Headship and Worship: Notes on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

Sherman Isbell

Man’s headship

1. Like the Sabbath day, the authority relationship between man and woman is rooted in creation. This is seen in I Corinthians 11:7-9, and the argument from nature in verses 14 and 15. Verses 7 to 9 are parallel to I Corinthians 14:34, where the reference to the law is to the historical record of the creation, found in Genesis 2. I Timothy 2:11-13 is also parallel. These passages show that the chronological order in which God created each gender reflects the divinely-ordained authority relationship between man and woman.

In the supporting argument at verse 14, Paul does more than appeal to a common sense of decency. Noel Weeks, in his The Sufficiency of Scripture, remarks on Paul’s reference to nature: “In Romans 1:26 he calls homosexuality ‘against nature.’ Here ‘nature’ cannot mean the common sense of decency because the point of the passage is that man’s common sense of ‘decency’ has been so perverted as to approve the practice. In Romans it clearly means the created state of affairs. Certainly this created state of affairs may influence local customs and standards, but the primary and most important factor is creation and not custom. This understanding of ‘nature’ fits the context of I Corinthians 11:14, which is clearly concerned with the created order.” Whereas there may be divergent views about what is natural modesty and natural morality, Scripture contains a reassertion of the morality manifested in nature, and reinforces man’s conscience in these areas.

John Murray, in correspondence, writes: “Since Paul appeals to the order of creation (vs. 3b, vss. 7 ff.), it is totally indefensible to suppose that what is in view and enjoined had only local or temporary relevance. The ordinance of creation is universally and perpetually applicable, as also are the implications for conduct arising therefrom.”

2. In verse 10 (and verses 4 to 7), we find that a sign is appointed to be worn by the woman on her head. The covering on the woman’s head is called “power,” but it is the sign of another’s authority, not her own, just as the references to glory in verses 7 and 15 bespeak the decorum of subjection to the authority of another. It is an appointed sign of the woman’s subjection to the authority of the man.

Is it only the authority of the man which is divinely ordained, or is the sign of his authority also of divine appointment? There is no indication in the passage that the sign is culturally adaptable. Charles Hodge, in his commentary on this epistle, argues that dress is a matter of convention, and that a costume which would be proper in one country would be indecorous in another. He concludes that women should conform to what the public sentiment of the community demands. The difficulty with Hodge’s argument is that public sentiment often accepts conventions of dress which depart from biblical standards of decorum, and that Paul in verse 7 appeals to the order of creation to demonstrate the impropriety of a man covering his head in worship.

3. In this epistle Paul has already taught about liberty with respect to things that are not commanded by God, and about not using his liberty when it would be disadvantageous to others (8:5-9, 9:3-12 and 19-23, and 10:24-33). But when he comes to chapter 11 he is delivering ordinances he has received from Christ (verses 2 and 23; confer 15:3 and II Thessalonians 2:15 and 3:6), and he makes the same appeal in the parallel passage in chapter 14, verses 34-37. Therefore his teaching about head coverings is not a matter of a cultural convention.

4. Because this ordinance is given with apostolic authority, it is of universal application in all the churches of Christ (I Cor. 11:16 and 14:33-36). What Paul requires of the Corinthians in this matter, he requires everywhere. Head coverings are not a local or temporary practice.

5. The mention of the angels apparently refers to their presence in the worship assemblies of God’s people, as seen in I Timothy 5:21 and Psalm 68:15-17. The sensitivity of angels to the decorum and sanctity of God’s worship is apparent in Isaiah 6:2-3 and Revelation 4:6-8. (The word which Paul appropriates in I Corinthians 11:5, 6, 7 and 13, to speak of heads covered or uncovered is that which the Greek Septuagint uses in Isaiah 6:2, of the seraphim reverently covering their faces and feet with their wings in the presence of God.) It is unhappily characteristic of much of American life that egalitarianism displaces respect for authority structures in divinely-ordained institutions. As an act of decorum in worship, the woman is to wear the sign of the man’s authority. It may be that this apostolic rule is part of the decorum and order referred to in 11:34, and in 14:33 and 40, and if so those verses would speak of divine mandates.

6. The apostle is speaking in this passage about the gatherings for worship in the church. Running through the chapter are the references to the people coming together in the church (verses 17, 18, 20, 33 and 34). The same expressions, “the whole church be come together” and “in the church,” are used in 14:19, 23, 26, 28, and 33-35 (cf. also 5:4), where the question of the authority relationship of men to women in the setting of worship is resumed.

In chapters 11 and 14 there is a sustained distinction between “at home” and “in the church” (11:20-22 and 33-34, and 14:34-35). Women may ask their husbands at home, but in the churches they are to keep silence. The distinction is between the church gathered together to observe the worship ordinances, and husband and wife at home.

