Message # 34 | 1 Corinthians 11:4-16 | February 19, 2017

Purpose Statement. Beloved, don’t draw attention to yourself in church, instead promote unity and appropriateness in worship.

Men, Be Appropriate in Church.

Too often this passage becomes almost entirely about women and whether they should wear a head covering or not. One significant problem with this thought is that Paul not only starts with a discussion about men but continues to discuss them throughout. Our culture can’t imagine why men would need or want to wear head coverings so then a discussion about men’s head coverings loses to the more pressing discussion about women’s head coverings. Besides, this has more pressing and bothersome implications for women.

Head covering on Roman men.  The many Roman sculptures, of which we can study, appear to offer two pertinent reasons for men wearing head coverings. First, wearing a head covering was a symbol of social elitism. Plutarch, a first century Greek biographer and essayists, writes in his Roman Questions:

PLUTARCH. For they uncover their heads in the presence of men more influential than they: it is not to invest these men with additional honour, but rather to avert from them the jealousy of the gods, that these men may not seem to demand the same honours as the gods . . . [1]

If they were to have their head covered, they wouldn’t feel the need to uncover it for someone that was below them. They would however uncover it for someone who was equal or superior, so that the gods wouldn’t be jealous and think that they were offering them more honor.

A second reason that men would cover their heads was in worship to a god. Plutarch acknowledges that this custom “is not properly related to [the] custom” of uncovering your head for other men. The Ara Pacis is a remarkable marble structure and masterpiece of Roman sculpture. Ara Pacis stands for “Altar of Augustan Peace” and was built to celebrate the return of Augustus. One of the walls of this structure is an Imperial progression. It includes senators, officials, and the Imperial family. You may notice that there are a number of women in head coverings and the majority of men have no head covering. There are two men however that have head coverings. It is suspected that these two men are the priests leading the procession. We see this same custom of a man covering his head in a sculpture of Augustus. In the sculpture he is holding a patera, a shallow dish used in a sacrificial ceremony. Therefore, priests and potentially sacrifants would wear a head covering for worship.

Promote unity not division.

Consider the first reason for men wearing a head covering – an elite status. How might this impact the unity within the church? If social elitism is alive within the church, equality and unity are going to be sacrificed.

Understanding this context for men in head coverings better draws this whole chapter together. The second half of 1 Corinthians 11 discusses the disunity amidst the Lord’s Supper. This disunity may have been partially caused by men refusing to see other men as equal and continuing to wear a head covering in church worship.

A potential modern parallel may be a man wearing an expensive suit so as to set himself apart from the others around him. Any custom that would mark social and economic distinction would be a parallel for us today. These kinds of distinctions are not to be reflected in the church family and bring division as a result. At their heart is a desire to be distinguished above others – a desire for others to notice you. Church is not an appropriate place to draw attention to oneself.

GILL. The issue which Paul is dealing with here seems to be that members of the social elite within the church . . . were adopting a form of dress during worship which drew attention to their status in society.[2]

Promote Christ as our mediator.

A second issue deals with wearing a head covering for the worship of a god. Those who wore the head coverings in the Imperial Procession were the priests or mediators for the worship. If there were men in the church wearing head coverings there may have been some confusion as to their role in the worship. The church is not to see a man as its mediator to God. Paul tells us in 1 Timothy that “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). A man wearing a head covering in church may have drawn attention to himself instead of Christ as the sole mediator.

Summary for men in regards to head coverings.

Paul commands the men in Corinth not to wear head coverings because it would have resulted in social elitism and disunity and diverted attention away from Christ as the primary focus.

Women, Be Appropriate in Church.

In the case of men and head coverings, Paul is confronting a cultural norm that undermines biblical truth – specifically unity and Christ’s mediatorial work. The opposite is true in regards to women and head coverings. The cultural norm for women wearing head coverings accurately reflected biblical truth – specifically gender distinction and a wife’s honor towards her husband.

Display appropriate cultural signs of marriage and honor to your husband.  

Paul is going to eventually conclude that a wife should wear a head covering in corporate worship, but it must be understood that this head covering is a visible sign or expression of a greater truth or principle. The principle, concerning headship and leadership in the home, is found in verse 3. “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3). This is not talking about inequality in essence but instead structure and leadership within the home. He then offers a number of arguments to support the principle and concludes that this structure of authority should be visibly displayed by means of a head covering.

