Women Wearing Head Coverings for Christian Worship…Or Not?

The following is pasted from an e-mail response to a friend who asked me about 1 Corinthians 11:3-15.

Here’s my best attempt at explaining 1 Cor. 11:3-15. Consider this fairly tentative; there are several difficulties in the passage that make it very difficult to get after what Paul’s saying, but I think I understand his point well enough to apply it without getting bogged down by the difficulties. I’ll paraphrase each verse so you can see clearly (I hope) how I understand what he’s saying.

Verse 3–“Christ is the head of every man. The husband is the head of his wife. God is the head of Christ.” Pretty straight-forward, as far as I’m concerned. Now, the Greek words could be translated either “husband” or “man” and “wife” or “woman,” respectively, here, and that makes things a little tricky. But I’m taking them this way, mostly because of Paul’s application of the “head” metaphor to husbands in Eph. 5:23. I see couples in Paul’s view here, but I think the rest of the passage could apply more generally as well.
Verse 4–“Every man who prays/prophesies wearing a dunce-hat dishonors Christ.” Apparently, in some other Roman religions around Corinth, it was popular for men to wear these hat-like things as they were doing their cultic observances. So, it would have been plausible for converts coming to Christ in Corinth to want to wear these hats in the church for prayer time or when they might want to speak a word of prophecy. I think Paul discourages this, saying that it dishonors Christ (his head), because wearing these hats actually draws attention to the man and not to God, the one to whom they should be praying and about whom they ought to be prophesying. Or, perhaps, after reading the rest of the paragraph, maybe he’s challenging the men to not act like the women. See below.
Verse 5–“Every woman who prays/prophesies without her hoodie dishonors her husband, since she’d be trying to act like the man, who is supposed to pray/prophesy without a hat.” Apparently, women in first century Roman culture wore a kind of hood over their head out in public. Wearing this hood, which may have also included a veil, communicated to people that she was a respectable woman, somebody’s wife, and her body was not for sale. It’s possible, therefore, that some Christian women in Corinth had thought that, because of their freedom in Christ, (and/or perhaps because of their over-realized eschatology, by which they thought they had already been completely perfected, which seems to be a problem throughout the Corinthian letters), they could now throw off their hoods when they came to worship together with other Christians. Paul will have none of this, however; he insists that the women must maintain their status as respectable women by continuing to wear their hoods, even when they come for corporate worship. Throwing off their hoods in public would indeed bring shame to their husbands; it might even bring shame to Christian men in general, since they might be tempted by the women’s perceived impropriety. He notes at the end of the verse that doing this “is the same as if her head were shaven,” which I think is a reference to the proper position of a man, having short hair. Thus, throwing off their hood communicates, intentionally or not, that they are wanting to be a man, or are wanting to take the place of men.
Verse 6–“If a woman refuses to wear her hoodie, she ought to go for the buzz-cut (she’s acting like a man; she ought to look the part, too). But since everybody knows that a woman should never go for bald (cuz that’s manly), women ought to keep wearing their hoodies!” I think the main point of this paragraph is actually about men acting like men and women acting like women, including maintaining cultural signs of masculinity and femininity.
Verse 7–“A man should not wear a dunce cap (or a hoodie, for that matter), since, as we said earlier, ‘Christ is the head of every man,’ or, in other words, the man is the image and glory of God, and the woman is the glory of man.” Perhaps the dishonor of Christ in verse 4 is actually the man acting like the woman, wanting to wear a hoodie while he prays/prophesies. The details of this verse are difficult, and I’m not sure I have a good handle on why he uses the language of “image” and “glory” here. Nevertheless, I think the point is that when the man acts like a man he exalts God appropriately, and when the woman acts like a woman she exalts the man appropriately.
Verses 8 & 9–“Woman was made out of man. Woman was created for man.” Gen. 2:18-23. Read it.
Verse 10–“That is why the woman needs to hang on to her hoodie, but also because of the angels.” The ESV and many other translations try to fix the problem in this verse. Literally, it says, “Because of this a woman ought to have authority over/on her head, because of the angels.” ESV indicates that they take the word “authority” to refer to a “symbol of authority,” referring to the hoodie itself. However, I think it’s better to understand the phrase “to have authority” the way it’s used in Greek here, to mean “to keep control of.” Thus, Paul is saying that the women should not let their head run wild and free, so that it won’t give the wrong impression and ruin their reputations, all because of some mistaken eschatological ideas. The further reason he gives, “because of the angels,” may reflect a Jewish tradition that taught that angels were guardians of order in the assembly and participated in worship along with God’s people. Alternatively, recalling that the Greek word can also mean “messengers,” it may refer to human messengers who brought Paul the report of the Corinthians’ behavior, so he warns them to behave appropriately so that these messengers won’t have to give another bad report. (I’m not really comfortable with either of these options, but I, nor the commentators, can come up with anything better. So, I lean toward the first option as the more likely.)
Verses 11 & 12–“In Christ, there is neither male nor female. True enough. But, at the same time, the body of Christ needs both males and females, and men need women just as women need men. This is the way God has designed it!” Paul appeals to God’s order of creation, and that will transition him into appealing to “nature,” recognized even by pagans.
Verse 13–“Settle this matter. I have shown you that it is not proper for a woman to pray without her hoodie. Let me give you one more evidence that this is the case.” He puts this in the form of a rhetorical question, but he only intends to drive home his point further.
Verses 14 & 15–“Everybody knows that men with long hair ought to be ashamed, (because they are wannabe-women), but women with long hair ought to be proud and be applauded. Her natural long hair even indicates that the women ought to have her head covered!” The conclusion of his argument is not transparent, and I hope I haven’t misrepresented him. He appeals to “nature,” which is “just the way things are,” as every person, Christian or not, ought to be able to see. However, what is “natural” is oftentimes culturally determined. So, I think we ought to understand his appeal to nature as an appeal to “what society says is normal.” And their society would have agreed that women have long hair, men keep it short. This is Roman culture and not necessarily Jewish culture that Paul is appealing to, I think. There is other Roman literature from the time period that castigates men with long hair, saying that they just wish they were women, and castigates women who cut their hair (and attend the public baths and train for athletics with the men!), saying that they just want to be men. I think that is what Paul is getting after in this whole paragraph. His last statement is difficult, because it almost sounds like a contradiction of what he’s argued for earlier: “Her hair is given to her for a covering.” He seems to be saying that women naturally have a head-covering, which would then raise the question, “Why insist on the hoodie, Paul??” It seems to me that he’s using this “natural” statement as an analogy. If a woman naturally has long hair to cover her head, then of course it’s right for her to wear a hoodie to cover her head. That may seem a bit of a stretch for a logical argument for us Westerners, but I think that’s the best way to understand how the last statement fits in with Paul’s demand that the women continue wearing hoodies, especially while praying and prophesying. It’s the womanly thing to do!

