Covered by What? The Head
Covering in 1 Corinthians 11
The purpose of this short note is
to provide an answer why the women in our
family do not wear a veil during
worship. It is not meant to be a formal exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11, but was
written primarily to show why I do not find the pro-head covering arguments to
be persuasive. As such, I have no desire to persuade anyone not to wear head
coverings. I have only the greatest
respect for those who do wear head coverings (or teach the wearing) in as much
as it represents a commitment to follow scripture even when it is completely
contrary to cultural norms.
This issue of head coverings
belongs to a special subset of questions on which I would not argue that I am
right. I have reasons why we do what we do; but at the same time I am not
convinced my arguments are as airtight as I would prefer in order to form a
strong conviction. Of course I have the same opinion of the arguments that I
have encountered so far for the other positions. I am not absolutely convinced
the pro-veil line of reasoning is wrong although I find it more complex and
problematic than the arguments for hair as the covering. So we walk onward
toward the celestial city, rejoicing with all the "veiled" heads that
happen to be walking along with us.
The Text: 1 Corinthians 11:1-16
(1) Be ye
followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.
I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the
ordinances, as I delivered them to you.
I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the
woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.
man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head.
every woman that prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her
head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.
if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a
woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.
a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and
glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.
the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man.
was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.
this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.
neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the
as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all
things of God.
in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?
not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame
if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for
if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches
The Greek Words for Covering
different Greek expressions in this text that are translated “cover” or
(v4) “ … κατὰ
κεφαλῆς ἔχων…” (kata kephalēs echōn)
ἀκατακαλύπτῳ τῇ κεφαλῇ…” (akatakaluptōi tēi kephalēi)
Adjective describing head
(v6) “…οὐ κατακαλύπτεται …” (ou
katakaluptetai ) Present, Middle, 3rd Person
“…κατακαλυπτέσθω…” (katakaluptesthō) Present,
Middle, 3rd Person Singular Imperative
(v7) “… κατακαλύπτεσθαι τὴν κεφαλήν…” (katakaluptesthai tēn
kephalēn) Present Middle Infinitive
(v13) “… ἀκατακάλυπτον
τῷ…” Adjective describing woman
(Accusative Singular Feminine)
(v15) “…περιβολαίου…” Object of Preposition (Genitive Singular
There are 3 Greek terms in this passage that are used to
describe the veil and being clothed with a veil. They are all translated by the
English word cover which, conveniently, can cover as a noun, a verb, or an adjective.
The term in verse 4 is κατὰ
κεφαλῆς ἔχων. With the genitive this
prepositional phrase literally means, “having [ something] down the head.” Although the text doesn’t specify what is
“down the head”, this is a common
expression for a veil in Greek literature. The Septuagint uses this expression in Esther 6:12 to
describe Haman going to his house with his head covered after parading Mordecai
through the streets. A similar expression (κατὰ τῆς κεφαλῆς) is used in Mark
14:3 to describe the woman’s pouring the spikenard on Jesus’ head. Although she
poured it on top of his head, it’s clear that the spikenard would have run down
his head after being poured.
Verses 5-7 and 13
use a verbal or adjectival form of κάλυμμα ( kalumma) which also means to cover with a
veil, or in the case of an adjective,
the state of being covered with a veil. Although the noun form is not
used in this passage, it is used in 2 Corinthians 3:13-16 to describe the veil
that covered Moses’ face, clearly a reference to a piece of fabric.
introduces a third term (ἀντὶ περιβολαίου
- anti peribolaiou)that is only
used one other place in the New Testament (Hebrews 1:12) where it refers to a
garment. In this text it is used as the object of a preposition. BDAG defines peribolaion as “that which is
thrown around: an article of apparel
that covers much of the body; covering , wrap, cloak, robe.” According to
Thayer the preposition anti means:
over against, opposite to, before
for, instead of, in place of (something)
2a) instead of
2c) for that,
for this cause
The Purpose of Head-coverings
The passage I hang my hat on, so to speak, is 1 Corinthians
11:15 where Paul explicitly states that a woman’s long hair is her glory and is
given to her for a covering. The exact
opposite is true for a man. Verse 14 states that it is a shame for a man to
have long hair.
In the first part of this chapter Paul is teaching that a
distinction is to be made between men and women while they are praying and
prophesying. A woman is to be covered (v 6). A man is not to be covered (v 7).
