Women and Head Coverings: Explaining and Applying 1 Corinthians 11:2–16

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Editor’s Note: As a primer on the issues surrounding men and women in the church, the home, and beyond, we direct our readers to download for free 50 Crucial Questions: An Overview of Central Concerns about Manhood and Womanhood.

Egalitarians generally minimize the God-designed differences between men and women such that they become virtually interchangeable beyond physical distinctions. While there are many scriptures that resist this egalitarian impulse, 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 in particular points to a profound difference between the sexes that defies interchangeability. In Paul’s instructions about head coverings, what does God intend to teach us about men and women?

How Does Paul Argue in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16?

Here is Paul’s main argument: When praying or prophesying in a church meeting, men who cover their heads dishonor Christ, and wives who uncover their heads dishonor their husbands (1 Cor. 11:4–5a). Paul supports that argument with at least six reasons:

  1. The husband-wife relationship should reflect the God-Christ relationship with reference to authority and submission (1 Cor. 11:3).[1]
  2. A wife’s uncovering her head is culturally shameful (1 Cor. 11:5b–6).
  3. A man’s covering his head instead of a wife’s covering her head contradicts how God the Creator designed men and women (1 Cor. 11:7–9).
  4. It is a bad testimony to the angels or messengers (1 Cor. 11:10). Qualification to 1 Cor. 11:3–10: Men and women are interdependent (1 Cor. 11:11–12).
  5. It is culturally improper (1 Cor. 11:13–15).
  6. It goes against what Paul and other churches practiced (1 Cor. 11:16).
1. Theologians debate whether this Father-Son relationship is eternal (and thus applies to the immanent or ontological Trinity) or whether it applies only to Jesus’s earthly ministry (and thus applies only to the economic or functional Trinity). See Jack Jeffery, “The Trinity Debate Bibliography: The Complete List—Is It Okay to Teach a Complementarianism Based on Eternal Subordination?” Books at a Glance, August 27, 2018. But according to either view—whether “Christ” refers to Christ eternally or to Christ only during his earthly ministry (I think the second view is correct)—the logic of 11:3 stands concerning authority and submission.

2. This phrase diagram is part of a forthcoming book available only in Logos Bible Software: Andrew David Naselli, Tracing the Argument of 1 Corinthians: A Phrase Diagram (Bellingham, WA: Logos, 2023).

Below is my phrase diagram of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16.[2] A phrase diagram is a type of argument diagram.

  • An argument diagram graphically displays the text’s logical flow of thought (1) by dividing up the text into propositions and phrases and (2) by specifying how the propositions and phrases logically relate to each other.
  • A phrase diagram (1) indents clauses and phrases above or below what they modify and (2) adds labels and symbols like arrows to explain how the propositions and phrases logically relate.

What Is the Historical-Cultural Context of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16?

This same letter to the Corinthians ends with the command, “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (1 Cor. 16:20). In their Greco-Roman context, family members commonly greeted one another with a kiss, and when God’s holy people greet each other, their greeting is holy. Peter calls this “the kiss of love” (1 Pet. 5:14). The universal principle is that brothers and sisters in Christ should greet one another affectionately in culturally appropriate ways—whether that is a warm smile with eye contact, a handshake, a fist bump, a hug, a kiss, or a bow.

What did covering your head communicate in the Greco-Roman culture of Paul’s day? I think Bruce Winter’s scholarship is most helpful for answering that question.[3] Here is the gist of what Winter argues:

3. See Bruce W. Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 121–41; Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 77–96.

1. Priests (who were Roman men with a high social status) pulled their togas over their heads when they led pagan religious ceremonies by praying or sacrificing. So, Christian men in Corinth must not adopt that syncretistic custom.

2. A woman’s covering her head (e.g., with a thin head scarf) socially indicated that she was married. It symbolized her modesty and chastity and submission to her husband. A wife who refused to cover her head publicly disgraced her husband.

3. A new kind of rebellious wife was emerging at this time in the Roman world. She rebelled by being sexually promiscuous (which in that culture was acceptable for men but not for women), and she might indicate that by removing her veil.

How Should We Apply in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 Today?

In most places in the Western world today, the historical-cultural context for head coverings is significantly different from Corinth in Paul’s day. But this passage still universally applies in at least three ways:

1. Dress in culturally appropriate ways when the church gathers to worship.

While praying or prophesying in a church’s worship service in Paul’s day, it was scandalous for a Christian man to wear a head covering and for a Christian wife not to wear one. Wayne Grudem wisely reasons how to apply this passage:

Paul is concerned about head covering because it is an outward symbol of something else. But the meaning of such a symbol will vary according to how people in a given culture understand it. It would be wrong to require the same symbol today if it carried a completely different meaning. … The most likely meaning of a woman wearing a head covering in first-century Corinth was to indicate that she was married. But no such meaning would be understood from a woman’s head covering today. … Today we obey the head covering commands for women in 1 Corinthians 11 by encouraging married women to wear whatever symbolizes being married in their own cultures. … The situation is far different with male headship in marriage and the church. These are not just outward symbols that can vary from culture to culture, but they are the reality itself.[4]

4. Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth: An Analysis of More Than One Hundred Disputed Questions (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 333–37.

