Should Christian women cover their hair? It seems like that is what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 11:1-15. However cultural context reveals that there is more to this.
Here is a thought, artwork like busts, coins, and paintings from the pre-Constantine era of Rome show many women depicted without hair covering. There are statues that depict men and women covering their heads but those are usually of gods/goddesses or priests/priestesses. There were ancient customs for praying and religious rites that featured head covering for both sexes in pagan religions and even for Jews in that era. Some women may have worn a palla, which is a cloak for women of high social status to let people know their status. This cloak is sometimes used to cover their hair however, only certain women are legally allowed to wear it because it denoted their social status. Lower-class women and slaves would not have worn them. Hairstyles between men and women were different and distinguished the sexes in public. Some Christians were renouncing sex and marriage (1 Tim. 4:3) and did not use the cultural hairstyles that represented sex culturally. This could result in confusion for some people and would have been considered rebellious against Rome’s marriage laws. In Roman law of the 1st century, it was illegal for a man or woman to not be married between the ages of 25-60 (for men) and 20-50 (for women). More on this here.
In the 1st-century story “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” a woman named Thecla is thinking about cutting her hair short. Another 1st-century writing called the Acts of Phillip features a woman called Charitine who has forsaken marriage and to disclose this publicly she wears men’s clothing. It seems there a practice was developed to reject cultural sex customs for clothing and hairstyle in order to reject marriage. This concept may apply to the men of Corinth who were letting their hair grow out as well (1 Cor 11:14).
Paul is telling virgin/single (non-widowed) Christian women that it was safe for them to cover their hair in the church assembly, even though they were legally supposed to display themselves for marriage by showing hair because it was expected that they get married. Only MARRIED women and widows could freely veil themselves. 1 Corinthians 11:3, says, “The head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” The word guné (γυνή) can be translated as wife or woman. Likewise with anér (ἀνήρ) which can mean male, man, or husband. Men are not literally the head of every woman in the church, but it can be translated to either “Man is the head of the woman” or “husband is the head of the wife”. So linguistic context must be determined to understand Paul’s letter. The context then is that the husbands are the head of their wives. In verse 4 men praying or prophesying dishonor their head (which is Christ according to verse 4). In 1 Cor 11:5, it says a woman who prays or prophesies uncovered dishonors their head. The word “head” used here is in reference to husbands from verse 3. It dishonors their husbands, but not God, meaning that all of this was because of the social marriage custom. Only the wives were expected to be covered, to show they are married, this is not a mandate for all women.
Ephesians 5:21 tells husbands and wives to submit to each other, not women to submit to all men. Then he says in Ep 5:22-33 for husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church and wives to submit to their husbands as to God. His explanation is that because God is the head of the church, husbands should submit to God by playing his role as providers, lovers, and protectors for their wives. Meanwhile, wives submit to their husbands, as the husband submits to God. In the old testament, God often uses marriage as an analogy for his covenant with Israel, he is a husband and Israel is the wife. The new testament carries that analogy forward with Christ as the husband and the church as the wife. Paul built his teaching from this foundation, so in 1 Cor 11:1-16, Paul tries to appeal to people to follow the day’s customs for the sake of Christianity’s cultural standing. He doesn’t want unbelievers to get the impression that Christian women are wild and that Christian men are irresponsible. Back in those days, men were responsible for everyone in their household: wives, children, and servants, and if a wife did something wrong, her husband got in trouble for it. So Paul is saying for married Christians to mimic the covenant with God, by having wives that properly represent their husbands while he is not around, just like we Christians represent Christ as his “ambassadors” (2 Cor 5:20) until he returns. However, in verse 16 he makes it clear that it is not a legalistic law from God but rather a customary thing that women should cover their heads in that culture and region.
Some see these verses as an issue of women cutting their hair:
In 1 Cor 11:6, it says, (NLT) “if a woman refuses to wear a head covering, she should cut off all her hair! But since it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut or her head shaved, she should wear a covering”.
