Introduction (by Natalie)
As a young girl, I was sitting in church when the preacher began to tell us the following story. It all started with two girls very much like myself—two Holy-Ghost filled, Holiness Pentecostal girls who loved Jesus. Their parents and pastor had always warned them, “Don’t trim your hair girls!” But it didn’t make much sense to them. Their long, uncut hair was stringy and had splits ends. What would it harm to trim a few inches off? So, when they were old enough to decide for themselves, they went to the salon together and asked for a trim. As soon as the scissors began to cut—boom—something instantly changed. In sheer horror the girls felt the Holy Ghost leave them, they may have even seen a physical dove leave the room. Distressed, they began to weep and cry, “Come back, come back!” But it was too late. Their hair was irreversibly cut and they’d lost the Holy Ghost for good.
Retelling the tale now, it sounds dramatic and unbelievable, but around the age of thirteen it scared me enough not to ask questions. There was no way I’d risk God leaving me for good. Unfortunately, I have found that I am not the only woman with this experience. Many others have come to me over the years and expressed how they are too are scared of trim their hair—scared God will leave them, scared they’ll lose special power, and even scared their husbands will have an affair or their children will die. To my disturbance, I’ve found that some circles teach a woman’s uncut hair protects her husband from cheating and will heal sick children if it touches them.
We weren’t planning on publishing an article about women’s hair on Berean Holiness because we realize it’s not a clear issue and there’s room for differing perspectives. But after receiving dozens of requests for this article (and all the personal stories they come with), I now realize that the doctrine of uncut hair has not been propagated through careful study of 1 Corinthians 11. It’s not a case of individual believers genuinely disagreeing with mainstream Christianity and Church history. Instead, the idea that it is a sin for women to cut their hair has been perpetuated through fear, superstition, false promises, and threats of God forsaking His children. That ends today.
In the following article, Nathan lays out a summary of research regarding the evidence surrounding 1 Corinthians 11 and its plausible interpretations. Our desire is that you will use his resources and examination of the text as a springboard for your own study. No matter what conclusion you come to, hopefully we can agree that 1 Corinthians 11 has more than one reasonable application and uncut hair should not be made a matter of disfellowship or wielded as a salvific requirement.
Evidence for Interpreting 1 Corinthians 11 (by Nathan)
While we can have confidence in God’s Word, the precise meaning and application of some passages is less than clear. To evidence that point, I can submit the words of none other than the Apostle Peter, who says of Paul’s letters “in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.” (2 Pet 3:16)
When we arrive at these passages, the proper attitude should be one of careful study and humility. If Peter had to slow down to read them, so should we. We should strive to apply the clear commands of Scripture, such as love and unity, and realize that everyone will not arrive at the exact same conclusion.
In fact, if everyone in a substantial congregation arrives at the exact same conclusion on a difficult passage (but at a different conclusion from a studious church across the street), it suggests that the majority are not thinking or studying at all. On the contrary, they are blindly following a few leaders and trading the approval of their peers for the approval of the God who commanded them to study diligently. I think this is a poor trade.
In that spirit, allow me to lay out an analysis of a Holiness movement standard in a different format than my typical fare. Normally, I lay the burden of proof at the feet of the party imposing the rule, find their case, and respond to it on a point-by-point basis. However, since the first part of 1 Corinthians 11 is a truly difficult passage of Scripture, my objective in this article is not to convince you of any single interpretation.
Rather, my objective is to show that there are multiple feasible interpretations, all with strengths and shortcomings. Regardless of which one you end up on, there are still multiple ways to apply each view to the modern believer. Though I think some interpretations can safely be dismissed for lack of evidence, that will still leave us with more than one reasonable view. If you have been told that there is a single obvious interpretation of this passage that leads to a single obvious conclusion, you have been misled.
There are two basic questions at issue in this passage.
1) What practice is Paul talking about (head coverings, hair styles, relative hair length, untrimmed hair, or some combination of the four)?
2) To whom does it apply (the men and women of Corinth specifically, all the believers in the first century, or to all believers universally)?
First, I will provide some general context, then I will lay out multiple answers to each question, with both evidence and counter-arguments on each view. As books have been written on each of these views, I will not be able to provide a truly comprehensive synopsis, but I will get close and link relevant sources for each view.
Evidence from Historical Interpretations
Throughout nearly all of church history, leaders have believed this passage is about supporting physical head coverings for Corinthian women. They saw that Paul uses observations about hair as supporting evidence, and that is the only extent to which it is addressed – not as the main point of the passage.
Quotations are laid out in this reference, but Irenaeus (100-200 A.D.), Clement of Alexandria (153-217 A.D.), Tertullian (160-220 A.D.), Basil the Great (330-379 A.D.), Ambrosiaster (mid-late 300s), John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.), Severian (d. 408 A.D), Jerome (345-429 A.D.), and Augustine (354-430 A.D.) all understood that Paul was referring to a material veil, which women should wear and men should not.1
Very significantly, Tertullian, writing around 150 years after Paul, records that the Corinthians themselves understood Paul’s message to have been about veils. Tertullian writes a long treatise addressing whether the veil applied to unmarried women (he argued it did) and referenced that the Corinthians agreed with him on this issue. “So, too, did the Corinthians themselves understand him. In fact, at this day the Corinthians do veil their virgins. What the apostles taught, their disciples approve.”
There seems to be a little dissent from Epiphanius (315-403 A.D.) who perceived at least that the covering was hair itself, at least for men. John Chrysostom and Augustine explicitly held that the passage provided guidance on both veils and hair. There was plenty of debate about the issue, but their debates ranged around not whether women should wear veils, but which women (married only or all women) and when (only when praying or all the time).
