Head Coverings

It’s Not Really That Hard To Understand

by Greg A. Parker
via Just the Truth

I Corinthians 11:1-16 

The first sixteen verses of the eleventh chapter of Paul's letter to the church at Corinth has been the subject of much controversy. The verses themselves are not difficult to understand, and the controversy has not been so much over the meaning as it has been over their application. On the one hand it is taught that the passage has to do with customs of a people long since dead, and thus the passage is not binding today. On the other hand it is taught that the verses deal not simply with custom of days gone by, but rather constitute a command to be observed throughout the Christian era. As we study the passage let us keep some things clearly in mind: 

  1. This is a discussion concerning men and women as they pray and prophesy. The discussion does not concern men and women in their everyday activities of life nor how they ordinarily appear in public, but only how they appear as they pray or prophesy. It may be true, as some contend that women of Paul's day when appearing in public always wore a veil, but this is not the subject the apostle discusses in these verses! His discussion concerns praying and prophesying. Hence, any reference to what men and women did or did not do in their ordinary activities of life is completely beside the point and a reference to such is not pertinent to the issue. This passage discusses worship-life, not every-day life. 

  2. All we know about the subject of covered and uncovered heads while praying and prophesying is found in these sixteen verses. It may be that other passages deal with the headship of Christ, the relationship of man and woman, the wearing of veils, and numerous other things, but no other passage in the Bible deals with the subject of covered and uncovered heads while praying and prophesying except I Corinthians 11:1-16. Hence to this passage we must go to find the truth on the subject. 

With this brief introduction in mind, let us read I Corinthians 11:1-16 and discuss each verse individually. 


"Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.

In all probability this verse belongs as the last verse to the argument in chapter 10. 


"Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I have delivered them to you.

The ordinances here spoken of are "the particular injunctions of Paul's instructions", hence the will of God as expressed through the inspired apostle. Obviously those who keep such should be "praised."


"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.

The relationships described are as unchangeable as God Himself and as old as the race. They are not based on "custom" nor upon anything else except the Word of God Almighty. Christ is not man's head because custom made it so, but because God made it so. Man is not woman's head because custom so ordered, but because God so ordered. This is the divine order and has nothing to do with custom. Custom did not make these relationships, and custom cannot change them with God. Yet it is upon the high doctrine here asserted that the rest of the argument is based. This is the very foundation of the apostle's argument and without it the rest is meaningless. Food for thought….Since then the very foundation transcends custom, would it not be passing strange if all the rest is completely custom?


"Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.

This verse grows out of and is based upon the relationship laid down in verse 3, viz. "Christ is head of man". But verse three is not founded on custom and therefore neither is this verse. Just as long as Christ remains the head of man, just that long man will dishonor Christ by praying with his head covered. Since man has no head between him and Christ, for a man to cover his physical head while praying or prophesying would be to dishonor his spiritual head, Christ. The covering under consideration is an artificial one such as a veil, a hat, etc., otherwise only baldheaded men or men with shaven heads could pray acceptably! Man may not cover his head either with long hair, a hat or a veil when he prays to God. He may have it covered at other times but not when he prays or prophesies for if he does he "dishonors his head." Whatever covering this verse forbids a man wearing, verse five commands a woman to wear; and since this covering is an artificial one then the one a woman is to wear is likewise an artificial one. Whatever covering a man must leave off, a woman must put on.


"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.

This verse also grows out of and is based upon verse three, and since the relationship described there is not simply custom, neither is the statement made here. And as long as man remains "head of woman" just that long will woman dishonor man when she prays with her head uncovered! And not only so but in dishonoring her "head" (man), woman dishonors herself and God who made man the head of woman. Thus the woman who "prays or prophesies with her head uncovered" dishonors herself, man, and God as well. 

The covering here spoken of cannot have reference to a woman's hair for the apostle says that for a woman to be uncovered is "as if she were shaven" which shows plainly that she is not shaven (though her condition has the same effect). But since the woman is not shaven, she must have hair, yet the apostle says she is uncovered. So the woman herein described is one that is without covering but with hair, hence the hair cannot be the covering under consideration. Thus the covering is an artificial one such as a shawl, a veil, a hat, etc. Sometimes, however, the question is asked, "What size covering?" God no more designates the size than He does the color and I wonder sometimes if such questions are asked to learn the will of God or to set aside the teaching here given. As a matter of fact God doesn't even tell what the covering is to be other than the obvious fact that it is to be an artificial one, such as already suggested. I do feel we should teach that a woman must have her head covered and that a hat will do the job, but the covering does not have to be a hat. A shawl will do, or a kerchief. Any of these can make a covering. 