Moreover, chapter 11 is structured around headings in verses 2 and 17 which are similar to one another: “Now I praise you . . . that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances,” and “Now in this . . . I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better.” Under the first heading the apostle deals with head coverings, and under the second heading the Lord’s Supper. The coordination of the two passages under similar headings is a further indication that Paul’s teaching about head coverings refers to what is done in the church.

7. There is a double meaning in the reference to the head. In Greek, as in English, the same word can refer both to the anatomical head, and also to headship or authority. Man is the head of the woman (verse 3), that is, man has authority over the woman. Because the covering is appointed as a sign of the woman’s subjection to the man, it is dishonor to the (anatomical) head of the man if he has his head covered (verses 4 and 7), but the woman dishonors her (anatomical) head if she has no covering (verses 5 and 6, 10, and 13 to 15).

8. In verses 5 and 13, Paul is not giving women permission to pray or prophesy in the church, that is, to lead the assembly in prayer, or to deliver a revelation to the assembly. The apostle regards these actions in the church as authority roles (verses 3-4 and 7; confer 14:34-35, and I Timothy 2:8 and 11-12), and consequently as functions to be discharged by men. Apparently women were indeed praying and prophesying in the Corinthian church. Paul in this passage indicates the indecorum of women engaging in these functions, and argues that these authority roles are inconsistent with the practice of women wearing head coverings as signs of subjection to authority.

Verse 2 seems to indicate that head coverings were being used in the Corinthian church. John Murray writes: “Presupposed in the apostle’s words is the accepted practice of head coverings for women in the assemblies of the church, that apparently this part of decorum was recognized.” Paul explains to the Corinthians the significance of the head covering as a sign of the male authority to which the woman is subject, and then argues that it is improper for women to pray or prophesy in the church, because the authority that was entailed in these roles would necessitate removing the sign of the woman’s subjection. The apostle’s argument is that praying and prophesying in the church is always to be accompanied with an uncovered head, and since women are to have their heads covered, they are not to pray or prophesy in the church.

In his article “Of Silence and Head Covering” (Westminster Theological Journal 35:21-27), Weeks writes, “The man cannot cover his head when he engages in an authoritative function. For a woman to engage in prayer or prophecy would place her in the same position as the man. That is, she would be forced to exercise headship and thus uncover her head.” John Murray writes, “In a word, head covering in praying and prophesying would be a contradiction.” And with respect to verses 5 and 6, Murray comments, “The apostle is pressing home the impropriety of . . . praying and prophesying on the part of women, by showing the impropriety of what it would involve, namely, the removal of the head covering.”

In chapter 11 the apostle instructs the church about the headship of men over women, and then appeals to the recognized decorum of head coverings for women, as showing the impropriety of women praying and prophesying in the church. In chapter 14 the apostle goes on to give additional instruction about how the prophesying is to be done in the church, and there he directs that the women are to keep silence in the church, for they are to be under obedience. That is, in chapter 11 he argues that women praying and prophesying in the church is a breach of natural decorum mirrored in the customary practice of head coverings, and in chapter 14 he goes on to forbid women to pray and prophesy in the church.

What is the head covering?

There are three views as to what constitutes the head covering which the apostle enjoins in verses 4-7. First, the traditional view is that this covering is a piece of clothing. Second, some regard the covering as being a woman’s long hair. Third, others suggest that the covering is a woman’s hair pinned up on top of her head.

1. The traditional view is that the head covering is a piece of clothing. In the apostolic age it was the practice of Jewish women in Palestine to put a veil upon their heads when they went out in public. This was different from the dress code observed in Greek and Roman culture. Greek women were not expected to wear a veil in public. The Romans veiled themselves at sacrifices, but this was done by both men and women. Nevertheless, Paul was writing to a church in the Greek city of Corinth, and it is obvious that many of those in the congregation were Gentiles. Paul’s teaching would apparently be in keeping with the practice in the Palestinian synagogues.

Only the traditional view does justice to verses 5 and 6. As Murray has observed, the covering is something more than a woman’s long hair, for the supposition that the covering is long hair would make nonsense of verse 6, where Paul makes a distinction between uncovering the head and shearing the hair. “If the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn” is a statement “without any force whatever if the hair covering is deemed sufficient.” Therefore, remarks Weeks, “If the covering is merely long hair, there would be no need to argue that being uncovered is the same as being shaven,” because to remove the covering would be the same action as shaving the head. Gordon Fee, in his commentary on the epistle, summarizes: “On this common predicate of shame in a woman’s having mannish hair, Paul builds a simple, clear argument. . . . The point is made by way of analogy. One kind of action (being uncovered) is just like another (having mannish hair). If the latter is shameful, so too is the former.”