It’s notable that just because an early church father said something doesn’t make it so. In one of the aforementioned quotes by Clement, he dictates that men should shave their heads bald unless they have curly hair. Various church fathers disagreed with each other on many issues and sometimes their interpretations were self-evidently incorrect. However, if we see a clear trend of interpretation over the centuries, it is sensible to give that interpretation special weight over a more modern view. They lived much closer to the times and culture in which the Bible was penned. The majority position and earliest recorded position is clearly that this passage is primarily about veils.
Furthermore, this view carried along more or less unbroken through the time of the reformers. Philipp Melanchthon, Martin Luther, and John Calvin all either explicitly or implicitly stated that this passage was about the veiling of women.
Most modern Bible scholars agree with the historic Christian position on this passage. A quick search of the available commentaries on BlueLetterBible.org shows that every single commentary I checked holds this view (Matthew Henry, David Guzick, Adam Clarke, A. R. Fausset, Chuck Smith, Gordon Fee, John MacArthur).
The view that this passage has nothing to do with head coverings (i.e. that hair itself is the covering) doesn’t appear until at least the mid 1800s, and then not by orthodox theologians. The first scholarly defense of that idea did not occur until 1965.2 It’s possible that someone earlier held this view (such as Epiphanius, referenced above), but it was never exposited fully enough to be sure.
Evidence from Contemporary Culture
The Mediterranean culture generally supported the veiling of women for modesty’s sake. As far back as 1400 BC, written Assyrian law codes mandates that women wear veils unless they are slaves or prostitutes. Those women were not allowed to veil, because veils were considered a symbol of rank and authority.
This article explores the history in depth, but it is fair to say that the veiling of married women was common in Jewish, Greek, and Roman culture. In 166 BC, a Roman consul is recorded to have divorced his wife because she left the house without a veil.3
The Arab culture is the progeny of these traditions. To this day, Muslim women nearly all cover their heads to some degree, as they have been doing since the founding of Islam in the 7th Century. Though they have frozen this practice in time, it originated long before them.
According to an 18th century Bible commentator, Adam Clarke: “because it was a custom, both among the Greeks and Romans, and among the Jews an express law, that no woman should be seen abroad without a veil. This was, and is, a common custom through all the east, and none but public prostitutes go without veils. And if a woman should appear in public without a veil, she would dishonour her head-her husband. And she must appear like to those women who had their hair shorn off as the punishment of whoredom, or adultery.”4
The catacombs record that Christian women veiled during prayer as a norm in Rome. Note that prayer in the first few centuries was represented not by folding hands, but by outstretching the arms to the side and pointing the palms upward. See this walkthrough of the recently restored catacombs of Priscilla (100’s-300’s AD) for several examples.5
On the Significance of a Woman’s Hair
In addition to the general trend of women veiling throughout the Mediterranean world, the Greek understanding of anatomy attributed special significance to women’s hair and would have provided additional reason for a modest woman to cover it.
To make a long (and weird) story short, Greeks believed that long hair was a part of a woman’s reproductive system and that long hair on a man would undermine his ability to reproduce by making his system function more like a woman’s. Their science was “hair-brained” at best, but it does have a bit of explanatory power. The link between hair growth and puberty and the lack of hair growth in eunuchs (common in their day) was sufficient to convince them of an elaborate connection between hair and reproduction.
This was not an obscure view – it was popularized by the Einstein’s of the Greek world – Hippocrates and Aristotle. On this view, women without long hair could not effectively reproduce and thus hair was functionally considered genitalia.6, 7
The primary Old Testament significance of women’s hair was that shaved heads were a sign of mourning commanded as a temporary reset for the captured women of foreign nations (Deuteronomy 21:12).
On the Reputation of Corinth
Corinth had a reputation as a particularly loose city. Some evidence comes from historical accounts like the first century historian Strabo. He records a temple of Aphrodite that employed 1,000 prostitutes and made the city wealthy with the earnings of the sailors in the two ports it controlled. This general observation is supported by Scripture directly. Paul spends much of his epistles to the Corinthians speaking out against sexual immorality of all types as well as drunkenness and prostitution specifically.8
More evidence for the licentious nature of the Corinthians is provided by this quotation from the philosopher Epictetus. In this passage, Epictetus, a stoic, was arguing why men should have beards because beards were a “natural” part of manhood.9
“Whom do you wish to please? The women? Please them as a man. “Well, but they like smooth men.” …Were you born for this purpose, that dissolute women should delight in you? Shall we make such a one as you a citizen of Corinth and perchance a prefect of the city, or chief of the youth, or general or superintendent of the games?”
Note the allusion to Corinth as a city known for blurring the distinction between men and women. When Epictetus thought of effeminate men, he thought of Corinth, and he knew everyone would catch the reference. His logic regarding beards is also interesting because it is reminiscent of some of Paul’s language in 1 Cor. 11. Epictetus, a pagan, argues that it is “the nature” of man to have a beard and that someone ought to do what is in their nature and not attempt to change it.
Evidence from The Passage
(I have built a paragraph structure that aids understanding and added some notes in brackets. Take the time to read through this passage slowly.)
Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.
[Note the word play with the literal and metaphoric sense of “head” in the subsequent verses.]
But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.
Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head [Christ]. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head [her husband]: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.
For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.
For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.
For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.
Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.
Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.
But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.
[It’s also worth noting that the structure of the passage is a chiasm, but I don’t think that mandates any particular conclusions.]10
What is the Primary Instruction of This Passage?
