Jon Gary Williams
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Article 0141 - Head Coverings In Worship

Head Coverings In Worship - Commentary on I Corinthians 11:2-16

Jon Gary Williams

In my first year of college in the late 1950s, I had a professor who believed that Paul's words given to us in I Corinthians 11:2-16 apply to our time and that women today should wear some kind of material covering during worship assemblies. Not yet having made thoughtful study of this text, I fell somewhat toward that persuasion. Then, after more careful examination of the topic and discussions with some older preachers, I was weaned away from that view.

Like others, I have revisited this text many times through the years, reviewing dozens of commentaries and researching several lexicons. Opinions on this text are obviously widely varied - - some of them surely contribute to a better understanding while others are so off the mark they can be readily dismissed.

Of the many questions which present themselves from this text one especially stands out: Was Paul was referring only to hair as the covering or was he also referring to an additional material object for covering the head? After carefully reviewing these passages and giving consideration to the thoughts of good brethren on both sides, I am convinced that Paul was speaking only of hair as the covering.

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In order to understand Paul's teachings of I Corinthians 11:2-16 I believe it is important to first recognize that the issue he was addressing related to what the citizens of Corinth considered to be acceptable practices regarding the covering of men's and women's heads. This seems to be evident from the following verses.

Verse 13: Christians at Corinth were of themselves to "judge" what was right in this matter. But in regard to what were they to judge? It was in regard to the custom (practice) they observed among the Corinthians that women were to be seen with their heads covered. This shows Paul knew they were aware of the cultural practice of women wearing long hair and that it was proper and expedient for women of the church to also observe this practice.

Verse 14: By way of contrast Paul now mentions man. Christians at Corinth were well aware of the acceptable practice regarding man, simply by the "nature" of things. "Nature" here refers to the cultural custom among the Corinthians that men did not wear long hair. As before, this shows the apostle knew they were aware of this accepted custom among the Corinthians and that it was fitting for men of the church to wear their hair accordingly.

Additionally, in verse 16 Paul emphasized that regarding this matter, the cultural practices in the Greek/Roman world were acknowledged and observed by congregations of the Lord's church elsewhere.
 So it is necessary to understand that Paul's teachings here related to the acceptable, cultural practices prevalent in the first century at Corinth.

With this in mind it is evident that Paul was not setting forth religious practices Christians were to keep regarding the covering of the head in their assemblies. Rather, he was admonishing them to respect what the people of Corinth considered to be culturally appropriate and to wear their hair accordingly wherever they would be seen. This would keep the church from leaving a wrong impression and thus being disrespected and criticized.

In this context the subordinate role of women was Paul's primary concern. For Christians the principle of woman's subordinate role will always be true. Yet, depending on the culture of the time and place, the way of showing this can change.

It should be noted that the social practices common to that time and place no longer exist throughout most of the world. In today's world, the length of women's hair generally has no moral or religious significance. Hence, a woman not wearing long hair would not bring reproach on the church.

It should also be remembered that Paul was addressing social practices that were prevalent long before the church existed and, therefore, were not necessarily peculiar to Christianity.

Failing to see that customs change with time, some wrongfully conclude that what Paul said here applies to all times and places, including our own. From this they teach it is necessary for Christian women to have their heads veiled in some way in worship assemblies. (This teaching, of course, is based on the idea that Paul was discussing a material covering. However, if Paul was speaking of only hair as the covering, such a view becomes irrelevant.)

Was Paul was referring only to hair as the covering or was he also referring to an additional material object for covering the head?

Some are convinced that Paul was discussing two coverings - - hair and also a material covering. While at one time I followed this view, I later realized and had to admit that a material covering is nowhere found in I Corinthians 11. Like others, I merely assumed the word "covered" referred to a separate covering of some kind. A few translations have even inserted the words "veil" and "unveiled" (verses 5,6,13) but this is only assumption and is misleading. Also the word "sign" (v. 10) has been supplied in some translations, which is also assumption.