Further evidence that the covering in verses 4-7 is a piece of clothing comes from the idiom for “covered” used in verse 4. The Greek essayist Plutarch, who was born during Paul’s lifetime, uses the idiom to refer to an external cloth covering, when he describes a man covering his head with part of his tunic to prevent recognition. The idiom is also employed at Esther 6:12 in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament, from which the apostles frequently quote; when Mordecai is being honored, and Haman had begun to fall, “Haman hasted back to his house mourning, and having his head covered.”

Turning to the original language in which the Old Testament was written, the Hebrew word in Esther 6:12 is found in II Samuel 15:30, when David fled from Absalom: “And David went up by the ascent of mount Olivet, and wept as he went up, and had his head covered, and he went barefoot: and all the people that was with him covered every man his head, and they went up, weeping as they went up.” Another instance of the Hebrew word is in Jeremiah 14:3-4, when men are ashamed and confounded, and covered their heads, because of a dearth brought by God’s judgment. The only other Old Testament occurrence of this word in the grammatical Qal stem is in Esther 7:8; it would seem that in each of these Old Testament events an external cloth covering is what is in view. It is also of interest to note that the Hebrew usage in these Old Testament passages always denotes the covering of a man’s head or face in a time of shame. Here is a background to the notion that associates shame with a covering on the man’s head.

There is also a context in biblical revelation for a piece of clothing worn by the woman as sign of subjection to the authority of the man. In Genesis 20:16 Abraham is spoken of as Sarah’s covering. The word for “covering” which is used there appears eight times in the Old Testament, most of these referring to clothing: Exodus 22:27, Job 24:7, 26:6, 31:19, and Isaiah 50:3. The root word, translated “to cover,” “to conceal,” “to hide,” is often used with reference to clothing, as in Genesis 9:23, 24:65, 38:14-15, Exodus 26:13, 28:42, Numbers 4:8-9 and 11-12 and 15, Deuteronomy 22:12, Judges 4:18-19, I Samuel 19:13, I Kings 1:1, Isaiah 37:1-2, 58:7, Ezekiel 16:8 and 10 and 18, 18:7 and 16, Hosea 2:9, Jonah 3:6 and 8, and Malachi 2:16. It is also used of the angels reverently covering themselves in the presence of God, Isaiah 6:2 and Ezekiel 1:11 and 23.

2. The second view as to what constitutes the head covering spoken of in verses 4-7 is that it is a woman’s long hair. This interpretation understands verse 15 to mean that the woman’s hair takes the place of a covering. This is to read the preposition as indicating substitution, which is a meaning it commonly bears. Her hair takes the place of a covering, and would be all that is required of her as a covering.

We have already considered the fundamental weakness of this second view, when we set forth the traditional interpretation. Weeks points out that if long hair is the covering required in verses 5 and 6, then the argumentation in those verses is inexplicable, and the references to worship functions are beside the point. If long hair is deemed sufficient as a covering, then one cannot explain the distinction in verses 5 and 6 between uncovering the head and shearing the hair. “Or if the passage were teaching the inappropriateness of short hair for women, then all the discussion about prayer and prophecy would be irrelevant. If Paul believes that short hair is unbecoming for a woman, then surely it is not unbecoming only for a woman who leads in prayer and prophecy.” But if verses 4-7 speak of an artificial covering which should be worn in the worship assemblies, and Paul bolsters his argument for such a covering by turning in verses 14-15 to refer to the parallel of a natural and permanent covering, then the references to a special covering for worship functions make sense. The word for long hair in verses 14 and 15 is not found previously in the passage, nor is the word for “covering” in verse 15 used anywhere else in the chapter. Is not the apostle speaking in verses 14 and 15 about another covering than that he has enjoined in verses 4-7?

Verse 15 need not be understood as saying that long hair is a sufficient covering. There is an alternative meaning which the preposition there can carry, which would allow for an additional covering beyond a woman’s long hair. Murray says, “The Greek of verse 15 is surely the Greek of equivalence as used quite often in the New Testament,” and this would justify the rendering, “her hair is given her for a covering.” The covering of long hair provided by nature (verse 15) “does not interfere with the demand for the additional covering contemplated in verses 5, 6, 13,” and indeed Paul appeals to that natural covering in support of the artificial covering. Bruce Waltke, in his article “I Corinthians 11:2-16: An Interpretation” (Bibliotheca Sacra 135:46-57), observes, “The preposition is used here nearer to its original meaning of ‘over against.’ Her long hair stands ‘over against’ and ‘corresponds to’ the covering desiderated for the public assembly.” The natural covering in verse 15 “asks for” the worship covering of verses 4-7.

The point is that verses 5, 6 and 13 contemplate an artificial covering which is to be put on for the worship assemblies of the church, while verses 14 and 15 “adduce a consideration from the order of nature in support of that which is enjoined earlier in the passage, but is not itself tantamount to it. In other words, the long hair is an indication from ‘nature’ of the differentiation between men and women, and so the head covering required in verses 5, 6, 13, is in line with what ‘nature’ teaches” (Murray). Hodge remarks on the distinction and comparison of the two veils in these verses, noting that long hair “is given to her, Paul says, as a covering, or as a natural veil; and it is a glory to her because it is a veil. The veil itself, therefore, must be becoming and decorous in a woman.”