A) The Veil Interpretation: This Passage is Primarily About Head Coverings
Given the cultural prevalence of veils for both Jews and Greeks, it is easy to imagine that the Corinthians would have seen head coverings as Pauls’ primary focus in verses 4-13. Indeed, Tertullian’s account, referenced above, records that this is exactly how the Corinthians did understand it – at least 150 years later. It is much easier for a modern reader to imagine this passage has nothing to do with head coverings, because they are rare in our times and do not come readily to mind.
If Paul had meant to talk about hair exclusively, he picked a confusing way to do it. He didn’t mention the word “hair” until verse 14. Contrast this with the back half of chapter 11 (17-34), which chides the Corinthians for their abuse of the Lord’s Supper. In this case, he mentions his topic explicitly by the 4th verse – he doesn’t expound on the Lord’s Supper at length before telling them the point.
It seems sensible that the point of the first half of the chapter is about “covering the head,” which Paul also addresses by the 4th verse of that section. While not used elsewhere in Scripture, this word “cover” is defined by Strongs as “to cover wholly, i.e. veil:—cover, hide.” Given his word choice and a cultural context where veils were common, his readers would have read verses 4-13 with veils foremost in their mind, and if he meant to do a dramatic switch, he would have done so explicitly. “Ha! You thought I was talking about veils – No! I’m talking about hair and you should forgo cloth veils because long hair is the real head covering!”
Paul doesn’t say anything to suggest that the earlier verses are not about cloth head coverings. Rather, he could well be referencing hair as an argument in support of head coverings. In the early verses, he talks about how lacking a head covering should make a woman feel the same as if she were bald or if she cut it very short (i.e. as if it were “shorn”). If his audience already agreed with him on the hair issue, it’s sensible to reference that common agreement as support for the issue of veils. On the other hand, Paul’s argument seems very odd as an argument for long hair. In that case, he would be saying “If you don’t have long hair, it’s just like you cut it really short.” If his audience did not agree with him on the hair issue and he was trying to prove it, proving it with itself seems an odd way to go about it.
He also talks about coverings as something which a woman should have when she is praying or prophesying in verses 5 and 13. Why contextualize the covering as something which is only required during prayer? This suggests the covering was removable. A woman could have it during prayer but not while she was at home, or perhaps while sleeping.
Furthermore, why not just interpret his words in the plainest sense? He says, “for a man indeed ought not to cover his head (11:7).” If he’s talking about veils, that makes sense, if he’s talking about long hair to people he knew would have been thinking about veils – why not just say “for a man indeed ought not to have long hair” or “for a man indeed ought not to cover his head with long hair.”
In later verses (14-15), he uses the argument of “nature” to support a covering (vs. 13). In the same sense as Epictetus, Paul addresses the “natural state” of men and women. This verse always confused me as a child, because try as I might, I could think of nothing from a modern sense of the word “nature” which backed up Paul’s point. Animals do not generally have differentiated hair length among males and females. However, in the context of Greco-Roman physiology, this makes much more sense. If long hair is a part of a woman’s reproductive system (I know it’s not, but they thought it was, see above), then it would seem natural for a woman to have long hair to fulfill her “nature” as a woman. On this view, long hair is unnatural for a man and runs contrary to his nature.
It would not be unusual for Paul to appeal to a pagan perspective when he felt it supported his argument. He does it in Acts 17:28, Titus 1:12, and 1 Corinthians 15:33.
Does this mean that Paul believed or endorsed this pseudo-science? On the question of belief, we have no reason to think that Biblical authors were given special revelation on topics which they did not record in Scripture. I doubt Peter or Paul knew that Jupiter was a gas giant or understood the nature of radio waves or germ theory. Consequently, they would have generally believed what their culture taught them, even if they had reservations. I personally have never been to Jupiter or proved much experimentally about radio waves or bacteria, yet I consider myself to have at least a basic understanding of the topics, because of things I have learned from the scientific institutions of our day.
As a Roman citizen and regular visitor to Greece, it seems Paul would not have been ignorant about basic physiology like how the reproductive system “worked.” It was already old knowledge by his time and supported the pre-existing tradition of veiling women. The Corinthians most certainly knew what was being taught in Athens (only 50 miles away). This passage does not promote or even record this flawed physiology and in so doing the Scripture does not err. However, it is likely that a Corinthian would have read Pauls’ words in light of the scientific understanding of their time, and Paul makes no effort to preclude them from doing so. It is also not unreasonable to go along with a cultural practice that is attempting to promote modesty, even if the rationale is a bit off. If I visited a country where people believed you should wear earmuffs, I would probably wear earmuffs.
There’s more evidence for this view in 1 Corinthians chapter 12:22-24. In these verses, Paul is talking about the church, and using the human body as a metaphor. His general point is that every body part has a purpose, and they are all honored in some way. The presentable parts of the body are honored in the way we show them off. The unpresentable parts of the body are honored in the way we take special effort to hide them. Most translations render verses 23 and 24 similar to this: “and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it,”
The King James version says the same thing but requires a closer reading. “And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked:”
Paul is pointing out that we take special effort to cover our private parts. In light of Greco-Roman physiology, a woman’s hair was a part of her reproductive system (but a man’s was not). As such, it was a private part, and seemed sensible to cover it. We can’t say for sure whether that was Paul’s logic, but it has a lot of explanatory power and connects nicely with Paul’s appeal to nature.
Alternatively, if Paul personally rejected the Greco-Roman understanding of physiology, he may have been referring to the related idea that women have relatively longer hair in almost every culture in human history. Perhaps this is because men are generally more interested in a low maintenance functional appearance and women are generally more interested in beauty. The trend is strong because it leans upon the “nature” of men and women.
