I had a scary moment this week. I picked up the phone to make a call and heard the familiar voicemail-waiting alert. Ah, I wonder who it is. I listen. I discover that the voicemail was left the previous day. An old friend had called while I was out. He wanted me to call him back. He had a quick question he wanted to ask. He’d like to discuss the meaning of a particular Bible passage before he speaks on it. Hmm. I wonder what passage it might be.
There are lots of very difficult passages – passages which I struggle to interpret. There are lots of controversial passages – passages on which different Christians hold strong views. Anyway, whatever it might be, I’ll enjoy talking it through with him. I don’t mind good-natured controversy. And hopefully, we’ll gain some insight.
So I call back. My friend answers the phone:
“Stephen! Thanks for calling back. How are you?”
“I’m fine. You wanted to chat about a Bible passage?”
“Oh, yes. It was 1 Corinthians 11…”
I say nothing. Alarm bells are beginning to sound in my mind.
“…and I just wanted to talk through all this stuff about women and headcoverings”.
My warning system is now on high alert. The sirens are wailing and lights are flashing.
“…but the Bible study was last night, so it’s a bit late now. I said my piece and everybody seemed happy. So no, we don’t need to talk about it now”.
Whew. Step down all systems. False alarm. Crisis over.
Danger. Proceed with Caution.
A very well-known and experienced pastor warned me many years ago about 1 Corinthians 11. He warned me that there is no passage in the Bible which arouses such passions among evangelical Christians. He told me of his own experience.
“I have Christians angry with me about lots of things I’ve preached – but I’ve never seen such fury as when I’ve preached on that passage.” He advised me, “If you want to divide a church, the quickest way to do it is by speaking about hair and hats in 1 Corinthians 11″.
Well, since then, I’ve spoken a couple of times on that chapter and what it has to say about women’s headcoverings. I dealt with the chapter when we worked through 1 Corinthians in a midweek series. And in another midweek meeting I took up the specific issue of hats and hair as an example of how we approach difficult passages. And I have to say I didn’t face the same storms that that senior pastor experienced. Some folk disagreed with some of the things I had to say. But nobody blew their top and nobody left the church as a result. But I’m still nervous when anyone asks me to comment on the passage.
What is the issue? And why do people feel so strongly about it? Well it all comes down to a dozen or so verses. I’m going to quote them first from the Authorised Version, but by all means read them again from a second version.
4 Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. 5 But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. 6 For 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. 7 For 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. 8 For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. 9 Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. 10 For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. 12 For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God. 13 Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? 14 Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? 15 But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering. 16 But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.
Difficult to understand
I think anyone reading through those verses is going to admit that they are difficult. It’s difficult to be sure what particular words and phrases mean (covered? all one as if she were shaven? power on her head? because of the angels?). Even when we understand all the words in a sentence, some of the sentences seem to make little sense (“if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering”??). And it’s difficult to be clear about the flow of the argument from one sentence to the next. After reading lots of commentaries on the passage, I’ve never found one that managed to explain all the puzzles in the passage.
But embedded in the passage are these two sentences. “…every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head” and “Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?”.
And for some Christians that’s all they need to know or understand. They look at those sentences, and it all seems straightforward to them. Paul is saying that when a woman prays she should have her head covered. And what do they think that means? “Women should wear hats (or some sort of headgear) in church”.
I’ve known churches where this is enforced rigorously. Women (even unconverted visitors) who arrive at a church service bare-headed are taken aside, provided with a beret or headscarf, and expected to wear it. Women who fail to wear some suitable headgear are barred from church membership and from the Lord’s Supper.
Some Christians go further. They think that whenever a woman prays she should wear some sort of headgear – when grace is said at the meal-table, in family worship, or even in her own quiet time. I have known families where even girls of infant school age were expected to wear a headscarf or shawl at family prayers.
It seems a lot to build on two sentences pulled out of the context of a very difficult passage. (And remember there’s no other passage in the New Testament that says anything about women keeping their heads covered when praying). Of course, if the passage does say clearly that all women should wear hats in church, we, as a church should insist on it. And if it says clearly that all women should wear hats when praying elsewhere, we should encourage that too. None of God’s commands is unimportant. But does the passage clearly say those things?
No, it doesn’t. Read the sentence again: “…every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head”. Four points to think about.
