Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

I’m currently reading Philip B. Payne’s 2023 book, The Bible vs. Biblical Womanhood: How God’s Word Consistently Affirms Gender Equality, published by Zondervan. I want to share a few lines about what he says in it about head coverings vs. hairstyles in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16.[1]

I see a few things (slightly) differently from Dr Payne regarding this passage, which has traditionally been understood as being about head coverings for women. We both agree, however, that the issue is most likely problematic hairstyles of the men and women who were praying and prophesying in Corinthian churches.

Dr Payne writes that Paul wanted the women to wear their long hair bound up, which was how socially respectable Roman women wore their hair in the first century. Here is how he summarises his arguments supporting the idea that hairstyles, rather than a cloth covering for women, is Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16.

Several statements in these last few verses should remove any doubt that hair is the covering Paul is talking about. [See 1 Cor. 11:14–15.]

First, Paul would not have written “Judge for yourselves” if he was requiring women to wear a garment, because Hellenistic women are usually not depicted [in ancient art] or described [in ancient literature] as wearing a head-covering garment, so they would certainly not judge this as improper. [2]

Second, he affirms that “if a woman has long hair, it is her glory.” Nothing in the immediate context indicates that hair is a glory that should be covered. Rather, Paul affirms that long hair is her natural glory. This affirmation would undermine Paul’s argument if he intended that women should cover their hair with a garment.

Third, he affirms that “long hair is given to her as a covering.” Here for the first and only time in this paragraph [i.e. 1 Cor. 11:2–16], Paul uses the word for a head-covering garment.[3] He does it, not to require one, but to assert that a woman’s hair has been given to serve as a head covering. Therefore, when a woman’s hair is put up modestly over her head, her head is covered. A woman does not need to put a garment over her head to “cover” it.
The Bible vs. Biblical Womanhood, pages 72–73.

Dr Payne believes the issue in Corinth was long hair on some men and unbound hair on some women that could be understood as signalling sexual availability: the primary issue being morality. I suggest the problematic hairstyles were longish hair on men and, especially, short hair on women that signalled sexual renunciation: the primary issue being reputations in broader society.[4] Maybe it’s a bit of both.

Whatever the case, in both our views, gender distinctions were being blurred by hairstyles that were socially suspect in first-century Corinth, and the women who were praying and prophesying did not need to cover their heads with any kind of garment.

The Bible vs. Biblical Womanhood is much shorter and much easier to read than Dr Payne’s detailed book Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters, published in 2009. His new book is written for a general audience with the aim of countering flawed interpretations of scripture that continue to be used to restrict capable women.

Dr Payne writes that “This book is for those who care deeply what the Bible teaches. It is especially for those struggling to reconcile the Bible’s seemingly contradictory teachings about men and women.” It’s a worthwhile read, and suitable for people exploring this topic for the first time and for those who have been listening to discussions and debates on “biblical womanhood” for a while.


Footnotes

[1] I received my copy of gratis from Dr Payne via Zondervan with no obligation to recommend the book.

[2] “Certainly” seems too strong a word when speaking about the attitudes of a congregation from 2000 years ago.

[3] Many English translations add a word that means “veil” in 1 Cor. 11:10, but Paul does not use any such a word in the Greek of this verse.

[4] We know from 1 Corinthians 7 that some Corinthians were giving up on marriage and sex. And there are stories in the Apocryphal Acts of women cutting their hair and dressing as men when they renounced marriage and sex (e.g., Acts of Thecla). (See also my reply to Amy’s comment here.)

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1 Corinthians 11:2–16, in a Nutshell
Head Coverings and 1 Corinthians 11:2–16
A Note on Nature and Hairstyles in 1 Cor. 11:14–15
4 reasons “head” does not mean “leader” in 1 Cor. 11:3
All my articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 are here.
Hair Lengths and Hair Styles in the Bible 
A wife has no authority of her own body? (1 Cor. 7:4)

21 thoughts on “Philip Payne on Hairstyles vs. Head Coverings in Corinth

  1. I find this all very interesting in light of today’s culture as well. I have worn my hair very short for most of my life. It is very fine and pin straight and just happier when short. It never used to be a problem, but I find that recently when I comment about women in the Bible, if there is a picture of me, that someone almost always calls me out as a man-hating lesbian due to my short hair. Having been married to the same man for 46 yrs, this is almost funny, but since it is being used to discredit me, it it frustrating.

