Should women wear head coverings when praying?

I’ve been looking into 1 Cor 11:2-16 recently which is the confusing passage about women wearing head coverings at the Corinthian church. It’s a really interesting debate that I actually became interested in a few weeks ago when I spoke to some women from an evangelical charismatic background who are following a movement to bring head coverings back into church activity, primarily when praying with their husbands or the congregation. This really sparked my interest.

From what I’ve learned, there are a few ways to interpret this passage:

  1. A subordinationist reading: women are subordinate to men and to cover their heads is the proper way to show their position under the headship of men, Christ and God.

  2. A cultural reading: Paul was just referring to a cultural standard of the time which isn’t applicable to today.

  3. An interpolation: that verses suggesting women are subordinate to men and should wear head coverings were slotted in by a manuscript copyist at some point

  4. A disagreement with the Corinthians: Paul is actually quoting some statements in verses 4-10 that the Corinthians were mistakenly implementing on the women which Paul then contradicts to set straight in verses 11-12.

I’m leaning more towards the 4th explanation, that Paul is actually quoting what the Corinthians had previously stated. The reason I think this is because Paul quotes their faulty beliefs in earlier parts of the letter (1 Cor 1:12, 1 Cor 4:6, 1 Cor 6:12, 1 Cor 7:1, 1 Cor 8:4) before correcting their theology. Also, in chapter 14 regarding women being silent in the churches, it seems Paul is quoting their faulty theology again in verses 33-36 before correcting them, although most bibles don’t include quote marks at this point as it’s less clear. I feel a similar thing is happening in this passage about head coverings.

I’m curious though as to what others think. Part of me wonders that I lean towards the 4th explanation simply because I don’t want the 1st explanation to be true. I don’t like what the 1st explanation would mean for me as a woman if it were true. I’m wondering how others feel about this?


Hi @alison, I happened to read this particular chapter just a few days ago and so was drawn to your question. Its difficult to make sense of Paul’s logic from our modern perspective. I have been in churches where head coverings were practiced but it was a matter of Christian liberty in them. If head covering becomes a means of feeling more spiritual or loyal to scripture, then it does become a serious concern as that would prioritize works over the grace of God. Its important to notice that even Paul saw head covering only as a helpful custom and not as a law. ( 1 Cor 11: 16 NLT).

Why was Paul so concerned about head covering? Here are a few primary reasons seen in the passage -

  1. He is concerned that improper use of head covering conveys the wrong message about the levels of authority that Christians believe in. He wants outward appearance to accurately reflect the beliefs. So these verses indirectly inform us that head coverings were a symbol of submission to authority in the culture surrounding the Corinthian church. (1 Cor 11:3).
  2. There could have been people who were being contentious about wearing head coverings ( 1 Cor 11: 16 NLT) perhaps because they didn’t know how to properly understand the authority of man and women with their new identity in Christ ( 1 Cor 11:11). There may have been different opinions in the church on whether to continue with the practice of head coverings for women just as in the wider culture of the day or not.
  3. Paul then reasons that long hair that women naturally have brings glory to women, at least in that culture, supporting the practice for women covering their hair during worship.
  4. A woman without a head covering was considered immodest (1 Cor 11:5). Since a Christian women was to be modestly dressed ( 1 Tim 2:9), Paul was concerned about inappropriate and immodest appearances if women chose to let go off head covering.

As I go over these reasons, I see that most of these reasons dont apply to us today. In western culture, a woman without a head covering is not seen as unsubmissive or immodest. The argument from nature is the only one that still may apply, especially in cultures where long hair is still seen as a sign of women’s pride/glory.

So to sum up, I lean towards a cultural reading of the text. I do not think head coverings are necessary now but the principles that guided Paul in the instructions apply to us today such as modesty, biblical understanding of male and female, and appearances that align with the profession of faith.

One thing that comforted me as I read this chapter is that Paul compares man’s headship over woman to that of God’s headship over Christ. So its not about superiority of men over women but about following Christ’s example.


@alison, hi again! here are references of couple articles that influenced my understanding.

