1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is a difficult passage of Scripture to understand. Bible scholars who hold to varied ideologies about the status of women in marriage and in the church all agree that Paul’s meaning here is difficult to determine with a degree of certainty. It is unclear what Paul is referring to in some verses. And in other verses, Paul seems to contradict what he has previously written. Moreover, to date, there is no interpretation of this passage that makes sense of every verse in a cohesive manner.
N.T. Wright (in the video at the bottom of this article) makes several statements about this passage which he prefaces with the word “perhaps.” Similarly, I would like to make it clear that my offering to the discussion of what 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 might mean is also prefaced by an overarching “perhaps.”
I suggest a key to understanding 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is to recognise its chiastic structure. Paul begins chapter 11 by making several statements about men and women, and about the state of their head and hair while praying and prophesying. These statements may represent what the Corinthian Christians believed to be true.
Paul makes these statements up until the central point of the chiasm in verse 10. Then, after a “nevertheless” or “except that” at the beginning of verse 11, Paul reiterates what he has said, or quoted, but with more correct statements about men and women, and their head or hair
It is important to note that Paul is not speaking about marriage in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Most English translations of this passage use the words “man/ men” and “woman/ women,” and not “husband/s” and “wife/ wives,” to reflect this understanding. Rather than marriage, Paul is speaking about the appropriate appearance of heads and hair of both men and women who were praying and prophesying in worship meetings.
The following is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 arranged to show the chiastic structure of this passage.
A. I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you (1 Cor 11:2). Now I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. [More about “head” in verse 3 here.]
B. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head [Christ]. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head [her husband or father] — it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man (1 Cor 11:4-7). [More on verse 7 here.]
C. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man (cf. Gen. 21-22); neither was man created for woman, but woman for man (1 Cor 11:8-9). [More on verse 9 here.]
X. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority upon her own head, because of the angels (1 Cor 11:10).
C2. Nevertheless [or, except that], in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman (cf. Gen. 4:1 NIV). But everything comes from God (1 Cor 11:11-12).
B2. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him; but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering (1 Cor 11:13-15).
A2. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no such custom—nor do the churches of God (1 Cor 11:16).
Authority or Origins in 1 Corinthians 11?
In 1 Corinthians 11:3, Paul states that the man is the “head” (kephalē) of the woman. Many Christians have assumed the word kephalē has the meaning of leader or person in authority, but kephalē was rarely used with these meanings in Classical and Koinē Greek. LSJ, one of the most exhaustive lexicons of Ancient Greek, including New Testament Greek, does not include any definition of kephalē that approximates leader, ruler, or authority.
Several New Testament scholars argue that kephalē has the sense of origin (beginning, firstness, or source) in 1 Corinthians 11:3. For example, in chapter seven of his book One in Christ, Philip Payne discusses at length the meaning of kephalē. Payne quotes from Cyril of Alexandria, from Theodore of Mopsuestia, and from Chrysostom; he also mentions Saint Basil, Eusebius, and Ambrosiaster. All these early church theologians believed that origin or beginning, and not authority, is the meaning in 1 Corinthians 11:3. [I go into this ancient evidence in more detail here.]
I believe kephalē is used with the senses of origin and firstness in 1 Corinthians 11:3. And so this verse might be paraphrased and expanded as,
But I want you to realize that the origin of every man is Christ, and the origin of [the first] woman is [the first] man, and the origin of the Messiah is God [or the triune Godhead].
According to Genesis 2, the man was first and the source of the first woman. However, Paul’s emphasis is on the common origin of men and women and the mutuality this implies, especially for us who are “in the Lord.” In the second part of the chiasm he wrote, “However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man (cf. Gen 2:22-23), so also the man has his birth through the woman (cf. Gen. 4:1 NIV); and all things originate from God” (1 Cor. 11:11-12, italics added). Man being first has no special social or spiritual significance within the body of Christ, especially as God is our ultimate source.
Paul was not writing about male authority in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. In his letters, Paul never uses any of the many commonly used Greek words for leadership in reference to men in the church or husbands. Nevertheless, Paul wanted men and women to uphold some gender distinctions involving traditional hairstyles (or the covering of the head by women) when they were gathered for worship. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is about respectable appearances and behaviour during Christian worship where women, as well as men, prayed and prophesied aloud. This passage is not about any kind of male leadership or so-called “headship.”
