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 not one interpretation of this passage that makes sense of every verse.
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 that 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 climax, or nadir, of the chiasm in verse 10. After a “nevertheless” or “except that” (Greek: plēn) 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 people’s heads and hair 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; 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. 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 that the word kephalē has the meaning of leader or chief person, 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 means source or origin in 1 Corinthians 11:3. 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, Athanasius, Eusebius, and Ambrosiaster. All these early church theologians and writers believed that source, and not authority, is the meaning in 1 Corinthians 11:3.
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’. . .”
Taking into account that kephalē probably means source in 1 Corinthians 11:3, this verse might be paraphrased and expanded as:
“But I want you to realize that the source (or origin) of every man is Christ, and the source (or origin) of [the first] woman is [the first] man, and the source (or origin) of Christ is God [or the triune Godhead].”
I agree with what Gilbert Bilezikian has said on this: “The sequence that links the three clauses [of 1 Cor. 11:3] is not hierarchy but chronology. At creation, Christ was the giver of life to men as the source of the life of Adam (“by him all things were created” Col. 1:16.) In turn, man gave life to the woman as she was taken from him. Then, God gave life to the Son as he came into the world for the incarnation.” (From “I Believe in Male Headship”.)
While the first man was the source of the first woman, Paul’s real emphasis is the common origin of men and women, and the mutuality this implies, and so 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, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God” (1 Cor. 11:11-12). God is the ultimate source of both man and woman.
Paul was not writing about male authority in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, but about the mutual interdependence between men and women. Accordingly, in his letters, Paul never used any of the many Greek words for leadership in reference to 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 source or origin, Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 becomes easier to understand. 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 were forbidden from praying or prophesying in meetings but still had to cover their heads.
Despite the common assumption that Paul was instructing women to cover their heads, there is no word for veil or hat, etc, in the Greek of this passage. Paul does, however, speak about hair as a covering. Some modern scholars, such as Jerome Murphy O’Connor, believe that Paul was probably 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 that the kingdom age had fully arrived and that gender distinctions, as well as sex and procreation, were no longer important. And some the Corinthian Christians likened themselves to the genderless angels. 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 simple braids and bands, and that their heads were uncovered. Greco-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 women to wear veils—even though the Greek text never states this explicitly—he may have been saying this to minimise distinctions of class and race 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.]
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, her own covering, and her own authority upon her own head. [See endnote 11.] 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).
The second half of the chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 contains some wonderful statements about the mutuality of men and women, 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. Paul 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 or denote class distinctions. Hats are optional in most situations in western society and so should be optional in church meetings. Still, like Paul, we should not permit dress and behaviour in church services 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 of the church.
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 kinds of ministries that take place in a worship service. 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. [My article on Philip’s Prophesying Daughters here.]
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, or nadir, of the chiasm. This verse is baffling and has led to much conjecture. (See endnote 2.)
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)
 Larry Welbourne’s view of 1 Corinthians 11:10 is that it is the low point of Paul’s teaching. (See endnote 14 for another perspective on verse 10.)
“Paul’s argument reaches its nadir in 11:10, where he urges that a woman should keep her head covered ‘because of the angels,’ probably a reference to the ‘sons of God’ in Gen. 6:2, who had intercourse with mortal women and fathered a race of giants. Like other Jewish writers of the period (e.g., Test. Reuben 5:6), Paul evidently fears that the angels will be aroused to lust by the sight of exposed women . . .”
L. L. Welborn, “The Corinthian Correspondence”(forthcoming).
 According to BDAG, the Greek word plēn is an adverb used as a conjunction which comes 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.
Bauer, Walter, 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 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.
 Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman: One in Christ, An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 131-137.
 Grudem, Wayne, “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.
 If 1 Corinthians 11:3 is Paul’s teaching (and not the thoughts of the Corinthians), he may have written 1 Corinthians 11:3 with pagan mythology in mind. In contrast to the various creation myths, Paul writes that all men have the one source: Christ. But woman (or at least the first woman) came from a man (or, the first human being.) And Christ (i.e. the Messiah) has his source from God, that is, the Triune Godhead. In contrast to pagan ideas, the Messiah is not just a demigod with a strange mythological creation or just one emanation in a series of emanations.
 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 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, 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 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.
 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. (More about the word exousia and its meaning and usage in 1 Corinthians in endnote 9 here.)
Also, there is no word for “sign” in the Greek of verse 10. Unfortunately, the word “sign” has 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, and misleadingly, 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.
 The word kephalē is also used in the Ephesians 5:23. This time it is used in the context of husbands and wives. But Ephesians 5:21-33 does not mention any kind of leadership from the husband, only sacrificial, nurturing love. [My article Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33 here.]
 L.L. Welborn states that “Paul’s argument for the maintenance of tradition (11:2) with respect to gender differences is the weakest argument in the corpus Paulinum, in that it threatens to compromise his own insight into the new social identity given in Christ (cf. Gal. 3:28).” L.L. Welborn, “The Corinthian Correspondence” (forthcoming).
 A different view from the one in endnote 2 is that messengers (perhaps household slaves) were spying on church meetings and reporting back to their masters about 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 “angels” or “messengers”. 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 (accusative plural of aggelos).
In regards to the cryptic reference to the angels, Cynthia Westfall 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.”
Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 35.
According to this explanation, discerning the correct handling of the “head-covering” situation was good practice for judging the angels. This is as good as any other explanation I’ve heard.
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 to mine. For this reason (and others) my explanation of this difficult passage is prefaced with a “perhaps”.
Women’s Hair in Corinth and in Sydney
1 Corinthians 11:9, in a Nutshell
Man and Woman as the Image and Glory of God (1 Corinthians 11:7)
Kephale and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters
Who is the “head”?
Kephale and Proto-Gnosticism in Paul’s Letters
LSJ Definitions of Kephalē
The Complementarian Concept of the Created Order
Galatians 3:28: Our Identity in Christ and in the Church
All articles on 1 Corinthians 2:11-16 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.