This is a strange, hair-raising, passage. Certainly a challenging bit of Scripture, but one that I think helps us to appreciate Paul’s concern that our behaviour does not malign our witness of the gospel. Good exegesis starts with understanding the passage’s cultural and literary context:
The Church at Corinth
Corinth was a multicultural society – a trade hub, a place of racial and religious diversity. The challenge to the early church was the sometimes delicate balance of freedom in Christ and the restriction of behaviours so as not to be a stumbling block to others receiving and growing in the faith. An example is the matter regarding food in the immediately preceding pericope of 1 Cor 10:25-31. Paul tells believers they can eat any food from the market, and any food put before them at an unbeliever’s home, unless the unbeliever first tells them it was offered to idols. This instruction is for the sake of the unbeliever not the believer.
The Heady Issue at Corinth
1 Corinthians 11 begins with Paul praising the believers at Corinth for remembering him and for holding onto the traditions he passed on (v2), Paul then writes about an issue in the church – hairstyles and head coverings.
He begins with this prelude – 3But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Some commentators use this passage to reinforce a view that husbands are the authoritative head of the wife. But does this fit the context?
The Greek word translated ‘head’ in this verse is kephale. As Philip Payne notes, in the Koine Greek (in use in Paul’s time) kephale would not have been read as ‘leader’ or ‘to have authority over’.1, 2 He, and others, contend kephale is better understood as ‘source’ (like the head of a river).3 In Greco-Roman culture women were generally dependent on men as their source of life in society; men provided safety and financial security – husbands for their wives, fathers for their daughters.
It is important when we look at 1 Corinthians 11 that we look at the Greek to determine if Paul is referring to men and women in general, or husbands and wives: Verse 3b “… the head (kephale) of every man (aner) is Christ, and the head (kephale) of woman (gune) is the man, and the head (kephale) of Christ is God”
According to Philip Payne: Some Bible versions mistakenly translate “man” and “woman” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 as “husband” and “wife,” but there is no “his” before “woman” or an article that might lend support to this. A key reason they translate 11:3b as “the husband is the head of his wife” is that they have read back into head (kephale) the metaphorical meaning it often has in English and some other languages, but rarely, if ever, had in native Greek, namely, “authority.” The standard LSJ [Liddel Scot and Jones] Greek Lexicon does not list “authority” or anything like it as a possible meaning among its forty-eight figurative translations of kephale. LSJ does, however, list various instances where kephale means “source,” and “source” fits the context of this passage perfectly.4
Reading this passage in terms of ‘source’ also preserves our Trinitarian understanding of God – one God in the unity of three persons (Father, Son and Spirit – distinct in their personhood, yet one in essence, all equally God).
An interpretive reading of verse 3 can, therefore, be:
“But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ [man was sourced, originated, in Christ, e.g. 1 Cor 8:6 “through him all things came and through whom we live”, and Col 1:16 – “For in him all things were created”], and the head of the woman is man [woman was originally sourced from man, being made from his side Gen 2:22], and the head of Christ is God [Christ is fully human and fully divine, he came from God – the Father sent the Son, who took on flesh in the person of Jesus (conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of Mary), the Spirit anointed Jesus with power as the Christ, the Messiah – hence, the head (source) of Christ is God]
To cover or not to cover?
Immediately after verse 3 Paul starts talking about head coverings. So what does whose head of whom have to do with head coverings?
By appealing to the creation order (reminding them they were made distinctly male and female) Paul is telling believers that what is on their literal heads brings honour or shame to their metaphorical head and, therefore, impacts their public witness of the gospel.
We could easily gloss over this passage thinking it doesn’t have any relevance for us today, but the point of the passage is behaviour appropriate to Christian witness. The question ‘to cover or not to cover’ in leading worship was very important for Christian witness at Corinth and we can learn some valuable principles from it.
4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. Kenneth Bailey contends Paul is telling men they ought to uncover their heads because of their new status in Christ: “In 2 Corinthians 3:12-18 Paul describes how Moses had to veil his face, “but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed…And we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (vv16, 18).”5
There is also an argument that what Paul is talking about is hairstyles. This is because of verse 14: Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him… According to Payne, “Greek, Roman and Jewish literature of Paul’s day frequently speaks of men wearing long effeminate hair as disgraceful, especially when done up like a woman’s hair…Many desiring homosexual liaisons advertised their sexual availability through display of effeminate hair, particularly in the Dionysiac cult that was influential in Corinth”6 Paul did not want their behaviour to be taken in way that goes against who God created them to be.
As Corinth was a multicultural and multifaith society, some believers would have been converts from the worship of pagan gods and goddesses and some would have been Jews who have a new found freedom from the Mosaic Law. Because of this, both views may be valid – freedom from the Jewish custom of wearing a veil, and exhorting men not to wear their hair as a covering in a way that blurs the sexes.
Paul then turns his attention to the behaviour of women: 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head – it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
Note that it was common practice for not only men, but also women to pray and prophecy in the church gathering. Such activities are associated with leadership – prayer is to God on behalf of the people and prophecy is from God for the people – in 1 Cor 14:6 Paul says “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.” Indeed, Paul regards prophecy as the greatest gift (1 Cor 14:1) and states that “God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers… (1 Cor 12:28).
