Head Coverings & Hair Length

by William J. Stewart

1 Corinthians 11 is a record of the apostle Paul’s teaching regarding the use of head coverings and the length of hair to those who were in first century Corinth. The text has been a source of confusion for many, and has resulted in two general positions: 1) the instruction was for the Corinthians alone, and we have no need to specifically heed it, and 2) it is divine instruction, as applicable today as it was in the day it was given.

I am of the mind that the instruction regarding hair length and head coverings given by the apostle is cultural in nature, and that application of the same today would likewise be on a cultural basis. The handkerchief style “head coverings” worn by women in the Western world are nothing like what the apostle had in mind when he advised Christian women in Corinth to cover their heads. The coverings of their day would be much more akin to what we see Muslim women wearing in our present day. It covered the whole head, allowing for sight, and on down over the body also.

Let us go through the text, beginning at verse 16, and working our way backwards:

v 16 – But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

The custom which neither the apostles nor the churches of God kept is the very teaching which Paul gives in the context about hair length and head coverings. No other “custom” is under consideration. This verse sets the context for the application of Paul’s instruction. It was not given to all the churches of God – in other words, the wearing of head coverings and the restrictions of hair length IS NOT a universal church doctrine established by the apostles. Since it was not a command for all the churches, a sensible alternative is that a cultural peculiarity in Corinth necessitated this instruction.

Notice, the first clause, “…if anyone seems to be contentious…” permits one to not observe what Paul herein instructs. The apostle was not dogmatic about hair and coverings, but saw the benefit for the Corinthians and the Lord’s church in that region if they would adhere to his bidding. He used himself as an example in this same epistle (1 Cor 9:19-22), that we should become all things to all men, so as to save some.

v 13-15 – Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering.

He asks that they employ their own ability to judge (v 13), to make a rational, common sense observation. From the context (v 6), it is evident that in Corinth, it was wrong for a woman to be uncovered or shorn. I’ve heard that such was the appearance of the pagan temple harlots, and thus the shamefulness of it for a Christian woman to do so.

It must be understood what “nature” (v 14) here refers to. I am confident that it is not a reference to the natural course of creation. Why? Because in Numbers 6, God commanded men who took the Nazarite vow to not cut their hair. Samson, who was a Nazarite had long hair. John the Baptist, also a Nazarite, would have had long hair. Long hair on a man is not inherently wrong.

How then does nature teach that it is wrong? The word nature is being used in a limited sense (ie. that which surrounds you), not in an all inclusive sense. It was unnatural for a man to wear his hair long in Corinth. The honourable women were longhaired, the honourable men were shorthaired. The use of “nature” here is the same as in Eph 2:3, where Paul said that we were “by nature children of wrath”. Is Paul saying we are inherently evil? If so, then Calvinism is right! No, Paul is not referring to something that is inherent in man, but rather to what we receive from our society. Sin is a social disease of sorts, not a hereditary disease. We’re not born in sin, we learn it.

That all being said, whether it is wrong for a man to have long hair or not depends upon the culture in which the man is in. If we were in 1500-1700s France, every man would be longhaired. In 1900s America, long hair on men was frowned upon. Does that make it sinful for a man in 1500s France to wear his hair short? NO! Was it sinful for a man in 1900s USA to wear his hair long? NO! However, in both cases, because he sets himself opposed to the cultural norm, he may cause damage to his influence.

Just a side note, I know of a congregation that was ready to disfellowship a young man for having dreadlocks in his hair. Not the most appealing hair style, and certainly not a cultural norm, but sinful? The text used to oppose him was that which we are presently considering. I’m curious, what about folks in Jamaica? It is very common for Jamaican men to wear dreadlocks. I’ve not been at any church meeting there, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see many brethren who have dreadlocks. Nothing wrong with it at all. I would be saddened if I went there and found every man with crewcut hair. What that would indicate is that the evangelists who went there “Americanized” the Jamaican brethren. The gospel message and culture are not dynamically opposed. That is part of the lesson with Paul’s instruction here to the Corinthians.

Again, the woman in Corinth who had long hair was honoured (v 15). She fit into the proper place in society. Those who did not wear their hair long set themselves against the natural order. It would be much akin to a woman in early 1900s America wearing trousers. So far as I can see in the New Testament, there is nothing wrong with her doing so. However, what she has done is violated a social standard, and in the process has dishonoured her husband (see v 5).

Her hair is spoken of as a natural covering. In this, Paul does not nullify the need for the women to wear a head covering. Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary states, “Not that she does not need additional covering. Nay, her long hair shows she ought to cover her head as much as possible. The will ought to accord with nature. [BENGAL]”

v 11-12 – Nevertheless, neither is a man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.

