One of the things I’ve been blessed to observe among the Amish-background new believers in Johnsonburg, PA, is their toleration for diversity of personal convictions regarding issues on which the Bible is silent—a phenomenon that is generally foreign in Amish culture. I’ve noticed, for example, some of the women continue to wear some form of daily head covering, while others don’t. And they all still love each other and get along! No one is condemning anyone else for their personal convictions because everyone loves the Lord and is trying to please Him. Of course, that is exactly what the New Testament teaches believers to do regarding issues on which Scripture is silent (see Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8).
As I was writing that last sentence, I knew some readers would be thinking, “But Scripture is not silent on the subject of women’s head coverings.” That, of course, is true. Paul did mention something about women’s head coverings, once, in 1 Corinthians 11:1-17.
It is worth noting, however, that Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians were not about daily head coverings for females. His words were only in relationship to women being covered or uncovered when praying or prophesying, that is, when speaking to, or on behalf of, God. Here is the evidence:
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 as the woman whose head is shaved (1 Cor. 11:4-5, emphasis added).
We can add to those two sentences a similar one near the end of the passage: “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? (1 Cor. 11:13; emphasis added). Note that Paul did not ask, “Is it proper for a woman to have her head uncovered?” but, “Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?”
And because Paul specifically mentioned women prophesying in 11:5—something done to edify others (see 1 Cor. 14:4)—it seems safe to assume that what he wrote about head coverings applied to women during Christian gatherings. That is, he was not necessarily telling Christian women to cover their heads when praying alone at home, or to cover their heads at any other place or time for that matter.
So, Paul’s words about female head covering in 1 Corinthians 11:1-17 apply to women when they are praying or prophesying in Christian gatherings. At such times, Paul said, their heads should be covered. When we claim that the passage is about women’s daily head coverings, we read what is not there. And if we claim that 1 Corinthians 11:1-17 somehow implies that women should always wear head coverings, then we must also claim that men must never wear hats, because Paul talked in 1 Corinthians 11:4 about how men should not cover their heads when they pray or prophesy. So, no baseball caps, toboggan caps, or cowboy hats.
The fact is, there are no requirements found in the Bible—Old or New Testaments—regarding women wearing head coverings as part of their daily attire. You won’t find daily female head coverings mandated in the Law of Moses or the Law of Christ. Granted, cultural norms have dictated the practice around the world in both ancient and modern times, including in ancient Corinth (which we will soon consider), but nothing codified it in any scriptural law from God for His people.
Some Historical Context Regarding Corinth
Before anyone attempts to interpret Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11, they should understand that in ancient Greece, women were generally kept sequestered in homes, either of their parents before marriage, or of their husbands after marriage. When they ventured out into the public, they wore veils called tegidion that hid their entire faces, with the exception of their eyes. It was literally a rectangular piece of cloth with two holes cut out for eyes, fastened by a forehead band.
Those coverings conveyed that a woman was “off limits,” something that served a valuable purpose in a society in which sex with prostitutes and female slaves was considered normal and acceptable. For a married woman to go out into public unveiled was to act like an available prostitute or a bold adulteress.
Of course, women who wore such veils across their faces also had their entire heads covered with what we might call a shawl that was an integral part of the wrappings of their dress. So, as you imagine Corinthian women at Christian gatherings, that is how you should imagine them—shawled and veiled. You would not be able to see their hair or faces.
That being so, Corinthian women looked nothing like modern Amish women. If any ancient Greek women saw modern Amish women, they would likely gasp at the immodesty of their small head “kapps” and unveiled faces! “Are all Amish women prostitutes?” would be an inevitable question that would arise in their minds.
And when Christian groups appeal to 1 Corinthians 11 to advocate little white head caps, black bonnets, or head scarves, they ought to do some additional historical homework. Corinthian women had their heads totally covered. If any modern Christian group wants to copy the culture conveyed in 1 Corinthians 11, their single and married women should start wearing shawls that completely cover their hair and veils that completely cover their faces, with the exception of their eyes. Something tells me that modern head-covering advocates are probably going to resist that idea.
Why the Need for 1 Corinthians 11:1-17?
We ought to ask what was happening at Corinth that motivated Paul to write what he did about head coverings. At bare minimum, it seems that at least some Corinthian women were advocating removing their shawls, veils, or both, when praying or prophesying publicly. We are not told their reason. It seems highly unlikely that there was, as is sometimes claimed, a contingency of rebellious, “liberated women” in the Corinthian church who were rising up against strongly-held, centuries-old Greek cultural norms. I’d prefer a more plausible explanation.