Paul says that since the nature of a woman is to have long hair, this is nature itself backing up his argument that women ought to have a cloth head covering. Nature has given women one head covering, and decorum demands they have another. In the words of John Calvin: “Should any one now object, that her hair is enough, as being a natural covering, Paul says that it is not, for it is such a covering as requires another thing to be made use of for covering it.”11
If the church fathers are right, it does lead to a question as to why this practice is not supported elsewhere in Scripture. First off, we know they weren’t worn all the time in all the churches, because Peter and Paul both advise against braided hair as flashy adornment (1 Tim 2:9, 1 Pet 3:3). This shows us that hair was visible sometimes – and since Peter’s instructions are to married women, we know that’s true for them too. It wasn’t that their hair was visible under their veils because the style was to cover the whole back of the head and leave the face exposed. Most modern head covering movements would be considered “indecent” with their handkerchiefs for coverings. It could be that the expectation Paul was creating applied only to times of worship and prayer or that it applied only to the Corinthians.
What possible reason could Paul have had to care about head coverings in Corinth, while not preaching about them anywhere else?
The most common understanding is that some of the Corinthian women were rejecting head coverings, which had the cultural effect of rejecting the authority of their husbands. Matthew Henry holds this position and summarizes it as follows: “The misconduct of their women (some of whom seem to have been inspired) in the public assembly, who laid by their veils, the common token of subjection to their husbands in that part of the world. This behaviour he reprehends, requires them to keep veiled, asserts the superiority of the husband, yet so as to remind the husband that both were made for mutual help and comfort.”12
An alternate theory is that Paul was calling the Corinthians to equality. We look at veiling as a burden, they saw it as a symbol of rank and privilege (you could say “a symbol of power on their heads”). Married women and chaste widows were allowed to wear a veil – slaves and prostitutes were banned from wearing veils. Veils were symbols of virtue. Paul could be telling the Corinthians that every woman is entitled to wear a veil, because it is a symbol of God’s order of authority, and that order is grounded in creation, not Roman law. So, in Christ, a married slave has just as much right to a symbol of authority on her head as anyone else. This makes sense in light of the gap between rich and poor that we see in the second half of the same chapter (11:18 “when ye come together in the church, I hear that there are divisions among you”).13
A bonus theory is that the women were embracing head coverings, but the men were attempting to get them to stop wearing them, and Paul was siding with the women. The language in the passage makes this view possible, but not certain.14
B) The Hair Style Interpretation: This Passage is Primarily About Loose Hair
An alternate view which leans on some of the arguments I’ve made above is that the covering is not a physical veil, nor is it the mere existence of hair, rather, it is the styling of the hair. Namely, if a woman’s hair is styled and worn up on her head, her head is “covered.” If the hair is allowed to hang loosely behind her, her head is “uncovered.”
Similarly, if a man wears long hair in the style of a woman, his head is disgracefully “covered.”
This view is not very common but is attested by multiple scholars; I will refer primarily to the argumentation of Dr. Philip Payne. His analysis does have some significant advantages over the other contending views.15
It is true that respectable Greek women always wore their hair up, as evidenced by art and statuary. Veiling is evidenced, but not nearly as universal. It could well be as Payne claims, that wearing the hair down was a symbol of sexual debauchery.
Another benefit to this view is that it better explains how a head covering is a “disgrace” to men. It certainly cannot be that cloth head coverings or hats are universally disgraceful for men to wear while praying, because God commanded priests to wear caps and turbans for leading his people in worship (Exod. 28:4, 40). It is easier to see how we should understand that it is disgraceful for a man to have a woman’s long hair and hair style. Payne also provides ample evidence that men styling their hair like women went on in Pauline times, and that other conservative Greeks and Romans strongly opposed the practice as debase. He also points out that the specific words Paul uses are the same that he uses in other places to attack homosexual practices, which would support the idea that the men who adopted feminine hairstyles were doing so in a sexualized way.
This view also has a bit of biblical support from the passage in Numbers 5:18, where a priest would “uncover the head” of an accused adulterer, which most translators take to mean loosing the hair to let it hang down.
It also capitalizes on one of the best arguments from “the hair length interpretation” (below), by agreeing that in verse 15, hair is the only thing explicitly identified as a covering, but that the point at issue isn’t the length of the hair, but the style.
For all the advantages of this view, it is that it is also not clear how one was supposed to derive it from the text alone. The text says nothing explicit about hair styles. To my knowledge, none of the church fathers at any point in history are recorded to hold this view, which is a significant disadvantage.
C) The Hair Length Interpretation: This Passage is Exclusively About Relative Hair Length (i.e. Veils Are Not Addressed)
This passage most certainly addresses relative hair length of men and women to some degree, but the question is whether that is the primary thing Paul intended to refer to by “covering.” It is possible that Paul was using hair as an argument to defend a cloth head covering, but this view holds that Paul did not intend to call to mind cloth head coverings in mind at all, but rather meant to talk exclusively about hair.
In defense of this view that the length of hair is the only thing at issue, the word “veil” does not appear in this passage. However, that could just be because Paul was trying not to be overly prescriptive. He’s saying, “cover your head,” but not specifying the exact article of clothing that must be worn to do that. Quotes from Irenaeus in the 2nd century reveal that some early versions of verse 10 did use the word veil. “A woman ought to have a veil upon her head because of the angels.” While this is probably not the original text, it is possible given that it was circulating in the 2nd century. Regardless, it is a point of evidence that this word made sense to Irenaeus in light of his understanding of the passage.16
Another simple refutation of this argument is that Paul talks about coverings as something which a woman should have when she is praying or prophesying in verses 5 and 13. Long hair is not the sort of thing women put on to pray and take off to sleep. If a woman has long hair, she has it all the time. Why would Paul bother to talk about specific circumstances under which the covering was needed, if hair was the covering he had in mind?