Thus I believe this verse shows plainly that a woman today when praying to God must cover her head with an artificial covering such as a veil, a shawl or a hat, etc. For her to refuse to do so is to bring dishonor upon her head, man, because a covered head on her part is a sign of her subjection to man (vs. 10). A refusal to have this covering is to show she is not in subjection to man nor God...hence the dishonor not only to man but God as well. 


"For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered." 

In other words, if a woman will not cover her head with an artificial covering, let her carry her defiance to its ultimate conclusion, let her shave her head. But since a shaven head is a shame to a woman, she should do neither, but rather she should cover her head. The covering spoken of here cannot be the woman's hair for this reason: The woman under consideration in this verse is "not covered" or without covering. Now if the covering and the hair are one and the same, we may substitute the word hair for the word covering in this verse and the meaning will be unchanged. Notice: "If the woman is without covering, let her also be shorn." "If the woman is without hair, let her also be shorn." See the absurdity in the last statement? How can a woman who is "without hair" "also be shorn? How can a woman without any hair, get her hair cut off? This verse shows plainly once and for all that the covering is not the woman's hair but must be an artificial one as already described. 


"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." 

Please observe the God-given reason for a man not to cover his head; he is the "image and glory of God". Paul does not say nor even hint that a man ought not to cover his head because of some custom of the day. Notice this contrast between what man says and what God says is the reason "a man ought not to cover his head". Man says: "Forasmuch as it is a custom". God says: "Forasmuch as man is the image and glory of God" 

Now which will you accept, man's statement or God's? Since Paul did not base his statement on "custom" why should men today do what Paul did not and say what Paul said not? Was man's being in the "image and glory of God" simply a custom? Is not man still, today, in the "image and glory of God"? If he is, he ought not to "cover" his head when praying or prophesying or worshiping God. So says the inspired apostle. 


"For the man is not of the woman: but the woman is of the man.

In the creation God made woman from man's rib, not vice versa. 


"Neither was the man created for the woman but the woman for the man. For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels...

For what cause? Does the apostle say, "Because of custom?" He does not! He says because of the situation that obtained when God created man and woman that a woman ought to have "power on her head" or "a sign of authority" (American Standard Version). Again notice the contrast between what man says and what God says about why women ought to have a "sign of authority" on her head: Man says: "Because of custom." God says: "Because woman was created for man." 

The expression "power on her head" is translated as "sign of authority" in the American Standard Version. Goodspeed renders it, "That is why she ought to wear upon her head something to symbolize her subjection." Women who understand the Bible also understand why they cover their heads. Not simply because a hat, or shawl, or whatever when used as a covering is pretty nor to impress somebody, but as a "sign" of her God-given subjection to man. Just as her silence and restrictions in the worship service.

"Because of the angels": While one may not know everything connected with this particular statement, it is given nonetheless as an inducement for woman to cover her head when "praying or prophesying". It may be, as some suggest, that angels who "minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation" (Hebrews 1:14) are interested in the affairs of this life and are offended at any breach of the ordinance. Another explanation and one that seems plausible is this: The apostle has been urging man to respect his proper place. And in connection with people keeping their proper places, notice Jude 6, "And the angels which kept not their own principality, but left their proper habitation, He hath kept in everlasting bonds under darkness unto the judgment of the great day." When the angels left their proper place the got into trouble, and when man or woman leaves his or her proper place, they too, will get into trouble. A "sign" that woman has left her proper place is for her to pray uncovered, for by so doing she shows she is not in subjection to man. If this is not what "because of the angels" means this explanation certainly does no violence to the scriptures in this context. 


"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 by the woman; but all things are of God." 

Neither man nor woman should think of themselves too highly nor become egotistical. God deems one just as important as the other and they are mutually dependent upon each other for existence and sustenance. There is "neither male  nor female" in Christ (Galatians. 3:28). God took a rib from the side of man to make woman (Genesis 2:21,22), hence woman is "of man"; but now in the natural order of things man is "born of woman" (Job 14:1), hence he is "by the woman". Thus both are mutually dependent on the other and indeed "all things are of God". 


"Judge ye: is it comely (proper) that a woman pray to God uncovered?

This is a rhetorical question: to ask it is to answer it. It is not comely (or befitting) for a woman to pray uncovered; this is the obvious answer to the question. 


"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." 

Nature is the native sense of propriety or of what is right. Paul does not say that the woman's hair is her only covering, but that it is a covering. The fact that her hair is a covering should serve to show her that she should be covered. Thus when he teaches what is contained in these verses, woman should not be startled by them because her hair has already shown her the propriety of a covering in her case. A consideration of verses 4-6 clearly shows that two coverings are under consideration in them. 

