The Custom Of God’s Churches: Head Coverings And Cultural Appropriateness (Part 4)

This series has explored 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 to think through a perennial question about head coverings. Does the apostle’s teaching in this passage mandate that women everywhere and always must cover their heads in public worship—specifically that they must wear an additional piece of clothing such as a hat? By letting Paul’s own terms dictate the circumstances that he was addressing, we have seen that the issue under consideration was not public worship at all but the fitting structure of marriages. Apostolic tradition can shape a creational principle for application in a way that must be continually minded. For example, the apostolic deposit changed the day of Sabbath observance from Saturday to Sunday—the creational principle (Sabbath observance) remains in a way that must be kept in light of apostolic insight (on Sunday). That said, the creational principle can be expressed in local customs that are most fitting for a congregation’s proximate context.

Concerning our case that Paul viewed the Corinthian use of head coverings as a culturally specific application, part three closed by accepting one premise of the potential objection— namely, that Paul appealed to creation to defend his points. There, we argued that a creational principle of nature does undergird the main overarching issue of properly structured relations within marriage. That principle cannot be abrogated. Nevertheless, how we express that principle is necessarily culturally conditioned. This final article of the series then seeks to differentiate between the issues of principle and of expression, with some suggestion as to how we still implement Paul’s teaching positively in our life of discipleship today.

Untangling Paul’s Application

Given the argument from part three that Paul considered the role of church custom significant in shaping how we express binding principles, how do we understand his application about head coverings, which was important specifically for the Corinthians? Mainly, we recognize that there are proper ways for husbands and wives to demonstrate their relationship and maintain propriety. That principle remains true today, as Paul helps us see.

One governing factor in this passage is the need within marriage for husbands and wives to make their proper relation to one another obvious. In verses 4–7, Paul explained:

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. 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. 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. (My translation)

Interestingly, hair itself seems to be a major factor in weighing up this issue of head coverings. As noted in part one of this series, translation difficulties pertain to even this very issue. It is highly possible that Paul was talking about hair itself—namely in how it is cut—as intrinsically connected to whether someone’s head is “covered.” After all, in verse 15 he seemed clear at least in saying that as women fittingly have longer hair, that “hair is given to her instead of a covering.” It might be that shorter hair on men counted as uncovered, since it was then not “down their head,” and that longer hair on women counted as covered since it was given to them “instead of a covering” or even “for a covering.”1 These complexities seem hardly ever to surface in the common debates favoring the interpretation that women are bound to wear a piece of clothing, such as a hat, to cover their head (supposedly in public worship; though this series has already sought to dispense with that assumption as the proper context in Paul’s focus).

A contextual factor for verses 4–7 concerns the cultural significance of hairstyles and head coverings. Women convicted of adultery had their heads shaved to shame them publicly, explaining Paul’s position on shaved and short hair. On the other hand, courtesans were often identified by long flowing hairstyles, drawing an association (but not an intrinsic link) between that hairstyle and a life of immorality.2 In this context, Paul was contending that for a Christian woman to present herself provocatively is as shameful as being publicly identified as an adulterer. The ways in which particular hairstyles suggest something provocative changes over time and differs among cultures, but the need to avoid suggesting something provocative by how we present ourselves does not change.

Clearly, this issue did concern something about hairstyles because, as verse 15 says, God gave women hair “instead of a covering” or even “for a covering.” Namely their appropriately presented hair served as the needed covering for praying and prophesying. Men should not then cover their head, specifically with a woman’s hairstyle, because that would dishonor him (4). In sum, we gather from verses 4–7 that the way to demonstrate our proper roles within marriage is to maintain modesty and not cross the boundaries of presenting yourself as the other sex. That principle has far more obvious connections to nature and creational principles than debates about hats in church, and additionally offers far more grounds to address problems that are still (and increasingly) relevant for the church today.

