The Custom Of God’s Churches: Head Coverings And Cultural Appropriateness (Part 2)

Sometimes passages take on a life of their own in church life or in church history, confronting us with perennial discussions about specific and difficult questions. Such is the case with 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, where Paul discussed the need for modesty and propriety in Christian relationships. The question that has dominated discussion about this text is whether women are permanently bound to wear head coverings in public worship.

When our attention fixates upon a particular question, however, we might inadvertently neglect attending to the passage itself. We can easily assume that the passage in question is about the question we are asking. We must be careful in these situations—it is possible to be so eager to answer our question that we forget to ask the question the text answers.

This second article seeks to push aside assumptions and to discern anew the governing features of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16. This exercise helps us come to new clarity on how to pursue questions about understanding and applying the message of the text. Thus, this article focuses on delineating the specific circumstances under discussion in this passage. We too readily assume the context and leap to ask more specific questions based on that assumption. Thus, this article sets aside assumption to argue that the text itself reveals the circumstance Paul was addressing, and it was not what most assume.

The Presence of Gifts

First, although—as the Heidelcast series “Feathers and All” helpfully explores—charismatic gifts have ceased today, gifts such as prophecy were active during the New Testament period.1 God clearly enabled people to prophesy, which I take as speaking supernatural revelation, and to speak in tongues. Later in 1 Corinthians, Paul discusses those issues in application to church life.

That consideration is important because 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 addresses the circumstances of prophesying, specifically regarding its proper practice. We should not get distracted by a full discussion of cessationism versus continuationism here. The point is that the clear circumstances which surrounded the moral issue Paul needed to address were a situation wherein prayer and the gift of prophesying were being used. That is clear in verses 4–5: “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” (my translation). The issue then concerns how people presented themselves while praying and prophesying.

Worship Is Not the Circumstance of the Passage

Second, this passage is not about public worship. This contention will be the most startling assertion of this argument to some readers. This premise is so readily assumed that it is generally taken for granted in the major commentaries throughout their discussion on this passage.2 This assumption might be the one point of consensus among scholars about the passage’s meaning. Nevertheless, perhaps this one consensus assumption has been at the root of the lack of consensus about most other facets of this passage. Admitting that I am arguing a minority opinion, this section argues that this passage is not about the context of public worship. That premise is crucial for working out how to apply Paul’s meaning today.

How do we know this passage is not about public worship? First, the passage nowhere mentions public worship. The fact that the Lord’s Supper is the next topic of discussion, beginning at verse 17, often drives the assumption that all of 1 Corinthians 11–14 is about public worship. What binds together the discussions in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 and 11:17–34, however, is not a unity of topic concerning public worship, but a contrast. In verse 2, Paul leads with a topic about which he must commend them—namely, that they followed certain traditions about which they now had questions concerning their application. At verse 17, however, Paul changed gears to discuss topics about which he could not commend them. His criticism of their practices of public worship will then carry through chapter 14. To reframe the issue, it seems most likely that Paul had one issue he could commend them about, following which, he gave a thoroughgoing critique of their practices in public worship. Given how wide ranging his problems with their worship were, he would have been reaching for this slim piece of commendation. Having only criticism about their worship (which he began at verse 17), he prefaced it with something unrelated, but which served to soften the blow and to show them the value of when they do follow apostolic patterns.

When we pay attention to the passage itself, we see that these verses focus entirely on the issue of husbands and wives. Worship is not in view; marriage is. Our English translations have not always helped us see the issue clearly. For example, the ESV alternates translating ἀνήρ as both “a man” and as “a husband.” It also alternates translating γυνὴ as both “a woman” and as “a wife.” Throughout the text, however, only one word referring to males and one word referring to females appears.3 Each word can rightly be translated generically—“man” and “woman”—or with specific reference to the marital relationship—“husband” and “wife.” The problem with the varying translation is that it confuses the fact that the same referent is likely intended throughout the unified discussion. For this passage, we need to pick one way to translate each word and maintain it through the argument for clarity’s sake. In this case, the marital relationship seems to be the proper focus. Removing the ambiguity of this translation issue indicates that the passage is not specifically about worship but is focused on the right application of religious life within marriage. In that sense, it is about family worship, not public worship.

