The Woman's Hair and Head Coverings
Updated and enlarged April 22, 2009 (first published July 23, 1997)
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061
1 Corinthians 11:3-16
3 But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.
4 Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.
5 But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.
6 For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.
7 For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.
8 For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man.
9 Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.
10 For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.
11 Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.
12 For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.
13 Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?
14 Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?
15 But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.
16 But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.

1. The main subject of this passage is the divine order for male and female and hair as a symbol of that order (1 Cor. 11:3).

The man was created first and the woman was created afterwards as his helper. Hair length is brought into 1 Corinthians 11 because it is symbolic of one’s standing in this world under God. The man is to have short hair because he is the image and glory of God and his head is Christ (1 Cor. 11:3-4, 7). The woman is to have long hair as a sign of her submission to the man under God (1 Cor. 11:3-5). “The woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head, namely, the man. She appears in the dress of her superior, and throws off the token of her subjection. This would be in a manner to declare that she was desirous of changing sexes, a manifest affection of that superiority which God had conferred on the other sex. ... The sexes should not affect to change places. The order in which divine wisdom has placed persons and things is best and fittest: to endeavour to amend it is to destroy all order, and introduce confusion. The woman should keep to the rank God has chosen for her, and not dishonour her head; for this, in the result, is to dishonour God. If she was made out of the man, and for the man, and made to be the glory of the man, she should do nothing, especially in public, that looks like a wish of having this order inverted. ... The woman’s hair is a natural covering; to wear it long is a glory to her; but for a man to have long hair, or cherish it, is a token of softness and effeminacy” (Matthew Henry).

Paul is also careful in this context to observe that the man and the woman are both God’s creations are both necessary to God’s plan and there is no idea of one being superior to the other or of one being independent of the other. “
Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God” (1 Cor. 11:11-12). Whereas the woman was made for the man and was created out of the man, every man is born of the womb of the woman. “Men and women together in mutual interdependence, complementing each other, bring glory to God (cf. 10:31). Neither should be independent or think themselves superior to the other. Woman’s subordination does not mean inferiority. Man is not superior in being to woman. Eve came from Adam, and each man born in the world comes from a woman’s womb (1 Cor. 11:12). God created them both for each other (Gen. 1:27; 2:18)” (Bible Knowledge Commentary).

Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 11 about the divine order of creation and the woman’s role of submission and the distinction between the male and the female should be seen in the context of the situation that existed at Corinth. The city of Corinth was very wicked and the Christians were tempted to conform to the pattern of the society around them. In Corinthian society women were objects of lust. They were taught to dress seductively and to invite the sensual attention of men. Even the religious worship in the temples was little more than legalized prostitution. Homosexuality was also common and the God-created distinction between the male and the female was broken down. Men were acting like women (being “effeminate,” 1 Cor. 6:9) and women like men. The situation that existed in Corinth exists today throughout the world. The attempt to break down the God-ordained distinction between male and female is an international problem, so it is one that is faced by Christians in practically every part of the world. The lessons of 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 are needed by the churches today as never before.

Note that the subject of 1 Cor. 11:3-16 is a woman’s place in this present world and in the church, not in Christ and the new creation. In Christ, there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28). The believing woman’s access to God through the blood of Christ is as direct as the man’s. She is as much a child of God as the man. But in this present world the order of the original creation continues to be in effect and the man is the head of the woman.

2. What is the woman’s head covering (1 Cor. 11:5-15)?

One of the issues with this passage is discerning the nature of the woman’s covering. It is obvious that God requires that the woman have a token of submission on her head and that she is to be covered. Verse 15 plainly says her hair is given for a covering. The question is whether the hair alone is the woman’s covering or whether an additional covering is spoken of in verses 4-7.

Those who believe verses 4-7 refer to a separate veil or head covering point to two things to prove their position:

(1) The Greek word in verses 5-7 is different from that which is used in verse 15. In verses 5-7 the Greek word translated “covered” is “katakalupto,” meaning “to cover wholly, i.e., veil” (Strong). The word is not used anywhere else in the New Testament. In verse 15, the Greek word translated “covering” is “peribolaion,” meaning “something thrown around one, i.e., a mantle, veil” (Strong). The word is only used here and in Heb. 1:12, where it is translated “vesture.” Thus, the Bible says the woman’s hair is given her for a mantle or vesture or veil over her head.

ANSWER: I don’t believe the fact that there are two Greek words is significant. The words mean the same thing: a veil, a covering. The Authorized Version correctly translates both words by the same English word, “covering.” That there are two different Greek words does not prove that a different covering is referred to in verse 4-7 as in verse 15. The Greek New Testament frequently uses different Greek words as synonyms, just as we do in the English language.

(2) Those who believe that a woman should wear a cloth head covering point to the phrasing of verse 6. “
For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.” They argue that the covering here must be something other than her hair.

