Head Coverings, Hairstyles, and the Fight to Understand Paul's Words

There are four Pauline Scripture passages that are most often used in the debate over women in ministry. Three are used to limit the role of women in the life of the church. These are 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:34-37; and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. The fourth, Galatians 3:26-29, is used to advocate for the complete freedom and equality of women in the church. I will now address all four in some detail.

women in ministry


1 Corinthians 11:2-16

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you” (1 Cor. 11:2).


1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is a complicated Scripture text that refers to ancient customs, mores, and gender distinctions. Schreiner calls it “one of the most difficult and controversial passages in the Bible.” [296] He goes on to list seven difficult questions elicited by the passage.


Two things must be noted from the start.

  1. Few of the problematic issues surrounding this passage can be definitively resolved, which should preclude dogmatic conclusions.
  2. No matter how the difficulties are resolved, this passage places no direct limitations on women in ministry.


In fact, in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul acknowledged that women engaged in public prayer and prophecy, two of the most important aspects of first-century Christian worship. [297]


No matter how we interpret the particulars of Paul’s words, one fact is unchanged – he was in no way placing limitations on what women could and could not do in worship.


He was only addressing the proper way for women and men to interact in worship as both took active leadership roles.


Interpretive Framework

There are a few things to keep in mind when approaching this Scripture text (and Corinthians in general):

  1. Paul had a very close relationship with the recipients. He started the church, led most of them to the Lord, even baptized a few of them, and felt like a spiritual father to them. Therefore, he felt free to speak candidly and even harshly, at times. [298]
  2. Paul’s Corinthian letter is very polemical. Paul was fighting battles on several fronts in Corinth. There were factions within the church, including a group of spiritualists, former Greek pagans, and a strong Judaizing influence. Paul was trying to help them sort out their differences.
  3. Corinth was one of Paul’s most important mission outposts. He spent eighteen months building a leadership foundation in Corinth. The work in Corinth was extremely important to his overall missionary strategy. Therefore, Paul’s missional pragmatism and eschatological urgency were at the forefront of his advice in Corinth. He wanted to put divisive issues to rest as quickly as possible and get the Corinthian Christians re-focused on the most important task – winning people for Christ.
  4. Corinth was a port city and was known as a dumping ground for people from across the Mediterranean world, and beyond. As such, it was also susceptible to all sorts of strange and exotic belief systems. [299] Paul had preached his own brand of radical universalism in Corinth. People from a vast array of Greco-Roman cultures were coming to know Christ in Corinth. This was reason to rejoice, but also brought no small amount of culture clash.
  5. Paul was dealing with certain issues that were specific to Corinth (and didn’t seem to be a big problem in other places). As such, Paul was not attempting a theological treatise in this letter (nor does he in any of his letters), but rather was theologizing in the throes of problem-solving. [300]


Critical Definitions

In order to better understand this complex passage, we need to understand a few critical and controversial issues in the text.

  1. What is the meaning of “head covering?”
  2. What is the meaning of the word, kephale, which is most often translated as “head?”
  3. What is the meaning of the words, “gyne,” which can mean “woman,” or “wife,” depending on the context, and “aner,” which can mean “man,” or “husband,” depending on the context?
  4. How do we solve certain grammatical interpretive issues?


I will deal with the first three issues in turn, and the third as it arises from the discussion.


To Cover or Uncover

The popular interpretation is that Paul was advocating that women should wear the traditional Jewish head covering while prophesying (a scarf or shawl over the head which sometimes included a veil).


This was common in most Semitic cultures of the near east, but was not as common among the Greco-Roman cultures, like that of Corinth.


Because Paul started the Corinthian church out of the Jewish synagogue, and most of his earliest converts were Jews, it is likely that the Jewish custom of women wearing a head covering with a veil would have been a cultural expectation for the Christian church in Corinth. [301]


Apollos, a Greek from Egypt, and a powerful orator had ministered in Corinth after Paul. His popularity had won many from the Corinthian culture who may not have been attracted to Paul.


There were most likely Roman men and women joining the Corinthian church who were not as familiar with the custom of wearing a head covering and veil. These may have been men and women of higher standing within Corinthian society. [302]


The Roman women had different hairstyles than the Jewish women. Hairstyles were very much a reflection of socioeconomic status, with the more elaborate styles indicating greater wealth. [303]


In addition, in many pagan temple worship practices, the priestess would let her hair hang loose as she practiced her divination, prophetic or other cultic worship rituals. [304]


The issue of head covering and how women wore their hair was a recipe for major culture clashes. This seems to be the problem Paul was encountering.