  1. Going on a Bear Hunt: Head Coverings, customs and proper decorum - Steven Wedgeworth
  2. 4 Questions about Headship and Head Coverings - Kevin De Young

Thank you @lakshmi for your response. I’ve started looking at the first article and will continue to digest those today.

I totally agree that this conclusion can and should be drawn from this passage regardless of what interpretation a person takes. I think it’s a strong reminder for the western modern culture especially to dress with modesty and respect.

I find Paul’s statement about appealing to nature quite a hard one to understand. Interestingly, I’ve just been listening to Dr Lucy Peppiat speaking on this topic. She wrote the book Women and Worship at Corinth which I’d like to get hold of. She has suggested that Paul’s comments about “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair it is a disgrace to him” is actually another quote of the Corinthian argument and is not actually what he is teaching them. She raises an interesting theory among some scholars that Paul may have had long hair at this time. In Acts 18:18, when Paul sails for Syria, he shaves his head “because of a vow he had taken”. Some suggest this may have been the Nazirite vow and that the church at Corinth may have seen him with long hair. I haven’t yet found supporting work on this theory, and it doesn’t necessarily help answer my original question other than to support the idea that many of these statements Paul makes are actually quoting the Corinthians rather than laying out his own teachings. It’s also quite a fun little idea to think about.


@alison, When I read Paul’s argument from 1 Cor 11: 14-16, I am reminded of some of the practices of modesty that were encouraged in my own family growing up in India and I wonder if there was a similar sentiment about modesty in the ancient cultures. For example, it was the natural thing for girls to keep their hair long as it is traditionally considered beautiful for women. Elders in the family saw girls/women cutting their hair as being avant-garde, rebellious of the social norm, blurring the lines in appearance of men and women and they also thought it drew unnecessary attention from men, putting her in a place of vulnerability and exploitation. It was also respectful for married women to cover their head in front of other men to convey that they are married, belong to a family and should be treated by other men as such. The traditional customs evolved as a way of protecting women. Women also covered their head as a sign of submission and humility during ceremonial worship.

I wonder if there may be something similar going on in the Corinthian culture. There were many practices in Corinth influenced by Greek, Roman and Egyptian cultures. However, there seems to be a majority view on the accepted code of what was respectable and was practiced in all churches. I have seen some quotes from Plutarch from first century supporting the idea of head covering in some resources online ( Mike winger’s video on head covering). So when Paul argues from nature, he seems to speak of the general agreement in that culture that long hair brings glory (or perhaps beauty) to women but not men. As Paul uses the phrase ‘nature teaches’, and compares woman’s long hair to a ‘covering’, specifically, ‘peribolaion’ in Greek which means ‘mantle/veil’, he sees head covering as a practice supported by nature.

If there is some evidence that Paul is quoting a Corinthian argument, then it follows for me that Paul may have meant ‘naturally expected by culture’ when he was appealing to nature. Just my thought. There are extensive commentaries on head covering with arguments from many sides but I have found the cultural view most convincing.

Acts 18 where Paul was in Corinth does suggest that he may have had long hair because of his Nazarite vow and it was a sign of being set apart for God. It couldn’t have been confused with him breaking a social norm. So having long hair for men per se was not a sign of disgrace at least spiritually. It might however have been a sign of disgrace if men spent time on their hair rather than shouldering other responsibilities expected of men.

I never thought I would be spending days trying to study hair length to understand the bible and grow in intimacy with the Lord! :sweat_smile: But I have learnt some interesting facts.


This makes for a compelling reason why arguing from nature might be the equivalent of prevalent customs throughout many cultures. I think this also might have been a custom until a couple of centuries ago in the UK. Thank you, this is a helpful way of understanding it.

:joy: I know!


Hi friends,

I’m here too:

To confess, I’ve often avoided this passage because it is so strange. But this conversation prompted me to dive in.

And it’s been so interesting! Thank you @alison for starting the conversation and @lakshmi for developing it!