(1) Private or public?
Paul is not talking about women praying in private, with their families or with friends. The passage is clearly talking about the meetings of the church. The passage is taken from a letter addressed to a church and dealing with issues in the life of the church. And Paul emphasises that anyone who rejects his commands on these matters is not only out of tune with the apostles but also with all the churches of God (vs 16). So this is about church practice not private devotion or family life.
Paul starts chapter 11 by saying (vs 1), “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. 2 Now I commend you because you (the church) remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you”. And then he goes on to deal with a whole string of questions about church meetings – the issue of head coverings, but also the practice of the Lord’s Supper (vss 17-34) and the right use of spiritual gifts (ch 12 vs 1 to ch 14 vs 39). And he finishes with the general command, “Let all things be done decently and in order” (ch 14 vs 40). The whole section is about decency and orderliness in church meetings. Those who say that women must keep their heads covered in any other context have failed to read the passage in its context.
(2) Silent or vocal?
Paul does not say that every woman who attends a church service should have her head covered. He talks only about the situation where a woman prays or prophesies.
It seems that in the New Testament churches there were women who prophesied (for example, we’re told in Acts chapter 21 that Philip’s four daughters were prophetesses). There were times when women stood up and prophesied – passed on God’s messages to the others who were present. Women were not allowed to teach and thus to usurp authority over men (1 Timothy 2:12) but prophecy was different. A prophetess was not claiming authority for herself – she was simply passing on words given directly to her by God. Paul insisted that when a woman was playing that role, her head must not be uncovered.
So in this verse, Paul is talking about women who were playing a public role in church meetings. When he talks about women praying, he is surely not talking about women sitting listening to the prayers of others. He is talking about women who pray aloud in meetings – as some women do in our prayer meetings. Anyone who extends the verse to apply to every woman who sits in a church service is adding to Scripture.
(3) Single or married
It is doubtful (at least) whether Paul’s words refer to unmarried women. The Greek word translated “woman” by the Authorised Version, may indeed be used for any woman – ie any adult female. But it may also be used to mean “wife”. Which does it mean here? The context makes it clear. Vs 3: “I want you to 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” (AV). Is every man the head of every woman? No, the Bible never suggests that. The ESV correctly translates it as “The head of a wife is her husband”.
That’s the starting point of Paul’s argument in these verses. When a husband and wife are present in a church meeting, the husband must remember that Christ is his Head. The wife, however, must remember that her husband is her Head. And then Paul goes on to say, “if a woman prays or prophesies with her head (her physical head) uncovered, she dishonours her true Head – ie her husband”. The passage is all about the need for a wife to avoid dishonouring her Head – her husband – in the meetings of the church.
No doubt unmarried women should wish to pay honour to all the men who are present, and to demonstrate that by their behaviour in meetings. But that was not Paul’s primary concern. His great concern was that wives should give honour to their husbands in the way they behaved in the church.
(4) Hats or….?
Paul said nothing about hats. Paul said that a married woman who prophesied or prayed in a church meeting where her husband was present, must not have her head “uncovered”. But what does that last word mean? Is he saying she must cover her head with some sort of headgear – veil, or hat, or headscarf? Possibly. But not necessarily.
The word he uses for “uncovered” is a very unusual word, found very few times in Greek literature. But on the few occasions when it was used, the point was not always that someone’s head was bare. The word could be used in any context where a person’s hair was hanging loose. It’s the word that’s used, for example, in the Greek version of Leviticus 13:45, “the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and the hair of his head shall go loose.”
When Paul says that a wife must not pray or prophesy with her head uncovered, he is not saying she must wear a hat; he is saying she must not let her hair hang loose.
But why not? What’s wrong with a woman with beautiful long hair hanging down? How does a wife who prays with her hair hanging loose dishonour her Head, her husband?
That’s where we have to try to understand Paul’s difficult argument. And we need to know something about the society this letter was written for. I haven’t examined all the evidence as thoroughly as I would want to, but the researches I have done suggest that most women in Greek society grew their hair long. (It seems that prostitutes were an exception. In a city like Corinth, a woman who walked through the streets with her hair cropped was announcing that she was “free” from the restraints of marriage, available to any man for a price). Respectable women grew their hair long, and while they were girls they could let it hang down. But when they got married, they tied up their hair. They would braid it and fasten it up – sometimes with pins or brooches, sometimes with some sort of band or scarf. (You’ve only got to look at Greek statues or pictures to see examples of women with such braided hair – and note Peter’s warning about over-elaborate styles -1 Peter 3:3). A woman who wore her hair tied up – however it was done – was letting the world know that she was a married woman, answerable to her husband.