ANSWER: Again, it is not necessary to interpret verse 6 as speaking of a separate covering or veil. I believe the verse means this: If a woman refuses to wear her hair long for a proper covering and token of authority, if she wants to bob it like a man’s, let her go ahead and shave it all off. By saying this, the apostle is emphasizing the seriousness of this matter. It is obvious that it is not proper for a woman’s head to be shaved. For a woman to have her head shaved is extremely rare and is contrary to the woman’s natural desire. The Seattle Mariners baseball team hosts an annual Buhner Buzz Cut Night, and anyone who has his or her head shaved can get into the game for free. This is in honor of the Mariners’ star outfielder, Jay Buhner, whose trademark is a shaved head. Each year there are only a few women who participate in this. In 1997, for example, less than 30 of the 5,000 who participated in this promotion were female. When the Germans were defeated at the end of World War II, some of the women in France that had cohabited with the German soldiers were shaved as a sign of disgrace. I remember that when my grandmother had her first heart attack at about age 70 she began to lose her hair. She prayed earnestly to the Lord that He would have mercy on her so she would not be “a bald woman.” God answered her prayer and her hair grew back out in her old age.

If Paul is talking about a covering separate from the woman’s hair, it is strange that the Bible does not spell it out. It is not mentioned elsewhere in Scripture, and we are given no information about its proper size, when and how to wear it, at what age it should be worn, and other such things.

I believe the woman’s long hair is a proper covering in all instances, but if someone is convicted that an extra covering is necessary then it should be a true covering. A small piece of lace or cloth sitting on the top of the hair is not a covering. A little bonnet, such as those worn by the Salvation Army, is not a covering. If the covering is something other than the woman’s long hair, then it must be something that actually covers her head. It should be shawl-like and should be draped over the hair. Genuine modesty and feminine shamefacedness is so rare in Western society today, even in Bible-believing churches that preach separation from the world, I would much rather see women come to the church with their heads veiled than to see them in their worldly bobbed hair fashions which are so prevalent even in fundamental Baptist churches today. It is a disgrace, and it is something that is almost never reproved by the preachers. I am convinced the average preacher studiously avoids preaching anything that would offend the women of his congregation.

3. How does nature teach about the man and woman’s hair length? “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering” (1 Cor. 11:14-15).

Paul is speaking of the fact that it is a general rule among the nations that men wear their hair short and women wear theirs long. He is not saying that there are no exceptions. Obviously there have been exceptions, but as a general rule, men assume the role of leadership in society and women assume the role of submission and this is reflected even by their dress and hair styles.

4. Another question which invariably arises in the context of this passage is “how long is long?” and “how short is short?”

Long hair on a woman, defined by this passage, is hair that is long enough to cover her head (1 Cor. 11:6, 15) and to mark her as distinctively female (1 Cor. 11:14-15). The Bible does not say that she can never cut her hair. It does not say that her hair must be to her waist. It simply says her hair is to be long enough to be a covering for her head and to mark her as distinctively female in contrast to the man’s short hair. If there is a question as to whether or not her hair is too short, then it is too short. God’s people should not try to dance on the very edge of the revealed will of God. There should be no question in the minds of those who observe us that we are obeying God’s Word. The Lord exhorts us to approve things that are excellent, not things which are mediocre and borderline and questionable (Phil. 1:10).

Similarly a man’s hair is short when it does not hang down over the head and when it is clearly not long and womanish. The distinction between the male and the female should be evident from the way that they wear their hair. The men of Paul’s day typically wore their hair short. This is obvious from the statues and artwork that has survived. I have toured the British Museum, the Vatican Museum, and many other museums of antiquity and have viewed countless statues of males from the era of the Roman Empire, and invariably they have short hair. The emperors set the standard and they had very short hair. The only men in Israel that had long hair were rebels (i.e., Absalom, 2 Sam. 14:26) and those who took the vow of the Nazarite (Num. 6:5; Jud. 16:7; 1 Sam. 1:11). The depictions of Jesus with long hair are erroneous. He was not a Nazarite and He would not have worn long hair, since that is a “shame.”

This passage convinced me 35 years ago that I should cut my hair. When I was converted in the summer of 1973 my hair hung down to my shoulders. I had lived a “hippie” lifestyle and had sold drugs and hitchhiked long distances across America from Florida to California, in search of “my destiny.” I had even joined a Hindu meditation society and I was impressed by the Hindu gurus who wore long hair and by pictures that depicted Jesus with long hair. When I got long hitchhiking rides in those days I thought it was because I looked like Jesus! After I trusted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour and began to read the Bible I cut my hair a little shorter but it was till pretty long. One evening I went on visitation with a friend who was discipling me and we visited the home of an elderly woman in Bartow, Florida. She invited us in but as soon as my friend started talking to her about the Lord she pointed to me and said to the effect, “I won’t allow you to preach to me from the Bible while that longhaired man is with you, because Bible says that is not right.” Taken aback momentarily I recovered and said to her, “Maam, I apologize for offending you; I will get my hair cut tomorrow,” and I did. I got it cut in such a manner that there would be no question as to whether it was short and I have not had a problem with it since. Looking back I can see that keeping my hair long in those early days of my Christian life was a matter of pride and was also a matter of not wanting to be identified instantly with “Bible fundamentalism.” I understood very well that long hair is a “flag.” An old rock song said, “Let your freak flag show!” The “freak flag” was a man’s long hair, which was the “freak’s” or the “hippie’s” sign of rebellion against the established order.

