Thursday, March 26, 2009

Everyone should read Warren Henderson's "Glories Seen and Unseen."

I'm taking a break from my review of the article by Thomas Schreiner to bring you a news bulletin about a book I think everyone should read: Glories Seen and Unseen, by Warren Henderson. Here is another source of the book.

I haven't finished it so I'm jumping the gun in writing this but expecting to say more later. What pleases me most about it so far is that he quotes from some other sources than I've been used to encountering in my own researches, although his argument is basically the same as all those that conclude that the head covering is for today. He's also clearly very thorough in his research. And it's nice to have an actual BOOK on the subject instead of articles and chapters online.

I suspect I'll think he makes too much of leaving it to the woman herself to decide, as to my mind this is mostly a church order issue, but so far that's all I'm finding to disagree with.

I'm so happy with this book so far that I would love to buy it at the lower rate for evangelism purposes and just give it away to whoever asks.

April 23: I may yet get around to reviewing the book more thoroughly but at least my prediction held up to the end that my only real disagreement with him is his concern that women not be "forced" to cover their heads. I discuss this best in my 5th part to the discussion of Thomas Schreiner's essay I think, where I start "There is no need for a deep searching of the conscience about this."

The point in a nutshell is that Paul is not in this passage teaching about interior spiritual matters, though those are of course always in the background and he has taught about them many times. In this passage his concern is about church order and obedience to his requirement is a simple external matter of covering or uncovering the head. Given the confusion over this teaching for so long I nevertheless believe much preaching on the subject is in order to engage the congregation's understanding before making it a matter of church ordinance.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Thomas Schreiner on the Head Covering Part 1

I thought it might be a good idea to take up particular arguments about the head covering that couldn't be covered in detail in my research discussions. I'm going to start with Thomas Schreiner's chapter in the book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, A Response to Evangelical Feminism, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem.

I want to say up front that of all the material I read when I was researching the head covering, this particular article by Thomas Schreiner was the hardest to get through, almost impossible to read. I find it to be a confusing piece of writing that imposes his own views on the text so that it's almost impossible to keep track of a logical thread that actually relates to the Biblical text itself. I think people who read this without difficulty are uncritically accepting his terminology without recognizing that it misrepresents the Biblical text. The main ways he does this are, first, by the use of the term "custom" to describe Paul's frame of reference for the head covering although Paul himself nowhere uses the term or says anything that justifies Schreiner's use of it; and, second, by the use of the term "adornment" to describe the head covering. I will discuss this below.

Chapter 5

Thomas R. Schreiner


2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you. 3Now 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. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head-it is just as though her head were shaved. 6If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. 7A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. 11In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. 13Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice-nor do the churches of God.
First Corinthians 11:2-16 has some features that make it one of the most difficult and controversial passages in the Bible. 1 For instance: How does verse 2 relate to verses 3-16? What does Paul mean by the word head in verse 3? Can we identify the custom regarding the adornment of women in the passage? In what sense is woman the glory of man (verse 7)? What does Paul mean when he says that the woman is to have authority on her head (verse 10)? Can we comprehend the reason why a woman is to have authority on her head, namely, because of the angels (verse 10)? And finally, what does the word nature mean in verse 14?

Dr. Schreiner goes on to answer his first question in a way most agree with: That is, Paul is complimenting the Corinthian church on their conscientiousness in obeying the traditions insofar as they have done so, before going on to criticize them for certain failures of obedience, in this particular passage concerning the head covering and the Lord's supper.

He discusses his third question about the "adornment" for some reason before he discusses the meaning of "head" but to respond first to what he says about the head, he is apparently answering a feminist contention that the Greek term for "head" means "source" rather than "authority," and I agree with him and those who say it means "authority," and I believe this meaning is clear from the context without getting into the Greek background. So on these two subjects there is no disagreement, he makes the case.

As for his third question,
Can we identify the custom regarding the adornment of women in the passage?
I have to comment that here he seriously begs the question of the meaning of the whole passage, by calling the head covering an "adornment" and referring to it as a "custom," since neither term appears in the passage and his use of them here imposes a conclusion of his own on the passage for which he has given no justification.

We do not know as we read the passage whether Paul is talking about a custom or not, or if he is, which culture's custom, since there were three or four cultures intersecting in the Corinthian church, or whether custom has anything at all to do with his recommendation for the head covering. It is possible that it is not a custom he has in mind at all but an entirely new practice the apostles are requiring of the churches, and since this is the conclusion I and others have come to, we must object that this use of "custom" leaves no room for our conclusion while forcing Dr. Schreiner's on us.

And is the head covering an "adornment?" That term is not used in the passage about the head covering either, though it may be implied in describing the woman's long hair, which is called her "glory," but it is not part of the description of the head covering itself. To adorn is to beautify or decorate. Are shoes an "adornment?" In fact is clothing in itself an "adornment?" As I read the Biblical passage, the head covering is a covering, as clothes are a covering, a utilitarian functional piece of cloth for covering the head as clothes cover the body. Clothes are not in themselves an "adornment," they are a necessity for covering the body. And that is also the way the head covering is presented in this passage.

To start off in this way by using terms that beg the question is unfortunately likely to prejudice the entire discussion and I think that is probably what has happened by the time we get to the end of it.

The difficulties with this text could lead one to say that it should not be used to establish any doctrine or teaching on the role relationship of men and women. Indeed, one might claim that only clear passages should be used to form a doctrine, and this passage is too obscure.
In my own study of this passage I finally came to the conclusion that the difficulties we encounter in it at first are mostly caused by our own expectations and prejudices and not really difficulties in the passage itself. It takes determined study and continual prayer to clear our minds of these preconceptions.

But another major reason for the difficulty is that it is very easy to get caught up in secondary elements of the argument, things we don't really need to know in order to understand what Paul wants us to do. These are very interesting concepts in themselves it would be good for us to understand, and I would say they reflect Paul's deeper spiritual understanding of the things of God than most of us have. This implies that perhaps we should aim to spend more time with the Lord so that they might become clear to us too; nevertheless I don't think we have to understand them in order to grasp what Paul wants of us.

For instance, we don't really need to know what it means to say that the woman is the glory of the man; we can understand what Paul wants us to do even if we don't quite understand that particular reason for it. We also don't really need to understand what Paul means by having authority on the head in order to understand that a cloth covering is the way this is to be expressed. We also don't need to understand what is meant that we are to do this "because of the angels," as long as we are clear WHAT we are to do because of them, and I think it is really not so hard to understand that what we are to do is cover our heads. We don't even really need to know what Paul meant by "nature" in verse 14 to understand that he is saying that women everywhere generally wear their hair longer than men do, and that since nature covers our heads this is a further reason he's giving that we should cover our heads as well. This parallels his point about men that since men's hair is shorter by nature -- and scantier by nature as well if you think of natural male balding -- this is a reason why they SHOULDN'T cover their heads. In fact the way Paul argues for men's NOT covering their heads with an additional covering is probably the strongest clue that he means that women ARE to cover ours.

So I would eliminate all these questions from Dr. Schreiner's list of difficulties with the passage as it is not necessary that we answer them in order to understand the practical point of Paul's exhortation.

No one, or at least few people, would argue that women should be adorned with veils today, leading some to say that this passage is culturally bound and no longer viable in the twentieth century.
This is apparently an error in logic that should have been caught by an editor. It is very confusing as it stands, as if to say: Since few would argue for wearing a head covering today, therefore the passage is culturally bound. It should at least be reversed to say that Since the passage is considered by most to be culturally bound, therefore it is regarded as no longer viable in our day, and therefore few would argue that women should cover their heads, and this is quite true: the passage IS considered by a majority to be culturally bound and therefore not applicable to our day, and therefore we have the situation in which the majority of commentators deny that we are to cover our heads.

Dr. Schreiner goes on to say he disagrees with this position:

In contrast to this position, I will argue that the central thrust of the passage is clear. There are difficulties, but some of the key issues are not as difficult as it has been claimed, and the issues that remain obscure do not affect the central teaching of the passage. Also, while wearing head coverings no longer speaks to our culture, there is an abiding principle in this text that is applicable to the twentieth century.
Although he disagrees with it, he agrees with it to the extent that he accepts the judgment that "wearing head coverings no longer speaks to our culture." He does, however, find an abiding principle in Paul's intention, a principle that transcends any particular culture and applies to all, which will be his solution to all the problems of the passage at the end of his discusion.

Of course I'm still stuck back on "no longer speaks to our culture." Here is the question-begging in full swing. He's simply assumed that speaking to our culture is the main thing about this teaching, that the head covering was merely a cultural custom. He hasn't said one word to try to prove this, he merely assumes it, despite all the reasons Paul gives for it in the text that have nothing whatever to do with culture.

