Heads, Hats, and Hair
(questions about 1 Corinthians 11)
by Bob Burridge ©2011
Some teachings of the Bible are completely at odds with what we see being commonly accepted in our world today. The domestic roles God assigned to men and women are often the target of attack. At one extreme, male headship is perverted into dictatorship, and female subjection into slavery. At the other extreme, the idea of any kind of male headship in the home is rejected altogether.
The entire biblical family structure faces challenges that threaten our homes and loved ones. The aborting of our unborn children has been permitted by law in our country for several decades. Open sexual practices empty marriage of its once valued intimacy. Unmarried couples are led to believe that it is normal and healthy to engage in sexual activity without the bond of marriage. Some in same-gender relationships want to call what they have “marriage”. They are not content with just being tolerated. They want to force everyone else to accept their definitions and views, and to reject what the Bible says about marriage.
In warfare one of the basic goals is to disrupt the enemy’s command structure. If no one is effectively in charge, there can be no coordinated supplies, attacks, or defenses. The unifying principles that direct an army will be abandoned, and individual soldiers will begin to look out for themselves. They forget the larger reasons they are there.
It makes sense that the spiritual enemies of God would attack the organization of God’s Kingdom. The family structure is so basic that it becomes a natural target. The husband-wife roles are the foundation of the family. It is no surprise that the duties God assigns to men and women would be attacked.
There is a full-court press going on to make godliness appear to be a blight upon society. Those who believe what the Bible says about men, women, and marriage are portrayed as bigots and enemies of our culture.
These are not entirely new attacks. God’s ways have been the target of evil from the beginning of time. In the ancient city of Corinth a pagan culture and an influence of confused Judaism were clashing with Christian principles. There was confusion about how the new believers should adjust their lives to deal biblically with the way things were believed and done around them while living in a city dominated by unbelievers.
The Apostle Paul wrote his First letter to the Corinthians to explain God’s principles to them. He did not just teach detached ideas and theories. He was committed to clarifying God’s ways and how they lead us to live as lights to this sin darkened world day by day. In chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians he takes up one of these issues.
Paul set an example by personally
honoring and obeying the teachings of Jesus.
1 Corinthians 11:1, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.”
Some put this verse as the conclusion to chapter 10. It is actually a nice transition. Paul’s point is that he has tried to be an example of the principles he taught.
Chapter 11 does not introduce a totally different idea. In chapter 10 he warned that believers should consider how others perceive their actions. He said there is nothing morally wrong with eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. However, clearly the worship of idols is evil. In situations where others consider the meat to be sacred in some Pagan sense, we should not eat it so that others would not think we are honoring their idols. In Chapter 11 he shows how this fundamental principle applies in another situation.
First, he reminded them how much
he appreciated their allegiance.
1 Corinthians 11:2, “Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.”
He was pleased that they continued to follow the traditions he taught them. The Bible mentions both good and bad traditions. A tradition is some accepted practice that is passed on to preserve some idea or principle. Good traditions help us to stay within God’s boundaries, and to remember God’s truths. Bad traditions create misleading boundaries, and promote false ideas.
There was a clash of traditions concerning
the principle of headship in the home.
1 Corinthians 11:3, “But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”
God organized the family to teach about his nature and about the church he would redeem. In the Trinity, all three persons are perfectly equal in power and glory. Yet there is an orderliness in the Trinity. The Father sends the Son to redeem his people, and the Son is subject to the Father. Both the Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit to carry out certain works. There is subordination without inferiority or superiority – equals who carry out different works.
God established a similar relationship for the family. He made the male to be head of the wife and of the home. He created the female to be in supportive subjection to the man’s headship, subordination without inferiority or superiority – equals who carry out different works.
Paul gives more detail about that home organization in Ephesians 5:22-33. There it says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her,”
In that chapter it is clear that male headship is not to be self-serving. Male headship in the home is to represent Christ’s headship of the church. Therefore it is not to abuse the wife, to get his own way, or to be dictatorial. His role is to lead in a way that lovingly gives himself for his wife’s benefit and enrichment. His headship is to reflect Christ’s care of his church.
There is no superiority implied in male headship. Christ is equal with God the Father in substance and glory. Yet he was sent to carry out the work of redeeming his Father’s children. So also men and woman are equal in substance and worth. Yet the male is responsible for guiding the family, providing for it, and protecting it. He is to help his wife and family grow in Christ so they can enjoy God’s blessing to the fullest.
There was a danger that threatened this relationship in the Corinthian worship.
Male headship was represented in Corinth
by head coverings for the women.
1 Corinthians 11:4-7
4 Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head.
5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved.
