This text is a strange one to our ears. It’s like entering a period drama. Downton Abbey. Longer ago, maybe: Poldark. Troy, even.
It’s all about the need for women to have their heads covered, and for men not to do so.
What kind of head covering? All we can think of is posh hats at a wedding, or at Ascot. Or we think of some of the veils worn by women in Muslim countries, which have sparked debates in several western countries including our own.
But it’s not about that. So what are these head coverings?
Then there’s the pairing “pray or prophesy” that we keep meeting. We know what praying is, but what’s prophecy. Well, we’ll ask that question properly in chapter 14, so I’ll save time today by telling you the answer to that. In 1 Corinthians, prophecy is when someone speaks from the front of a Christian meeting with the intention of encouraging the congregation and helping them live out their Christian faith. Or something like that.
This passage is alien to our culture. It seems to come from another culture, even from another planet.
Which has led people to do one of two things with it. Some people disregard it. It’s from another world. It’s got nothing to do with us. Others impose it. It’s in the Bible, so we have to do what it says.
We’re going to take a different approach. We’re going to try to understand it.
The whole Bible is made up of books written to a particular people at a particular time and place. It’s just more obvious with a passage like this one. With other passages, we sometimes get away with pretending it was written to people just like us. Actually, we’re never in the shoes of the original hearers. So we should always do the same thing. Put ourselves in their shoes. Grasp what it said to them. Then work out how that message translates to our own day.
So we have to start in Corinth. What were they getting wrong? What was Paul saying to them? What were the reasons for his instructions? And only then can we translate this to hear what it’s saying in our own times.
Instruction: Head Coverings
Let’s start with these head coverings. What was Paul’s instruction to the Christians at Corinth?
The summary comes in verses 4 and 5: “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head.”
When taking part in public worship, men were not to cover their heads, but women were to cover their heads.
The question is: What kind of covering is this? There have been three main suggestions.
Some think it refers to having long hair. Women should have long hair. Men should have short hair.
Others think it refers not to the length of the hair, but the way it’s styled. In church, women shouldn’t have their hair down, loose. They should have it neatly bound up in some way.
I don’t want us to get too bogged down, so I’ll just tell you that I’m not persuaded by either of those. They each make no sense when you look at some of the particular details in the passage.
So I’ll go for the third option, that he’s talking about some kind of hat – something you put on your head to cover your hair.
There’s historical evidence that in Roman culture, married women would usually go out covered in this way. Covering their head was a symbol that they were spoken for, settled down, happily married, and not available to be picked up or worse by any bloke who took a fancy to her. If a woman went out without this covering on, she was either looking for attention or asking for trouble.
It’s not an exact equivalent, but maybe it’s a bit like making sure your wedding ring is on when you’re out in public.
This passage says that, during public worship, women – in first century Corinth – should cover their heads in this way. Men should not.
The question is: Why? The editors of our Bible have divided the reading into 3 paragraphs. Each gives a different reason.
Number 1. Women should cover their heads, and men should not, because of headship. Headship.
This comes in verses 3 to 6. Paul spells out the main principle in verse 3: “I want you to realise that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”
This is hard to explain briefly, and it’s often misunderstood.
Paul describes three relationships: that of a man to Christ, that of a woman to a man, that of Christ to God. With each pairing, the relationship is described using the phrase “is the head of”.
The important one is the one in the middle: “the head of the woman is man”. The whole of our passage is about the relationship between men and women. Presumably he means husband and wife, but it’s clear Paul’s also saying this relationship of headship plays out in the life of the church.
The question is what he means by “the head of the woman is man”. It’s the language of leadership, and of representation.
Some people have suggested that head might mean “source”. The classic illustration is that you might talk of the “head of a river”, meaning the source of a river. The trouble is, that’s a use for the word “head” that you pretty much never find in ancient Greek, anywhere.
“Head” normally means the literal head, the part of your body between your shoulders. When it’s used metaphorically, it normally carries the idea of leadership. In 2 Samuel 22, verse 44, King David prays this: “You have delivered me from the attacks of the peoples; you have preserved me as the head of nations.”
