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. ↩

Memory Verse and Bible Visualization for 1 Corinthians 9

1 Cor 9:12b

Paul continues in chapter nine on the theme of rights and freedoms, and again stresses that in this case he has given up his right. Instead of demanding support from Corinth, he labors for free among them doing so because he is willing to sacrifice his right in order to better preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Memory Verse for 1 Corinthians 9:12b for iPhone

Christ’s Sacrifice Frees Us From Sin, Not For Sin

When Paul mentions the Passover he is calling to mind one of the defining events for the Jewish people. The final plague of Exodus was to be the death of the firstborns in Egypt, but God’s people are spared because he has made a provision for them. The blood of the firstborns is replaced by the blood of a lamb. Its blood is smeared on the doors of the homes and death passes over God’s people. Paul now says to the church that Christ is this Passover lamb.

Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) - Francisco de Zurbaran

Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) – Francisco de Zurbaran

But the Passover calls to mind not only the passing over, but also the final deliverance from Egypt. The people were to prepare themselves for on the same night that Israel is passed over and death comes upon many in that land, there were to leave. They need to be ready to go and go quickly. Exodus 12:11 says this:

In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover.

Having your belt fastened is what is at times translated, “gird up your loins.” The idea behind it is be ready for travel. Don’t let your robes hang low and trip you up as you make your escape. Don’t just have your shoes by the door, put them on. Fasten your belt, tie your shoes laces–in double knots, have your car keys in hand and not on the table. Be ready to go immediately.

This hurry is why they eat the unleavened bread. Israel would have no time for their dough to rise. They needed to make haste.

Then as God had told them, it all comes to pass. Cries went up in the night “for there was not a house where someone was not dead.” Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron in the night and commands them to go. He says, ““Up, go out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as you have said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone, and bless me also!”

There is a great urgency for Egypt to rid itself of such a people that have brought God’s judgment upon them. They fear what may come next. So with such urgency in the land, it was in God’s wisdom that he prepared Israel to make haste. This great exodus was no small undertaking and it would have taken much preparation, and God had guided them through it. Here is what happened, beginning in verse 34 of Exodus 12:

So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders. The people of Israel had also done as Moses told them, for they had asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing. And the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.

And the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. A mixed multitude also went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds. And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.

The book of Exodus then recounts the length of time that Israel had spent in Egypt, emphasizing the ending of that time and the beginning of a new day for Israel. Now they are freed. Generations of slavery have come to an end. So, when death pases over the people and Pharaoh finally tells Moses and his people, “Go!”, the only proper response is to leave. God did not bring about such a miraculous deliverance for his own people from the great worldly power of Egypt for them to remain in captivity. Israel’s response to God’s work and Pharaoh’s charge cannot be to linger. When Pharaoh says to leave, they shouldn’t say, “Give me a minute.” They can’t stay a moment longer. They can’t remain in slavery. God makes this point when he tells them to prepare themselves and dress appropriately for they won’t even have time for bread to rise. When God makes the way for his people, they must go. He desires to free them from Egypt and deliver them into a land that had been promised to them.

Paul is calling upon this theme of deliverance in 1 Corinthians. When he mentions that Christ is our Passover lamb he wants you to remember the Passover. The Passover is not only the sparing of Israel, it is the catalyst of their freedom. Likewise, Jesus is our sacrifice, sparing us from the consequence of our sin. He has taken the judgment on himself. But this Passover lamb was not sacrificed so that we can now linger in slavery. The church in Corinth is making a mockery of the sacrifice and is misunderstanding freedom in Christ. The arrogant sinning that is going on is nothing but a return to slavery. Paul wants them to understand and then live into a true freedom in Christ. His sacrifice is what brings us freedom to flee from captivity, leaving behind the chains of sin and the dominion of death.

Knowing that Jesus is our Passover, we ought to make haste to flee from sin and rush into his arms. We experience true freedom in him. We know the life we are intended to live when we are in Christ.

Lamb of God Stained Glass

Using our freedom in Christ to return to sin is a return to slavery. Rather, just as Israel prepared itself to march out of Egypt into God’s guidance, we too must prepare ourselves. We are called to rid ourselves of such bondage, casting aside whatever weighs us down and entangles us because we have a race before us that we must run (Hebrews 12:1-2). We must be ready for a march into God’s promised land. We have a kingdom to be stewards of in this fallen world. We have a life of freedom that leads not to death, but to newness of life and life everlasting. So in our continuing work to leave the captivity of sin and live the life of a freed people, captive only to the righteousness of God, let us prepare ourselves as we are instructed in Ephesians 6, keeping in mind the way the Israelites were to prepare themselves on the night of their deliverance:

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.

A Thought for July 4

Galatians 5:1
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

I can’t help but look ahead to readings from next given that today is July 4th, as the USA is celebrating its Independence Day. We think back to the founding of this country and think about the cherished idea of freedom.

But there is more to freedom than asserting independence from another nation. Freedom is more than the ability to do whatever we want.

True freedom is given to us by the liberating work of Jesus Christ to free us from slavery to sin and has freed us for a life lived for God. That is what our freedom really is.

On a day such as today, we give thanks that we live in a country that affords us the chance to worship our God, who has done all that we needed to be freed from the burdens of sin and who calls us to embrace such freedom.

The Truth Will Set You Free

We begin this week’s reading in John with chapter eight where we hear Jesus speak these famous words:

If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

John 8:31-32

How many times have we heard this phrase? Or at least how often do we hear part of it? The truth shall set you free. That’s at least what I am most familiar with.

In a time in which the meaning of truth is ever changing, it is extremely helpful for us that Jesus said these words in context. The truth that sets us free is known when we abide in his word. It isn’t truth in the abstract. It is truth that is found in Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).

What sort of freedom is it that we receive? The hearers of Jesus in John 8 have the initial problem of thinking that they are not slaves nor have they ever been. They, like us, have trouble seeing the ways in which we are slaves to sin, therefore they have difficulty seeing what need they have for someone to free them, to liberate them from the bondage in which they live. Christ has no problem in shining his light on our sin, revealing to us the darkness that surrounds us. His freedom overcomes the power of sin and is a freedom we could not procure for ourselves.

Only Christ can do this work and the amazing promise of Jesus is that he can and will set us free. “If the Son sets you free you will be freed indeed.” Christ wants to move us all out of slavery and be brought into his household, no longer as slaves but as children of God. When he does this we are freed from sin and we are freed to obey Christ’s word. Seeing both sides of the freedom is key in recognizing how great a gift freedom is that is found in Christ.

Find rest in that promise as you do spend time abiding in God’s Word. May we abide in it as we read it and as we seek to live it out moment by moment.