I don’t think there is an exact parallel for head coverings in modern Western cultures, but here are a few examples of dressing scandalously during a church’s worship meeting:

  • a Christian husband dressing like a Ku Klux Klan member in a white robe and hood; dressing like a Buddhist monk; or wearing a dress
  • a Christian wife wearing a bikini; dressing like a prostitute; or refusing to wear her wedding ring because she does not want to publicly indicate that she is married

Here’s how the pastors I serve with comment on masculinity and femininity in a statement on manhood and womanhood:

We affirm that men ought to display uniquely masculine ways of being and that women ought to display uniquely feminine ways of being in every sphere of life, which are fitting to God’s good design in creation, even if the expressions of masculinity and femininity may vary in limited ways from culture to culture (1 Cor. 11:13–16, 16:13; 1 Tim. 2:8–13; 1 Pet. 3:3).

We deny that these masculine and feminine ways of being can be reduced to mere social constructs, while also denying that they should include unhelpful cultural stereotypes that are not in step with the Bible.[5]

5. Bethlehem Baptist Church Elders, “Manhood and Womanhood Affirmations and Denials,” 6 February 2021. Bethlehem Baptist Church used to be a multi-site church with three locations: downtown, south, and north. In December 2022, the south campus became South Cities Church, and in February 2023, the north campus became The North Church. I am one of the pastors of The North Church, and our pastors still affirm this statement.

2. Recognize that God has designed men and women to relate to each other in different ways.

I have purchased two pairs of Brooks running shoes. I wear one pair outside, and I wear the other pair only in my home while walking on my treadmill. The shoes are identical, and I have arbitrarily assigned different roles to each pair. I could just have easily reversed which pair I wear outside and inside.

That’s not how it works for men and women. That is, God did not arbitrarily assign different roles to men and women. A better example is inside slippers versus winter snow boots. Inside slippers are designed to wear inside; and winter snow boots are designed to wear outside in extremely cold weather. You could wear inside slippers outside during a snow storm, and you could wear winter snow boots inside a warm home. But it would be uncomfortable because you’d be going against the grain of the designers.[6]

6. Kevin DeYoung makes a similar argument with two identical basketballs—one for indoor only and one for outdoor only. A better analogy for how God designed men and women is a basketball and a football. You could play basketball with a football, and you could play football with a basketball. But it’d be awkward. See Kevin DeYoung, Men and Women in the Church: A Short, Biblical, Practical Introduction (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 133–36.

In a similar way, we go against the grain of the Designer when we treat men and women as essentially interchangeable. Paul says, “Man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (1 Cor. 11:8–9). So it should not surprise us that God designed a husband to relate to his wife in ways that differ from how a wife should relate to her husband.

You could unscrew a Phillips-head screw with a steak knife. But if you do that, you may damage both the screw and the knife.

3. Show that God’s design for husbands and wives is beautiful.

God made husbands and wives with distinct roles that complement each other:

  • A husband as the head is responsible to lovingly lead his wife (Eph. 5:25–33). Headship does not mean that a husband is inherently better than his wife (1 Pet. 3:7) or that he may selfishly treat his wife in a harsh or domineering manner (Col. 3:19) or that he may selfishly abdicate his leadership to his wife.
  • A wife is responsible to submit to her husband (Eph. 5:22–24, 33; Col. 3:18; Titus 2:3b–5; 1 Pet. 3:1, 5–6). A wife submits by gladly (not grudgingly or mindlessly) following her husband.

Our egalitarian culture wants to eliminate differences between men and women. We may be tempted to feel embarrassed that God designed men and women to be equal in value and dignity but different in how they serve in the home, church, and society. Rather than grudgingly accepting the Bible’s traditional and countercultural view without liking it and rather than merely defending what the Bible teaches, we should love God’s good design. We should live in a way that shows that biblical manhood and womanhood is beautiful. It is the context in which men and women live faithfully and fruitfully as the good and wise Creator intended.

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Editor’s Note: This article condenses Andrew David Naselli, “1 Corinthians,” in Romans–Galatians, vol. 10 of ESV Expository Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 313–20. See that resource for a more detailed argument and bibliography.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

Andy Naselli

Andy Naselli

Andrew David Naselli (PhD, Bob Jones University; PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is professor of systematic theology and New Testament at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis and one of the pastors of The North Church.