How else do we know this passage is not about public worship? Clearly, Paul was discussing what husbands and wives should wear while praying and prophesying. Now, prophetesses do appear in Scripture, for example, Miriam in Exodus 15, Deborah in Judges 4, and Anna in Luke 2. To assume that 1 Corinthians 11 is about public worship, however, places his comments here in direct conflict with what he says elsewhere about how women should not teach in the public assembly. Even later in this same epistle when he does address public worship, including a direct discussion about prophecy, he says in 1 Corinthians 14:29–34:

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. (ESV)

The setting of this passage is how to keep public worship orderly when people prophesy (again noting that charismatic gifts were active then even though they have ceased now). In the context of how prophecy should be managed for public worship, Paul concluded that women should be silent in the churches, meaning they should not address the public assembly as if taking on the authoritative teaching role within the church.4

If we believe Scripture to be consistent with itself, which I do, Paul’s admonition later in 1 Corinthians helps us see that 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is not about public worship. His injunction that women should be silent in the churches has certainly been abused. But when we consider all the exegetic factors, he clearly meant simply that they were not to perform the authoritative teaching action of prophesying while in the public assembly.5 His point is then the same as he made in 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (ESV). The quietness again is not absolute, but contrasts with teaching from an authoritative position. Thus, the real limitation is that women are not to teach the public assembly as if they are a pastor or an elder in the church. We should be cautious about extending the intended ecclesiological application much further than the ecclesiological sphere.

That clarification helps us see that 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is not about public worship because, in our passage being explored, Paul does accept women’s praying and prophetic contributions. In verses 4–5: “Every husband praying or prophesying while having [something] down his head dishonors his head, but every wife praying or prophesying with her head uncovered dishonors her head because one is the same with having been shaven.” Paul clearly assumes the appropriateness of her action to prophesy because his point is about what she needs to do in order to do it correctly. That is where the head covering enters the picture, but we will return to that in another article. The point here is that this passage cannot be about public worship because Paul endorses the wives’ activities of praying and prophesying, but later forbids them from doing just that thing in public worship. This passage therefore concerns praying and prophesying outside public worship.

Has the Tension Been Resolved?

Some more traditionally minded commentators have perceived this tension between Paul’s concession of women prophesying and his later prohibition against them doing the same in public worship and have tried to address it. John Calvin argued that by correcting the wives about prophesying without a head covering, “he at the same time does not give them permission to prophesy in some other way, but rather delays his condemnation of that vice to another passage, namely chapter xiv.”6 Similarly, Charles Hodge argued, Paul “is here speaking of the propriety of women speaking in public unveiled, and therefore he says nothing about the propriety of their speaking in public in itself.” He then concludes like Calvin that Paul circled back to forbid the practice entirely later in the epistle.7

Calvin and Hodge reason this way because they are assuming the context of public worship. In this case, although both were astounding commentators, their reasoning fails. The interpretation amounts to: “Paul saw that these wives were doing something they should not do. Instead of correcting their bad practice in principle, he instructed them about how to do this bad practice correctly. Later, he would reveal that the practice is forbidden in itself and tells them not to do it at all.” The looming question is, why tell them how to do it correctly if it is not a permitted practice at all? In other words, there cannot be a permissible manner to perform an impermissible action. This attempt to solve the tension caused by assuming public worship does not work.