First, Paul didn’t seem to advocate for a literal, material head covering at all.


Nowhere in the passage does Paul use kalymma, which was the word for the traditional Jewish headdress with a veil. In fact, Paul spoke mostly to the issue of hairstyle and hair length. [305]


Why, for instance, would Paul argue against a man wearing a material head covering when that was, in fact, traditional Jewish practice (Lev. 16:4)?


When Paul did mention a literal, material head covering he did not use the common word, Kalymma, but rather the word peribolaiou because he was comparing the covering of the head to a woman’s hair (1 Cor. 11:5): “For long hair is given to her as a covering.” [306]


Furthermore, in the Old Testament, the word for a woman leaving her hair loose, so that it hangs down is apokalypsei (Num. 5:18, in this case, a woman was suspected of being a prostitute precisely because she had let her hair hang down, loosely), and is closely associated with the word Paul used in 1 Corinthians 11:5, 13, akatakalyptos. [307]


Therefore, when Paul referred to a woman having her head “uncovered,” he seemed to be referring to her hair hanging down, loosely, as opposed to piling it up on her head (which could be seen as a kind of natural “head covering”).


Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza suggests that Paul was warning against a practice common in the pagan cultic worship of Dionysus, Cybele, Pythia, and the Sibyl, where “unbound hair was necessary for a woman to produce an effective magical incantation” and thus was “a mark of true prophecy.” [308]


“In some ecstatic cults, possession by the deity was symbolized by the casting off of head covering, the loosening and probably shaking or tossing of the hair, and the exchange of clothing between men and women.” [309]


These seem to be, in part, the type of practices Paul was fighting against — the syncretization with neighboring cults, including loosening of the hair and blending of gender lines.


Due to their limitations in the Greco-Roman culture, women were attracted to such cults because of the potential freedom and power it gave them within the religious system. [310]


Christianity also resembled these cults in that there was an emphasis placed on ecstatic utterances, prophecy, speaking in unknown tongues, and the equality of all people.


Paul preached that in Christ there was no longer male and female (Gal. 3:28), and women were permitted to prophesy and speak in tongues in Christian worship (Acts 2:17-18; 1 Cor. 14:5). It stands to reason that many women in the Greco-Roman culture would have been attracted to Christianity for the freedom it would afford them.


The problem was that these women may have been bringing pagan practices with them. Cultural syncretization was always an issue with religious practice.


Paul seems to be dealing with a clash of cultural mores, and the attempt by some at syncretization. The Jewish influence on one side, wanted all the women to wear a head covering and veils, to clearly distinguish them from the men.


The Greco-Romans in the church, however, balked at that idea and saw no reason that a woman could not wear Roman hairstyles, and even let her hair hang down when in the throes of divine revelation.


Paul’s Solution

Paul addressed the issue, using a play on words, with the word “head.” He used it both in the literal and metaphorical sense, contrasting it to the concept of “head-covering.”


In verse 3, Paul used the word “head” in the metaphorical sense, “Christ is the head of every man, the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ.”


We will discuss later the exact metaphorical meaning of “head” (kephale) in this verse, but clearly, Paul did not mean that the literal, physical head of every man is Jesus Christ. He used the word “head” metaphorically to mean “chief,” or “source,” or “authority,” or some combination thereof.


However, in the very next verse, he used the word “head,” both literally and metaphorically. He wrote, “If a man covers his head (literal) he brings shame upon his head (metaphorical).


Some scholars puzzle over several seemingly contradictory statements in this passage. Schreiner for instance, questions why, in verse two, Paul commends the Corinthians for following the traditions as he taught them, yet, in what follows he chastises them for not following instructions, or for following them poorly. [311]


Schreiner offers an explanation that he qualifies with the word “probably,” as any scholar of his caliber would do. [312]


However, verse two can be better explained if Paul is advocating that the Corinthian women not be subjected to wearing the traditional veil. [313] This assumption would be much more in line with previous Pauline thought with respect to any of the Judaizing teachings in the churches of the Greco-Roman world.


It’s hard to imagine the same Paul who wrote vehemently against circumcision as a symbol of relationship to Christ, would now be advocating for another Jewish expression (head covering) as a requirement for prophetic activity. [314]


If Paul, originally, had taught them that they didn’t have to wear the veil and if we can show that, here, he is still fighting for their right to abstain from wearing the veil, then verse two makes perfect sense in its present context as the introductory verse to the argument.


