Must Christian women wear head coverings?


by Shawn Brasseaux

Must Christian women wear head coverings in the local church in light of 1 Corinthians 11:1-16? Let us study this peculiar, and sometimes confusing, passage and see what the Scriptures really say. As always, context is key to clarity!

Verses 1 and 2 of 1 Corinthians chapter 11 are self-explanatory: “[1] Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ. [2] Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.” In light of the verses of the previous chapter, the Apostle Paul confessed that he wanted these Christians in Corinth to follow his example as he followed Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-10), since he was God’s spokesman to them (Paul is “the apostle of the Gentiles;” Romans 11:13). The Apostle praised them for remembering the doctrine he delivered to them, the doctrine they believed. Even though we are under grace not law (Romans 6:14-15), Paul’s epistles of Romans through Philemon give us guidelines regarding Christian living and doctrine (1 Thessalonians 4:2, 2 Thessalonians 3:10, et cetera).

Verse 3 begins a new thought. The Holy Spirit through Paul focuses on a doctrine that the Corinthians were not understanding, a doctrine that needed to be corrected in their minds: “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.”

The overall issue regarding head coverings is here identified as headship. Every man is to submit to Jesus Christ’s authority and every woman is to submit to male authority (Genesis 3:16; Ephesians 5:22-23; Colossians 3:18; 1 Timothy 2:12-15), just as Jesus Christ willingly submitted to God the Father’s authority (Matthew 26:39,42; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 10:5-9). Please note that the issue is not superiority, but authority/leadership.

Verse 4: “Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.”

In the Corinthian culture, a head covering denoted submission; likewise, the lack of a head covering symbolized dominance/leadership. The Bible says that a Christian man in Corinth did not need a head covering in the local assembly because God had placed him in the leadership position. Remember that the lack of a head covering meant leadership, so if a Christian man wore a head covering in the local assembly in Corinth, he would be acting like a submissive woman, reversing gender roles, causing confusion—in other words, “dishonoring his head,” acting like a coward, ignoring his God-given role of leadership. Verse 7 continues: “For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God.” God had put him in charge of the assembly; by behaving in the leadership capacity God gave him, the man was glorifying God. For the Corinthian man to put on the head covering was to dishonor God, because he was indicating he was not fulfilling his leadership role.

Verses 5-6: “[5] But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. [6] 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.”

A Christian woman, however, needed to have a head covering, a veil, in the local culture of Corinth, lest she bring reproach to Christ. In Corinth, an unveiled woman was equivalent to a woman with a shaved head—the infamous pagan priestess prostitutes in Corinth had shaved heads! The argument is that if it is shameful for the Christian woman in Corinth to have a shaved head, it is equally shameful for her to have an uncovered/unveiled head. The Apostle Paul urged the female believers in Corinth not to bring approach to the name of Christ by dressing or behaving immodestly. A Christian woman should not enter the local assembly if her appearance resembled a presumptuous or arrogant woman (a “manly” woman, a woman who did not submit to male headship in the assembly). The overall idea was for Christian women not to resemble or behave like prostitutes, wild or unruly women, feminists, authoritarian women who usurped male leadership, et cetera.

Verses 7-11: “[7] 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. [8] For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. [9] Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. [10] For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels. [11] Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. [12] For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.”

In respect to creation (see verses 8-9 especially), in the order the God of the Bible ordained in the home/marriage relationship, the man is appointed to leadership capacity, not to bully his wife or his children, but rather to guide them in God’s ways as Jesus Christ leads us the Church His body in His truth using love, gentleness, discretion, and so on (see Ephesians 5:21–6:4; Colossians 3:18-21). The man’s behavior was the reflection of God (verse 7)—after all, God had placed him in authority. The woman’s behavior was the reflection of the man’s spiritual leadership (verse 7)—she was to follow the man’s example. How the man behaves will either glorify or dishonor God, and how the woman behaves will either bring praise to her husband or cause him shame (verse 7).

Verse 10 of 1 Corinthians 11 is fascinating: “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.” How angels are affected here is an interesting concept that many people overlook. In order to learn more about what the Lord Jesus Christ is doing, angels watch us Christians live our lives. As 1 Corinthians 4:9 says: “For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men.” The angels watched the apostles, just as people watched the apostles. And Ephesians 3:10 reminds us that the angels watch the members of the Body of Christ: “To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God,….” In 1 Peter 1:12, we read “which things the angels desire to look into”—angels are curious. In the context of Peter’s words, angels attempted to understand the prophecies about Jesus Christ’s sufferings and His glorious reign (verses 10-11). Nevertheless, these angels could not figure out the Old Testament Messianic prophecies until after they were fulfilled in Christ’s life and then the apostles preached those truths (and it was then that the angels learned God’s wisdom). Even today, angels still cannot read the Bible like we can, so they watch us Christians have lives that reflect sound Bible doctrine. Angels “read” the Bible—they learn God’s manifold wisdom—by watching us Christians apply its doctrine to our lives. Paul was reminding the unruly Christian women in Corinth that their behavior of usurping male authority was disrupting God’s order in creation. These defiant women were confusing the angels who were observing their disobedience. We must be careful what we do because angels are watching us right now!