Anthony Thiselton, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, notes:

It is very surprising how readily virtually all commentators appear to ignore the fundamental continuity between the arguments and themes of 8:1–11:1 and the application of these very same themes to issues concerning public or corporate worship in 11:2–14:40. Just as some view 9:1–27 as a “digression” about apostleship which intrudes into 8:1–11:1, so some view 13:1–13 as an unexpected interruption within 11:2–14:40, when the rhythmic discourse on love sums up the major issue in all parts of 11:2–14:40.

In 11:2–16 both “rights” to female emancipation and “rights” to male headship receive careful qualification as contributory strands, but by no means the whole picture within a larger, more complex whole, in which respect for “the other” (the other gender and the outside world) remains a fundamental concern. Love modifies “freedom” and “rights” if the good of the whole is thereby better served, and especially if the gospel is more effectively promoted (cf. 9:19–27).

Thiselton also notes, “Yet with a few notable exceptions (see Murphy-O’Connor and others cited below), most writers insist that this passage concerns the clothing (or hair-style) of women rather than (as 11:4 makes clear) of men and women.

He repeats this concern later, stating, “11:2–16 is not simply about “the head covering of women,” but about men and women, freedom and respect for the otherness of the other in public worship.”

I also found his summary of many commentators helpful, where he summarizes, “Many commentators believe that the tradition for which Paul commends the readers is the eschatological inclusion of men and women as active participants in prayer and prophetic speech, in contrast to the issue of clothing, which Paul believes must still generate signals of gender distinctiveness on the basis of the order of creation, which still holds sway even in the gospel era.

Thiselton provides a very thorough discussion of how to translate “head.” What I learned from this discussion is that the debate between “authority” and “source” both seem to miss the fluid way that Paul is using this word. Instead of “head” having one meaning throughout the passage, its meaning varies as Paul deftly navigates various conflicts within the church and seeks to bring them along to a better understanding. Thiselton argues for locating the meaning in terms of “preeminence” or “foremost.”

So how does this concept of prominence function in Paul’s theology? Thiselton states,

The more anyone stresses “prominence,” the more that person must ensure that “the other” does not experience the self-humiliation expressed in 12:15. “If the foot (sic, πούς), should say, ‘because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ just because of this does it not belong to the body?” Hence women use prophetic speech alongside men. However, at Corinth women as well as men tended to place “knowledge” and “freedom” before love in the Christian sense. Paul does not permit their “freedom” as part of the gospel new creation to destroy their proper self-respect and respect in the eyes of others by taking part in worship dressed like an “available” woman. That is not love, for it brings “shame” on themselves, their menfolk, and on God.

To consider how much our preconceptions affect how we read this passage, one camp sees, “This is why a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels” (v 10) as divine sanction for women acknowledging with their hair coverings that they are under male authority, and another camp follows Morna Hooker’s insight, “The head-covering . . . also serves as the sign of the ἐξουσία which is given to the woman . . . — authority: in prayer and prophecy” (quoted in Thiselton, 837).

Towards the end of this discussion (on 11:16), Thiselton argues, “The custom is the acceptance of an equality of status in accordance with which woman may lead in public prayer or preaching (see below on prophecy) side by side with a recognition that gender differences must not be blurred but appreciated, valued, and expressed in appropriate ways in response to God’s unrevoked decree.”

To summarize Thiselton’s complex, sophisticated argument as he surveys the whole range of scholarship: in this passage, Paul addresses the problem caused by both men and women praying and prophesying in church services. As women experienced freedom to do what men had traditionally done, they began to dress as men had dressed, leading to social confusion.

To answer this problem, Paul explains that both men and women should maintain a dress code at church gatherings that directs people’s attention to God, not their sexual availability, and to their distinctive glory as men and women, and not in gender-blurring ways.

I’m curious how Thiselton’s approach to the text sits with others!


@Carson, I love how Thistleton’s approach highlights the overarching principle driving all of Paul’s instructions in the Corinthian church of sacrificial love as you quoted -

Whether its food sacrficed to idols, getting paid for ministry, following Jewish/Gentile customs, wearing a head covering, partaking of the Lord’s supper, how we use and give importance to spiritual gifts, in everything Paul wants us to act in love, not just exercising our freedom/rights in Christ but acting in a way that helps others receive the good news of Christ and share in its blessing. (1 Cor 9:23).