    This is another time when Paul is giving advice to a church with a problem, and the solution to the problem is being interpreted as the way things ought to be. The length of our hair today doesn’t have the significance as it did in Paul’s day, unless people are determined to make a bigger issue of it than it is. Once more, women just can’t “win,” but are judged by someone else’s preconceived notions. It’s really sad that we don’t even try to see each other as God sees us.

    1. I agree and I believe this to be traced all the way back to the Garden when Eve fell into the deception of the enemy and her husband (who was with her) followed along. Women have not lived that down, and just as Adam refused to take responsibility for his own actions then, men continue to be quick to discredit women, blame place and have an inherited lack of trust of women due to Eve’s mistake. It seems they forget that every curse and sin was redeemed by Yeshua (Jesus) and therefore we don’t carry the transgressions and iniquities of our ancestors. But still, women tend to be the scapegoat and carry the burden of guilt for societies problems. When we speak up for ourselves, even biblically, we’re feminists, unruly and out of order. Our leadership abilities are overshadowed by our gender, Eve’s deception and Paul’s misunderstood writings and we are generally mistrusted and discredited. This despite the fact that Messiah makes no distinction between Jew and Gentile, male and female, bond and free- we are ALL joint heirs with Him and seated in heavenly places to reign TOGETHER with Him. Peter couldn’t have been clearer when he stated in 2 Peter 3:14-18 that many had and would twist Paul’s words. The misunderstanding and plain ignorance of what Paul was actually stating in all of his letters continues to lead many into lawlessness in regards to following the commandments (not traditions of men) and how men and women were to work together and function in the Body of Messiah. Proverbs 31:1-3 displays the Father’s heart and intention of the suitable helper He created for the man, how she would add to him, “An accomplished woman who can find? Her value is far beyond rubies. Her husband’s heart trusts in her, and he lacks nothing valuable. She brings him good and not harm all the days of her life.” When we remember that, the Body of Messiah will be a much stronger UNITED army against the kingdom of darkness. Shalom.

      1. Hi Tamara, I’ve had short hairstyles. I even had a pixie cut for several years, and I was never criticised. On the other hand, I know men, including my husband, who were criticised for having long hair in the 60s and 70s.

    2. Hi Cassandra, my current hairstyle is a short bob. I’ve never been good with hairstyles, so I go with what is simple to manage. And in my culture, short bobs on women are totally respectable.

  2. I always thought that Paul didn’t want the women to wear their hair like the Aphrodite temple prostitutes.

    1. Hi Connie, I’m sure Paul didn’t want Christian women to look like prostitutes. It’s not clear, though, that this might have been the issue in 1 Corinthians 11.

      I’ve written about some flawed ideas about temple prostitutes in Corinth, ideas that continue to circulate among Christians, here:
      https://margmowczko.com/aphrodite-sacred-prostitution-corinth/

  3. I speak as a 70-year-old man, who has caught much grief about hair length, mustaches, and beards all being sinful conditions, so “repent, repent, you dirty hippie, and beautify America, get a haircut.”
    I think it would be truly grand if we spent approximately the same amount of resources on fashion topics as:
    the Bible does; or
    as Jesus did; or
    as Paul did.
    Any of those three choices would be wonderful! It would allow people to make their choices about hair without having to rebel or to conform.

    1. As it was in first-century Corinth, some hair lengths and hairstyles in the 60s, 70s, and 80s were seen as provocative by some. Today, a broader range of hairlengths and hairstyles seem to be socially acceptable in most developed nations. And I’m happy about that.

