Women And The Head Covering!


The first sixteen verses of chapter 11 may be one of the toughest passages in Scripture to understand, where Paul deals with the subject of the use of veils.

As we go through this study, we need to ask the following questions, what did the veil represent in that culture? What kind of message were they sending out to others by wearing them? Is there a difference between customs and commands?

In the days of the early church, there were different customs regarding head coverings. For example, Jewish women would wear a head covering but Jewish men didn’t.

Generally speaking, among the Greeks, only slaves were covered, and the uncovered head was a sign of freedom. The Romans reversed this. The Roman freeman wore the pileus, the slave went bareheaded. The Romans were accustomed to praying while they were veiled, but Greek men didn’t.  The Greek custom was to pray with the head uncovered.

The Jews had the same custom as the Romans during worship, and we should not forget that Paul was originally a Jew. This veiling expressed reverence, the proper feeling of unworthiness to appear before God with an open face. Maimonides says ‘Let not the wise men, nor the scholars of the wise men, pray unless they be covered.’ The Jewish covering was called the tallith.

Even today the Jews cover the head, as a gesture of respect to God, the head is covered during prayer, either with a hat or a skullcap, ‘kippah’. Pious Jews wear a head covering at all times, recognizing God’s constant presence. In the Corinthian culture, the veil was a sign of submission to another person.

As we can imagine when you’ve got a church full of people from different backgrounds, we can easily begin to understand why the wearing of a veil became an issue for the church in Corinth.

In this chapter of Corinthians, Paul responds to those issues and says the answer is found in orderliness, 1 Corinthians 14:33. He says that their worship should be orderly and they should be guided by the natural order which already exists in creation.

It appears that the real problem wasn’t so much the wearing of veils, but what they thought orderly was.


‘Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.’ 1 Corinthians 11:1

We must remember that there are no chapters and verses within the Scriptures, so the above verse carries on from chapter ten, where Paul speaks about freedom and the responsibility of freedom, that the church should follow his lead in this.


‘I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. But 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.’ 1 Corinthians 11:2-3

Paul now begins to deal with the subject of veils, he praises them for their perseverance in his teaching and examples. What he writes here is all about relationships.

The word ‘praise’, ‘epaino’, ‘to praise, commend, applaud’. This Greek word is identified as an active verb in the present tense which indicates ongoing action. As long as the Corinthians would remember all of Paul’s actions, 1 Corinthians 11:1 and ‘hold fast the traditions’ he would praise, commend, and applaud them.

When we get to verse 17 of this chapter he will say, ‘But in giving you this charge, I praise you not.’ Paul could not praise, commend, or applaud the Corinthians because they were in sin.

The word ‘traditions’, ‘paradosis’, ‘what is delivered, the substance of the teaching or instruction’. That which was delivered, 1 Corinthians 11:23 / 1 Corinthians 15:3 is the revelation of God, the Gospel, 2 Thessalonians 2:15 / 2 Timothy 1:13 / 1 John 1:3.

He says that a woman is in subjection to her husband, and his leadership is modified because of his own subordination to Christ, and even Jesus voluntarily submitted His life to God.

Paul’s point is that there is a divinely established order between woman, man, Christ and God. This divine example is the blueprint that he will use to solve the disorder in the church created by the issue of veils.

‘Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head.’ 1 Corinthians 11:4

The ‘veil’, ‘katakalupto’ means to cover up, having covered his head, having veiled oneself. A Christian man, therefore, wasn’t to pray with his head covered because it would disgrace or dishonour his head, that is, Christ.

The reason for this was that only Christ was head over man, no other man or institution. His uncovered head indicated this fact.

‘But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.’ 1 Corinthians 11:5-6

If we examine this passage in comparison to 1 Corinthians 14:34 we find that Paul cannot be referring to their first day of the week assembly here. Women were not permitted to speak in the assembly, they were and are required to keep silent and learn at home, 1 Timothy 2:12.

The point of 1 Corinthians 11:5-6, is that if she were to go against this custom she was resisting the customs of their society and showing a defiant attitude towards the man.

A woman praying and prophesying with her head not covered was as shameful as shaving her head shaved. Paul compares it to being completely shaved, which was a sign of prostitution or unchastity.

Expositor’s Greek says the following.

‘If a woman prefers bare head, she should remove her hair; womanly feeling forbids the latter, then it should forbid the former, for the like shame attaches to both.’

A Christian woman, who publicly prayed, not in an assembly setting, 1 Timothy 2:12, with her head uncovered dishonours her head which is her husband. This means that she was rejecting his leadership and to do this in those days was shocking, that is, being unveiled in public.

McGuiggan, in his commentary, says the following.

