Last week, I reviewed Dale Partridge’s book, A Covering for Glory (see here). The book makes the case for women wearing headcoverings during worship services, as well as for men not wearing headcoverings during worship services. I offered a favourable review, as I wholly support his position. In 2017, I preached from 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (see here) and argued similar to Partridge: women should wear headcoverings during worship services. Our elders have left that to each individual conscience, and that has been the case since. In fact, this is not a matter of consensus within our elders’ board. Nobody in the church is policing this, and I am not aware of anyone holding secret judgments over whether others practice it or not. We have continued to experience unity as members of the congregation, despite a lack of uniformity on this conviction, and I hope to maintain that unity. I do, however, see this as an opportunity to have a mature conversations on the matter.
I want to interact with a common objection to this teaching, an objection which surfaced in several places almost immediately after my review. The objection follows this flow of thought:
Paul teaches women to wear headcoverings during worship.
Paul teaches that a woman’s hair is her covering.
Therefore, a woman’s hair is the covering of which Paul speaks.
This objection, at first glance, makes sense. Paul issues an imperative to women in 1 Corinthians 11:6, saying, “let her cover her head.” Then, in verse 15, he says, “For her hair is given to her for a covering.” That seems clear enough: A woman should cover her head during worship, and her hair is that covering.
Not so fast. To understand the text we need to slow our reading right down. There are at least four reasons why the woman’s hair cannot be the woman’s headcovering in 1 Corinthians 11. Paul is not telling women to cover their heads with long hair, although feminine hairstyles are assumed by Paul. No, he is telling them to cover their feminine hair with a supplementary covering of cloth, specifically during gathered worship. Let me explain why the hair, in 1 Corinthians 11, cannot be the covering.
REASON 1: IF THE HAIR WERE THE COVERING, THE TEXT WOULD BE SENSELESS
Steve Richardson pointed this out in his recent blog on the topic (see here). I’ll elaborate further. If we take every verse that speaks of the actual headcovering and replace it with hair, the verses become senseless. The text reads,
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven (v. 4-5).
Verse 4 and 5 contrast men who have heads covered while praying with women who have heads uncovered. Both practices are equally wrong, according to Paul. Is he talking about hair? No. That would render the text senseless. Observe as I strike out “headcovering” and insert “hair” in italics:
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered hair dishonors his head…
Those saying that a woman’s hair is her covering should also be saying that a man shouldn’t have hair during worship. In which case, men would need shave the crowns of their heads like a monk’s tonsure.1 Folks don’t say that, but to be consistent they should. Verse 5 makes even less sense when we do the same:
For if a wife will not cover her head have hair, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head have hair (v. 6).
Substituting hair in the place of covering renders the text absolutely senseless in this case. Yet, some today argue hair is the covering. In verse 6, Paul argues that women should have a covering because nature teaches that they have long hair. In other words, if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn, which he says it is, so it is also disgraceful for a woman to not have a headcovering during worship. As a woman’s long hair is a natural ornament of femininity at all times, so a headcovering is an ornament of femininity during worship. Replacing “cover her head” with “have hair” renders Paul’s statement senseless, but that is what we must do if we claim her hair is the headcovering. Paul builds from the natural glory of hair to argue for the headcovering. Building from hair to argue for hair would make nonsense of his argumentation.
REASON 2: THE FLOW OF THE ARGUMENT
There is only one imperative command in the entire text: “let her cover her head” (v.6). The remainder of the text is the supporting argument. This is typical for Paul’s argumentation. He’s a trained lawyer, who states his thesis and substantiates it with sound arguments. In this case, the thesis is that women should cover their heads during worship. Everything else supports that point, including verse 15, which says, “For her hair is given to her for a covering.”
In other words, verse 15, within the structure of the argument, is not a clarifying point to tell us what a covering is. No, rather it is part of an argument calling for women to wear headcoverings during worship. Here are the various arguments Paul presents to demonstrate that women should wear headcoverings during worship:
- Argument 1: Headcoverings are the apostolic teaching (v. 1-2).
- Argument 2: Headcoverings reflect the difference between the sexes (v. 3-9).
- Argument 3: Headcoverings distinguish between the sexes for the angels (v. 10).
- Paul offers a caveat in verse 11-12 to highlight that, despite the sexes being distinct, they are also equal.
- Argument 4: Headcoverings reflect the natural distinction between the sexes (v. 13-15).
- Argument 5: Headcoverings are worn by women in all the churches (v. 16).
Verse 15, where hair is said to be a woman’s covering, is within the 4th argument. Here’s how the fourth argument flows:
It is improper for woman to pray with her head uncovered (v. 13).
Because there is a natural distinction between the sexes, and that distinction is evident in distinct hairstyles: short hair for men, long hair for women which is a covering (v.14).
The phrase, “For her hair is given to her for a covering,” supports the claim that nature itself teaches that “if a woman has long hair, it is for her glory.” That is why it begins with “for”. “For” grounds the previous claim that long hair is a woman’s glory, by indicating that hair is a glorious covering. Unlike men, nature gave women glorious hair as “a covering.” Men and women are thus distinct.
