Analysis of I Corinthians 11:2-16

By Daniel L. Segraves

Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you (I Corinthians 11:2).

While much of the book of I Corinthians is made up of rebuke and correction, here Paul commended the Corinthian brethren for their remembrance of him and their faithfulness in keeping the ordinances he had previously communicated to them. The word ordinances is translated from the Greek paradosis, which Paul used elsewhere in both a positive and negative way, and which is more commonly translated “traditions” (Galatians 1:14; Colossians 2:8; II Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6). The internal evidence of the book suggests that these “ordinances” or traditions included teaching concerning the Lord’s Supper and the gospel of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 11:23; 15:3-4). While there were excesses and abuses in the Corinthian church, at least it had not discarded these truths.

But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God (I Corinthians 11:3).

Verse 3 thus introduces the subject of the passage: headship. This important concept is expressed in the relationships between man and Christ, woman and man, and Christ and God.

The meaning of the word head (Greek, kephale) has been the subject of considerable debate. At issue is whether it refers to authority or origin. As D. A. Carson points out, the “relevant lexica are full of examples, all culled from the ancient texts, in which kephale connotes `authority,’ ” but there is a notable paucity of data indicating a reference to “origin” or “source.” While Lowery agrees that the word refers primarily to authority (“sub-ordination” is his word), he suggests that the idea of origination is also found in I Corinthians 11:8. It seems that the major focus of the passage is on relationships of authority and submission, while also recognizing source or origin.

It is essential not to overlook the principle of authority when considering the passage. Proper practice in matters of head covering is meaningless unless a person understands his or her place in the economy of God. Man is directly under the headship of Christ; woman is directly under the headship of man; Christ is directly under the headship of God.

Headship and submission do not imply superiority and inferiority; the issue is responsibility and relationship. (See the discussion of I Corinthians 11:11-12.) In the context, man as the head of woman is compared to Christ, as the head of man and God as the head of Christ. Like any type or symbol, this one has its limits and cannot be pressed to the extreme. That is, man is not to the woman all that Christ is to the man. Indeed, man and woman are equal in standing before God (Galatians 3:28).

A husband is the head of his wife in the sense that he is responsible for her; he is to protect her, provide for her, and offer guidance to her. The following passages explain this truth.

For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body…. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing;-but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself…. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. . . . Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself (Ephesians 5:23, 25-28, 31, 33).

Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honor unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered (I Peter 3:7).

A wife is to allow her husband to fulfill his role, submitting to his loving, sacrificial leadership as the church submits to Christ. The following passages enunciate this principle.

Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. . . . Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing…. Nevertheless let . . . the wife see that she reverence her husband (Ephesians 5:22, 24, 33).

Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands…. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement (I Peter 3:1, 5-6).

The phrase “the head of Christ is God” must not be taken to mean that Christ and God are two separate persons. The main thrust of this verse and passage is not the nature of the Godhead; we must explore that truth in sections of Scripture dealing specifically with that subject. Then we can bring the understanding gained in an examination of such passages to verses like this. When we study all the Scriptures we find that there is but one God, who manifested Himself in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ (Deuteronomy 6:4; I Timothy 3:16; Titus 2:13-14).

The word Christ (Greek, christos, “anointed one”) is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Messiah. The word Messiah or Christ refers to the manifestation of God in the flesh, His humanity as indwelt by deity. (See John 1:1, 14; Galatians 4:4; I Timothy 3:16.)

The phrase “the head of Christ is God” refers to the relationship between God as an invisible, omnipresent Spirit (John 4:24) and His visible expression in human form (Philippians 2:6-9; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3). The Father (God as an invisible, omnipresent Spirit being) dwelt in Jesus Christ (a man born miraculously of a virgin) (John 14:10-11). With respect to His humanity, Jesus could say, “My Father is greater than I” (John 14:28), yet with respect to His identity as God He could say, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9).

Any attempt to make I Corinthians 11:3 refer to a separation of persons, as in Trinitarianism, is faulty. If two divine persons were in view here, then the first per-son would have authority over the second person. The result would be a form of subordination, whereas trinitarians say that the persons are coequal.

Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head (I Corinthians 11:4).

At issue is a man’s proper deportment while praying or while prophesying. If his head is covered at either time, he dishonors his head. The phrase “having his head covered” refers to his literal head, while the phrase “dishonoureth his head” could refer to Christ, the head of every man. The reason later given as to why a man must not have his head covered is that he is the image and glory of God (I Corinthians 11:7). If his head were covered during prayer or prophecy, he would fail to display the image and glory of God correctly. Thus, for a man to pray or prophesy with an uncovered head is a symbol of his submission to Christ’s headship.