It should be understood that nowhere in this context is mention made of a material covering. In I Corinthians 11:4 the phrase "having his head covered" does not mean a tangible covering. Actually, the Greek reads, "kata kepales ekon" (or "down head having"). Vine puts it this way, "having (something) down the head" (Vol. I, p. 252).

Coffman states, "Here is where the misunderstanding of this passage begins. This clause, as rendered in the popular versions, is commentary, not Bible." He sites Echols who says, "'having his head covered is a commentary, not a translation." He then sites Lenski who translates it, "Having something down from his head."

Coffman further says, "The logical understanding of this would refer it to 'long hair,' being long enough to hang down from the head, as clearly indicated by the apostles' words a moment later: "If a man have long hair, it is a dishonor to him" (1 Corinthians. 11:14).

It was revealing to me that brethren holding the material covering view could not agree on exactly what type of "covering" it was. Was it a "veil?" Did it cover only the hair? Did it hang down over the back? Did it also cover the face? The view held by many is that it covered only the hair. (For those who believed women today should "cover" their heads, this obviously posed a special problem, for they believe a modern day hat would suffice.)

During my early days in preaching an older preacher presented an idea I had never before considered. He asked, "Was Paul discussing two coverings?" I said yes, the hair and a material covering. Then he asked, "Did the material covering cover all the hair?" I said yes. Then he asked, "Could the hair be seen?" After thinking about it, I said no. Then he asked, "Why then would Paul be concerned about the appearance of the woman's hair if it could not be seen?" That stumped me and got me to wondering. I have asked several brethren this same question and, like me, they had never looked at it this way. Indeed, if the hair, being under a material covering, could not be seen, why did Paul give such attention to its length?

That same brother asked me another question that shook my thinking. He asked if any men of the Corinthian church had gone to their assemblies wearing veils like women did? I had to answer yes, because presumably that was a part of the issue. He next asked if I really believed this - that men would actually show up wearing such veils; and, if they did wear veils - why did they?

Then it dawned on me. If the covering men wore in their assemblies was a veil, would not this imply that they had gone out of their way to show up wearing a veil? But for what reason would Christian men intentionally do that? On the face of it, such an idea is absurd and shows that the covering ascribed to men was not a material covering.

Brief Commentary

Verse 2
Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.

The apostle Paul begins this part of his letter by praising the Corinthian church because they were remembering (keeping) the teachings he had given them.

Verse 3
But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

While having praised them, Paul now speaks to an issue needing attention - - certain women were apparently failing to acknowledge their role of subordination and were not wearing long hair.
 Before speaking directly to this, he first gives the larger picture of subordination, from God on down to woman: God is Christ's head, Christ is man's head, and man is woman's head. This was a powerful illustration revealing woman's subsidiary role in God's order of things.

Though Paul was discussing a practice relating to the existing culture of the Greek/Roman world (that women exhibit their subordinate role by wearing long hair) he was reminding them that long before this God had Himself established the subordinate role of woman.

Having laid this foundation, he now turns attention to the issue of the length of women's hair, especially in relation to worship assemblies where praying and prophesying took place. Apparently, some had neglected to wear long hair which called attention to their insubordination.

Verses 4-7
4 Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head.
5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved.
6 For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.
7 For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.

Paul now explains that if a man covers his head he dishonors Christ, his head. And likewise, if a woman does not have her head covered, she dishonors man, her head. But what is the meaning of the word "covered?"

Some believe Paul was speaking of a material covering. And some translations have even inserted the word "veil." However, this is only assumption. As previously noted, the Greek terms (kata kepales ekon, v. 4) commonly translated "covered" actually mean, "having (something) down the head."

But to what does "something down the head" refer? This describes perfectly the natural covering of long hair flowing from the head. That the covering of the woman's head refers to her hair is further established later in verses 13 through 15.

