Have you ever wondered why Evangelical Christians who believe the Bible to be inerrant and authoritative do not require women to veil themselves in the Church? Is that not the clear meaning of 1 Corinthians 11, often interpreted as referring to the veiling of woman (e.g., ESV “if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short,” 1 Cor. 11:6)? Despite this common interpretation, most Evangelicals do not demand that woman in general or even wives veil themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, I agree with this conclusion! I don’t think the passage teaches that woman should be veiled; yet I think that the argument often used to reach that conclusion is dangerous. It is usually argued that this passage does indeed refer to veiling, yet Paul’s instruction is not a mandate for all cultures; he is addressing a specific problem in a specific circumstance with a universal principle. In this article, I want to argue that this passage does not teach woman should be veiled and that this conclusion is only justified if that is the teaching of the text. That is, I first want to show why the Evangelical dismissal of Paul’s teaching here is dangerous, and then argue briefly that Paul is instructing men and women to honour God’s created gender distinctions by maintaining the relative hair length God created men and women to display.
A Translation of 1 Corinthians 11:1-16
1Now I commend you because you always remember me, and you hold fast the traditions just as I handed them down to you. 3But I desire you to know that Christ is the head1 of every man; the man is the head of a woman; and God is the head of Christ. 4Every man who prays or prophesies with long hair dishonors his head. 5But every woman who prays or prophesies with an uncovered head dishonors her head,2 for it is one and the same as being shaved. 6For if a woman will not be covered,3 then let her be sheared. But if it is dishonorable for a woman to be sheared or shaven,4 let her be covered. 7For, on the one hand, a man ought not cover his own head,5 being the image and glory of God. But on the other, the woman is the glory of man. 8For the man is not from the woman, but the woman from the man 9and because the man was not created on account of the woman but the woman on account of the man. 10For this reason, the woman ought to have a symbol of authority upon her head6—on account of the angels.
11However, woman is not independent of man nor is man independent of woman in the Lord. 12For as the woman came from the man, in this way also the man comes through the woman. And all things come from God. 13Judge this among yourselves; is it appropriate for a woman to pray to God uncovered? 14Does not even nature itself teach you that man, on the one hand, dishonors himself if he has long hair, 15but for a woman, having long hair is her glory?7 For long hair was given to her for a covering. 16If any thinks to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.
Problems with the Usual Approach
Let us begin with the problems. In a nutshell, the normal Evangelical approach to this text dismisses the command (they suppose) Paul explicitly gives by appealing to cultural background. That is, though Paul says “do not,” they say something like, “it is okay to ‘do’ because Paul is addressing a unique 1st century problem—woman rejecting the standard cultural practice of veiling.”8 Assuming their interpretation is right—that Paul wants Christian woman to be veiled in church and in worship—I see two severe problems with this reasoning.
Problem 1: Whether or not their was a phenomenon in Corinth of woman breaking social norms by unveiling themselves—and even if Corinthians Christians were getting on board with this movement—Paul never addresses this. That is, Paul never says in 1 Corinthians that he wants women to veil themselves because they are breaking social norms by failing to do so. Though it is clear that there is a problem of woman in the Corinthian church not “covering” themselves, Paul never cites pagan conventions as the problem! The only reasons Paul gives are infractions of God’s norms not society’s norms.
They are breaking the “natural” order (vv. 14-16; cf. Rom. 1:18-27); they are offending the angels (or “messengers”) (v. 10); they are neglecting to uphold the God-given symbol of authority appropriately acknowledging their relationship to their “man” (possibly husband) (v. 10); and for these reasons are bringing dishonor on themselves (v. 5). If we let the text speak for itself, instead of imposing unsubstantiated historical connections,9 we should conclude that woman are to cover themselves and men are not to have long hair because these features are a God ordained representation of their roles towards one another and toward God.