An important question here is what the phrase “having his head covered” means. Some suggest that it refers to an artificial or material covering of cloth or other substance, such as a veil or hat. Mare, for example, says, “The phrase kata kephales echon is to be interpreted as meaning `having something on the head’ (literally, `having [something] down from [or over] one’s head’), such as a veil.”3

The New International Version, in a footnote, offers an alternate translation: “Every man who prays or prophesies with long hair dishonors his head.”

Lowery does not think this meaning is probable: “The alternate translation in the NIV margin, which interprets the man’s covering as long hair, is largely based on the view that verse 15 equated the covering with long hair. It is unlikely, however, that this was the point of verse 4.” Martin, on the other hand, is of the opinion that verse 4 does indeed refer to long hair on a man in the phrase “having his head covered.” He suggests the following translation of kata kephales echon: “having the (hair) hanging down,” and he points out that Chrysostom understood this verse to refer to long hair.

It should be noted that verse 4 does not use the word covering as a noun. That is, the verse does not identify the covering. Martin puts hair in parentheses because the word does not occur in the text. But neither does any other noun appear that would specify the nature of the covering. Indeed, as Martin points out, “Nowhere in the passage is any word ever used for a material veil or headdress.” That is, the only covering identified specifically anywhere in I Corinthians 11:2-16 is long hair (I Corinthians 11:15).
It is wrong to say that the verb cover means veil. Merle Ruth’s comments provide an example of this some-what common error:

The word cover, as employed in verses 4-7, is derived from the Greek katakalupto and means “veil….. The word translated covering in verse 15 is not katakalupto, as in the earlier verses, but peribolaion. If in God’s reckoning the hair is the veiling, we could rightfully expect this statement to read thus: “Her hair is given her for a katakalupto” (veil).

Assertions such as these reveal a lack of familiarity with the Greek language. Katakalupto does not mean “veil.” It is formed from kata, a preposition meaning “down from” or “down upon,” and kalupto, a verb meaning “to cover, hide, or conceal.” The Greek text of verses 4-7 teaches that a man’s head is to be uncovered and a woman’s head is to be covered; it does not say what the covering is. Moreover, katakalupto in verse 6 is a verb, while peribolaion in verse 15 is a noun. They cannot be interchanged.

The Greek text of I Corinthians 11:2-16 does not specifically speak of a material headdress. While it is possible that propriety in Corinth at the time demanded that modest women wear a veil, the text avoids using any word that would demand garment veils on Christian women of all eras or forbid men to wear hats or other material coverings while praying or prophesying.

The phrase “having his head covered” is kata kephales echon in Greek. Kata is a preposition meaning “down upon” or “down from,” kephales means “head,” and echon means “having.” The literal meaning of the Greek phrase is “having [something] down upon or down from the head.” Thus the KJV translation “having his head covered” is a literal rendering, and it leaves open the question of the nature of the covering.

We should note that verse 4 implies that it is physically possible for a man to pray or prophesy with his head covered. His head being covered does not necessarily in-validate his prayer or prophecy, but it does fail to properly honor (indeed, it dishonors) his authority, who is Christ.

But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven (I Corinthians 11:5).

Just as men are to pray or prophesy with an uncovered head, so women are to do so with a covered head. In the phrase “with her head uncovered,” the word head doubtless refers to a woman’s literal head, while in the phrase “dishonoureth her head” it probably refers to her authority – her husband or father. (See verse 3.)

Like verse 4, verse 5 does not mean that it is impossible for a woman to pray or prophesy with an uncovered head. To the contrary, it implies that it is physically possible for her to do so. Her head being uncovered does not prohibit her from praying or prophesying, nor does it in-validate the content of the prayer or prophecy itself, but it does dishonor her head, her husband or father. Martin sees all of I Corinthians 11 as relating to the subject of headship:

[The passage seeks] to explain the respective roles of the man and the woman en ecclesia, that is, in a church worship-meeting convened for the specific purpose of commemorating the Lord’s Supper: . . . Man is to appear with uncovered head for he is the glorious image of God (v. 7), whom he represents and in a sense personates in the worship of the true Head. The woman, on the other hand, acts the part of the church. . . . As the man’s uncovered head betokens the supremacy of the true Head, whom he represents, so it is necessary for the woman as the symbol of the church to acknowledge by her “covered” head the headship of Christ.

