(This post was inspired by a question from a friend. If you have a question about a particular Scripture, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Bible Question” in the subject line. I would be overjoyed to look into it and write a post for you.)
I have made it a goal this summer to read Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. After making it about two-hundred pages in, i stumbled across this gem:
The barber looked with astonishment at this man, with his long hair and thick black beard, who resembled one of those fine heads by Titian. At that time it was not yet the fashion to wear one’s beard and hair long; nowadays a barber would rather be surprised that a man who could enjoy such physical attributes should wish to deprive himself of them. He said nothing and set about his work.Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo, trans. by Robin Buss (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2003), 214.
Edmond Dantès had just escaped from prison after fourteen years, and as such his hair was in desperate need of a cut. This is important because the question i was asked relates to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and verse 14 asks, “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair it is a disgrace to him?” (I have often jokingly referred to this verse as the Bibles’ stance against man-buns.)
But, there is a lot more to this passage than a joke about man-buns. And unfortunately (as much as i hate bringing a potentially new interpretation to a passage of Scripture) i firmly believe most interpretations of this passage fall desperately short of Paul’s intention in this text.
(This post consists of about five hours of study and several more of writing; it is my initial thoughts; it deserves an extensive exegesis to prove my view as correct, or to elaborate on the actual meaning of this passage.)
Paul writes as follows in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16,
Now I praise you because you always remember me and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ. Every man who prays or prophesies with something on his head dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since that is one and the same as having her head shaved. So if a woman’s head is not covered, her hair should be cut off. But if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, she should be covered. A man, in fact, should not cover his head, because he is God’s image and glory, but woman is man’s glory. For man did not come from woman, but woman came from man. And man was not created for woman, but woman for man. This is why a woman should have ⌊a symbol of⌋ authority on her head, because of the angels. In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, and man is not independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman, and all things come from God. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself 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 her hair is given to her as a covering. But if anyone wants to argue about this, we have no other custom, nor do the churches of God.
The first thing to discuss is the context in which this passage appears. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to a church he had helped plant (cf. Acts 18:1-17). This was a city that was positioned at a crossroads in the ancient world. As such, many philosophies passed through the city limits because many tradesmen traveled through the city. As such, after Paul left the city after a year and a half of ministry (Acts 18:11, 18), the church he had planted became fraught with many errors. This spurred Paul to write the letter of 1 Corinthians. He deals with his primary concerns in 1:10-6:20.
It is at 7:1 that Paul begins dealing with specific questions the church had brought to him: “Now in response to the matters you wrote about.” He discusses marriage, singleness, and divorce in chapter 7, he discusses food offered to idols (Christian liberty and its extent) in chapters 8-10, and then he begins a new discussion in 11:2-16. This is where we find ourselves today.
Two observations are necessary at the outset. First, verses 2 and 16 control the discussion. In these two verses we read:
- 1 Corinthians 11:2 (HCSB)
Now I praise you because you always remember me and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.
- 1 Corinthians 11:16 (HCSB)
But if anyone wants to argue about this, we have no other custom, nor do the churches of God.
Here we see three things. First, Paul praises the majority of the people within the Corinthian church for keeping his teaching—traditions—as he delivered them. Second, Paul explains that if someone sees the discussion differently, their arguments are worthless because neither the apostles nor the churches see the issue differently. (By extension, this means i need to be careful with how i handle this passage.) Third, when Paul says “you” in verse 2 and “churches” in verse 16, he is explaining that this discussion is limited to church settings; i.e., he is not writing about the culture at large.
The second observation to be made at the outset is that several words repeatedly occur in our English translations. “Head” occurs thirteen times in verses 3-7, 10, 13. On average, this is just less than one time per verse under discussion. In fact, the whole book of 1 Corinthians only uses the word “head” fourteen times; all but one of them are in this passage. Whatever our final understanding of this text is, it must have something to do with the word “head.” The other word occurs much less often, but it is intimately connected to the word “head.” The other word is “hair.” It occurs five times in verses 6, 14, 15.
Now someone might object, “Paul isn’t talking about a literal ‘head’ several times that the word is used. He’s talking about ‘headship’ or ‘source.’”
And they would be right. But given the interspersed nature of these two words (including the fact that both are used—almost equally—in verse 6), you can’t understand one apart from understanding the other. I think Paul is making a very clever word-play on the fact that he is describing the roles of men and women (better: husbands and wives) and hair grows on the head.
Verse 3 explains that headship is biblical:
But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ
And it is biblical not only as regards men and women (better: husbands and wives) but also as regards God the Father and God the Son.