We need to challenge the premise. Kim Riddlebarger suggests a better way: “The solution to this apparent contradiction (women can prophesy, but can’t speak in church) may be as simple as the fact that in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is speaking of women prophesying to other women, or prophesying on occasions other than the regular worship service on the Lord’s Day.”8 Although elsewhere Riddlebarger seemed to accept the common assumption about a context of public worship, here he aptly perceived that the tension goes away if we do not read the setting of public worship into the passage.9 We will suggest in coming posts that the passage is clearly about the exercise of gifts in a setting where marriage is in focus, but the broader point that Paul was discussing something besides public worship holds true. Paul’s instruction for the specific setting in question may transpose to other settings as well. The general conclusion that applies is that 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is not about public worship.


Assumptions can hold powerful sway over our interpretive framework. Some are so longstanding that we struggle to see a passage any other way. In this case, however, questioning the assumed premise that the setting of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 was public worship will help us resolve many other confusing facets of this passage.


  1. See R. Scott Clark, “Feathers and All.”
  2. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 20:1.350; Charles Hodge, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Geneva Series of Commentaries (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 204; Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 801–2; Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 552; Kim Riddlebarger, First Corinthians, Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament (Powder Springs, GA: Tolle Lege Press, 2013), 258.
  3. The exception is in verse 3—ἀνδρὸς—but the referent there is different. The discussion there is more generic about Christ’s relationship to every man, indeed every person. Just after this point, however, Paul narrows the discussion to more specific referents that seem to pertain to relations within marriage.
  4. Fee argues that the passage demands the worship setting because prophecy is directed publicly to God’s community; Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 558. Although true that prophecy is for the covenant community rather than a private experience, that need not require it to be delivered during public worship. How many examples fill the Old Testament of prophets delivering their messages outside the temple, synagogue, or public assembly? The examples of prophetesses already mentioned are clearly in public as their message is not simply private, but they do not address the covenant assembly. Fee has assumed that the only public venue is the assembly of public worship. The assumption is incorrect. As this series argues, the public setting of a wife prophesying is clearly when her husband is with her. The point is not that prophetesses could use their gifts only in that setting, but clearly this situation is public in that the prophesying wife is not alone.
  5. Thiselton rightly picks up the connection between prophecy and authoritative teaching. Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 826.
  6. Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 20:1.356
  7. Hodge, 1 & 2 Corinthians, 208–9.
  8. Riddlebarger, First Corinthians, 263.
  9. Riddlebarger, First Corinthians, 258.

©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.

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  1. Mr. Perkins, thank you for this article.

    I am confused about the meaning of “or” in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5. My uncritical understanding has been that two activities are being addresses here, praying to God and prophesying, which are distinguished by “or” but nevertheless need to be addressed in the same way, namely that a wife should cover her head while praying or prophesying. The argument above about public vs private prayer and prophecy is convincing, but private prayer is still operative even though prophesying is not. Are we to take “or” as “and” here? In other words, is Paul only addressing those private prayers that coincide with prophecy?

    I’d appreciate any clarification (as likely as not I’m just misunderstanding something obvious), or if this issue will be addressed in the series later, I’m happy to just wait until then.

    • In this case, the Greek conjunction is straightforward “or.” So, to be clear, I’m not fiddling with anything to smooth it or interpret it there.

      I think Paul was just listing options there. “If you are doing X or Y [or both I suppose], then…” I haven’t understood “or” as exclusive. I think he’s just listing examples. He may well have been able to list more examples if he’d wanted. If I’m right, after all, both the examples listed are just circumstances for his main point: decorum and appropriateness in relationships.

      In conclusion, I don’t think any major point is carried in the conjunction there.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Intriguing exegetical arguments. Thx.

    Assuming correct for now (still mulling), then question arises (next tweet):

    If the context exists (fam worship), how this still gets applied? I’m assuming wife may pray, offer instruction (to child) in fam context, it only w/head covered?

    Also, as with other ceased-gift passages in 1Co, other lessons from premises in the passage? E.g., re-constituting of Edenic roles/relationship btw h/wife seems to have widespread biblical significance.

    Thx for exegetical food for thought.

    • Hi Reed,
      I get to those issues eventually: parts 3-4 are written and on the way. It may not be convincing. But I don’t intend to leave lots of hanging threads by the time I’m done.


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