Like verse 4, verse 5 does not specify the nature of the covering. Some commentators suggest that decorum and modesty in Corinth at that time required virtuous women to wear veils. For example, The Pulpit Commentary suggests that for a woman to appear in a public assembly with her head uncovered would violate custom:

[It] was against the national custom of all ancient communities, and might lead to the gravest misconceptions. As a rule, modest women covered their heads with the peplum or with a veil when they worshipped or were in public. . . . If a woman appeared in public unveiled, she was deemed immodest. To wear a veil was a sign of womanly delicacy. . . . If she went to a public assembly without her veil, she acted shamelessly. To be consistent, argues St. Paul, “let her also be shorn,” and so assume the mark of a disreputable woman. A woman acting in this way sets public opinion at defiance; and as public opinion in many things is public conscience . . . no woman could do this thing and not shock all right sensibility. Besides, the veil is a sign of subordination and dependence. Refusing to use this covering of the head was a mark of insubordination and independence. A symbol it was, but to cast off the symbol was to repudiate the thing signified.

Others have variously suggested that public prostitutes advertised their availability by appearing in public unveiled, that women convicted of immorality were shaven and sentenced to a public, bareheaded display of guilt, and that heathen priestesses “prophesied” unveiled, with disheveled hair.

Lowery states that it was the custom for women to wear a head covering in public:

It cannot be unequivocally asserted but the preponderance of evidence points toward the public head covering of women as a universal custom in the first century in both Jewish culture …and Greco-Roman culture. . . The nature of the covering varied considerably. But it was commonly a portion of the outer garment drawn up over the head like a hood.

In light of this custom, Bruce K. Waltke concludes that verses 5-6 refer to a material head covering: “It seems probable to suppose that some of the individualistic Corinthians were proposing that their women throw off their traditional veils which symbolized their subordination to the men.”” He quotes Morna Hooker, a professor of divinity at Cambridge University: “According to Jewish custom a bride went bareheaded until her marriage, as a symbol of her freedom; when married, she wore a veil as a sign that she was under the authority of her husband.”

It should be noted, however, that Paul does not address husbands and wives in I Corinthians 11; he addresses men and women. Thus an unmarried Jewish girl who followed Jewish custom by remaining bareheaded would dishonor her head if she, as a Christian convert, prayed or prophesied. Moreover, the Talmud, which may preserve teaching from this time, tells Jewish males to wear a skull cap when praying. But it is doubtful that Jewish custom, whatever it may have been, had any bearing on the situation among the Christians at Corinth.

Waltke quotes Jeremias as he describes the veil of a Jewish woman: “Her face was hidden by an arrangement of two head veils, a headband on the forehead with bands on the chin, and a hairnet with ribbons and knots, so that her features could not be recognized.”13 Though Waltke concludes, “It would be well for Christian women to wear head coverings at church meetings as a symbol of an abiding theological truth,” he does not suggest that such head coverings fit the description given by Jeremias!

Not all commentators agree that verses 5-6 refer to a garment veil. William J. Martin makes a strong case that they refer to long hair:

Several indications show beyond reasonable doubt that Paul is using the term “covered” to refer to long hair. First, he uses it in contradistinction to the state of the man who is debarred from “having the (hair) hanging down” (verse 4). To make the wearing of a head-covering the opposite of short hair would be a false antithesis. It would have been pharisaical casuistry and sheer quibbling to say that wearing a head-covering compensated for being shorn. To annul the state of being shorn you must be the opposite. To be transparently honest Paul would have had to say there is only one way, one simple, plain, unambiguous, right way to efface the shame of being shorn and that is to have long hair; and that is surely what Paul is saying. Second, nowhere in the passage is any word ever used for a material veil or head-dress. Third, as the forms of the verb katakalupto [to cover] found here [verses 6-7] are not construed with an indirect object, it is best to take them as passive. Fourth, in v. 15 Paul states unequivocally that a woman’s long hair takes the place of an item of dress. Besides, one would expect Paul to use some more explicit term for “unveiled.”

We have previously considered Martin’s first and second points. His third point is that the verb katakalupto in verses 6-7 has no indirect object and that it is therefore better to understand it as passive. In other words, it does not speak of something that covers the woman but of the fact that she is covered.

Verses 5-6 do not say a woman must “put on a covering,” they simply indicate that she must be “covered.” If she has her natural covering of hair (verse 15), she apparently does not need to put anything else on her head; she is “covered.” If she does not have her natural covering of hair, she can cover her head with an artificial covering if she wishes, but she is still in shame, for it is a shame for her to have her hair cut (verse 6).