From this point he then goes on to take for granted that the head covering Paul is talking about is an "adornment," which I've answered above, but I'm going to respond to his whole argument here piece by piece because if I don't it's easy to get tripped up by it, not realizing that he's simply following out an idea of his own that he's imposing on the passage which is not in the passage itself.

I'm going to end this post and take up the rest in a separate post as I'm finding it too difficult to keep juggling the code with all the quotations involved.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

How I came to believe we are to cover our heads in church

I originally became interested in the topic from hearing a sermon that was aired on local Christian radio in the Fall of 2004, by Richard Ganz who pastors a church in Toronto. I'd never heard anyone argue in favor of an actual cloth head covering before. I knew that some people thought the head covering was long hair, including a relative who belonged to a Oneness Pentecostal church, and that others thought it meant that women should have the oversight of an official church leader for any work of Christian ministry or teaching. Beyond that most Christians seemed to have no clear view of it at all, and no one -- except my relative in the Oneness Pentecostal church -- ever suggested that there was a right way to understand it that all should adhere to. This seems a strange way to deal with scripture, but it seems to be an attitude reserved exclusively for this particular scripture.

Ganz's sermon inspired me to do some online research which even back then convinced me completely that we are to cover our heads today. Through my researches I came to disagree with most of Ganz's argument, but I thank the Lord for using him to open me up to the topic.

I then exchanged some emails with my pastor about it, who recommended an article defending the view that the head covering was simply the cultural way femininity was signaled in Paul's day and that we only need to express femininity in our day by whatever cultural standards apply. I couldn't see how femininity as such had anything to do with what Paul was talking about, or that Paul would ever make culture his standard in any case, but instead of continuing to refine my studies of it I soon gave up on it. This was partly a response to the impression that a few of the women in my church started mocking the idea of covering the head, by wearing odd hats with a sort of jocular attitude. Just an impression. Nobody said a word to me, but the hat phase soon ran its course.

I came to the conclusion that the topic was so controversial that it would be better just to ignore it than to make an issue of it, which could only be disruptive, a foolish conclusion to come to when you are talking about making an issue of God's word, but that's what I did.

Then in the first days of 2007, as I write in my Profile, I was fasting and praying for guidance and spiritual renewal, and among the fruits of that period was that the Lord brought my attention back to First Corinthians 11:2-16, about the head covering for women, after more than two years in which I'd been ignoring it since the first time He'd brought it to my attention.

Since I already believed from my studies in 2004 that a head covering was required, I recognized in January of 2007 that whether anyone agreed with me or not I had to cover my own head. So, since then I've been wearing some sort of covering in church, usually a beret I made myself. Over the following period I've also started covering my head most of the rest of the time, mostly because I never know when I'm going to be praying. It's on again off again however, and I need to come to a solid conclusion about it eventually. The scripture says the covering is to be worn in praying and prophesying, obviously in the public setting of the church, but whether it is clearly ONLY in public worship or not is not so clear. One factor in deciding this is the historical fact that women at least in the West covered their heads throughout the day up until very recently, ever since Paul wrote about it, as seen for instance in old paintings, also in the first photographs.

Since I started wearing a covering I also had various impressions about opinions in the church, though again, nobody talked to me about it. I told a few women friends my conclusion, but with the one exception of a young woman who said she'd like to discuss it with me some time -- who has since apparently changed her mind -- nobody mentioned it. I decided it wasn't up to me to push it, the Lord has to deal with this. There continued to be no discussion at all. Some told me my beret is cute but that's the extent of it.

One young woman brought up how ladies in Scotland all wear hats to church and she wondered why they did that, which I think was simply her way of saying how wrong they are. I wasn't sure whether to try to explain it at that point or not, since she wasn't really asking me about it, but something else intervened in any case. Besides that, all that's happened is that there seems to have been an extra emphasis on long hair by some in the church, one lady brushing hers out to give it full display although she usually wears it up, and even once giving it a playful little flip in my direction with a big smile. Another has grown hers out long which had been chin length for years. Not a word to me about it from anyone.

That has been the response, and lack of it, to my own covering, but I'd also been studying the passage and the various opinions on it over the last few months, and the research I did, which I've broken into the long series of posts below, was the result. I offered it to the elders of my church but only one responded, and then I completely lost my internet contact (which included access to the other blog I list to the side) and then left the church so I never heard back from him.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
As I've pursued the topic of the head covering online I've encountered a whole world of Christians I was hardly aware of before. Generally they seem to be discouraged with the evangelical churches, many seem to be currently unchurched, some may have home churches. They tend to put major emphasis on Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and on the Ante-Nicene church fathers of the first couple of centuries. The women wear head coverings, emphasize modest dress. Aside from the head covering, main areas of teaching that have attracted me are a strict reading of scripture on divorce and remarriage and the application of Jesus' teachings on nonresistance to all violence of any kind, including serving in the military and police work. This blog is only for the head covering though, so I hope to get to the other issues in one of the other blogs.

My research on the head covering, Part 5: I conclude that a cloth covering is required


I hope I’ve already made it clear in answering the interpretations so far discussed that there is simply no other way to understand Paul’s teaching for today than that women are to wear a fabric covering of some sort on our heads in church. This is nothing more than what Paul actually says in the passage, and the problem of understanding him has really been our reading into some of his confusing references a position he couldn’t possibly have been taking given his actual statements and what we know about him from his writings in general. Paul argues from universals, from the order of creation, from nature, from apostolic authority, and not from ephemeral custom, and to treat the matter as culturally relative is to deny Paul’s own reasoning. We wrongly read him as endorsing such customs because we import our own experience of culture into the discussion, when we should insist on resolving the seeming discrepancies from within Paul’s own apostolic frame of reference.

It is true that there is little in this passage that is intuitively obvious to us in our current cultural situation. The idea of male headship itself is far from intuitively obvious, but it probably wasn’t any more so to the Corinthians. The idea that covering or uncovering the head carries any meaning at all is foreign to us, as commentators keep noting, and even the significance of the length of hair is mostly meaningless although we may recognize more universality in this than in other things Paul says. But our inability to recognize these things is only a problem if we assume we are supposed to recognize them, when in fact we are to sit back and let Paul explain it all to us and try to understand a teaching that is outside of our normal modes of thought.

I won’t speculate on how much of our misreading comes from our fallen nature, from the sense of oppression women get when they think Paul is defining women as inferior, which has unfortunately been promoted from a fallen male perspective in the past, or from the efforts of the feminists to completely rewrite Paul in their own image, although surely the history of conflict over these things has had some effect on how it has been approached. In listening to the many sermons on the subject I couldn’t help but be impressed by the level of anxiety expressed by some of the pastors as they set themselves to deal with this passage. One said an advantage of the method of preaching by topic is that this one can be completely ignored, but since he preaches systematically through the Bible he doesn’t have that luxury, and launched his sermon with the line “Buckle your seat belts.” Another couldn’t help himself from coming to the conclusion that a head covering is indeed for today but he dropped his voice as he arrived at that point in his sermon and appeared to be sifting his words very carefully. He would consider it commendable, he said, if a sister took the position that she would cover her head while praying and prophesying in the congregation, for the sake of the angels, and then quickly went into a digression from the topic. He came back after that to conclude that verse 16 means that Paul didn’t consider it worth the controversy if people were going to be contentious about it. Surely some element of fear of the controversies over this passage has led even normally solid preachers – some of the best of our day -- to be only too happy to avoid this topic altogether and to welcome alternatives to the actual headcovering which is so simply what Paul wants of us.

Here are some references for further reading in support of the head covering as something to be worn over the head and hair:

1. Mary Kassian, in her chapter on “Headship and Head Coverings”, in her book Women, Creation and the Fall, which is online at the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, gently recommends, based on her understanding of the passage, that a head covering should be worn by women in church: Scroll down to Chapter 9, on page 92.

2. This is “The Bible Researcher” Marlowe’s very thorough exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

3. Another very thorough online discussion is by Bruce Terry.

4. Brian Schwertley has a lengthy sermon series on head coverings which can be heard at Sermon Very good discussion. This is a transcript of that sermon series. [I've found this link won't work, but the manuscript is still at that address and I was able to access it through Google by putting in "Brian Schwertley Headcoverings in Public Worship". Try this.] And this link should take you to his sermons on the subject at Sermon Audio.

5. Watchman Nee makes the simple point that “we should not frustrate God’s government by God’s grace” though his argument doesn’t remain quite that simple throughout. Scroll down to #85.

6. The first chapter of an online book on the subject by Tom Shank is at I particularly appreciate his remark on the headcovering as a call to die to self, which is after all THE work of Christian life for all of us -- in Amy Carmichael’s words, “A chance to die.”