Argument from culture (5-6). Head coverings for women was the norm in their culture. I can’t say with certainty that women always wore a head covering. In fact there are passages and Roman sculptures that would indicate that they seemed to enjoy putting up their hair in fancy ways. But, it was a normal thing for a wife to wear a head covering and this was a visible sign of honor to their husbands in their culture. It would have been dishonorable to them and their husbands if they were to come into a worship setting and remove their head covering. This would have drawn attention to themselves and would have distracted from the worship. Paul parallels not wearing a head covering to the shame that would come from a wife having her head shaven. According to Tacitus the husband of an adulterous wife cut off her hair, stripped her naked, and drove her from her house.[3]

DIO CHRYSOSTOM. She gave the people of Cyprus the following three laws: a woman guilty of adultery shall have her hair cut off and be a harlot — her daughter became an adulteress, had her hair cut off according to the law, and practised harlotry;[4]

This culture would have looked with shame upon a wife in a corporate worship setting not having a head covering on. Therefore, Paul argues that these wives should wear head coverings because that was an appropriate cultural symbol for a wife showing honor to her husband.

Argument from theology (7-10). Paul continues his argument and points back to God’s creative order for man and woman. God established the principle of leadership in the home by means of the order in which he created man and woman. “Man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head” (1 Cor 8-10).  As a passing comment or argument, Paul adds that this practice should be done even for the angels. The angels, who observe our worship, appreciate proper gender distinction and leadership roles. They have obviously experienced what happens when those who are to follow usurp their divinely appointed role. They desire to see appropriate leadership followed in the church setting.

Argument from nature (13-15). God desired that these gender distinctions are preserved and that visible displays of his created order are manifest. So motivated, he created women with a natural veil. Paul writes, “does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering” (1 Cor 11:14-15). A wife’s hair is not the head covering of which Paul is referring. Verse six tells a wife to cut her hair short if she will not cover her head. This wouldn’t make any sense if her hair were her head covering. What this does tells us though is that God desired to give man and woman a natural way to display gender distinction and allow a wife to show honor for her husband. [5]

It’s inaccurate to claim Paul uses an argument from creation to affirm the need for women to wear head coverings. Instead, Paul appeals to creation to demonstrate the differences between men and women that God established from the beginning—and violating these distinctions brings shame instead of glory.[6]

Argument from tradition (16). Paul offers one more, somewhat passing, argument in verse 16 which can be a little confusing. If someone is going to be contentious and argue that a wife doesn’t need to wear a head covering, Paul wants the Corinthian church to know that no other church would practice that way. Simply put, Paul is arguing, “wives in all the other churches are wearing head coverings and so should you.” Granted, this is probably the least substantive argument, but it does seem to point to the value in considering and weighing how the rest of the body of Christ is functioning. If no other gospel believing church shares in your practice, you might want to strongly consider whether or not you are correct in it. The same Holy Spirit that resided in you and is directing you is residing in and directing believers of other churches. If every other church disagrees with you (or even the vast majority of churches) you need to strongly consider the potential of being wrong.

Don’t flaunt your beauty in church.

Remember Paul’s primary purpose in this passage. We are to do nothing that would draw attention to ourselves in corporate worship. Paul teaches this same principle in a couple of other passages.

1 Timothy 2:9–10 (ESV) . . . women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.

1 Peter 3:3–4 (ESV) Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.

Further study of Roman sculptures reveals that women enjoyed having rather elaborate hair dos. As is similar to today, women desire to look attractive, look beautiful. This manifested itself in dramatic hair fashions. It is this excess that Paul confronts in these two passages. Instead of blending in with the other women, some women were being noticed for their elaborate clothing, jewelry, and hair fashions.

We often consider these passages to offer us a definition for modesty. And they do, but they do so in a different manner than we sometimes apply. In our culture we often define immodesty as wearing revealing clothing. This should, in fact, be included in a definition of modesty. But, we often fail to consider the other extreme of immodesty. It is as well immodest to wear fancy clothes, dramatic make up, excessive jewelry, extravagant haircuts – all for the purpose of drawing the attention of others.  Note, Paul is actually telling them to dress down, to wear less. They were drawing attention to themselves by their extravagant dress and he tells them that they need to stop.

Immodesty has multiple forms. The first form involves too little clothing being worn, or too tight of clothing be worn. This is immodest in that it draws attention to the body. The other form deals with dressing to impress others and draw attention to oneself. This form may include expensive clothing so as to communicate luxury, wealth, or position. It may include excessive makeup or a hairstyle that is intended to draw attention to oneself. This is as well immodest, especially in the context of corporate worship, because it is drawing attention to a person and not God and worship. These clothes, makeup, jewelry, or hair styles may be appropriate in certain contexts, like a date or fancy event. But, when we are gathered for corporate worship, we should all do what we can to not draw attention to ourselves and distract from worship.

Summary for women in regards to head coverings.

