In the 80s a one-hit wonder Timbuk 3 asked these questions,
Hairstyles and attitudes—are they connected?
Are the styles we embrace a matter of taste, or of values rejected?
Timbuk3, “Haircuts and Attitudes”
(And no, that wasn’t their hit. Their hit was an equally sarcastic, “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades”)
Well, in answer to their questions, the apostle Paul would say, “Yes!” Our “hairstyles” speak. They say something—even about our “taste” and “values,” values we embrace and “values rejected.”
Recently we looked at 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, where Paul speaks to a related issue, the values we project (and reject) by what we have on our heads. There’s enough complexity in this passage to take a second look at it here.
In the passage he’s addressing the corporate worship service in Corinth and wanting the women (and men) to adopt a certain practice. The question is, what was the practice he was advocating and what does that mean for us? To answer these questions we’ll start with what is most clear and work toward the most difficult.
1. The Practice is to Promote the Glory of God and the Gospel
First we need to notice the context of the passage. Right before 11:2–16 Paul says something we need to keep in mind as we think about our passage:
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. (1 Cor 10:31–33)
If we’re to “do all to the glory of God,” certainly that includes how we dress and how we pray and prophesy when the church gathers. And then note the gospel purpose as Paul lives his life. He tries to “give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (v. 33). In other words, those in the church and those in the culture. He wants no unnecessary offense—fully recognizing, of course, that the gospel itself is offensive, see 1 Cor 1:17, 23—for the sake of the gospel, “that they may be saved” (10:33). In other words, for the sake of the gospel, when it’s possible for us not to offend the culture, we should seek to do that. Paul isn’t condoning disobedience to God here, but he is calling us to cultural sensitivity for the sake of the gospel.
And then in terms of context it’s useful to notice the paragraph immediately following our paragraph. In 12:1–3 he speaks of what they were and then what changed with their conversion. They “were pagans” and “led astray to mute idols” (12:2), but now they happily proclaim, “Jesus is Lord!” (12:3). This means their native culture was Roman paganism and not Jewish religiosity.
Now, on to the passage itself.
2. The Practice is to Reflect God’s Order in Creation
Paul begins his argument theologically. In verse 3 he says there are authority structures embedded in the creation by our Creator. He doesn’t parse out all of them (like governmental authorities as in Rom 13:1–7 or elders as in Heb 13:7), but he tells us that “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”
“Head” is obviously a key word in this text. Most of the 75 occurrences of “head” (kephalē) in the NT refer to a physical head—like John the Baptist’s “head” being on a platter (Matt 14:8). But many passages refer to Christ as “head” over all authorities (Col 2:10) or over all things (Eph 1:22) or the head of the body of Christ, the church (Eph 4:15; Col 1:18; 2:19). When used this way, “head” means something like “authority over.” Head never means “source” in the New Testament (and it’s debatable how much it ever means this in antiquity), a theory put forward some years ago.
In this verse Paul is setting up a basic hierarchy within the created order, the created order since Christ’s coming. In this structure God is above the incarnate Christ, Christ is above all men, and a man is above his wife (i.e., not all men over all women).
The reason to emphasize that God is above the “incarnate” Christ is to underscore that Paul isn’t talking about the eternal relations between God the Father and God the Son. He isn’t saying that in eternity past the Father is head of the Son. He means that during the incarnation and redemptive work of Christ, this is true.
Such an understanding helps us when we consider the headship of a husband over a wife. First, it means it’s not demeaning, since Christ himself embraced this role for himself. Second, it’s temporary. A day will come when the wife is not a wife. On that day, she’ll no longer have a man as her head. God himself will be her head on that day.
The rest of the passage is built on this theological foundation. What he’s going to argue is that men and women should dress in a way consistent with this order in creation when they pray and prophesy.
Of course, Paul wants our embracing of God’s design to be more than skin deep—more than just the clothes on our back or the covering on our head. He wants us rightly to be those under the authorities in our lives. Godly submission to authority is part of what it means for a Christian to be “respectable” and “honorable.” In our passage Paul wants this also expressed in our conventions of dress when we pray and prophesy.
3. The Practice is Specifically for Prayer and Prophecy in Corporate Worship
A third thing to note is that the behavior in question is for when a man or woman “prays or prophesies” when it gathers for worship (1 Cor 11:4–5). He isn’t addressing business attire or what to wear in the marketplace or home or even attire in the worship service as a whole (see 1 Tim 2:9 for his words about a moral general dress code). He’s talking about how we appear when we’re doing something very specific in corporate worship. When a woman prays or prophesies it’s visible and audible. And it’s also highly significant, since she’s either speaking to God on behalf of the people (prayer) or speaking to the people on behalf of God (prophecy).