The strongest argument that defenders of this view give is that verse 15 specifically says “But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.”
As noted above, there are two ways to view this. Either the hair is one covering, which evidences the need for another, or it is the only covering Paul intends. Let’s look at the strength of his arguments under either condition.
If Paul’s main point is that women need to veil (and his audience already agrees on the hair issue), here is his argument outline for the whole passage:
Premise A. (common ground). There is a chain of authority in creation.
Premise B. (initially disputed by the Corinthians). That authority structure is honored by women’s head coverings, but not men’s.
Sub-Premise B1. (common ground). Short-haired women and bald women are shameful.
Sub-Premise B2. (new idea, probably not disputed). Hair is similar to head coverings.
Sub-Conclusion. If women shouldn’t forgo their hair, they shouldn’t forgo their head coverings. (Premise B is now proven)
Conclusion. Ergo, women should wear head coverings to honor the authority chain in creation.
Paul then reiterates and rewords these arguments in 7-12 (with the bonus evidence that “angels” benefit from this head covering in some way).
In verses 13-16, he unpacks a similar argument.
Premise C. (common ground). “Nature” teaches you that men should have short hair and women long.
Premise D. (previously introduced, implied) Long hair is similar to head coverings.
Premise E. (common ground, implied) We ought to do what is natural.
Conclusion. (asked rhetorically in 13). Ergo, it is improper for a woman to forgo a head covering.
If Paul’s main point is not about veils at all, but rather merely that women need long hair (and his audience thus does not already agree that women need long hair), here is his argument outline:
Premise A. (common ground). There is a chain of authority in creation.
Premise B. (disputed by the Corinthians). That authority structure is honored by women’s long hair, but not men’s.
Sub-Premise B1. (disputed by the Corinthians). Short-haired women and bald women are shameful.
Circular Conclusion. Since short hair on women is bad, not having long hair is bad.
Conclusion. Since premise B is still disputed, Paul proves nothing with his argument, but merely asserts that women should have long hair to honor the authority chain in creation.
Paul then repeats and applies the conclusion which he has made no real effort to prove (with the bonus evidence that angels approve of this long hair in some way).
In verses 13-16, he reiterates the dispute:
Premise C. (disputed by the Corinthians). “Nature” teaches you that men should have short hair and women long.
Premise E. (common ground, implied) We ought to do what is natural.
Conclusion. (disputed by the Corinthians). Ergo, it is improper for a woman to not have long hair.
By comparing these two lines of logic, one looks like a case that builds from common ground about hair, angels, and the order of creation to reach a conclusion. The other looks like a rambling circular assertion of the point to be proved (that long hair is good) with the thing to be proved used as the primary evidence of itself. To be fair, Paul had the apostolic authority to assert something without proving it, however, that doesn’t explain why he would go through the effort to build a logical argument that was so unconvincing.
The first argument looks like Paul’s style—the other looks like Paul was having an off-day at best.
If you had a hard time following that, let’s try looking at it in miniature. Take verse 6. The words the KJV translate “shorn” and “shaven” mean “to cut short” and “to shave” respectively, so I will replace them with their definitions.
Watch what happens when I replace “cover her head” with “long hair.”
“For if a woman will not [have long hair], then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a woman to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her [have long hair].”
It feels strange and circular because it is strange and circular.
Now let’s try replacing it with the word “veil.”
“For if a woman will not [wear a veil], then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a woman to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her [wear a veil].”
It is no longer circular, and if the audience already agrees on the hair issue, it moves into the territory of being a solid argument.
The Hybrid View (The first part of this passage is about veils, but the second part offers an alternative to veiling)
One interesting hybrid view is that while the early part of the passage is about veils, long hair is offered as a substitute for veils in verse 15. On this view, Paul is telling Corinthian women to wear veils, but offering an alternative to those who do not wish to veil, of which modern women can also avail themselves.
This view has the advantage of resolving the circular reasoning that the “hair only” view creates in the first part of the passage. It also has a bit of textual support in minor translations.
The majority of translations, including the KJV, NIV, ESV, and NASB, all say that hair is given “as a covering” or “for a covering.” A few minor translations, like the ISV and Young’s say that hair is given “as a substitute for a covering” or “instead of a covering.” By volume, the split here is 37 in the “for” camp and 9 in the “instead of” camp.
Here’s why this matters. If hair is meant “as a covering,” which is to say, “hair is a covering,” it means a covering is required. If a covering is required, then hair is either the only covering required or Paul is using it to evidence the need for an additional covering (as in the veil or loose hair interpretation). But we can safely rule out that it is the only covering, because that interpretation would make the first part of the passage circular and nonsensical (see all of the analysis above). If hair is a “substitute” for a covering, it means that though cloth coverings are normally required, when hair is long, they are not required. This would seem to resolve the issue.
A quick search of the how the Greek word “anti” is used in other parts of Scripture reveals that either view could be correct. Since the word can be used in either sense, the question comes down to one of context, which we can assess for ourselves.
The immediate context is one of a rhetorical question in verse 14. “Does not even nature teach you…?” A rhetorical question is typically how you would find some common agreement, which you would then use to support your primary argument. This is what most translations think Paul is doing when he says that a head covering is supported by the fact that women have longer hair than men “by nature.” It would be very odd logically for him to use this rhetorical question to introduce a completely new point and waste the easy opportunity to support his primary point.
Imagine I write an essay about why busy professionals should prefer cats as pets. Towards the end of the article, I ask a rhetorical question, and use the agreement to tie it back into my main point. “Can’t we all agree that while dogs are friendlier than cats, cats are more independent than dogs? That’s why a busy professional would be better off with a cat.” How odd would it seem, if I asked this rhetorical question, and used it as a springboard to make a completely new claim, unexplored in the rest of my article. “Can’t we all agree that while dogs are friendlier than cats, cats are more independent than dogs? That’s why a busy professional could get a wombat instead of a cat.”
