Why Does Paul Want Women Covering their Heads in 1 Corinthians 11?

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For 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 was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

Misunderstanding the Traditions

Paul has passed on traditions, or teachings, to the Corinthians, but as is his pattern, he then moves on to other churches. Paul is a missionary and he is persistent in traveling the Mediterranean world, spreading the gospel, and helping to plant churches. He does his best to remain faithful to this calling, but the difficulty is that he always is leaving behind brothers and sisters that he cares for and about whom he is concerned. While he does identify leadership for the new congregations, others travel from city to city and at times teach other gospels and challenge what he has received and taught himself. This is why the tone of his letters is often pushing back against new teachings or misunderstandings of what he left for them.

Already in this letter he has dealt with an issue around a teaching that “all things are lawful for me.” The church had taken this to mean that freedom in Christ could encourage any and all actions. Paul wants to affirm the freedom Christ has purchased for us, but he wants to correct their misunderstandings that led to lawlessness and sin. Yes, we have freedom, but it is freedom to live for God, not return to slavery and bondage to sin.

No male and female?

It is possible that another tradition that he passed on was something like what we find in Galatians 3:25-29:

But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

If the church misunderstood a teaching like this, it may have led to the problem we see in 1 Corinthians 11. Perhaps the women there, affirming the freedom we have in Christ and the new way Christ’s church is structured, no longer favoring the males, took the notion of “there is no male and female” a step further. What is meant as a leveling of the sexes, as well as ethnic and social status, in regards to our standing in Jesus Christ, could have been taken to obscure gender and sex altogether.

Looking back to creation where humans are created male and female, Paul doesn’t want the church to eliminate the distinction between the sexes. They are seen as equals, but we are not to undo the order of creation and elimiminate the sexes, altogether.

That could have been the background to this section and the reason for the women to be uncovering their heads. The practice of their day was for women, in public settings, to cover their hair. If some saw such a practice as unnecessary now that there is “no male and female” they would have done away with it, uncovering their hair or cutting it in a fashion similar to men of that day–short. But as I said, Paul doesn’t want them to think that creation is undone. God’s creation is good, including God’s making us male and female, and in Christ that is not discarded but maintained. Male and female are both valued in the church, and the one does not have to become like the other nor do they both need to be subsumed into a genderless condition. So when Paul instructs the church in reference to its dress, using the cultural norms of that day, he is trying to preserve a distinction. It is not a distinction in roles in worship, for as I said yesterday, women in this chapter are clearly praying and prophesying, but rather a distinction in appearance between men and women.

Cultural Associations and Sensitivities

To make the matter more complex, it is likely that the segment of the female population that did uncover their hair publicly were prostitutes. This, as well, is not something that Paul would then want in the worship of the church. He wouldn’t want women, in seeking to enact their freedom, to be a stumbling block to their own church or be a poor witness to the world (1 Corinthians 10:32). Do they have the freedom to uncover their hair? This is not a question unlike previous chapters asking about eating food that has been offered to idols. But similarly, the question should instead be, “What action is going to build up?” Is the way that the women of the church, in their specific culture, present themselves building up and loving the congregation? This would especially be an important question for the female prophets as they lead in worship.

Whenever we have a chance to stand before a people, speaking for God and about God, the goal should not be to draw attention to ourselves. We don’t want to cause confusion, temptations, or detract in any way from the message. The attention and focus should be on the one who has called us. The way this applies to dress and other aspects of public leading will change depending on the culture and audience. But the goal is to lift up Jesus Christ and his good news, with as little hindrance as possible.

Further Reading

As I said yesterday, there is a great deal written on this chapter, and this only has begun to scratch the surface. I hope that it has furthered your study in some small way. That being said, there are parts I haven’t dealt with today and I’d encourage you to continue to study this passage. There are a multitude of opinions and it is difficult to separate what our current cultural climate may want this passage to say from what God is teaching us through Paul’s words to this church in Corinth.

I’m linking to one article to read if you want a place to start. It is by NT Wright, whose commentary I’ve used for studying 1 Corinthians, and in his paper he includes some of his research from that commentary. But reading it at the link provided gives you a taste of the commentary without having to buy anything. While at first glance it may seem long, compared to what is out there, it isn’t so bad. For an admittedly difficult passage like 1 Corinthians 11, you don’t want people to move too quickly and skim over the tricky parts. It assumes some level of familiarity with the passage and it is written to a British audience, but if you take your time, I think there is much to benefit from it.

Balancing Our Freedom with Responsibility: Looking back at 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Food Sacrificed to Idols

We’ve now closed out a section that seeks to talk about Christian freedom in the context of our responsibility to our neighbors. The conversation started with food offered to idols, talked of Paul’s right to be financially supported, and now has circled back to food and idols. Paul at times gives a statement that is clear, along the lines of “you can eat the food.” But that principle then has its exceptions. So as we read it, and this is especially true if we are only reading little bits at a time and not keeping the larger movements in our mind, it can be confusing because Paul will say, “Yes, but no, but yes, but no.”