7. Historically Paul was understood by all the churches to require a cloth headcovering, which is demonstrated by the fact that women in the Christianized West covered their heads not only in church but at all times up until very recently, which made it specifically the custom of Christendom. David Bercot has a page of pictures of this specifically Christian custom. He has also made a CD on the subject.

8. 9/23/07 addition: I just found this audio discussion online that seems pretty easy to follow.

As anyone who reads through the above references will find out, those confusing points of disagreement on subordinate elements of the argument remain unresolved even among people who agree on the main points. There is nevertheless basic agreement on these main points, and once it is clear WHAT Paul is telling us to do, his subordinate points aren’t as much of a problem.

* * * * * * *

In conclusion, I think the passage is all about the literal covering or the hiding or concealment of the physical head of the woman, in recognition of the hierarchy of authority or headship in God’s governmental order. The creation order of headship had to be taught by Paul; it is not a concept recognized by most cultures, or humanity in general. There is no other symbol that could take the place of this function in any culture. To reduce it to mere expressions of femininity is simply to ignore Paul’s own stated concerns, about headship, about the order of creation, about suppressing the display of any glory other than the glory of Christ in worship; also, femininity cannot be what the Corinthian church was failing at expressing, nor do cultures in general fail at expressing the distinction between the sexes even in our egalitarian age. It is certainly not about women’s hair, which Paul calls a personal glory that, by implication from the context of the rest of the passage, competes with the glory of Christ in the act of worship. Certainly we are called to a submissive attitude and demeanor, but that does not seem to be what the headcovering is intended to represent. Submissiveness is a subjective attitude that can’t be physically symbolized without encouraging hypocrisy. But you can enforce the outward symbol of God’s order of authority and that is exactly what the headcovering does that nothing else could do instead.

Paul’s concern is the honoring of God’s governmental order in the different positions of the two sexes irrespective of their marital status. His concern is the display of the glory of Christ and the suppression of the display of the glory of man (or woman, both embodied in the head of the woman), so that Christ’s beauty and holiness may have the exclusive place in worship and our entire attention, and that God’s order may be honored among us as among the angels.

* * * * * * *

Another point I’d make is that contrary to the general thinking on this subject, this isn’t the responsibility of individual women, but of the leadership of a church or the church as the whole body. It is a matter of church order just as the eldership is. It is too much of a burden to place on the individual believer to understand all the thinking Paul is trying to convey in this passage especially in the atmosphere of conflict that surrounds it today. It’s something to be preached over time and an individual church member may have to take time to grow into it. In a sense it took me three years to grow into it and I’m still struggling with it. Nevertheless the leaders have an obligation to be sure the congregation obeys the directives handed down by Paul, just as with the other ordinances of Christian life we may not understand fully but are charged to obey.

And because it is the responsibility of the shepherds, it’s been dawning on me that failure to enforce it is probably part of what appears to be God’s judgment on the church as a whole these days, less on individual sheep of the flock than on the reputation of Christianity as such, as an effective witness to the world. It seems to me that the church in the West is already under God’s judgment and has been for some time, with the proliferation of apostasies and heresies, the ease with which leaders and flock fall into sin, the weakness in prevailing prayer. Even where we have good preaching of the Word we seem to have a name but without the power that scripture seems to promise us. 9/11 was surely a warning to us, which is being ignored by the culture at large, but it shouldn’t be ignored by the church. Is it possible that one of the major characteristics of Islam, which is the covering up of their women, is something we should take note of? God is certainly using Islam as a sword against the West and judgment begins at the house of God. If we don’t enforce Christian standards, then the much harsher Muslim standards could end up being our punishment.

* * * * * * *

If one does accept that the head covering is required for today, there remain further questions to resolve, such as, What kind? and When is it to be worn? and To what extent does modesty enter into it? -- which for some expositors it does. I’ve also collected quite a bit of information on these questions for a future discussion, but in anticipation of that discussion I’ll just say that I’m coming to the conclusion that complete coverage of the head and at least the bulk of the hair is what is asked of us, not just a token piece of cloth, and not a hat that doesn’t cover the whole head and most of the hair as well: the term “katakalupto” means completely covered, or covered up. And at the very minimum, this covering is to be worn whenever there is prayer or worship or the exposition of the Word.

* * * * * * *

May the Lord make use of this to His glory and our good.

My research on the head covering, Part 4: Is it a cultural expression that changes from culture to culture?


Probably the most influential interpretation, held by some well-known evangelical Bible teachers, is that the head covering was merely the cultural expression in Paul’s day of the principle of headship, sometimes reduced to the principle of femininity, the idea here being that the culturally appropriate expression of femininity also expresses submissiveness to male headship. This principle of headship or femininity or submissiveness is understood as the foundational universal principle that concerned Paul, while the head covering was merely the cultural expression of that principle in his time. Paul is then requiring that women signal their acknowledgement of male headship and submission to it, or simply their femininity as clearly distinguished from masculinity, by whatever their own culture recognizes as an expression of the principle.

This interpretation of the culturally defined status of the headcovering is held by the following Bible expositors:

1.The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood offer their answer to questions they’ve received about their position on the head covering, which pretty much speaks for the position of all who hold this point of view:

The key question here is whether Paul is saying that creation dictates a
head covering or that creation dictates that we use culturally appropriate expressions of masculinity and femininity, which just happened to be a head covering for women in that setting. We think the latter is the case. The key verses are: "Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering" (1 Corinthians 11:13-15).
2. John MacArthur’s similar perspective is presented in a transcript. Scroll down to “So let me give you a little cultural thing…”
So what Paul is saying is this, now listen carefully. Look at your society and mark out the symbols. What are the symbols of femininity in our society? What are the symbols of masculinity? And identify with those. If they don’t violate Scripture, if they don’t violate God’s design for morality, then adhere to those symbols because that says something to your society. Listen, even this society today still knows when a woman looks like a woman.
3. Alistair Begg discussed it in a two-part series within a larger series on First Corinthians, available from his ministry for $2.00 as an MP3 download and possibly in other forms. You have to go to MP3 Downloads, and then page 17 of the MP3 alphabetical list for “Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective:” He spells out his own interpretation for our day toward the end of the Second Part.
Do not the things that God has marked into men and women from the very order of creation… teach you the very necessity of distinguishing between the sexes?
Doesn’t it teach you that in light of that, we must be very very careful about embracing anything that would obscure the distinctions that God has intended in the very nature of his created order?
4. Thomas Schreiner also takes the position that culturally appropriate expressions of femininity meet Paul’s requirement, in his chapter on the headcovering in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem. The whole book is online at the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood website, linked above: Scroll down to Chapter 5.

5. Chuck Smith, Ray Stedman, David Guzik and Jon Courson all have taught that the universal principle is submission to male headship (Stedman says the headship of husband over wife, the rest say men in leadership over women as well as husbands over wives) and that different cultures have different customs that express this. Their audio sermons on this passage can be found at Blue Letter Bible in the Commentaries section for 1 Corinthians 11. [note: The BLB site has changed quite a bit since I wrote this so I may have to come back and change this some time].

Some answers to the cultural interpretation:

The conclusion that it is a cultural matter rests largely on Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians in verse 13 to judge for themselves what is seemly, based on what he calls the natural difference in hair length between the sexes. If only because it’s not obvious in our own culture, some find it hard to think of such a difference in hair length as being based on nature, let alone make the connection between hair length and the head covering Paul is apparently expecting us to make, but in addition to that, the fact that Paul appeals to their judgment at all clinches the idea that it must be a matter of custom he has in mind.

1. The headcovering was not a universal custom in Corinth.

This conclusion is usually backed up by statements about the Greek cultural practices of Paul’s day which were supposedly what Paul wanted them to adhere to, but these statements turn out to have no basis in reality. The usual idea seems to be that since Corinth was a Greek city, therefore it would have been Greek culture that established the customs, but Corinth was a big cosmopolitan city, under Roman rule at the time, and the church would have included people of many cultures, Jews and Greeks and Romans and even possibly Germans, who did not all have the same customs of dress. To complicate the problem further, some have referred to the cultural situation in Corinth as “eastern” and confused what sound like Arab practices such as face veiling with the Greek and Roman. Proponents of the cultural explanation don’t offer evidence for their claims about the cultural practices of the time, and unfortunately, some commentators seem to have picked up some false ideas about the cultural situation in Corinth and passed them on without checking on their validity.