In verse 14 Paul appeals to nature to demonstrate that establishing a contrast
between men and women is not unusual, odd, or a new, hitherto unheard of idea,
but rather something even nature does. Even nature teaches that while it is a
shame for a man to have long hair, it is not a shame for a woman. In fact long
hair is her glory. I don’t think anyone does or would argue from the statements
in verse 7 (men are to not to be covered) and verse 14 (it is a shame for men
to have long hair) that Paul is therefore teaching that men have to be shaven
and shorn. A much more workable and reasonable assumption is that men should
have short hair rather than long hair. Unless one believes men ought to be
shaven, verse 7, 14, and 15 taken together would seem to imply that a man with
short hair is uncovered while a woman with long hair is covered. In other words
it is the length of hair, not the presence or absence of hair, that constitutes
being, or not being, covered.
From these two verses I understand Paul to be teaching, by
an appeal to nature, that
Since these verses are the clear verses, according to the
Biblical principle of reasoning from the clear passages to the unclear
passages, we should therefore reason from these clear verses to the more
difficult ones at the beginning of the chapter.
hair = covering.
hair = uncovered
it is a shame for a man to be covered (i.e. have long hair), it is a woman’s
If one now reads the first part of the chapter with this
understanding in mind we learn that:
- Every man praying or prophesying with long hair
(head covered) dishonors Christ. (v 4)
- Every woman who prays or prophecies with short
hair (uncovered) dishonors her husband (or father if she is unmarried). (v 5)
- A woman praying or prophesying with short hair
is morally equivalent to praying or prophesying with a shaved head. (v 5)
- It is a shame to have a shaved head. (This is a
given) (v 6)
- Therefore women must have long hair. (v 6) This
is an imperative.
It is from verses 5 & 6 that head-covering advocates
argue that long hair can’t be the covering Paul has in mind because if that
were the case, these verses wouldn’t make any sense. They argue that if
covering is understood as “long hair”, the argument in verse 6 becomes a tautology
or even nonsense.
However, this is only the case if one is assuming that covered means “having
hair” and uncovered means “no hair.” If we base our meaning of “uncovered” on
verse 7, 14, & 15 and require being uncovered to mean the same thing when
used of a woman as it does when used of a man, then we understand a woman not
being covered to mean that she has short hair. With that understanding, I think
these verses can be understood in a way that does make sense.
Let me use an analogy. Substitute “bikini” for “ not
I think most would agree that it would not be a meaningless
statement or a tautology to say that every woman who sunbathes in public in a
bikini dishonors her husband, for that is one and the same as if she were
naked. But if it is a shame for her to be naked in public, then let her be
modestly dressed or covered. The argument can be logically modeled as follows:
Major Premise: Sunbathing in a bikini is essentially
equivalent to being naked.
Minor Premise: If
it is a shame to be naked in public,
women should not sunbathe in public in a bikini. They should be covered.
Applied to our passage, Paul’s argument becomes:
Major Premise: A
woman praying or prophesying with short hair is essentially equivalent to
praying or prophesying with a shaven head.
Minor Premise: If
it is a shame to have a shaven head,
women should not pray or prophesy with short hair. They should be covered.
Seen this way, this is a very meaningful statement. Paul’s
teaching is that for a woman to have short hair is equivalent to her having a
shaved head. Paul’s assumption is that everyone would agree that for a woman to
have a shaved head is humiliating. This remains true today. Most any female
chemotherapy patient would agree that having a bald head is embarrassing. On
the other hand, many men shave their heads as a matter of choice, especially if
they have little hair to begin with. The force of his argument is that if a
woman has short hair like a man, it is the same as if her head was shaved. If a
woman has a man’s style of haircut, she loses some of her femininity. It is not
becoming to her. It is a shame just like a shaved head is embarrassing. This is
true all the time. However, it is especially important when a woman is praying
or prophesying. To use our previous analogy again, it is always important to be
dressed modestly; however it is especially important when we come before the
throne of grace. That is why we wear our “Sunday best” to church.
This understanding also comports with both the cultural context
and the grammatical meaning of the word, cover. According to Strong, the Greek
word used in verse 6, (katakaluptō) means to cover wholly, that is, veil: - cover, hide. Most commentators
understand it to be referring to a veil of some sort. It seems that in Paul’s day it was not uncommon for women to be
veiled when appearing in public. By using the word for veil in teaching that
women need to have long hair, Paul related to something that people readily
People would have readily understood the discomfort of a women
appearing in public without a veil. Having established the moral necessity of a
woman being covered for reasons of headship, Paul then makes it clear that a
woman’s hair is given to her as a covering or veil. Ordinarily one should be
wary of substituting something else in place of the grammatical meaning of a
word; however in this case, the text itself makes the connection in
verse 15 by saying that a woman’s hair is given as a covering or
literally, a veil. (The significance of different words for covering
being used in v 6 & 15 is discussed later.) The preposition
translated for in v15 often implies a
substation, something instead of, or in place of, something else. For example, Matthew 20:28, which states that
Jesus gave his life a ransom for many, uses this same preposition to convey the
idea of substitution – one thing in place of another. 1 Corinthians 11:15 is a
clear statement teaching that a woman’s long hair in given to her in place of a
veil and serves the important function of covering her.
