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There's a passage of text that has always confused me. I'm curious if there's any special historical context for this passage or if there's some understanding of these commands that I'm completely missing.

The passage is here in 1 Corinthians 11:

1 Corinthians 11:4-6 (NIV)
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

What is this head covering referring to? Is this a specific hat that Paul is requiring? Or is he referring to any type of hat? (Or is this referring to something entirely different?)

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My comments below cover the entire section, verses 2-16. The NET Bible includes a number of translator notes on this passage that are helpful.

In verse 3 Paul describes a hierarchy of authority as follows:

  • God (the Father)
  • Christ
  • Man - ἀνήρ (Strongs G435) - "man"; male (adult?); husband
  • Woman - γυνή (Strongs G1135) - "woman"; female (adult?), regardless of marital status; wife

Although each instance of "man" in this verse includes a definite article, "woman" does not. If you read Constable's notes in the NET Bible, he takes this to mean that there is a direct relationship between these two - a man and his wife. In other words, according to this view Paul does not mean that every man is an authority over every woman.

"Head" is the translation of κεφαλή (Strongs G2776) - "head"; physically, the nerve center; metaphorically, a superior, chief, lord, authority; origin or source. I've intentionally used the word "authority" here, because I think it's clear from other passages (such as Galatians 3:28) that Paul does not teach superiority of one gender over the other. Furthermore, viewing this as specific to a marital relationship dovetails into passages such as Ephesians 5 or 1 Peter 3 that use very similar language.

Moving on to verses 4-5, Paul introduces a play on words, contrasting between men and women regarding a covering or symbol on their physical head, apparently in light of their metaphoric or spiritual "head". He also uses several different words for "covered" and "uncovered". First, a man should not have his head "covered" - ἔχω (Strongs G2192); to hold or wear (something), possess - while praying or prophesying. To do so brings disgrace on his head - possibly referring to Christ, as opposed to his physical head. Likewise, a woman should not have her head "uncovered" - ἀκατακάλυπτος (Strongs G177); not covered, not veiled (Note the etymology here: the root word is 2619 below, preceded by "ἀ" to indicate an inversion of meaning) - while praying or prophesying, or she disgraces her head - possibly referring to her husband, as opposed to her physical head.

In verse 6, he introduces a new word for "cover" - κατακαλύπτω (Strongs G2619); to cover or veil. He also compares between the humiliation of a woman whose head was shaved or who had short hair - possibly a cultural reference, though I could find little information one way or the other - with a woman who did not have her head covered. The crux of his argument seems to be that it would be shameful for a woman to have short hair or a shaved head, but she brings the same shame by not having her head covered. So he establishes two contrasting statements: Head not covered -> cut off hair. If cut-off hair is shameful -> cover head.

Verses 7-9, 11-12 add a new dimension to the discussion. (Skipping 10 for a moment) Here, he says that a man should not have his head covered, because he is "the image and glory of God", while the woman is the "glory of the man". The word translated "glory" here and below in verse 15 is δόξα (Strongs G1391); opinion, judgment or view; splendor, brightness, magnificence, excellence, dignity, majesty. He then refers back to the creation account in which Eve was formed from Adam's rib. This has three implications:

  • From the definition of "head" above, man is the "source" of woman
  • Woman was created as a suitable helper for the man
  • Neither men or women are independent from one another

Backing up to verse 10 now, Paul introduces a "symbol of authority" - ἐξουσία (Strongs G1891); authority, liberty, strength, privilege, government. However, he does not specify exactly what this symbol should be. Perhaps this is another cultural reference. It is also possible that this refers to an external symbol representing her internal attitude of deference to male leadership in the church, particularly to her husband. (This alludes to a much larger topic that Paul will tackle later in the chapter - but note that his assumption here is that women are actively involved in certain "churchy" behaviors, and that's okay.)

An interesting aside also appears in verse 10 - she should have a symbol of authority on her head "because of the angels." This seems to be a reference that is now lost to us, though the NET Bible notes suggest that this might refer to Ephesians 3:10.

In verse 13-15, Paul now discusses the matter of hair as covering. First, he asks a rhetorical question that assumes (based on the sentence structure) an answer of "no" - "is it proper for a woman to pray with an uncovered head?" Next, he contrasts long hair on men vs. women - his argument states that, just as it would be shameful for a man to have long hair, for a woman to have long hair is her "glory". (See definition of G1391 above.) Furthermore, he states that the woman's long hair has been given to her as a "covering" - περιβόλαιον (Strongs G4018); mantle, veil, wrapper. This is the only appearance of this particular word in the passage, so he seems to be saying something slightly different here than in the previous contexts where a woman's head should be "covered".

Paul concludes in verse 16 with an appeal to the existing practice church-wide. In other words, his comments here mirror the orthopraxy of the church in a universal sense.