The pattern of reasoning goes like this:

“I don’t see many women with headcoverings in this congregation. That’s because headcoverings don’t have the meaning to us they had to the Corinthians. To the
Corinthians the headcovering was an essential badge of honor for the respectable woman. It signaled that she was submissive to the headship of her husband.”
A first answer to this is to consider that if respectability in Corinthian society required a headcovering, it is hard to imagine that any Christian woman would have abandoned the practice or that Paul would be having to teach them its importance. It’s fair to infer from the fact that Paul is writing on the subject at all that at least some women in the congregation were not covering their heads, whether because they belonged to a culture that didn’t require headcoverings or because they misunderstood the equality of the sexes in Christ as many suggest, but there’s no reason to think all the women in the church were not covering their heads. There is also no reason to think that any of them understood the reasons for the covering that Paul gives, or that the headcovering “signaled” any such thing as these expositors suggest, even the Jewish women who did come from a cultural background that required them to cover their heads. If you ask an orthodox Jew the reason orthodox women cover their heads in public now, the answer won’t have anything to do with the creation order or headship, or femininity as such; to them it’s all about sexual modesty, and the same is true for Muslims. What Paul was teaching was a new and specifically Christian ordinance.

The description goes on:

“Corinth was known for the temple priestesses of Aphrodite who were also
prostitutes, and they were distinguished from respectable women by going without a head covering” (Jon Courson says they shaved their heads; Zodhiates inserts a variation of this explanation into his definition of the word katakalupto in his
Word Study Dictionary: “It must be remembered in this connection that women of loose morals, especially the prostitute priestesses of the temple of Aphrodite at Corinth, kept their hair very short in order to be distinguished for what they were”).
It is then assumed that some women in the church were rebelling against the head covering, although from this description of the cultural situation it is very hard to imagine any Christian woman being ignorant of or willing to take the risk of being mistaken for a priestess of Aphrodite. However tempting her sense of newfound freedom in Christ might have been to shed her subjection to men, she’d be subjecting herself to far worse indignities if she did that. Of course if you suppose that the women were removing their customary head coverings only in the Christian worship, then their public life would not be a problem, but does it make sense to think that they would do something their culture defined as so disreputable only when they came together in the presence of God? Far more likely they were rebelling against the church’s own teaching to cover the head, not the culture’s, either because it made no sense to them from their own cultural backgrounds, or seemed to contradict their new understanding of freedom in Christ (maybe they thought of it as a form of Jewish legalism?), and this is why Paul is having to explain it in such detail in this passage and finally simply invokes apostolic authority against any further dispute.

In any case, this picture of the cultural situation in Corinth is apparently a fiction; there is simply no evidence to back it up. I have read and listened very carefully through sermons by a number of expositors for any of them to give evidence for their teaching on Corinthian culture, and have come across none. There is only the assertion of the supposed cultural environment as if it were fact with nothing offered to support it.

Careful researchers have concluded that as far as Greek culture went, it appears that, far from its being a clearcut cultural signal, sometimes women wore headcoverings and sometimes they didn’t, and the same for Greek men. Also, there is no evidence that prostitutes dressed in any distinctive way, and it’s highly unlikely that they shaved their heads. Pictures I found of the hetairae, the Greek higher class prostitutes, show them with long hair arranged in various ways, often with a headband holding it in place at the back of the head. There are also illustrations of Greek women with that hair arrangement who aren’t identified as prostitutes, however, although possibly they might have been, or another possibility is that they were respectable women who weren’t covered because they were at home. There is simply no evidence one way or another. One famous prostitute is said to have been the model for Praxiteles’ sculpture of the Aphrodite of Cnidus, which shows her with long hair pinned up in back. The idea that the priestess-prostitutes of Aphrodite shaved their heads is clearly false; whether they went without headcoverings any more than respectable women did is impossible to determine. In fact Jewish women were said to stand out in that time because of their head coverings which suggests it was not a particular practice among the Greeks. And long hair on women appears to have been universal across the cultures, which is what takes it out of the category of a cultural expression and makes it a matter of nature, as Paul argues.

Here is some information on the various cultures that does not support the statements made by advocates of the cultural interpretation:

1) The following is probably the best, most thorough, most scholarly, discussion of the information available on the internet on the ancient customs, on the website of Michael Marlowe who calls himself The Bible Researcher.

2) Tertullian, in “On the Veiling of Virgins,” where he discusses whether Paul requires a headcovering for unmarried as well as married women, points out that the very Corinthian church to which Paul wrote his exhortation did, in Tertullian’s day some 150 or so years later, require the covering of the heads of the unmarried women, implying that the married women were of course also covered, which shows that this is what they understood to be Paul’s message. (See the last sentence of Chapter 8). It appears from his discussion that there wasn’t any clearcut custom of headcoverings in any of the cultures, and that when the churches attempted to follow Paul they came up with a variety of solutions that Tertullian discusses and criticizes. All of them, however, involved some sort of cloth covering, and none took it to mean hair or any other symbol.

2. There are no cultural equivalents to the head covering.
Those who hold this view recognize that Paul is concerned with a universal principle and not with mere custom, and that it was a headcovering, probably a shawl, that he required, but they believe that the headcovering is just one of many ways the principle can be honored, that there are different customs that signal this universal principle in different cultures. Unfortunately, no clear examples of such alternative customs are offered by these expositors. It is merely stated as a general principle that whatever in your culture signals recognition of male headship or female submissiveness or femininity as such is what Paul requires, but what precisely would function as such a signal is not specified. This leaves us pretty much without a standard at all, and probably explains the prevailing anarchy in the churches with respect to this question. The reason such a signal is not specified is no doubt simply that there is really nothing in any culture that is equivalent to the head covering as the symbol Paul would have us exhibit, whether the principle is thought of as male headship or female submissiveness or femininity itself.

1) The problem with the principle of headship in the abstract is that in our culture we have no more of a feeling for this principle than we do for the headcovering, so there simply isn’t any particular form of dress that would signal it in our context. In other cultures as well, it’s not clear what customs can be said to signify male headship specifically, at least not according to a Biblical perspective. Perhaps the custom one sees in some cultures of the woman and children trailing after the husband while walking down the street would be an indicator of male headship, but from a Christian perspective is that really an expression of the creation ordinance of male headship, or is it an expression of the distortion brought about by the Fall, in the form of male dominance and oppression of women? Does the woman’s practice of trailing behind express her willing submissiveness or is it just a cultural habit that is imposed on her? Likewise, under Islam, is the total covering-up of women an expression of loving male headship or of the curse of male oppression brought about by the Fall? In other words, there doesn’t seem to be a clear indicator in any given culture that expresses the principle of headship as Paul teaches it in this passage. The exponents of this position assume there must be such indicators, but in fact such an indicator doesn’t really exist, and without a clear indicator we can’t know whether we are obeying God as required in this passage or not.

2) A problem with taking femininity as the universal principle is that feminine apparel is too broad a category to replace the specificity of the headcovering. Thomas Schreiner concludes his chapter on the headcovering with the statement that women should pray and prophesy in the congregation “with hearts that are submissive to male leadership, and they should dress so that they retain their femininity.” No one can doubt that these virtues are required of us but they simply aren’t what Paul is talking about in this passage, and again, no one who holds this view has specified just what the particular indicator of femininity in our culture – or any culture -- might be. John MacArthur insists that
“[t]here are symbols in our society for femininity. And you know as well as I do that you can look at a woman who obviously has adapted the symbols of femininity and looks like a woman, and you can look at another woman who looks like she is rebelling against everything that womanhood absolutely means. Can’t you tell that difference? Of course you can because even our society has symbols. Every society does.”
But it is quite striking that for all his insistence he makes no effort to suggest a single one, nor does any other proponent of this view. The headcovering on the other hand is awfully specific.

There just don’t seem to be any such indicators that could meet the standard of specificity of Paul’s exhortation to cover the head, or tell us whether someone has a submissive heart or is dressing appropriately. This has to be because the concept of femininity is really much too vague to stand in for the very specific head covering, and it has many fallen forms of expression as well. In western cultures fashions are constantly shifting, and in recent times have very drastically changed. Already by early in the 20th century you could no longer count on the time-honored floor-length skirt as a definition of feminine dress, and only a few decades later you couldn’t count on a skirt at all as a feminine sign; you couldn’t even point to long hair any more, since women started cutting their hair short for the very first time in history as a form of feminine fashion. Makeup also became available to all and has now become a regular part of feminine presentation, but would we dare identify “the painted face” as the symbol of femininity that could stand in for the biblical headcovering? And in the next decade or so, who knows what new culturally acceptable expressions of femininity may become standard? Belly button rings? In other words, in our own culture isn’t femininity often flirting with mere sluttishness by any reasonable Christian standard? I’m sure it seems obvious we just wouldn’t go there, but the point is that femininity in our culture often tends in this direction and we haven’t been given a standard for sifting the acceptable from the unacceptable in any of these discussions. MacArthur is careful to add the caveat that of course the feminine symbol he advises we take as our own must meet Christian moral requirements, but this just throws it all back on the individual woman, and underscores the problem with looking to culture for a Christian symbol at all. There just isn’t a cultural standard of femininity that we can point to as fulfilling the requirement of 1 Corinthians 11, despite the assurances of these expositors that there must be.