With this understanding, verses 13-15 dovetail very
naturally with the instruction in verses 4-6. In the earlier verses Paul taught that woman ought to be covered
(have long hair) and that men ought to be uncovered (have short hair) in
worship. In the later passage Paul supports his point by appealing to nature or
the created order to demonstrate that the opposite (i.e. long hair on men and
short hair on women) is shameful.
For a man to have long hair is a shame. He has assumed that
which pertains to women. Likewise for a woman to have short hair is a shame
because she has assumed that which pertains to a man.
The essence of Paul’s argument is that the bodily features
that differentiate men and women are important, especially in worship. Women
must not “look like” men, and men must not “look like” women.
The Applicability of the Command for Women to be Covered
Among those who believe this passage requires a woman to
wear a head covering in addition to her long hair, there is a wide variation of
opinion regarding who must be covered (all women or only some) and when they
must be covered. It generally hinges on how one understands praying and
prophesying. “Does it always involve leading?” and “Can it occur outside
Here’s a summary of the logical options of understanding the
praying and prophesying command in 1 Corinthians 11. I believe it is logically
comprehensive, i.e. there are no other categories possible. When combined with
the teaching in Corinthians requiring a woman to keep silent in the church,
the following conclusions can be drawn:
Only Happens in Corporate Worship
Can Happen in any Setting
P&P Implies Leading
Women not permitted to P&P
Head-covering command (HC) only applicable to disobedient
Women only permitted to P&P outside
HC only applies to women P&P outside of
P&P Doesn’t Imply Leading
Women permitted to P&P if not leading.
HC applies to all women, but only in corporate
Women permitted to P&P if not leading in
HC applies to all women whenever they pray or
If praying and prophesying happens only in corporate worship
(Case A or C), wearing a head covering must either apply to all women or only
to disobedient women leading in worship. Case A (only some women must wear a head
covering) should never exist in a faithful church.
On the other hand, if this passage is not limited to
corporate worship, then it is requiring that women should be covered where ever
and whenever they might be praying or prophesying – one on one with the young
sister in the Lord on Tuesday morning, Monday with her family, weekday mornings
praying with her husband etc.
My understanding is that that praying and prophesying can be
used to describe non-leading activity and that it is not limited to public
worship (Case D). My rationale is as
follows. Why would Paul waste time teaching women how to properly do something
they were forbidden from doing? It is
like saying “Don’t’ forget to tithe on any money that you steal” or “Don’t forget
to thank God for stolen food.” I grant that this is not a logically airtight
argument. The previous statements might have some useful context. For example,
Paul gives direction on forbidden activity when he specifies that men who have
more than one wife are not qualified to be elders. However, in this situation
the men were not able to undo their previous sin, if both wives consented to
live with their converted husband. But this doesn’t apply to praying and
prophesying. If it was wrong for women to pray and prophesy, I can think of no
reason why a woman would have to continue the practice, had she been engaged in
that activity. I think a better solution is to understand praying in a passive
sense. We say of a group that “they are praying” when the majority of the group
are listening to one man pray. A case might be made for understanding
prophesying in a similar way when the congregation is singing. (See appendix
A.) Women were prophets in both the OT
and NT. They were just not allowed to exercise this gift in public worship.
The question of whether this passage applies outside of
worship would depend on whether there was any textual support to interpret the
passage as applying to more than corporate worship. We know the subsequent
context is public worship because Paul explicitly makes it so. In v17 he talks
about when they “come together” and in v18 he says again when you come together
in church. In chapter 14 he says women are “to keep silent in the church”
and let them “ask their husbands at home for it is a shame for a women to speak
in church.” Chapters 12 & 14 are filled with references to church,
other people, or the body. Chapter 10 also contains instruction related to
public worship. This much is granted.