You may be wondering what we are to do about women wearing head coverings. Let me address that for a moment. To start with, we must first acknowledge that head coverings are a secondary point of the passage. Head coverings are Paul’s direct application to a specific principle that needed to be understood.

It’s important to notice the passive nature of a head covering. A head covering was a sign or symbol pointing to a greater reality. It had no meaning in itself, but was a concrete expression of an intangible truth. Thus, Paul isn’t concerned with head coverings per se. Rather, he’s concerned with the meaning that wearing a head covering conveys.[7]

In considering a scripture passage we must be diligent to follow an appropriate pattern of study. (1) We must first study the original, exegetical context. This information is often timebound or restricted to the time of the original author and recipient. (2) Secondly, we strive to understand the timeless principles that are revealed within the passage. In this case, the timeless principle for women, is that they are to display honor to their husbands and present themselves in a manner that does not distract from corporate worship or draw attention to themselves. (3) Finally, we take those timeless principles and we attempt to draw specific timely application for our day. What I believe is happening in this passage is that Paul is outlining the principles and then drawing the specific application for the Corinthians. Head coverings are their specific application to the timeless principle of honoring one’s husband and not drawing attention to oneself in corporate worship.

The question then remains. Does that specific application remain true for us? Should our women wear head coverings? Let me answer that question with a question. Since the primary principles are that men and women should visibly reflect gender distinctions and roles, promote unity, and not draw attention to themselves in corporate worship, does wearing a head covering in this American culture communicate or accomplish that principle?  I would argue that it doesn’t. I would also argue that our culture is doing everything in its power to eliminate gender distinctions and undermine God’s divinely crafted gender roles. Are there any customs in our culture that would visibly communicate those principles. I’m not sure there are. Some may argue a wedding ring is that sign, but that sign is rather concealed and both men and women wear them. So then, what are we left with? Let me propose the following. First, we obey these principles when we dress in a manner that does not draw attention to ourselves in corporate worship. Secondly, God has given women a natural veil. Our culture doesn’t offer us a way to visibly communicate gender roles and distinction, but God does. God has given women their hair as a natural veil.  Paul tells us that a woman’s hair is her glory and a woman can maintain it in a way that distinguishes her as a woman.

Finally, Christians who believe that 1 Corinthians 11 establishes a timeless principle of head coverings for women in worship should obey this passage and not disregard it. While modest dress does not draw attention to oneself, it as well doesn’t communicate a wife’s honor for her husband. Therefore, some may conclude that a head covering is an appropriate application for today because there are no other ways to communicate that principle. Assuming that they don’t wear head coverings that draw attention to themselves, they should be encouraged to follow their conscience in this area. They are taking the safe approach to this passage and can be commended in doing so.



[1] Plutarch, The Roman and Greek Questions, trans. Frank Cole Babbitt, n.d., Question 10. [Plutarch, AD 46 – AD 120) was a Greek biographer and essayist.]

[2] David W.J. Gill, “The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” Tyndale Bulletin 41, no. 2 (1990): 245–60.

[3] Waltke, “1 Corinthians 11,” 50.  Waltke goes on to quote Leonard Swidler from his book Women in Judaism, “In Judaism a woman going out in public without a head covering was considered so shameful that it was grounds for divorce without the husband being obligated to pay the ketubah.

[4] Dio Chrysostom, Discourses 61-80. Fragments. Letters, trans. H. Lamar Crosby, vol. V, Loeb Classic Library 385 (Harvard University Press, 1951), 47,  [Dio Chrysostom (c. 40 CE – c. 115 CE), was a Greek orator, writer, philosopher and historian of the Roman Empire in the 1st century.]

[5] Christine Haran, “Hair Loss for Women, While as Common as for Men, Carries Extra Worries,” ABC News, n.d.. Accessed February 22, 2017. . . . “It’s totally acceptable for a man to be bald,” says Dr. Brad Limmer, a dermatologist specializing in hair transplantation who has a private practice in San Antonio, Texas. “It’s not a socially acceptable thing for a woman. So much emphasis and value is placed on a woman’s head of hair; it’s hard to even compare the impact on men and women.” . . . While men tend to start losing hair in the 30s and 40s, thinning begins in the 40s or 50s in women, though it can occur as early as the 20s. And while men tend to lose hair in the front and at the top of the head, women’s hair thins diffusely throughout the scalp; total baldness is very rare in women. . . . The research also indicates that women tend to be more upset than men by their hair loss. A 1992 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology that compared the psychological impact of hair loss on men and women found that women had a more negative body image and were less able to adapt to the loss.

[6] Benjamin Merkle, “Should Women Wear Head Coverings,” Gospel Coalition, August 26, 2015,

[7] Ibid.

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