Let me explain the argument in v. 13-14. Why should a woman wear a headcovering? Because nature teaches that men and women are different. How does nature teach that difference? Men typically have short hair, and women have long hair as a covering. Covering in that context is not there to clarify what a headcovering is. No, it is to tell us what hair is to a woman: it is a display of feminine glory – a covering.
Some will likely accuse me of sophistry on this point. Am I playing with definitions of “covering” to insert my own understanding into the text? No, not at all. But to clarify further, we need to move to the third reason the headcovering is not the woman’s hair. Before we do, let me conclude this point with a quote from the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, which is a standard resource on Greek word studies:
In 1 Cor. 11:15 Paul’s point is not that a veil is superfluous for a woman since nature has given her hair in place of a covering, but rather, arguing analogically, he infers from general fact that “hair has been given to serve as a covering”…that the more generous supply of hair that a woman has when compared with a man shows the appropriateness of her being covered when she prays or prophesies in the Christian assembly.2
REASON 3: DIFFERENT GREEK WORDS
Distinguishing between the covering of verse 15 and the headcovering in the rest of 1 Corinthians 11 is not a play in exegetical sophistery. Verse 15 uses a Greek word for covering that is not used for headcoverings in verses 1 – 14. The verb from which we get “let her cover her head” (v.6) is κατακαλυπτέσθω. The same verb occurs in verse 7, and a negative derivative of the same verb occurs in verses 5 and 13. The covering of verse 15 translates περιβόλαιον, and that is the only time it occurs in the text. For this reason, Greek readers would not be as quick to say that the hair of verse 15 is the covering of verse 6. They would have noticed two different words. The English translations have confused us somewhat.
The words are similar in their semantic ranges, but they are not the same and should not be understood as perfect equivalents in this context. The first word means to veil, and in this case it means to veil the head. It is specific to mean covering, thus emphasizing what it does. Instead of emphasizing what it does, the second word speaks to what it actually is. It can be a cloak, or an article of apparel. They are distinct words that overlap in definitions, but the definitions are not identical. The Greek reader wouldn’t be as quick to say that the hair of verse 15 is the equivalent of the covering of the previous verses because different words are used.
REASON 4: THE PRACTICE IS CONTEXT SPECIFIC
The practice of headcoverings is specific to times of prayer and prophecy. We can define “prayer and prophecy” somewhere else, and I happen to believe the words refer to gathered worship. But for the purpose of this blog, it is sufficient to say that prayer and prophecy are the contexts in which women are to wear headcoverings and men are not to wear headcoverings (v. 4, 5). That indicates that the headcoverings of which Paul speaks can be placed on the head and removed from the head depending on the context. In other words, the expectation is not that women wear headcoverings at all time, but only during times of prayer and prophecy. Women are free to remove the headcoverings after prayer and prophecy conclude.
This only makes sense if the headcovering is removable. If the headcovering were hair, it would not be removable, at least not so easily removable. It is impossible for a woman to remove her hair after worship, only to replace it before the next worship service which at least would have been 6 days later. Had Paul intended hair for the headcovering, he could have simply told women to wear it or grow it without mentioning the context. “Ladies, grow your hair out,” he could have said. In this case, he does mention the context. The context is prayer and prophecy. That assumes that the headcovering can quickly be placed on the head and removed from the head, depending on the specific context. There is something unique about prayer and prophecy that requires the headcovering for a woman, and because of that Paul was able to tell them to specifically wear it during prayer and prophecy. The practice is not general to all of life, but specific for this specific occasion.
For the above reasons I reject the interpretation that posits hair as the legitimate headcovering for women during gathered worship. That interpretation renders the entire passage senseless, it doesn’t follow the flow of the argument, it fails to see the distinct word used for covering in verse 15, and the entire text is specific to one context (prayer and prophesy). Hair is not the headcovering of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 11. He is referring to a material garment, like a shawl or a hat, to cover the head. Greek New Testament scholar, Thomas Schreiner, agrees:
Paul is not saying that a woman has been given long hair instead of a covering. Rather, he is saying that woman has been given long hair as a covering. His point seems to be that a woman’s long hair is an indication that she needs to wear a covering.3
Dr. Schreiner quickly dismisses headcoverings as a cultural phenomenon near the end of his essay without any exegetical warrant, but when he actually does exegete the passage he is spot on. A woman’s long hair frames her head with feminine glory. It is a uniquely feminine adornment that naturally adds to a woman’s beauty. The headcovering is a further adornment that declares her femininity specifically during times of public worship. In the context of 1 Corinthians 11, a woman’s hair cannot be her headcovering.
- Someone asked me if that’s why monks have tonsures. I have no idea, and I doubt it. But the origins of the tonsure would be an interesting study, albeit a bad hair cut.
- NIDNTT, vol. 3, p. 1179)
- Thomas R. Schreiner, “Headcoverings, Prophecy, and the Trinity: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), 126.