Now, how do we apply this text? Basically, I think Paul says to the women of our generation, “Act like women! Don’t try to be manly! Don’t try to usurp the roles of men! Be what God has created you to be in all its feminine glory!” Let us not forget that he speaks to the men in this passage as well: “Men, don’t give up your manhood! Man up!! Don’t be effeminate and act like little girls! Stop wearing ‘skinny jeans’!” Oh, maybe not quite the last part, but you get my point. I think there are several things that are “biblically feminine” and there are things that are “culturally feminine,” and I think Paul would have women to act in accordance with both categories, except where the “culturally feminine” contradicts the “biblically feminine.” (The same goes for men, but, for the sake of space and time, I’m going to focus on the ladies, since I think Paul is focusing on them as well.) Sadly, in our culture, femininity has become blended with masculinity. Our culture would have the distinction between genders erased. Actually, I think this is what Paul was fighting against in Corinth. For different reasons, the women he addressed thought that there should be no more distinctions between male and female. So, in our culture, “culturally feminine” may be a meaningless term. However, I suppose fashion, with the biblical limits of modesty, would be one area of “cultural femininity” that may illustrate the point that can be applied from this text (actually quite well!). Women ought to dress like women; they don’t have to wear skirts or dresses, necessarily, but wearing over-sized overalls and “wife-beaters” is probably outside the bounds of dressing femininely. And men should not wear dresses. Period. Even broader than this, however, we need to keep in mind Paul’s primary concern in this section of the letter is orderly community worship (roughly, chs. 10-14ish). Thus, when we come together for corporate worship, whatever aspects of “biblical femininity” and “biblical masculinity” we are able to mine from the Scriptures ought to be in play. We need to recognize that, even as we are all equally sinners and all equally in need of God’s grace, certain distinctions between male and female remain, at least until the new creation is consummated.

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