The broader context is also one in which most of the Corinthian women already had long hair. We know this for reasons historic, as well as the implication in the early part of the passage (where the audience seems to agree that a woman with a man’s haircut is shameful) and the fact that the question was asked rhetorically. If they already had long hair, and long hair is a substitute for the head covering, then there is no point in writing about the covering at all. They would all be exempt from Paul’s rule.
While the Greek could support either interpretation, the context significantly favors the view that the bulk of translators chose. A woman’s hair is not a substitute for a covering. It is a covering.
If it is the only covering, then Paul’s logic is nonsensical in the first part of the passage. If it is one covering that evidences another, then his logic is sound.
What Does This Passage Definitely Say About Hair?
So, perhaps proving that a woman’s hair ought to be long is not Paul’s main point. But he does certainly address hair length as a supporting point. Here are things Paul plainly says about hair:
- It is a shame for a woman to have very short or no hair (vs. 5-6)
- It is a shame for a man to have long hair (vs. 14)
- It is glorious for a woman to have long hair (vs. 15)
A few observations. We know that long hair on men is not universally morally wrong, or God would not have commanded it for the Nazarite vow (Numbers 6). For some reason, Paul himself took a similar vow for a period. In Acts 18:18,“Paul … sailed thence into Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila; having shorn his head in Cenchrea: for he had a vow.”
The word translated “shorn” is the same word in 1 Corinthians 11 regarding the type of haircut that Paul says is shameful for a woman. Essentially, this means that at Cenchrea, Paul got a short haircut, to close out a vow (other translations support this interpretation as well). If a haircut closed the vow, that implies that he had grown out his hair to some length. We don’t know how long Paul’s hair got, but it would have to have gotten longer than normal, or there would have been no significance to him having grown it out. In other words, it is likely that Paul would have been disallowed to preach from the platforms of many conservative churches during his vow (I dare say that would be their loss).
This doesn’t undermine Paul’s point that long hair can be shameful for men. The fact that it was abnormal in their time is what gave the vow significance. The bottom line though is that while Paul says long hair is a shame on men, it is clearly not a sin under all circumstances in the way that something like blasphemy would be. Consequently, one would have to evaluate a particular man’s long hair with an eye toward motive, or else you would stand in judgement of Paul himself.
By the same token, Numbers 6 explicitly says that women could take the Nazirite vow, which mandated shaving their heads at the end. Ergo, even shaved heads are not universally wrong for women.
Some argue that the shame of men’s long hair in this passage is contextual. According to Dr. Payne, who’s broader view was explained as “the hair style interpretation,” Paul’s philosophical contemporaries were disdainful of men’s long hair. Homosexual practice in Corinth was associated with men styling their hair as women, and Paul uses the same three Greek words to describe men’s long hair as he does for homosexual practices (“a shame”- atimia, against “nature” – physis, and “shameful” – kataischynei). On Payne’s view, this shame is primarily due to the intended sexuality of the wearers in Paul’s day, and thus a man with long hair is not necessarily in violation of this passage depending on intent and style. Paul would not have styled his hair like a woman during his vow and therefore would not have “shamed” himself.
On the other hand, it is also rather remarkable that two millennia after the words were penned, in nearly every culture, women have longer hair than men. Even when women have very short hair, they tend to style it differently than men. Clearly this hairstyle distinction between the sexes is very intuitive to people everywhere and provides a cultural nod to God’s distinction between the genders.
Note that taking the view described above does not actually prohibit Corinthian women from trimming their hair. Even if you see this whole passage as being about hair length, with no reference to veils or hairstyle, a Corinthian woman could still have indisputably long and feminine hair even after cutting off a few inches. In the same way, to the degree that this passage is forbidding a Corinthian man to have long hair, if a long-haired Corinthian man were to trim an inch off, it is hard to fathom that Paul would then commend him for making his hair masculine once again. Even if you embrace the hair length interpretation as the best one, this view would still allow Corinthian women to trim their hair, provided it stayed notably longer than a man’s.
D) The Untrimmed Hair Interpretation: This Passage is Primarily About Untrimmed Hair
One attempt to fix the poor logical flow created by the assertion that this passage is not about head coverings is to give a special meaning to the word “long.” On this view, the Corinthians would have agreed that women should have long hair and men short (providing common ground), but the Corinthian women were trimming their hair slightly. Thus, Paul is telling them that trimming is just the same as cutting their hair in a masculine style.
This view asserts that the Greek word “komao,” used in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 to refer to “long hair” should actually be translated “uncut hair.”17 Thus, the “covering” of the previous verses is uncut hair, not merely “long” hair, as in the hair length interpretation (C). A possible exception is granted for women who have cut their hair previously, if they never do it again. In the words of the author of the Holiness Handbook: “How long is long? I think that it is long enough for God as long as it’s not being trimmed or cut.”18
I am always skeptical when someone’s argument rests on the idea that the true meaning of a Greek word is unknown to any Bible scholars. No English version of the Bible translates the word “komao” to suggest uncut hair, rather than merely “long” hair. Look at the verse in parallel. Here we have ~25 separate translations, which represent the opinions of anywhere from 100 to 300 biblical scholars, and not a single group of scholars concluded that the translation should express the idea of uncut hair.19
The best way to determine what Greek words meant at the time, is from context in other parts of Scripture. Since this word only appears here, that doesn’t help us. The next best thing is to look at ancient literature (which doesn’t suggest the idea of “uncut”) or perhaps the root of the word. The root word “kome” refers to having “tresses” or “locks” of hair. It doesn’t say anything about whether those tresses are shoulder length or waist length. And there is nothing in the word itself that refers to cutting or trimming.
