Keeping the delivered traditions (I Corinthians 11:2)

The verses at the beginning of I Corinthians 11 have created a good deal of controversy in our modern era. Bonnets, hats, and other head coverings were commonly worn in public by both men women in the past. Men would remove their hats when indoors while women with their long hair would keep them on because frequent removal would tangle hair. It is because modern hair care products gave women some control over how their hair would look after being out in the wind that coverings fell out of fashion around 1960. But with that change in fashion came controversy over whether women need to wear a covering when praying.

Paul begins this section praising the Corinthians for following the teachings he gave them (I Thessalonians 1:6; II Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6). This isn’t the first time Paul’s praised the Corinthians. They might have need scolding in many areas, but they weren’t doing everything wrong (I Corinthians 4:17; 7:17). What Paul is about to discuss isn’t a new teaching. It is one he spoke to the Corinthians about in the past.

Headship (I Corinthians 11:3)

Paul lays out how authority flows from God, the Father, through Jesus, the Son, to every man and then to every woman. The Greek word for “man” is aner and for “woman” is gune. These same words are also used for a husband and wife respectively. The simple statement that men are given authority over women is so contrary to modern beliefs that many newer translations attempt to change the statements from “man” and “woman” to “husband” and “wife.” The problem is that if you change all the terms to husband and wife then you have Paul implying that God and Jesus are only heads of married couples and that only husbands come from wives and wives from husbands. Thus, these modern translators do not consistently translate the two words and switch between the two sets of meaning in an almost arbitrary manner to cause Paul to appear to say that a wife only needs to submit to her husband. This switching back and forth is not demanded by the text and the general rule that the words be translated consistently should apply. Besides, the issue of women showing submission to men is covered in other passages: I Corinthians 14:34-38 and I Timothy 2:8-15. Interestingly, no attempt is made to change these other two passages to apply only to married couples.

All authority ultimately comes from God (I Corinthians 15:27-28; Matthew 28:18). This authority was given to Christ to rule over this age (Ephesians 1:22; 4:15; 5:23; Colossians 1:18; 2:10). Some of that authority is given to men. In the church positions of leadership are held by men (I Timothy 3:2, 12; 2:12). In the family, the husband is placed as the head (Ephesians 5:24).

Just as Christ is not degraded by submitting to the Father, man is not degraded by submitting to Christ, nor should women be degraded by submitting to men.

Rules for Showing Submission (I Corinthians 11:4-6)

The actions of a person demonstrate whether they submit to the one above them. Paul lays down two rules for demonstrating submission:

  1. A man must pray or prophesy with his head uncovered to give honor to Christ.
  2. A woman must pray or prophesy with her head covered to give honor to man.

One argument against applying these rules is to state that since prophecy is mentioned, then it only applies to the era when miraculous gifts were present among the members. Following that line of thinking, then these rules would have only been for those who had the gifts of the Holy Spirit because not all Christians had the gifts (Acts 8:14-16; I Corinthians 12:28-30). What is skimmed over is that two independent actions are listed. The rules also apply to Christians when they pray, and prayer does not require a miraculous gift to be accomplished (I Timothy 2:1-3, 8; Acts 16:13).

In essence, prayer is communication with our Lord. Since man is directly below God, he is to pray with his head uncovered. Since women are in submission to men, when they pray, they are to cover their heads to show that they are skipping men to talk directly with God. As Adam Clarke notes: “This decision of the apostle was in point blank hostility to the canons of the Jews; for they would not suffer a man to pray unless he was veiled, for which they gave this reason. "He should veil himself to show that he is ashamed before God, and unworthy with open face to behold him." Matthew Poole states: “The heathens also, both Romans and Grecians, were wont to minister in their sacred things with their heads covered. Some think this was the reason why the Christians used the contrary gesture ...” In my own research I found that the practices of this time were:

Nation Men Women
Jews Usually Covered Covered
Romans Covered Covered
Greeks Uncovered Uncovered

See “Head Covering Practices” at the end of this book for evidence. What we find is that the rules Paul prescribed to the Corinthians do not match the prevailing customs of any group in Corinth at that time. Oftentimes Paul’s statements are discounted as applying only as a local custom, but there is no evidence that such a custom existed. However, this might hint at the reason behind the discussion. Corinth is a Greek city. The predominant practice is for women to worship with their heads uncovered. Like most congregations, outside practices often filter in.

Paul states that a woman not following this command is equivalent to a woman who has cut her hair short (Greek: kerio). But if she finds the idea of cutting her hair short or shaving her head (Greek: xurao) shameful, then she should wear a covering. In other words, Paul is appealing to a woman’s innate sense of propriety to show she has a natural inclination toward keeping her head covered.

