The Custom Of God’s Churches: Head Coverings And Cultural Appropriateness (Part 1)

Getting to the Main Issue

The evangelical impulse to submit our practices to Scripture is a noble instinct. So is the attempt to search the Scriptures diligently to understand what it says and how to apply it. Sometimes, particular passages produce perennial questions about how to practice the Christian faith. In some cases, people might find what Scripture enjoins difficult and, therefore, look for reasons to explain it away. In other cases, we might be confronted with genuine interpretive challenges about how to understand and apply what Scripture teaches.

Paul’s teaching about husbands, wives, and head coverings is one such passage whose meaning Christians have greatly wrestled over. Some believe that in this passage Paul is arguing from natural law that women should always wear head coverings in public worship. Others argue that the injunction about head coverings was culturally conditioned according to ancient cultural norms. As we will see, this passage is truly challenging, even at the grammatical level. That we struggle to translate this passage clearly and to grasp every point of reference makes understanding it conceptually all the more difficult. In other words, because it is hard to follow even at the most basic level, the disagreement about this passage is not merely a matter of dodging Scripture’s demands.

What is clear is that, in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, we have an issue of propriety and Christians not thinking clearly about how to relate Christian freedom to cultural norms. Paul’s repeated refrain since 1 Corinthians 5—which some in Corinth could not quite grasp—is that being a Christian does not free us from every obligation to live well before God and for our neighbor. That failure was clearly in the background of 1 Corinthians 11. To put it broadly, something had gone wrong regarding how Christians were presenting themselves in some kind of mixed company as they engaged in practicing their religion.

As we work through 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, it might be easy to bring our own questions to the text. We ought, however, to remember that biblical interpretation is best served by letting the passage determine even the questions we ask of it. The Scripture teaches the answers to the questions we ought to ask, so our real goal is to learn what we ought to be asking the Scripture and then to see how it answers. That frames our approach to this passage.

Our questions have historically focused on whether women are still bound to wear head coverings in public worship. Regardless of the answer to that question, it is ancillary to Paul’s own main point. His primary concern was about modesty and propriety in relationships, particularly as expressed in the circumstances occurring in this passage. Thus, we need to discern rather than assume what those circumstances were. Only then can we see how the issue of head covering pertains. The main point we must all learn from 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is that we should make every effort to maintain Christian modesty and propriety in our relationships.

The Tricky Situation

1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is one of the hardest passages in Scripture to untangle. Even at the grammatical level, our English translations hide many of the challenges by smoothing out difficulties; translators make decisions about meanings of words and phrases and translate the text with greater clarity than is present in the original.

For example, the ESV makes verse 4 seem very straightforward by translating it: “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.” Minding the Greek, however, a literal rendering would be, “Every husband praying or prophesying having against a head dishonors his head.” The Greek phrase κατὰ κεφαλῆς ἔχων just does not come easily into English, nor is its reference immediately clear.1 At the grammatical level, it is very hard to know what “having against a head” or “having down a head” even means. By using inference and contextual clues, translators surmise that it refers either to a man with long hair down his head or to a covering against his head. Scholars fill in the blank with inferences from the passage. In this passage, however, multiple other similar instances occur where the grammar itself is difficult, the reference is not obvious, and the logic is not as limpid as in other places in Paul’s epistles.

Further, no real consensus has emerged across the centuries about this passage’s major argument or major application. Paul himself omitted his typical clear logical connections, leaving a rather winding and seemingly ad hoc argument that lacked his usual vigor for the issue. That stylistic complexity makes it complicated for us to trace his point. Thus, several viable interpretations present themselves, forcing us as interpreters to be humble in approaching this passage. I admit that I am grappling with a text that leaves me aware that Scripture is my master and I have not mastered it.

What do we do in these situations? We submit ourselves to God’s Word to be instructed as far as we can. We all must come to any passage ready to be changed. I certainly came to this passage in 1 Corinthians 11 ready to have my opinions upheaved, and they were—more than once. So, our best posture is to expect God’s Word to mold our minds and direct our lives.

The point of this section has simply been to highlight some objective challenges in understanding this passage. No one—especially those who are exclusively reliant upon English translations—should presume the straightforward clarity of their exegetical conclusions. Presumption of that sort would only reveal ignorance and lack of attention to the text and its details.

A New Translation

In light of the previous section, it seems helpful to furnish readers of this series with a fresh translation of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 that might highlight some of these difficulties. The following translation, therefore, is highly wooden. Interpretive decisions to smooth phrases by adding words have been marked in square brackets. As you read, I hope it strikes you how non-fluid Paul’s reasoning is, which starkly contrasts with his usual pattern of argument. He seems to have been confronting an issue brought to him, rather than one that he has decided to raise.

Now, I commend you because you remember everything concerning me and likewise I delivered to you, and so you maintain the traditions. 3 But I want you to know that every husband’s head is Christ and the wife’s head is the husband, and Christ’s head is God. 4 Every husband praying or prophesying while having [something] down his head dishonors his head, 5 but every wife praying or prophesying with her head uncovered dishonors her head because one is the same with having been shaven. 6 Because if a wife will not cover herself, then also let her shave off her hair. But if [it is] disgraceful for a wife to cut or to shave her hair, then let her cover herself. 7 Because, on the one hand, a husband ought not to cover himself, since existing as God’s image and glory, but the wife is the husband’s glory. 8 Because the husband is not from the wife, but the wife is from the husband. 9 Because also the husband was not created because of the wife, but the wife because of the husband. 10 For this reason, the wife ought to have authority on the head, on account of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, neither is the wife apart from the husband nor a husband apart from a wife in the Lord. 12 Because just as the wife is from the husband thus also the husband is through the wife but everything is from God. 13 Judge among yourselves: Is it proper for a wife to pray to God while uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, then it is a disgrace to him, 15 but if a wife wears long hair, then it is a glory to her? Because hair is given to her instead of a covering. 16 Now, if any supposes to be argumentative, then we have no custom of this sort, nor do God’s churches. (1 Corinthians 11:2–16)

Next time we will look at the governing features and specific circumstances of this passage with fresh eyes as we seek to understand and apply its message.


  1. Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 823–28; Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 558–60.

©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.

You can find this whole series here.


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One comment

  1. Thank you, Mr. Perkins, for this write-up. I’m looking forward to Part 2. Paul did not go to the “explain it like I’m a five-year-old” school of rhetoric. Add to that 2000 years of contextual displacement, and this passage becomes one of those that Peter speaks of as “hard to understand” indeed.


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