It is sensible to believe that respectable Corinthian women trimmed their hair. Hair cutting for women was practiced in ancient times for purposes including mourning, trimming split ends, bangs, and even the Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:1 explicitly says a woman could take this vow to leave her hair uncut for a time and then shave it).20 Egyptian women had short, bobbed hair at various points in history21 and Roman slave women also kept short hair.22
Given the likelihood that the Corinthian women trimmed their hair, if Paul wanted to condemn this practice, he could have just said “women should not cut their hair” or “women should not trim their hair.” In 16 verses, he doesn’t come close to saying this and he uses the word for “long” when he could have used the existent Greek word for “uncut.” If he’s trying to make that point, he picked a fantastically obscure way to make it.
This author, provides much more analysis and evidence in opposition to this view.23
Additionally, instructions to not trim hair are listed nowhere else in Scripture, including in the two other passages that address women’s hair in the New Testament.
The view of the untrimmed hair interpretation is that Paul wrote a 16-verse diatribe against women trimming their hair, with only one reference to trimming, which was a single Greek word which doesn’t refer to trimming anywhere else in Scripture or in any ancient text known. On this view, we could essentially rework any passage in the Bible to mean anything we want, by choosing one word and asserting without evidence that it means something different than it says.
To make matters worse, redefining the word “long” to mean “uncut” also creates another problem for holders of this view. The corollary would be that it is acceptable for a man to have waist-length hair, provided that it had been trimmed at some point in his life. If waist length hair, less a trimmed inch, violates a woman’s mandatory “covering,” then a man in the same condition must logically be fulfilling his mandate to be “uncovered.”
Which of the Four Interpretations is Right?
In summary, this is a confusing passage, and reasonable people can differ. But not all positions are equally substantiated by the evidence.
There is a decent case for each of the first three views (veils, hairstyles, and hair length). The “uncut” view leans very heavily on poor Greek and I think can safely be dismissed.
The hair length view seems to force Paul to make rather unconvincing arguments by making his reasoning largely circular. This view can be defended, perhaps better than I did, but it doesn’t seem very strong against the remaining two views.
Both the hairstyle and veil view are comparably strong from the text. In my estimation, the strong bias of the church fathers to the veil view gives that position the edge.
I have also seen proposals of hybrid views, in which Paul is addressing multiple of these issues at the same time.
Do These Instructions Apply Directly to Modern Times or Are They Specific to Corinth?
Now that we have addressed the evidence for and against the four basic views of this passage, that still leaves us with an additional question. Regardless of which view is correct, we still have the question of how we ought to apply it in modern times.
The Bible plainly commands New Testament believers to greet one another with a holy kiss – in four different books (Rom 16:16, 1 Cor 16:20, 2 Cor 13:12, 1 Thes 5:26). Despite the clarity of this command, I don’t know of a single Christian who believes this command is applicable today. If you tried to write an essay on why we shouldn’t kiss each other, it would actually be quite difficult. There is nothing in the passages that provides an easy out. Yet, every Christian I have ever met thinks we can apply the spirit of that command without following the letter. We can greet each other in a friendly and holy way in the spirit of the command but limit the expression to a hug or handshake as prescribed by our culture.
This is meaningfully different from say a command not to commit adultery. There is no way to keep the spirit of that law without also following the letter.
The bulk of the passage is clearly not about Corinthian specific issues. Paul alludes to the order of creation, not the order of their times. However, the thrust of most of Paul’s argumentation is to establish a spiritual authority hierarchy, with head coverings, hair styles, or hair length as a specific outworking of it.
To judge the modern application, it’s helpful to consider the point of the practice. There are a few specific reasons why a woman ought to have her “head covered” (whatever we think that means). We’ll start with the part affecting women, then look at men separately.
What Was the Point of This Practice for Women?
1) To honor her husband (v. 5)
2) To have a symbol of authority because of the angels (v. 10)
3) To pray properly to God (v. 13)
The precise interpretation of these three points is largely dependent on how we define a “covered head,” however, I will do my best to provide application that would work regardless of the covering.
1) Honoring a Husband
It is sensible for women today, as then, to do their best to honor their husbands. Just because a veil or an “updo” hairstyle was associated with respecting husbands in 1st century Corinth, doesn’t mean the culture has that association today. From this passage, wives should honor their husbands by their appearance, but the form that takes could vary based on cultural norms. This may have varied by location even in their time, which is why these instructions were given to only one body of believers.
2) A Symbol of Authority for Angels
This is a difficult verse to decipher, and there are at least four completely different theories on who the “angels” are – and many more for why they care about hair. In brief:
- The “angels” could refer to unbelievers who reported on the conduct of the church (if the word angels means human rather than divine “messengers” as in Matt 11:2-6).
- The “angels” could refer to church leaders or “bishops” as in Rev 2.
- The angels could refer angels in the usual sense.
- The angels could refer to demons or “fallen angels.”
Without building a complex tree of possible answers to each of the four types of angels and why they might care about hair, the simplest general interpretation is that the symbol of authority honors the next link in the authority chain, namely a husband. Thus, insofar as a wife is honoring her husband in her appearance, it may be possible to do it in a way other than with a “covered head.”
3) To Pray Properly
This too can be tied to the same authority chain linkage as the other two. If a woman is actively dishonoring her husband, how can she simultaneously be smiled upon by God? However, if a woman can honor her husband in a more culturally relevant way, then it seems sensible that she can be in right standing with God, regardless of her covering status.