It appears that Paul mentions man's hair merely to show the contrast with woman's hair. Actually, his emphasis was on the woman, as he further explains that if a woman did not wear long hair it would be essentially the same as having her head shorn or shaven.

And he goes on to say that since it is a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, then she obviously should have long hair. He then reiterates (again by way of contrast) that since man is in the image of God he should not wear long hair, and that since woman is the glory of man, she should wear long hair.

Notice that Paul said it was a "shame" for a woman not to have long hair. But, to whom was it a shame? Why, to the woman, of course. But it was equally a shame before the eyes of the non-Christian citizens of Corinth.

Remember, Paul's words explaining the necessity of Christian women having long hair corresponded with what was socially practiced by the world around them. Failing to have long hair was generally unacceptable for women in Greek/Roman culture and was sometimes a sign of women of ill repute. This being the case, if a Christian woman was seen without long hair (in the worship assembly or without) it would certainly bring reproach on the church.

It should also be understood that people of the first century (as well as today) instinctively distinguished between the sexes in various ways, the most obvious being the length of hair.

Verses 8-9
8 For man is not from woman, but woman from man.
9 Nor was man created for the woman, but woman of the man.

Here Paul speaks again to the subject of the role of woman. Referring to creation itself, he shows that woman was created of man and for man.

Verse 10
For this reason the woman ought to have power on her head, because of the angels.

As noted earlier, the phrase "a sign of" in some translations is merely commentary, suggesting that Paul referred to a material covering. However, the Greek word here, exousian (often translated "authority" or "power") simply refers to the woman having authority (control) over how she should have her head properly covered.

Paul appears to be saying that a woman should exercise her authority in resolving to have her head properly covered rather than exposing herself in a disgraceful manner.

Paul goes on to say that even angels, when observing Christian women without proper hair covering, would take notice of such conduct. Angels did, indeed, observe the activities of Christians in the first century church (Acts 5:19; 8:26; 12:9-10; 27:23; I Corinthians 4:9; 1 Timothy 5:21).

Verses 11-12
11 Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord.
12 For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.

Now Paul returns to his thought of the relation between man and woman, observing their relationship as one of co-dependency. He emphasizes that while woman was of the man and man was by the woman, yet they together are both of God.

Verses 13-15
13 Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?
14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him?
15 But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering.

It is important to see that Paul appeals to their common sense. His tone in this section is different from that of the following section concerning the Lord's supper. Here he begins by expressly praising them (v. 1), whereas he begins the latter section by not praising them (v. 17).

He was not taking them to task over this issue (as he would soon do in regard to the Lord's supper) but rather, was kindly encouraging them to do what was obviously right. In an indirect, tactful manner, he assists them in making the obviously correct decision.

The apostle appeals to members of the Corinthian church to make a sensible judgment. "Judge among yourselves, is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?" But to what does the word "uncovered" refer? Is it a woman's hair or a material covering of some kind?

In verse 14 Paul explained what it means. With his comparative question he shows he was talking about woman's hair: "Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him?" This clearly attests that verse 13 is addressing woman's hair and not a material covering. Otherwise, this would have Paul paralleling woman's material covering with man's hair, which makes no sense.

Paul then immediately returns to the woman's hair by saying, "But if a woman has long hair it is a glory to her..." This further confirms that the uncovered head in verse 13 refers to the woman's hair. So, if a man wears long hair, it dishonors him, but if a woman wears long hair, it is a glory to her.

Notice Paul's closing remark on this matter. He expressly states the purpose for woman's hair: "it is given her for a covering." The Greek word here for "covering" is peribolaion and means "something thrown around" (Vine. Vol. 1, p.252), definitely referring to a garment. And the Greek word "for" is anti meaning "instead of" or "in place of." Hence, Paul plainly states that the woman's hair is given her "instead of" any such material covering.

Verse 16
But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

Paul concludes with a simple, straightforward comment. He says that should anyone be contentious and question the teaching that it is appropriate for women to have long hair and for men to have short hair, they should realize that congregations everywhere accept this teaching.