Do women need to cover their heads with a hat, or scarf, or veil when they go to church? In previous centuries, the answer to this question would have been “yes.” This answer was at least partly based on an interpretation of one passage of scripture, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.
Below are a few notes on the topic of women and head coverings in light of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. But first let me point out that Paul’s main concern in this passage was the appearance of heads of both men and women who were involved in the vocal ministries of praying and prophesying in church meetings. Strictly speaking, Paul’s words don’t apply to men or women who were not praying (speaking to God) or prophesying (speaking for God).
Social Customs of Head Coverings
Several scholars believe Paul was speaking about respectable, gender-appropriate hairstyles in this passage (cf. 1 Cor. 11:14-15). Others think Paul wanted women to cover their heads with a veil or palla, and he wanted men not to cover their heads. Either way, the key concern was respectability (or reputation, Greek: doxa) according to the social norms of the day. (I’ve written about reputation and doxa in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 here.)
Hats or head coverings on either men or women, as well as short or long hair on either men or women, have no real significance in modern societies today. But it was very different in ancient Corinth. For example, respectable Roman matrons (i.e. wives of free-born citizen husbands) covered their heads when they went out of doors in public to signify that they were unavailable and sexually chaste. But these same women did not usually wear veils when they were with family and close friends in a domestic setting, a setting not unlike most first-century house church meetings. Lower class women, on the other hand, were not supposed to wear veils.
The veil, especially the palla, was a status symbol in ancient Rome and in Roman colonies such as Corinth, and there were laws governing who could and could not wear it. Furthermore, it offered respectable matrons legal protection. Western-style societies have no such custom of veiling in public and no such delineation of class, and all men and women are potentially protected by law from sexual harassment and assault.
Head coverings today, such as hats or scarves, have none of the symbolism that head coverings had in ancient Corinth, and so there is no valid reason for modern western women to cover their heads when they pray or prophesy aloud in church gatherings. Sadly, a few churches want women to cover their head but they also prohibit them from speaking in gatherings. This was not Paul’s intent in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.
A Symbol or Sign?
One factor to consider when interpreting 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is that there is no Greek word that means “sign” or “symbol” in 1 Corinthians 11:10. (There is also no word that means “veil.”) Several translations, however, add these words. For example, the ESV has, “This is why a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” The King James translates verse 10 more accurately as “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.”
The Greek word exousia, which is translated as “authority” in the ESV and “power” in the KJV, can also mean “right” or “freedom.” 1 Corinthians 11:10 may mean that a woman has the right or the freedom over her own head; that is, she has the right to decide how to present her head while keeping in mind Paul’s concerns about reputation and the enigmatic angels. These “angels” may not have been divine messengers but human messengers who were reporting to others about the behaviour of the Corinthian Christians. What were the Corinthians up to?
We know that some men and women in Corinth were renouncing sex and marriage. This is the background for Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 (cf. 1 Tim. 4:3). But this was not just an issue in first-century Corinth. There are several surviving documents which were written in the second century, and later, that reveal some Christians were renouncing sex and a few were even disguising visible distinctions of sex. For example, in the Acts of Paul and Thecla (c. 150), the heroine Thecla wants to cut her hair short. It’s not clear if she does cut her hair, but she does wear men’s clothing. It could be that some Christians in Corinth were wearing their hair in ways that disguised their sex: long hair on men, short hair on women. And Paul was not happy about it (cf. 1 Cor. 11:14-15).
Veils in the New Testament and in Ancient Christian Art
The only time the word “veil” (kalumma) appears in the Greek New Testament is in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, in 2 Corinthians 3:12-18. Paul ends this passage by saying, “And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18a). So veils, either real or metaphorical, do not seem to have been a theological or spiritual necessity for women or men.
Nowhere in the New Testament does it plainly state that veils or head coverings are necessary for Christian women. Furthermore, cultural historian Dr Ally Kateusz has observed that in Christian art which dates before the time of Constantine, women are typically depicted without head coverings. It’s only after Constantine (i.e. from around the mid-fourth century onwards) that head coverings for women become nearly universal.
Furthermore, there are ancient statues, busts, reliefs, mosaics, frescoes, ceramics and coins which depict circa first-century Roman women who weren’t Christians and almost none of these women wear a veil. Some of the few statues where circa first-century Roman women do wear veils is when they are depicted as a goddess (see here for an example) or as a priestess (see here.)
Reading 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 as a Chiasm
Another factor to keep in mind when interpreting 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and the issue of head coverings is that the passage is written as a chiasm. Paul addresses many of the same ideas twice: in the first half and then again in the second half of the passage. So it’s vital to keep reading to the end and not to stop halfway at verse 10. Paul’s more complete thoughts are in the second half. (More about 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 as a chiasm here.)
The only time the noun “covering” is stated in this passage is in verse 15, near the end of the second half. Here Paul writes, “Because her [long] hair is given to her in place of a covering.” It seems that, after all, women do not need any other covering other than their own hair, worn in a socially respectable style, when they are praying or prophesying in church. And today, in western culture, just about any hairstyle is socially acceptable.
This post just scratches the surface of what is a tricky and fascinating passage.
All my articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 are here.
My personal favourite is “Man and Woman as the Image and Glory of God” (1 Cor. 11:7), here.
A bit more about the Roman customs of head coverings for women, here.
An explanation of the meaning of 1 Corinthians 7:4, and sexual renunciation, is here.
Head coverings is something I personally agonised over for years. I have always taken the Bible literally, that’s to say, I took the RSV literally, and the RSV contains this verse: “For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil” (1 Cor. 11:6 RSV). And this, “That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:10 RSV). [There is no Greek noun that means “veil” in these verses. But I didn’t know that.]
It seemed pretty clear to me that Paul, and therefore God, wanted me to cover my head in church, but no one else was doing this and I couldn’t understand why. I even asked the Archbishop of Sydney (during a question time) why he thought women don’t need to cover their heads any more, when they used to. He gave me a simplistic answer . . . something about culture. But I wasn’t satisfied.
Now I’m pretty much saying the same thing, “culture,” but I’m taking a bit more trouble to explain why “culture” (and reputation) was the reason for Paul’s words in 1 Cor 11:2-16 in the first century and why hairstyles (or head coverings) don’t matter now.
I still take the Bible literally. That’s to say, I take the Bible literally in its original languages and with some understanding of the backstory (context) and genre of various passages.