An exposition of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16: The Head Covering

Verse 4: Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoreth his head.

Paul has just explained in verse 3 that the head of every man is Christ. Therefore, the obvious meaning here in verse 4 is that every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered (having on a head covering) dishonors Jesus Christ, his spiritual head. The reason is given in verse 7. Man is God’s glory and God’s glory should not be covered during public worship. To cover his head in public worship would be to symbolically abandon his God-given place of authority and, so, dishonor the One in authority over him, Jesus Christ.

I want to address what Paul means by praying and prophesying. The meaning of the latter has especially been debated.

I believe that the prophesying Paul refers to is the gift of receiving and speaking direct revelation from God, especially concerning future events. The Bible does not support the position of those who say that this word also refers to preaching. I think if you use a concordance and look up the New Testament occurrences of the word, you will see what I mean. In 1 Corinthians 13:8, Paul specifically identifies prophesying, speaking in tongues, and receiving directly revealed knowledge as gifts that were to end. Most non-Charismatics understand that this ending took place when God’s revelation for this age was complete–that is, when the Bible was completely written. Preachers today do not prophesy. They tend to do a mixture of preaching (that is, evangelizing and proclaiming), teaching, and exhorting. Preaching, teaching, and exhorting are all translated from their own Greek words. They are not prophesying.

Praying, of course, continues. But I must now ask what I believe is an important question: Why did Paul name praying and prophesying and not such things as speaking in tongues, speaking directly revealed knowledge, preaching, exhorting, teaching, or singing? The essence of these things is the same. That is, they are all a form of speaking authoritatively–either giving direct revelation, proclaiming revelation, calling to action based on revelation, or explaining revelation and how it can be applied, or worshipping through prayer or singing. Surely, there can be no reason why Paul chose praying and prophesying except that they are two examples from the list. In other words, I believe that Paul would agree that it is just as wrong for a man to preach or teach with his head covered as it is for him to pray and prophesy with his head covered. Paul simply named two activities of the Christian assembly to stand for all.

Some like to point to 1 Samuel 10:5 and 1 Chronicles 25:1-3 as proving that singing is also prophesying. But nothing in these verses says this. The most natural understanding of what these verses say of the relationship between singing and prophesying is that a prophet may sing a prophecy. But not all singing, even in the assembly of the saints, is prophesying. Prophesying has ended.

Verse 5: But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.

Again, with verse 3 in mind, we see that Paul’s inspired instruction here is that every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered (not having on a head covering) dishonors her head (her man, whether husband, father, or guardian). Again, the reason is given in verse 7 (the woman is man’s glory, and man’s glory should be covered during worship). I will comment on “for that is even all one as if she were shaven” in my comments on verse 6.

As explained under verse 4, praying and prophesying are two parts of a Christian meeting that represent all of the meeting. In 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Paul orders, “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands [“men”] at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” Paul could hardly have been clearer. He repeats the instruction in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” In fact, the directions regarding women in 1 Corinthians 14 come right after instructions relating to speaking in tongues and prophesying. How could the women speak in tongues or prophesy if they were to be silent? Obviously, they were not to speak in tongues or prophesy. And Paul’s commands about women in 1 Timothy 2 are specifically contrasted to the men praying aloud (verse 8). Again, it is obvious that the women were not to pray aloud. I discuss this more fully in “The Role of Women in the Church.” Here, I want to simply point out that Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, unmistakably forbids women from speaking in public worship. Speaking involved authority that women do not have.

What, then, does Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 11:5 when he writes of “every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered”? I will give three possible answers.

I. Perhaps Paul is addressing behavior outside of the assembly. Women must be silent in church meetings. They may, however, pray and prophesy outside of church as long as their heads are covered.

The context, however, presents a hurdle to this being a satisfactory solution. In verse 2, Paul is introducing the topic of decorum in the church, and he continues this topic even beyond the chapter. Notice that in verse 2 he says, “Now I praise you.” But in verse 17, he says, “I praise you not.” Verse 17, as verse 18 plainly shows, is about the assembly of the church. These two phrases show cohesiveness. If verses 17 and 18 and those that follow are about “when ye come together in the church,” so are verses 2 through 16.

