Many have used these passages to say that a woman should have her head covered in public worship services, and some say all the time, but is that what Paul was trying to convey? No, Paul is not telling women to cover their heads with a head covering, but he is laying out in typical rabbinical language what behaviors are proper in public worship concerning the husband and wife relationship.
This teaching of Paul’s is based on several passages in the Torah, particularly Numbers 30.1-16, where it says that a wife is under her husband’s authority when it comes to what she says she is going to do or say. This concept will come up in 1 Cor 11.34-35 and 1 Tim 2.11-12 and that will be dealt with later. But first, let’s work in 1 Cor 11.1-16 and deal with each verse so that we can get the proper context.
In verse 1, Paul says that the Corinthians should imitate him as he imitates Yeshua. We know that Yeshua was Torah observant and so was Paul, so he is telling the Corinthians to be Torah observant also. In verse 2, he praises them because they are holding fast to the “traditions” he has delivered to them. The word “traditions” is the Greek word “paradosis” which means the traditional and biblical concepts found in the Torah, or Jewish law (halakah).
Now, he is specifically referring to the ones he taught them, not all the man-made traditions the Jewish people followed at the time. He taught the ones that did not conflict with the Torah and the ones he felt applied to the Corinthians (1 Cor 7.17-19).
Verse 3 is the key to understanding this whole passage. He lays out the line of authority and the roles that each play in relation to one another. It seems that the Corinthians still had a lot of Greek concepts concerning the roles of men and women interfering with their relationships that were not consistent with the Scriptures. He tries to show them that this authority does not mean that men are better than women but he is laying out what the biblical roles are. Messiah is the head of every man and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Messiah.
So, with that in mind let’s look at the verses and put them into context. Once we do that, we are going to look at 1 Cor 14.34-35 and 1 Tim 2.11-15 using the information we have learned. But first, we will start in 1 Cor 11.4 and go to verse 16, with comments in parenthesis to help clarify what Paul is trying to convey.
Verse 4 says that every man who has his head covered (by anything else but the ruling authority of Messiah and this could be his wife, family or any organization that is contrary to what Messiah wants him to do) while praying or prophesying disgraces his head (Messiah). But every woman who has her head uncovered (against the ruling authority in her life like her husband or father-Num 30.1-16; Eph 5.22) while praying or prophesying disgraces her head (her husband, father or the ruling biblical authority in her life) for she is one and the same with one whose head is shaved (done to an adulteress, a spiritual harlot).
For if a woman does not cover her head (goes against her husband, father or biblical ruling authority in her life) let her have her hair cut off (not literally but he is saying she is like an adulteress or harlot); but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off and her head shaved, let her cover her head (come under her husband, father or biblical ruling authority). For a man ought not to have his head covered (by any other authority than Messiah) since he is in the image and glory of God (who made him) but the woman is the glory of man (in Greek there is a definite article before man, it means a definite man, in this case Adam).
For a man does not originate from woman, but a woman from man (Paul is saying that is why man is her authority). For indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore, the woman ought to have authority (a husband, father or biblical ruling authority) on her head (v3) because of the angels (who went past their ruling authority and usurped authority that did not belong to them, and they “fell”). However, in the Lord neither is woman independent of man nor is man independent of the woman (but both are complete in the Lord). For as the woman originated from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman and all things originate from God.
Judge for yourselves, is it proper for a woman (remember, woman in many cases is to be understood in context as “wife”, especially here) to pray uncovered (by going against her husband’s authority). Does not even nature teach you that if a man has long hair it is dishonorable to him but if a woman has long hair it is a glory to her. For her hair is given to her as a covering. But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice nor have the congregations (don’t bother to argue about this because the Scriptures teach exactly what I am saying concerning this concept of headship).
So, with all this in mind, now read Num 30.1-16 to see what Paul is basing this teaching on. This chapter in Numbers is called “the Law of the Tongue” and it has to do with the power of the spoken word and it is based on ancient Israel and the tribal concepts and customs. You will see the role a husband and father has over his wife and daughter and the context in which these things were enacted. These concepts and customs would be carried on even after Israel settled in the land of Israel.
When congregations were established, the concepts that were used to keep order in families were adopted into the congregations as well. The basis for this Torah instruction is found in Gen 3.16 where it says that the husband would “rule” over the wife. Basically, the heads of the tribes were the ruling authority and a person who made a vow better keep his word. Also, if a woman makes a vow but lives with her father, and her father hears the vow, he can annul it. If he does nothing, the vow would stand because his silence was seen as agreement.
The same concept was true for a wife. The husband can annul her vow on the day he hears it, but if he says nothing, then it stands. The point is, a wife or daughter have a head over them and they cannot usurp authority over their “head.” This basic order goes all the way back to Gen 3.16, and when Paul is giving the Corinthians instruction in 1 Cor 11, he is drawing from many verses and concepts found in the Torah. This concept in 1 Cor 11 is nothing new and is merely passing on to the Corinthians what was already being taught since creation.
The Corinthians, being Greek and brought up in pagan traditions, would not have understood all this and they needed to be instructed. The Greek religious cults at the time told women that they didn’t have to listen to men, that they were independent and could do whatever they wanted to. Well, once these pagan people became believers they still carried some of these ideas with them in their relationships and it caused trouble. Paul had to deal with it.