      I mention more than a few men in the Bible who had long locks, including priests, a prophet, and a prince, here:
      https://margmowczko.com/hairstyles-long-hair-men-bible/

  4. It is interesting that here Paul is encouraging (or perhaps mandating?) women to bind up their hair. Elsewhere, in 1 Timothy 2:9 he criticizes elaborately bound up hair, as does Peter in 1 Peter 3:3. I can understand why some women would have chosen to wear their hair unbound to avoid any suggestion of ostentation.

    1. Hi Robert, It was normal and expected for a first-century Roman woman to have long hair and wear it up. In Corinth, it would have been controversial for a grown woman to have either long hair hanging loosely down or short hair.

      Respectable women only wore their hair down as a sign of grief and mourning. And less respectable women sometimes let their hair down in some ecstatic expressions of pagan worship.

      As you say, 1 Timothy 2:9 and 1 Peter 3:3 are critiques about fancy hairstyles that only the relatively wealthy could afford. I’ve written about this here:
      https://margmowczko.com/pauls-instructions-for-modest-dress/

      1. This is what I came to add…that Paul may also have had in mind distancing from pagan cults where women in particular participate with unbound hair and wild behavior. And he’s also calming down people talking over the top of each other, hogging the floor, and inappropriate use of tongues in the meetings also. It’s all about basic respectable and mutually honoring behavior, and would to God we use common sense exegesis and application based on the broad intentions of Paul vs fundamentalist-minded parsing of individual words and phrases.
        As you said, short hair on women has been socially acceptable for over 100 years now, longer hair and beards on men for 50 years. It’s not ALWAYS just women being persecuted…in my Bible schools in the 1980’s, there was no rule about women’s hair length ( but we were required to wear dresses), but men’s hair had to be short and NO BEARDS. We use to joke about Jesus not being welcome there…I switched to another college where men could have neat beards but not grow one during the school year because they didn’t want scruffy guys. I’m sure they also would have objected to very long untrimmed beards if anyone had tried it. Whether we agree or disagree, it was definitely all about appearing appropriate and respectable, which is inherently cultural and not universal in most areas of life. German/British sensibilities are aften appalled at the demonstrativeness or loudness of other cultures like the Greeks, Jews, Italians. They interpret “decent and in order” according to their idea of traditional reverence vs appropriate family reunion/Jewish discussion behavior. In many Native American tribes men and women both wore waist length hair, and in many jungle tribes, men and women wear the exact same short practical bowl cut. There are enough natural differences between men and women that we don’t actually NEED cultural markers, they just tend to be popular in human history, but should be taken into account according to time and place. But most importantly markers of respectability and wisdom vs just sexual distinctions, as if those were the ultra importance! I’ve seen multiple repeated arguments about 1 Cor 11 in study Bibles (including egalitarian ones) about gender distinction without even the mention of respectability as the over-arching concern. We are missing the forest for the trees, and it undermines our arguments elsewhere, because if Paul is so hyper- concerned about constant gender distinction, maybe only men should lead and teach just for that reason? What if he is concerned about respectability in lesser matters because the church is so counter-cultural in greater non-negotiables? Like slaves and women being given equal opportunities in the Body?

  5. I’m wondering if you have read anything about the possibility that Paul was encouraging all women to wear head coverings in the service as an equalizer? I believe it’s Dr. Cynthia Westfall who has spoken about it as a possibility. The basic premise was that a women who was ALLOWED to wear a head covering was under a certain level of protection and only a certain class would be allowed to cover their heads. A woman with an uncovered head could be sexually assaulted and not able to prosecute her attacker because the lack of a head covering symbolized sexual availability. The idea then is that within the church Paul was saying to women that all of them could wear head coverings as a sign that they were all under the same protection. This would have reinforced the fairly new idea that women were to be treated differently within the church and men were not to see them as sexual objects or something to be owned. Thoughts?
    I have read a bit about hairstyles as well and I believe hairstyles likely caused some issues in the church because of the elaborate ones from wealthier women causing their other women to feel inferior. Could head coverings have helped in this way as well? To create a feeling of equality within the church?

