SGBC Modesto

The Covering of 1 Corinthians 11

April 5, 2024 by

William Heinrich

To the majority of professing Christendom, the subject of the woman’s covering simply goes undiscussed. In contrast to that we find in some circles it has become a test of fellowship. Since the views held go from lack of concern to extreme concern, the subject deserves a proper amount of study and prayer. Chapter eleven begins with Paul encouraging the saints at the Church of Corinth to imitate him as he imitates Christ. He praises them for remembering all of his teachings and keeping them. In verse three, we see Paul begins a new subject. It is not a strong break from the first two verses for he uses the weak contrast δέ (de) and not ἀλλά (alla). However, it is clearly a movement into a new subject. The King James Version chooses to translate παράδοσις (paradosis) “ordinances” instead of the most common way which is “traditions.” This has proven confusing for some who think this refers to the subject to follow [i.e. the covering instead of the preceding one which is the Lord’s table (I Cor. 10:16-22)]. Likely, Paul’s intent is more general than either and could be paraphrased “keep all the teaching (traditions) that I delivered to you.”

As for the background to this subject, it seems in Corinth that certain Christian women were discarding the established custom for modesty and respect of that day. For in the first century, decent women, Christian or otherwise, wore veils when going out in public where men were present. Loose women went bareheaded or unveiled. Therefore, as these certain Christian women came together in the Church (vs. 18), they removed their veils – thus bringing reproach and dishonor on the name of Christ, the Christian Church, and their husbands. History tells us a woman convicted of adultery had her hair shorn and that the Justinian code prescribed shaving the head for an adulteress whom the husband refused to receive back after two years. The apostle’s message to these Christian women was “put your veils back on that you not be judged improperly and bring dishonor to your husband, who is your head.”

Since all scripture is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction; what is the teaching regarding this for us? The word “covered” in verses 6 & 7 is the Greek word κατακαλύπτω (katakalupto), which means to cover wholly, veil, cover and/or hide. It is a compound word. The main word καλύπτω (kalupto) which is the verb to cover or hide is prefaced by the preposition κατά (kata) meaning down. Κεφαλή (kephale) is the word in verse 5 (and surrounding verse in this context) usually translated “head” such as when Herodias asked for the head of John the Baptist. Therefore, a “covering” in this sense is down the head or to wholly cover or veil the whole head. Neither the word, etymology, or historical practice will allow a cap or cloth placed on the top or back of the head to be a biblical covering. The whole head, especially the face, was veiled.  However, it would not be fair for us to judge these women too harshly for their actions. Acts 2:17 says, “And your sons and your daughter shall prophesy.” Therefore, we need not conclude these women did not have the gifts of prayer or prophecy. They may have reasoned, “since we have this gift from God we should use it in the public assembly.” They also may have reasoned, “how can we speak up with our faces veiled?” Yet, the Holy Spirit’s judgment of this matter through the apostle Paul was very clear. The answer is not that they can’t exercise their gift, but that they must keep their head veiled because of the implication of the unveiled head. The subject here is whether to veil or not to veil and Paul teaches being veiled is more important than being heard.

Moving on through the chapter to verse 10 we find another challenging subject. It is true the church is watched by the elect angels. I Cor. 4:9 says, “we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men.” Also, Eph. 3:10 explains, “Unto the principalities (angels) and powers in heavenly places might be known by the Church, the manifold wisdom of God.” These verses teach us the angels are unseen observers at our assemblies and are learning about God through observing us. Therefore, everything should be done decently and in order. Observing angels know full well that the unveiled woman in the Corinthian Church represented a prostitute. Therefore, she should have a sign on her head for the angels showing she is in proper subjection to her husband and not an immoral woman. Today, angels as well as men know nothing of this unveiled and veiled custom and its purpose in America. The angels would remember its teaching, but also would know full well this does not teach the same thing today. Rather, if a woman in our country wore a veil similar to that worn then, she would be considered to be a Moslem or Hindu but not likely a Christian.

Again, moving on through the chapter, we come to verse 13. Here Paul is asking the Corinthian Church to ask themselves a question. He is saying, “due to the poor reflection caused by a woman removing her covering in the assembly, what is the most comely or becoming thing for her to do? Is it good judgment for you to allow her to continue to cast this improper light on the whole church by remaining uncovered?”

In verse 14 we see this further emphasized as Paul reminds them that women and men are different and have different roles in life. Therefore, a woman is not to remove her covering to appear in the manner as man does when she is exercising her gift. Paul explains that it is a disgrace for a man to appear as a woman having long hair. But, if a woman has long hair it is a glorious beauty to her. Of course this is true because God gave it to cover her and God did not give long hair to cover the man. Paul says “if” a woman have long hair, not a woman is to have long hair. This is not an instruction for woman to have long hair but serves as an example of nature in answering his question of Verse 13.  This all seems to point out that although man and woman are equal and equally endowed with a spiritual gift, God’s program is not complete without proper order. And proper order cannot be without the proper headship established and accepted by all. Just as Christ willingly accepted God as his head, man and woman must accept their proper headship. This being of course that Christ is the head of man and man the head of woman. A woman need not feel by this that she is being punished or put in the background. Paul is very clear in verses 7-9, that the purpose of woman’s creation was for the man. Just as all members of the Godhead are equal in every way; so man and woman are spiritually equal. Yet, each have accepted responsibilities that differ, making one the head of the other for the purpose of harmony and order.

Some confusion has come about here because of an attempt to interpret the covering of verses 4 & 5 as the covering of verse 15. The word “covering” in verse 15 is περιβόλαιον (peribolaion) not κατακαλύπτω (katakalupto) as above. Again, we have a compound word. The main word βάλλω (ballo) means to cast or throw and περί (peri) means about or around. Therefore, the hair is given her as a “cast-around.” If a woman at home unveiled should by chance come into the presence of a man other than her husband, she was to be covered by casting her long hair around her. That is to cover her face.

It is our understanding that the covering was a custom teaching modesty and submission of that day and does not teach that in America today. Yet, modesty and submission must be practiced today as much as then. Any immodest dressing or unsubmissive conduct today would bring dishonor on the husband as much today as then. It would also fail to instruct the angels in godliness as much today as it did then. The bare face does not mean a woman is immoral today. Therefore, to cover it would not teach modesty.

Some have called the covering a “prayer covering” emphasizing it should be worn often so prayers will always be heard. However, it is very hard to find this as the lesson of this chapter or in the historical use of a veil. Some have used the covering for woman speakers. These insist a covering is to be placed on the top of the head when speaking as a sign that she is not out of her place. However, women teaching men is clearly forbidden in Scripture and a piece of cloth on the head will not change that (see I Tim. 2:9-15). Also, Paul’s teaching is to not take it off and this view is teaching to put it on at special times.

Proper hermeneutics require one who interprets Scripture to discover first what the passage meant to the readers it was written to. In order to do that one must be faithful in study; considering the context, grammar, history, other passages on the subject, etc. It will not do to simply read our Bible in light of our culture and what it means to me. God’s Word does not have many interpretations, only one and it is our responsibility to study to show ourselves approved unto God as workmen that needeth not be ashamed rightly dividing the Word of Truth that the Holy Spirit might teach us God’s Holy Word and grant us a proper interpretation.

Those choosing to interpret Scripture as saying that a covering should be worn today must be careful not to despise those who do not. Also, those who interpret Scripture as saying that a covering should not be worn today must be careful not to judge those who wear one (Rom. 14:1-3). God is the judge of all the earth and we’re His servants. Ours is to live to please Him and love one another.