It’s about leadership. That means it includes the idea of having authority. But it’s so much richer than just authority. As I say, it’s also about representation. The thing about a head of state is that they represent the nation. When Donald Trump came to this country, it was called a “state visit”. America came to see us, because they’re leader came to see us. He represents his nation. If he comes, his nation has come. Never mind your views on Donald Trump being the US president: he’s head of state; he represents them.
There’s also language of responsibility. If someone is in a position of leadership, that puts them in a position of care. They have a duty to protect, to care for, those they lead. They’re in responsibility. It’s been a theme we’ve met several times in this part of 1 Corinthians. Paul’s been asking them to focus less on what they have a right to do, and more on the responsibility they have to consider the needs of other members of the church, and especially the weaker more vulnerable members.
So there’s Paul’s assertion. “The head of the woman is man”. Which is the language of leadership. With that comes representation, and responsibility.
Now, there are all kinds of ways this could be misunderstood. We could hear Paul saying that this makes men more important than women. We could hear Paul saying that men have a mandate to lord it over women, to abuse them even.
No. Emphatically – no! A thousand times – no! The language of responsibility should prevent us thinking Paul means that. But even more we need to look at the other relationships in verse 3. In particular, “the head of Christ is God”.
Paul describes the relationship between Jesus and God the Father in the same way. Is God the Father more important than Jesus. No! Does God the Father lord it over his Son, like a cruel despot. No! They are the best example you’ll ever find of a team of equals. And yet we see 2 or 3 times in this letter: The kingdom they’re building together is one in which the Father is in charge. The bottom line was the one that Jesus cried out in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will, but yours be done”.
God has set up a pattern of careful relationships.
The representative, responsible leader of the Lord Jesus is God the Father.
The representative, responsible leader of every man in the Christian church is the Lord Jesus Christ.
And, in certain contexts, the representative, responsible leader of the woman, is the man. He is charged to care for her, to take a lead, to be the representative. To be like the Lord Jesus is to his church. To be like God the Father is to his Son.
Because of which, men and women are not the same as each other as we come to church. We have different roles and responsibilities. We don’t leave our genders at the door. Men continue to be men. Women continue to be women.
So women continue to follow the dress code for respectable women in Corinthian culture. And men likewise.
There’s Paul’s first reason: Headship.
We’ll move quicker through the other two reasons.
Number 2. Women should cover their heads, and men should not, because of created order. Created order.
In verses 7 to 10, Paul refers to the two creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. If you squeeze those stories into each other, God first creates man, male human beings. We’re made in God’s image, his likeness. We are to share God’s mission for this world.
But not on our own we’re not. Everything God made in the beginning was good. The light was good. The sun was good. The land was good. The sea was good. The animals were good.
Then God made people, and everything was not just good – it was very good.
Until suddenly there’s a problem. There’s something that’s not good. Genesis chapter 2, verse 18: “It’s not good for the man to be alone”. None of the animals would quite do for company. So God made woman. In the story, God made her out of the man’s rib. He made her to be his helper, his partner. Just as men are to share God’s mission in the world, she is to share his.
The man sees her, and bursts into song. He’s absolutely delighted. He could not have a better partner. She complements him perfectly. The animals were different from him. But the woman is just like him – his equal, and yet not like him, his other half. The lock and the key, they go together, perfectly.
Which, again, does not make her inferior to him in the least. The opposite. Paul says she is his glory. And just in case anyone is tempted to think this gives men one up on the women, Paul knocks that out of the park. Verse 11: “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman.”
There’s an order in the way God’s made us. We’re not symmetrical. We’re not reversible. We’re not interchangeable. Quite wonderfully, we’re equal in every way, but different from one another. Paul stresses in verse 8 – it is the way round it is, and not the reverse:
“For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”
Which gives another reason why men and women should worship in the way Paul says. Verse 10 is fiendishly difficult, but I’ll try to steer us through it without getting bogged down. “It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.”
The angels probably take a great interest in what happens in churches, so it matters that we get our worship right. So women shouldn’t be pressured by enthusiastic members of the church into flinging off their usual way of dressing. They should instead respect the way God’s made us.
There’s the second reason why men and women should behave as Paul directs. Because of created order.
Then reason number 3. Women should cover their heads, and men should not, because of nature. Nature.
Verse 13 he asks them to agree with him. Then verses 14 and 15. So far he’s been talking about hats. Here, he does talk about hair. “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.”