Also, It seems hardly likely that the women in the Corinthian congregation did not appear feminine enough without the headcovering. For one thing we can be sure that women wore their hair long simply because Paul expects them to recognize it as natural to women. Like women everywhere, women in Paul’s day would have been more inclined to elaborate on their femininity than to suppress it, and unfortunately, being fallen, would often do this in the direction of immodesty and ostentation if social sanctions did not restrain them -- witness our own society, or witness Hollywood. The elaborately adorned hair styles of Paul’s day must be described as very feminine for instance, but they can approach the ostentation that Paul elsewhere criticizes.

Women want to look attractive and what is more feminine than that? But femininity in the fallen world is all about self display and self adornment, although up to a point Christian women aren’t called to suppress this inclination. Nevertheless, that point may be reached sooner than we normally assume, as Paul does seem to be calling for the subduing of much of outward feminine expression, the very opposite of what is proposed by the cultural interpretation under discussion. The kind of femininity Paul approves is the inner kind, submissiveness and modesty and all the Christian adornments of the inner life which come from practicing the graces of Christ. It’s hard to see how any particular prescribed outward symbol could express this, and Paul isn’t proposing the symbol for that purpose anyway. Scripture passages on feminine modesty (1 Timothy 2:9, 1 Peter 3:3-4) counsel restraint, and emphasis on the inward graces, and otherwise do not define femininity by outward forms.

It’s the burden of the expositors to define it for us, who tell us there are ways the culture signals femininity that equals the meaning of the headcovering. Of course Paul couldn’t possibly be asking us to follow the fashions of the world, which in our day have to be described as falling far short of the standards of modesty of even the old pagan cultures, let alone the Christian cultures of the intervening centuries, but there doesn’t seem to be any other guideline given us by the expositors who hold the cultural view. It is even emphasized by some that we are to be “sensitive” to the culture around us in its indicators of respectful dress, as if Christians were somehow less attuned to respectful dress than the culture is, when really, aren’t we the ones with the knowledge of God’s standards, and shouldn’t we then be setting the standards ourselves?

It may also be worth noting at this point that churches that endorse this interpretation don’t in fact enforce any particular standard of presentation that would be symbolic of female subordination to male headship. They may have an all-male eldership, they may teach on the wife’s submission to the husband in marriage, they may exhort the women to general modesty in dress, but when it comes to this passage on the headcovering they have no standard at all. Even in churches where the leaders endorse long hair as the requisite covering they don’t necessarily enforce it. In other congregations, some women may have long hair who believe that is what Paul was calling for, but otherwise the subject is treated as if Paul really did say at the end of his careful exhortation that it makes no difference at all what you do, and the result is that Paul is disobeyed in the churches and God’s order dishonored.

3) The concept of female submissiveness is another problem in the cultural interpretive scheme. This reduces Paul’s very specific outward symbol of the headcovering to behavior and inner disposition. Thomas Schreiner, for instance, concludes that although “[l]ack of head coverings sends no message at all in our culture,” nevertheless “that does not mean that this text does not apply to our culture. The principle still stands that women should pray and prophesy in a manner that makes it clear that they submit to male leadership. Clearly the attitude and the demeanor with which a woman prays and prophesies will be one indication of whether she is humble and submissive. The principle enunciated here should be applied in a variety of ways given the diversity of the human situation.”

The problem here is that Paul’s very specific symbol of headship is being reduced to unspecifiable inner states and standards of behavior, but Paul has said nothing in this passage that justifies this equation. He teaches the virtue of submissiveness elsewhere, but here he is teaching the headcovering as purely an outward symbol of the creation order and the hierarchy of authority it established. Since he has nowhere mentioned a submissive demeanor or attitude in this context, it shouldn’t be read into what he has written – not because he doesn’t require that of women of course, but simply because it is not what he is addressing here, and we lose what he means to teach us in this specific context when we reduce it to these other considerations.

4) Paul’s arguments are so explicitly about the head, and headship, and covering the head, that to suggest cultural equivalents that don’t have anything to do with the physical head misses the whole point. It is the physical head that symbolizes authority or headship, and covering it symbolizes the subordination of one’s own authority or headship to another, to a woman’s husband if married, to appropriate male leadership if not, and at least in the abstract to the principle itself of God’s order of authority as Paul is laying it out. Nothing else comes close to conveying this. Hair can’t symbolize this because it is the woman’s glory, and reflects the glory of her husband (or of Adam) rather than of God. If in our culture we are unable to read the meaning of the head covering, that is merely to say that we are to learn its meaning from Paul. There is no reason to think it sent any clearer message to the Corinthians anyway, since Paul is at pains to explain it to them.

3. The teaching on the head covering is specifically Christian, a completely new custom. Paul is teaching something that is apparently new to most of the Corinthians, as it is to us in our day. Far from assuming that the Corinthians understand God’s order of headship and the other reasons for the headcovering, he begins his exhortation in verse 3 by telling them that he “would have them know” these things. The wearing of a covering on the head is an act of obedience to the apostolic teachings; it is a symbol the angels can read and that God can read, of the conformity, not just of individual women, but of the whole church, to God’s governmental order. This is the case whether the church fully understands the symbol or not, and whether individual women understand it or not.

What is to be symbolized is not femininity, and not the subjective state of the woman, but the objective state defined by God of female subordination to the male in His governmental hierarchy. The angels looking on – some of whom cover themselves in the presence of God -- aren’t reading the hearts of the women, but simply taking note of whether or not the church body as a whole practices this recognition of God’s order.

4. Paul refers to culture merely as an argument for the universal principle.
Finally, the idea that Paul is concerned with culture as such at all is the main problem with this interpretive framework. As I note above, what has prompted this line of thinking is that Paul himself does appeal to the judgment of the congregation, both regarding the propriety of a man’s praying covered and a woman’s praying uncovered, and the modes of hair length and style, and this can suggest at first encounter that he wants these things to be defined and enforced by the standard of local customs as recognized by the people.

Although this may seem to put the question on the footing of cultural norms, this is really a misreading, because the rest of the passage doesn’t justify such a reading of Paul’s aims. He himself treats the argument as based on universals despite his reference to customs. He argues specifically from God’s created order, and from nature, and from apostolic authority, and NOT from ephemeral customs except as they reflect the natural or God-given order.

How are we to resolve this apparent discrepancy? Jim Elliott gave a very helpful explanation in his Journals (p. 267 of the paperback edited by Elisabeth Elliott), where he suggests that if Paul were addressing New Guineans (this was in 1953), who wouldn’t share the cultural expectations of the Corinthians about hair length, he would no doubt not appeal to their judgment, but simply teach the principles of hair lengths and head coverings to them. The problem then is our own misunderstanding of Paul in taking culture or custom as the standard, whereas to Paul custom is only useful where it demonstrates the universality of God’s order. Culture may endorse almost anything, may in some respects reflect God’s order or may completely rebel against it, so that it makes a completely untrustworthy standard. Longer hair may or may not distinguish women from men in a particular culture, even if it does across most cultures. Covering the head is a custom in some cultures and not in others. Instead of looking to culture for our standards, this state of affairs should be understood to show that some customs are in tune with God’s order and some are not, and where they are not they express the spiritually dulled or rebellious fallen nature of humanity. This variability of custom then underscores Paul’s real concern, which is not custom but God’s order: if custom supports God’s order, well and good, he will use that as part of his argument; if it doesn’t he wouldn’t mention it.

(Elliott, by the way, believes that in a culture that does not regard short hair on a woman as a disgrace, short hair would be the equivalent of the head covering in demonstrating the principle of overheadship. I believe that in this case he has himself fallen into the error of taking culture as Paul’s standard. Paul was saying that if a woman will not wear a covering then she might as well have no covering at all, including the natural covering of her own hair, but go ahead and expose her head fully, because her head is really as exposed in either case, the one state of uncovering being just as bare as the other in the context of the hierarchy of headship, and since he is having to explain this to them it is clearly not something they would recognize on their own but something he wants them to learn.)