Verse 5 points out that for the woman to pray or prophesy with her head uncovered is equivalent to her being shaven. There is no question about what “shaven” means. A woman whose head has been shaven has received an obvious mark of shame. According to Deuteronomy 21:10-14, God considers the shaving of a woman’s head to be a humiliation to her.

For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered (I Corinthians 11:6).

It is possible to interpret this verse in at least two ways. One interpretation is that if a woman is not covered (whatever that word means), then she should theoretically be shorn. In other words, it is no more a shame for her to be shorn than to be uncovered.

This view seems to imply that the covering is a material veil that a woman should wear in addition to her uncut hair. Otherwise, the phrase “For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn” is difficult to understand. If long, uncut hair is her covering, she is automatically shorn when she cuts it and to be uncovered and to be shorn are identical states. But the word also seems to imply that the shearing of her hair is something done because she is not covered.

The latter part of the verse reveals that it is equally a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven. The word shorn is the past participle of the verb shear. It is translated from the Greek keiro, which means “to have one’s hair cut” without specifying how much is cut off. We should carefully note this fact: both the Greek keiro and the English shear simply refer to cutting. The word does not specify how much hair is cut off or how much is left after the cutting. The hair is shorn if any of it is cut off. For this reason, several translations render keiro as “cut off” or “cut” instead of “shorn.”

Thus, if a woman is not covered, it is the moral equivalent of her being shorn, of having her hair cut. Since it is a shame for a woman to be shorn (to have her hair cut) or shaved (to have her hair shaved off), she should be covered.

Martin explains the shame associated with the cutting of a woman’s hair:

There was evidently something undesirable and even disreputable associated with shorn hair. . . . Shorn hair among the Jews was a sign of mourning (Job 1:20; Jer. 7:29; Mic. 1:16). The use of the definite article in he exuremene “the shorn woman” (v. 5) would seem to point to the existence of a specific class to whom this designation could be applied. Paul in any case would have disapproved of the practice because of its association with heathen superstition. The practice of cutting off the hair among the Greeks as a religious rite is well attested. The Vestal virgins and all Greek girls did it on reaching puberty. The earliest form of the custom appears to have been the vow or dedication of hair to a river, to be fulfilled at puberty or at some crisis, or after deliverance from danger. Some of the Hellenized Jewesses may well have copied their Greek neighbors.

The word shame is translated from the Greek aischron, which Paul used four times. (See also I Corinthians 14:35; Ephesians 5:12; Titus 1:11.) It refers to something that is shameful, disgraceful, or even dishonest.

To summarize, one interpretation of verse 6 is that a woman is to be covered with a veil; if she is not, she may as well, for all practical purposes, be shorn. Since, however, it is a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, she should also wear the veil.

A second interpretation is that verse 6 speaks only of long hair as the head covering for a woman. This view is represented by William Martin and a footnote in the New International Version.

Following his line of thinking that the covering throughout the passage is long hair, Martin offers the following translation of verse 6:

For if a woman is not covered (has not long hair) then let her remain cropped (for the time being; keirastho, aorist imperative with cessative force, referring to a particular situation), but since it is a shame for a woman to be cropped or shorn let her become covered, (i.e. let her hair grow again; katakaluptestho, present imperative for non-terminative, inchoative action).

Martin justifies his translation as follows:

It would be unthinkable that among Paul’s many converts there were not women of the “shorn woman” class. What then was to be done about their inability to conform with the requirement of having long hair? Were they to be excluded until such time as nature would remedy their lack? Certainly not. It would have been monstrous to exclude any believer from the immediate enjoyment of the privileges of church fellowship.

Martin’s position on verse 6 is supported by the alternate translation offered by a footnote in the New International Version: “If a woman has no covering, let her be for now with short hair, but since it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair shorn or shaved, she should grow it again.” It must be recognized, however, that this translation is not strictly literal; it is a paraphrase. The Greek has no noun for “covering,” nor does it mention “hair” in verse six. The NIV’s footnote is actually a commentary on the verse.

Is it possible, though, that verse 6 should be understood in this way? Does it address the problem of new converts who come into the assembly with cut hair, saying they can enter the full privileges of fellowship even though their hair is shorn, while overcoming this shame by growing their hair?

The question seems to hinge on the use of the word also. In modern English, the word means “in addition to” or “too.” Thus the verse seems to mean, “For if the woman be not covered, let her in addition be shorn.” If this interpretation is correct, then the covering of verse 6 is not long hair, for if she had removed this covering by cutting her hair, she would already be shorn. Being shorn would not be something in addition to being covered.
This understanding of also is the strongest point in favor of those who insist that the verse 6 refers to a second covering of a garment veil or headdress. While there is no Greek word or English word (in the KJV) for “covering” (other than the designation of long hair as a covering in verse 15), the word also in verse 6 seems to imply a covering in addition to long hair.

