What’s With the Head Coverings?
Explaining 1 Corinthians 11:10
When I wrote my book about women in the church, my aim was to examine every verse that has been hijacked to oppress and silence women.
I wanted to show that contrary to what many of us have heard, woman are in no way inferior to men. In the new covenant of grace, women can preach, teach, and lead, and do anything God calls them to do.
But there was one verse I could not explain:
Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head…. (1 Corinthians 11:10a)
In context, Paul is talking about head coverings (scarves?). He says women who pray or prophesy in church with uncovered heads are showing disgrace to their heads (their husbands?). Their behavior is so shameful, says Paul, they might as well go the whole way and shave their heads (1 Cor. 11:5).
When I wrote my book, I didn’t know what Paul was talking about. But plenty of people have offered their opinions. “Women wear head scarves to show they’re in submission to male authority,” says one scholar. “It is the will of God that the woman know her place,” says another.
Which doesn’t sound like anything Paul would say. Why would the apostle who wrote “there is neither male nor female in Christ” (Gal. 3:28) turn around and say women are subservient to men?
Something doesn’t add up.
There’s quite a lot going on with the head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 so I will skip the details here and focus on verse ten. If you want to go deeper, check out the relevant entries in the Grace Commentary.
Sex in the city
As always, context matters. First-century Corinth was a hotbed of sexually immorality. The city had several pagan temples including the infamous Temple of Aphrodite Porne (“Aphrodite of the Prostitutes”). The city had a promiscuous culture, so we can perhaps understand why sexual immorality had infiltrated the church (1 Cor. 5:1).
The world has not changed much. Every day we are bombarded with offerings to the goddess of erotica. Like the Corinthians, we all face sexual temptation. And like them, we need to learn how to deal with it.
Imagine you were the apostle Paul teaching the Corinthians how to deal with sexual temptation. What would you say? If you were a law-lover, you might write, “You should not even think about sinning lest you incur the wrath of God.”
Or you might say, “It is a sin to talk to or even look at a woman,” which is what some of the religious Jews believed. If they saw a woman in the street, they’d shut their eyes. For this reason they became known as “bruised and bleeding Pharisees” on account of all the posts and doors they walked into.
But Paul does not say anything like this. He doesn’t hit the Corinthians with laws or restrictions. Instead, he writes:
Because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. (1 Corinthians 7:2)
The key word in this verse is have. Husbands and wives are supposed to have each other. Do you understand? Look at how the verse appears in the Passion Translation:
Because of the danger of immorality, each husband should have sexual intimacy with his wife and each wife should have sexual intimacy with her husband. (1 Cor. 7:2, TPT)
Because there was so much illicit sex going on, the Corinthians asked Paul if they should practice celibacy (see 1 Cor. 7:1). He had a better idea. “Sex is good, provided you do it God’s way.”
A Christian marriage is a treasure worth protecting. When two people who are each living from their union with the Lord come together in marriage, the result is heaven on earth. Nothing in the diseased temples of Corinth or the dark corners of the internet can compare with that.
Which brings us to the head coverings.
The significance of head coverings
The custom in Corinth was for married women to cover their heads. So a married woman who removed her head covering in a public place was like a man or woman who removes their wedding ring before going into a bar. It’s not a good look. It sends a solicitous message.
It’s like throwing a hand grenade into your marriage.
Paul called them out. “If you are going to remove your head covering, you might as well shave your head” (1 Cor. 11:6). In other words, if you’re going to act like a prostitute, you might as well look like a prostitute.
When Paul says “the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head,” he is not saying women are subservient to men. He’s saying, “Honor your marriage.” In context, he’s reminding them what he said earlier to husbands and wives:
The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. (1 Corinthians 7:4)
The body of a married women is under the authority of her husband, just as his body is under her authority. In other words, she belongs to him and he belongs to her. As the Shulammite said, “My beloved is mine and I am his” (Song of Solomon 2:16).
Put it altogether and Paul is saying something like this:
If you are married, don’t act like you are single. You are part of a one-flesh team. To disrespect the symbols of your union, whether they are scarves, rings, or something else, is to disrespect your marriage partner, mislead others, and diminish one of God’s great gifts.
Marriage should be honored by all and especially by those who are married.
The 3rd installment of The Grace Bible comes out at the end of May. It is available for pre-order on Kindle. Patrons can get the book here.