We do recognize, if we stop to think about it, that Paul’s appeal to the congregation’s judgment was rhetorical, meaning he fully expected agreement with his own judgment, so that if we read the appeal as directed to us, as of course we must, we feel the expectation that we are to assent to his judgment along with the Corinthians, despite the fact that we are not likely these days to have an intuitive or culture-based reference point of our own for agreeing with him (just as the New Guineans wouldn’t). This of course sets up a cognitive dissonance in us, which is what has led to the misunderstanding in the first place that Paul has any interest in enforcing cultural norms. When we recognize that nothing in what he has actually said supports such a reading, nor is there anything in Paul’s writings anywhere else in scripture that supports it, we are at first in a quandary how to understand his argument from customs that we know from history and personal experience are not universal. This is where Jim Elliott’s observation is very helpful, that Paul only appeals to custom where it supports the universal principle, that his appeal is not to culture as such, but to the universal standard it happens to uphold in this instance. Again, Paul is only concerned with God’s order, and with custom only insofar as it supports God’s order. The standard is then something that we should learn from him about God’s government if our culture does not happen to reflect it.

From all these considerations, it seems clear that symbols of femininity and masculinity as such are simply not what concern Paul in this passage, not feminine dress, not a submissive demeanor, not long hair. What concerns Paul is that headship be externally symbolized in the only way it can be, by displaying the glory of Christ in the man, and covering the glory of man in the woman. His concern is God’s government, God’s hierarchy of order, it is the display of Christ’s glory in worship, and this requires the specific covering of the literal female head whose merely human glory is not to be on display. This is what Paul wants to see practiced in the churches, and again, in contrast with the current most popular readings of the passage, this is a call to suppress some natural modes of feminine expression, such as the display of beautiful long hair or elaborately arranged hair. Culture is simply not a reliable source of godly standards, so Paul cannot have meant to direct us to culture at all for examples of the practices he wants to establish in the church. Paul was exhorting us to a NEW standard, a specifically Christian standard.


My research on the head covering, Part 3: Does it mean that a male church leader can be a woman's "covering?"


This is another interpretation of the nature of the covering that I have personally encountered in charismatic circles, where an official male overseer is appointed over the ministries of women, usually in parachurch organizations. I’m not sure it has enough status to include it here but I do so just because I have run across it and the charismatic movement is a very big movement. I’ve also found this idea mentioned here and there in my research but have not pursued it further for my current purposes.

An objection to this interpretation is that it requires allegorizing the passage, turning the concrete idea of wearing a headcovering into a poetic way of saying the woman needs to have a specific male head to oversee her praying and prophesying. In this case as well as the interpretation that the required covering is the hair, one has to ask why Paul would be so indirect. If he meant a male overseer wouldn’t he have said directly he meant a male overseer? He wouldn’t have resorted to indirect terms like “cover” and “uncover” that would only create unnecessary ambiguity and obscure his real meaning.


My research on the head covering, Part 2: Is Paul saying a woman's covering is her long hair?



A very popular interpretation these days is that a woman should have long hair as the head covering required. Paul does in fact refer to the long hair of women as a “covering” in verse 15:
but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her, for her hair is given to her for a covering.
Most commentators understand this as simply part of his argument in favor of an added covering, even those who consider the head covering to be merely a local custom, but some do conclude that Paul means that hair is the covering he’s calling for.

I haven’t been able to find out who popularized this interpretation and when, but its general acceptance appears to be quite recent. We can infer from Calvin’s answer to it, however, that it was at least considered in his day:
“Should any one now object, that her hair is enough, as being a natural covering, Paul says that it is not, for it is such a covering as requires another thing to be made use of for covering it.”
Two proponents of the hair as the covering are James B. Hurley, in his Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective, 254-71; and David E. Blattenberger III in Rethinking 1 Corinthians 11:2 through Archaeological and Moral-Rhetorical Analysis (Lewiston NT, Mellen 1997). I don’t have access to either book although I did find a few reviews of both of them. From what I can gather, they both take the position that Paul is interested in enforcing the cultural status quo, and since women’s having long hair was universal in the cultures of the day, while a head covering was not universally worn (although it was not uncommon either), they conclude that Paul’s real intention was to enforce the wearing of long hair. Hurley sees this as wearing the hair pinned up; I’m not sure if Blattenberger does. Here’s
one reviewer’s statement
of Hurley’s position:
The wearing of the hair "up" was a sign of honoring one's husband. For a woman to let her hair flow down her back was a sign of repudiation and such a woman should shave her hair off which would dishonor her.36 This is important because it demonstrates truly what is cultural here, the prevailing hairstyles and their significance, versus that which is timeless—the honoring of the husband.
As far as I've been able to find, no documentation of this assertion has been offered.

The following argument that the covering is long hair is apparently typical of an older line of reasoning, according to one commentator who mocks the “bobbed hair” thought:
…it is not necessary to interpret verse 6 as speaking of a separate covering or veil. I believe the verse means this: If a woman refuses to wear her hair long for a proper covering and token of authority, if she wants to bob it like a man’s, let her go ahead and shave it all off. By saying this, the apostle is emphasizing the seriousness of this matter.
David Cloud

Perhaps the most influential sources of the hair-as-covering interpretation are footnotes in the NIV and the Living Bible that give an alternative translation identifying the covering as hair. The note in the NIV reads:
11:4-7 Or 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with long hair dishonors his head. 5 And every woman who prays or prophesies with no covering of hair on her head dishonors her head–she is just like one of the “shorn women.” 6 If a woman has no covering, let her be for now with short hair, but since it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair shorn or shaved, she should grow it again. A man ought not to have long hair.
The note in the Living Bible has:
11:6 Or then she should have long hair. This would make it read: Yes, if she refuses to wear her hair long, she should cut off all her hair. And since it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut or her head shaved, then she should have long hair.

Spiros Zodhiates’ Word Study Dictionary of the New Testament has entries which make the same equation between the covering and the hair:
2619. katakalupto … to cover. To cover with a veil or something which hangs down, hence, to veil; in the pass., katakaluptomai, to be covered, veiled, to wear a veil (1 Cor. 11:6, 7). The covering here involves either the hair of a woman hanging down or, in case that may not be possible, the veil.

4018. peribolaion {this is the Greek word translated “covering” in verse 15, “her hair is given to her for a covering (peribolaion)}…a covering, cloak, wrap,
cape, outer garment, or mantle. By implication, a covering for the head, a headdress, or perhaps a veil (1 Cor. 11:15).
This equivalence between the covering and hair is merely asserted without evidence or explanation, as if it were an authoritative translation, although other sources give no hint of such an equivalence.

Eventually the NIV retracted it.In an article about a new (2002) translation of the NIV , Craig L. Blomberg mentions (p. 16) that the footnote in the earlier edition is not in the new edition:
The long footnote to an alternate translation of vv. 4-7, in which the head covering in question is simply “hair,” has been dropped. While I follow a minority that think this may have been the correct interpretation, it is true that it was not as obvious a translation.
Zodhiates’ reference book and the Bible footnotes mentioned must have influenced countless Christians to believe that the headcovering is a woman’s hair, although there is really no evidence given for this view and other authoritative sources do not agree with it.

I also found this vehement declaration that hair is the covering at this website. Scroll down a little past halfway to “Hair is the Covering.” It has the virtue at least of spelling out the reasoning from that point of view, if a little loudly.

Some answers to the interpretation that hair is the covering:

This interpretation appears to be based on the one line in verse 15 where Paul calls a woman’s long hair a covering that nature gave her, and those who take this to be his meaning then go back and substitute “hair” for “covering” in the rest of the passage, although it really doesn’t fit logically. Here are some arguments against the idea:

1. Paul would not have argued at such length using the general term “covering” if what he meant to do was tell women specifically that they must wear their hair long. He would have said so quite directly.

2. Verse 6 becomes logically absurd or at least awkward if you substitute “hair” for “covering,” making it read, “If she cuts her hair short, then let her cut it short” or even “If she refuses to have hair, then let her cut it off.” Some advocates for hair as the covering counter this by saying it means that if she insists on having her hair “bobbed” as one put it (as the meaning of not being covered), then she should just go ahead and cut or shave it all off since she’s already violated the natural principle of long hair on women by cutting it at all.

3. Verses 5 and 6 are really saying the opposite, however, that if she will not cover her head, then she might as well cut off all her hair too, as that is exactly the same thing. That is, with or without hair, even hair that has never been cut, she is without a covering of the sort Paul is requiring. In other words, her hair doesn’t suffice for a covering at all, it’s the same thing as being completely bald as far as the function of a headship covering goes.

4. It is extremely unlikely that any women in those days cut their hair short.

In verses 14 and 15 Paul is appealing to the Corinthian church to recognize that by “nature” women DO wear their hair long (“Does not even nature teach …that if a woman has long hair it is her glory?”), and he wouldn’t be exhorting them to do something they already recognize as the natural thing to do, which there doesn’t seem to be any logical reason they would stop doing on becoming Christians.

It is all the more certain that they already wore their hair long because in verse 6 he clearly assumes that they will recognize it as a disgrace to cut it off.

