Should Women Cover their Heads?
By Joel Horst
For years the question has circulated through various denominations: should women cover their heads? If so, when? How? With what?
The best way to answer any question about the Bible is to look at the Bible itself. Usually, the Bible uses very plain language when giving a command. The difficulty comes when we try to wriggle through loopholes and find that we need to enlarge them a bit, or when someone else comes along and pulls the perceived loophole tight just as we are slipping through. So let's look at the passage where God commands that women wear a head covering:
1 Corinthians 11:2-16
V.2 Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.
Here we see the "warm-up" verse: praise for remembering "me" in all things, and "keeping the ordinances". Let me bring up an important part here: who is the "me" in this verse? "It's Paul" is the immediate response that most would give. However, while that may be true, "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God." God inspired this entire passage, and that makes it very important!
V.3 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.
This verse gives us a delineation of God's order of authority: God first, then Christ, then man, then woman. This provides the basis for all that follows, because it explains who's the authoritative head of each one.
V.4 Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoreth his head.
God says that a man who covers his physical head while praying or prophesying (speaking about spiritual things) dishonors his spiritual head (Christ). This, according to verse 7, is because he is the image and glory of God. It is dishonoring to Christ to symbolically cover God's glory when praying.
V.5 But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoreth 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.
We see that for a woman to leave her head uncovered while praying or prophesying is a dishonor to her spiritual head (her husband, according to verse 3). Why? She dishonors her husband to God, because that which is a glory to man needs to be covered in God's presence so that God receives all the glory. Verse 6 explains that if a woman takes off one covering (the cloth one), her natural covering of hair should also be taken away. However, says God, if it is shameful for a woman to have her hair shorn (this is talking about cutting the hair very close, in the same way that a sheep is shorn), then she should cover her head. So this leaves us with two options: either a woman cover her head, or have nothing but very short stubble on her head.
V.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 should the woman 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.
These verses explain that a woman covering her head does not make her inferior to men. Men and women are equal in value. Without men, no girls would be born. Without women, no boys would be born. Both men and women are needed to keep the earth populated. However, men have authority over women, and women are not to exercise authority over men. A married woman is supposed to submit to her husband (Ephesians 5). But God uses six verses to ensure that we know all are equal in God's kingdom.
We also see from verse 10 that the covering is a sign to the angels, both good and bad. "For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels." This verse has caused a lot of weird reasoning – that it really is talking about men (instead of angels), or that the angels would be shocked to see an uncovered woman, or some other explanation of like caliber. However, I believe it is very simple. The headcovering is a sign to both angels and demons that this woman is submitted to her husband and God, and is a Christian. Angels are not all-knowing. A headcovering shows them that this woman is to be protected. It also shows the demons that they'd better get lost. Furthermore, it offers protection for the woman's family.
V.13 Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?
Verse 13 has been used to say that the decision of whether or not to wear the covering is entirely up to the reader. However, God gave the head covering as a command, not a suggestion. I believe this verse is merely saying, "Think about it a moment. Is it proper for a woman to pray uncovered?" It's a rhetorical question saying that it's not proper for a woman to pray uncovered.
V.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.
This passage also tells us that a woman is to have long hair in addition to a covering. The wording of the passage could lead one to believe that hair, or long hair, is the covering. However, I believe that God is saying: "Since being uncovered is akin to having short hair, and since it is a shame for a woman to have short hair, she should be covered. In addition, she should have long hair." It provides another confirmation that a woman should cover her head.
V.16 But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.
This verse goes back to verse 13 to answer the question in verses 13-15. If any man seems to be contentious (literally "loves quarreling") and says that he sees nothing wrong with a woman praying uncovered, let him know that none of the churches have any custom of praying uncovered. It could also be interpreted that "we have no custom of being contentious about what God says. We just do it."
Frankly, this seems very simple. When praying, a man should have his head uncovered, with short hair. A woman should have long hair and a covered head. However, when the head covering is brought up, many arguments also come up, which we will attempt to resolve in the following section.
ARGUMENT: "This passage is only for the Corinthians."
This statement is usually not so bluntly put. In fact, it's often lengthened into a long explanation of what probably was happening at Corinth, and how head veiling was the standard custom for all women except the Corinthian prostitutes, who didn't cover their heads. The reasoning then goes that this passage only applied to the Corinthians, who had this local custom. However, this has several problems, even without discussing the historical problems, which are compelling on their own (see here). Notice how we solve this argument:
SOLUTION: The book of 1 Corinthians was written for all Christians:
1 Corinthians 1:2 Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours:
This passage clearly shows that God intended Paul's epistle to Corinth for those outside the Corinthian church. There was at least one letter from Paul to the Corinthians before this time (1Cor. 5:9). That letter is not in the Bible. However, God took care to see that 1 Corinthians ended up in the Bible, addressed to all Christians. The commands in the book of 1 Corinthians are the commands of God:
1 Corinthians 14:37 If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.
God Himself gave the commands in this passage. That means that we need to keep it, or stand in danger of God's reproofs.