6 For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.
7 For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.
The situation here has to do with what goes on in the public worship of the church. This becomes more clear later in this letter when Paul explains what it is to pray and prophesy.
Evidently, there was a tradition in the Corinthian culture about head coverings. They had come to represent submission to some human authority. If men covered their heads while praying or prophesying in worship, they disgraced their headship by implying they were in subjection to those they should be leading. When women covered their heads it showed their respect of the authority of their husbands. If she prayed or prophesied with her head uncovered she disgraced her husband’s headship. It was as if she was rejecting God’s order. This was a good tradition to the degree that it promoted a biblical truth.
In that culture, the women may as well shave their heads, if they worship with their heads uncovered. Chrysostom, a first-century writer said that a woman caught committing adultery had her head shaved as to mark her as a prostitute for rejecting her husband’s headship.
The Bible does not mention this custom in any other place than here in this letter to Corinth. John Calvin warned that we should not be “so hide-bound” that people would condemn the Pastors in his time who wore skull caps when preaching. But he agreed that the principle it represented in Corinth is a good one. It should be respected when it shows a wife’s subjection to her husband while in worship.
The principle in this context is like not eating meat that was once sacrificed to idols in the previous chapter. God never commanded it as a universal moral tradition. However, in situations where our practices would generally communicate an unbiblical attitude, we should avoid offense and follow the good customs.
Paul’s reasoning in verse 7 is a little hard to follow because of the technical terms he uses. Mankind in general was made in the Image of God, both male and female. They both are to make good use of their abilities and resources. Together they produce families, and make up the church of God on earth. But that is not what Paul was referring to here. The Greek wording he uses here are a little different that that which is used in the more general context of bearing God’s image as his creatures.
He is saying in this context that the male was created to be a reflection of God’s authority in caring for us. The female was made to be a reflection of the authority God gave to her husband.
This basic principle of headship
was established at creation.
1 Corinthians 11:8-12
8 For man is not from woman, but woman from man.
9 Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man.
10 For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.
11 Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord.
12 For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.
When God made the animals, he made them male and female at the same time. With humans he made only the man first, then made woman from him to be his helper. Unlike the animals, humans were made to specially represent God in the world. From the beginning, the differences in male and female would not be only for producing children. They were to reveal God’s grace and show his love for those he would redeem.
Before he made Eve, God let Adam come to realize that he was incomplete by himself. His wife was made to be a fit helper for him in carrying out his responsibilities in the garden.
There was no inequality or inferiority. They complemented one another, were needed by one another, and were mutually important to one another. However, they would have different roles in reflecting God’s glory, and in fulfilling his plan.
Verse 10 has some confusing expressions in it. literally it says: “Therefore, the woman ought to have authority on the head because of the angels”
In Corinth at that time, the head covering represented submission to her husband’s God-given authority over her. The part about the angels is harder to understand. God has not given us much information here. This particular issue never comes up in any other place in the Bible.
The word the Bible uses for “angels”, angelos (αγγελος), is the word that was commonly used at that time for all types of “messengers”. It was used for human messengers as well as for spirit beings. In war chronicles it often mentioned “angels” (messengers) carrying messages from the generals to the troops on the front lines.
One theory is that this refers to the spirit beings who serve God in various ways. The Bible says that God’s angels are observers of the church on earth. However, it is not clear how this is a reason for women to wear head coverings in Corinth during worship. It would not be helpful here to go over all the strange imagined theories about angels lusting for women.
Some think this means that uncovered female heads were somehow offensive to church Pastors as messengers of God to represent him to the church. However, that does not seem to fit with the message of this passage very well.
More likely it means that if the spirit messengers of God saw the woman rejecting this symbol of subjection, the angles would be the instruments to bring it before God for his judgment for confusing and obscuring creation’s authority structure.
Whatever it meant, the Corinthians would have understood this expression. Paul’s point is clear: The women members of the Corinthian church should show their respect for the authority God gave to their husbands. They were obligated to make sure their submission was communicated to others. This meant respecting what the traditions of their own culture meant.
Paul sets out the reasoning behind his warning:
1 Corinthians 11:13-16
13 Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?
14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him?
15 But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering.
16 But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.
The Apostle repeats the moral issue and asks them to make a judgment based upon certain facts. They should consider nature itself which teaches that hair length implies something. The word for “nature” here refers to inherent properties that characterize something.
The Greek word Paul uses for “nature” is phusis (φυσις). The Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich Greek Lexicon defines it as, “a natural endowment or condition, natural characteristics or disposition, the natural order of things, a product of nature .. creature”.
There was a broad usage of the term at the time of Paul’s writing. It was often used for things that seem “natural” to people, their disposition toward things as commonly accepted. We use the term that way when we say, “that just doesn’t seem natural”. Paul could not mean God’s creation order. That would be contrary to both our observations, and other biblical mandates.