So what would it mean if a woman pulled out the pins and let her hair hang loose? It would be a declaration of independence: “I’m free! I’m my own woman! I don’t have to do what my husband says!” Some of you will remember the early days of “Women’s Lib” when women were encouraged to burn certain “restrictive” items of clothing as a sign of their freedom! Letting your hair down in 1st century Corinth would send out the same signal. Some married women take off their engagement and wedding rings before going out clubbing. Again, they’re shouting that they’re free – they don’t need to worry about what their husbands think of their behaviour.
Do you understand now why Paul says that a woman who kept her head uncovered – ie who let her hair hang down loose – was actually the same as a woman with cropped hair? She was sending out the same message: “I’m free! I’m not under the authority of any man! I’m answerable to no-one but myself”. Paul says, “for if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short!” (vs 6)! If she wants to boast of the same sort of freedom that prostitutes ‘enjoy’, let her go the whole way and wear her hair the same way they do!
So Paul is warning Christian wives in the church in Corinth that if a Christian woman is going to play a public part in the worship by praying or prophesying, she must not “let her hair down”. She must not send out a signal that she’s broken away from her husband’s authority. If she does, she will “dishonour her Head” – the husband that God has put over her.
The problem in Corinth
But why did these women need such a warning? There must have been women in the church who were acting in that way. Otherwise, why did Paul write these words? But would any Christian woman deliberately send out such a message?
You don’t have to go to Corinthians for the answer. You’ll find the answer right back at the start of human history. Why did Eve want to negotiate directly with the serpent, rather than leaving it to her husband to do the talking? Why did she take the initiative, pluck the forbidden fruit and give it to her husband? From the very start of human history, the temptation for a woman has been to forget that her husband is her Head, and to try to act independently of him. And the serpent will always find ways of encouraging her to do it.
It seems that in the church in Corinth, many believers had very mixed up ideas of Christian freedom. They thought that now that they were Christians they could cast off all rules, restraints, conventions. Some believers thought they could cast off their marriage partners (1 Cor 7:10-11). Some thought that they were safe going into pagan temples and joining in the feasts there (1 Cor 10:20-21). Some even believed that when they were in “spiritual” ecstasies, they might be led to curse Christ (1 Cor ch 12 vs 3). The slogan they quoted again and again was “all things are lawful for me” (1 Cor 6:12/ 10:23).
Perhaps that was the problem. Christian wives believed that now that they were in Christ, “led by the Spirit”, “free from the law”, they no longer needed to show submission to their husbands. They no longer felt any duty to defer to them or treat them respectfully. They thought that now that they had a direct, personal relationship with Christ the Head, they no longer needed to respect the headship of their husbands. After all, the Holy Spirit could lead them directly – what need for guidance from their husbands? Some wives were even interrupting meetings with their questions, bypassing their own husbands (just as Eve bypassed Adam). Paul tells them they ought to keep their questions and talk them through with their own husbands at home (1 Cor 14:35). (If only Eve had done that too!)
I can think of women who claim that God has called them into public ministry and who have insisted that when “ministering” they must never be referred to by their married name. Why? Because in their ministry, they are not acting as Mrs Smith or Jones. “I wasn’t called to the ministry by my husband, I’m not doing this work in his name, I’m not empowered by him, I’m answerable to Christ alone”. That was precisely the attitude of the Corinthian prophetesses with their hair hanging down – and Paul condemns it totally. These women were displaying their “glory” (vs 15) in more senses than one. They were showing off their hair, and they were motivated by a desire to push their husbands out of the picture and win glory for themselves.
An ugly mess
What an ugly mess the Corinthian church was in! Some believers were getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper and sneering at their poorer brethren (1 Cor 11:21). Others were shouting out frenzied curses against Christ while claiming to be led by the Spirit (12:3). Tongue-speakers were showing off their gifts, spouting “messages” that neither they nor their hearers understood (14:9). Prophets were jumping to their feet to interrupt one another (14:30). And alongside all these other abuses, Christian women were exploiting the worship services of the church to assert their “freedom” from the God-given pattern of married life.