Now then, how to apply this? (Maybe a little too doctrinal here? :) )

  • If we assume from verse 2 that this was purely a Corinthian cultural teaching with no modern applicability, that seems to make it easy enough to ignore. However:
    • Where does this then leave us on the application of passages like Ephesians 5?
    • Paul seems pretty adamant in verse 16 that their violation of this is deeper than a cultural matter - it points to an issue of orthodox practice across the church. As well, he may also be pointing out the possible spiritual ramifications mentioned above.
  • We could assume that the "covering" is equivalent to the woman's hair.
    • Some denominations therefore frown upon women cutting their hair or wearing short styles. However, my personal concern with this is that it's a short road to legalism. "All women shall have hair not less than 36 inches in length.", etc... (True story, related by disconnected tangent: one of my high school teachers had a quirky yet well-kept beard. They moved to another state and joined a new church; he was required to shave, under the reasoning that not everyone was capable of growing a nice-looking beard so men in the church just weren't allowed to have beards - you wouldn't want the ones with beards to feel proud, or the men who couldn't grow one to feel inferior.)
    • We might also consider this a cultural tradition, since there doesn't seem to be much concern these days with women wearing short hair styles.
    • This view is muddled slightly by verses 10 and 15 - while verse 15 seems to suggest that the woman's hair is her covering, verse 10 suggests that whatever is in scope here should be a symbol of some kind.
    • Likewise, the text seems to set up the point that, if a woman would not have the symbol of authority, she ought to cut off her hair too. This makes it difficult to work out that the hair is the symbolic covering, since this would be redundant in these verses - "If a woman won't wear long hair, she should cut off her hair." ??
  • Perhaps the scope of the passage is intended to mean a literal, external symbol such as a veil, covering or cap.
    • This then needs to be discussed further, based on whether or not this literal symbol is still expected today. Some denominations do so, pointing to this passage as a scriptural mandate.
    • If we assume that this is still expected today, then we would need to consider the following as well:
      • Does this apply to all women, or only those who are married?
      • Do other cultural symbols, such as a wedding band, supercede this?
      • Does it apply throughout life, only within the church or (even more narrowly) only when actively engaged in a part of the worship service?
    • Likewise, if we take the stance that this was a valid, external symbol for the culture but is not a matter of orthodox practice today, why not?
      • As above, is a symbol such as a wedding ring seen as a symbolic replacement?
      • Is this ignored today because of our own cultural reasons, because it is "difficult", or because of a simple lack of desire to do so?

My understanding of this passage is probably colored by the fact that I grew up Mennonite - one of the denominations in which a physical veil or covering is still widely normative.

There are several Bible.org articles that cover these details as well, and I've linked some of them below. What's interesting as well is that they each reach somewhat different conclusions.

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Those articles are excellent. Also, thanks for the work that went into this one. –  Richard Nov 9 '11 at 22:23
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+1: Excellent work! I better not follow too many of those links or there goes my day. ;-) (This article makes me wish I had an army of sock-puppets to up-vote it.) –  Jon Ericson Nov 9 '11 at 23:13
    
Ha! My church has been working our way through 1 Corinthians for a while now. Guess what passage we started in on today? –  GalacticCowboy Nov 13 '11 at 20:02
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@LanceRoberts The length of hair is not the point of the passage - Paul uses it only to shed light on the real point. Whether it is hair length or an external symbol, the underlying point is a matter of the heart. –  GalacticCowboy Jan 14 '12 at 3:58
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@GalacticCowboy, every rule/law in scripture comes down to a matter of the heart. There is a principle behind it all, but the specifics still matter. Paul used the principle of not muzzling the ox that treads the corn to show that it's ok to pay pastors, but that didn't make muzzling the ox any less relevant. –  Lance Roberts Jan 14 '12 at 4:59
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God's glory is his authority and power. The male represents the authority and power of God, and therefore his head is uncovered. God's glory is thus unobstructed. The man is therefore unashamed to have short hair (or a shaven head), but in fact "glories" as such. We can say that such a man "beams" with the glory of God.

The woman's glory is her beauty, and therefore her head is covered. (We might also add that her head is also covered because she does not represent the authority and power of God.) She is therefore beautiful to the man. We can say that such a woman "beams" with the glory of man.

If, on the other hand, a woman would rather represent the authority and power of God, then her head should be uncovered (or shaven) to her shame.

BUT, if a woman just so happens to have short hair (for WHATEVER reasons), then she should just wear a wig, which were worn in the ancient world. THE WIG IS THEREFORE THE SO-CALLED COVERING TO WHICH PAUL REFERS.

That is, if a woman already has long hair, then her head is covered with hair; but if she has short hair, or shaven head, then she is to wear a covering (which is a WIG). If she insists on representing God's power and authority, then her head is to be left uncovered or shaven. To put it another way, even if she physically has long hair, a woman who tries to represent the authority and power of God is simply shameful, and therefore she is no different than a woman with her head shaven. In fact, Paul says, she should simply remove her hair accordingly (and "uncover" her head), since the uncovered head represents the power and glory of God by definition (which, as we noted, is the place of the male).

Finally, and not least, Paul mentions that men with long hair are "contrary to nature" as objects of beauty among men -- that is, the place of long hair is specific only to the woman. It is therefore MOST terrible when such a man with such a "covered" head is praying and prophesying.

Now here is the curve ball.