The passage mentions nothing about problems in the Corinthian church. God, through Paul, says, "Now I praise you....But I would have you know...Every man praying or prophesying..." There is no mention of problems with women having their hair disheveled or women breaking the local custom because of their newfound freedom in Christ, as some "common-taters" like to speculate. The passage is given to all people without mentioning the Corinthians: "Every man...Every woman...For if the woman be not covered..."
So I raise the question: If the passage was meant only for the Corinthians, why were such broad, blanket statements used? Since it says "every man, every woman" without distinction of nationality or time, even if the passage was upholding Corinthian tradition (which, by the way, it was not), then the rest of us should also adopt the tradition of covering (or, for the men, not covering) the head. This should be the final nail in the coffin of the "Only for the Corinthians" argument. When you consider the above points, it becomes clear that the head covering is for all women who are praying or prophesying – not just those that lived 2000 years ago in Corinth. See here for a detailed analysis of this argument from a historical angle.
ARGUMENT: "Long hair is the covering." This comes from two things: a misinterpretation of verses 13-15, and an erroneous footnote in the New International Version.
SOLUTION: Verse fifteen does not say that long hair is given for a covering. Rather, it says that her hair (long or not) is given to her as a kind of covering and because of that, long hair is a glory to her. The long hair is one type of natural covering, and is “glorious”. But Paul is not advocating for merely one covering to be implemented, but two (long hair and the cloth veiling). Verses 13-15 support verses 5-6, which say that a woman whose head is uncovered is as good as shaven, and that her hair should be "shorn" (verse 6) if she will not wear a covering. And since her hair should be long and not cropped very short, she should also be covered. God's design is for a woman to have two coverings: long hair, and a covering over her natural covering of hair. If she refuses to wear the outer covering, she should have both taken away ("If a woman be not covered, let her also be shorn").
A careful reading of the passage shows that hair is not the issue. Suppose we change the passage to talk about hair instead of a covering:
4 Every man praying or prophesying, having hair (SUBSTITUTION) on his head, dishonoreth his head. 5 But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth without hair (SUBSTITUTION) on her head dishonoreth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven [had no hair]. 6 For if the woman have not hair (SUBSTITUTION), let her hair be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her have hair (SUBSTITUTION). 7 For a man indeed ought not to have hair (SUBSTITUTION) on his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.
How ridiculous! How do you shear the hair off a woman who has none? How could a woman have hair when praying or prophesying, and then get rid of it as soon as she was done? And by the way, that would mean that men should all be bald! The Greek has two different words for covering. The word "covered" in verse 6 is katakalupto, which has the following definition:
1) to cover up
2) to veil or cover one's self
Part of Speech: verb
The word for "covering" in verse 15 is peribolaion:
1) a covering thrown around, a wrapper
1a) a mantle
1b) a veil
Part of Speech: noun neuter
So we see from these definitions that the hair is to be a "wrapper" on the head, to cover the head and keep it from being bald. Then there is to be a covering which "covers up" the head. The Bible is talking about two separate coverings.
Also, note that it says that the hair is A covering, not THE covering. If God was talking about long hair in verses 4-7, why didn't He say, "Every man who prays or prophesies with long hair dishonors his head...Every woman who prays or prophesies with short hair..."? And why would the length of hair be an issue only when praying or prophesying? How could a woman only have long hair when praying or prophesying? The NIV's erroneous footnote would lead one to believe that the passage can be translated to mean long hair. The note reads:
"4 Every man who prays or prophesies with long hair dishonors his head. 5 And every woman who prays or prophesies with no covering [of hair] on her head dishonors her head – she is just like one of the 'shorn women.' 6 If a woman has no covering, let her be for now with short hair, but since it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair shorn or shaved, she should grow it again. 7 A man ought not to have long hair..."