II. Possibly, the Corinthians were allowing two errors in this regard, and Paul is treating them separately. He is saying in 1 Corinthians 11, You are allowing your women to speak with their heads uncovered. This is a shame. And, furthermore, it is wrong to allow the women to speak in church at all (1 Corinthians 14).

This “solution” makes us ask the obvious: Why would Paul address this problem of women speaking with their heads uncovered in two distinct arguments that are separated by 95 verses (between 1 Corinthians 11:16 and 14:34)? And, if 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is saying that women should wear a head covering while speaking in church, but 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is saying that they should not speak in church at all, then 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is superfluous. Why would Paul even bother addressing the issue? This solution seems very unnatural and, therefore, is unsatisfactory.

III. Praying and prophesying can refer to more than speaking. When someone leads in prayer or in prophesying (or in teaching, etc.), the entire assembly participates, even if silently. Therefore, everyone present can be said to be participating in that aspect of worship. After all, men do not sit in church wearing head coverings and remove them only when they speak. All of the men and women are participating, whether vocally or silently. Therefore, the men’s heads should be uncovered and the women’s heads covered during the entire meeting.

For women, praying and prophesying refers to their role in the assembly, which is done in silence. The context of 1 Corinthians 11 is the Christian meeting, not some sort of praying or prophesying outside of this. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is not addressing the idea of women speaking. It is not what he has in mind. He has the activities of the meeting in mind, but does not address the question of women speaking in 1 Corinthians 11. In this chapter, their silence is assumed. But in two other places, Paul directly instructs that women are to be silent in the meetings. In 1 Corinthians 14, he also talks of the Christian meeting, and he instructs the men about speaking in tongues and prophesying and says the women are to be silent. In 1 Timothy 2, Paul again instructs about proper decorum in the congregation and tells the men how to publicly pray and says that the women are to participate by dressing modestly and being silent. So, getting back to 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is not referring to praying and prophesying in a strict and restricted sense, but to be representative of other things (such as preaching and teaching), and to not just be the speaking, but also the silent participation. Therefore, in the meetings, men, whether speaking or not, are to not cover their heads, and women, who are not to speak, are to cover their heads.

I see this explanation as satisfactory, but there is another question. In Acts 2:17 and 18, Peter, quoting Joel, says, “…your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…and on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” And Acts 21:9 tells us that Philip the evangelist “had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy.” We have already seen that the gift of prophesying has since ceased. But in what way did daughters, handmaidens, and virgins prophesy?

Philip lived in Caesarea, on the coast of the northern part of Samaria. Yet, although his daughters “did prophesy” (Acts 21:9), God had the male prophet Agabus come all the way from Judea to Caesarea to prophesy to Paul (Acts 21:10-11). Apparently, God did not give Paul the prophecy through the four daughters even though they were close at hand. From the time that Peter announced the commencement of Joel’s prophecy to the end of the Bible, what words of a woman prophet are recorded? None. It seems clear to me that whatever these daughters, handmaidens, and virgins did in the way of prophesying, it was not public. It is also likely that only a few daughters, handmaidens, and virgins chosen by the Holy Spirit prophesied and that the prophesying they did may very well have been in the confines of their father’s or master’s homes in a family setting. This was not a gift given to women in general, it was not done in public, and it was not done in the Christian assembly. I think it is safe to say, then, that Paul was not at all addressing in 1 Corinthians 11 the private prophesying of these daughters, handmaidens, and virgins.

I would like to make another point concerning verses 4 and 5. They clearly show the inconsistency of the position, often taken by Mennonites and Amish, that a woman is to always wear a head covering. These verses teach that a woman is to wear a head covering in exactly the same situations that a man is not to wear a head covering. If a woman is to always wear a head covering, then a man must never cover his head, whatever the weather. But Mennonite and Amish men often wear hats. The way they get around this is to artificially define the head covering in unbiblical terms. According to their definition, a man’s hat is not a head covering. In fact, these Mennonite definitions get so specific that they often define a head covering as precisely the type of covering worn by their particular branch of Mennonites. This can go so far that some Mennonites will consider the women’s head coverings of other Mennonite churches improper coverings. But the Bible does not give us such precise definitions of head coverings.

Those who teach that women are to always wear a head covering miss the relationship between the long hair that a woman has all the time and the extra covering worn during the assembly of the saints. This is discussed below.

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