    1. Hi Sam, Yes, a head covering was a status symbol and it offered citizen women some protection from sexual harassment.
      I’ve written about this here:
      https://margmowczko.com/head-coverings-1-corinthians-11/
      And here:
      https://margmowczko.com/womens-hair-in-corinth-and-in-sydney/

      I’ve read Cynthia Westfall’s explanation that Paul wanted the Corinthian women, regardless of social status, to wear a head covering in church meetings, even those whose status wouldn’t usually allow them to wear one. However, I wasn’t convinced. And Paul’s words were about the women who were praying and prophesying, not all women or women in general.

      Also, I really don’t think the ministering women in the Corinthian church needed protection from fellow worshippers. I don’t see any hint of this kind of issue in the text.

      I agree that fancy hairstyles were a problem in Ephesus, but Paul doesn’t tell the Ephesian women to cover their heads (1 Tim 2:9-10). His solution was for the women to not have fancy hairstyles.
      I’ve written about this here:
      https://margmowczko.com/pauls-instructions-for-modest-dress/

      I really can’t see that Paul was telling the Corinthian women with long hair to cover their heads. The Corinthian women with long hair already had a head covering (1 Cor. 11:15).

      1. Thank you! This is so helpful. I’ve spent many years trying to ignore the “difficult passages” for fear that they would be my undoing. Your writing has been so illuminating and has helped me begin to answer some of the questions that have plagued me. I’m so grateful.

  6. Some scholars such as Lucy Peppiatt, Thomas Schirrmacher, Katherine Bushnell, etc., do not think that Paul is advocating headcoverings or even bound hair here for women. I am inclined to agree with them. These scholars think that Paul is quoting his opponents who like to use rhetoric to get their point across, and he turns the argument against them. So all that talk about headcoverings and cutting hair are really the words of the opponents while Paul counters them by saying women should have authority over their own heads, women and men come from each other with ultimate origin in God, and are interdependent on each other. Paul finishes by saying that hair is given to women instead of a headcovering. While married women in Greco Roman times may have covered their heads on a daily basis, they didn’t always do so in the context of worship or prayer. In some religious contexts, pagan women wore their long hair unbound to show their devotion to a god or to pray to a god on behalf of their families in times of distress. Corinth had several famines at this time so who knows what these women were praying for? That their families would not starve. One scholar, who may have been Thomas Schirrmacher, although I can’t remember off the top of my head suggested these could have involved women nazirites who displayed their hair as a sign of devotion to Jesus. After all, Paul fulfilled such a vow in Corinth around this time. The Mishna, which may records Jewish customs going back to the first century, speaks about a Jewish bride being escorted in the bridal party with her long hair unbound in front of witnesses as proof of her virginity. Some gentile women were converts to judaism and knew Jewish law and customs. They could have emulated this here.
    2 Cor. 11:2 Paul speaks about betrothing the Corinthinians as a virgin bride to one husband-Christ. Maybe these women were praying/ prophesying with unbound hair to show their devotion to Christ as a “virgin bride” even if they were married women. These women could have been showing their devotion to Christ with jealous husbands in the congregation trying to reassert their so called authority by attempting to force women to cover their heads under threat of cutting their hair. Paul sided with the women. At the same time, some of these women may have attempted to show their “virginity” by denying their husbands sex as in 1 Cor. 7. Paul did not side with them there. Anyway, there are different ways to look at this, and I agree with the scholars who suggest Paul is not advocating headcoverings or bound hair. Just my thoughts.

    1. Hi Shoshana, It’s difficult to see how Paul would begin a quotation from the Corinthians with “Now I praise you because you remember me in everything …” (1 Cor. 11:2) or “I want you to know …” (1 Cor. 11:3 cf. 2 Cor. 8:1; Gal. 1:11; Phil. 1:12; Col. 2:1).

      I read 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 as addressing two different social concerns: reputations in broader Corinth in verses 3-10 and relationships between those who are in the Lord in verses 11-16.