In cultures where the hair is never cut or removed, men tend to have much more hair covering their bodies than do women. Both grow very long hair on their heads. The average human hair growth rate on the head is 0.44 mm/day. It tends to slow down some as we get older and is a little faster in women than men. However, the slight differences in rate are hardly a compelling and obvious argument.
The context here and in chapter 10 has to do with traditions and what is natural in their culture. We know from coins and statues that men cut their hair short in that Greek-Roman culture. The women let their hair grow long showing their distinction as females. We need to be aware of cultural symbols that represent things to those who live in that setting.
Back in verse 9 Paul referred to the creation order. In the physical sense, male headship was established because God made Adam first. Here in verse 14 he seems to direct their attention to what is accepted as “natural” in their culture. The creation order of male headship was in a sense being preserved by a good Corinthian tradition. In most societies men and women have different hair styles that preserve their distinction. The idea that there should be no difference between the roles of men and women goes against what even pagan cultures have generally recognized by their practices. However society may depict it at the time, we should promote the role of male headship.
Paul adds that if someone wants to argue the point, they have no customary support.
We need to be careful here not to confuse Paul’s applications with the principles themselves. He is not teaching dietary laws for Christians in chapter 10, and he is not teaching dress codes and hair styles for Christians in chapter 11.
The point he is making continues the basic principle discussed in the previous chapter. There is nothing morally right or wrong about hair length in and of itself. God required men to let their hair grow uncut under certain vows (Numbers 6:5). Crowns on the heads of kings represented their authority, not submission to other men. The Old Testament Priests were required to wear special hats while performing acts of worship. God would not command such things it they were inherently immoral or decidedly feminine.
At this time in Corinth, hats in worship showed submission to human authority. Long hair also represented the feminine role of women among God’s people.
The point here is not to command certain outward symbolisms. It is to show the importance of what was represented by them.
Though the customs here are hard to clarify,
the principle taught is not confusing at all.
Our lives should reflect and communicate respect for the creation order of things. Our freedom in Christ is not only bound by God’s universal and direct commandments. It is also bound by what appears to support sinful ideas or unbiblical teachings. Extremes in style often represent rebellion against rightful authority.
To a limited degree, young people often like to show that they question some of the meaningless traditions to which people cling. They often adopt outrageous hair styles, trendy clothes, and their own kinds of slang expressions to develop their own culture and traditions. The next generations will probably question and replace those which are made popular today. In the 50’s there were leather jackets, long sideburns and ducktails, saddle shoes, and poodle skirts. Those who wore them were often thought of as in rebellion. For some, it was true. Most were just following trends. In the late 60’s there were tie-dyed fabrics, uncut hair, sandals, and granny dresses. In the 70’s it was bell bottoms, platform shoes and big afro hair styles. Today the extremes go from urban baggy clothes, to gothic black cassocks.
Christians of all ages need to be careful that while they accept or reject cultural traditions, that they are not giving the appearance of rejecting good principles which are based upon God’s priorities and ways. It is one thing to want to be stylish, but we should be aware of what our styles say to others.
For Corinthian women to worship with their heads uncovered, would have shown a rejection of one of God’s basic principles. For teens to dress outrageously intending to show rejection of their parent’s authority, or of God’s morality, would also be very wrong and sinful. For most today hats and hair length are just matters of style and personal preference.
It is important to maintain and promote biblical principles in our daily lives. We should never appear to reject them by adopting styles or practices that are perceived as contrary to them. We need to know what styles and customs communicate to other believers and to the watching world. While we know to watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing, we need to be careful that as sheep we don’t go around looking like the wolves.
How different our churches, homes, and communities would be if men cared for women as they ought — not to demean them but to respect them, and if women respected the responsibility God gives the men — not to covet their calling, or to take over headship in our homes, or in the ordained offices of our churches.
When we accept God’s order and our own place in it, and the responsibilities God gives others, the kingdom of Christ, our homes, and our communities would be far better places, and God’s truth would be better communicated to a confused and lost world.
As for the matter of women wearing hats in worship today, I would suggest that it is a practice generally understood in the proper biblical sense of 1 Corinthians 11. It is not required by that passage or by any other portion of God’s word. It is allowable as long as it does not become a distraction to worship by head-wear that would draw undue attention to itself, and as long as it does not become a matter of spiritual pride. There are no grounds in Scripture for judging those with or without hats as being more or less spiritual than the others who are there with humble hearts to honor our God.
(Note: The Bible quotations in this article are from the New King James Bible unless otherwise noted.)