The application’s next stage appears in verses 8–12. A wife is a husband’s glory, which means that she is the crown of his life—not his servant, not his subordinate, but his glory. God made man first, and yet man was not complete without woman. Husbands and wives are not independent of one another but interdependently joined together, and we all receive everything from God (12). So, we are back to loving, Christlike leadership in the home.

Having clarity on that issue shows more plainly how the whole matter is tied specifically to the right (creational) ordering of the home to reflect God’s design for marriage. Paul puts the fine point on it in verse 10: “For this reason, the wife ought to have authority on the head, on account of the angels” (my translation). The preceding reason Paul gave was that a wife is the glory of a husband, which means something for men’s hair and head coverings. That the first husband, Adam, was created before the first wife, Eve, entails something about women’s head coverings too. Wives should have a sign of authority while prophesying “because of the angels.” Scholars have too long disagreed about what “because of the angels” means for us to delude ourselves into believing that we know with precision how this explanation grounds Paul’s premise. We do better to sit with the mystery, accepting that this premise was understood clearly by the Corinthians then but is now unknown for us.

What is clear is that Paul appealed to the angels (however that reason applied) to defend that wives ought to have an obvious expression that in their marriage they are under their husband’s authority. The principal application then, which still abides, is that we must be careful to keep God’s created order in marriage, minding what our various actions and even self-presentation would suggest to our culture about our relationship and personal character.

Tying It Together

Over four installments, we have worked through this passage to see that Paul’s main point is that Christians should keep the apostolic traditions, particularly in regard to the way husbands and wives relate. That had a particular application in Corinth, but how does it look now? Again, we cannot leave our interpretation at what the passage does not mean; we need to come to some position about what it does mean and how it teaches us and applies to us. At this point, we can lean back toward bigger picture issues in hopes of achieving some helpful synthesis.

In 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, Paul’s main objective was proper order among Christians, specifically in the family. He focused this point in a few ways. First, he commended the traditions—he exhorted Christians to mind the apostolic instruction. Respectively, we have the Scripture to guide us.

Second, he argued from nature. As in verses 14–15: “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, then it is a disgrace to him, but if a wife wears long hair, then it is a glory to her? Because hair is given to her instead of a covering” (my translation). His point was that some things have self-evident fittingness. Now, this point is tricky because the very next verse, as we examined in part three, says that not all the churches observe this custom. So, what do we do with it? Various cultures apply the principles of nature differently. In Corinth, long hair was characteristically feminine, so nature entailed that men should not adopt women’s practices, particularly, in this case, with regard to their hairstyle.3 In our culture today, long hair may or may not be a specific marker of femininity. Whatever the case on that custom, nature still requires that men do not adopt women’s practices and vice versa.

More practically, Paul’s concern was specifically focused on marriage. How do we work out the application for that main issue? The principle in verses 2–3 is that the husband is the head of the family. That role certainly means the husband must take responsibility for his family. Nature entails that we should not invert that creational and apostolic teaching. We then give thought to what our families look like considering the strengths that husbands and wives have, knowing that men need to take responsibility to get those conversations to happen, and that families must be intentional about demonstrating a husbands’ leadership as applied in the family’s religious life.

After all, Paul’s application did address praying and prophesying for husbands and wives. So, we see a call for husbands and fathers to be purposeful in organizing the spiritual welfare of our families, therein taking the lead in their spiritual investment and growth. As one concrete action, husbands should not be passive, silently hoping our families grow spiritually by accident. We should start discussions, prompt prayer (since this passage includes both husband and wife praying), and seek to motivate spiritual good.

On the other hand, wives were praying and prophesying. The biblical view of headship does not sideline women but prompts their spiritual involvement in the life of the family. Although headship has its real place, this passage presents husbands and wives as taking on the same task—even if with a different relation to it—in their service to Christ. So, within our marriages and according to our culture’s customs that express modesty and order, every family member is still thoroughly involved.


