Have you ever wondered why head coverings, or the lack thereof, was such a big deal in the Corinthian church? We may be used to the practice of removing hats indoors or prior to praying, but what about head coverings? Let’s take a deep dive into 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 where Paul addresses the topic of head coverings with these notes from the ESV Expository Commentary.

First Corinthians 11:2–16 addresses the seventh of ten major issues in this epistle: wearing head coverings. This is another area in which the Corinthians have apparently adopted the worldly values of their pagan culture.

Wearing Head Coverings (11:2–16)

For most of the NT, knowing a passage’s historical-cultural context can enhance one’s understanding, but this is usually not necessary to understand the passage accurately. This passage on head coverings, however, is one of the few places in which there is simply no way we can understand the text without understanding its historical-cultural context. What did covering one’s head communicate in the Greco-Roman culture of Paul’s day? If we cannot answer that question, then we cannot accurately understand this passage.

Head Coverings and the Historical-Cultural Context

The most helpful insights on this passage I have encountered are from Bruce Winter, a historian and NT scholar who is an expert on the first-century historical-cultural context of Christianity in the Greco-Roman world, and Corinth in particular. Here is basically what he argues:

(1) During pagan religious ceremonies, priests—Roman men with a high social status—pulled their togas over their heads when they led by praying or sacrificing. If socially elite men in the Corinthian church covered their head when they prayed or prophesied during corporate worship, they would be highlighting their social status instead of highlighting Christ, the church’s head. They might even exclude low-status people from praying or prophesying. So Paul commands Christian men not to adopt that syncretistic custom.

(2) A woman’s covering her head socially indicated that she was married. A thin headscarf or head covering symbolized a married woman’s modesty and chastity and submission to her husband. This was one way in which a wife honored her husband publicly. A wife who refused to cover her head publicly disgraced her husband. The Greek word gynē can mean woman or wife depending on the context, and in this passage it refers specifically to the wife in verses 3, 5, 6, 10, and 13. The ESV rightly translates it as “wife” (cf. 11:3 ESV mg.).

(3) A new kind of wife was emerging at this time in the Roman world—one who rebelled against the cultural milieu that allowed husbands but not wives to be sexually promiscuous. One way in which such wives would flaunt that freedom was by removing their veils. So a Christian wife should not deliberately remove her veil—especially while praying or prophesying during a time of corporate worship—because that would contentiously identify her with these other promiscuous women.

Summary of the Historical-Cultural Context

So the problematic issue is that the Corinthian Christians could wear or not wear head coverings in a way that defiantly flouted God’s beautiful design for husbands and wives. Paul states his main argument in this passage in verses 4–5a: when praying or prophesying in a church meeting, men who cover their heads dishonor Christ, whereas wives who uncover their heads dishonor their husbands. Paul supports that argument with at least six reasons.

Introduction: Paul commends the Corinthians (11:2)

Paul begins by praising the Corinthians (as opposed to how he begins the next issue; v. 17). He affirms them for following what he taught them. “Everything” is hyperbole (cf. vv. 17–22!).

It is not clear how verse 2 connects to verses 3–16. It is possible that the Corinthians are not abusing head coverings and that verses 3–16 simply explain why Paul already taught them the content contained in verses 4–5a. But the way Paul argues in verses 316 implies that at least some of the Corinthians are abusing head coverings and that Paul is correcting them. He begins with praise as a gentle prelude to what follows.

What Paul teaches in the rest of this passage is part of the “traditions”—that is, doctrine, which is binding for all Christians (cf. 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6).

Reason 1 for the main argument: the husband-wife relationship should reflect the Father-Son relationship with reference to authority and submission (11:3)

This verse contrasts with the previous one—first Paul commends the Corinthians; now he corrects them. He begins by providing the first reason for the main argument in verses 4–5a: the husband-wife relationship should reflect the Father-Son relationship with reference to authority and submission.

The ESV rightly reads “the head of a wife [gynē] is her husband [anēr]” instead of “the head of the woman is man” (NIV; cf. NASB, CSB, NET, NLT).

“Head” translates kephalē, which refers not to source (as in the source of life, that is, origin) nor to preeminence (e.g., socially foremost) but metaphorically to authority (cf. Eph. 1:22; 5:23; Col. 1:18; 2:10). Paul specifies three relationships in which one person is the head and the other submits to that head.

TABLE – Headship and Submission in 1 Corinthians 11:3




God (the Father)


every man


Christ (the Son)

Paul presents an analogy regarding headship and submission:

the Father : the Son :: husband : wife

The husband-wife relationship should reflect the Father-Son relationship with reference to authority and submission. God the Son submits to God the Father while still being equal in essence and value; the Son is not inferior just because he submits to the Father. Similarly, a wife who submits to her husband is still equal in essence and value; a wife is not inferior just because she submits to her husband.