It’s natural for men to have short hair. It suits them. It’s natural for women to have long hair. It suits them.
Now don’t get Paul wrong. He’s not saying this is universal. Sure you can think of cultures that have different ways of doing things. By “nature”, Paul just means what human beings seem to do when left to ourselves. When we don’t interfere. The way we’re wired.
I was curious to follow this up, so I picked a people group purely at random. I went for the Incas. 1200 AD to about 1500. In Peru. A vast civilisation that had not really had contact with westerners. A website for primary children tells me that Inca men cut their hair short at the front, and a bit longer at the back. Women let their hair grow as long as it would grow, with a centre parting, only cutting it if they were widowed.
So he’s not saying that this is universal. Just that it’s natural. He’s also not making this a matter of right or wrong. He’s not saying that it’s wrong for a man to have long hair, or a woman to have short hair.
He’s making one simple point: We all know that men and women aren’t the same. There are differences. Those differences include hair styling and dress. So it’s a natural extension of that for there to be differences in the way we do church.
Reason 3: Nature.
Applying to Corinth
So there’s the message of this chapter for ancient Corinth. Outside, in civilised society, women would wear some kind of head covering while men would not.
In church, there were some who were throwing off those conventions. When they became Christians, they discovered a wonderful freedom. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a slave or free, a man or woman, a child or an adult, rich or poor. Suddenly, you’re a child of God, given his Holy Spirit.
Maybe some were pushing their newfound freedom a little too far. No need to be tied down by these social customs. Some women were no longer wearing the coverings they’d wear outside. And for whatever reason, some men starting to wear something similar.
So Paul says: Follow those customs. Men: Come to church. Play a full part. But do so as men. Women: Come to church. Play a full part. But do so as women.
Why? Because God’s made us the way we are. There are headship structures. We complement each other in creation. There are natural differences. So respect your gender. Don’t try to throw it off.
Applying to Today
Now it’s time to come to our own day and age. What does all this mean for us?
Well, it doesn’t mean the same thing that it did for them. It doesn’t mean that women need to wear hats in church, for example. That actually inverts the meaning of what Paul’s saying here. He’s saying that men and women should behave in church the way they’d normally behave outside the church. Unless you live in high society and always wear a hat, that means you don’t wear one in church.
So what does it mean?
That’s tricky. There’s no one item of clothing that signifies the same thing as the hat in ancient Corinth. There’s no item of clothing that stands for men embracing their God-given identity as men, or that stands for women embracing their God-given identity as women.
So there’s not one single thing that I can tell you to do and you’ve done what this passage requires.
What we have got are some general principles to live out. We learn that what we wear matters. It says something about you, and about your relationships.
The modern world is totally at sea when it comes to gender.
In some places and cultures, there is a hideous misogynism. Women seen as objects to be exploited or owned. Women given few or no rights. Women mistreated or looked down on.
Our own culture has swung the pendulum completely the other way. The buzz word for today is equality. Men and women are equal. So far, so good. That’s biblical. Our nation has a Christian heritage, and that’s why we believe in equality. People are by and large not treated equally in civilisations that have never known the influence of Christ.
But then the thinking goes that in order to be equal we have to be the same. We say that male and female are totally fluid. They’re just labels. There’s no such thing as male and female. There’s just human, and you can choose for yourself whether you want to be a he, a she, or a ze.
This passage has good news for a culture that is lost when it comes to gender. We don’t go for sameness. We don’t go for oppression and exploitation.
Instead we discover that the God who loves us also made us. He made us male and female. Wonderfully equal, and equally wonderfully different. We complement one another, as we serve God together as a team.
And when we come into church, we don’t throw off our gender. We don’t throw away our identity. Instead, we find that church is where God wants to put broken people back together, which is all of us. He wants to rebuild us, to make us more human. And that means more male, or more female, not less. It means moving out of caricatures to become more what truly male should look like, more what truly female should look like.
But what you wear matters. So in church we gladly embrace whatever ways of dressing, whatever ways of behaving, whatever ways of relating, bring out the identities God’s given us.
No, we don’t live in ancient Corinth. But these words into a different time and place speak of a God whose plan is to restore and remake us in our humanity.
I’ll close with Genesis 1:27: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”