So the reason given for head covering for women in light of the overarching principle makes perfect sense.

I was wondering about what Thistleton may have meant by women leading in public prayer/preaching considering Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 14:34 where he prohibits women from speaking in churches.

The Holy Spirit fell on the Jews/Gentiles, men/women, so all have equal access to God. Yet Paul reminds us of maintaining the created order of men and women and encourages women to be in submission by wearing a head covering and later by instructing them to not speak in church. Was the submission according to Law for the sake of the culture according to Thistleton?


Hi Lakshmi,

That’s a great question. I hadn’t considered it. It’s a challenging verse to understand, and so I respect that there’s a legitimate variance of opinion about how to understand it.

Thiselton points out that to read 14:34 in a wooden way will mean Paul is contradicting himself, as he appears to have no issue with either men or women “praying and prophesying” in church services in 11:5.

He notes one option:

Many argue that vv. 34–35 represent a Corinthian slogan or piece of Corinthian theology which Paul quotes, only to reject it. Such a view is not farfetched, for Paul appears to do precisely this in 6:12; 7:1; 10:23; and perhaps elsewhere (e.g., in 8:1–6).

However, he lands in a different place, accepting this is part of Paul’s instruction to the church.

The question arises: what is the problem that Paul addresses? Thiselton proposes it is:

more probably the disruptive sifting of prophetic speech (as in v. 29), which might involve (1) repetitive interruption with questioning; and (2) the possibility of wives crossexamining their husbands, especially if, as is developed in the Didache, issues of contextual lifestyle are part of the sifting.

He also points out,

In 9:19–23 [Paul] has stated that he himself is willing to undergo voluntary restraint and control, even of that to which he has a “right,” if it enhances his attempts to win others for Christ. Controlled speech reflects the traditions of the Bible, the synagogue, and the early churches. Perhaps this is why he uses the rabbinic formulations concerning whether permission exists and what the law indicates.

Again, the larger backdrop is women feeling newly empowered by the Spirit to publicly proclaim God’s will in the public gatherings of the church.

But does that mean there are no rules for how we act at church? No, there are still guidelines for how the people of God gather, including the importance of acting in an honorable, orderly way that pleases God, serves one another, and develops the church’s good reputation in the community.

So how would this principle look in this situation? Thiselton proposes:

With Witherington, we believe that the speaking in question denotes the activity of sifting or weighing the words of prophets, especially by asking probing questions about the prophet’s theology or even the prophet’s lifestyle in public. This would become especially sensitive and problematic if wives were cross-examining their husbands about the speech and conduct which supported or undermined the authenticity of a claim to utter a prophetic message, and would readily introduce Paul’s allusion to reserving questions of a certain kind for home. The women would in this case (i) be acting as judges over their husbands in public; (ii) risk turning worship into an extended discussion session with perhaps private interests; (iii) militate against the ethics of controlled and restrained speech in the context of which the congregation should be silently listening to God rather than eager to address one another; and (iv) disrupt the sense of respect for the orderliness of God’s agency in creation and in the world as against the confusion which preexisted the creative activity of God’s Spirit.

So here’s his translation of 33b-34:

As in all the churches of God’s holy people, when congregations meet in public, the women should allow for silence. For there exists no permission for them to speak [in the way they do (?)]. Let them keep to their ordered place, as the law indicates. If they want to learn anything, let them interrogate their own husbands at home. For a woman to speak thus in public worship brings disgrace. Or was it from you that the word of God went forth? Or are you the only ones to whom it came?

I think the hardest part about this passage is that, by the time we encounter these verses, we are reading them in translations that have already fallen into specific interpretations. A translation by a committee that is committed to complementarian theology will render these words one way. A response from an egalitarian author might suggest these verses, therefore, need to be bracketed as a Corinthian argument that Paul is refuting.