What Was the Point of This Practice for Men?
1) To honor God (v. 4)
2) To not disgrace himself (v. 14)
In general, both points require a man to evidence his right standing with God through his embrace of his role as a man and as a husband. It also requires him to not reject his gender by adopting distinctly feminine appearance as some of the effeminate men of Corinth were wont to do. It is logically possible to do so even if cultural norms about precise acceptable hair length and/or hats change over time.
Applying the Passage Today
In my view, a localized understanding makes sense, because it is possible to fulfill the intent of this passage without following the prescription Paul gives to the Corinthians. It’s no different from how Titus 3:9 says to “avoid genealogies” and provides the context of avoiding argument about meaningless things. Since fights over genealogy don’t divide our church like they would have the early one (with Jews’ historic concern for lineage causing the problems), I can learn about my family tree without fear of causing a church split. Thus, I can study my genealogy without conviction that I stand in violation of this command.
Like the Titus passage, this is also limited to a one-time command for a single body of believers, with a clear explanation of the “why” behind the command. Since we can obey the spirit of honoring the authority structure of creation without the command of veils or updos, I think it is reasonable to do so.
However, I do think the belief that this passage offers a current command for coverings is reasonable as well. If you hold that view, I wouldn’t degrade your position, but neither should you degrade the view that some commands have limited application, even if you don’t think this passage is one of them. You cannot feasibly hold the extreme position of applying every New Testament command without regard to the fact that it may be limited by context. If you try, not only will you have to go around holy kissing everyone, but in accordance with Matthew 10:8, you are also obligated to “raise the dead.”
Furthermore, this passage may have principles that apply in specific ways in our culture that they did not in Paul’s time. That’s the point of the passage. Paul teaches a general principle about headship and makes a specific application to the Corinthian time and place to provide an example of what right can look like. Thus, we should take the principle and not merely strip the Corinthian application but also look for applications for our time and place.
In Paul’s example, the head covering (be it a veil, an updo, or long hair) seems to have been a way that Corinthian cultured honored the institution of marriage and the authority chain of creation with a physical symbol. Our culture has something similar as well—the wedding ring. The wedding ring is a symbol that announces the wearer is happily married, intends to be married until death, and even has a gender variation in design to show that the wearer is also embracing his or her married role. People generally take their wedding rings off when they are discontented with their marriage, are rejecting their spouse, or intend to be unfaithful to him or her. The wedding ring is a cultural acknowledgment of the value of a divine institution. If Paul wrote this passage today, he might well admonish Christian women to put on their wedding rings to “honor their heads.” Of course, this passage isn’t about rings, so I won’t say it’s a commandment, but it does seem like a fair application of the same principle.
There you have it. There are more ways to understand that passage than you might have known. I think that reasonable people can disagree on the answers to both of the key questions raised, because there are multiple segments of the passage that can be interpreted differently.
While I cannot provide you with complete confidence, I hope I have provided good information and analysis that can assist you in your own processing of this passage. There is no reason to be dogmatic about a passage so difficult. Overconfidence merely blinds us to contrary evidence and fair points which can be made by opponents of our favorite view. Healthy dialogue among the saints and scholars will lead us to better understanding.
Confidence is a poor substitute for truth.
We love reading your feedback! Thank you so much for leaving your thoughts and kind words below.
- A. Philip Brown II, PhD, A Survey of the History of the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Aldersgate Forum 2011.
Abel Isaksson, Marriage and Ministry in the New Temple a Study with Special Reference to Mt 19:3 [fejlagtigt trykt: 13] – 12 and 1. Cor11:3-16, 1965.
- Wikipedia, “Veil,” Accessed 3/18/22.
- Adam Clarke, “1 Corinthians 11:5” in Adam Clarke Bible Commentary, BibliaPlus.org.
- “Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome,” YouTube, Uploaded by Smart History, 2014.
- Hippocrates, Generation. Nature of the Child. Diseases 4. Nature of Women and Barrenness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).
- Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals (The Electronic Scholarly Publishing Project).
- Strabo, The Geography of Strabo, book VIII, chapter 6, published in vol. IV of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1927, penelope.uchicago.edu.
- Branson Parler, “Hair Length and Human Sexuality: The Underlying Moral Logic of Paul’s Appeal to Nature in 1 Corinthians 11:14,” in Calvin Theological Journal, vol. 51: 112-136.
- “1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” NewHumanityInstitute.org.
- John Calvin, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 Regarding Headcoverings,” Covenanter.org.
- Matthew Henry, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11,” BlueLetterBible.org.
- Sarah Ruden, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (New York, NY: Image Books, 2010).
- Les, “A Difficult Verse: 1 Corinthians 11:10,” BibleBridge.com, 2018.
- Phillip B. Payne, “Wild Hair and Gender Equality in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16,” in the Priscilla Papers: The Academic Journal of CBE International, Cbeinternational.org, 2006.
- A. Philip Brown II, PhD, A Survey of the History of the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Aldersgate Forum 2011.
- Raymond Woodward, “Because We Are His: Biblical Studies in Practical Holiness,” RaymondWoodward.com.
- The Holiness Handbook, HolinessPreaching.org.
- 1 Corinthians 11:15, Parallel Versions, BibleHub.com.
- “The Meaning of ‘Komao’ or ‘Have Long Hair’ in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15,” StudyHoliness.com.
- Rachael Funk, “Egypt’s Hairy History,” Greatvaluevacations.com.
- Sarah Lewis, “Romans Haircare,” Coriniummuseum.org, 2016.
- “The Meaning of ‘Komao’ or ‘Have Long Hair’ in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15,” StudyHoliness.com.