This sounds logical enough. However, let's look at it a bit. First of all, the "with long hair" in verse 4 could possibly be translated that way. The Greek word means "hanging down". But verse 7 cannot say "long hair". The Greek word is katakalupto, "to cover up." It is a different Greek word than in verse 4. Second, notice that even the NIV translators were honest enough to admit that they added the words "of hair" in verse 5. Without that addition, it says "...prays or prophesies with no covering on her head...". And by the way, if she has no covering of hair, she does not have short hair, she has NO HAIR! "Let her be for now with short hair" (verse 6) is not very accurate. Third, the footnote is not a literal translation. (Nor, by the way, is the NIV.) For example: You cannot literally translate katakalupto to mean, "grow it (the hair) again" (verse 6). The correct reading is "let her be covered." "Let her be for now with short hair" (verse 6) is not correct. The word that, in the KJV, is translated "be shorn" is "a primary verb; to shear" (Strong's Greek Dictionary). It is a command to shear a woman who does not wear a headcovering, not a, "it's that way now, so let it go" statement.
"She is just like one of the ‘shorn women'" is not literal either. According to the Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, the most literal reading is "for one it is and the same with having been shaven." When you depart from the literal meaning of the Bible, you can make it say anything you want if you just twist it enough.
So we see from the above that long hair is not the covering. The Bible is talking about a physical cloth covering that goes OVER long hair. And the NIV footnote (actually, the whole NIV) is a twisted translation that changes the very words of the passage to make them say something else. For an alternative analysis of this argument click here.
ARGUMENT: "My husband is my covering."
Some would like to say that this is talking about the wife's submission to her husband and the spiritual "covering" that he provides when she is submitting to him. "Uncovering" her head is talking about when she is not submitting to him, they say.
SOLUTION: Let's look at verses 5-6:
5 But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoreth 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.
The first thing that strikes me is "why would submission be an issue only when the woman was praying or prophesying?" After all, according to Ephesians 5:22, wives are to always submit to their husbands, period. No mention is made there about prayer or prophecy.
Second, why didn't God talk directly about submission? Why would he talk about "covering" when He really meant "submission"?
Third, according to Thayer's Greek Definitions, "uncovered" comes from the Greek word akatakalupto (177), which means "not covered, unveiled." Would you call a husband a "veil"?
Fourth, you have to "spiritualize" the entire passage in order to use this interpretation. That is not the best way to look at the Bible. After all, how do you decide which passages to "spiritualize" and which ones to take literally? It is a good way to start on a path of heresy.
Fifth, verse 10 says, "For this cause should the woman have power on her head, because of the angels." This implies having something directly on the head, as a sign to the angels.
Sixth, the context seems to indicate something sitting directly on the head. If the woman is not "covered", then she is as good as shaven. If she refuses to be covered, she should be shorn – both of which have to do with the head itself. Verses 7-12 are affirming that covering the head does not make women inferior to men. They are not explaining why a woman should submit to her husband. I believe that there is not enough evidence in this passage to say that it is merely talking about submission.
ARGUMENT: "I haven't been convicted about this yet."
SOLUTION: May I ask where the Bible says you don't have to obey God until He convicts you about something? Jesus said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments." (John 14:15) Jesus wants us to obey His commands whether or not He gives us a “special” conviction about them. The Bible also tells us that "to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin." (Jam 4:17) In other words, if we know that God has commanded something and we don't do it, it is sin! Keep that in mind as you are evaluating this doctrine. Don't pitch 1 Corinthians 11 out the window because God hasn't convicted you about it. God wants us to obey Him, whether he's convicted us about it or not. To not do something we know we should do is sin, and we don't want to live in sin. Please don't wait for God to burden you with conviction about the headcovering!
ARGUMENT: "My husband doesn't approve."
SOLUTION: This is a tough one. However, let me mention that the Bible says, "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). You must obey God, even if your husband disapproves. This is an important point. Nowhere does God allow your husband to decide which of God's commands you may or may not keep. Note: the headcovering is not all about submission to a woman's husband. The headcovering is also a sign to the angels that the woman is a Christian woman who needs their protection.
In this century, unlike a hundred and fifty years ago, it is also a sign to the world that the woman is a Christian. If you start wearing the headcovering, somebody will ask you about it, sooner or later. So, first of all, explain to your husband the benefits of wearing the covering: It honors him. An uncovered head is a disgrace to him. It shows the angels that this is a God-fearing household, which has benefits for the husband that should be obvious. It will keep your prayers from being hindered because of sin in your life. Explain that this is not just some passing interest or fad that you'll be throwing in the trash next week. Explain that God commanded you to wear it, and that you want to follow Him. Find out why your husband is opposed to the covering. Is he afraid that it will make you look strange? God didn't specify what exact form the covering is to take. He merely said the head is to be covered. Choose a covering that covers the head well, but doesn't look weird. Perhaps you could show your husband pictures of the sort of covering you want to wear. Ask God for help in your situation. He will guide you in what to say to your husband. Also, try to keep the rest of your life in line with God's word. For example, don't pin on a headcovering and then rebel against your husband's authority. Submit to whatever does not go against God's word. Otherwise, the headcovering becomes a legalistic outward sign that is not backed up by inward conformity to God's commands. And your husband will notice if the outward does not match the inward.