These aren’t trivial matters in our worship. Perhaps their heightened spiritual significance is why Paul is addressing how they are to be done. A woman who contributes in such a public manner in the corporate gathering needs to be one who clearly embraces God’s order for the family and in creation. Again, this isn’t required to attend the corporate gathering but only to publicly minister during the corporate gathering.
Note here that Paul assumes prayer and prophecy are happening in the corporate gathering. He believes in the miraculous gifts of the Spirit for the church in worship! But here he’s speaking to how they are practiced.
4. The Practice is Related to Preserving Clear Gender Distinctions (According to Biological Sex)
A fourth thing to note is kind of obvious, but he’s advocating something different for the man and the woman—men and women as defined by their biological sex and not their psychology. In verses 4–5 a man is to be uncovered and a woman to be covered. In vv. 14–15 a man is to have short hair and a woman’s long hair is her “glory.” Men and women are to appear as respectable men and women to honor their “heads,” the order of creation God has established (v. 3).
He also roots his teaching in a doctrine of creation. We’re used to highlighting that men and women are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26) and for the glory of God (Isa 43:7). But here Paul highlights that because man is made first and the woman is made for him to be his helpmate and from his rib (Gen 2:7, 18, 21-22), we can also say that in a special sense man “is the image and glory of God” and “woman is the glory of man” (1 Cor 11:7). Perhaps knowing how people are and how they can misuse certain teachings, Paul then reminds them that man is not “independent” of woman, for “man is now born of woman (1 Cor 11:11–12). It’s true we all come from Adam, but it’s also true that everyone since Eve has had a mother.
“Because of this” order in the creation Paul says the woman “ought to have a symbol of authority on her head” (1 Cor 11:13). “Symbol of” is not in the Greek, but it’s a good way to capture what Paul is after, which is why almost all current English translations include this phrase. Her hairstyle/head covering is a way to show visibly what she is according to God’s design and also that she is embracing God’s authorities in her life.
Paul then says to do this “because of the angels” (v. 10), a phrase that’s generated a lot of discussion over the centuries. One view sees the headcovering as protecting women from lustful angels like those described in Genesis 6:1–2 (Tertullian). Another says it’s a reference to the fact women will share in judging angels, as Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 6:3 (James Hurley). A third view is the most likely, namely, that it’s a reference to the angelic observers present in our worship gatherings (Ps 138:1; 1 Tim 5:21; Eph 3:10; Heb 12:22; cf. Heb 13:2). Out of a proper fear of what they might do and with an awareness of the heavenly ensemble with us in our gatherings, we ought to obey what Paul is telling us (Calvin, Thiselton, Richard B. Hays). The third view seems to have the most merit.
To summarize the above, Paul is calling us to adopt dress (hairstyle/hair covering) that is consistent with what men and women are and what God has called them to be. The headship that is part of God’s created order is to have a visible reflection in our corporate gatherings especially when a woman prays or prophesies.
5. The Practice was “Proper” in the Culture
A fifth thing to note in this passage might feel unexpected. Most of the time when we think about being a Christian in our culture we focus on how unpopular our behaviors and convictions can be or how we live as “exiles” and “pilgrims” in a world that’s not our home (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11). Yet, because of God’s common grace, individuals and cultures will always reflect God’s truth at some level.
What Paul is advocating for in our passage was a practice that would have been very familiar in the Roman culture of “the churches of God” (1 Cor 11:16) he planted. That’s why he can ask them to “judge for yourselves” whether it’s “proper” for a woman to pray uncovered (v. 13). And that’s why he can bring up that “nature itself” teaches us that men shouldn’t have long hair but that long hair for women is her “glory” and even “given to her for a covering” (v. 14). Just as nature teaches us about the Creator (Rom 1:19–25) and our conscience teaches us about God’s moral law (Rom 2:14–15), so here “nature” is teaching us about God’s design for men and women.
Throughout the passage he uses a lot of what’s called “honor-shame” language to bring out this idea that the practice was “proper” in his day: “praise” (v. 2), “dishonors” (vv. 4–5), “disgraceful” (v. 6), “glory” (vv. 7, 15), “proper” (v. 13), what “nature” teaches (v. 14), “disgrace” (v. 14). These words would be familiar ones in a Roman culture so immersed in thinking in terms of behaviors and speech and dress either adding to or detracting from the honor (“glory”) or the shame (“disgrace”) of a person.
Roman and Jewish culture at the time would have had clear distinctions in the hairstyles of men and women (short hair on men, longer but kept hair for women). Roman women sometimes wore veils on the back of the head, but sometimes had their hair braided and bound on top of the head. Jewish women more often would have been covered with a shawl of some kind whenever they left the home (and some even in their homes). In a religious ceremony, men would pray with heads covered if serving as a pagan priest, and Jewish men in synagogues prayed with heads covered.
In both Roman and Jewish cultures, a woman having loose, unkempt hair was simply not done. It was a sign of being an immodest, indecent woman. Related to this, in Numbers 5:18 a woman accused of adultery was to have her hair disheveled by the priest.