You may wonder why i have now twice stated, “(better: husbands and wives).” This is because the Greek words for “man” and “woman” (anēr and gunaika) are the same as the Greek words for “husband” and “wife.” It all depends on the context as to which is being referred to. And while some commentators say, “The principle of subordination and authority applies to all men and women, not just to husbands and wives. It extends beyond the family to all aspects of society,” i must respectfully disagree. While Paul will argue that his whole discussion arises out of the created intent from Genesis 2 (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:8-9), Adam and Eve were explicitly husband and wife (cf. Genesis 2:21-24) in addition to being representative of all men and women. For this reason, i believe that Paul is more accurately describing husbands and wives than men and women.
 John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1984), 253.
Before moving onto verses 4-6, it is necessary to comment on Paul’s inclusion of the phrase, “God is the head of Christ.” Historically, as Christians, we have confessed the following:
According to this truth and this Word of God, we believe in one only God, who is the one single essence, in which are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct according to their incommunicable properties; namely, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is the cause, origin, and beginning of all things visible and invisible; the Son is the word, wisdom, and image of the Father; the Holy Spirit is the eternal power and might, proceeding from the Father and the Son. Nevertheless, God is not by this distinction divided into three, since the Holy Scriptures teach us that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit have each His personality, distinguished by Their properties; but in such wise that these three persons are but one only God.Guido de Brès, The Belgic Confession, WORDsearch CROSS e-book, Under: “Article VIII. God Is One in Essence, Yet Distinguished in Three Persons”.
Hence, then, it is evident that the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Father, and likewise the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. Nevertheless, these persons thus distinguished are not divided, nor intermixed; for the Father has not assumed the flesh, nor has the Holy Spirit, but the Son only. The Father has never been without His Son, or without His Holy Spirit. For They are all three co-eternal and co-essential. There is neither first nor last; for They are all three one, in truth, in power, in goodness, and in mercy.
So if the Son and the Father are co-equal, how can Paul say that “God is the head of Christ?”
I would argue that by including this statement, not only is Paul, even more, enhancing the point that no gender is better than another, but he is also stating that regardless of equality of worth, there is an order and a distinction. The Confession quoted above explains, “The Father is the cause, origin, and beginning of all things visible and invisible; the Son is the word, wisdom, and image of the Father.” The Son was not created by the Father, but He was sent forth from the Father, took on flesh, and humbled Himself to the point of death. Jesus said, “Nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:36), proving that He was submitting Himself to His head—God the Father.
Paul will prove that the genders are equally dependent upon one another, despite their unique roles in verses 4-12:
Every man who prays or prophesies with something on his head dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since that is one and the same as having her head shaved. So if a woman’s head is not covered, her hair should be cut off. But if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, she should be covered. A man, in fact, should not cover his head, because he is God’s image and glory, but woman is man’s glory. For man did not come from woman, but woman came from man. And man was not created for woman, but woman for man. This is why a woman should have ⌊a symbol of⌋ authority on her head, because of the angels. In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, and man is not independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman, and all things come from God.
This is where we first discover the connection between “head” and “hair.” Verse 4 is better translated, “Every man who prays or prophesies with something hanging down from his head dishonors his head.” This is easily comparable to verse 14, where Paul asks, “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair it is a disgrace to him?” The emphasis in verse 4 is more than something being on his head; it is more synonymous to the idea of something hanging from his head. And given the emphasis of “hair” throughout the passage, it is safe to compare verse 4 to verse 14.
Also, it is at this point that commentators want to discuss the custom of wearing head coverings in the ancient world. Unfortunately, they usually never give any concrete proof of the occurrence in the ancient world. One scholar writes,
It used to be asserted by theologians that Paul was simply endorsing the unwritten law of Hellenic and Hellenistic feeling for what was proper. But this view is untenable. To be sure, the veil was not unknown in Greece. It was worn partly as adornment and partly on such special occasions as match-making and marriage, mourning, and the worship of chthonic deities (in the form of a garment drawn over the head). But it is quite wrong that Greek women were under some kind of compulsion to wear a veil in public . . . Hence, veiling was not a general custom; it was Jewish. If the veiling of Jewish women was common in the West, we may presume that it was an accepted rule in the East. The Jew regarded it as typical of Gentile women that they should go about unveiled.Albrecht Oepke, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), 562.
The author concludes:
Paul is thus attempting to introduce into congregations on Greek soil a custom which corresponds to oriental and especially Jewish sensibility rather than Greek. In principle, the demand ought to extend to all women in all situations. In practice, however, Paul applies it to married women in the churches, and in the first instance he restricts it to the sphere of life which stands directly under the jurisdiction of the congregation, i.e., divine worship.Ibid., 563.
We will decide whether his conclusion is legitimate by the end of the discussion, but the important thing at this point is the historical context. In the ancient world, Greek women were not expected to cover their heads on the regular.
Important to note in verses 4-6 is how many times Paul equates the lack of a head covering to a head being shaved. Three times (four if you count “hair cut off” and “head shaved” in verse 6 as two different occurrences) in as many verses. This is huge. We will come back to it shortly.