It is exceedingly challenging to attempt to read them with fresh eyes, listening to multiple voices, attempting to understand the pastoral issues in the Corinthian church, and how Paul is helping them navigate their situation so they can be mature.


Hi Carson,

Thank you so much for taking the time to write a detailed response for this challenging passage.

I agree with this comment given that Paul has instructions on how men and women were to prophesy and pray in a proper manner bringing glory to Christ.

While it’s unclear what kind of speech women were to refrain from in church, we can be certain it includes asking questions of their husbands as specified in 1 Cor:35. The underlying reason again is for women to show that they are under authority.

I really appreciate the further explanation by Thiselton on the possible impact of improper conduct of women speaking in the church situation. These are important considerations to keep in mind even for today when we participate as married couples in bible studies.

Unfortunately, I have seen leaders who twist 1 Cor 14:35 to try and silence women completely and discourage women from participating even in home bible study discussions. They conveniently forget to talk about women praying and prophesying in church just two chapters earlier. This behavior is neither complementarianism nor egalitarianism but simply oppression of women.

I am glad we were able to have this discussion and gain a better understanding about the intentions Paul may have had when he addressed the Corinthian church.


@lakshmi and @Carson , thank you for this interesting discussion!

These 2 points really are essential to keep in mind when studying the particulars of 11:2-16:

I have some thoughts about points that you’ve both brought up:

Regarding authority:

I find the debate on authority very interesting: whether we focus on the men’s authority over women, or whether we focus on the authority given to women to prophecy. The word here is exousia which is also used in Matt 10:1, John 1:12, Acts 5:4, 1 Cor 9:5 and 2 Cor 10:8. In each of these instances, the authority (exousia) belongs to the subject of the sentence. It makes sense then in this passage of 1 Cor 11, the authority would belong to the woman to prophecy, rather than the authority of the man over the woman. The only exception to this is the Centurion in Matt 8:9 who uses the word exousia to state that he is under authority rather than possessing authority.

Regarding gender differences:

Interestingly I would say that my church experience follows this idea of giving women equal status to preach and pray, but why do we now think head coverings don’t apply? Especially with the impact of feminism on Western culture, gender differences usually are blurred in a way that’s distinct from the time of the Corinthian church. The head covering really is a clear visual that distinguishes genders and the roles ordained to them. Which means that if Thiselton really interprets it this way, head coverings should still apply to today:

I realise there’s an argument that women in Corinth needed to cover their heads to distinguish them from other women of the time who dressed to show they were sexually available. In this case, Paul was urging them to dress so that they showed respect to themselves and the whole body of Christ. In this sense, I see we still need a modern equivalent of modesty, even if it doesn’t incorporate head coverings. This argument works if we dismiss the application of order in nature and authority to prophecy.

Regarding the argument from nature:

This is where I get a bit confused about the ‘argument from nature’ (1 Cor 11:14). In this instance, I quite like the idea that a woman’s hair is sufficient to be her head covering as it seems to be implying in verse 15. I have seen a viewpoint that this arugment from nature is supported in science in that testosterone speeds up hair loss in men rather than women. I’m not sure how convincing this on it’s own as a thorough explanation for this argument though.

Regarding differences in interpretation:

I like the approach taken by RC Sproul in his book ‘Knowing Scripture’ when working out what balance to take in applying tricky passages in scripture like this:

In areas of uncertainty use the principle of humility. What if, after careful consideration of a biblical mandate, we remain uncertain as to its character as principle or custom? If we must decide to treat it one way or the other but have no conclusive means to make the decision, what can we do? Here the biblical principle of humility can be helpful. The issue is simple. Would it be better to treat a possible custom as a principle and be guilty of being overscrupulous in our design to obey God? Or would it be better to treat a possible principle as a custom and be guilty of being unscrupulous in demoting a transcendent requirement of God to the level of a mere human convention? I hope the answer is obvious. If the principle of humility is isolated from the other guidelines mentioned, it can easily be misconstrued as a basis for legalism. We do not have the right to legislate the consciences of Christians where God has left them free. It cannot be applied in an absolutistic way where Scripture is silent. The principle applies where we have biblical mandates whose nature remains uncertain (as to custom and principle) after all the arduous labor of exegesis has been exhausted.