Paul does not prohibit women from leading in worship but instructs them to do it with their head covered. Similar to the men, Paul could be talking about veils, as respectable women wore veils, but we cannot know this for sure because it is clear from Paul’s and Peter’s instruction for women not to braid their hair with gold (in 1 Tim 2:9 and 1 Pet 3:3 respectively) that women wore their hair up, without a veil. Payne, Fee and others contend that women praying or prophesying with head uncovered refers to letting hair hang loose, not tied up. This is indicated by v15: For long hair is given to her as a covering.
In Greek, Roman and Jewish culture loose hair signified sexual looseness. As Payne notes, “In the Dionysiac cult, which had a prominent temple in Corinth, it was customary for women to let down their hair to “prophesy” and engage in all sorts of sexual debauchery.”7 This would certainly be out of order in the church! It would bring shame not only on the woman but on her husband. It would be equivalent to the shame of having her head shaved or hair cut off (a punishment for adultery).8 Indeed, as Payne notes,“…in Hellenistic Roman, and Jewish cultures for centuries preceding and following the time of Paul, virtually all of the portraiture, sculpture, and other graphic evidence depicts respectable women’s hair done up, not let down loose.”9
Bailey, who contends Paul was encouraging the men that it’s now ok to pray and prophesy with head uncovered, says that although this applies to women in the congregation, for women leaders they should have the veil because uncovered hair can be sexually enticing and so detract from worship.10
Whether it refers to a veil as a covering or the hair being done up like a cover for the head, Paul is concerned with women not being seen as sexually provocative as they lead worship. (Of course today short or long, hair up or down, hats or no hats, has no such connotations, but worship leaders do need to be mindful that what they wear does not detract from the worship of God).
Putting a metaphorical meaning on v4-5, Paul is saying that if the woman or man shames their own head in a literal sense, they bring dishonour upon their metaphorical head. This is highly important in a culture that places societal value on a person’s honour or shame.
This is seen in the next few verses: 7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. Man is the glory of God because God made man in His image, from the dust of the earth. Woman is the glory of man because she was made from him and he glories in her as being a partner made for him.
Now we come to the most difficult verse: 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority [exousia] over her own head, because of the angels.
The translation I have been using is the NIV. The NKJV adds the words ‘symbol of’ (in italics to show that it is in addition to the original text for the purpose of clarity). Some argue that this passage shows that a woman’s head covering is a symbol of the male authority over her. But, as Gordon Fee points out, this doesn’t fit with the Greek construction of the verse (it is the subject, the woman, who has authority “over” the object of the preposition, the head).11 It also goes against the context of what Paul is trying to instil in previous chapters, that is, restricting the believer’s new found freedom for the sake of the gospel: 1 Cor 8:9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
This is one of the major points of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians – in chapter 9 he talks about his rights as an apostle and how, rather than demanding those rights, he puts up with anything so as not to hinder the gospel (v12). In chapter 10 he tells believers to restrict their freedom regarding what food they can eat for the good of others. And now in chapter 11 it’s the same theme, exercising rights in a godly way so as not to cause dishonour and become a stumbling block for the gospel – the woman has authority over the way she presents herself, but she should be careful in the way she exercises that authority “because of the angels”.
What about the angels?
What does “because of the angels” mean? There are 3 main views:
(1) ‘Angels’ can also be translated ‘messengers’,12 so some think this could refer to outsiders who, having seen and heard the behaviour in the church, go to tell others about it.
(2) ‘Angels’ are heavenly beings who witnesses the worship and behaviour of believers.
(3) ‘Angels’ refer to the way those in the church at Corinth are behaving like – having an overly realised eschatology, they are acting as if they were like heavenly beings, who neither marry or are given in marriage (Mt 22:30).
Paul mentions angels three times in 1 Corinthians: 1 Cor 4:9, the apostles being made spectacles to the world, both to angels and to men; 1 Cor 6:3 one day we’ll judge angels; and 1 Cor 13:1 speaking in angelic tongues. It would seem prudent, then, to take v10 as referring to heavenly beings not human messengers.
The next verse qualifies v10 and so helps us understand what ‘because of the angels’ means – 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. ‘Came from’, ‘born of’, ‘comes from’ speak of origin/source. There is no room for arrogance. Although in the creation order man was created first, afterwards the creation order is reversed – man comes from woman. We come from each other, but most importantly we come from God, as men and as women. In Gal 3:29 Paul affirms believers are one in Christ, that there is neither male nor female. He says this in terms of having no division, not in terms of sameness or that our sexual differentiation doesn’t matter.