To lean heavily again on Ken Bailey’s commentary, since he puts its so clearly in review, these last chapters tell us four things, and I’ll paraphrase:

  1. Eating meat offered to idols and eating in these temple-restaurants is OK. But it is only acceptable if you’re mature in your faith so as to understand that these idols are nothing, and as long as no one that doesn’t see things that way sees you. After all, you don’t, by expressing your freedom, want to cause anyone to stumble. (1 Cor 8)
  2. But what about eating and drinking not only at a temple-restaurant, but actually as part of an idol worship service? Well, Paul is clear cut on this one. No. That would be participating with demons. (First half of 1 Cor 10)
  3. Back to the food, if you buy it from the market, then you’re fine eating it at home, for the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. (1 Cor 10:25-26)
  4. If you’re at the home of an unbeliever, then eat up and don’t ask questions. But again, like in 1 Corinthians 8, be careful of your witness. If someone tells you that the food is offered to idols, presumably because of their concern about the issue, then don’t eat–not for your conscience but for the other. (1 Cor 10:28)1

The issue is not so much the food itself. Rather it is the witness we are making by eating it. While it may be a fine piece of food and it is the believers right to eat it, as long as the proper understanding is present, the more important element is how we can best love and serve our neighbors. If that means sacrificing a right, then so be it.


  1. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 291-292. ↩

Sharing a Meal with Unbelievers

If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. (1 Cor 10:27)

It is easy to overlook parts of Scripture that aren’t the main focus of a passage. This week Paul mentions eating at someone’s house and the focus is on what you do while there. If they serve meat, do you ask where it came from? But let’s not overlook something that, for the early Christian convert in Corinth, may have been taken for granted. These believers were new to the faith and in the small minority among the religions in their city, so surely they had relationships with those outside the faith. Because of this, it would not be unexpected for them to share a meal with the pagans in the community.

I bring that up because what was a basis for this question is something that is increasingly a non-issue for many Christians today. How often are you actually invited over for dinner by an unbeliever?

If not, or at least if you have hardly any interactions with non-believers, that is a problem. How are we to have a witness to be concerned about in the first place if there is no one around us to witnes to?

Recently I saw an article on Christianity Today that revealed some statistics that display how big a problem this is becoming. In the article, which you can read in its entirety here, it is reported that “one out of five non-Christians in North America doesn’t know any Christians.”[1] That means 20 percent of the population, more than 13 million people, don’t personally know any Christians. How are they to hear of Christ? Do we assume here in the United States that they’ll just soak it in by osmosis? Christians need to be a people gathered, but not isolated. We gather to encourage each other, to worship, to be refreshed, and then we are sent. We need to see the “other”, a category Paul lifts up as deserving of our love, and seek them out.

Even if now you’re afraid of sharing your faith, let the first step at least be sharing a meal.


  1. In this report, North America is categorized along the lines that the UN uses, which designates Mexico as Latin America. ↩

To Eat or Not to Eat? The Question of 1 Corinthians 10

Dinner Plate

In reading 1 Corinthians 10:23-30, I found Ken Bailey’s commentary, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, very helpful. He again brings to focus the cultural writing style of Paul that differs from our own. We often put the point of greatest emphasis at the end, while Paul repeatedly in his letter puts it right in the center of his argument. Because of that, it can be a bit confusing. Here is Bailey on this passage, with the numbers in parentheses corresponding to the points Paul makes in the order they are found in Scripture:

This order confuses the modern reader. We are accustomed to:

On the one hand:

(1) Think of others and try to be helpful. (7) Don’t offend people. (2) Eat (or don’t eat) the meat you buy in the market for it is the Lord’s. (6) Do so to the glory of God. (3) At a meal in a pagan’s home eat whatever they serve you. (5) You are a free person, give thanks and eat.

But on the other hand:

(4) If someone whispers to you “This is idol meat, I am sure you would want to know,” then do not eat (out of respect for his or her conscience, no your conscience).[1]

Knowing the style in which Paul writes helps us to understand this section much better. It is easy to read it as though he is going back and forth, saying two things at once. But much of that is because we assume his argument builds linearly and concludes at the end. But his central emphasis, as it has been in past chapters, is seeking to love others and seek their good, rather than express our own rights or freedoms.


  1. Ken Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 285. ↩

Paul Concludes his Section On Freedom and Responsibility

1 Cor 10.31

This week we get into Paul’s final section on the issue of freedom and responsibility for the Christian. Much of the discussion has used the issue of food and food offered to idols as the backdrop and we return there in the latter half of chapter ten.

As you read these verses, try to make sense of them in light of the preceding couple chapters. What is Paul trying to get across?

If you are looking for some takeaway, our memory verse for this week is not a bad place to start.

Memory Verse for 1 Corinthians 10:31 for iPhone

Cloud, Sea, Food, and Drink in 1 Corinthians 10

"Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Fire" by Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik. Check out more of his papercut art by clicking the image above.

“Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Fire” by Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik. Check out more of his papercut art by clicking the image above or go to his blog: http://isaacb2.blogspot.com

Paul begins 1 Corinthians 10 drawing out four parts of the Exodus story: the cloud, the sea, spiritual food, and spiritual drink. God’s presence was made known to his people by the cloud. The sea is what was the means of deliverance when the Egyptian army came charging after the Hebrews. The food was the manna and the drink was the miraculous water that sprang forth from the rock. These are signs of God’s provision in freeing his people from bondage and leading them to the promised land. But we are then reminded, that nevertheless God was not pleased with them.

These four parts parallel the presence we have in God’s Holy Spirit and the sacraments of the church in the New Testament, baptism and communion. In drawing these parallels Paul is framing the church as a new people of the Exodus. But his warning is also clear. Just because you are God’s people and recipients of his presence and partakers of the sacraments, don’t presume that all you do pleases God. Corinth was a church that we know of its faults from previous chapters. They are defrauding their fellow believers, using their freedom in Christ to return to sin (like returning to slavery in Egypt), and exercising their rights in a way that causes others to stumble. Paul wants them to know, and to learn this lesson from history, that like the people of the Exodus, the blessings of God did not give a blanket approval of all that was going on. If you come to church, take communion, and are baptized, that does not mean God is satisfied. God wants us to press on and, like we read in 1 Corinthians 9, we discipline ourselves pursuing a goal. Paul wants his church to learn from their forebears and not repeat the mistakes that lead to them missing out on further blessings.

God Will Not Let Us Be Tempted Beyond What We Can Handle

Memory Verse 1 Cor 10.13

This week’s memory verse from 1 Corinthians 10 was a verse I remember memorizing when I was a kid. It is from 1 Corinthians 10:13 and it says:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

This are hopeful words. We all face temptation and I think we are reminded here that even Jesus Christ, who became man, faced them, too. In the midst of temptation we should know that our God is faithful. He is with us and desires that we remain faithful to him, so he provides ways for us to resist temptation. It is not something we can do alone, but because he provides we do not have to be slaves to sin. We can endure because we can have patience to see it through that comes from our faith in Christ.

This is just a great verse to know by heart for God will encourage us with these words as we face the trials that surely will come in this life.

Memory Verse for 1 Corinthians 10:13 for iPhone

Is Ignorance Bliss? What would Paul say?

As a lover of history and learning in general, I’ve never really resonated with the phrase, “ignorance is bliss.” I love to learn and think ignorance is pretty far from a blissful condition. If we don’t know our history, as the saying goes, we are destined to repeat it. Certainly there is so much to learn from those who have gone before us. We can learn from their triumphs and learn from their mistakes, as well. This applies to us personally, seeing other individuals and learning from them. But it also applies to groups and churches and even nations. For example, what can we learn from Egypt and its upheaval? What could Egypt have learned from its own history and history at large that may have been able to guide them in these last couple years? Whatever that answer may be, ignorance would have been no help.

Thankfully, God have given us a fantastic book full of our own history. It is the history of God’s people and the story of God’s work among us. In this context, is ignorance bliss? Is it better to overlook the testimony of the Bible? Are we better off not knowing Adam or the judges? Should we care about Moses or the kings? The Old Testament is too often set aside, but we are worse off if we choose to be ignorant. And I think it is a choice. Perhaps if you do not know Christ and have never been to church, you haven’t necessarily chosen to be ignorant of the Scriptures. But if you are a Christian and do not know the Bible we’ve been gifted, you have made a choice to be ignorant. It is an avoidable circumstance. Every day is a new day to pick up God’s word and read. Every day we can pray for the Spirit to enlighten our minds to understand God’s truth.

Or every day we can choose ignorance. We can choose to miss out on the lessons we can learn from those who have gone before us. We can choose to turn our backs on what God says about himself in the Bible. We can be ignorant of the fact that the God of the entire cosmos came to us in Jesus Christ and revealed all we need to know. Jesus reveals God to us in the flesh and shows us the way, shows us what life really is, and shows us truth.

The letter we are reading currently, 1 Corinthians, is a letter to a specific church in Corinth as well as to the wider church community of that day. It was written almost two thousand years ago. Life was different then. I think we can underestimate that. But that doesn’t mean this letter, and other letters like it, have no bearing on us today. I would not want you to be ignorant of their struggles and of Paul’s message. The Bible is living and active and by the Spirit it speaks to us today. We ignore it at our own peril.

How much better to heed Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 10, and accept an invitation to know God in his word. It is our very own history that we read. We are the seed of Abraham, heirs of the promise, and as we read from Genesis through Revelation, it is our story. At times it is frustrating as we see how far humanity can fall, but it is encouraging that our God remains faithful throughout. And to know of God’s faithfulness through the ages is a much more blissful condition than to remain in the dark about it. So let’s seek to be in the light, God’s light, learning from him and learning from the wisdom he shares with us.