Hi @alison, thank you for sharing these thoughts and pointing out the freedom believers have to follow their conscience to wear a head covering or not in church services today. I just have a few thoughts on what you shared.

Its tricky to understand the word authority in 1 Cor 11:10. I dont know why Paul mentioned ‘angels’ in this verse and that may shed some light on the meaning of ‘exousia’. If it is true that ‘exousia’ is authority given to woman, I dont understand the need for Paul to remind the Corinthians about headship in verse 3.

If we take the cultural context as the main reason for disgrace for uncovered head, then I dont see a reason for covering head in prayer at least in the West. This is because an uncovered head is not a sign of disgrace in the West and it may even draw unnecessry attention to self. Also, if head covering is used to represent authority given to women, I worry if it would send a wrong message of showing off the authority given.

If the cultural argument is dismissed, then the argument from nature is probably the strongest to continue wearing a head covering today. Paul uses long hair in women as an indicator that teaches head covering for women, as opposed to it being a substitute for head covering. Clearly many men can grow long hair even with testosterone. :slight_smile: So what could have Paul meant? Most likely he was talking about what’s cuturally expected of women in terms of beauty/grace. So we are once again back to cultural understanding of the need for long hair. But this is just one view!

I hope after this discussion we can be more sensitive to both those with/without head covering in public worship.

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Thank you for these thoughts @lakshmi !

I have one more thought that’s just occurred on how we see this whole passage. Do say if you think this has any weight or not!

Turning back to verse 2-3:

Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to 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.

There seems to be a subordination here: Christ is subordinate to God, and the woman is subordinate to man etc.

Scholars have noted that throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the language of God/Christ rather than Father/Son like he might in other letters. This emphasis on God/Christ throughout this letter is interesting. This seeming subordination is reiterated in 1 Cor 15:28:

When everything is subject to Christ, then the Son himself will also be subject to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.

Thiselton, quoted earlier in this discussion also cites J. Moffatt regarding this emphasis who believes that Paul is working hard to attack a form of Christ-mysticism taking place in the Corinthian church. This mysticism separated Christ out from God:

[Moffatt] explains the so-called subordinationism of the God-Christ relationship in this epistle in different terms. He proposes that, surrounded by cozy cult deities of the mystery cults and Graeco-Roman religion, the church at Corinth too readily appropriated a ‘Lord Jesus’ cult mind-set without sufficiently ‘serious reverence for a supreme deity over the universe,’ viewing ‘God’ as a shadowing figure in contrast to the passionate, intimate, devotion offered by others to Serapis or Asclepius or by Christians to Jesus as Lord’. (Moffatt, First Epistle, 250-51, cited in Thiselton, First Eoustle, 68)

So Paul isn’t actually suggesting that Christ is less than/unequal/inferior to God. (Those who suggest that this letter supports the idea of Christ being less than God is therefore missing this key use of Paul’s language). Instead, he’s working hard to remind the Corinthians that Christ always points to the all-encompassing nature of God. He’s trying to draw them away from thinking of Christ in a cult mind-set and regain a correct theology on Christ being God and pointing to God.

If we see the subordination of men and women in the same light, Paul isn’t saying that women are less than/unequal in authority to men, but that they point to this God/Christ concept by enacting this order to others as a witness to who Christ is. Covering their head is merely an outward portrayal of the nature of Christ in God. It is all to regain a “sufficiently serious reverence for a supreme deity over the universe”.

This is where I think the cultural argument works. We don’t have the same mystery cults surrounding us, and we don’t have the same tendency to separate Christ as a lesser, nicer deity than God (generally speaking). Therefore, in this instance, there isn’t the cultural need to symbolise this subordination in head coverings.

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Hi Alison,

This is an interesting perspective. If I have understood this perspective correctly, that covering head was just an act of showing humility to regain understanding of Christ being God and pointing to God, there would be no need for gender specific distinctions on the use of head covering. So I do have some hesitancy toward this perspective.

