1 Corinthians 11:2-15 is one of those passages that very few understand, and I think that the trouble is more to do with our English translations than not. However, with that being said, I think that even when we try to understand what Paul is saying by examining the Greek, we’re still only hearing one side of the conversation. What exactly Paul is referencing in this passage we’re not 100% sure, and therefore it makes it difficult to understand exactly what he is saying. For this study, we’re going to be looking at some Greek. Yes, the dreaded language that the New Testament was actually written in. Now, first off I want to say something: This is not going to be entirely conclusive, because I want you to form your own opinion. I’m going to give enough information to help us understand what is being said, but I don’t want to conclude and bring all of the loose ends together.
If we translate literally from the Greek to the English, we find that 1 Corinthians 11:2-15 reads: “But I praise you because you have remembered all things of me and you hold fast to you the traditions as I delivered to you. But I wish you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the head of a wife, the husband, and head of Christ, God. Every man praying or prophesying [while] having [anything] down over [his] head shames the head of him. But, every women praying or prophesying with the head uncovered shames the head of her, for it is one and the same thing with the woman who has been shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her be shorn; but if [it is] ugly for a woman to be shorn or be shaved, let her be covered. For a man indeed is obligated not to be covered, the head being the image and glory of God; but the wise is the glory of husband, For man is not from woman, but woman because of the man. Therefore the woman ought to have authority on the head because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither woman separate from man nor man separate from woman in [the] Lord, for as the woman from the man so also the man through the woman; but all things of God. Among you yourselves judge: is it fitting, a woman to pray to God uncovered? [Does] not nature itself teach you that a man indeed if he wears his hair long, it is a dishonor to him, but a woman, if she wears her hair long, it is a glory to her? The long hair has been given to her instead of a covering.”
This text has been used to say that men should keep their hair short, and that women should not shave their heads. It has also been used to support the notion of head coverings (one only needs to think of the Anabaptists). It has also been used to support the notion that men are superior to women, and therefore women should not teach, lead, learn, speak, etc in the church. Yet, when we read what the actual Greek says, it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense to us English speakers. A lot of the things that we have alluded to are actually not entirely there, and the things that we thought were there are simply flat out vacant from the text. One thing that we do know is this: Paul is speaking of head coverings.
Something to know about Greek is that the same words for man and woman mean husband and wife. Paul could have used words that would mean single men or women, but they bring a connotation that Paul was not wanting to say. So, it is the job of the translator to ask whether Paul is addressing husbands and wives, or whether Paul is addressing men and women. In the above translation, I chose husbands and wives only when we can be certain from the context that it is supposed to be husbands and wives.
Paul used the Greek word kephale instead of arche when speaking of the head. Arche would mean absolute ruler, chief, or the one who is boss over. Kaphale means the literal head – that thing that has a skull, brain, nose, ears, mouth, etc. Kaphale can also be used as a military term: the first one onto battle. The fact that Paul would use the word kaphale instead of arche tells us that Paul did not intend on saying anything about Christ being the ruler over man, nor man being the ruler over the woman. Though Paul does assert that Christ is the arche over the church in Colossians 1:18, in this specific passage that statement is not made.
The word for shorn is a form of the word keiro, which means to sheer (as in a sheep) or to cut short (as in one’s hair).
The word for covered is katakalupto, which is used nowhere else in the New Testament. Kalupto is used elsewhere to mean “cover”, “hide”, or “conceal”, but Paul deliberately added the prefix kata to change the meaning to “cover down over”. In all other passages, when something is “on” someone’s head, the prefix used is epi. Here Paul is saying kata. For this reason, some have translated this as meaning “wearing a veil”. If veil means face covering, then this translation is misleading.
Hair is the Greek word thrix, but here Paul uses the word kome. It, too, is used nowhere else in the New Testament. It denotes long hair that is ornamented.
Nature, which Paul said bears witness that men should not have long hair, is the word phusis. Phusis can mean nature, as in the natural law, or natural order, but it can also mean instinct that we hold to from long standing tradition. In that sense, phusis can mean “long established custom”, or “habit”.
What was Paul saying? Paul appeals to a “tradition” that he had told them before. Now, when Paul wants to say to remember the Gospel that was declared to them, he typically uses the word we translate as Gospel. Here, however, he seems to be alluding to something that he had taught while being with them. Because modern readers were not there when Paul delivered these teachings, we have little clue to what Paul is referencing. However, there is a hint in 2 Corinthians 3:7-18. Paul reminds the church in Corinth about Moses wearing a veil “over” his face. The idea of wearing a head covering was linked to the shekinah glory of God shining down upon the devout. Yet, Paul is asserting that we experience greater glory than Moses through Christ. And his point in 2 Corinthians 3 is that we should have unveiled faces, because it is looking into the face of the other believers that we are then changed from glory to glory. It is Christ in you – the hope of glory – that changes your brethren. We let that glory shine out from our faces, not hiding behind a veil or closing our eyes to it, but instead allowing all to see the glory of God in us and through us.