Notice the concluding verses of this section of 1 Corinthians 11: “[13] Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? [14] Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? [15] But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering. [16] But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.”

Paul left the Corinthians to determine for themselves what was the mature action to take about head coverings, what was the proper way to look at the matter. (By the way, it is in light of 1 Corinthians 7:1 that I conclude the issue about head coverings was one of the many questions that the Corinthians sent to Paul in the form of a list, and the Apostle used the epistle of 1 Corinthians to reply to their questions.) Nature teaches us that men should have short hair and women should have long hair. A woman’s long hair is her covering—even in nature, women have a covering (long hair), and Paul was arguing how nature demonstrates there should be male headship and female submission (again, not male superiority, but male leadership for the sake of doctrinal integrity, lest Satan use female leadership to his advantage, as he did when he deceived Eve; 1 Timothy 2:11-15).

Verse 16 of 1 Corinthians 11 is particularly interesting: “But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” This epistle of 1 Corinthians was not just sent to Corinth. Here we are reading it today, and we are not in Corinth. Like all the other books of the Bible, the epistle of 1 Corinthians circulated amongst all the Christians scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The Holy Spirit anticipated that some would go to extreme, some legalistic hobbyhorse, demanding all Christian women wear head coverings in every local church. Nowhere else in Paul’s epistles do we find references to this matter of head coverings: again, it was a local custom in Corinth (and thus confined to the Corinthians’ epistle). Overall, members of the Body of Christ were scattered around the then-known world, and the custom of head coverings was not a global issue. “We have no such custom, neither the churches of God.”


Women wearing head coverings was a local, cultural issue applicable to the Corinthians’ situation and time, so following their cultural practices would not be for us. There is, however, a doctrinal issue associated with this matter that reaches beyond cultural boundaries, and it is this doctrine of headship that we need to stress and apply.

In the culture at Corinth, a Christian woman’s veil (head covering) in the assembly identified her as submissive and humble (not weak, but meek). She did not appear to be arrogant or boisterous; she did not appear to be attempting to dominate the assembly and usurp male leadership. However, some Christian women were behaving improperly in the Corinthian assembly in this regard. They were abusing spiritual gifts, especially the gift of speaking in tongues, and Paul had to instruct these women to be quiet because men were to lead the church assembly (1 Corinthians 14:34; cf. 1 Timothy 2:11-15). In chapter 11, some female Christians in Corinth were not wearing head coverings, but the underlying problem went beyond outward appearance. It was the same as in 1 Corinthians 14:34—a heart/attitude of rejecting and usurping male headship in the local church. These women were not having power over their heads (1 Corinthians 11:10). Their action of not wearing head coverings was demonstrating that they were trying to usurp the authority of male leadership in the local church of Corinth.

Assorted groups and local churches today demand that their female members or visitors wear hats, shawls, or scarves on their heads in the assembly, as if doing so is a sign of spirituality. They are emphasizing the external appearance and overlooking the more important doctrinal implication of headship. In my American culture, head coverings are unnecessary in church settings. I do not demand that any female Christian wear a hat, scarf, shawl, beanie, et cetera in a local assembly here because that is not a custom in our culture. Furthermore, just as 1 Corinthians 11:16 says, the head coverings matter was not written in Scripture to lay down a law demanding all Christian women everywhere throughout the centuries must wear head coverings. It was a cultural issue isolated in Corinth (again, it was mentioned nowhere else in Paul’s epistles or ministry).

What we need to be sure to do is recognize and apply the fundamental doctrine being communicated in the issue: male headship in the local church and female submission in the local church (1 Corinthians 14:34; cf. 1 Timothy 2:11-15) and the home (Ephesians 5:21–6:4; Colossians 3:18-21). Please do not misunderstand. All Christians, men and women, are equally blessed in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:28); we just have different God-given roles (the head coverings in Corinth distinguished the roles of men and women). As a general rule of thumb, whatever appearance and behaviors are attributed solely to men in a particular culture, the Christian women in that culture should avoid identifying with those appearance and behaviors. Beloved, may our Christian sisters never appear to be usurping male authority in the local church or in the home, and may they not usurp male authority in the local church or in the home.


Also see:
» What roles should women occupy in the ministry? (LINK TEMPORARILY UNAVAILABLE)
» Must I pray or speak in “tongues?”
» Which local church should I attend? (LINK TEMPORARILY UNAVAILABLE)