Most of my understanding that I previously shared has come from referring to Bible translations that may have been influenced by complementarian view such as the ESV/ NLT. As you responded with more follow up questions, I have begun to appreciate the translation issues raised by those who hold to a non -complementarian view on 1 Cor:11. There are differences of opinion on whether ‘head’ should be translated as ‘source/origin’ or as ‘authority over’, on whether ‘exousia’ should be translated as ‘authority’ or ‘symbol of authority’, and also about changes in the order of phrasing about interdependence of men and women in v.10 over time. Thomas Schreiner discusses some of these and other concerns in his article, Head Coverings, Prophecies and the Trinity (1 Corinthians 11:2-16).. I hope its helpful to understand one of the major views on this topic.


Thank you, I found this resource very helpful as it honestly addressed many of the issues we’ve discussed. Since it’s an incredibly long article I’ve just copied some of the comments that I found particularly helpful for further reflection in case anyone else is interested to get the general gist on how some of these points are addressed:

  • Compare, for example, a passage on the same basic topic, men and women, in Ephesians 5:22ff. Paul says that “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church” (verse 23). In what meaningful sense can one say that a husband is the source of his wife? Wives do not exist by virtue of their husband’s existence. Wives do not derive their life from their husbands. The meaning “source” here makes Paul’s statement hard to comprehend since it is difficult to see how husbands are the source of their wives. Some have said that Paul is speaking of Adam as the source of Eve. But what is the evidence for this? Paul clearly speaks of husbands and wives in general in verses 22 and 24, and it would be strained and unusual to see a sudden reference to Adam and Eve in 5:23. Further support for headmeaning “authority” is found in 5:22 and 5:24, for there Paul calls on women to submit to their husbands, which accords nicely with the notion that head denotes authority.
    Paul uses the word head with the meaning “authority” in Ephesians 1:22 as well. Beginning with 1:20ff, he says that God raised Christ from the dead, seated Him at His right hand far above all other authorities and powers, subjected all things under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church. The entire context focuses on the enthronement of Christ and His exaltation. The focus on the exaltation of Christ in the context suggests that the meaning of head is “authority.”

  • C. Kroeger objects that to make God the head over Christ is to fall into the christological heresy of making Christ subordinate to God.11 But this would only be a heresy if one asserted that there was an ontological difference (a difference in nature or being) between Father and Son. The point is not that the Son is essentially inferior to the Father. Rather, the Son willingly submits Himself to the Father’s authority. The difference between the members of the Trinity is a functional one, not an essential one.
    Such an interpretation is confirmed by 1 Corinthians 15:28: “When [Christ has subjected all things to Himself], then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.” Paul did not see such subjection of the Son to the Father as heretical because the Son was not essentially inferior to the Father. Instead, He will subject Himself voluntarily to the Father’s authority. The Son has a different function or role from the Father, not an inferior being or essence.

  • The order of Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 11:3 has caused some question. If Paul is teaching hierarchy here, why does he not write (1) “the head of Christ is God,” (2) “the head of every man is Christ,” and (3) “the head of the woman is man”? Instead, Paul places “the head of Christ is God” as the last statement in the verse. Some suggest that this rules out any hierarchical understanding. But we have already seen that the clear meaning of head is “authority,” and thus a hierarchy is definitely established. Why, then, does Paul place “the head of Christ is God” last? I think Paul added the headship of God over Christ right after asserting the headship of man over woman in order to teach that the authority of man over woman does not imply the inferiority of women or the superiority of men. Some Corinthians may have concluded that the headship of man over woman diminished woman’s worth. Paul anticipates this objection and adds that God is the head over Christ.