‘If a man were to appear publicly wearing a veil, 1 Corinthians 11:4 / 1 Corinthians 11:7, it would be shameful (as shameful as if he wore his hair like a woman), but a female publicly proclaiming or praying having dispensed with what is female dress is bringing dishonour on herself and up the line to God. If a woman saw a man dressing like a woman, she ought to be repelled, he is forsaking his maleness and the position he has been given before God.’

The shaving of a woman’s head is a prime example of the fact that this is a custom Paul is referring to. Nowhere in the Old Testament or New Testament do we find laws forbidding the shaving of a woman’s head yet Paul says it is shameful for her to do so. Why Paul? Because society views a woman with a shaved head as ‘odd or shameful.’ This principle is brought about in Isaiah 3:16-24.

So far, Paul said that there is a natural order, divinely appointed in creation. What we do in our public worship of God ought to reflect that natural order to be considered decent and proper.

In practical terms then, men should pray without head-covering to reflect their leadership, that is, Christ and women ought to publicly pray with their heads covered in order to reflect their leadership, that is, their husbands, or fathers for single women.


In regard to women praying and prophesying, please note that Paul doesn’t say the woman is leading in prayer or teaching, the praying and prophesying are used in general terms. The guidance for public worship, that is, mixed assemblies, men and women, will begin later in 1 Corinthians 11:17.

Here Paul is speaking about those times when it is proper for women to prophesy and pray. Women aren’t restricted from prophesying and prayer, only in the public, mixed assembly, 1 Corinthians 14:34-36.

Paul is talking about other occasions where women were to pray and prophesy, they were to wear the head-covering. In the mixed, public assembly, their silence was their sign of submission while the men prayed and prophesied.

However, at home, or women’s gatherings or other instances where they could prophesy or pray, Exodus 15:20 / Acts 16:3 / Acts 21:9, they wore the head-covering to signify their submission and respect.

The point, however, wasn’t about veils, it was about how one did things in order to convey an attitude of respect and submission to God. These aren’t man-made ideas, they are instructions from God.


Now that Paul has explained what they should do and why, he now goes on to give the divine reasoning behind this teaching.

‘A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.’ 1 Corinthians 11:7-10

Man’s glory is that he is created first, Genesis 2:7, and to pray uncovered is to reflect that glory. Both men and women are created equally in the image of God, Genesis 1:26-27, but man’s glory is that he was created first, not better.

As one who reflects the image of God, man has been given ‘dominion’ over all creation, Genesis 1:26. This authority over God’s creation is a reflection of God and his glory. Psalm 8:5-6 / Hebrews 2:6-8.

Woman’s glory is that the human race continues through her. To recognize their glory is to recognise God and what God has done, not what man has done. Man didn’t create himself nor did he have any say in the order of creation.

Within this creation of things subject to man’s dominion is the woman. She is termed the ‘help meet’ Genesis 2:18. After the fall of man in the garden, the Lord said to the woman, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labour, you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Genesis 3:16

The woman is the glory of man as the man is the glory of God. This statement is examined closely in the next two verses. When therefore the woman wears the veil she publicly proclaims her compliance with God’s order of creation.

Paul states that the woman is of the man and not the other way around. God created the man first and then He made the woman for the man and from man, Genesis 2:21ff.

Woman was made as a ‘helper’ for the man. Again, God’s creative order indicates that it would be a shameful thing for a man to veil his head. The man who veils his head has not taken God’s order of creation seriously and likewise, the woman who will not veil her head in subjection has not taken God’s order of creation seriously.

Women publicly praying with their heads uncovered suggested that they should be in man’s place. This is shameful because it rejects God’s order and in that culture, the husband’s position. A woman should recognize her place in creation and reflect her belief and acceptance of this, the veil was that symbol at that time.

The key is that Paul recognised that it was a cultural symbol of his day. Why should she wear a veil? Because of the angels, Jude 6 / 2 Peter 2:4. Paul appears to be reminding the women of the danger they play with when they reject their own domain or proper sphere.

‘Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.’ 1 Corinthians 11:11-12

Paul reminds them that man’s authority doesn’t mean independence. We’re united biologically and submitted to one another spiritually. Man needs the woman and the woman needs the man. Neither one may now exist without the other. This relationship exists “in the Lord,” that is, by the Lord’s will, man needs the woman and the woman needs the man.

This order isn’t meant to create dominance or competition, this order is meant to create mutual dependence and glory to God in reflecting the divine order.

‘Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does 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.’ 1 Corinthians 11:13-15

Again Paul uses the word “judge” as he did in 1 Corinthians 10:15 to mean consider or reason with me. Here Paul uses an example from nature to underline his point. Some things are suggested by nature, for example, long hair on a man is unnatural but considered proper and beautiful on a woman.

McGuiggan, in his commentary, says the following.