If, however, the word also in verse 6 does not mean “in addition to,” the verse would permit the meaning suggested by Martin and the NIV footnote. The word also is translated from the Greek kai, which is a simple conjunction meaning “and,” “even,” or “also.” The meaning of “even” would fit well with this second interpretation of verse 6.

It is interesting to note that at the time of the King James translation in 1611, the English word also had a similar range of meaning. The word originally came from two words, all and so. In Middle English, the word all meant “wholly” or “quite.” Thus, also meant “wholly so” or “quite so.”

In conclusion, it is possible that we should understand verse 6 as follows: if a woman is presently uncovered because she has cut her hair, she should be permitted (“let,” KJV) even to be in that condition (of being shorn) while enjoying the fellowship of the church. But since it is a shame for her to be in that condition (of being shorn or shaven), she should allow her hair to grow again.

We should note that neither of these two interpretations of verse 6 negates the teaching of verse 15 that a woman is to have long, uncut hair. The only debatable issue is whether the Corinthian women had to wear a second covering of a veil and whether such a requirement applies to Christian women today.

For the sake of discussion, let us suppose that verses 5-6 did indeed teach the Corinthian women to wear a material headdress. Must Christian women of all ages follow this practice? We do not believe so, for the following reasons.

1. If the veiling of women was a custom in Corinth, it was only a temporary, localized custom. If Paul taught the women there to wear veils, he did so only because it was expected of proper women in that culture, not because going without a veil would be inherently immoral, immodest, or vain.

The veiling of women has not been practiced uniformly from ancient history, nor has it been widely practiced during the past many centuries. While a Christian woman should do nothing to identify herself with immorality, regardless of the culture in which she lives, some practices are neutral in themselves and vary in meaning from culture to culture and generation to generation.

Paul was concerned with the identification of the Christian woman at Corinth with immoral or heathen women. While the Bible deals with cultural issues current to its writing, it does not attempt to anticipate every culture to come. Rather, it reveals principles by which Christians in any culture can direct their lives.

As the following quotations from reference works show, the wearing of veils has not been practiced consistently from ancient times.

There is relatively little material on veils worn by women in the Old Testament. The Talmud has no designation for “veil.” The veiled ladies of the present-day Muslim communities would have been out of place, for the most part, in Old Testament times. It follows that several of the terms rendered “veil” in the Bible do not really refer to veils but to ornamental coverings of one kind or another, and their specific meanings are far from clear.

In Genesis 38, one motive for Tamar’s use of the veil was certainly to avoid recognition, but it seems clear from the passage that veils were used by courtesans [prostitutes]. . . . The use of the face veil as a regular article of dress was unknown to Hebrew women…. The modern oriental custom of veiling is due to Mohammedan influence and has not been universally adopted by Jewesses in the Orient. In New Testament times, however, among both Greeks and Romans, reputable women wore a veil in public and to appear without it was an act of bravado. Tarsus, Paul’s home city, was especially noted for strictness in this regard. Hence Paul’s indignant directions in I Corinthians 11:2-16, which have their basis in the social proprieties of the time.

The use of the veil by the bride (Genesis 24:65) and in other cases (Genesis 38:14; Ruth 3:3) is traceable to the influence of the Ishtar myth. The veil was the symbol of Ishtar, who on coming from the underworld, walked out veiled to meet Tammuz, her bridegroom. Otherwise, it was not customary for women to go veiled and according to Genesis 12:14; 24:15 contrary to present custom in the Orient due to the influence of Islam. As regarding headdresses, some representations show Jews and Syrians bare-headed, others show them wearing a band to hold the hair together.

Clearly, it is difficult to prove from history that the wearing of veils has been customary in all ages by godly women. In fact, the preceding references suggest that the wearing of veils has often been connected with an undesirable history. They were used by prostitutes, were connected to the pagan Ishtar myth, and presently owe their use among Oriental women to the influence of Islam.

2. The original plan of God does not indicate that women were to wear head veils.

Jesus appealed to the original plan of God when the Pharisees questioned Him about divorce in Matthew 19. Jesus responded by teaching them how it was at the beginning. The Pharisees appealed to culture and custom that had developed during the intervening years since the beginning. They protested, “Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?” (Matthew 19:7). The Lord replied, “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8).