Because Paul specifically mentions Corinthian women not remaining covered when praying or prophesying, I wonder if some women were removing their veils temporarily when they prayed or prophesied because those veils gagged their mouths to some degree when they spoke. That would at least seem plausible. (Having worn a COVID mask, I can relate!) Why would they ever want to pull their shawls off their hair when they prayed or prophesied? I struggle to think of a reason.
So, were they removing their veils but keeping their hair covered by their shawls? Or, were they uncovering their hair by removing their shawls but keeping on their veils? Were they removing both shawls and veils? We just don’t know.
Regardless, in light of Greek cultural standards for women’s head covering, you can understand why any variation of those scenarios could be alarming to those inside and outside the church. And we should not be surprised that Paul addressed the issue. He did so by weaving divine principles within the context of cultural norms, and that is one reason there is so much modern debate regarding the entire passage. If what Paul wrote was purely based on deference to culture, we could easily ignore it. If, however, what he wrote has its basis in divine principle (and it does), we should take it seriously and at least think about how it applies within our own culture.
Much of what Paul wrote in this passage raises questions for which I’ve never found satisfying answers. 1 Corinthians 11:1-17 even seems self-contradictory on some levels. Commentators have come up with many contrasting conclusions that are constructed from questionable assumptions. And I’m wondering if I’m crazy to be writing anything about it! But some of my Amish-background friends are wondering about head coverings. So I will share what little I think I understand about 1 Corinthians 11:1-17 and how it should be applied within a modern context. So here goes…
The Disgraced Head
It is clear that one consequence of a woman being uncovered was that she “disgraces her head” (1 Cor. 11:5). Was Paul speaking of an uncovered women’s own physical head or was he speaking of her husband? Two sentences earlier, Paul had made reference to her husband being her head. (See 1 Cor. 11:3 and note that ancient Greek did not have different words for “man” and “husband” or for “woman” and “wife.” Translators must look at context to determine the best English equivalent. You can rest assured, however, that every man is not the head of every woman. Only husbands are heads of their wives; see Eph. 5:23.) That sentence, and the flow of Paul’s argument, leads me to think that the uncovered woman disgraces her husband. Is there any other indication that I’m correct on that? I think there is.
Paul goes on to say that the uncovered woman “is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved” (1 Cor. 11:5), a comparison that all the Corinthian believers must have understood, but one that causes modern scholars to scratch their heads. What was Paul talking about?
It is often claimed that all the prostitutes shaved their heads in ancient Corinth, but there is no historical proof of that claim. Moreover, it certainly would seem odd that prostitutes, who were in the business of attracting men, would do something that would likely have the opposite effect.
A better explanation, and one that is supported by some historical evidence, is that married women who were found guilty of adultery had their heads shaved as a public shaming. Such unfaithful women had removed their coverings of both shawl and veil, and so as a shaming punishment for their immoral uncovering, all of their natural covering was removed by shaving their heads. It would take years to regrow their long hair, during which time their reputation would be ruined.
If we try and tie it all together, Paul was saying that a married woman who, against cultural norms, removed her covering before other men at a church gathering, was acting like an adulteress, wrongly uncovering herself. No Greek husband would ever want his wife to remove her veil or shawl in front of other men. If she did, he would be insulted by her and humiliated before others. From a Christian perspective, her “head” (her husband) would be disgraced.
And that was good reason for Paul to remind men and women, as he did, of divine principles regarding marriage, because those principles had application to the problem. So it was time to remind the Corinthians that husbands are the heads of their wives, and that wives should be subject to their husbands, and so on. Wives who remove their veils and shawls to commit adultery, and wives who remove their veils and/or shawls in church to pray or prophesy, are both not lining up with God’s divine order in marriage.
To try to make every aspect of 1 Corinthians 11:1-17 apply, however, to modern, Western Christianity seems impossible, because Western cultural standards are so dramatically different from those in ancient Greece. Unless you are ready to begin advocating that all Christian women be veiled and shawled in public, then the best you can do is try to apply the biblical principles to marriage and church life within the context of modern culture.
Unlike ancient Greek men, most modern, Western husbands are not expecting their wives to always be shawled and veiled in public! I’ve been married for 43 years, and not once have I said to my wife, “What are you doing, going again to Walmart with your hair and face uncovered, without a shawl and veil? I will be the laughingstock of the county! Why do you so dishonor me?”
The Modesty Question
Although Paul never overtly mentions any issue of modesty in the passage under consideration, modern advocates of female head coverings often appeal to modesty as a primary justification. And for advocating female modesty, they should be commended. It is interesting, however, that they have often embraced a 350-year-old European cultural view of female modesty—a view that would have been condemned as grossly immodest by just about everyone in ancient Corinth!