But it is also true that there is no specific reference to public worship in
the head-covering passage. While much of the overall context, both preceding
and subsequent, is clearly public
worship, not all of the immediate context is exclusively applicable to public
worship. The immediate preceding passage speaks of doing all to the glory of
God – even eating and drinking. While that applies to the Lord’s Supper, most
would not limit the applicability of that command to public worship. In other
words we should always do all to the glory of God both in and out of public
worship. It speaks of thinking in terms of what is edifying and not merely what
is lawful. That principle doesn’t only
apply during public worship. Likewise, I
don’t think anyone would argue that 1 Corinthians 13, which is a part of the
whole discussion on gifts, is limited to corporate worship, despite being right
in the middle of the 2 chapters dealing with gifts in the church. In the same
fashion, I don’t think 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 which actually precedes the
passage on the exercise of gifts in the church has to be limited to corporate
worship, though it certainly includes it.
Seeing the passage as applicable all the time is also
consistent with the earlier passages in 1 Corinthians that deal with marriage,
Christian liberty, and believers suing one another. These all have broad
application to body life outside corporate worship. The chapter on marriage is clearly
not limited to corporate worship since it goes without saying that no one would
argue that it’s OK to touch a woman outside corporate worship. The passages
dealing with Christian liberty are also applicable outside of corporate worship
for the same reasons.
1 Timothy 2 is another passage with a strong church context.
There Paul says that “ I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority
over men. Most agree this prohibition includes a Friday evening home Bible
study. This has historically even been applied outside the church to civil
government. Calvin calls women rulers a monstrous thing. For these reasons, I believe arguments to
limit praying and prophesying only to corporate worship that are drawn from the
church context of 1 Corinthians prove too much. In fact I think they prove just
the opposite. These broad commands in other chapters relate to church life all
the time and in all of our relations. 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 should be handled
in a similar fashion. If the activity being addressed can be done outside of
corporate worship, then the commands should also apply outside of corporate
worship. Praying and prophesying are clearly things that were done outside of
formal public worship and the command for women to have a covering should apply
whenever they are performed. Applying this passage to all of life, not just
public worship, completely eliminates the difficulty of Paul teaching women how
to properly do something they are forbidden to do.
For these reasons I have always thought that if a covering
in addition to a woman’s long hair is required, the Mennonite’s position is the
most consistent. They wear it all day because they never know when they will
offer a prayer. But even that has some problems. They take their covering off
when going to bed. Now they can’t pray without violating this command - which I
think is problematic. Don’t Christians often pray in the night? Would a woman
have to wear a head covering even to bed to keep from sinning? Yes, if that’s
what Scripture required. But now we are talking about a woman having to wear an
external article all her life- day and night- as a covering. Doesn’t her long
hair fit that requirement beautifully?
Difficulties with Other Pro-Veil Arguments
Some veil advocates reason that the woman’s hair is to be
covered because it is her glory. One author says “the woman’s hair is that
which magnifies the woman and brings a high opinion to her onlookers. In this
way her hair is her glory.” A few paragraphs later he says, “Her glory, that
is, her hair, should be covered since it exists to her own honor and praise.”
In his view, the point of the covering is to cover her glory, that which causes
other people to look at her. However many people who do wear a head covering in
obedience to this passage, wear a hat that is even more glorious or
ostentatious than the hair they are covering. They are probably more likely to
cause people to look at them then if they had not worn anything on their head.
This is another reason why I think the Mennonites’ net is more consistent. The
simple net is not more ostentatious than their natural glory (i.e. long hair),
although it does fail to fully cover the hair.
But there is a much bigger problem with the idea that the 1
Corinthians 11 is teaching that women must wear a veil on their hair so that
only the Glory of God is left uncovered during public worship. Not only are all
human glories not covered if a woman wears a veil covering her hair, but covering them all would
directly contradict the explicit teaching that men are not to be covered.
Scripture teaches that there are other human glories in
addition to the three given in this text – a women’s long hair, the woman
herself, and the man who is the glory of God. For example, the glory of
children is their father and grandchildren are the glory or crown of old men
(Proverbs 17:6). The glory of young men is their strength and the glory or
splendor of old men is their gray head (Proverbs 20:29). If 1 Corinthians 11
were teaching that all glory but God’s must be covered in worship, then the
strength of young men, fathers, and the grey heads of old men would also have
to be covered in some way during worship. But this would result in men being
covered, something that is expressly forbidden in this passage. However, if this
passage is understood to be teaching that women are to have long hair, then
this passage is about maintaining a distinction in dress between men and women
(something that is also taught in the Old Testament),
with women having long hair and men short hair.
