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 of the local congregations of the church sponsoring this website, The Christadelphians) take from 1Co.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 believed that Paul is making an argument from that practice 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).
The passage 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. One positive allegorical reading of this 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. At the time it would have been a positive message.
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.