It is sometimes responded that Paul’s own explanation in 1 Corinthians 11:13-16 identifies social context as the reason for his commands. This is, however, not the natural meaning of his language. Blomberg suggests that Paul gives three reasons for his commands: 1) “Judge this among yourselves; is it appropriate…”; 2) “Does not even nature itself teach you…”; 3) “we have no such practice.” Blomberg then argues that reason #1 and #3 are evidently cultural [the “status quo”] and #2 also probably refers to ” a ‘long-established custom'” (Blomberg, First Corinthians, 213). The problem is this is not what Paul says. Paul does not say, “judges this on the basis of your cultural values.” Indeed, throughout the letter, Paul is urging the Corinthians not to conform themselves to the world around them but to the ways of Christ (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:18-2:16; 1 Cor. 5:1-13). Those who Paul calls to “judge for themselves” are Christians who are commanded to express Scripture-defined judgment. This is affirmed in #3, for they are called to consider the practices of the churches: these are all communities shaped by the Gospel, whether originally Jew or Gentile, that Paul holds up as a standard. If these churches are anything like the communities described in the rest of the New Testament, they are not paragons of cultural conformity. In light of this, the significance of #2 is highlighted. “Nature” (φυσις, physis) in the New Testament always refers to what we would call “natural,” that which is rooted in God’s created order (or His own unchanging nature) (cf. Rom. 2:14, 27; 11:21, 24; Gal. 2:15, 4:8; Eph. 2:3; James 3:7; 2 Pet. 1:4). Especially significant is Romans 1:26, where “nature” refers to God’s created order as an indicator of morally wrong behaviour. Thus, Paul calls the Christians to judge for themselves on the basis of Christian judgment acknowledging God’s created order and considering the example of the other churches. There is nothing in these verses that suggest Paul has cultural conformity in mind as he writes.
Problem 2: These Evangelical interpreters are assuming that the authority of the Biblical text is not what is says (i.e. do not pray or prophesy uncovered/with long hair) but a universal principle that is communicated through what is said. Though this is a common understanding of Biblical authority, the Bible never teaches it! When the Bible speaks of its authority, it says that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and useful” (2 Tim. 3:16)—all Scripture, not principles communicated through Scripture. It is clear that the Bible is not the thought of God communicated through words of man, but the very words of God as given to men.10 John Frame nails the problem when he writes:
What we must categorically reject, however, is some mysterious, intermediary thing called ‘the meaning’ that stands between the text and its application. Instead of increasing the objectivity of our knowledge, such an intermediary is a subjective construct that inevitably clouds our understanding of the text itself.11
If we take serious the inspiration of Scripture, we cannot settle for the view that Biblical authority lies in anything other than the text God has given us. If we are not able to dismiss Paul’s command as a culturally irrelevant instruction teaching a universal idea of not offending cultural norms (something which Paul often does), should Christian women veil themselves? I agree here with the contemporary Evangelical conclusion that they do not have to, but the reason they need not is because Paul never commands them to do so.
An Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:1-16
Let me explain. A careful reading of the text shows that veiling is never the issue: hair length is the issue. First, the instruction begins with a concern over hair: men, don’t pray and prophesy “with coming down from the head.” This could mean either, with a veil (cloth coming down and covering) or with long hair. There are several reasons for thinking that “long hair” is appropriate. First, the idea of a “veil” as a translation of Greek is not “coming down” but “covering.” The usual words for “veil” come from a root meaning “cover” (shared with the verb καλυπτω) not a root meaning “come down.” For this reason, “having down from the head” naturally refers to hair hanging down and not cloth coming down and so covering (a veil). Etymology is, however, not in itself a strong case, but the context indicates the same thing.
Second, when the verse concludes, the issue is definitely “long hair” (κομαω, komao). Lastly, nature clearly does not teach us that woman should be veiled (whether we consider “nature” as physical features or the created human conscience). But Paul explicitly says that nature teaches us that long hair is normal for woman and abnormal for men (vv. 14-15). This is affirmed in most cultures, where it is more common for men to have short hair and women to have long (though this is not necessarily universal, ancient Sparta being an exception, this discrepancy can be explained by the fact that no human follows God’s intended norms perfectly, cf. Rom. 1:18ff).12 Lastly, the one time Paul identifies something as a “covering”(περιβολαιον, peribolaion), it is “long hair” (v. 15). That is, Paul explicitly says that God gave woman long hair as a covering. For these reasons, I think that Paul is giving instruction about hair length, not veiling.