Main argument: when praying or prophesying in a church meeting, men who cover their heads dishonor Christ, and wives who uncover their heads dishonor their husbands (11:4–5a)

These verses are an inference of verse 3. When praying or prophesying, a man who covered his physical head in Paul’s day dishonored his metaphorical head (i.e., his authority—Christ) because doing so mimicked the socially elite pagan priests, and a wife who uncovered her physical head in Paul’s day dishonored her metaphorical head (i.e., her authority—her husband) because she was refusing to wear a symbol of her being married. This is the passage’s main argument.

Reason 2: a wife’s uncovering her head is culturally shameful (11:5b–6)

Paul adds a second reason for the main argument in verses 4–5a: a wife’s uncovering her head is culturally shameful. Paul argues deductively like this:

  • Premise 1 (v. 5b): A wife’s uncovered head is the same as having a shaved head.
  • Premise 2 (v. 6a): A wife’s having a shaved head is shameful.
  • Conclusion (implied): A wife’s uncovered head is shameful.
  • Application (v. 6b): A wife should cover her head.

A wife’s uncovering her head (v. 5a) is equivalent to shaving her head. According to Roman law, a penalty for a woman who committed adultery was to cut off her hair. This would publicly shame her because her hair would look like a man’s.

Paul offers a sarcastic reason for verse 5b.

This statement highlights the sarcastic nature of verse 6a and thereby reaffirms verse 5a. Since a wife’s cutting off her hair (v. 6a) is not an honorable option, she should cover her head.

Reason 3: a man’s covering his head instead of a wife’s covering her head contradicts how God the creator designed men and women (11:7–9)

Now Paul offers a third reason for the main argument in verses 4–5a: a man’s covering his head instead of a wife’s covering her head contradicts how God the creator designed men and women.

This verse explains the end of verse 6 and reaffirms verses 4–5a. A man must not cover his head while praying or prophesying when the church gathers because “he is the image and glory of God”; in contrast, “woman is the glory of man.” Paul does not mean that woman is not the image of God, since the Bible explicitly affirms that God has created both male and female in his image (Gen. 1:27; 9:6; James 3:9). The main issue Paul addresses in this passage is not the nature of males and females in general but specifically (a) how a man honors or shames Christ and (b) how a wife honors or shames her husband.

The apostle explains his previous statement at the end of verse 7. He follows the creation account in Genesis 2:18–23, where man and woman are not interchangeable. God made woman from the man (not vice versa) and created woman for the man (not vice versa). Thus, “woman is the glory of man” in a way that man is not the glory of woman: a wife honors her husband as her authority. “An excellent wife is the crown of her husband, but she who brings shame is like rottenness in his bones” (Prov. 12:4).

Because Paul argues from creation, the principle that husbands and wives have different roles transcends cultures. In this passage Paul applies this principle to first-century Christians wearing head coverings in a Greco-Roman context.

Reason 4: it is a bad testimony to the angels or messengers (11:10)

This inference from verses 7–9 reaffirms verses 5b–6 as a fourth reason for the main argument in verses 4–5a: a woman’s uncovered head is a bad testimony to the angels or messengers.

“A symbol of authority” (also NASB, CSB, NET) translates exousia, which usually means “authority.” A more form-based translation might be, “That is why a wife ought to have authority on her head.” Since this “authority” is on the wife’s head, it likely refers to the head covering as a “symbol of womanly dignity” (BDAG). Thus a wife should cover her head in order to demonstrate that she is under authority.

“Angels” translates angelous, which can refer to angels or messengers. The two options seem equally plausible in the following ways:

  • If angelous refers to the elect angels, then Paul argues that wives should submit to their husbands by wearing a head covering because the angels observe them. Angels observe God’s creation with great interest (1 Pet. 1:12; cf. 1 Tim. 5:21), and they watch believers on the stage of life like spectators (1 Cor. 4:9; cf. Matt. 18:10; Eph. 3:10). Paul’s other three uses of angelous in 1 Corinthians contrast angels with humans (4:9; 6:3; 13:1).
  • If angelous refers to human messengers (ESV mg.: “people sent to observe and report”), then Paul argues that wives should submit to their husbands by wearing a head covering because those messengers will convey scandalous news about Christian gatherings.

Qualification to 11:3–10: men and women are interdependent (11:11–12)

Verse 11 qualifies verses 3–10 so that readers do not misunderstand Paul to be saying that women are inferior to men, and verse 12 supports verse 11. Men and women need each other. Neither could continue existing without the other. They literally could not live without each other. They are interdependent. The implication is clear: a husband or wife is not inherently better or more important than the other.

Reason 5: it is culturally improper (11:13–15)

Paul offers a fifth reason for the main argument in verses 4–5a: a wife’s praying with her head uncovered is culturally improper. Paul appeals to the Corinthians as a way to support verses 4–10.

This rhetorical question supports the previous one (v. 13). Paul argues inductively from nature like this:

  • Observation (vv. 14–15a): Long hair is honorable for women (and dishonorable for men).
  • Reason (v. 15b): God gives women long hair as a head covering.
  • Probable Conclusion (v. 13): It is proper for a wife to pray with her head covered.

Paul implies that it was fitting for women to cover their heads because they had long hair. He does not mean that the covering throughout this passage is a woman’s hair rather than a head covering a woman wears. Otherwise, men would have to go bald or shave their heads (since they must not cover their heads), and verse 6 would be incoherent.