Through the context (v 3, 7-10), Paul speaks of the authority which the man is given over the woman. Lest that be misconstrued as superiority, these words are included. Where would man be without woman? He would not be. Man needs woman, woman needs man. They have different roles, but are equals.

v 7-10 – For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her had, because of the angels.

Of this text, Johnson writes, “In this whole passage we must keep in mind the Eastern ideas of the relations of the sexes. Paul bases these rules of propriety on the account of their creation. The veil is a sign of subordination to others present. But man, the image and glory of God, has no created superior. Woman, the glory of the man, is subordinate to him, of which the veil is the symbol.”

The veil is a symbol of authority (v 10). Not of the woman’s authority, but of her husband’s authority over her. The clause “because of the angels” has been explained by different people in a variety of ways. Some have suggested that the angels of God, who are witness to our public worship services appreciate the propriety of subordination shown (I have a problem with this explanation, as the context does not identify this as being specifically ‘for the worship assembly’. Plus, if the women are praying and prophesying, it cannot be in the worship assembly. Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 14 and 2 Timothy 2 would negate such an understanding of this text). It may be that this is a reference to the angels who render proper submission before the Lord, in contrast with those who did not (Jude 6; 2 Peter 2:4). The woman who wears the head covering in submission to her husband as she ought imitates the angels who submit to the Lord. Again, before women today start putting doilies on their heads, this text needs to be contextualized – it is a cultural command.

v 3-6 – But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.

There is a hierarchy of authority (v 3). The relationship in each case is identical (ie. one is submissive to the other). A woman (specifically a wife) to her husband; man to Christ; Christ to God.

Of verse 4, two thoughts exist: 1) that he dishonors Christ, 2) that he dishonors his own head. I am inclined to take the second position. Certainly, if it could be established that a covering (or long hair, since they are employed synonymously in the text) is inherently wrong, then he would bring dishonor to Christ, but it cannot be established from Scripture that a covering/long hair is inherently wrong. As we’ve seen, God has at times commanded men to have long hair. Also, among Jewish men, a tallith is worn in worship. This is not something new, it has been the case since before the time of Christ. Nature taught the Corinthian men that it was wrong to have their heads covered, or to have long hair. If nature (our culture) also tells us this, then it is shameful for us to do so. If not, then it is not.

A man who visited with a congregation I once worked with came in with a cap on. He left it on. A murmur could be heard about the crowd, as this fellow was violating Scripture. Well, yes, and no. The Bible does not teach that it is sinful for a man to wear a hat in worship services. That is NOT what 1 Cor 11:4 says. However, yes, he did violate Scripture, since in our culture, it is disrespectful for a man to wear a cap in church. Would God strike him dead for it? I really don’t think so (though some of the members were ready to). What he accomplished by wearing his cap was to dishonor his own head – he was looked down upon by those who surrounded him. His conduct had no affect on the honor of the Lord.

I wish that brethren had more patience. Unfortunately, the fellow never obeyed the gospel. Rather than acting like he’d brought the plague upon us, these should have exercised compassion and restraint. Not too long after that time, we discussed at length this chapter in a Bible class.

The woman who prayed or prophesied with her head uncovered dishonored her head (v 5). That is, she dishonored her husband. In this case, unlike the man, it is not talking about her own head, since the covering is a sign of authority. For her not to wear it dishonors her husband.

A key word in verse 6 (and for that matter, elsewhere in the context) is “IF”. If she is not covered, then it is the same as if she were shorn. Recall, regarding v 15, JFB said that she was not released from wearing the covering if she had long hair, but rather it was further compulsion to do so. If the woman will dishonor her hsuband by not being covered, then she might as well shave her hair off and look like the rebellious temple harlots.

Now note the second “IF”. If it is shameful for her to be shaved, let her be covered. This again brings an appeal to cultural standards. Is it wrong for a woman to have short hair? In Corinthian culture, yes. In our culture, no (well, depends upon who you are with, I suppose). But understand, the “IF” (along with the “NATURE” and the qualification of verse 16) takes Paul’s instruction here from being solid universal doctrine for the churches of Christ to being a local social compromise.

If I were to travel to some area where it was custom for men to wear robes (ie. many of the Eastern countries, though they are moving away from such), it would be respectful for me to wear a robe. It would set aside a hindrance to my influence for the cause of Christ among the people there. That, I believe is the whole point of this context. A practical application for the congregation in Corinth of what Paul said he himself did (1 Cor 9:19-22).

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