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

Verse 6: 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.

The Greek word for “shorn” is keiro, and it means to have one’s hair cut short or bobbed. The Greek word translated “shaven” is xurao. It means “shaved.” Some think that Paul means the woman’s hair when he refers to a covering. They say that Paul only means that a woman should have long hair, and that having her head uncovered only refers to cutting her hair. Let’s read verses 5 and 6 as if that were true, by substituting “cut hair” or “hair cut” (for the sake of the grammar) for having an uncovered head and “long hair” for having a covered head: But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her hair cut dishonoreth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman has her hair cut [shorn], let her also be shorn [cut her hair]: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her have long hair.

Obviously, Paul would not say that a woman having her hair cut is the same as having her hair shaved, and that if a woman has her hair cut, let her also cut her hair! Clearly, Paul has a covering in addition to hair in mind when he gives these instructions.

What verse 6 is saying is that if the woman, during the assembly, is not wearing a covering on her head in addition to her hair, then she may as well cut her hair short. Paul is using sarcasm. But if it is a shame for a woman to have her hair cut short (which this verse implies it is) or to be shaven (short hair and a shaven head are equally a shame to the inspired Paul), she should be wearing a covering in the meeting.

The notion that Paul is writing only of hair, and not of a covering in addition to hair, does not stand up to close examination.

Verse 7: 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.

This is the reason the Holy Spirit says that women in worship are to wear a head covering and men are not to wear a head covering. It has nothing to do with fashion. It has nothing to do with modest dress. It has nothing to do with cultural norms. It has everything to do with glorifying God and Jesus Christ, His beloved Son. The man is the glory of God. When we assemble together, God’s glory is to appear and not be covered. The woman is the glory of man. Thus, man’s glory (the woman) should be covered so as not to detract from God’s glory.

Verse 8: For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man.

Paul bases his argument on the creation order and the purpose for woman’s creation (verse 9). Cultural norms have nothing to do with it.

Verse 9: Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.

God created the man first. He created the woman second, as a gift to the man, to be his helper (Genesis 2:18-23). Therefore, the man is God’s glory, and the woman is man’s glory. Knowing the relationship between man and woman, and Christ and the church (see, for example, Ephesians 5:24 and the surrounding verses), we see that a woman wearing a head covering during church meetings pictures the submission of the church to Christ.

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

This verse has caused all kinds of conjecture. It is best to take it as naturally as possible. The Greek word translated “power” in this verse is exousian. Although it is often translated as “power” in the King James Version, its sense is that of “authority.” For example, in Mark 2:10-11, Jesus said, “But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power [exousian] on earth to forgive sins, (he saith to the sick of the palsy,) I say unto thee, Arise, and take up they bed, and go thy way into thine house.” Jesus had the authority to forgive sins. And, in John 19:11, Jesus said to Pilate, “Thou couldest have no power [exousian] at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.” Luke 9:1 should settle the meaning of exousian: “Then he called his twelve disciples together, and gave them power [dunamis] and authority [exousian] over all devils, and to cure diseases.” Here we see that the proper Greek word to translate as “power” is dunamis; exousian is “authority.” The head covering, then, is the symbol that woman is under man’s authority and by his authority participates (silently) in the public worship. The head covering shows that she has a rightful place in the assembly.

Why because of the angels? Again, we should let the Bible interpret this as best we can. That the angels are witnesses of what the church is doing is shown in such verses as 1 Corinthians 4:9, Ephesians 3:10, and 1 Timothy 5:21. In Isaiah 6:1-2, we see a picture of angels (seraphim) who covered their faces in the presence of God. As they cover their faces so that only the glory of God’s face shows, so women in worship are to cover their heads so that only God’s glory (man) shows.

Hence, it is not the culture that the head covering is supposed to speak to. It has meaning to the angels who are present in our public worship. Because the relationship of the man to the woman shows the relationship of Christ to the church, the head covering shows the subjection of the church to Christ. The angels, who are under a similar subjection, and show it by covering their faces when in God’s presence at His throne, are witnesses of whether the women in a church are following this order. The assembly shows its submission to Christ (or lack of it) by observing (or not observing) the head covering instructions.