Moses, a civil as well as religious leader, was forced to make some kind of judgment to deal with the sinfulness of the Israelites. He had a choice of allowing them to practice unrestrained hedonism, with no rules and regulations, or he could make the best of a bad situation. He chose the latter, insisting that if there were to be divorce, it was to be done in a consistent, recordable way. This is not to say it was God’s will for the Israelites to practice divorce for every cause; it was not. Jesus refused to be drawn into this argument; He bypassed the customs that had developed during the ensuing years and were based on human sinfulness, and He went back to the very beginning for the correct teaching.

The same principle reveals that Christian women are not required to wear veils today. From the beginning it was not so. When God created Adam and Eve, He did not instruct Eve to wear an artificial veil. He did not pro-vide her with such a covering. Instead, He provided her with a natural covering of hair. Nothing additional was required for her to be present when the voice of the Lord walked in the garden in the cool of the day. Even after Adam and Eve’s sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, we read nothing of God commanding Eve to veil herself when approaching Him. There is not even a hint that He required such a thing. Surely, if God desired women to be veiled, He would have said so. Instead, He provided women with a natural veil.

3. Long, uncut hair is given to a woman instead of a veil.

This point will be discussed more completely with I Corinthians 11:15. But for now we should note that the word for in the phrase “her hair is given her for a covering” is translated from the Greek anti, a word which means “against” or “instead of.” This is the meaning of the word according to Dana and Mantey’s Grammar, Bauer’s Lexicon, Thayer’s Lexicon, and Gingrich’s Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Several translations render the word “instead of” in this verse. Of course, the English word for can also mean “instead of.”

In summary, no passage of Scripture clearly commands a woman to wear a material headdress; it is not certain that this passage refers to such a covering; even if it does, it reflects a temporary, localized practice; the wearing of veils seems to be of questionable origin; veils do not appear as part of God’s plan in the beginning; and this passage declares that a woman’s long hair is her covering. All these points indicate that Christian women in this era need not wear a material headdress. On the other hand, if a Christian woman were part of a culture where a veil symbolized modesty and her lack of compliance would place her in disrepute, she should adhere to the local custom.

For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man (I Corinthians 11:7).

The reason why a man ought not to cover his head is that he is the image and glory of God. It seems that if a man’s head were covered he would not properly symbolize the headship of Christ. It is perhaps not necessary to understand why God ordained that this is so; it is enough to know that He did. Not only should men fulfill the symbol, but they should conduct themselves in such a way as to reflect the image of God and bring glory to Him.
As far as the symbolism of this passage is concerned, the woman, while also created in the image of God, is the glory of the man. “A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband” (Proverbs 12:4). A crown is a symbol of authority and majesty, or glory. While a man’s covered head detracts from the headship of Christ, a woman’s uncovered head detracts from the headship of her husband or father. We must remember that the covering or lack of it is a symbol only, but that to cast away the symbol is to repudiate in the eyes of God the thing symbolized.

We must not think that the symbolism is important only during prayer or prophecy. Since man is the image and glory of God and woman is the glory of man at all times, not just during spiritual exercises, it is important for the man’s head to be uncovered and the woman’s head to be covered at all times. While verses 4-5 address prayer and prophecy, verses 6-15 seem to depart from that limited frame of reference. Verses 14-15 are especially clear in this regard.

Why then does the passage mention restrictions with reference to prayer and prophecy? It could be that the Corinthians advanced this specific question. Or Paul could have chosen to argue from the obvious specific case to the more general case. If the Corinthians saw the proper deportment for prayer and prophecy, then they could more easily understand the reasonableness of this position as it pertained to all of life.

If indeed this passage applies to all of life and not just to prayer and prophecy, it would strongly indicate that material headdresses are not in view. Few would forbid a man to wear a hat or other covering at all times, and few would insist that a woman wear a veil every moment of the day.

Moreover, it would be strange indeed if a garment woven by hand were actually instrumental in influencing or preventing a virtuous woman’s approach to God, especially when the church has immediate access to God through the blood of Jesus Christ and men and women have equal spiritual standing (Hebrews 10:19-20; Galatians 3:28). New Testament circumcision is not made by ‘ hands (Colossians 2:11-12), and spiritual life under the new covenant is not based on ceremonial law (Colossians 2:16-17). Thus it is difficult to imagine a headdress playing a role in spirituality. This idea seems akin to the Pharisaic emphasis on long garments and broad phylacteries (Matthew 23:5). By contrast, long hair is a natural covering given by God, and He has invested it with a significance that we are to observe and maintain.

