1 Corinthians 11:13-15
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.
**My apologies in advance: Usually Christian men preserve women’s modesty by “covering” references to womanly body parts, i.e. speaking indirectly. On this occasion, however, I will need to be a bit more direct, in places embarrassingly so.**
Let’s see if I can make this short and sharp.
13 Judge for yourselves:
Clearly Paul thinks we are capable of judging. Most commentators do not. Even so, he’s about to give us the information with which to judge.
Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?
While the tradition covers both men uncovering and women covering, Paul’s main concern is to persuade people that women should cover…the situation we are in today.
14 Does not the very nature of things teach you…
Literally, “Does not even nature itself teach you…”. Jeremy Gardiner (in this article) points us to Romans 1:26-27. There Paul uses nature to support his point that homosexuality is contrary to created order.
Men and women’s physical bodies fit together sexually. Also, men and women produce children.
Nature seems to be all about the physical creation. Let’s use a similar definition in verses 13-15.
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.
How can physical creation – the bodies of man and woman – teach us that it is a disgrace for a man to have long hair and a woman’s glory to have long hair?
To answer that, it’s useful to reverse the phrases in vv14b-15, something we can do without violating their meaning.
[Because] long hair is given to her as a covering, if a woman has long hair, it is her glory, but if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him.
Long hair is given to woman as a covering. Not “to cover”, but “as a covering”. Paul is not saying that long hair always covers, but it is there to be used to cover. But what is long hair given to cover?
It can’t be her head, because a man’s short hair also covers his head. So, what does woman need a covering for?
The word “covering” in v15 is different from “cover” in the rest of the passage. In Greek the word is περιβολαίου, which also appears in Hebrews 1:12.
You will roll them up like a robe [περιβολαίου];
like a garment they will be changed.
But you remain the same,
and your years will never end.”
This usage seems to indicate Paul is talking in v15 about a covering like a robe, a cloak, or something to wrap around a person’s body. This makes more sense, because “wrapping around” is something long hair can do that short hair cannot. But what would it cover?
The most obvious feminine feature would be a woman’s breasts.
So what is Paul saying here? Women are given long hair as a covering for their womanly body, a womanly glory because it covers an otherwise naturally uncovered womanly feature. Men do not have the same physical feature, and so do not need the same covering of long hair. For men to have long hair is to take on a womanly affectation which is a disgrace because he is a man.
This also helps answer the question, “How long is long?”
All of this leads back to Paul’s original question: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Nature demonstrates another way that it is womanly to cover. (The other explanations have been covered (hah!) by Paul earlier when talking about creation). Therefore, it is right that she should also use an artificial covering when she prays to God.
*I’d note that Paul does not here say that woman must have long hair, but rather assumes it. There are women, (my wife included) who have difficulty growing their hair long for various reasons. My wife has hair down to her shoulders, which is not the length I understand Paul to be referring to. But I also understand that the corruption of nature means that some women will have difficulty growing their hair long. Sin has affected everything. Still, in general, long hair is to be encouraged.
Those I have shared this with have usually responded with mockery. In amongst the laughter, there have been three main objections:
Objection #1: Women cover their bodies with clothes. Why would long hair need be needed to cover their breasts?
Answer: Paul is talking about nature here. Clothes are not a natural covering.
Objection #2: Women’s long hair falls down their back, not their front. How can it be said to cover a woman’s breasts?
Answer: This person obviously does not interact with women with long hair! First, long hair is tied back and swept back with the hand precisely because it falls down the front. Second, the word “covering” in v15 has the sense of “wrapping around”. As long as hair can be “wrapped around” the body, it can be said to be “given as a covering”.
Objection #3: If women need long hair to cover their breasts, why don’t men have long beards to cover their genitals?
Answer: While hair is present around the genitals, this is another example of men not requiring a covering and women having one. Funnily enough, Paul didn’t use this example!