‘Nature is the way things can be observed to exist. A horse is a horse, a rock is a rock, a male is a male and a female is a female. Nature is not ‘innate moral instinct’. Nature (in this passage) has nothing directly to do with birth. Nature is not ‘inbuilt knowledge’ or some inner illumination. Nature (in this passage) is the observable make up of reality. What is it that nature teaches them? It teaches them that something is shameful. It teaches that men were not to act like women. Men that wear their hair like women are acting shamefully.’

It’s natural because a woman’s hair will grow longer than a man’s in normal circumstances. Social custom supports and promotes this natural phenomenon.

Long hair on men has always been out of the ordinary, even Jews who did it, did it because of a vow, not because of style, Numbers 6:1-5 / Numbers 6:18-19 / Judges 13:5 / Judges 13:7.

Some have argued from 1 Corinthians 11:15 that the hair is the covering. But that cannot work in this text because if the hair is the covering, then what is the man to do when he wants to pray or prophesy? The man would have to be bald or have his head shaved if the hair is a covering for his head is not to be covered.

McGuiggan, in his commentary, says the following.

‘Who gives the woman her long hair for a covering? The passage doesn’t say. If God gave long hair to the woman as her glory and covering, it would appear that women ought to be hesitant about having their hair cut short as they characteristically do in the west.  My own judgment is that the long hair of a female became her trademark rather than being a positive ordinance of God. I don’t think God gave the woman the veil any more than he gave her long hair. So that ‘is given’ is equivalent to saying, ‘is recognised as being peculiarly hers.’

The point there is this, any social custom, such as the veil, which emphasises an idea suggested by nature, must be proper. In other words, social customs are ok if they reflect accurately what is natural and already in the divine order.

‘If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.’ 1 Corinthians 11:16

Paul says all the churches at that time were following this custom and the reasoning behind it. Women don’t publicly pray or prophesy with their heads uncovered.


Paul says that the Corinthians must respect customs that reflect divine truth and order. The problem for us today is what to do when customs change, especially when we’re caught in the middle of that change.

Some churches, even today, have female members who wear head coverings because they feel that the instructions in this passage are binding for all time. Most don’t because they believe that the teaching here is about custom, not command.


Here are a few ideas on this passage that will help us when we have to discern between custom, (that is, cultural) and command, (that is, divine).

Although customs change, commands never change and so, in the case of the Corinthians, it was custom to wear the veil in order to show submission and respect. This wasn’t invented by apostles or commanded by God, it was already a custom that existed in many societies.

This custom wasn’t in itself an eternal truth, it merely reflected an eternal truth in regards to the relationship of men and women before God. Since the custom accurately reflected the divine truth, Paul commanded them not to change or rebel against the custom for fear of creating a bad witness.

With time, this custom changed as societies changed, and it no longer reflects eternal truth in our culture. We see the same thing happening with the ‘holy kiss’, Romans 16:16 / 1 Corinthians 16:20 / 2 Corinthians 13:12 / 1 Thessalonians 5:26, this has been replaced with a handshake.

The command remains to submit, to maintain the order of God, Christ, man, woman, but the customs that reflect this truth change. We need to focus on ways to make sure we’re keeping the command and not maintaining meaningless customs, and that we don’t violate the commands with customs that reflect disobedience.

Paul encouraged the Corinthians to submit to those customs that reflect God’s eternal truth as a way of honouring God and maintaining order in the church.


I don’t believe the head covering still applies today because the text is referring to women publicly praying and using the spiritual gift of prophesy, 1 Corinthians 11:5, this is directly who Paul is talking to in this text.

As we know from 1 Corinthians 13:8-12, spiritual gifts ceased at the completion of the revealing of the Gospel, the perfect had come, the part will pass away.

This text even names prophesy as one of the things that will pass away. Since spiritual gifts have ceased, then the things contained in this text can’t apply.

But suppose some don’t understand this text to be talking about spiritual gifts, well, in that case, the text still clearly states that these ‘traditions’ were given because of the culture of the day. Consider how many times Paul refers to the ‘customs’ of the day in his arguments for the use of the covering.

1 Corinthians 11:6 argues that being uncovered is like having your hair cut short or shaved, which was a shame in those days. 1 Corinthians 11:13 asks what is proper, 1 Corinthians 11:14 asks about nature, and 1 Corinthians 11:16 is the clearest of all, where Paul flat out calls the wearing of the covering a custom, that is, a practice.

This is clearly a custom that Paul is asking the women to do because it was a custom of the day, and he didn’t want them to go against that custom.

If some Christians are still convinced that the covering is still in force today, then they must fully obey this passage and the practices found concerning the head covering. A covering must be worn at all times, when a woman prays publicly, outside of mixed worship. A covering was something to cover the head and face, not the hair only.

Many who practice the covering don’t do so properly for Paul clearly says in 1 Corinthians 11:5 that the head is to be covered. And so, a covering is that which we see in the Middle East where the women have coverings that you can only see their eyes and nose. A covering isn’t a lace cloth on the top of the head or a hat.