When we understand that “head” (kephalē) means origin and firstness, Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 becomes easier to understand. (I’ve written about this here.) However, it is less clear what Paul means with his comments about hairstyles and covering the head.
Headcoverings or Hairstyles in 1 Corinthians 11?
For centuries, most churches have used 1 Corinthians 11:5 and 10 to teach that women needed to cover their heads in church meetings. Yet very few churches have acknowledged that 1 Corinthians 11:5 indicates that women prayed and prophesied aloud in church meetings. Christians were, and can be, very selective about what portions of scripture they want to heed and what parts they want to ignore.
In most churches, women have been forbidden from praying or prophesying in meetings but still have had to cover their heads!
Despite the common assumption that Paul was instructing women to cover their heads, there is no clear indication Paul is speaking about head coverings such as veils or or hats, etc, in the Greek of this passage. Paul does, however, speak about hair as a covering in verse 15. Some modern scholars, such as Jerome Murphy O’Connor, believe Paul was speaking about hairstyles, and that he wanted the Corinthians to have hairstyles that were socially acceptable according to the culture of Corinth of that time.
There are some indications within First Corinthians that the Christians in Corinth thought the kingdom age had fully arrived and that gender distinctions, including sex and procreation, were no longer important. But Paul wanted the Corinthians to preserve some gender distinctions. He did not want the men to have long hair or braids, which some effeminate men were wearing at the time, and he did not want the women to look like men with short hair.
Or it could be that Paul did not want women to appear as though they were sexually promiscuous, with flowing unbound hair like the maenads? Maenads worshipped Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, in frenzied displays. In New Testament times, a woman with either short hair or long unbound hair was making a provocative statement, and Paul did not want the Corinthians to unnecessarily behave in culturally inappropriate ways.
Numerous examples of surviving Greek and Roman artwork (mosaics, frescoes, reliefs, statues, coins) show that reputable women wore their hair tied up in braids and bands, and that their heads were often uncovered. Roman women were not usually veiled in domestic settings. (The setting of house-church meetings is arguably a domestic setting.) Furthermore, only respectable Roman matrons were permitted to wear a palla, a length of fabric that could be pulled up over the head when venturing out of doors. Female prostitutes, slaves, and freedwomen, on the other hand, were prohibited by law from wearing the palla. If Paul is asking these lower-class women to wear veils—even though the Greek text never mentions veils—he may have been saying this to minimise distinctions of class among the women. Though it is hard to see how female slaves, for example, could be asked to be veiled, since this was illegal. [More on head coverings in Corinth here and here.]
Paul states in 1 Corinthians 11:15 that a woman’s hair is her covering and her glory. A woman might be the glory of man (11:7), but, when we understand 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 more accurately we see that she also has her own glory, she has her own covering, and she has her own authority over her own head. Furthermore, it’s important to acknowledge that Christian women, just like their brothers, also have the image and glory of God (Gen 1:27; 2 Cor 3:18; etc). [I’ve written more about image and glory in 1 Corinthians 11 here.]
The second half of the chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 contains some wonderful statements about the mutuality of men and women in Christ, but it seems that too many Christians have only read the first half and not the second. These Christians maintain that men are the leaders and authorities of women simply because the first human being was male. Paul, however, highlights that God is the source of both men and women. He also points out that every other man (other than the first man) came from a woman. Mutuality, and not authority, is one of Paul’s main points in this passage.
Paul’s point about hair and heads is less clear. Moreover, the convoluted statements about the hair and heads of men and women in worship have little bearing on our society where hairstyles and headwear do not necessarily convey meaning such as a person’s morality or class. Hats are optional in most situations in western society and so should be optional in church meetings. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t wear clothes or behave in ways that are seen as improper to broader society. The way we appear and behave in church communities should not be giving the church a bad name to those outside the church. This is the central point, the crux, of the chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. [I write about this point here.]
Finally, we shouldn’t ignore that this passage mentions women praying and prophesying in church meetings. Praying is speaking to God, and prophesying is speaking for God. By mentioning these two ministries, Paul may have been summing up the range of vocal ministries that took place in first-century worship services.