Now, this leads me to a specific conclusion. Paul is talking about the prayer shawl. The prayer shawl would traditionally be placed upon the head, and it would then hang down over the head and face. Paul is instructing them not to have this sort of covering, because their covering is Christ. The head of every man is not Moses, but Christ. We have the blood of Jesus as our covering. This is important because we can interpret it for today as well. Should we close our eyes when we pray? Should we all bow our heads? Or should we behold in one another’s faces the glory of God? Should we sit in pews where everyone faces forward? Should we be seeing the back of someone’s head while listening to the preaching? Or should we instead be able to face one another and see everyone’s reaction?
So, we don’t cover our faces, but allow our faces to be seen. That way, everyone is able to see our Head – Christ. It is a play on words here. Christ is the head over all, but Paul uses the word kaphale meaning the literal body part that sits upon your neck. He is pointing at your head and saying, “What you do with that, and whether you cover your face, is a reflection upon your head – Christ.”
So lets get back to 1 Corinthians 11. Paul starts to speak about women, and how their head is their husband. Now, from the literal translation of the Greek text, we assume that Paul is asserting that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of every wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Now, when we say that the head of the wife is her husband, are we then asserting that women are under men? No. We’re saying that the wife is subject to her husband. But what does that mean? The word in Ephesians 5:21-33 that is used to say that the wife is subject to her husband is hupotassomai, which can be translated as, “be supportive of”, “be responsive to”, “give allegiance to”, or “tend to the needs of”. Paul is not asserting that the man is the arche over the woman, and therefore is the ruler of the house. Instead, Paul is saying that the man is the literal head – that thing upon the two shoulders – and thus needs to be supported by his wife. So, when we read this portion of 1 Corinthians 11, we need to understand that Paul is saying that the way you support Christ, as a wife, is by supporting your husband. The way that you tend to Christ is by tending to the needs of your husband. Does that not revolutionize everything?
So, what do we make of this part, “But, every women praying or prophesying with the head uncovered shames the head of her, for it is one and the same thing with the woman who has been shaved”? This might be an allusion to culture. It was tradition that the married woman would cover her hair, or keep it bound up when they were married. It was the sort of “wedding ring” in their day – that which identified them as married instead of single. Paul might be saying to not go against that, for it brings shame upon the husband. At the same time, if a woman cuts her hair short, like the prostitutes of their day, it also brings shame upon their husband. Now, what is necessary to note is that Paul asserts that the wife is the glory of her husband. It isn’t simply that the wife needs to respect her husband’s dignity, but that the wife is actually worth something and precious. The husband is found glorious because his wife, not because of his own doing per se. This might be a hint back to Proverbs 31, which is a reflection of the Bride of Christ.
What should we say about modern times? Is it wrong for a woman to shave her head? Is it wrong for a woman to not cover her head? The context of this portion directed to wives is still under the pretense that “Christ is the head of all”. You come to your own conclusions on that.
Now, here is where this little bit about the angels comes in. “Therefore a woman ought to have authority on the head because of the angels”. Some have taken this as meaning the nephilim. When God destroyed the earth in the flood, there is a strange passage in Genesis 6 about nephilim. People have concluded that angels came down from their heavenly abode to have sex with women and create giants on the earth. I don’t think so. I think that what Paul is saying her should be taken within the context of other things that he said to the Corinthians.
By the time we come to 1 Corinthians 11, we’ve already read chapter 6. 1 Corinthians 6 is about lawsuits among believers. Paul asks, “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!” Did you not know that we will judge angels? The woman is told that should ought to have authority on the head because of the angels. Who is the head? The head is Christ. What is Paul saying? Women have authority in Christ. You have authority in the name of Jesus over the angels. This is necessary, because you are required to judge the angels. How can you judge them if you don’t have authority over them? Yet, what is the nature of this authority? This authority is most likely in reference to casting out demons and setting captives free.
So the point of what Paul is saying is about what we do with our heads. If we cover them, we hide the glory of Christ in us. Thus, men are told not to allow their hair to become long enough to cover their face. Wives are told to be careful with what they do in relation to their head, because it is a reflection of how they treat their husband. If a wife mistreats their husband, they aren’t simply disgracing a man, but instead Christ. The assertion is made, then, that women are not left out of the authority in Christ, but instead Paul reassures that they do indeed have authority in Christ. It is not men over women, but instead men and women together. For, “neither woman separate from man, nor man separate from woman in [the] Lord, for as the woman from the man, so the man through the woman; but all things of God.”