If a material headdress were required by God in order for a woman to pray or prophesy, it would be serious business indeed, and it would be important to have the right headdress precisely. But Scripture offers no clue as to the style or length of such a piece of clothing. It would certainly seem that many modern interpretations of a material headdress, hats, minute bonnets, and small squares of lace, would fall far short of a covering that “hangs down” and is “thrown about” a person’s head. The only thing that certainly and surely fulfills this description is the long hair of verses 14-15.

For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man (I Corinthians 11:8-9).

The rationale of these verses reaches back into the dawn of human history at creation. God has decreed this symbolism because of the order at creation and the distinction of the sexes. Man was created first; then the woman was made from a rib in his side. Since the woman was not made first, man was not created for her; she was created for him, to complete him (Genesis 2:18). Their roles are complementary but distinct.

While God gave the man and the woman certain unchangeable physical characteristics to distinguish them, He allowed them to possess one changeable distinguishing characteristic. They could manipulate the hair. That is, a man can allow his hair to grow and a woman can cut hers if they wish. By conforming instead to God’s standard, they demonstrate their willingness to accept the role God has given them and to fulfill His purposes for their lives. The unchangeable physical characteristics are God’s part; the changeable one is theirs.

For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels (I Corinthians 11:10).

This verse has given rise to many interpretations. First, there is a debate as to whether it speaks of evil, fallen angels or the angels of God. Then there is the question of what the phrase “power on her head” means.

The angels spoken of could be all angels, fallen and faithful, for both groups are very aware of the activities of individuals. The fallen angels observe human events for opportunities to destroy. The faithful angels do the same to protect, guide, strengthen, and minister to the children of God (Hebrews 1:14). A woman who submits to her authority and who displays that submission by her long hair enjoys protection from evil spirits bent on her destruction and also enjoys the benefits that accrue to the people of God. In this way her long hair is “power” on her head, power against evil and for good.

A rebellious woman does not have this power. (See I Samuel 15:23.) And a woman who is submissive in spirit but who through ignorance lacks the outward sign of that submission at the least confuses matters in the spirit realm.

Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God (I Corinthians 11:11-12).

These verses now point out that man and woman are on equal footing in the sight of God. (See also Galatians 3:28.) It seems that this teaching is inserted in the midst of the passage to prevent anyone from falsely concluding that man is superior to woman. The subject of the passage is not superiority and inferiority, but responsibility and authority.

While woman originally came from man, every man after Adam has come from a woman. Because their roles are complementary and not equivalent, they are equally important to each other, to families, to society, and to the church. Man and woman are equal in worth, intellect, human rights, and spiritual matters, but their roles and relationships, which the head covering symbolizes, are different. In the final analysis, both man and woman come from God and derive their value and uniqueness from Him.

Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering (I Corinthians 11:13-15)

Paul thought the Corinthians capable of judging the appropriateness of women praying uncovered. Upon what basis would they be able to make this judgement? The basis was nature, or instinct, which has, by and large, caused all societies at all times to recognize the inappropriateness of men having long hair and the appropriateness of women having long hair. While people have violated this principle at various times and places, the fact remains: on a man, long hair is considered uncomely; on a woman, it is thought beautiful. Why is this? It is because of the inbred sense of propriety that has been in humanity from the beginning.

A question generally arises at this point: How long must one’s hair be to fit the biblical definition of “long”? The answer centers on the meaning of the Greek words koma (a verb) and kome (a noun).

Koma is translated “have long hair” both in verses 14 and 15. According to Gingrich’s lexicon, the word means to “wear long hair, let one’s hair grow long.” Thayer’s lexicon renders it “to let the hair grow, have long hair.” Obviously, someone cannot allow hair to grow and cut it at the same time.

Kome is the word translated “hair” in the phrase “for her hair is given her for a covering” (verse 15). The passages cited by Bauer’s lexicon and Moulton and Miligan’s Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament indicate that kome refers to uncut hair. The passages cited by these works in which this word occurs in Greek literature demand the meaning of “uncut hair.” The word kome is also used to describe the Nazarites, who were forbidden to cut their hair.

Long hair is hair that has not been shorn, or cut; it has been allowed to grow. It does not require a specific length, or it would be necessary for the Scripture to specify that length to insure conformity. Such an artificial measurement would exclude some women from the privilege of ever having long hair, since due to physical and hereditary factors the length of women’s uncut hair varies greatly. The only way all women could be assured of fulfilling the admonition to be covered with long hair is if the definition of long is uncut.

The statement “for her hair is given her for a covering” is critical to the entire passage, for it provides the only specific definition of a covering in the passage. (See the discussion of verse 6.)