Verse 11: Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.

Paul does not want to be misunderstood as teaching female inferiority. So he explains that, even though the woman is under the authority of the man because of their creation order, men and women are dependent on each other.

Verse 12: For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.

Eve was made from and for Adam, and men are born of women, but all things come from God and are for His glory.

Verse 13: Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?

This is the verse relied upon by those who say that the woman’s head covering is merely a cultural issue. Isolated from its context, this verse can sound like Paul is saying that his readers should easily be able to judge this issue because a woman praying with her head uncovered is so obviously socially unacceptable. But the verses that follow explain that Paul is teaching the Corinthians a relationship between a woman’s long hair and the extra covering she should wear while in the assembly. It is this relationship from nature that they should use to judge the matter.

Verse 14: Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?

How does nature teach that it is a shame for a man to have long hair? Many commentators misunderstand what Paul means by nature because they forget to let the Bible interpret itself. In verses 7-12, Paul has just explained the creation order of men and women. This is the nature that Paul is talking about. “Nature” is translated from the Greek phusis, which can mean (a) the natural constitution of, (b) the origin of, (c) the regular order of. The Creation account describes the origins and regular order of men and women. Nature, the Creation, tells us that man should not have long hair because man was made first and is, therefore, God’s glory, and God’s glory must not be covered. In everyday life, long hair on a man covers God’s glory (and in public worship, a head covering on a man would cover God’s glory).

Verse 15: But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.

Woman was made from man. She is man’s glory, and her long hair is her glory. It is given to her for an everyday covering, and she is not to cut it short. But, as we have already seen, she is to cover her hair when in church meetings so that only the glory of God–the man–is uncovered.

Of course, these things are types. Paul is not implying female inferiority. The male/female relationship is a type of the relationship between Christ and the church. When we worship, we are not to glorify ourselves, the church, but Jesus Christ. This attitude is pictured by the women in the church wearing head coverings. The head covering is a picture of the submission of the church to Jesus Christ.

Verse 16: But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.

Some people say that Paul is saying, after having explained about head coverings, that, if anyone challenges the matter, then we are to give in because the church does not really have such a custom. This is a completely unnatural reading of the text. It would make no sense for Paul to so thoroughly explain the head coving and then say we do not have to follow the teaching because we have no such custom.

Another misunderstanding of the verse is to say that Paul means that we have no such custom as contentiousness. True, the church has no such custom as contentiousness, but why should Paul say something so obvious? Would anyone seriously think that the church has a custom of contentiousness?

The Greek does, however, allow for a variation on the above. One might think that the word “custom” in this verse is the same as that translated “ordinances” in verse 2. But it is not. Here in verse 16, “custom” is translated from an unusual word, sunētheia. It can mean “custom,” but, among other things that would not fit this context (such as “sexual intercourse” and “herding together”), it can also mean “habit” and “mutual habituation” (or “mutual addiction”). The word translated “contentious” is philoneikos. It means “love strife” or “fond of contention.” So, this verse could be saying, “But if any man seem to love strife, we have no such habit [or “mutual addiction”], neither the churches of God. In other words, if this interpretation is correct, Paul is being sarcastic. If anyone who loves strife wants to argue with him, he doesn’t share an addiction for strife and neither do the churches. We are to do as he says and not argue about it.

The simplest and best understanding of the verse is that Paul is saying that if anyone is contentious, that is, takes an opposing view, “we” and “the churches of God” do not have a custom that supports the opposing view. The custom to follow is what has just been stated in the preceding verses.

Who is “we”? I think it refers to Paul and Sosthenes (see 1:1). I think we tend to forget that Paul did not always write alone. Paul says that the churches of God (plural) do not have a custom that opposes what he has just explained concerning the head covering. Paul knew the churches well, and he knew that none of them were acting contrary to his teaching in this regard.

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