together” in 1Co.11:17-33 indicates that 11:2-16 relates to secondary contexts such as home-worship, praise-meetings, musical prophecy nights, and so on, not the main Sunday meeting.
As also does the structure of the chapter:
11:2 “I praise you in this…”
11:17 “But in the following I praise you not, for when you come together…”
i.e. two separate contexts.
The same distinction is found in liberal Jewish synagogues where women could pray and prophesy at praise events (such as at house meetings or the 7th-week feast evening), but even in liberal synagogues do not appear to have been permitted to pray and prophesy in the Sabbath sullogos, when the Jewish men “came together” (Greek synerchomai, the same word found in Philo’s Contemplative Life 31 as in 1Co11:17,18,20,33,34). In both texts, Philo on liberal synagogue practice, and Paul in 1Co11:17-34, a distinction is made between the main weekly formal meeting of memorial (Sabbath for Jews, Sunday for Christians) when “the full church” or “the whole ecclesia” came together, and secondary meetings, which more more informal, optional and smaller.
7. Paul’s U-turn at the end
Although it isn’t an approach much discussed in commentaries, out there in churches it isn’t unknown for someone to argue that Paul actually capitulates at the end and does a U-turn. As if to say, “I’ve told you my arguments B, C, D, E, F, G, but if anyone doesn’t accept this, then H, okay, forget it, it’s not worth making a fuss about it”.
In many ways that’s quite an appealing reading, because it is broadly in line with Paul’s approach of not wanting to make a fuss or a stumbling block over small things. And honestly any reader that seriously imagines that Paul would a head covering a requirement for baptism, for fellowship, or for the bread and wine really needs to step back and think about whether they really think that Paul would elevate such an issue up to the the level of baptism into Christ or communion.
However, appealing as it might be, it isn’t really a possible reading. Argument H “16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God. ” is only a restatement of Paul’s first argument, A, that it is a tradition which he Paul established. And Paul’s concluding punch-line “because the other churches do it” just can’t be read consistently with the idea of Paul making a U-turn against his own arguments. So, sorry, nice idea, but no.
8. Other theories
As a final footnote, there are some weird and wonderful theories that have not been mentioned. Among them the ‘testicle’ argument of Troy Martin (2004), and others more creative still. The reason these theories haven’t been considered here is not because the editors are not aware of them, but that they are outliers which haven’t found any permanent place in scholarship. Another area which has been omitted here, which is a more legitimate area of discussion, is that the range of meanings for ‘head’ in Greek is different from English. However with an eye to the fact that Paul is switching between literal and figurative meanings of ‘head’ in a section dealing with both head-coverings and head-ship does not really need lexical dissection to the nth degree. A step back and reading the whole 11:2-16 passage as a flow of argument will resolve the ways Paul is using ‘head’ for most readers with no loss of meaning.