The word for is translated from the Greek anti, which means “against” or “instead of.” Webster’s dictionary offers thirty-one definitions for the preposition for. The first is “against; in the place of; as a substitute or equivalent . . . like the Gr[eek] anti.” The second definition is “in the place of; instead of; noting substitution of persons, or agency of one in the place of another with equivalent authority.” The third definition is “in exchange of; noting one thing taken or given in place of another.”

A woman’s long, uncut hair is given to her for, or in-stead of, a covering. Her hair, when she allows it to grow without cutting it, serves as her covering. A woman’s long hair is the only actual covering mentioned in the entire passage.

What does the phrase “If a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him” mean? The Greek word translated “long hair” here is the same one earlier translated “long hair” in reference to women. The point is that if a man allows his hair to grow uncut, it is widely recognized to be shameful.

This is not to suggest that a man does well if he merely cuts his hair with great infrequency. Underlying this en-tire passage is the Bible teaching of the distinction between men and women. While a man might be able to escape the technical definition of “long hair” by having his hair cut once in a great while, he could very well violate the spirit of the passage by giving the appearance of having uncut hair and by blurring the distinction between the sexes. The woman’s hair should be clearly long and uncut; the man’s hair should be clearly short and cut. While the accepted length of men’s hair may vary slightly from culture to culture and time to time, by and large all societies have recognized the propriety of man having hair so short that it is clearly cut and uniquely masculine.

But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God (I Corinthians 11:16).

There seem to be three basic interpretations of this verse.

First, some claim Paul essentially said, “I have told you what I believe. However, if you don’t agree with it, do as you please.” Some would go further to suppose that Paul said, “Neither we nor the churches of God have any custom of women being covered when they pray or prophesy.”

It is unreasonable, however, to suppose that Paul would take the time and space he did in I Corinthians 11:2-15 to teach on important matters relating to prayer and prophecy, only to throw it all away if his readers disagreed. If everyone should do what was right in his own eyes on this issue, surely Paul would have said so at the beginning, rather than carefully stating the proper view and supporting it with the teaching of nature. Moreover, why would God inspire Paul to write this passage and then, in effect, cancel it?

If this interpretation of verse 16 were correct, I Corinthians 11 would probably have read something like this: “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them unto you. But I would have you know that every man should make up his own mind as to whether a man ought to uncover his head when he prays or prophesies and whether a woman ought to cover hers when doing the same.” Then it would have proceeded to discuss the Lord’s Supper. In-stead, Paul carefully dealt with the issue, and it is unreasonable to think he would casually and flippantly toss away all he had just said with the equivalent of “It really doesn’t matter.”

We must realize that contention is not of God. “Only by pride cometh contention: but with the well advised is wisdom” (Proverbs 13:10). If pride is the source of contention, those who would have been contentious against the inspired teaching of Paul would have been proud. Paul surely did not give these people a license to reject the will of God because they rebelled out of pride.

The second view of verse 16 is that it stands alone in the chapter, introducing and completing a discussion on a third subject: contention. In other words, those who hold this view suppose that this verse simply says, “We do not have the custom of being contentious,” and see it as unrelated to the verses before or after.

This interpretation is strained, as it appears that verse 16 is the natural summation of the previous several verses. There seems to be no point in separating the verse from the material that has gone before, nor does there seem to be any connection between it and what comes after. Paul knew the temperament of the Corinthian church. (See I Corinthians 1:10; 3:3.) He knew some would be contentious and would wish to reject his instruction, so he anticipated their objection. And, of course, God inspired his words.

The third view, which we believe to be correct, is this: Paul, knowing some would be contentious and want to reject his teaching, anticipated their response by saying, “We have no such custom, no custom encouraging women to pray or prophesy uncovered, neither do the churches of God.” Many Bible translations render the verse along this line. For example, the New International Version translates verse 16, “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice, nor do the churches of God.” And The Pulpit Commentary explains, “Paul cuts the question short, as though impatient of any further discussion of a subject already settled by instinctive decorum and by the common sense of universal usage.”26 In this way, verse 16 concludes the teaching on this subject.

In summary, I Corinthians 11:2-16 teaches that it is a shame for a woman to be shorn, shaven, or to pray or prophesy with her head uncovered and that it is a shame for a man to pray or prophesy with his head covered. Paul appealed to the common knowledge of the time that a woman should be covered with the long hair God has provided her while a man should not have long hair. Then he assured his readers that anyone who was contentious on this issue would be in opposition to his practice and to that of the churches of God in general.

This article “Analysis of I Corinthians 11:2-16” written by Daniel L. Segraves is excerpted from his book Hair Length in the Bible.