Similarly, many modern Christian women who dress quite modestly by current cultural standards would have been condemned 350 years ago in Europe for their immodesty (which is also why they are often condemned by modern Anabaptist folks whose standards stem from Europe 350 years ago).
So, modesty is obviously relative to time and place. Having traveled in about 80 of the world’s nations, I can testify that female modesty standards differ dramatically in cultures around the world. Modern Western culture has got to be one of the most immodest cultures in the history of the world.
For those reasons, in my opinion, modesty doesn’t require a head covering for a woman who lives in a culture like the one in which I live. You may not agree, and that is okay! We are commanded to love each other in spite of our differences. I respect your convictions.
Although a couple of New Testament passages admonish women to be modest in general, and Jesus warned all of us to avoid causing others to stumble, there are no specific instructions that tell us what is, and what is not, modest. So, again, a woman’s degree of public modesty is a matter of personal conviction—within her particular culture, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, with sincere respect toward other believers and, if she is married, in deference to her husband.
Who is to Blame When Men Stumble?
Hyper-modesty advocates frequently lay the entire burden upon women for preventing men from lusting. That simply isn’t fair. You may recall that Abraham was afraid he might be killed by men who lusted after his beautiful wife (Gen. 12:14), and there is no doubt that Sarah dressed very modestly by any standards, always wearing a head shawl that could be used, if necessary, to cover her face. She may have also always worn a veil in public. Still, Abraham knew men would lust after her, and they did. There is nothing a woman can do that will guarantee no man will mentally undress her.
Also recall that Jesus didn’t say, “Whoever looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery in his heart, but no man should feel guilty about that, because it is always the woman’s fault, usually because she wasn’t dressed modest enough.” No, God holds men accountable for their lust.
Yes, God holds people accountable who cause others to stumble (see Matt. 18:7), so that would certainly include immodest women who send sexual signals in public. But most of us are living in cultures where men are being bombarded every day with overt sexual imagery. It doesn’t take much for modern women to be modest by comparison.
Perhaps it should also be mentioned that a man can notice the beauty of a woman without lusting after her. Female beauty was God’s original idea, and so was male attraction to female beauty. So there is nothing wrong with either. Keep in mind that Scripture specifically describes Rachel and Esther as being “beautiful of form and face” (Gen. 29:17; Esth. 2:7), so it seems both were visible and apparent. Any man could appreciate Rachel or Esther’s beauty without having to succumb to lust, just as a father might admire the beauty of his own daughter.
The Bible also speaks of Rebekah as being “very beautiful” (Gen. 24:6). It also mentions the physical beauty of Abigail, Bathsheba, Tamar, Abishag, Queen Vashti and Job’s daughters (1 Sam. 25:3; 2 Sam. 11:2; 13:1; 1 Kin 1:3; Esth. 1:11; Job 42:15). So folks who always equate beauty with immodesty or lust could probably use a little biblical balancing.
But What About All the Divine Principles Paul Enumerated to Promote Head Coverings?
Let’s close by reading the primary theological foundation—removing any cultural connections—that Paul laid down regarding the divine order of gender and marital roles:
But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man [husband], and the man [husband] is the head of a woman [wife], and God is the head of Christ…. For a man…is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake…. However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God (1 Cor. 11:3, 7-12).
These are timeless, unchanging truths that should be applied by followers of Christ at all times in every place. Their application, however, could vary at different times and places, depending on cultural practices. How they were applied in Corinth, Greece, in AD 60, for example—where culture dictated a certain degree of female modesty and public identification of marital status via women’s head coverings—is not necessarily how they should be applied in Corinth, Kentucky, AD 2022. If Paul was establishing a church in the latter of those two places, it is very doubtful he would be requiring all the married women to start wearing face veils and head shawls in public and in church gatherings! But he certainly would be admonishing believing husbands and wives to follow God-given gender roles.
If you are a woman who lives in Corinth, Greece, in AD 60, keep your veil and shawl on when you publicly pray or prophesy. If you are a woman who lives in Corinth, Kentucky, AD 2022, don’t rip off your wedding ring and throw it to the ground when you publicly pray or prophesy! In both places, dress modestly by your culture’s standards. If your husband feels uncomfortable, or worse, disgraced, with what you are wearing publicly, change. Women who do those things don’t transgress any of Paul’s timeless truths.
Finally, while the world is going to hell without the gospel and millions of people are literally starving, the church is dividing over little pieces of cloth on women’s heads! We may want to take heed that we don’t become like the Pharisees who “strained out gnats while swallowing camels” (Matt. 23:24)! Let’s walk in love with fellow believers with whom we disagree on minor issues and stay focused on what is most important! — David