Some will argue that the long hair must be the covering Paul is urging. It has several difficulties; first, the word for long hair is komao (used in I Corinthians 11:15), the word used for covered is kata or katakalupto and uncovered is akatakaluptos. The second problem is that I Corinthians 11:5-6 becomes nonsensical if you replace covered with “short hair” and uncovered with “long hair.” It should be clear that the covering discussed is separate from the hair.

Showing the Order of Birth (I Corinthians 11:7-12)

Paul’s second argument is that since man is the image and glory of God, he should not cover his head (Genesis 1:26; 5:1). Since woman is the glory of man, she should cover her head (Genesis 2:23; 3:16).

Going back to the creation, Paul points out that woman came from man when God formed Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. He also pointed out that woman was created for the man and not the other way around (Genesis 2:18). Because of these two facts, a woman ought to have power or authority (Greek: exousia) on her head. In other words, the covering represents symbolically that the woman is under authority. This is commonly accepted, but it should be noted that referring to a covering as “power” is unique to this verse alone and causes commentators to wonder why the unusual word choice.

She should also do this “because of the angels.” This phrase has caused a great deal of discussion because what Paul had in mind is not clearly stated. One likely possibility is that some angels did not keep their proper place and rebelled (Jude 6). They will be punished and to think that humans will escape punishment though they also rebel is a useless thought. A second possibility is that Paul is referring to angelic observers to state that a woman should not think she can get away with rebellion without being seen (Ecclesiastes 5:6; I Corinthians 4:9; Ephesians 3:10). A third view is that the angels of God cover themselves before God (Isaiah 6:2), so for women to reconsider when they think it is degrading to cover themselves.

Paul then balances his statement to make sure we understand that he is not saying men are superior to women. Neither men nor women can exist without the other and we all come from God (Galatians 3:28; I Corinthians 8:6).

Showing the Natural Tendency (I Corinthians 11:13-15)

Paul asks a rhetorical question: Does it seem proper for a woman to pray uncovered? The expected answer to the question is “no.” Many Corinthians come from Roman or Jewish heritage which demanded a covering for worship and that is what most would expect.

Throughout the world, men tend to have short hair and women tend to have long hair. The fact that men tend to lose their hair as they get older, makes long hair not as attractive. Men also tend to be practical nature and, thus, avoid high maintenance items, such as long hair. Men do most of the physical labor and long hair is hot. And since men typically do the fighting in wars, long hair is a handicap as Absalom demonstrated (II Samuel 14:26;18:9). For women, having long hair demonstrates having time for personal care. The fact that in the Old Testament a few men are pointed out as having long hair, such as Absalom and Samson, but not for having short hair implies that it was an uncommon trait. Then, too, we have an innate desire to demonstrate a distinction between the sexes. For a man to appear womanly or a woman to appear manly is typically seen as shameful.

A woman’s long hair becomes a natural covering. The word for “covering” here is a different one than had been used up to this point. Here it is the Greek word peribolaion, which refers to a mantle thrown over the shoulders. The point is not that long hair is a sufficient alternative to a covering, but that having long hair demonstrates the acceptability of wearing a covering.

No such or no other custom (I Corinthians 11:16)

This verse also is the center of many debates. Some, Paul indicates, may be inclined to contend against what he has just taught. In answer to their disagreement, Paul asserts that the apostles and the churches have no such or no other custom. Unfortunately, the Greek allows either interpretation, but the two can have vastly different meanings in English. If Paul is speaking of being contentious, then it makes sense to say that there is no accepted tradition by the apostles or the churches to accept disagreement over what God has revealed (I Corinthians 14:36-38). If Paul is speaking of being contentious regarding what he just revealed, he is saying there is no other custom taught by the apostles or in practice in the other churches. Therefore, the contentious person should be silent because this isn’t a specialized command just for the Corinthians.

A third view is that Paul is saying that if anyone disagrees, what he just taught isn’t taught by the other apostles or practiced in the other churches. The implication is that if someone really disagreed with the rules regarding covering, they could ignore them. The problem is that it is not like Paul to forcefully argue a point and then turn around and say it doesn’t matter whether it is followed since no one else does it. A second problem is that this implies that the rules for the covering were only for the Corinthians because of their locale, yet as we showed before the rules given don’t match what we know of the local customs of that time. Finally, when you review Paul’s reasons behind the rules, he appeals to the events of creation, how angels behave, and natural tendencies. There is no supportive argument given based on local practices.

Class Discussion:

  1. Is it important to demonstrate submission, or is claiming to be submissive enough?
  2. Can submission be forced or must it be voluntarily given?
  3. Why do men praying bareheaded give glory to Christ, but women praying with heads covered give glory to man?
  4. Can a church demand or force a woman to wear a covering? What is lost if wearing a covering is not voluntary?
  5. Is it acceptable for a man to have long hair or a woman to have short hair?
  6. How long is long or how short is short? Why aren’t lengths given?
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