Thank you Paul! I cannot count how many churches have misinterpreted Scriptures to lock women in bondage to (any) male subservience. One church I attended taught that every woman was under the headship of every man in the church. I am so grateful for your teachings.
Yes, that’s a horrific teaching isn’t it Karen. It is totally unbiblical to say that some people rank higher than others or that men have spiritual authority over women. Christ alone is the Head of his church.
Good insight. Makes sense and context. Needed to day. Thank you.
This is very well done and makes sense in context. Thank you.
Thanks Brandon. I just wish I’d had this revelation two years ago when I was writing the book.
Perhaps a 2nd edition z down the road. 😁
Paul, please rephrase this line:
– If you’re want to go deeper, check out the relevant entries in the Grace Commentary.
I think you meant to say, ” If you want to go deeper, check out the relevant entries in the Grace Commentary.
Fixed now. Thanks Caleb.
Thanks Paul. Insightful as usual.
This is so good! Totally fits within the context of the culture. What would you say, Paul, to those who would accuse of dismissing a scripture because it was a cultural thing? I have friends who wear head coverings in their home meetings. They would say if we claim head coverings are no longer relevant then where does it end– i.e. we could say that about any new testament directive. Thoughts?
I would say we are under law, not grace. Paul cannot be preaching law for that would contradict his entire message and undermine his strong views regarding gender equality. The question of head coverings had to be a local issue (unlike eating idol food), because it’s only mentioned once in the New Testament.
I wonder if those congregations that insist on women wearing scarves allow women to pray and prophesy publicly, since that is the context here (see 1 Cor. 11:5). I wonder if they allow women to preach and champion women in ministry, as Paul did.
Great points, thanks! Sadly in my friends’ gathering (modeled after the Brethren) the only thing they’re allowed to do is sing. 🥺
Paul called them out. “If you are going to remove your head covering, you might as well shave your head” (1 Cor. 11:6). In other words, if you’re going to act like a prostitute, you might as well look like a prostitute…..
Paul , did prostitutes shave their heads? Thats news to me…
Although there is no direct evidence for this, Paul makes it pretty clear that shaving your head in Corinth was not something that self-respecting married women did; it was something disgraced women did. Who was more disgraceful than a slave working as a prostitute?
Those who worshipped the goddess Vesta in Rome shaved their heads. Although the Vestal Virgins weren’t prostitutes, the practice of head shaving may have been copied by those who worshipped Aphrodite in Corinth. But again, there’s no evidence other than Paul’s disgust.
Hi there Paul and the rest of the E2R Brothers and Sisters!
Wow! Great insight! More often than not we read Scripture out of context. As a result of:
(ii) Not using Jesus’ lens
(iii) Not summoning Holy Spirit to lead us into the right material and teachers like you and other E2R contributors
(iv) Not leaving Scripture to interpret itself
(v) Relying on what is commonly preached yet unscriptural. The list is ongoing…
We are ‘All” one New Man in Christ Jesus! 🙂
My personal belief is that Paul is responding to a faction of men who want women to be veiled while praying or prophesying. I believe that Paul is repeating the words of the men in vss. 4-6. The men are making a literal head argument saying, “Every woman who has her head unveiled while praying or prophesying disgraces her [own] head…” This is why Paul gives his model (vs.3) with the figurative meaning of “head.” So, in verse 7, Paul starts his rebuttal to the men to explain why women are not to be veiled. Paul says, “For a man indeed ought not to veil his head, since He (Christ, vs. 3) is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of man….” So, I believe that Paul is telling the men that just as a man ought not to veil his head (Christ), since He is the image and glory of God, so also the man ought not to veil the woman since she is his glory. I do believe that “hyparchon” (V-PPA-NMS) is referring to “Christos” (N-NMS) in verse 3. I do not believe that it is referring to “aner” (N-NMS) in verse 7. The Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is the image and glory of God (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15, John 1:14, Heb. 1:3, Phil. 2:5-6, Rev. 21:23). Also, the words “a symbol of” are not in the original Greek. Thank you for allowing me to share.
That is an intriguing possibility, Kristen, and it would be consistent with the interpolations that appear elsewhere in this letter (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:34–35). In either case the conclusion is that this was a local issue and not relevant to other churches (1 Cor. 11:16).
What a fascinating ‘revelation’ (if i might call it that). I have the same sense about Jesus recounting the rich man and Lazarus, that its a parable to show the ridiculous nature of the Pharisees, not actually an account that occurred in real life. Just a thought (before anyone stones me!) 🙂