      Also, both men and women in the Roman world usually covered their head in pagan religious rituals. In surviving statues that show a man or women acting as a priest or priestess, for example, their head is covered.

      In other articles on my website, I look at the customs of head coverings in Roman Corinth.

      I don’t know of any New Testament scholar who advocates for neither head coverings or bound up long hair for the Corinthian women. It’s usually one or the other.

      1. “I don’t know of any New Testament scholar who advocates for neither head coverings or bound up long hair for the Corinthian women. It’s usually one or the other.”

        Actually, I said that scholars I mentioned said that Paul doesn’t advocate for headcoverings or bound up hair. Rather it is his opponents who are advocating for it. That said, Thomas Schirrmacher, a european scholar, writes a whole book on it that can be found on line-https://www.thomasschirrmacher.info/wp-content/uploads/books/978-3-933372-46-1.pdf Charles Cosgrove is another scholar who wrote a paper about the different context that it may be acceptable in Roman Greco society for women to wear unbound hair in circumstances such as showing gratitude or devotion to a god or beseeching help to a god or someone of a higher status with unbound hair. For example; in the Matronalia festival of Juno women worse unbound hair to ensure safety in childbearing, or in the literature Petronius in Satyricon has Gandymede go with unbound hair to the temple of aphrodite and kiss the statues feet in gratitude for safe return of her husband. Roman women were known to go up the hill to pray to Jupiter with unbound hair to pray for rain or other crisis. Like I said, Corinth had faminines at the time, and women could have been praying for safety in childbirth or their family’s safety from a famine., fulfilling a nazirite vow, or showing their purity as “virgin brides of Christ” based on a custom of a bride having unbound hair in the wedding procession in the mishna. We don’t know what was going on that women had unbound hair or didn’t have a headcovering. Whatever it was, men felt threatened by it. Anyway, I can agree to disagree as I just wanted to point this stuff out.

        1. Thanks for the clarification that “Paul doesn’t advocate …” I misunderstood. But I’m still a bit puzzled by a couple of your statements.

          Lucy Peppiatt, for example believes that 1 Corinthians 11:2-3, 6, and 11-16 are Paul’s own words. (Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women p. 68) And she indicates that she agrees with the majority reading regarding the women, which is that “Paul was referring to a covering for the physical head.” (p. 64).

          There were some occasions when it was socially acceptable for citizen women to have unbound hair, such as when mourning, but these were exceptions to the “rule.” And short hair on women was rarely acceptable and could be a sign of disgrace.

          I’m a bit surprised by the comment that men felt threatened somehow. What do you think were they felt threatened by? Were they also threatened by the hairstyles of the praying and prophesying men which is addressed in the passage (1 Cor. 11:4, 7, 14)?

          1. Lucy Peppiatt writes in “Women and Worship at Corinth” that Paul is using a rhetorical device in which he quotes his opponents before responding to them. It’s been a while before I read this, but Brad Vaughn on his blog writes more about this https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jacksonwu/2022/05/24/paul-defends-the-status-of-women-in-1-corinthians-11/ . Thomas Schirrmacher also thinks that Paul is quoting the Corinthians, but he may defer from Lucy Peppiatt in which parts may be the corinthians quotes etc. as does Bushnell. My point is Paul is quoting the corinthians to refute that women should wear headcoverings in worship. I probably agree more with Thomas Schirrmacher https://www.thomasschirrmacher.info/wp-content/uploads/books/978-3-933372-46-1.pdf . I think the men are threatened because as I think these are female nazirites who are displaying their hair to show their devotion to God which certain male members were arguing they should veil in allegiance to their husbands first rather than Christ. LIke I said, I read somewhere that the Mishna states that virgin brides would often have their hair unbound and unveiled in wedding processions to the groom’s house as a public witness to their virginity. Paul in 2 Cor. 11:2 speaks about betrothing the corinthians as virgins to 1 husband-Christ. These women may be wearing their unbound hair to show their devotion to Christ as a “virgin bride” although married which threatens their husbands. Do we know this for sure? No, but I thought it shows possible circumstances of which this letter was responding to. As for short hair being a disgrace, Peppiatt shows Paul speaking about cutting off hair or shorn hair as a rhetorical device to show how ridiculous the corinthian’s position that women should wear headcoverings. These scholars agree that Paul is quoting the Corinthians as a whetorical device to refute the idea that women should wear headcoverings, but these scholars may differ on exactly what is the Corinthians quote versus Paul’s quotes. I am simply agreeing with them that Paul is generally using a rhetorical device here to refute that women should wear headcoverings or cut their hair for that matter.