Paul’s Appeal to Nature

Paul appeals to “nature” (Gk. physis), that is, “the regular or established order of things” (BDAG). Paul bases his appeal to nature on a creation principle and a cultural practice:

  • Creation Principle. God created males to look and act like males and females to look and act like females. As a general rule, males (and not females) instinctively feel shame at the idea of embodying feminine characteristics in their culture. Nature teaches men to look and act like men in their culture and teaches women to look and act like women.
  • Cultural Practice. Revelation 9:8 describes locusts as having “hair like women’s hair.” That sort of statement is intelligible because cultures express masculinity and femininity through hairstyle (and clothing and cosmetics) in various ways. “The adult male inhabitants of Roman Corinth did not wear their hair long, for to do so indicated their denial of their masculinity.” In contrast to that “disgrace” or dishonor, a woman’s long hair was her “glory” or distinguishing honor.

Implications from Nature

The way God created males to have testosterone and females to have estrogen contributes to the fact that for most cultures throughout history women have had longer hair than men. As a general rule, testosterone in males causes men’s hair to be shorter and to thin and fall out much more quickly and frequently than does the hair of women, who do not usually go bald. Nature teaches that there is a fittedness for women’s hair to cover their head.

Nature teaches, then, in the sense that the natural instincts and psychological perceptions of masculinity and femininity are manifested in particular cultural situations. Thus, a male instinctively and naturally shrinks away from doing anything that his culture labels as feminine. So, too, females have a natural inclination to dress like women rather than men. Paul’s point, then, is that how men and women wear their hair is a significant indication of whether they are abiding by the created order. Of course, what constitutes long hair is often debated—what is appropriately masculine or feminine in hairstyle may vary widely from culture to culture.

Reason 6: it goes against what Paul and other churches practiced (11:16)

Now Paul offers a sixth reason for the main argument in verses 4–5a: the practices he proscribes go against what he and other churches practice. Paul’s warning here supports verses 13–15 and thus verses 4–10. Deliberately breaking what Paul commands in verses 45a is contentious, and such contentious behavior is off-limits for churches. Paul repeatedly underscores that what he is teaching the Corinthians is what he teaches every other church in the Greco-Roman world (4:17; 7:17; 14:33, 36; cf. 1:2).


1. Dress in culturally appropriate ways when the church gathers to worship.

While praying or prophesying in a church’s worship service in Paul’s day, it was scandalous for a Christian man to wear a head covering or for a Christian wife not to wear one. Wayne Grudem wisely reasons how to apply this passage:

Paul is concerned about head covering because it is an outward symbol of something else. But the meaning of such a symbol will vary according to how people in a given culture understand it. It would be wrong to require the same symbol today if it carried a completely different meaning. . . .

The most likely meaning of a woman wearing a head covering in first-century Corinth was to indicate that she was married. But no such meaning would be understood from a woman’s head covering today. . . .

Today we obey the head covering commands for women in 1 Corinthians 11 by encouraging married women to wear whatever symbolizes being married in their own cultures. . . .

The situation is far different with male headship in marriage and the church. These are not just outward symbols that can vary from culture to culture, but they are the reality itself.

There is not an exact parallel to every other culture, but here are a few examples of dressing scandalously today in a western church’s worship meeting:

  • a Christian husband dressing like a Ku Klux Klan member in a white robe and hood, dressing like a Buddhist monk, or wearing a dress;
  • a Christian wife wearing a bikini, dressing like a prostitute, or refusing to wear her wedding ring because she does not want to publicly indicate that she is married.

2. Show that God’s design for husbands and wives is beautiful.

God made husbands and wives with distinct roles that complement each other.

  • A husband is responsible to exercise headship by leading his wife lovingly (Eph. 5:25–33). Headship does not mean that a husband is inherently better than his wife (1 Pet. 3:7) or that he may treat his wife selfishly in a harsh or domineering manner (Col. 3:19; cf. Mark 10:45) or that he may selfishly abdicate his leadership to his wife.
  • A wife is responsible to submit to her husband (Eph. 5:22–24, 33; Col. 3:18; Titus 2:3–5; 1 Pet. 3:1, 5–6). A wife submits by gladly (not grudgingly or mindlessly) following her husband.

In egalitarian cultures that essentially seek to eliminate all differences between men and women, Christians may be tempted to feel embarrassed that God designed men and women to be equal in value and dignity but different in their roles in the church and home. But rather than grudgingly accepting the Bible’s traditional and countercultural view without liking it or merely defending what the Bible teaches, Christians should live in a way that shows that biblical manhood and womanhood is beautiful. It is the context in which men and women flourish as the Creator intended.

3. Church leaders, include women in praying and prophesying when the church gathers.

The entire passage presupposes that women may pray and prophesy when the church meets to worship together (on prophecy, cf. 14:1–40). But some churches who affirm that men and women have different, complementary roles in the church (i.e., only men may be elders and teach the Bible to church gatherings of men and women) functionally forbid women from doing what the Bible explicitly allows them to do.

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