We are bound to mind creational principles, apply them through the structures of apostolic understanding, and live them out well where our local custom facilitates a flexibility in how to apply the apostolically-informed natural law. We need care and thoughtfulness to parse out these issues well in our own context. It does not do for us to ignore the moral issues in favor of emphasizing a surface-level application that may not be the biblical point—after all, someone could keep that specific application while still flouting the moral issue in other ways.

Scripture exhorts husbands to present themselves fittingly for their role, wives to modesty according to their cultural terms, and both to spiritual involvement and support for one another. Given that Paul framed his point within the church’s custom, we can see that if a custom no longer facilitates apostolic tradition, we should change it.4 Nevertheless, we should not change church custom simply to have something new and innovative. We should listen to the past, we should mind the order that our church communities have, and we should not seek to upset that for its own sake.

We are thankful that the ultimate principle in this passage is that Christ is head of us all as the loving husband of his church. In his office as prophet, he delivers God’s truth to us that we might know our salvation. He gave himself for us that we might be free from the law’s curse. Whatever we might think of these coverings in 1 Corinthians 11, we are glad that Christ’s death has provided the ultimate covering for our sin, and that we are accepted in God’s sight.


  1. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 584–85.
  2. David Strain, “Men, Women, and Ministry” (sermon, Jackson, MI, October 22, 2017), First Presbyterian Church.
  3. Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 583; Charles Hodge, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Geneva Series of Commentaries (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 213; John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vol. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 20:1.361–62. Calvin draws on an interesting contextual observation to note that the length of hair became directly related to the distinction of the sexes in the ancient world around Paul’s time because it was not long before that barbers became more common in the Roman Empire.
  4. In this respect, Paul’s appeal to custom at the end of this argument, wherein he commended the Corinthians, sets up his next argument wherein he does not commend them. In 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, although the Corinthians were observing the Lord’s Supper by maintaining the circumstances of a full meal as was the case with the institution of the Lord’s Supper at the last supper, Paul recognized that they had grievously departed from the apostolic principle of the element in the Supper. Even while keeping a custom like the apostles, they had broken the principle. Paul’s closing appeal to flexible custom about circumstances superbly set up his next rebuke that they needed to change their custom about circumstances in order to keep the apostolic principle.

©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.

You can find this whole series here.


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  1. 2 observations; first here:

    Never thought I’d be drawn to the “hair covering” position, but …

    You reference (rightly imo) hairstyle as a location for expression of modesty, or in this context, submission to the creational ordering restored in the Christian family. This brings into view the host of modesty passages as correlative here.

    In particular, I’m wondering about the relevance of Dt 22:5, the cross-dressing prohibition passage. It seems particularly correlative, in that it addresses the modesty principle in terms of that which is appropriate for each sex to wear, as distinct from the opposite sex.

    This too demonstrates a strong culturally informed application complex. E.g., it is not explicitly about men wearing pants, women wearing dresses. Rather, it is about men/women wearing clothing that is appropriate to their callings in life. Women farmers may wear bib overalls, like their male counterparts, but their overalls will be obviously designed for women, and not all that useful for a man to wear.

    Thus, applied here in the domicile context, wives adorn their hair in keeping with their callings (wife, mother, daughter of Christ), thus demonstrating (to elect angels. they are part of the New Creation in which to original familial ordering has been restored.

  2. Second observation:

    Relevant to hair styles, your modest vs. enticing imagery seems the appropriate baseline.

    Bringing into view the differences functionality behind clothing (men vs. women, Dt 22:5), I’m wondering whether not the “hair style” in 1 Co 11 might be as simple as: what is appropriate for a woman’s callings? Generally speaking, a woman wears a short hair style for reasons of functionality, either moral (e.g., functions in which long presents a danger), or immoral (either intending to attract sexual interest, or to present as a man).

    IOW, it may not be short vs. long (the classic go to in the “hair covering” position). Instead, it may be biblical calling vs. rebellious declaration.



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