Another argument for the use of a head covering in addition
to hair is made from the different words used in the verse 15 covering and the verse 6 covering. Proponents for head coverings
point out that the covering in verse 6 entails more complete coverage than the
covering in verse 15 which Paul equates to a women’s long hair. They argue that
the verse 6 covering is veil and the verse 15 covering is more like a shawl
thrown around someone’s shoulders – like a woman’s long hair. But even here
there are problems.
First, if one wants to argue from the precise meaning of the
two words that the bigger covering in verse 6 cannot be the hair, then to be
consistent one should use a covering that covers more than the hair covers, not
less. However most, if not all, head-coverings that I have seen cover less than
the hair in that the hair is still visible from beneath the covering. If the
difference in meaning is sufficiently significant to require the two words to
be referring to different things, then it seems that it would also be
significant for the verse 6 covering to actually cover more than the long hair
Secondly, some have argued that a veil is in mind in 1
Corinthians 11 because the word Paul uses for covering when he equates hair
with the covering in verse 15 (περιβολαιου) is
different than the word Paul uses for covering when he teaches that women must
be covered when praying or prophesying in verse 5 (ἀκατακάλυπτος, akatakaluptos). The
argument goes that in using a different word for the covering provided by hair
from the word used in the discussion of praying and prophesying, Paul is
teaching that these are two separate coverings. However this also proves too
much because Paul uses a different word in verse 5 and 6 to teach that women must be
covered than he uses in verse 4 to teach that men must not be covered. When he
says that a man is not to be covered, it’s κατὰ κεφαλῆς ἔχων, (kata kephale echon), literally, “down the head.” But when he talks about women being covered he
uses kaluptos. If the covering of
verse 15 and the covering of verse 5 have to be different coverings because
different words are used in each case, then consistency would require Paul to
be referring to two different things in verse 4 and verse 5 & 6. If one
argues verse 4 is referring to the covering of hair and verse 5 is
referring to a veil in addition to hair, then we still have two different words
for being used for hair as a covering. There doesn’t seem to be any
interpretation that doesn’t have Paul using different expressions to refer to
the same thing.
Another frequent pro-veil observation is that the practice
of women wearing veils on top of their hair in church was not questioned or
abandoned until feminist and egalitarian arguments began to arise in the last
couple of centuries. However, session and presbytery records from the
Presbyterian church in Scotland during the 16th and 17th
century indicate that they did not believe that men not being covered and women
not being uncovered in worship to be a morally binding principle. Rather women
were commanded to sit through worship and prayers with their head uncovered in
certain circumstances. See quotes from a recent RPNA position paper for more
Taking all these factors into consideration, I think the two
most consistent positions are:
· 1) If women are to wear a head covering in addition
to their long hair, it should be worn all the time and it should be a simple
covering that covers all her hair and doesn’t add to her glory.
2) Her hair is given to her as her covering.
Regardless of which position one takes on what constitutes
the covering, the imperative in 1
Corinthians 11:6 clearly creates a requirement for a head covering. I think it requires a lot of juggling to limit
this imperative to public worship. The context more easily supports applying
this command anytime a woman is praying and prophesying – something which is
beautifully fulfilled by a woman’s hair. This is exactly the connection that
Paul himself makes in the last few verses of the passage. The earlier part of
the passage explains the underlying reason why a woman must be covered; the
latter part of the passage identifies the hair as the covering.
I understand Paul simply to be teaching that a woman must
not have short hair like a man. There must be a distinction in gender. The
maintenance of this distinction of genders should be a characteristic of the
church – just like chastity or not suing
one another at law – that is clearly
visible in the day-to-day activity of the body. In doing so Paul used the
standard word for veil emphasizing the function of the covering, rather than
the article. Having explained the reasons, he then explains that a woman’s hair
has been given to her to perform the function of covering.
In opening up the headship and head covering
discussion, Paul praises the Corinthians for remembering him and following the
tradition he delivered to them. Verse 3 says
“But I want you to know….” meaning that the comments which follow are not
because the Corinthian church was out of order in their practice. Rather the
teaching is given so that they understand the basis of the tradition that they
were following. In closing the section, he says that if anyone wants to be
contentious (i.e. dispute what Paul is teaching), we have no such custom, nor
do the churches of God. In other words, if people want to dispute Paul’s
teaching, they can’t point to the practice of the Corinthian church or any
other church to support their contention because the current practice of the
church was praiseworthy – unlike their practice in other areas, such as the
This is in marked contrast this with the
introduction to the teaching on the Lord’s Supper in verse 17 where Paul says,
“ Now in giving these instructions, I do not praise you…” It’s the exact
opposite of what he says in introducing head coverings. He goes on to rebuke
their practice and exhort them in the proper celebration of the supper.