This was no trivial matter! The man is the Head of his wife. Christ is the Head of the man. God the Father is Christ’s Head. When a woman refuses to acknowledge her husband’s position as her Head, she is rebelling against a pattern that goes right back to the eternal relationships within God’s Triune being. Would Christ ever assert himself against his Father’s headship? Unthinkable! Then how can a wife assert herself against her husband’s position?
So hats weren’t the issue! The problem in Corinth wasn’t that some of the women were breaking an arbitrary rule about headgear. It was that they were openly dishonouring their husbands – and they were showing it even in the way they wore their hair.
What about today?
So what has this to do with us? Does it matter today whether a woman wears her hair loose or ties it up? Frankly, I don’t think so. At least not in the UK. It may do in other parts of the world. But here, a wife’s attitude to her husband isn’t usually shown by the way she does her hair. If a woman wants to show her freedom from her husband’s headship, that isn’t normally the way she does it in our society. No doubt there are exceptions but generally speaking, a wife can wear her hair in any style that suits her – and nobody draws any conclusions from it.
So is this passage completely irrelevant today? Far from it! The principle Paul is as relevant – or more so – than it was in Paul’s day. Paul is telling us three key things.
Three enduring principles
(1) A Christian wife must never forget the pattern of relationships which was there within the Trinity from eternity, and which must be lived out in a Christian marriage. God the Father has always been Christ’s head – and always will be (1 Cor 15:28). Christ is the Head over the Christian man. And the husband is the Head over his wife. She must accept her position under his headship, delight in it, live it out. And the husband for his part must accept all the responsibility that headship involves – in the marriage, in the home and in the church (Eph 5:23-29).
(2) A Christian wife must not only honour her husband: she must act in such a way that others can see that she honours him. She must be conscious that others are watching her – looking at the way she behaves, listening to the way she talks, seeing even the way she dresses. They will draw their own conclusions about her attitude to her husband from those outward things. The women in the church in Corinth honoured or dishonoured their husbands by the way they wore their hair! Women today will honour or dishonour their husbands by other signals which they send out. A Christian woman is not free to go where she wants, to dress as she pleases, to spend her time as she chooses. She must always ask, “what signal will this send about my attitude to my husband”.
(3)A Christian wife must be especially careful to uphold the honour of her husband within the meetings of the church. If she is careful to do nothing that would dishonour him in the world, how much more in the holy society of the church?
Whatever Paul’s puzzling reference to the angels may mean, he is certainly saying that angels are present when we worship, and that they take note of all that is done. In Corinth the angels were watching the way the women wore their hair! What catches their eye when they look in on our worship?
Remember, it is in the church above all that we must show our likeness to God. When a woman honours her Head – her husband – in the meetings of the church, she is giving human beings and angels a living demonstration of the relationships that exist within the Trinity. She is mirroring the way that Christ honours his Father. In this way she brings honour not just to her husband but to God himself. But when a woman dishonours her husband in the meetings of the church, she is distorting the picture and bringing dishonour to God – before human beings and angels.
The star of the show
I remember well visiting a church and listening to the pastor as he led worship and preached. His wife played the piano. The piano was on one side of the room, in front of the platform. She sat on the other side of the room. As he announced each of the hymns in turn, she rose to her feet, and walked across the room, in front of the seated congregation. At the close of each hymn, she waited till the congregation was seated and then walked back across the room like a model on the catwalk. She wore a very fashionable outfit, a very short skirt, very high heels, and a very striking hat. She intended everyone to notice her – and she succeeded. In her own eyes, she was the star of the show.
I wonder what the angels made of her? Were they impressed that she wore a hat? Or were they outraged by her determination to draw attention to herself?
I thank God for the wives in our congregation – self-effacing women who are eager to let their husbands take the lead, who work quietly in the background, who know how to pray – or play the piano! – without drawing attention to themselves, who dress in a way that fits their status as wives, and in many cases, mothers. They live out in their daily lives the holy submission of Christ to his Father, and they make it visible in the meetings of the church. They understand 1 Corinthians 11.
God’s blessing on them, and on all who read this, Stephen.