(Just as an incidental matter, and food for thought; I am sure that the picture one so often sees of Christ is patently wrong because they all show Him with long hair. But the apostle says that long hair is a shame to a man. Would Christ "shame" Himself?). 


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

The Revised Standard Version renders this passage: "If any one is disposed to be contentious we recognize no other practice, neither the churches of God." This should make it clear what is meant by the expression "contentious", is to contend for other than what is being taught herein. In other words, if, in view of all that the apostle has said, there are still some who would "contend" for the right of men to pray with covered heads or women with uncovered heads, let him know that he who so "contends" is alone in so doing. No apostle or church of God so taught. Since none of the apostles or churches of God taught that it would be permissible for women to pray with uncovered heads and men with covered heads, why then do men teach it today? 


Objections are often made against any Bible teaching and this one is no exception. We here notice a few of the ones we have heard: 


One argument I have heard is that this passage was only meant for that day and for the Corinthians.


If you happen to be one who has used this argument, don’t feel alone, because I have accepted this argument in the past also.I could go into great depth dealing with verse 16 showing the many ways it could be interpreted, but I do not believe that such a discussion is necessary or prudent at this time in order to deal away with such an argument. Please read the passage over and observe the way in which Paul dealt with this subject.Can you honestly say that you believe Paul would go to such an extent to explain the importance and need for us to obey this command, and then in one verse say, “You don’t have to do what I just told you to do?”

Again, I appeal to your common senses to see the error in this argument.Could we find nothing in this passage nor in this book that would give us even a hint of such an argument?We have Paul taking 15 verses, going into great detail explaining the reason for such a command, and yet failing to explain that it was only for those people?If one can throw out this passage based solely on his or someone else’s determination that it is not for us today, why can we not do the same with the other commands of God?Please read this passage and show me the verse or thought implying that this command was only limited to those people.

If God says to do something, do it until God tells you not to. 


I Corinthians 11:15 says that "woman's hair is given her for a covering", hence the only covering spoken of is the woman's hair. 


The comments on verses 5 and 6 show that two coverings are in the apostle's mind, the hair being one covering and an artificial covering such as a shawl, a veil, a hat, etc., making two. 

Maybe this is the reason why Paul used a completely different Greek word for covering when he spoke of her hair as being a covering (peribovlaion per-ib-ol'-ah-yon).In every other place in this passage, the Greek words for that covering which is or is not to be worn while praying or prophesying is completely different. (katakaluvptwkat-ak-al-oop'-to, katav kat-ah' kaluvptwkal-oop'-to). Paul wanted to be sure that no one tried to say that both coverings were the same.If we had been Greek and had read this passage, we would have had no problems understanding that Paul spoke of two different types of coverings in this chapter.


If you are going to insist on "covering the head of woman" then the woman will have to cover her face for that is a part of her head. 


Jesus said in Matthew 6:17, "When thou fastest, anoint thy head and wash thy face..." recognizing a difference between the two. 


The word "prophesy" in verses 4 and 5 means to speak by inspiration, and since no man or woman today speaks by inspiration the rules laid down in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 has passed away too. 


It is true that men today do not prophesy in the sense of speaking by inspiration, but 1 Corinthians 11:4 mentions "praying" as well as prophesying. The passage concerns prayer, too. Has prayer passed away? If it has not, then the rules laid down in 1 Corinthians 11 have not passed away. 

These are some of the objections one usually hears concerning the teaching of the scripture in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. These are not the only ones but the ones that are heard most frequently. None of them suffice to offset the teaching here given. Please study these things in your Bible and above all things, let us "keep the ordinances" that Paul therein "delivered" that we might "be praised" in the great day. 

Additional Comments 

If you have been holding a view contrary to the teaching herein or have not practiced it as you should, I trust that this will cause you to give up such view and accept the true teaching of the passage involved - as I am forced to. I personally do not believe that there is anything in the New Testament scriptures concerning Christians that will give a man a contrary view to the one I’ve presented. 

I have had this passage under the deepest type of scrutiny, studying it with the help of different translations and commentaries, but I have yet to see within the framework or context of the passage itself anything that would cause me to take any other stand or position on the passage than the one that I now hold. I have not heard a truly good argument against the position that Paul holds in these verses. I feel, I am espousing the same teaching that Paul has so ably revealed and recorded for us with the help of the Holy Spirit. 

If you will study this with an open mind, I truly believe that you will reach the same conclusion concerning the teaching of the passage. May God help us all to "study to show ourselves approved unto God, rightly dividing the Word of Truth." (II Timothy 2:15).