ARGUMENT: "God gave me peace about not wearing the headcovering."
SOLUTION: Beware, oh beware, when you have "peace" about disobeying God's commands. Remember Balaam? He was asked to curse the Israelites. God told him, "Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed." (Numbers 22:12) So Balaam, to his credit, told the men who had asked him to come to Moab and curse the Israelites to go home. But the king of Moab sent his messengers back with promises of huge rewards. Balaam told them to wait overnight while he found out what God wanted him to do. God told him, "If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them; but yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do." So the next morning, Balaam rode off with the men from Moab. Notice what happened next. Numbers 22:22 tells us, "God's anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him."
God had given Balaam "peace" about going to Moab. However, it was only because Balaam was set on going to Moab. God had already told him not to go to Moab. But Balaam went back and said, "Pleeeeeeeeease?" So God gave him "peace" about going. However, God sent an angel into Balaam's path. This was an angel "with a sword drawn in his hand" (Numb. 22:31), not an angel to protect him on the way to Moab. We know how Balaam's donkey spoke to him, and how Balaam blessed, instead of cursed, the Israelites. However, Balaam wanted those rewards that the king of Moab was offering him. So, according to Numbers 31:16 and Numbers 25, he counseled the king of Moab to send Moabite prostitutes into the Israelite camp. The result: the Israelites turned to idols, and God sent a plague that killed 24,000 people. Furthermore, Israel later killed Balaam (Numb. 31:8). The lesson is that God may give us "peace" if we are stubbornly resisting His commands. But watch out. He might send an "angel with a drawn sword" to meet you.
ARGUMENT: "The headcovering is a minor command."
SOLUTION: If you think that the headcovering is a small command, then a small command ought to be a small thing to do, right? Why make a big deal over something small? Just do it! Just because God doesn't beat the headcovering drum in every book of the Bible doesn't mean that the headcovering is unimportant. Remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: "Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:19) Do you want to be called least in the kingdom of heaven?
QUESTION: "When should I wear the covering?"
ANSWER: Since God compares the head covering to the hair, let's do the same. When do you wear your hair? Only when you're praying, right? Of course not. In the same way, I believe that a woman should wear the head covering whenever possible. God said the woman should have power on her head because of the angels. That sounds like something you wear other than just when you want to pray.
Furthermore, God commanded, "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17). A Christian woman should always be ready to pray. Prayer is something that we should do throughout the whole day, not just at devotions time. Do you always want to be running for your covering? What about when your husband wants to talk about the things of God, and you're busy doing something at the moment? What about when your son comes to you and says, "Mom, would you pray that I could find my..."? Or when you're busy driving? Or someone asks you about Christianity when you're away from home? Obviously, the covering is not restricted to church services, as some believe. It is for whenever you are praying or prophesying, whether it's Sunday, Saturday, or Tuesday. For the same reasons, men should have their heads uncovered whenever possible. Men, just like women, should always be ready to pray. Of course, that is not to say that you should never cover your head. If you ride a motorcycle, for example, you are required to wear a helmet. Some jobs require a hard hat. And it's a good idea to cover your head when you're outside and it's cold. However, a hat should not be a part of your regular, daily outfit.
QUESTION: "Which is important: the covering or the covered head?"
ANSWER: The symbol in this passage is the covered head, not the covering itself. God commands that a woman must have her head covered (vv. 5-6). Therefore, what is important is that a woman has something on her head when she prays or prophesies. We need to be careful not to fall into the trap of making the covering the most important part. It does not have to be a particular style of covering, just as long as it is a distinguishable piece of fabric that can be properly termed as a veil.
In Conclusion, should women cover their heads? The answer is "YES!" It is an important teaching that has been thrown aside during the last hundred years or so. My prayer is that God will use this article to further His Kingdom. To Him be the glory!
IMPORTANT NOTE: It is important for women to refrain from trying to satisfy the head covering command with a skimpy little piece of fabric that can hardly be distinguished from a bandana or a hair ribbon. I’ve also seen women trying to pass off a hoodie or a baseball cap for a veil. If we take this teaching seriously, why should we be ashamed of it and try to pretend to the world that we are not using anything more special on our head than just another hair accessory? Such is not a bold witness for the Bible and our Faith. And it will not impress anyone strongly enough to prompt an enquiry into why we are practicing a peculiar custom that they don’t see other women practice. Moreover, you will not become especially distinguishable to God's angels when your head covering is barely more than a hair accessory. Something to consider...