Studies of the customs of the time verify that all women of all the cultures represented in the Corinthian church wore their hair long in those days. In fact, if the reviews are correct, both Hurley and Blattenberger make this the main part of their argument that Paul intended hair – or pinned-up hair -- as the covering, but it’s a better argument against it, since as I just noted, Paul would have no reason to exhort them to do what was universally practiced. You would have to assume that some women in the church were cutting it off in order to make sense of Paul’s exhorting them to have it long, but in such a culture, in which Paul could count on their recognizing a shaved or shorn female head to be disgraceful, and that a woman’s long hair is given by nature, that just doesn’t seem like a possibility. The only example of a woman with short hair I’ve come across is Electra, from a time before Paul, who cut off her hair in mourning for her father. Otherwise women would not have chosen to have their hair short, though it might have been imposed on them for various reasons – for instance, in the case of adultery it was a punishment exacted by various cultures. Usually the hair is worn up in pictures from that era, but occasionally a woman will be shown with it down. Overall, until the 20th century, women everywhere customarily wore their hair long, exceptions to this being rare enough to prove the rule. So Paul could count on that universal practice of women to be recognized by all in the church.

5. Paul is not exhorting them to have long hair anyway.

1) Simply following the development of Paul’s argument logically, in verses 13 to 15 he takes women’s long hair as the universal standard, and is referring to it as an example from nature to show the need for an additional covering.

It may be hard to grasp Paul’s reasoning here, because in the English translations it can sound like he’s advocating covering a covering with a covering, or veiling a veil with a veil. But from the context that is exactly what he means: he means that the natural covering of hair is an indication that the women should wear another covering on top of it. He appeals to the long hair as evidence for the need for the additional covering he’s been talking about, not as the covering itself.

The logic here would be a lot clearer if the way hair is a covering were meaningfully different from the added covering Paul is requiring, and there are some reasons to think that is the case. The resolution of this otherwise odd construction is possibly to be found in the connotations of the Greek words. The Pocket Interlinear New Testament (Jay P. Green, Sr., Editor, 1988) renders verses 14 and 15: “Or does not nature herself teach you that if a man indeed adorns the hair, it is a dishonor to him. But if a woman should adorn the hair, it is a glory to her; because the long hair has been given to her instead of a veil.” Here the Greek word “komao” that in most other translations is rendered “has long hair,” is translated “adorns the hair.” The first two places “hair” occurs in in these two verses are translations of the Greek word “komao,” but the third, where it says her hair was given to her for a covering or veil, is the form “kome” which according to Strong’s carries the meaning of “locks, as ornamental” while “komao” refers more to long hair as such, “tresses or long hair.” That reverses the emphasis in Green’s translation but that’s par for the course with this section of scripture, as we are hardly ever without differences of opinion on almost every word of the passage. In either case this gives us some reason to think more in terms of arranged or adorned hair in these verses than simply length of hair. Zodhiates’ Word Study Dictionary agrees that “kome” refers more to the way hair is styled. (He reads these verses as Paul’s teaching that a woman’s hair should be different from a man’s in length as well as adornment, but in context Paul is not teaching that at all; he’s saying it is that way by nature, and appealing to it as evidence from nature for a separate head covering). The point here is that if the word is to be understood more of long hair in the sense of an ornament or adornment, rather than as merely a covering, then the requirement to cover it makes more sense, because verse 7 shows that Paul is concerned that the glory of Christ and not the glory of man be displayed in worship.

2) A second support for this view is that Paul uses a different word for covering when describing women’s hair than he does when exhorting women to cover their heads. The Greek word “peribolaion,” which is the word used for the “covering” or “veil” that the long hair is said to be at this point, is a different word than the one used elsewhere in the passage for the covering Paul wants women to wear, “katakalupto.” “Katakalupto” means a complete covering-up, “kata” being an intensifier implying a thorough or complete covering, or a down-hanging covering, while “peribolaion” means a wrap or mantle that is thrown around (peri = around, bolla = throw). Some argue that this is a distinction without a difference, and that may be a valid objection, but this different choice of words at least seems to imply that Paul himself had a difference in mind. Unfortunately it is hard for us to appreciate what difference he intended because of our English translations, since the KJV uses “covering” for both terms, and other words such as “veil” that are used elsewhere are not much of a difference from that. “Mantle” and “vesture” are sometimes used to translate “peribolaion” in other contexts, however, and these suggest more of the quality of adornment than the mere covering-up implied by “katakalupto.” The related English terms “vestment” and “investiture,” for instance, imply more than just a garment, but an emblem of office, a mantle of glory. The ermine robe or cape worn by a king as an emblem of his kingliness comes to mind. These terms are too weighty for the context but they do suggest something other than a mere utilitarian covering. I’m reaching for this a bit, I admit, but there’s something very satisfying about how this way of understanding it resolves the problem.

3) There is a third and stronger supporting factor, however: the context itself of verse 15 directly makes the meaning of the long hair more of an ornament than merely a concealing covering: But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for [her] hair is given her for a covering. What he is saying is that her hair is a glory to her because it is given to her for a “peribolaion,” which clearly implies the sense of a covering that is more of an adornment than a mere concealment, even apart from the connotations of the Greek. So the fact alone that Paul does directly call the woman’s hair her “glory” is a reason he’d want her to cover it, as he has already said in verse 7 that it is the glory of Christ that must be on display in worship, which is why the glory of man (or woman) is to be covered up.

So in summary, with the connotation of “komao” or “kome” as dressed or adorned hair, as much as merely long hair, and the possible connotation of “peribolaion” as an adornment as much as a mere cover-up, and the context itself that defines a woman’s hair as her glory, the overall meaning becomes more of the supporting argument Paul clearly intends it to be. That is, since nature has given the woman her hair as an ornament, a garment of glory, as well perhaps as giving the woman her inclination to adorn and display her hair as her glory, in the overall context of the whole passage it suggests a clear reason why Paul wants her to cover it in worship, his concern being that only Christ’s glory be displayed.

Calvin also sees adornment in this verse, though he doesn’t go into the meanings of the Greek words, saying that a woman’s beautiful hair may be an object of lust, making it unseemly to uncover it, and he adds that the woman herself is an “ornament” to her husband, implying again that the hair which is her natural covering is a glory which needs additional covering. In his view of the woman’s hair as an object of lust he comes closer to the Jewish and Muslim reasons for covering it.

Even if this argument about the reason for the additional covering is rejected, however, most commentators do recognize that simply in the logic of the passage the long hair is given as evidence in favor of an added cloth covering, including those who believe that the headcovering was merely a cultural symbol in Paul’s time that can be replaced by other symbols in other cultural contexts. So if the connotations of adornment are recognized, it makes the case logically neater, but even without them it is clear from the context that Paul does mean to say that the natural covering of the hair is an indication that it should have another covering over it, because he clearly appeals to it as a supporting argument rather than as the point of the argument itself.

Mary Kassian, whose book Women, Creation and the Fall is available online at the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood website, says in Chapter 9 simply:
One view is that 1 Corinthians 11 refers to hair length and/or hair style. Verse 15 is often cited. In this verse, Paul states that “long hair is given to her [woman] as a covering.” Thus, casual readers assert that if a woman has long hair, she needn’t cover her head in the assembly meeting.

A more accurate position is that Paul intended a veil or shawl or garment to be worn upon the head.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

My research on the head covering, Part 1: Introduction

This is my long study on head covering, which I did in the summer of 2007. It's a bit tedious I think, and I'd probably change a few things now, but I tried to be very thorough and except for cleaning up some problems with format as I discover them I'm going to leave it as is. I'm also going to post it in parts.

This is Part 1: Introduction

1 Corinthians 11:2-16:

2 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a woman will not be covered, then let her be shorn! But since it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.

7 For indeed a man ought not to cover his head, being the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 For this reason the woman should have authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 In any case, woman is not independent of man, nor man of woman, in the Lord; 12 for as woman is [created] from man, so man is now [born] through woman. And all things are from God.

13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

Greek Text of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16:

2 Ἐπαινῶ δὲ ὑμᾶς ὅτι πάντα μου μέμνησθε καὶ, καθὼς παρέδωκα ὑμῖν, τὰς παραδόσεις κατέχετε. 3 Θέλω δὲ ὑμᾶς εἰδέναι ὅτι παντὸς ἀνδρὸς ἡ κεφαλὴ ὁ Χριστός ἐστιν, κεφαλὴ δὲ γυναικὸς ὁ ἀνήρ, κεφαλὴ δὲ τοῦ Χριστοῦ ὁ θεός. 4 πᾶς ἀνὴρ προσευχόμενος ἢ προφητεύων κατὰ κεφαλῆς ἔχων καταισχύνει τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ. 5 πᾶσα δὲ γυνὴ προσευχομένη ἢ προφητεύουσα ἀκατακαλύπτῳ τῇ κεφαλῇ καταισχύνει τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτῆς· ἓν γάρ ἐστιν καὶ τὸ αὐτὸ τῇ ἐξυρημένῃ. 6 εἰ γὰρ οὐ κατακαλύπτεται γυνή, καὶ κειράσθω· εἰ δὲ αἰσχρὸν γυναικὶ τὸ κείρασθαι ἢ ξυρᾶσθαι, κατακαλυπτέσθω.

