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Headship, Head Coverings, and the Glory of God

June 18, 2023

Teacher: Daniel Baker
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:2–16

Headship, Head Coverings, and the Glory of God

1 Corinthians 11:2–16 – Being God’s People: 1 Corinthians – Daniel J. Baker – June 18, 2023


Agua Viva / Acts 29 Trip.

“Please stand...” Reading 1 Corinthians 11:2–16... “Thanks be to God.”

What should you wear to church? Does it matter?

  • Looking on recent blogs, you see some trends.
  • For women – dress up a little bit, lean conservative.
  • For men? Not as much. But on one, first thing said was “nice” and “clean”!
  • The blogs for women never specified “clean.” I think they just kind of assumed that!

Our passage steps into the world of fashion.

  • Tells us that our clothes SAY something, our appearance SAYS something.
  • What should they say?
  • We want them to say something about the glory of God and the gospel.

The context:

  • Paul and Sosthenes to the church in Corinth
  • Church Paul planted 20 years or so after the cross of Christ (and Paul’s conversion).
  • Stayed 18 months.
  • Goes away and in Ephesus for 3 years.
  • Hears about how things going. Issues developing.
  • Remember 1 Corinthians 10:31–33.
  • Two goals: The glory of God, many saved.[1]
  • Read our passage with that in mind.

Sermon: (1) Headship (11:2–3); (2) Head Coverings (11:4–16

I. Headship (11:2–3)

Read 1 Corinthians 11:2–3.

Any time you step into issues of gender and gender roles, you’re stepping into controversy. And this verse is one of those places.

In verse 3 Paul sets up the basic picture of things. And then the rest of the passage gives us a key application of this basic picture.

The basic picture is given in 3 phrases that tell us one person is the HEAD of another person.

  • Head of every man is Christ
  • Head of a wife is her husband
  • Head of Christ is God

Head here means “the authority over.” The word “head” (kephalē) is used 75 times in the NT, so nothing obscure about it.

  • Most of the time it’s a physical head: “the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (Matt 14:8) or the head of Christ on which are “many diadems” (Rev 19:12).
  • Sometimes it’s used in the phrase we translate “cornerstone.” The stone rejected is Christ and Christ has become the “cornerstone” or “head stone” (Luke 20:17; 1 Peter 2:7).
  • And then Christ is “head over all things” (Eph 1:22) and “head of all rule and authority” (Col 2:10) and the head of the body of Christ (Eph 4:15; Col 1:18; 2:19).
  • The husband is “the head of the wife” (Eph 5:23).
  • And then our passage with 9 occurrences of the word.

“Head” as “authority over” fits the context and Paul’s argument.

  • But there’s also a clever way Paul goes back and forth between your physical “head” and your “head” as in the person who has “authority over” you.
  • In verse 4: You dishonor your “head”—meaning both your physical head and Christ, who is the head over the man.

Verse 3 is setting up a kind of hierarchy in God’s church:

  • God, who is over
  • Christ, who is over
  • The man/husband, who is over the
  • The woman/wife

Notice he uses the word “Christ” here, which is important.

  • Using “Christ,” Paul isn’t making a statement about the eternal ordering of the Trinity—what makes the Father, Son, and Spirit different in eternity past.
  • Using “Christ” he has in view in particular Christ’s work of redemption that he accomplished in his incarnation.
  • Christ humbled himself as a man and became a servant to God the Father.

That’s really helpful to remember. This arrangement of Christ being servant to the Father was a temporary one, one that occurred during the incarnation.

And this is true of man being head of woman. This is a temporary arrangement. In the new heaven and new earth where there is no marriage, there will still be sex—we’ll be men or woman, male or female. But since there’s no marriage, there will be no man who is the head of a woman. This is temporary while we live as husbands and wives.

It's an authority structure that is part of this created order—but not an eternal authority structure.

Another word we don’t want to miss here: “is.” A statement of something that’s true. It simply “is.”

If I say “the sky IS blue,” I’m not saying, “it should be blue” or “it ought to be blue.” I’m stating a fact. “It IS blue.”

There are statements of fact in this verse, not commandments to obey or future hopes to be fulfilled. These statements of fact have implications for how we live—that’s the point of the passage, actually. But the point is, as soon as a man marries a woman, the man is the HEAD of that woman, the HEAD of his family.

He might be a lazy head or a diligent head, a good head or a bad head. But he IS the head of his home.

He has a new sphere of responsibility when he takes a wife, the wife has a new ordering.

But before that man took a wife, he himself had a head, Christ. And when he married that woman, he still had a head, Christ. And till death do them part, the man has a head, Christ.

A marriage goes off the rails when a man thinks of himself as being HEAD of the woman but ignores the fact he himself has a HEAD, Christ.

The man is accountable to his HEAD in all areas of his life. His thoughts, words, and deeds are fully known by his head. And his head is the Judge of all the earth who holds us fully accountable.

In fact, Jesus says we’ll even be held accountable “for every careless word” we speak (Matt 12:36).