In verse two, then, Paul is commending them for trying to stick to the tradition as he delivered it to them (not demanding the wearing of head coverings), even in the face of Jewish Christian opposition.


The other contradiction seems to be between Paul’s directives in verses 3-6, and verses 8-12. It is explained by various scholars in a number of ways. I will only address the two strongest explanations that argue against the traditional interpretations.


The first is to assume that Paul is arguing both sides of the debate in order to refute one in favor of the other. [315]


Paul used this form of rhetorical diatribe in other places, stating his own opinion, and then anticipating what his opponents might say in reaction, to deal effectively with their retort.


Other times he might create a fictitious debater and play both sides of the argument. These were all well-established rhetorical forms familiar to Paul. [316]


Because Paul knew the Corinthian congregation so well and was well-informed of the issues they were dealing with, it seems plausible that Paul was stating the line of reasoning that he knew the Judaizers (those trying to force the head covering) were using.


Paul seemed to be fighting against two opposites that were crystallizing and threatening to tear the Corinthian church apart.


On the one hand, he was fighting against the Greco-Roman practice of “women gone wild” with their hair, and the blurring of the lines of distinction between men and women (1 Cor. 11:14-15).


On the other hand, he was fighting against a Judaizing policy that would see all women wearing the traditional Jewish head covering and veil (1 Cor. 11:5).


The second way to explain the contradiction between verses 3-6, and verses 8-12, is to assume that Paul was upholding the traditional Jewish view of the husband-wife relationship in verses 3-6, and offering a corrective for the general male-female relationship in verses 8-12. [317]


The controversial question is when to interpret the words gyne and aner as “man” and “woman,” and when to interpret them as “husband” and “wife.”


Since the head covering was closely associated with the marriage relationship, it stands to reason that gyne and aner should be interpreted as husband and wife in those passages where Paul is dealing directly with the concept of a literal head covering. [318]


Bruce Winter writes, “it can be confidently concluded that the veiled head was the symbol of the modesty and chastity expected of a married woman. [319] 


In addition, the churches Paul was addressing were household churches where the household codes of proper respect between the husband and wife would have been relevant.


For a married woman to remove her head covering while prophesying would have been tantamount to removing her wedding ring.


Therefore, in verses 3-6, Paul was upholding his previous teachings on the marriage relationship (see Ephesians 5:21-33), requiring the wife to be respectful of her husband (by wearing a head covering) while she was prophesying or praying in worship.


However, in verses 8-12, he was offering a corrective to those who might take the directive of verses 3-6 beyond the marriage relationship and apply it to all men and women.


“Don’t forget,” Paul reminded them, “that although the woman was taken from the man, the man is born from the woman, and in any case, everyone comes from God.”



If Paul could convince the Greeks that the women should not wear their hair down, and the Jews that a woman’s long hair worn up could act as a metaphorical head covering, then both sides might be placated.


Either way, Paul’s solution to the Corinthian controversy was nothing short of brilliant and reveals the incredible diplomatic and practical side of Paul. Remember, Paul’s main goal was unity.


In my next blog article, I will paraphrase 1 Corinthians 2:11-16 with the insertion of the sociological-cultural issues that we have identified.


I will also examine how Paul used the term kelaphe, translated “head,” and show that he did not use it to place limits on women in the life of the church.







296. Thomas A. Schreiner, “Head Coverings, Prophecy, and the Trinity,” RBMW, p. 124.

297. See 1 Cor. 11:5 — “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved,” (emphasis mine) — where Paul assumes that women will pray or prophecy in worship. Paul’s argument is not against women prophesying but only addresses whether they should wear the traditional head covering and how they should wear their hair as they prophesy. In addition, the Corinthian Christians were not asking for women to be prohibited from praying or prophesying in public, only that they wear a “head covering” when doing so.

298. See 1 Cor. 1:14-15 — ” I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name” — as an example of Paul scolding the Corinthian Christians for their behavior. See also 1 Cor. 3:1-2 — ” Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready” — where Paul chastises them as a parent might his children.

299. See Hans Conzelmann, “1 Corinthians,” Hermenia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, (Fortress Press, 1975), p. 11-12. Also, Gordon D. Fee, “The First Epistle to the Corinthians,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), p. 1-4.

300. Ben Witherington III, “The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for The Jew of Tarsus,” (Intervarsity Press, 1998), p. 284.