Speaking of a woman being “covered,” then, would have been familiar to the initial readers of 1 Corinthians. A man being uncovered when he prayed would have been different, though, especially rooting it in a doctrine of creation. Here Paul shows that though he is culturally sensitive, he is not simply parroting the culture.
As a side note, it’s interesting to consider that as crazy and upside-down as our American culture can be, the basic pattern of short hair on men and longer, carefully kept hair on women still holds. Nature is still teaching us about God’s design for men and women.
6. The Practice Itself: Hairstyle or Head Covering
When it comes to defining what Paul wants us to practice, the two main interpretations are either he’s speaking of hairstyles or a clothing item you would wear on your head (head covering). The head covering view is the majority opinion of interpreters, but the hairstyle view also has advocates.
The head covering view makes sense because of all the language about “covering” the head or not “covering” the head. Typically when we “cover” something, we cover it with something else. We cover a dish with its lid. We cover ourselves at night with a blanket. Covering with a piece of clothing also parallels what is observed in both Roman and Jewish cultures. Read this way, Paul is advocating that women wear a veil on the back of the head or a shawl of some kind and that men pray without any such covering.
Yet, the hairstyle view also makes sense because of the language. The strongest reason is what he says in verses 14-15:
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. (1 Cor 11:14–15)
Note that a woman’s long hair is her “glory” but also “given to her for a covering” (v. 15). This is the only time that a specific article of clothing is mentioned in the passage (“covering”), and it refers to a woman’s hair and not anything she would wear on top of it. “Covering” here is used only twice in the New Testament, the other time being in Hebrews 1:12 where it’s translated as “robe.”
And then for the hairstyle view, verses 4–5 are also important. In verse 4, where the ESV has “with his head covered,” a more literal and clunky Greek translation would be “down from the head having” or “having something down from the head.” This could mean a piece of clothing on the head that goes down the back of the head or it could refer to his long hair.
And then in verse 5, Paul says the woman is not be “uncovered.” But the phrase for “the head uncovered” is identical to the phrase used in the Greek Old Testament in Leviticus 13:45, where the Hebrew had “let the hair of his head hang loose.” Paul could be referring to the loose and disheveled hair of the leper, which was a sign of their uncleanness. In Numbers 5:18 a suspected adulteress was also to let her hang down loose and disheveled, as a sign of her possible disgrace.
Because of verse 15 (woman’s hair is her “covering”) I lean slightly to the hairstyle view, but the head covering view also makes very good sense of the passage.
7. The Sum of the Matter
The sum of the matter, then, is that Paul wants women to appear like respectable women and men to appear like respectable men in the corporate gathering when they pray or prophesy—respectable as he would define it, meaning rightly related to God, his word, and the authorities he has placed in our lives. He focuses on the “head” of the person speaking and wants their “head” to model what is true in God’s created order. He wants them to embrace God’s design in this, and so he roots his thinking here in a right theology of creation and the created order (vv. 3, 7–9) and also in God’s glory and mission (10:31, 10:33). He advocates for conventions in hairstyle/hair coverings that symbolizes these theological concepts, conventions that would have been understandable to the culture of his day.
What should we do with this? For the same theological and missional reasons as Paul gives, when we pray or prophesy in a church gathering we should adopt conventions in our appearance that communicate clearly we are a respectable man or woman.
And you thought hair was just hair!
 For the connection between 11:2–16 and 10:31–33 see Peter R. Schemm and Andreas J. Köstenberger, “The Gospel as Interpretive Key to 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:16: On Christian Worship, Head Coverings, and the Trinity,” Themelios 44.2 (2019): 249–257.
 On “head” see the commentaries by Thiselton (NIGTC) and Richard B. Hays (Interpretation) and the famous Wayne Grudem article where he surveys “2,336 Examples” of kephalē available at https://www.waynegrudem.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/does-kephale-mean-head-or-authority-over.pdf.
 On this idea see Mark Finney, “Honour, Head-coverings and Headship: 1 Corinthians 11.2-16 in its Social Context,” JSNT 33.1 (2010): 31–58.
 On Roman customs see Cynthia L. Thompson, , “Hairstyles, head-coverings, and St. Paul: Portraits from Roman Corinth,” The Biblical Archaeologist, 51 no 2 (Jun 1988): 99-115. On ancient Jewish customs see the articles on “hair” and “bareheadedness” in the Jewish Encyclopedia: https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7061-hair and https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7432-head-covering-of.
 See BDAG lexicon on kata here.
 On Paul’s vocabulary see Hurley, James B., “Did Paul Require Veils or the Silence of Women? A Consideration of 1 Cor. 11:2-16 and 1 Cor. 14:33b-36,” WTJ 35 no 2 (Winter 1973): 190-220.