Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying, disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved. (1 Corinthians 11:4, 5)
It is best to understand that Paul is here referring to activities of believers in ministry before the Lord and the public, where a clear testimony is essential.
When Paul said a man disgraces his head if he has something on his head while praying or prophesying, he had to be referring to local Corinthian custom. The phrase has something on his head literally means “having down from head,” and is usually taken to refer to a veil. The context here implies that in Corinth such a head covering would have been completely ridiculous for a man and completely proper for a woman. For Jews, who came to wear head coverings, the practice seems to have come in the fourth century a.d., though some may have tried it in the time of the apostles. But generally it was regarded as a disgrace for a man to worship with his head covered.
It seems, therefore, that Paul is not stating a divine universal requirement but simply acknowledging a local custom. The local Christian custom, however, reflected the divine principle. In Corinthian society a man’s praying or prophesying without a head covering was a sign of his authority over women, who were expected to have their heads covered in these ministries. Consequently, for a man to cover his head would be a disgrace, because it suggested a reversal of the proper relationships. Disgraces her head could refer to her own head literally and to her husband’s metaphorically.
In Paul’s day numerous symbols were used to signify the woman’s subordinate relationship to men, particularly of wives to husbands. Usually the symbol was in the form of a head covering, and in the Greek–Roman world of Corinth the symbol apparently was a veil of some kind. In many Near East countries today a married woman’s veil still signifies that she will not expose herself to other men, that her beauty and charms are reserved entirely for her husband, that she does not care even to be noticed by other men. Similarly, in the culture of first–century Corinth wearing a head covering while ministering or worshiping was a woman’s way of stating her devotion and submission to her husband and of demonstrating her commitment to God.
It seems, however, that some women in the Corinthian church were not covering their heads while praying or prophesying. We know from secular history that various movements of women’s liberation and feminism appeared in the Roman empire during New Testament times. Women would often take off their veils or other head coverings and cut their hair in order to look like men. Much as in our own day, some women were demanding to be treated exactly like men and they attacked marriage and the raising of children as unjust restrictions of their rights. They asserted their independence by leaving their husbands and homes, refusing to care for their children, living with other men, demanding jobs traditionally held by men, wearing men’s clothing and hairdos, and by discarding all signs of femininity. It is likely that some of the believers at Corinth were influenced by those movements and, as a sign of protest and independence, refused to cover their heads at appropriate times.
As with meat that had been offered to idols, there was nothing in the wearing or not wearing of the head covering itself that was right or wrong. It is the rebellion against God–ordained roles that is wrong, and in Corinth that rebellion was demonstrated by women praying and prophesying with their heads uncovered.
Dress is largely cultural and, unless what a person wears is immodest or sexually suggestive, it has no moral or spiritual significance. Throughout biblical times, as in many parts of the world today, both men and women wore some type of robe. But there always were some clear distinctions of dress between men and women, most often indicated by hair length and head coverings.
It is the principle of women’s subordination to men, not the particular mark or symbol of that subordination, that Paul is teaching in this passage. The apostle is not laying down a universal principle that Christian women should always worship with their heads covered.
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