301. Preaching the gospel first in the local synagogue was Paul’s consistent modus operandi. He would win as many Jews and God-fearers as he could, staying in the Synagogue until they kicked him out. He would then set up churches with his new converts to win Gentiles (sometimes right next door to the synagogue!) See Acts 17:2 — “As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (emphasis mine) in Thessalonica; and, Acts 14:1 — “At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.” (emphasis mine) in Iconium; See also Acts 13:5 in Cypress; Acts 16:13 in Philippi; Acts 17:10 in Berea; Acts 18:4 in Corinth; and Acts 19:8 in Ephesus.

302. See Wayne A. Meeks, “The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul,” (Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 51-72, for the social level of Pauline Christians; See also Bruce W. Winter, “Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities,” (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), p.80, for the significance of the veil in the marriage relationship.

303. Elizabeth Bartman, “Hair and the Artifice of Roman Female Adornment,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 105, No. 1 (2001), pp. 1-25, for how hairstyles were much more important to Roman women than they were to Jewish women. Bartman writes, “In ancient Rome, hair was a major determinant of a woman’s physical attractiveness and was thus deemed worthy of considerable exertions to create a flattering appearance. Just as every face had its own physiognomy, so did female hairstyles vary – along with looks, a woman’s age, social status, and public role influenced her choice of coiffure.”

304. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, “In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins,” (Crossroad Publishing, 1983), p. 227.

305. Richard B. Hays, “First Corinthians,” Interpretation Commentary, (John Knox Press, 1997), p. 185.

306. Gordon D. Fee, “The First Epistle to the Corinthians,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), p.562.

307. Ibid., p. 562.

308. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, “In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins,” (Crossroad Publishing, 1983), p. 227.

309. Ibid., p. 227.

310. Wayne A. Meeks, “The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul,” (Yale University Press, 1983), p. 25.

311. Schriener, RBMW, p. 125.

312. ibid., p. 125.

313. Richard B. Hays, “First Corinthians,” Interpretation Commentary, (John Knox Press, 1997), p. 185-186.

314. Paul fought Judaizers in Galatia who were teaching that male circumcision, in addition to baptism, should be a requirement for entrance into the Christian community. Paul was not against male circumcision (he had Timothy circumcised), but only against it as a requirement for salvation. Paul also fought against Judaizers in Corinth who were critical of those who were eating food sacrificed to idols. Paul did not have a problem with those who abstained from eating food sacrificed to idols, nor did he have a problem with those who ate the meat. He took Jesus’ approach that it wasn’t what went into the body that made a person unclean. Paul’s only concern was that the Judaizers should not judge those who ate and that those who ate did not do so at the expense of their Christian testimony. Finally, Paul fought against possible Judaizers in Rome when he emphasized the preeminent role of faith in the justification experience over and against that of the Mosaic Law. Paul didn’t seem to care about these Judaizing issues — circumcision, food sacrificed to idols, or adherence to the Mosaic Law. His primary concern was unity between the warring cultures. It stands to reason that he would take the same basic approach with head coverings. If it helps to wear the head covering, then wear it. If it hurts to wear it, then don’t. If you don’t wear it, remember that your hair worn up can act as a metaphorical head covering. However, in all things consider the feelings of those who are a part of your community.

315. Richard B. Hays, “First Corinthians,” Interpretation Commentary, (John Knox Press, 1997), p. 185-186. This approach has a major problem in that there are no grammatical markers indicating that Paul is quoting his enemies. The more natural reading of the syntax is that these are Paul’s thoughts, not those of an imaginary interlocutor.

316. The classic example of Paul’s rhetorical diatribe is found in Romans 6, where he argues in favor of grace and grace alone for salvation, but then offers the obvious objections to such a stance. In Romans 5 Paul contends that no matter how much we sin, grace covers it all. In Romans 6:1 he questions his own position, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” He then proceeds to deal with the question. Again in Romans 6:15, he counters his own position, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” He then goes on to explain why that is not the way it works. Paul was using a common Greco-Roman rhetorical argument to solidify his position.

317. See Kenneth Baily, “Paul through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians,” (Inter Varsity Press, 2011), p. 299-301, for a discussion on the head covering as an issue of gender distinction and the particular problem this caused in the marriage relationship. See also Jerochim Jeremias, “Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus,” (Fortress Press, 1969), p. 359-360, for the close association of the head covering to the marriage covenant. According to Jeremias, the removal of the head covering in public was grounds for divorce.

318. Robert C. Nash, “1 Corinthians,” Smith & Helwys Bible Commentary, (Smith & Helwys Publishing, 2009), p.321-322.

319. Bruce W. Winter, “Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities,” (William B. Eerdmann Publishing, 2003), p.80.