3. The third view is that the head covering referred to in verses 4-7 is a woman’s hair pinned up on top of her head. This interpretation was first suggested in Sweden in 1965, and turns on the word in verse 5 rendered “uncovered.” It appeals to the Septuagint’s use of that word at Leviticus 13:45. Some contend that the Hebrew idiom in Leviticus 13:45 refers to the loosing of the hair. It is argued that this, with torn clothes, would be a sign of mourning. Moreover, a related Greek verb is used by the Septuagint to translate Numbers 5:18, where again it is suggested that a loosing of the hair is in view.

However, the Hebrew idiom in those passages may simply indicate that the head is unbound, and when the same idiom is used in Leviticus 10:6 and 21:10, it probably refers to the unbinding of the turban which the priests wore. We also find it used at Exodus 32:25 with the sense of unclothing: “for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies.” The Hebrew word has meanings extending from “let loose” to “uncover” to “avoid.” It may be that the Hebrew idiom in the controverted texts has no allusion to hair any further than a general reference to the unbinding of a cloth which held the hair in place. What is more, the Jewish historian Josephus, in the next generation after Paul, describes how the practice referred to in Numbers 5:18 was carried out previous to the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Josephus says that the accused woman was placed at the gate of the Temple, and a veil was removed from her head. At any rate, the Greek employed in the Septuagint’s rendering of Leviticus 13:45 and Numbers 5:18 certainly makes no mention of hair, and would be understood simply as uncovering the head.

The crucial Greek word employed in I Corinthians 11:5 appears in one form or another in verses 5, 6, 7 and 13 for covering or uncovering the head. Thus, it is the most frequent of the three words or idioms which Paul uses in this passage when he refers to head coverings. In the positive form (found in verses 6 and 7 of our chapter), the word is invariably used in the Septuagint with the meaning “to cover,” “to veil,” or “to conceal.” In this form it is found, for example, at Genesis 38:15, Numbers 4:5, II Chronicles 18:29, and Isaiah 6:2. The word is employed commonly in ancient Greek literature to indicate people veiling their heads. There is no compulsion on the basis of word meaning to regard the apostle as speaking of loosed or pinned up hair in I Corinthians 11.

Under the third view as to what is the head covering, it is difficult to imagine what a man’s covered head would look like (verses 4 and 7). The idiom used in verse 4 for a man having his head covered is “having down the head,” and implies something cloaking the head. The view which considers a covered head to be a head with hair pinned up on top scarcely accords with the idiom which portrays a covered head as one which has something “down the head.”


This third view of the head covering enjoined in verses 4-7 involves a speculative interpretation of several passages from the Pentateuch, and the implication that the alleged specificity in the Hebrew idiom there is transferred to the Greek word. Both the second and third views fail to explain the analogy and distinction in verses 5 and 6 between an uncovered head and hair that is sheared. The traditional view meets all the exegetical demands of the passage.

Finally, it is of interest to note that in speaking at verse 4 of a man’s head being “covered,” Paul chooses a word with which the Septuagint renders a Hebrew idiom carrying connotations of shame. And, as we have just seen, the word in verse 5 for a woman’s head being “uncovered,” is the Septuagint’s translation in Old Testament passages having to do with shame or mourning. This fits well with the context of decorum in worship in I Corinthians 11, and the teaching that a man dishonors his head if it covers it, while the woman dishonors her head if she uncovers it. That decorum is respect for the authority structures built into creation, as is evident from the reference to glory in verses 7-9, and to nature, shame and glory in verses 4-6 and 13-15.

Moreover, we may observe that as the men taking the Nazarite vow were to allow their hair to grow long, by way of distinction and separation (Numbers 6:1-21), the priests, though men, were to wear head coverings. The requirement that the high priest come into the sanctuary with a turban upon his head, which together with his other holy garments is for glory (Exodus 28:1-4 and 39-41), and the impropriety of removing the head covering even for mourning (Leviticus 10:6-7 and 21:10-12), may be related to the angels veiling themselves in the presence of God’s throne. The glory (I Corinthians 11:7 and 15, and Exodus 28:2 and 40) is the decorum of subjection to the authority of another (confer the reference to power in I Corinthians 11:10, where the covering on the woman’s head is the sign of another’s authority). In the case of women in New Testament assemblies, it is the authority of the men which is in view. In the case of the high priest in the Old Testament tabernacle, and the angels in the presence of God’s throne, what is in view is the majesty of the Sovereign Lord in the temple and before his heavenly throne.