But does this make Paul’s statement in v. 6 nonsensical? Here, Paul writes, “For it is one and the same as being shaved. 6For if a woman will not be covered, then let her be sheared. But if it is dishonorable for a woman to be sheared or shaven, let her be covered.” It is argued from these verses that being unveiled is like having “short hair” (ESV)—at which point you might as well go all the way and shave all the hair off. Yet, this text is not insurmountable for the interpretation I have offered. For one, the word I have translated “shaved” does not mean “short hair” any more than “sheared”: they are both often used to refer to hair shaved off. I think reading them synonymously makes sense in context. The sense would be this: being uncovered—i.e., having short hair—is “the same as being shaved.” Therefore, let someone uncovered—who has short hair—go all the way and be shaved completely! He brings both synonyms together in the conclusion not to refer to two different states (short hair and shaved) but to intensify the conclusion: being shaved is clearly dishonorable, so don’t do it! This use of redundancy is uncommon in English, but very common in the Bible.
1There has a been a great controversy over whether “head” here means, metaphorically, “source” or “authority.” There is one instance in non-Biblical Greek where the word may mean “source,” but the common metaphorical sense of the word in Koine Greek and especially in the Bible is “authority.” This sense is supported by context, especially verse 10.
2Etymology is not a good guide for the meaning of Greek words, yet is it unintentional that the problem for men is “κατὰ κεφαλῆς ἔχων” and for the woman “ἀκατακαλύπτῳ”? In the OT, κατακαλύπτω refers generally to the act of covering or being covered, including wearing a veil (Gen. 38:15). The cognate κατακάλυμμα refers to a covering, specifically a veil (suggesting that the “coming down” aspect of kata may at times be retained in the verb)(e.g., Ex. 40:21).
The one use of ἀκατακαλύπτῳ in the OT (Lev. 13:45) is used to translate two Hebrew words that mean “let the hair of his head hang loose” (ESV). Comparing the LXX and the MT, “ἡ κεφαλὴ αὐτοῦ ἀκατακάλυπτος” (his head uncovered) is the equivalent of וְרֹאשׁוֹ֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה פָר֔וּעַ (his head is unloosed). Here, then, ἀκατακάλυπτος refers to the unkempt state of the hair on his head. Though I am arguing that Paul has a different referent in mind for this word (not unkempt hair but unnaturally short hair), the LXX shows us that this word can legitimately refer to the state of ones hair. My interpretation of this evidence is that Paul uses ἀκατακαλύπτῳ to refer to the state of a woman’s hair, intentionally juxtaposing κατὰ κεφαλῆς with ἀκατακαλύπτῳ τῇ κεφαλῇ.
3 “be covered” is a cognate of ἀκατακαλύπτῳ.
4 The words translated “sheared” and “shaven” are synonyms often used for shaving hair off.
5 This is κατακαλύπτω again. The initial state of “having down from the head” is now described as “being covered.”
6 Though these reading makes the best sense of the context (ESV, NET), it is possible that Paul intends “a woman is to have control over her head” (NIV), that is, they are to conduct themselves appropriately as it concerns the way they present their physical heads. This however, seems unlikely in light of the contextual emphasis on the authority structure signified by “head.”
7 Notice how again the issue of “covering” is one of hair. This is confirmed by the phrase “having long hair is her glory,” for “glory” is an antonym of “dishonor” that is the problem in the first paragraph.
8 Sometimes this gets really specific by appealing to a supposed women’s movement in Corinthian society scholars have dubbed “the new women in Corinth.” Many articles and books address this passage and its application, a good place to start for reasoning like this would be The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, by Craig Keener; First Corinthians in the NICNT series, by Gordon Fee; 1 Corinthians in the NIVAC series, by Craig L. Blomberg. From a complementarian perspective, see the Thomas S. Schreiners “Head Coverings, Prophecies, and the Trinity” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem.
10 Cf. Scripture and Truth, ed. D.A. Carson and John Woodbridge.
11 Frame, Doctrine of Knowledge, 98.
12 Another exception that “proves the rule” would be the Nazarites in the OT. The fact that part of their unique calling was to have long hair shows that long hair on a man was actually an unprecedented thing, so much so that its presence indicated their special consecration (cf. Num. 6:5; Judg. 13:5, 1 Sam. 1:11).