But a man who embraces Christ as his head is in a position to be an excellent head of his family. He will never be perfect. But he will seek to obey Christ and honor Christ and reflect Christ to the people he’s been entrusted with.

A woman who embraces her husband as her “head” is not seeing her husband as a headless man. She’s embracing him as head knowing that he has a head above him.

II. Head Coverings (11:4–16)

Read 1 Corinthians 11:4–10. Now we turn to the main purpose of the passage. Paul is after a certain kind of appearance when the church gathers.

When it gathers: “who prays or prophesies” (vv. 4, 5) tells us this about the worship service of the gathered church.

Don’t want to miss the obvious here: He’s assuming men and women will “pray or prophesy” when the church gathers. Here he isn’t commanding them to do it. He’ll cover that in chapters 12–14. Here he’s assuming they will pray or prophesy, and he’s telling them something about HOW to carry themselves when they do.

In Corinth it seems there was a problem with how the women were dressing in their Sunday gathering. It seems they were aware of their freedoms in Christ and were acting as if a lot of the cultural patterns of dress and appearance could be thrown out. After all, “We’re free in Christ, and in Christ there’s new Jew or Gentile, no male or female.”

To say this is to misread the New Testament. The New Testament says “there IS NO male or female” when it comes to our access to God. Men and women have equal access to God through Christ. Faith in Christ saves you whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile, a man or a woman, or a slave or a free man.

But there IS male and female when it comes to how we are supposed to live and treat people and obey God as husbands and wives and fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters. Husbands are commanded to do certain things and wives another.

Remember, “male and female” is something true of people BEFORE sin entered into the world. In the Garden there was “male and female” but no sin. In the new heaven and new earth there will be “males and females,” not some kind of new androgynous humanity.

And in this passage, Paul is giving direction to us as men and women, males and females, in the church.

He says the man and the woman are both to dress in such a way that they honor or bring glory to their “head.” The man to his head, Christ. The woman to her head, the husband.

  • To argue why a woman is to honor her head, he looks at Genesis 1–2—1 Corinthians 11:8–9.
  • True in Genesis 1 that men and women are made “in the image and likeness of God” (1:26). And it’s true in places like Isaiah 43:7 that both men and women are made for God’s “glory.”
  • Paul isn’t arguing against that. He’s looking at the Creation account more closely.
  • In Genesis 2 there’s a complementary picture of Genesis 1 that provides more detail. We learn...
  • Eve made FROM Adam (verse 8).
  • Eve made FOR Adam (verse 9).
  • Eve reflects the man in that sense.
  • Paul argues, then, that the wife ought to honor the husband with her appearance.
  • Good to point out the obvious here: This passage assumes Genesis 1–2 are 100% true.

But the question is, what exactly is that direction?What was he wanting the Corinthians to do as men and women when they gathered for worship?

It’s clear it has something to do with the physical “heads” of the men and women when they gather. Something about how they appear in public that Paul is concerned about.

For the men – Covering heads wasn’t common.

  • Best guess is that he was borrowing from the practice of secular priests in pagan temples.
  • When they led ceremonies, they covered their heads.
  • Paul is saying to the men, “honor your head, Christ,” and don’t mimic behaviors of idolaters.

His main attention is on the women and how they are appearing. They are praying and prophesying with their “head uncovered” (verse 5).

Two main approaches to this are that this refers to a kind of hairstyle or a kind of physical head covering they would wear.

Some clues – Leviticus 13:45:

“The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ (Lev 13:45)

  • In the Greek OT (LXX), the language for “let the hair of his head hang loose” is identical to “let his head be uncovered.”

And then is Numbers 5:18:

And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD and unbind the hair of the woman’s head and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And in his hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse. (Num 5:18)

  • In the Greek OT (LXX), the language for “unbind the hair” is “reveal her head.”
  • In these two passages, “uncovering” seems to refer to what the woman does with her hair and not a veil of some kind.

And then is 1 Timothy 2:9:

Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire. (1 Tim 2:9)

  • This verse is valuable when you place it alongside the first two.
  • Doesn’t carry the whole weight of the argument.
  • The reason this verse is useful is that it assumes the woman is not wearing a head covering. “Braided hair and gold” are not two separate things. It’s speaking of a type of braiding where you weave gold into the braided hair.
  • This is how dancing girls in court would wear their hair. It was a sign of immodesty and indiscretion. It wasn’t a proper thing to do for respectable women.
  • But if women wore head coverings, it would seem much less significant how they braided their hair underneath the head coverings.

The argument for Paul talking about a physical head covering is the basic reading of the passage. It sounds like he’s referring to a covering you might wear on top of your hair.

Interesting on this is that pictures and statues from the day don’t help very much. You can find plenty of examples of 1st century Roman women—remember, Corinth at this time would have been more a Roman culture than a Greek culture—examples of wearing veils and plenty where women wear their hair in elaborate braids and on top of their heads.

I lean toward the hairstyle approach, but either way, the point of the passage remains the same.