7 Ἀνὴρ μὲν γὰρ οὐκ ὀφείλει κατακαλύπτεσθαι τὴν κεφαλήν, εἰκὼν καὶ δόξα θεοῦ ὑπάρχων· ἡ γυνὴ δὲ δόξα ἀνδρός ἐστιν. 8 οὐ γάρ ἐστιν ἀνὴρ ἐκ γυναικός ἀλλὰ γυνὴ ἐξ ἀνδρός· 9 καὶ γὰρ οὐκ ἐκτίσθη ἀνὴρ διὰ τὴν γυναῖκα ἀλλὰ γυνὴ διὰ τὸν ἄνδρα. 10 διὰ τοῦτο ὀφείλει ἡ γυνὴ ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς διὰ τοὺς ἀγγέλους. 11 πλὴν οὔτε γυνὴ χωρὶς ἀνδρὸς οὔτε ἀνὴρ χωρὶς γυναικὸς ἐν κυρίῳ· 12 ὥσπερ γὰρ ἡ γυνὴ ἐκ τοῦ ἀνδρός, οὕτως καὶ ὁ ἀνὴρ διὰ τῆς γυναικός· τὰ δὲ πάντα ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ.

13 Ἐν ὑμῖν αὐτοῖς κρίνατε· πρέπον ἐστὶν γυναῖκα ἀκατακάλυπτον τῷ θεῷ προσεύχεσθαι; 14 οὐδὲ ἡ φύσις αὐτὴ διδάσκει ὑμᾶς ὅτι ἀνὴρ μὲν ἐὰν κομᾷ ἀτιμία αὐτῷ ἐστιν, 15 γυνὴ δὲ ἐὰν κομᾷ δόξα αὐτῇ ἐστιν; ὅτι ἡ κόμη ἀντὶ περιβολαίου δέδοται [αὐτῇ]. 16 Εἰ δέ τις δοκεῖ φιλόνεικος εἶναι, ἡμεῖς τοιαύτην συνήθειαν οὐκ ἔχομεν οὐδὲ αἱ ἐκκλησίαι τοῦ θεοῦ.
I have been wearing a headcovering in church for most of this year now (2007) because I have been persuaded that wearing something on the head is what is required of women by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. I’ve also continued to study this passage of scripture, because there are so many opinions on it and almost every verse of it is surrounded by controversy, making it hard to explain to people. I never wanted to get this deeply into the debate about the woman’s headcovering, but the confusion surrounding the topic unfortunately requires it if I hope to communicate my view clearly. I also have no natural liking for wearing something on my head, to put it mildly, so a solid exegesis that showed it isn’t necessary would be very welcome to me, but in my investigations I’ve only confirmed the opposite conclusion. I simply became convinced that covering the head is what God would have of us.

I have listened to many sermons on the topic on the internet, read online articles and book chapters, and used my own reference books as well; I've read most of the Bible commentaries at and Blue Letter Bible; I’ve familiarized myself with the views of The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and other evangelical authorities; I’ve learned a few Greek words, and I did some of my own online research into ancient customs of dress, since that has become a big part of the discussion -- all of which is to say that before offering my opinion I’ve been doing my homework. It’s rudimentary research, however, confined pretty much to the internet and older material on the subject, since I don’t have access to more recent writings, so I’m sure there is a lot I’ve overlooked. But I have prayed for understanding and believe He has given it, perhaps even given some new perspective on the problem.

* * * * * * *

Although some may regard paying so much attention to this passage to be “majoring in the minors” because it is the only place in scripture the headcovering is mentioned, and think it of little consequence whether we get it right or not, considering how hard it is to understand and how many different opinions attach to it, I’ve come to the opposite conclusion: that its being so embattled suggests that it’s a lot more important than we allow.

At the very least, of course, if it is the word of God, ignoring it or misreading it has to have consequences. If God wants women to be covering our heads as a sign of his governmental order, and we aren’t doing it because we have convinced ourselves he meant something else, then we are insulting his governmental order even if doing it in ignorance. We may expect His grace to cover such an error individually, and most Christians are innocent of error themselves, not having heard any teaching on this passage at all, and many others are simply following what they’ve been taught, but the leaders who have led us away from the truth, however unintentionally, may have something to answer for in the apparent powerlessness of the church in today’s world. Paul didn’t treat his teaching on this matter as trivial, he spent some effort explaining it to us, so if we are getting it wrong, and especially if that’s because of fear of man, or because it seems inconvenient for us or a little hard on our self-esteem, God will certainly judge His church for it.

There is one way that a few popular teachers deal with this passage that particularly trivializes it, and that is to interpret the last verse of it as Paul’s taking back his entire exhortation. Verse 16 says “But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.” As one expositor reads it, “If this causes problems, causes contention, it’s not worth the controversy, getting uptight, getting legalistic.” Granted, as with so much of the rest of the passage, verse 16 is somewhat ambiguous, but it just makes no sense that Paul would write fourteen verses giving at least three reasons why women should wear a covering, only to turn around and dismiss it as unimportant because some people are complaining about it. The reason he is writing about it at all is apparently because there is some controversy about it in the Corinthian congregation and the church leaders sought his guidance to resolve it. Surely he wouldn’t have argued for a head covering at such length, giving so many reasons why it is necessary, but simply said in a sentence or two that it is a matter each woman is free to decide for herself, if that is what he meant. But the very opposite is more in keeping with Paul’s careful treatment of the question: “We have no such custom” is a flat declaration of apostolic authority to enforce the use of the headcovering (whatever that covering might be), in order to silence the contention, and most expositors I’ve read interpret it this way, including those who don’t believe a literal fabric headcovering is for today.

However we are to understand the nature of the headcovering, Paul does consider it important, and therefore so should we.

* * * * * * *

There is no doubt that the passage is confusing, and has been to some extent through the centuries, but until very recently, even if Paul’s reasoning is hard to follow, even if there is a discouraging variety of opinions on just about every point of his argument, and even if some of his meaning remains obscure after our best efforts to grasp it, nevertheless his basic intention was never considered hard to understand until fairly recently: that is, he was always understood to require a fabric headcovering for women in the churches, and this was in fact practiced in all the churches well into the 20th century. Even acknowledging this historical fact, however, Chuck Smith dismisses the earlier churches’ interpretation as unnecessary, on the ground that in verse 16 Paul says it’s not important anyway, which only we in the modern age are apparently able to comprehend. For the last half century or more, such dismissive attitudes and other interpretations have overthrown the requirement and added tremendously to the confusion.

What I want to do in this research report is give the outlines of the currently most popular interpretations of the nature of the headcovering Paul is talking about, and the best answers to them I know of, trying to avoid the many side issues of the argument because they too easily obscure the main point of just what Paul is asking of us.

Some of those side issues are the meaning of the word “traditions” in verse 2, the meaning of “kephale” or “head” in following verses, the cultural implications of cutting the hair or shaving the female head in verse 5, how man is the image and glory of Christ in verse 7 but woman the glory of man, the meaning of “authority” or “power” and the reference to angels in verse 10. These are all related to important arguments Paul makes for the headcovering, but it isn’t necessary to resolve all the contention about them in order to understand what he means by the covering itself that he is requiring of us. So I want to stick closely to the question of just what the covering is.
* * * * * * *

Since it is a sensitive issue, often misused along with other passages of scripture to label women as inferior, it always needs to be said up front that the requirement for a head covering in no way returns us to the fallen versions of male dominance. It changes nothing concerning the equality of women and men in the Kingdom of God. As Watchman Nee put it so succinctly, in his own argument for the headcovering among the Chinese Christians, “We must not frustrate God’s government with God’s grace.” That is, we are living under the rules of both God’s government and God’s grace, which exist in a certain tension although they are not contradictory, and living under grace does not free us from our obligation to honor God’s government. Paul himself makes this clear in the passage, in verses 11 and 12, where he is careful to head off any crass male chauvinist response by affirming that “in the Lord” there is mutual interdependence between the sexes. Women are equal with men in Christ, though subordinate in role in this world, just as Jesus Christ is equal to God, though subordinate to the Father in His role as the Redeemer Son of Man. So, the head covering for women is strictly a matter of God’s government in this world, the government which places the man over the woman in various functions of life, such as in the exclusively male eldership of the church among other things, but does not affect our equality in the Kingdom of God.