This is not saying that a man is better than a woman, but it is the order that was established since creation to keep order. Every organization (like a congregation, tribe, family) had to have a structure. Remember, he praised them for holding fast to the Jewish laws and traditions he taught them and so he is getting them in line concerning these concepts. Now, from here let’s use what we have learned and apply these concepts to several other verses that seem to cause people problems and get misinterpreted.
The first one we will look at is 1 Cor 14.34-35. Paul will base what he says here on Gen 3.16 and Num 30.1-16 again. We will write the verse out again and give commentary in parenthesis. Verse 34 begins by saying the woman (wives in particular) should keep silent in the congregations (meaning “be courteous, don’t interrupt by breaking in to judge a prophecy.” Paul has already said that they could speak, pray and prophesy in 1 Cor 11.5 so “silence ” is not the issue here, but judging a prophecy is).
For they (wives) are not permitted to speak (go against their husbands, fathers or biblical ruling authority. This instruction had to do with the Corinthian women in particular and not an overall rule for all believing women. They did not have the knowledge or experience yet and some still believed that women were superior to men). But let them subject themselves, just as the Torah also says (in Gen 3.16; Num 30.1-16) and if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands (their covering) at home, for it is improper for a woman (wife) to speak in the congregation (without or against her husband’s authority).
In 1 Tim 2.11-15 we have another verse that gets misinterpreted unless you understand the proper context. It begins by saying that a woman (wife) should quietly receive instruction with submissiveness (learn in tranquility, silence or with composure) but I (Paul) do not allow a woman (wife) to teach (wrong doctrine) or exercise authority (by dominating) over a man (husband), but to remain quiet (composed). Zodiates in his translation says that “A wife, in quietness, I let learn in submission, but a wife I will not let dominate a husband but to be in all quietness.”
Paul is writing to believers in Ephesus (another Greek city) that was home to the Artemis, or Diana, cult. This cult tried to seduce believers with wrong doctrine and the women there believed that they were superior to men. Paul is trying to lay a proper biblical foundation with these believers which went against what they had seen, been taught and experienced in their previous, but pagan, religious training and beliefs. For it was Adam who was first created, not Eve (which is why she is subject to her own husband) and not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression. But woman (wives) shall be preserved through the bearing of children (women are preserved for this even though they bring forth children in pain and sorrow according to the original curse in Gen 3.16) if they continue in faith and love and sincerity with restraint (and not a temporary confession like in Luke 8.13).
So, as we pull all this together in a Hebraic context, we can see that Paul was teaching the proper structure and chain of authority in a marriage or congregational setting and “who covers who” in a spiritual context and he used that knowledge to deal with particular issues that had arisen in some of the very pagan Greek cities he worked in. It is a classic example of traditional Hebrew thought over Hellenistic. It was a problem back then and it is a problem today. These verses and their misinterpretations have unjustly subjected women to a second class position in many denominations and congregations but that was the furthest thing from Paul’s mind.
Why would God fill a woman with the Ruach ha Kodesh and then tell her to be silent. The answer is he doesn’t but there is a structure that is laid down in the Scriptures so that everyone has a place and voice to do the will of God.
Now, there is an interesting interpretation of these verses found in the article called “Wild Hair and Gender Equality in 1 Corinthians 11.2-16” by Phillip B. Payne and we would like to present part of it here for your consideration. You can get this article through the internet. In the conclusion, Mr. Payne says, “The structural logic of this passage makes perfect sense and all its vocabulary can be understood within its normal range of meaning once the “head coverings” are understood as wild hair, explained in verses 14.15. Men’s effeminate hair symbolized homosexuality, and women’s hair let down loose symbolized sexual freedom. Consequently, Paul prohibited those leading in worship from either practice. Men ought to respect both Christ, their source in creation, and women, their source in birth, by not displaying effeminate hair. Women ought to exercise control over their heads by wearing their hair up in public worship to symbolize fidelity in marriage and respect to man, their source in creation. The climax of the passage affirms that in Christ women and men are not separate. This implies their equal standing and privilege. Consequently, both men and women may pray and prophesy in church, but should do so in a way that does not undermine marriage.”
“How should believers apply this passage today? The reason Paul objects to men in church leadership wearing effeminate hairstyles is its association with homosexuality and its repudiation of the Biblical distinction between man and woman. Manly long hairstyles today do not carry that association and message, so this passage should not be used to object to manly long hair today. Similarly, the majority of women today wear their hair down, and this practice is not associated with repudiation of sexual fidelity in marriage, so it would be a misuse of this passage to object to women wearing their hair down today. This passage could be properly applied today, however, against leaders in worship adopting any custom that symbolizes homosexuality or that undermines fidelity in marriage by being sexually suggestive. The message is, ‘Don’t use your freedom in Christ as an excuse to dress immodestly. In demeanor and word keep it clean!’ Furthermore, men and women should show respect to each other, honoring the opposite sex as their source.”
There is nothing in these passages that prohibit a man or a woman to cover their head during prayer or worship. This concerns the practice, in the time of Paul, of long hair hanging down on the head of a male, and the hair hanging down loose on a woman, and not done up on the head. It is recommended that you go to the full article by Mr. Payne to get more information.