A woman’s hair or head covering was to communicate something about what kind of woman she was. And Paul is saying that if you’re a married woman, your dress and appearance should communicate to others you’re a married woman. You have a “head.” Your appearance is to “honor” your head.

You are free in Christ, yes! But in your freedom, don’t confuse the culture around you. Don’t claim freedom and then dress in a way that tells the culture you’re an unfaithful woman, an immodest woman. Don’t claim freedom as a married woman and then dress in a way that looks like you’re single and wanting to attract a man for a date tonight.

But his whole argument is based on the fact the culture around the church would have had clear understandings of the kind of hairstyle and head covering that communicated these various messages.

  • The city of Corinth would have known what it looked like for a woman to dress as “married” and to dress as “unfaithful.”
  • His argument is rooted in the customs of the day.
  • He argues for what’s “proper,” as if it will be obvious to all in Corinth—and not just the Christians in Corinth (verse 13).
  • He argues from “nature,” as if it will be obvious to all in the Roman Empire—and not just the Christians in the church (verse 14).

Verse 10:

  • “Symbol of authority” is not easy to understand. The literal reading is simply, “she ought to have authority over/on her head.”[2]
  • Best understanding is that she has “authority” to decide for herself how to walk out Paul’s commands.
  • She’s not brainless or mindless. She’s an active agent.
  • He’s commanding a certain behavior she’s obligated to follow.
  • But she does with authority over herself.

And then he brings in “the angels.”

  • One view is that he's calling us to remember chapter 6 (1 Cor 6:3).
  • We will judge the angels.
  • Men AND WOMEN will judge the angels.
  • But it’s also possible he’s reminding us that we are those who have authority to judge the angels.
  • When she embraces her place and station in God’s economy, it’s a noble position to be in.

The woman's hair marks her as vice-regent over creation and in particular it marks her as a woman, part of mankind and over the angels. It marks her as a woman who is obedient to God and to his ordering of creation rather than as a rebel against it.
James Hurley, “Did Paul Require Veils?”[3]

It’s possible he’s reminding us that angels are watching our gatherings (Ps 138:1; 1 Tim 5:21; Eph 3:10; cf. Heb 13:2). Our lives and our worship take place in the company of a heavenly audience.

Now 1 Corinthians 11:11–16. This part will be quicker since there’s less new ground. There are important qualifiers, though.

When we look at verses 11–12 he’s wanting to keep us from going too far in our thinking.

  • If we focus exclusively on vv. 7–9 we might begin to minimize or marginalize women.
  • Yes, woman comes from man. But in the Lord—now in this age—man comes from woman.
  • So yes, we all come from Adam, but it's also true that everyone since Eve has had a mother. 
  • We are not "independent" of each other, as Paul says.

Then verses 13–15

  • He adds what is “proper”
  • He adds what “nature” teaches
  • Clear he’s assuming things commonly understood in that culture.
  • When appropriate: FOLLOW CULTURAL NORMS. Don’t appear UNHOLY when you’re actually HOLY.
  • Why? For the sake of the glory of God. For the sake of the gospel.
  • Don’t create unnecessary barriers to the gospel.


The key for applying these verses:

  1. When you pray or prophesy, dress in a way that honors your “head” (husbands honor their head, Christ; wives honor their head, their husband).
  2. When you pray or prophesy, dress in a way that communicates you’re an honorable man and an honorable woman.
  3. If you feel that this means you should wear a physical head covering when you pray or prophesy, we have no trouble with that.
  4. But since this symbol doesn’t communicate clearly to the culture and isn’t a symbol the culture itself uses, we’re fine if you don’t.


Dress for the glory of God—joyfully embracing your “head.”

Dress for the sake of the gospel—not putting up unnecessary barriers for the gospel. In this case, the barrier is appearing UNHOLY when you’re actually HOLY.

The important thing is that when we pray or prophesy we are to dress and act in a way that (1) honors the “head” in our lives and (2) is honorable in the eyes of the world around us. But, (3) if someone feels in their conscience like they should wear an actual head covering, we are fully supportive of that.

Expresses his cry in 1 Corinthians 10:31 - So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Cor 10:31)

Peter Schimm and Andreas Köstenberger:

Every single element of Christian worship—baptism, communion, Scripture reading, singing, praying, prophesying, preaching, collecting offerings, blessings and benedictions, etc.—ought to be for the glory of God. Our worship practices are ways to imitate Christ who never kept glory for himself. He was always in the habit of returning glory to the Father. Paul’s solution for the Corinthian church, then, is a gospel recovery of God’s glory as seen in God’s good design for man and woman. Our worship gatherings are to be all about giving glory to God, and him alone! Soli Deo gloria.
Peter Schimm and Andreas Köstenberger, Themelios[4]

[1] On this 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.

[2] See the commentaries by Thiselton (NIGTC) and Ciampa/Rosner (PNTC).

[3]Westminster Theological Journal.

[4] “The Gospel as Interpretive Key to 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:16,” Themelios.

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