The passage we’re looking at here can be found at the following link. The NIV 2011 was chosen, not because I think it represents the best translation, but because it is the Bible my church is using.
First Corinthians 11:2-16 is a pretty easy passage to understand, but it is a difficult one to accept – at least in our day and age. It speaks of biblical truths that rub our culture completely the wrong way. It is so far outside our comfort zone that even when people determine to accept it, they don’t know how to apply it and feel normal. All they can say is, “What I once thought was bad, I now accept as good by faith”.
There are answers to the questions of application, but first things first. It is most helpful to being with the passage and simply read what it says.
So here goes.
2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you.
This is the beginning of a new section of Scripture, a discussion of traditions held to in the Church. They are Christian traditions, passed on by Paul in the context of setting up the local Church. And while the Corinthians have been holding faithfully to those traditions, Paul still has some things he needs to say.
3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man,[a] and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 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.
First, man has a head, and he is Christ; woman has a head, and he is man; Christ has a head, and he is God. Paul starts with the heads of men and women because the whole passage is about men and women, before grounding the idea of “head” in God through Christ.
But what does this metaphorical use of the word “head” mean? Paul does not answer that at this point, though we will get more of an idea later. What Paul does say here is that if you are a man wearing something on your head while praying or prophesying you dishonour your metaphorical head. On the other hand, if you are a woman not wearing something on your head while praying and prophesying, you dishonour your metaphorical head. So part of what is at stake in this tradition is the honour of Christ and man.
How are Christ and man dishonoured? Paul talks more about the woman/man than man/Christ. He says a woman’s uncovered head is comparable to short hair or a shaved head. It is a disgrace for a woman. Therefore a woman should cover her head while praying and prophesying.
The meaning is this: there is something about long hair that is appropriate to women – it is womanly – and wearing a covering on her head while praying and prophesying is equally womanly. Therefore, failing to cover her head while praying and prophesying is an unwomanly disgrace.
But how does she also dishonour man when she prays and prophesies with her head uncovered?
If womanliness is connected to a woman covering her head, then it is womanly to recognise man as her head. Isn’t that what covering her head does? Therefore, a woman who prays and prophesies with her head uncovered is symbolically rejecting man as her head, and so dishonours him.
So Paul is saying if a woman prays or prophesies without covering her head, she is dishonouring man by rejecting him as her head and (in doing so) rejecting her own womanliness.
7 A man ought not to cover his head,[b] since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own[c] head, because of the angels.
In these next four verses, Paul explains further.
The reason man should pray and prophesy with his head uncovered (as opposed to the woman being covered) is that man is the image and glory of God.
What does that mean?
An image represents someone or something. Pictures on the wall, or images we see on the TV represent family, friends, and real or even fictional characters. Man was created to be the living image of God to his creation, and through his life and actions to display the worth of God, to be his glory. This, of course, was achieved to perfection in Christ, but is also something to be achieved to a lesser degree through man in general.
That means that if a man covers his head while praying and prophesying, he symbolically covers the image and glory of God. If you cover the image and glory of God, you reject an integral part of man, and so dishonour his head, himself a man, Christ.
Woman, on the other hand, is the glory of man. This is not to say she does not image God, but she does so by being the glory of man. She is man’s helper, as taught in Genesis and restated by Paul in verses 8 and 9: man was not created from woman or for woman, but woman was created from and for man.
Note that something is missing from the description of how woman relates to man. She is not the image of man. Representing man is not her job. Woman is the glory of man, displaying the worth of humanity through her unique and cooperative contribution as helper. And as helper, she images God through the hidden “behind-the-scenes” work that is comparable to the work of the Holy Spirit, himself God, but never called the image of God. Woman builds up the family of man and through the family of man she images and glorifies God to creation.
This is why, Paul says in verse 10, a woman ought to have authority over her head.
In this version of the Bible, the word “own” is added by the NIV translators who are suggesting that a woman is the one who holds authority over her own head, but this does not fit in with the rest of what Paul is saying in this passage. Instead, “authority” refers to the covering woman are to have on their head as said back in verse 6. We can confirm that in a few ways, but two will do for now.
First, we see that woman having authority over her head in verse 10 complements Paul’s assertion that man ought not to cover his head in verse 7.
Second, some Early Church Fathers also often literally changed the word “authority” to “covering” when quoting this verse 10 in their writings.
Paul, then, is restating the point that a woman should cover her head.
It is here that we also understand a bit more about what it means to be the metaphorical head. The fact that Paul uses the word authority to describe the physical sign of a woman’s head shows that being under a head includes being under authority. This is a very unpopular idea today. We therefore need to remember that Christ’s authority, under whom we all live, is not abusive or damaging, and any authority anywhere must be modelled closely on his.
…because of the angels.
Verse 10 finishes with this phrase. There are two main ideas about why Paul mentions angels here, though there are always differences in the details.
The first idea is that Paul is talking about elect angels who delight in seeing women covering their head in a proper and orderly way. In light of what we’ve already seen in this passage, if you embrace this idea, it is right to say angels are directed by the woman’s covered head to the image of God in man, and ultimately to the perfect image and glory of God in the Son of Man.
The second idea is that Paul is talking about fallen angels who are looking to deceive women. When a woman covers her head, the fallen angels are put on notice that she is submitting to created order and are somehow protected.
A third way to read “because of the angels” is similar to the second idea, except a woman’s covering is not a sign to the angels of the authority of man over woman, but it is a reminder to the woman herself. This reminder is necessary “because of the angels” who look to deceive woman and lead them into rebellion against their created order. This reading fits with 1 Timothy 2:11-15 which also teaches the same concepts of authority, deception, and order of creation.
Examples of angelic deception of woman are found through the Bible, but it would be wrong to say this deception is limited to women. Fallen angels encourage all people to rebel, even as they rebelled against God. A woman’s position is just an historically ripe opportunity for fallen angels to encourage rebellion.
11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
Paul then heads off overweening egos. Even though woman was made from man and for man, man is also born of woman. There is a form of interdependence between the sexes. But even that interdependence is not everything – we are all dependent on God.
13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.
Paul then returns to the main point of the passage, rephrasing it this way: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?
“Judge for yourselves” he says, obviously expecting them to be more than capable of doing so by looking at nature (not “the nature of things” as the NIV puts it). His goes on to explain.
Long hair is a disgrace for a man. It is unmanly for a man to have something only appropriate for a woman. Long hair is a woman’s glory – it is appropriate because long hair is “given as a covering”. Paul does not say what long hair is given to cover, but in nature woman has a body that can be covered by long hair and seeing as her body speaks of her created purposes, that would seem a likely answer.
From there we are left to come to the unspoken conclusion that if woman is given a womanly covering in nature, it is proper for a woman to also be covered in prayer.
16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
The word “other” in the NIV is actually the word “such” in Greek. Paul says he and his fellow workers, the churches of God that existed at the time of Paul’s writing, (and most that have existed since that time) did not and have not allowed the practice of women praying with their heads uncovered (see v13).
So the question for us is : why should we?