In verses 7-12, Paul says several things. Paul explains again that man should not cover his head due to being the image of God in verse 7. But, his main point is that men and women are equal in the sight of God (cf. “all things come from God” in verse 12) despite having differing roles. He goes back to the creation story in verses 8-9 to prove that the woman was created out of man as an aide to man. The man wasn’t designed for the woman; she was created for him. Because of the created order (submission of the wife to the husband; cf. Ephesians 5:22-33), Paul writes in verse 10 that the wife is to have a “symbol of authority on her head.” Paul gives a reason for this: “because of the angels.”
When it comes to an understanding of this phrase, we can find a connection by looking at what verbal parallels there are between this verse and some other verse. Paul is talking about angels, he is talking about covering one’s head, and he is talking about authority. When all of this is taken together, the most explicit connecting verse is in Isaiah 6:2. “Seraphim were standing above Him; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.” God has more authority than these angels, and as such, they cover themselves in His presence to show that He has authority.
In much the same way, Paul expects the women—especially the married women—in the church to cover their heads. But, how does He go about enforcing this expectation?
Interestingly, it is right after this statement that Paul backtracks and says in verses 11-12, “Man and woman are equal. You can’t have one without the other. The first woman came from man, but ever since then men have been birthed through women.” For this reason, whatever Paul expects of the women in his churches must help to show both the equality of the sexes and their different roles.
This is when Paul returns to the discussion of hair in verses 13-15:
Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself 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 her hair is given to her as a covering.
When Paul asks the question in verse 13, he is drawing on everything he has already written. In verses 4-6, he repeatedly said in essence, “If a woman is uncovered, it is the same as being shaved.” So, i don’t think it is too much of a stretch to rewrite Paul’s question, “Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head shaved?” Paul’s argument will conclude by proving this is what he is saying.
But we must return to the quote about the use of head coverings in the ancient world. Paul wrote this letter to a church. He did not write it to a Jewish synagogue. Paul became all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:22), but he emphatically refused to allow Jewish customs into the churches (cf. Galatians). It is hard to imagine Paul writing to a primarily Gentile church and saying, “Start doing this Jewish custom that isn’t even found in the Old Testament.” So, while it is true that “Paul applies it to married women in the churches, and in the first instance he restricts it to the sphere of life which stands directly under the jurisdiction of the congregation, i.e., divine worship,” he is not actually telling them to wear an extra head covering.
 Ibid., 563.
Verses 14-15 prove this as a fact. Paul says that nature teaches that men should not have long hair, but that women should. Then, in the final phrase of verse 15, Paul says, “For her hair is given to her as a covering.”
Most translations translate the word “as” as “for.” However, “as” is a better way to translate it. The Greek word carries the idea of “in the place of.” Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life—a ransom [in the place of] many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus was a substitute. In much the same way, God gave women long hair as their covering. They don’t need to wear a veil in public, because their hair is a veil.
The sexes are equal but different. This is clear biologically and sexually, but it is also made plain to everyone by a person’s hair. Typically (apart from the gender confusion of today or treatments for sicknesses like cancer that destroy hair) women have longer hair than men. This is visible proof of the created difference between men and women that everyone can see. If women were to wear an additional covering on their head, it would show that women are subordinate to men in the created order. Paul is clear that we are equal but distinct. This is good news. And it is a message the culture desperately needs to hear today.
Does your chosen hairstyle display God’s perfect design based on your gender, or do you prayerfully need to consider changing it?
According to our text today, it is improper to come before God in worship with an inappropriate head covering (hairstyle). However, despite this fact, Christianity is a religion of grace, and Christ died to forgive people of every sin, including those who wear rebellious (against God’s created design) hairstyles.
If you’re a believer, look to Jesus, and He’ll guide you to either completely overhaul your hairstyle, gradually change your hairstyle, or He’ll convince you that your hairstyle is within His parameters. (Note that i have not said what exactly constitutes a proper length of hair; it is not my place to clarify this, and even Paul did not specify this in his letter.)
If you’re not a believer, but for some reason you’ve read this far, i plead with you to believe. Jesus came to give His life as a ransom for many. He died on the cross and rose from the dead three days later. If you believe, you will be counted among the many. But if you believe, Jesus calls you to a change of life. One easy way to showcase this change of life is by a change of haircut. If you’re a woman and you’ve consistently cut your hair “too short,” grow it out. If you’re a man and you’ve consistently grown it out “too long,” cut it short.
But regardless, i beg you to believe! And prayerfully open yourself up to the leading of Jesus on the issue of hairstyle.
May our appearances showcase the wisdom of God in creating men and women equal but different!
In this with you.
Soli Deo Gloria
Thanks for reading.