5. How does this passage apply to racial distinctives?

ANSWER: Hair does differ according to race, but the women of any particular race can have long hair in contrast to the men of that race.

6. What about men of God, such as John Bunyan, that have worn their hair long?

ANSWER: The Bible is the
sole standard for faith and practice. Men of God are not the standard, whether they lived in the early centuries after the apostles (the misnamed “Church Fathers”) or the 16th and 17th (the Reformers) or the 18th (the Revivalists such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield) or the 19th (i.e., Missionaries and Evangelists such as Adoniram Judson or William Carey or Charles Spurgeon or D.L. Moody). Even godly men can be wrong and oftentimes are wrong. The fact that John Bunyan suffered imprisonment for his faith and wrote that masterpiece Pilgrim’s Progress does not mean that he is our standard for righteousness and truth. In fact, he was wrong on many points. For example, he did not require scriptural baptism for church membership, allowing people to join who had merely been “baptized” as infants.

7. What does verse 10 mean, “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels”?

It means that proper order should be maintained in the churches as an instruction and encouragement to angels. The angels are ministering to, beholding, even learning from the churches. See 1 Cor. 4:9; Eph. 3:10; 1 Tim. 5:21; Heb. 1:14; 1 Pet. 1:12. Barnes observes, “It would mean that the simple reason would be that the angels were witnesses of their worship; and that they were the friends of propriety, due subordination, and order; and that they ought to observe these in all assemblies convened for the worship of God.”

It is possible that angels are tempted by rebellion. We know that certain angels followed Satan in his rebellion against God (Matt. 25:41; Rev. 12:7-9). It is possible that for women to refuse to humble themselves to assume the earthly position God has given them under male headship and for them to refuse to wear the mark of such submission on their head, meaning their long hair, is a temptation to angels who are observing these things. William Hoste comments, “The covering on the head is a sign to the angels that the wearer is recognizing the position assigned to her by God.”

8. What does 1 Cor. 11:16 mean? “If any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.

In the context, the contention would be over the issue of hair and the distinction between the man and the woman in position and authority. There is, of course, great contention on this subject in our day. Women are ignoring the biblical injunctions that restrict them from teaching men and from taking authority over men. Both men and women are ignoring the biblical injunction pertaining to the proper hair length and its significance. Women are cutting their hair short and men are wearing their hair long, all the while professing to love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ. What is Paul saying in verse 16 about such contention?

It is possible that Paul is saying that the distinction between the man and the woman in position and authority and the significance of one’s hair length is not very important and if someone does not agree with these things, the churches should not make an issue of it.

ANSWER: If this is the meaning of verse 16 it would be a very strange thing. Why would God inspire this lengthy passage about authority and hair if it can be disregarded? If this is the meaning of verse 16, Paul would be saying, in essence, I have spent 15 verses teaching you the significance of hair length on a man and a woman, but if you don’t agree we will not make an issue of it. Nowhere else in the Bible do we find the man of God telling us, “This is the will of God, but if someone is contentious about it he is free to ignore it.”

We believe the true meaning of verse 16 is two-fold:

First, it has to do with the spirit of contention itself. Paul is saying that if someone in the church is contentious about these matters, we have no such custom of contention. The church is not an institution in which each member can decide for himself what he will and will not obey in the New Testament Scriptures. In this same passage, in verse 2, Paul commended the Corinthian church for keeping the ordinances he had delivered to them. It makes no sense for him to say now that they are at liberty to disagree with the things he is teaching. In 1 Corinthians 14:37 he tells them that the things he was writing to them are the commandments of the Lord. The things Paul wrote in His epistles are for every church of every century.

Second, verse 16 is saying that if any person is contentious about these matters and claims that it is proper for a woman to have authority over men or to wear her hair short like a man, such a one should consider the custom of the churches because we have no such custom. It was customary in all of the churches for women to assume a position of submission to the man and to wear their hair long as a symbol of their submission. Thus Paul concluded this subject by fortifying his argument in pointing to the general custom among the apostles and churches. “If any person sets himself up as a wrangler--puts himself forward as a defender of such points, that a woman may pray or teach with her head uncovered, and that a man may, without reproach, have long hair; let him know that we have no such custom as either, nor are they sanctioned by any of the Churches of God, whether among the Jews or the Gentiles” (Adam Clarke). “It is customary in the churches elsewhere for the woman to appear veiled. If at Corinth this custom is not observed, it will be a departure from what has elsewhere been regarded as proper; and will offend these churches. Even, therefore, if the reasoning is not sufficient to silence all cavils and doubts, yet the propriety of uniformity in the habits of the churches, the fear of giving offence, should lead you to discountenance and disapprove the custom of your females appearing in public without their veil” (Barnes).

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