          2. Yes, Lucy Peppiatt believes that some of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is Paul quoting some Corinthians. However, she believes, as I said, that 1 Corinthians 11:2-3, 6, and 11-16 are Paul’s own words. This is very clear in Brad Vaughn’s post as the “quotations” are given in blue and are italicised.

            Brad Vaughn also says, “Peppiatt claims that Paul argues … that women should not be forced to wear veils …” (I’ve added italics.) Peppiatt believes head coverings is the issue.

            I’ve read Bushnell before and her main takeway, from what I can understand, is that Paul wanted the men to wear headcoverings. It’s been a while, but from what I can remember, she didn’t try work out if Paul was speaking about hair or head-coverings for women. I’m happy to be shown more on this.

            I thought I hadn’t read Schirrmacher’s work, but when I clicked on the link you shared, I realised I have read this book before. I am in broad agreement with how he interprets 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, though I need to think more about some of the other things he says.

            I can’t imagine that there would be too many female Nazarites in Roman Corinth. But if some women were wearing short hair (which is what I believe), Paul tells these women to cover their heads in 1 Cor. 11:5-6. Short hair was socically unacceptable in Corinth. And Paul’s concern is about the reputations of ministering women and men and, ultimately, how it would affect the reputation of God. Paul brings it back to God a few times in 1 Cor. 11:2-16.

            I continue to ponder this passage and I appreciate your input into exploring this more. Thanks Shoshana. I genuinely appreciate your gentle pushback.

  7. “I’ve read Bushnell before and her main takeway, from what I can understand, is that Paul wanted the men to wear headcoverings. It’s been a while, but from what I can remember, she didn’t try work out if Paul was speaking about hair or head-coverings for women. I’m happy to be shown more on this.”

    Bushnell, Katherine. God’s Word To Women. pg. 98, Lesson 32. Paragraph 240-https://godswordtowomen.files.wordpress.com/2010/10/gods_word_to_women1.pdf

    “The real purpose of this passage, 1 Corinthians 11: 1-16, was to stop the practice
    of men veiling in worship, as Dr. John Lightfoot so ably contends. The Jewish man
    veiled as a sign of reverence before God, and of condemnation for sin. This sort of head
    covering was called a tallith, and is worn, to this day, “by all male worshipers at the
    morning prayer on week days, sabbaths and holy days: by the hazzan at every prayer
    before the ark: by the reader of the scroll of the law when on the almemar;” so states the
    Jewish Cyclopaedia. The hazzan is the chief functionary of the synagogue, and the
    almemar is the reading desk. The Romans also veiled in worship, and the Corinthian
    church was made up in large part of Roman converts. The testimony disagrees as to
    whether Greeks veiled in worship, or did not. The question therefore arose, were
    women to be forbidden veiling, as the Christian men, or not? Paul, in the passage, (1)
    forbids men to veil; (since “There is now no condemnation to them which are in Christ
    Jesus”); (2) permits women to veil; (3) but guards against this permission being
    construed as a command to veil, by showing that ideally the woman should unveil,
    before God, man, and angels; (4) shows that there is special propriety in women
    unveiling when addressing God in prayer; (5) declares that (contrary to the teaching of
    the Jews) there is nothing for a woman to be ashamed of in showing her hair, for it is a
    “glory” to her; (6) and disavows veiling as a church custom.”

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