In examining these verses and the issues Paul addresses in the Corinthian church, Fee takes the view they are acting as if they have angelic status, he writes, “Being “in the Lord” does not mean exousia [authority] to be as the angels now, where distinction between male and female are understood to no longer exist; rather it means that in the present age neither man nor woman can exist without the other, and gender distinctions are part of the “all things [that] are from God.”13
Payne contends these verses are best understood in terms of angels witnessing their worship, for this seems to be Paul’s prominent point concerning angels. He notes, “The presence of angels in worship is rooted in the OT. Psalm 138:1…“I will sing psalms to you before the angels”…It ought to be embarrassing enough for a woman to be seen by others in the church with her hair down, but knowing she is observed by God’s holy angels should be reason enough for even the most foolhardy woman to restrain her urge to let her hair down”.14 (This seems to be an easy and fitting reading of the text).
Bailey and Payne note that chapters 2 to 3 of Revelation speak of angels watching over the churches, that they are witnesses of our behaviour. Bailey adds that angels would have observed and rejoiced in the original creation and are now observing and rejoicing in the new creation. He writes “a part of this new creation is the restoration of the equality and mutual interdependence between men and women in Christ (presented in this text).”15
Everything in this passage of Scripture is consistent with the theme of unity that runs all through Paul’s letters – the wonderful equality, respectfulness and freedom of unity that upholds our oneness and our distinctiveness.
Bailey summarizes it this way: Men and women have gifts that they share together, and prophecy is among them (Acts 2:17-18). Those with these gifts should participate together in the leadership of worship. When doing so, do not dress in a manner that leads to misunderstanding or in a way that detracts from the task of bringing the faithful into the presence of God. Both women and men are created in the image of God. Let the focus be on God, not on yourselves. In the Lord you are equal and mutually interdependent. Let the angels rejoice once again.16
The issue of 1 Corinthians 11 is orderly worship – believers exercising freedom carefully, so as not to malign the gospel or to be a stumbling block. Accordingly the passage ends with: 13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
Paul is saying – work it out for yourselves, assess each and every situation, what is fitting for you as men and women of God. And, if anyone is being contentious, thinking they know better, know that other churches don’t act this way.
What about today?
In all situations, let us be wise in our conduct so that we may be good witnesses of God’s love and the gospel of Christ Jesus. Let us conduct ourselves with godly wisdom in our public witness and in our dealings with one another. Christ has made us free, but just as Christ used his freedom not to assert but to serve, let us serve one another in love and be mindful not to be a stumbling block to the very gospel that freed us.
Jeanette has a heart for Christian unity and for people to know the joy and freedom of being in Christ. A founding member of CBE Sydney (Christians for Biblical Equality), Jeanette became President in 2017; she has a BBus, BTh, and is studying for her MTh. Currently living in Sydney, Jeanette has also lived in Melbourne, Darwin, Groote Eylandt, San Francisco, Upper Michigan, and Shanghai. She loves to travel and spend time with her husband and three adult children.
1 Philip Payne, Man and Woman One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 119-121.
2 When Koine Greek stopped being in use (around 300AD), the meanings of kephalē in Koine became little known; and so many Christians have assumed that the Greek word kephalē in the New Testament means “leader” or “chief person” like it does in Byzantine and Modern Greek. In the Liddel, Scot and Jones’s Greek-English Lexicon, one of the most exhaustive lexicons on Ancient Greek, ‘leader’ or ‘authority over’ is not listed as a meaning for kephale. See Margaret Mowczko, “LSJ Definitions of Kephale,” from http://newlife.id.au/lsj-definitions-of-kephale/ (There is a link on this website to the entire LSJ Lexicon entry on kephalē plus a comment on its meaning in other Greek Lexicons). See also, Mowczko, “The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16http://newlife.id.au/the-chiasm-in-1-corinthians-11_2-16/
3 This is backed up by the way leader/ruler is translated in the Septuagint, the 200BC translation of the Old Testament into Greek. There, kephale is mostly used for the Hebrew word ro’sh to indicate a literal head. When ro’sh meant ‘ruler’, the Greek word archon was usually used, not kephale – see Jim Reiher We’ve Been Fed a Lie: A Christian’s Guide to Understanding the Equal Place of Women in the Church and Home in the 21st Century (Ringwood North: Jim Reiher 2002), 65. See also Payne, Man and Woman One in Christ, 119-137 for a comprehensive look at kephale.
4 Philip Payne, retrieved 25 Feb 2013 from www.cbeinternational.org/?q=content/2013-1-24-man-andwoman-or-husband-and-wife-arise-e-newsletter-
5 Kenneth Bailey. Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthian (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011), 305.
6 Payne, Man and Woman One in Christ, 142-143.
8 Payne, Man and Woman One in Christ, 172; Bruce Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Grand Rapid: Eerdman, 2003), 83, 96
9 Payne, Man and Woman One in Christ, 110.
10 Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 305.
11 Gordon Fee, ‘Praying and Prophesying in the Assemblies’ in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy (ed’s Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2005), 156.
12 The Greek aggelos (here translated as ‘angels’) can also mean ‘messengers’ – e.g. James 2:25 “was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers…”
13 Fee, ‘Praying and Prophesying in the Assemblies’ in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, 158.
14 Payne, Man and Woman One in Christ, 185-186.
15 Bailey. Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 312.
16 Ibid, 313.