When Paul mentions "because of the angels" he is saying that what he is stating is timeless. That is, the long hair / short hair debate is not specific to the First Century of Christianity in the Roman World. When he says "because of the angels" he is saying that the angels recognize the authority and power of God through the male, and that principle crosses all cultures and all times in the entire history of the world. Paul is therefore not hung up on First Century chauvinism. He is very careful to remind us that men and women originate one from the other (another timeless fact), and therefore are one flesh at parity with one another as human beings. Nonetheless, the male (and not the female) represent the authority and power of God, and this principle is most relevant in "prophesying" (teaching, correction, and exhortation) of the Word of God, when the authority and power of God is exercised over its listeners.

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The covering Paul is speaking of here cannot be a cloth covering. 1. God did not prescribe style, to denote a religious object. Therefore, it is not a religious object. 2. Since it is not a God-prescribed religious object, then it could be any cloth, if it is indeed a cloth. This includes weather protection. 3. If women's weather protection is enough to cover her head, then men's head protection is enough to cover his head too much for prayer. Does God want men to risk frostbite, in order not to dishonor Christ? The scriptures rate it a worse thing for a man to pray covered, than for a woman to pray uncovered!

  1. Paul defines his own terms. Her hair is given to her for a covering. Just because that word is peribolaion, which is different from the word katakalupto, does not mean one is spiritual, and the other natural. Peribolaion is a noun. Katakalupto is a verb. Just as we eat(verb) using food (noun), and we do not see eat as a spiritual object, and food as a natural object, even so we need to use common sense with the Greek words here. Katakalupto means to cover down over. Peribolaion is someTHING thrown around one, as a mantle. Therefore, the peribolaion provided by God does indeed katakalupto the woman's head.

  2. Verse 6 is used to counter this common-sense approach of allowing Paul define his own terms. "Shorn or shaven" is seen as two different lengths of hair: shorn is thought of as simply cut or trimmed hair, while shaven is seen as hair completely cut off at the scalp level. But the Scriptures define "shorn" to mean the same length as "shaven."

In Numbers 6, God gives the Law about shaving the head after keeping a vow. Paul keeps this command twice in the New Testament. In Acts 21, it says Paul shaved his head. But in Acts 18, that same law was obeyed by Paul having his head "shorn." In fact, the Greek term here is used to refer to a sheep's shorn fleece. Therefore, "shorn or shaven" both are talking about the same length of hair: completely removed at scalp level.

  1. Verse 9 refers to Creation. Therefore, this principle existed ever since Creation, and is evident in how God wanted men and women to appear before him ever since that time. Yet, we have no commandment whatsoever in the Old Testament to women, to wear a cloth on their heads. Obviously, it was customary for both men and women to do so, but it was not a command of God.

However, in the Law, God prescribed bonnets for the priests for a glory. If it were a shame for men to pray covered, then God got it wrong. Also, God told Ezekiel to first cover his head, and then to prophesy. Again, if it is a shame for man to pray or prophesy with covered head, then God got it wrong there.

Yet, the long-feminine-hair-being-the-women's-covering is completely consistent throughout both Old and New Testaments. God said how he felt about the length of men's hair, when he prescribed the priests hair to be "neither long, nor shaven, but only polled."

Therefore, the entire passage is easily understood, if we allow Paul to define his own terms. Of course it is a shame to a woman's own head, her husband, and to her Creator, if she has a man's hairstyle! And it is a shame for a man to pray with long hair. God didn't design androgyny. He designed gender distinction.

If a man's head is too covered to pray having long hair, then a woman's head is covered enough to pray, if she has that same long hair.

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So you think "covering" == "hair"? Verse 6 seems to directly conflict this "For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off;" If "cover her head" means having long hair, then Paul is saying that if a woman doesn't have long hair, she should have her hair cut. That would mean that Paul is talking in circles, which he is not prone to doing. It seems to me that you are the one defining your own terms, not Paul. –  Richard May 1 at 15:53
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Could someone with a respectable knowledge of greek explain which part of the sentence mentions, or even implies, covering his head?

πᾶς ἀνὴρ προσευχόμενος ἡ προφητεύων κατὰ κεφαλῆς ἔχων καταισχύνει τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ.

Every man praying and prophesying about head has shamed his head.

What is κατὰ, besides its usual normal meaning? How could one ever conclude it implies covering of head?

Let me offer my yet another self-absorbed opinion/observation. The passage says:

Any man who prays or prophesies while being too concerned about the head shames his head, has embarrassed his intellectual capacity to think.

Yes, y'all idiots, you believe a woman should cover her head. Otherwise she would dishonour her head. Like as though her head should be better shorn.

Well, whatever! If you feel a woman needs to cover her head or be shorn, I would prefer her head covered.

Pardon me for my liberal sprinkling of embellishments.

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What do you understand the "normal meaning" of κατὰ to be? –  swasheck Oct 19 '12 at 18:29
    
... when it takes a noun in the genitive? (this is a continuation of @swasheck 's question for Blessed Geek). –  Daи Dec 13 '13 at 3:16
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