  • We should pause to note here that Paul allows women to pray and prophesy in public assembly, according to 11:5. Some scholars have thought that women’s prayer and prophecy were permitted only in private, since Paul says women should keep silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34). But the praying and prophesying were probably in the public assembly for the following reasons: (1) The context favors the idea these chapters describe public worship. The subsequent topics focus on the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34) and spiritual gifts (12:1-14:40), and these relate to public worship. (2) Prophecy was given to edify the community when gathered (1 Corinthians 14:1-5, 29-33a); it was not a private gift to be exercised alone. (3) Even if the meetings were in a home, such meetings would have been considered public assemblies, since many churches met in houses (cf. Romans 16:5; Philemon 2). (4) First Corinthians 14:33b-36 is best understood not to forbid all speaking by women in public, but only their speaking in the course of the congregation’s judging prophesies (cf. 14:29-33a). Understood in this way, it does not contradict 11:5. It simply prohibits an abuse (women speaking up and judging prophecies in church) that Paul wanted to prevent in the church at Corinth.

  • There is a profound interdependence and mutuality present in the male-female relationship, and neither sex can boast over the other because the sexes are interdependent. Ultimately “everything comes from God.”
    Verses 11-12 demonstrate that Paul would utterly reject the notion that women are inferior or lesser human beings. Sad to say, some traditionalists have treated women in this way. Mutuality is also an element of the relationship between men and women. Women are created in the image of God, and men have no greater worth because of their God-given responsibility to lead.
    At the opposite extreme, some evangelical feminists have drawn a wrong deduction from verses 11-12. For example, Bilezikian asserts that if Paul sees men and women as equal and both created in God’s image, then any role distinctions must be eliminated because they would contradict the affirmation of equality.27 Such a distinctively modern way of thinking has little to do with how Paul thought. The text before us makes it plain that Paul thought role distinctions and equality were not contradictory. People can be equal in essence and yet have different functions.

  • Am I suggesting that women return to wearing coverings or veils? No.30 We must distinguish between the fundamental principle that underlies a text and the application of that principle in a specific culture. The fundamental principle is that the sexes, although equal, are also different. God has ordained that men have the responsibility to lead, while women have a complementary and supportive role. More specifically, if women pray and prophesy in church, they should do so under the authority of male headship. Now, in the first century, failure to wear a covering sent a signal to the congregation that a woman was rejecting the authority of male leadership. Paul was concerned about head coverings only because of the message they sent to people in that culture.
    Today, except in certain religious groups, if a woman fails to wear a head covering while praying or prophesying, no one thinks she is in rebellion. Lack of head coverings sends no message at all in our culture. Nevertheless, that does not mean that this text does not apply to our culture. The principle still stands that women should pray and prophesy in a manner that makes it clear that they submit to male leadership.

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Glad that was helpful and thanks for posting the summary.


I ran up on this article by way of a course I am taking on the Dead Sea Scrolls. I thought y’all might like it.
Joseph Fitzmyer


Thanks @jimmy that was interesting. It explained more about the interpolation theory, both reasons for and against it which was helpful to read. I always find the idea of an interpolation uncomfortable - so was relieved to think the authors preferred other arguments. Also it had an interesting survey of the meaning of ‘head’ - whether it denotes ‘authority over someone’ or ‘source’, and useful comparison to the word kephale used in various books of the LXX. I always appreciate the scholarly work you find and share!

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Also, what is this course on the Dead Sea Scrolls?? Sounds fascinating!

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I am a long-time Logos Bible software user; in addition to books, they offer a series of courses with videos and handbooks (digital) by leading scholars on a variety of topics. Craig Evans gives the course I mentioned: The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament.
The course is divided into three units. One of the units covers the Epistles and Revelation; in that unit, we have Covered Heads and Angels, “Whoda thunk it?” head covering, and Angels in Qumran. In the Rule scroll (rules to govern membership) are instructions on how to dress and act in the presence of angels. Angels were believed to be present in the assembly of the “community” (think Paul the church) and in holy war; in short, every aspect of human appearance and conduct must be holy when in the context of worship or service of God.
For clarity’s sake, Evans is not trying to connect the DSS with the NT (For the record, no NT letters were found in any of the DSS documents.) What he is demonstrating is that the language of Qumran was a common coin in the 2nd Temple period, and regardless of one’s theology or political bend, the language would be understood.