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.

Men and Women in Worship in 1 Corinthians 11

In 1 Corinthians we’ve already had discussions of men and women in the first half of the letter. There Paul wrote about marriage and sexual relationships. After finishing a section on freedom and responsibility, he now returns to men and women and this time the emphasis is on worship.

That context should dictate much of how we understand this passage. It falls within several chapters on worship, from 1 Corinthians 11 to 14. You can just glance at the section subheadings (which I know are not part of the original, but usually do a fine job of helping you find your place), and you’ll see sections on dress in worship, the Lord’s Supper, gifts of the Spirit, the many members of the church body, speaking in tongues, and orderly worship. Besides giving us context, doing this is also a nice reminder that a letter like 1 Corinthians has form. It isn’t a random assortment of chapter-long nuggets of wisdom from Paul. He is making larger movements.

So in this context, he focuses on men and women. He wants to maintain some order and standard within the worship setting, laying out requirements for men who lead worship and women who lead. That is what we can take away from verses 4-5–both men and women are leading in this church setting in Corinth. Both pray and both prophesy, the latter of which is a public act.

This is a difficult passage, but that is one takeaway that can serve as a background to prayerfully go through the rest of this week’s reading.

Tomorrow we’ll look more closely at what concerns Paul about their worship, what may have been motivating certain actions in Corinth, and what he wants them to do about it.

Pray for God’s Wisdom as We Read His Word

When you read the almost endless supply of articles and essays written on women in 1 Corinthians 11, you’ll find a great variety of opinions as to what the chapter means for us today. It’ll range from women still needing to cover their heads all the way to this being a chapter that supports women leading in worship.

And while the commentaries I read, written by people far smarter than I am, conclude that this section is at least in some way puzzling, that detail doesn’t seem to stop fierce debate to occur that lacks the humility a puzzling passage should demand.

So before I write more on this chapter, take your time in reading the passage. See if you can list out all of what you think Paul is trying to say. How do those things fit with his larger writings in this and other letters? Try to read it without assuming you know what he’s trying to say. That last one is a tough one for all of our Bible reading. Too often we assume we know best, and we go searching for God to confirm our hunch. Let’s open up this week with prayer, for God’s Spirit to guide us as we seek, in good First Corinthian style, the wisdom of God.

Student’s Prayer, St. Thomas Aquinas

Creator of all things,
true source of light and wisdom,
origin of all being,
graciously let a ray of your light penetrate
the darkness of my understanding.

Take from me the double darkness
in which I have been born,
an obscurity of sin and ignorance.

No Leader is Good Enough to Replace Christ

An issue that arises in this first chapter is the way in which factions have developed within the church, each seeking to ally themselves with a different teacher. Some follow Paul, others, Apollos, Cephas, or Christ.

This may have reflected ethnic divisions in Corinth, with the Roman contingent in the city preferring the Roman citizen, Paul. The Greeks identified with the Greek, Apollos. Jews with Peter, here identified with his Jewish name, Cephas. Ken Bailey writes:

Breaking into ethnic enclaves is unacceptable. Furthermore, loyalties to individuals is not an excuse for breaking the unity of the church. Their leaders are not adequate centers for primary loyalty. (Emphasis mine.)

We still fall into this trap of lifting individuals up into a role that is only properly filled by Jesus Christ. That is a clear emphasis of Paul in chapter 1: Jesus Christ is who matters more. Did Paul die for you? Were you baptized into Paul? No. Jesus Christ, and he alone, has died for you and could do so. Being indentified with Christ is what is greatest importance and he is whose name we call upon and whose name is placed upon us. After all, we’re called Christians.

Again, Bailey sums up the issue well and very succintly, “The question is not ‘Who is my leader?’ but rather, ‘Who died for us?’” These divisions are problematic, but the solution lies in turning to the cross, which dominates the next section of 1 Corinthians.[1]


Today I saw this article on the front page of Christianity Today that I thought (was going to) fit perfectly on this topic. It’s titled ‘Our Unhealthy Obsession with Pastors,’ by Luma Simms. The article does do a good job of hitting on this point that we can focus too much on a local church leader, and Simms writes, “Many of us have come to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that the man standing up front every Sunday is the only one doing real ministry.”

Of course that is not true. Pastors are just one group among the whole royal priesthood of God’s people. While we need to be cautious that we are not idolizing the man or woman that stands behind the pulpit, we need to at the same time lift up the varied work of the whole church.

I said that I thought this article was going to be a perfect fit, but it went from being a critique on the celebrity culture that seems to trace itself from 1 Corinthians 1 to today and became more an article about making sure that people don’t idolize the pulpit so that women don’t covet that sort of leadership. It is as though the greatest concern here isn’t a pastor taking attention from Christ, but that a certain group of people thought to be disallowed from the pastorate are sinfully drawn to it.

There is a better reason to not idolize the pulpit, and it is so that Jesus Christ remains as our focus. And we have no reason to fear a woman leading, as this letter of 1 Corinthians itself will give us examples of both men and women who exhibit leadership as they prophesy in the church.


  1. Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 71. ↩

Questions of Women in Ministry, 1 Timothy 2

There is a passage in 1 Timothy that draws a fair bit of attention and controversy. As Paul gives instructions to Timothy in how to safeguard the church, he also includes descriptions as to how men and women ought to conduct themselves.

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

1 Timothy 2:11-15 ESV

Much of the controversy hinges on whether these specific instructions are specific to this church and its contexts, or whether they are universal in scope. Should the women (or woman) in Ephesus set their sights on learning humbly and restrain themselves from inappropriately teaching and seizing authority because they have been deceived, and were especially prone to deception given that women in that culture were not often allowed the same access to education? Or should women not teach nor speak by mere fact that they are women?

I’ve been reading more on this text in the last few days, looking for resources on this issue to help present the arguments eloquently. I’ll include a link to a short essay found on Biblegateway that I think does a good job of presenting the different views, and does so without a quarrelsome, arrogant, or dismissive tone. Many articles on this issue can be aggressive, and especially given the way in which the whole of 1 Timothy speaks to that problem in the church, I wanted to find something respectful.

Personally, as I’ve said before, we need to read Scripture in light of Scripture. There are examples throughout the Bible of women of influence and authority. In the Gospels women play a very prominent role, even more so when taken in light of the prevailing customs of that culture. We see in books like Romans and Acts that women already had prominent positions in the early church. Given that fact, and other theological assertions of Paul himself in letters like Galatians, I believe when we come upon Paul’s writing here, we are warranted to spend more time on the passage that may seem to more easily lean one way, and read it in light of other passages and understand it to mean something else. Again, if we note the culture to which he writes, the mere assertion that the women ought to learn (v11) already pushes the boundaries of the roles of women.

That being said, I’d encourage you to read this article. It is from the IVP New Testament Commentaries, provided “generously by InterVarsity Press.” Isn’t great what you can access for free on the internet?

Men and Women in Worship, 1 Timothy 2