Paul considered the ministry of prophesying as important and influential and he lists prophesying and prophets before teaching and teachers in Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:28-30 and Ephesians 4:11. Paul did not have a problem with godly women who prayed and prophesied in a respectable manner. He wanted a distinction in the appearance of men and women, but he did not indicate a distinction in ministry roles or functions.
It is tragic that Paul’s intent in 1 Corinthians 11:2ff has been misunderstood and that this passage has been used to veil women and subordinate them to men. It is unjust that the church has concentrated on the first half of the chiasm and passed over and ignored Paul’s teaching on mutuality in the second half.
 A Chiasm is a literary device used in many passages of Scripture. In a chiastic structure, sentences, or even large passages, are arranged to form an X-shaped pattern. (A chi, which is part of the word chiasm, is the Greek letter that looks like an X.) The thoughts are stated sequentially in one direction until a main point or climax is reached, then the thoughts are repeated in reverse order. In a chiasm, the main point is at the centre of a passage. In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, verse 10 is the climax, crux, of the chiasm. This verse is baffling and has led to much conjecture. (See footnote 2 and the postscript.)
1 Corinthians chapters 11-14 are themselves arranged as a chiasm with the “love” passage as the climax.
A. Order in Worship: Prophets and their hair/head (11:2-16) and the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34)
B. Spiritual Gifts and the Nature of the Body (12:1-30)
X. The Hymn to Love (12:31-14:1)
B1. Spiritual Gifts and the Building up of the Body (14:1-25)
A1. Order in Worship: Prophets and Speakers in Tongues (14:26-40)
 As the central point, Paul’s real concern was that women exercise control of their head or hairstyles because of the messengers (aggeloi). Perhaps the scenario is that messengers (such as household slaves) were spying on church meetings and reporting back to their masters what happened at these meetings. It would have been important to Paul that the messengers were bringing back a good report and not describing shameful scenes (cf. 1 Cor. 14:22-25).
The Greek word aggelous (accusative plural of aggelos) used in 1 Corinthians 11:10 can mean messengers or angels Usually, the context shows which is the correct meaning; however, the meaning here is not clear. Interestingly, the spies in James 2:25 are called aggelous.
 According to BDAG, the Greek word plēn is an adverb used as a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence or clause. It is used to mark something that is contrastingly added for consideration. It can be adversative, or it can be used when breaking off a discussion and emphasising what is important. Furthermore, it can be used when breaking off and passing to a new subject. 1 Corinthians 11:11 is listed in this last category. Plēn can be translated as: only, nevertheless, but, in any case, on the other hand, except that, what then will come of it, etc.
Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition, revised and edited by F.W Danker (University of Chicago Press, 2000), 826. [Known as BDAG for short.]
 The Greek word anēr means “man” or “husband.” Context determines whether it should be translated as “man” or “husband.” Similarly, gunē means “woman” or “wife” depending on the context. Most English Bible translations use the words “man” and “woman” in 1 Corinthians 11 because this passage is not about marriage. The ESV and NRSV are two exceptions and use the words “husband” and “wife” in 1 Corinthians 11:3b. The ESV uses the word “wife” instead of “woman” in 1 Corinthians 11:5-6 also. (The ESV uses the word “wife” six times in all in verses 3-13.)
 The translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into the Greek Septuagint also shows that kephalē did not usually mean leader. When the Hebrew word for “head” (rosh) meant a literal head in the Old Testament, the translators translated rosh into kephalē. However, in Hebrew, like in English, “head” can also mean a leader or ruler. In the instances where rosh meant a leader, in almost all cases, the translators did not use the word kephalē in their translation, instead, they used the Greek word archōn, which does mean ruler or leader.
 H.G. Liddel and R. Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, Ninth Edition, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones, with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 945.
 I discuss the work of other scholars here.
Even hierarchical complementarian Wayne Grudem—while maintaining that kephalē implies authority—concedes that,
There are some texts which indicate that the physical head was thought of as the source of energy and life for the body, and therefore the possibility exists that the word kephale might have come to be used as a metaphor for ‘source’ or ‘source of life’ …
Wayne Grudem, “The meaning of Kephalē (Head): A Response to Recent Studies” in Rediscovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Biblical Feminism (Wheaton, Il: Crossways, 1994), 467.
 Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman: One in Christ, An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 131-137.
 The word “authority” (exousia) is mentioned only once in this passage, in 1 Corinthians 11:10, where the meaning is that a woman should have her own authority, power, or freedom (exousia) upon her own head. The usage of the word indicates that a person can have and exercise exousia (authority, power, freedom) in an active sense. The word is not typically used in the sense of a person or people being under or being affected by someone else’s exousia, a passive sense. See Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 519. (More about the word exousia and its meaning and usage in 1 Corinthians in footnote 10 here.)
Also, there is no word for “sign” or “symbol” in the Greek of verse 10. Unfortunately, these words have been added in some English translations by those who think exousia is a metonym, thus altering the meaning of the verse. (More on the metonym idea, which I can’t find real evidence for, here.)
Another common mistranslation of this passage is found in 1 Corinthians 11:16. The NASB incorrectly has “no other custom.” The correct translation is “no such custom.” By incorrectly translating toioutos as “other,” the NASB, NIV and other translations adversely affect the interpretation of the entire passage. The NRSV and KJV translate toioutos correctly as “such” in 1 Corinthians 11:16.
A note on dia in 1 Corinthians 11
I find the use of the Greek word dia interesting in 1 Corinthians 11:9 when compared with its use in 1 Corinthians 11:12. Dia is a preposition and its meaning depends on whether the case of the noun it refers to (or modifies) is in the accusative or genitive case. Dia followed by a noun in the accusative case, as in verse 9, can mean “because of,” “on account of,” “for the sake of,” etc. Only rarely does it mean “through” or “by.” When dia is followed by a noun in the genitive case, as in verse 12 (and 10b), however, it frequently means “through” or “by”.
It sounds to me that Paul is using similar language to carefully craft his response to the view in 1 Corinthians 11:9 with his more correct view in 1 Corinthians 11:11-12. Paul’s use of the preposition ek (“from”) is also interesting. Here is a very literal, albeit awkward, translation of verses 8-12 showing the use of dia and ek:
11:8 Man is not from (ek) woman, but woman from (ek) man;
11:9 for also man was not made for the sake of (dia with accusative) the woman, but woman for the sake of (dia with acc.) the man
11:10 because (dia with acc.) of this, the woman has authority/ power/ freedom (exousia) on her [own] head because (dia with acc.) of the angels
11:11 except that (plēn), in the Lord, neither is a woman apart/ independent from the man, nor is a man apart/independent from a woman.
11:12 For just as the woman is from (ek) the man, thus also the man is through (dia with genitive) the woman; but everything is from (ek) God.
Postscript: “Because of the Angels”
I provide an explanation of the messengers/ angels in a footnote above. Cynthia Westfall has a different idea. In regards to the cryptic reference to the angels, she ties 1 Corinthians 11:10 to 1 Corinthians 6:2-3 which reads, “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters?” (NRSV, italics added)
With this in mind, Dr Westfall writes, “Women and men were supposed to be learning to exercise good judgement in ordinary matters in preparation for future responsibilities.” According to this explanation, discerning the correct handling of the “head-covering” situation was good practice for judging the angels.
Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 35.
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The following video shows N.T. Wright speaking about men and women and the new creation. He also speaks about 1 Corinthians 11:2ff. Some of his views about head coverings are slightly different from mine. For this reason, and others, my explanation of this difficult passage is prefaced with a “perhaps.”
4 facts that show “head” does not mean “leader” in 1 Cor. 11:3
Man and Woman as the Image and Glory of God (1 Cor. 11:7)
1 Corinthians 11:2-16, in a Nutshell
1 Corinthians 11:9, in a Nutshell
Kephale and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters
LSJ Definitions of Kephalē
The Significance of the Created Order in a Nutshell
Women’s Hair in Corinth and in Sydney
All articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 are here.
Articles about Bible passages with chiasms
What is the meaning of “head”? By Ian Paul here.
Here are a couple of links to Philip Payne’s website. This article is about hairstyles. This article is about whether 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 refers to church meetings.