The shamefulness is not a biblical reference at all, it’s a cultural one. It is not a sin for women to shave their heads, in fact, women did this in the old testament for Nazarite vows (Numbers 6:1-5), and in Acts 18:18 Paul is shaving his head for a Nazarite vow, so those were still happening his day. So there is no old testament framework that prevents women from cutting their hair. The word translated as cut (NLT) or shorn (KJV) in 1 Cor 11:6 and Acts 18:18 is keiro (κείρω) which is also used for the word shearer in Acts 8:32, in reference to the “silence of the lamb (Jesus) before the sheared”. In the larger cultural context of hair at that time, if the word shorn/cut meant don’t ever cut, then it would be fine for a man in that culture to let his hair grow long but with mild trimming. However, Paul says men should keep the custom of keeping their hair short in 1 Cor 11:14-15, otherwise, it would be disgraceful. Therefore, the word shorn or cut (keiro) means to shave not just “cut” (as in cut short), so none of this applies to wives getting a simple haircut or trim. Furthermore, since shaving was allowed in the old covenant for Nazarite vows, then what Paul is actually saying is that wives should cover their heads, unless they have a shaved head then they don’t need to cover it. However, a shaved wife may be considered a social pariah, so instead they can just cover their heads to keep things simple.
This is where the reference to Thecla (Acts of Paul and Thecla), and Charitine (Acts of Phillip) comes into play. These women were engaged in a type of civil disobedience because they were going against Roman marriage laws and while Paul did believe in celibacy (1 Cor 7:8), it seems he preferred that they stay private about their decisions so that they don’t attract unnecessary attention from the authorities. He has a similar view about slavery. Paul tells Philemon (in the letter to Philemon) to ignore Roman fugitive slave laws and allow his runaway ex-slave Onesimus to return to him as a brother in Christ. At the same time Paul tells Christian slaves to obey their masters while masters were to treat slaves right (Ep 6:5-9, Col 3:22-25, Col 4:1, 1 Tim 6:1-2, Titus 2:9, 1 Peter 2:18-25). Paul did encourage slaves to take their freedom when they had the chance so that they can be free to be a part of the ministry, but he was saying to purchase rather than revolt (1 Cor 7:21-24). This is because he doesn’t want to associate God’s movement with a slave revolt. More on that here.
In most cultures, “purity/impurity” parts like genitals and the buttocks are considered naked. However, outside of that, definitions of modesty vary by culture. For example, in some cultures, a women’s breasts are seen as sensual because they entice men sexually, so breasts are expected to be covered, while in other cultures men and women can go topless. This causes controversy on the issue of breastfeeding in cultures that consider breasts sensual. In other cultures, hair is considered sensual because it entices men with lust. In many Islamic countries, women are required to cover their hair for this reason. In some Islamic countries, it is illegal for women to sing without a male accompaniment or even dance in public, in others, the rules aren’t as strict and women are only expected to wear hijab in a Mosque. Jesus taught that if a man lusts in his heart, he commits sin in Matt 5:27-29. Jesus never said anything about what the woman was wearing, so men can’t blame women for their lust problem. Paul is addressing the cultural definition of sensuality which is why he offers women the option to cut it off, that way no one is tempted to lust after a married woman. There are Jewish Orthodox wives who do not wish to veil their hair, so they will often shave their heads. Furthermore, some women go bald or cut their hair for various cultural reasons. Ancient Egyptians, male and female, all cut their hair and wore wigs, for hygiene purposes (protection from lice) and to keep their heads cool.
Paul also mentions the length of men’s hair being limited to short lengths in 1 Cor 11:14-15. This too has to be taken into cultural and historical context. Corinth was a city known for sexual sin, which is why Paul wrote 3 chapters in 1 Corinthians on it (1 Cor 5-7). In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul has a vice list and on the list, it mentions effeminate men. This implies there were men who dressed as women in order to seduce men for same-sex intercourse which is an illicit sex practice in the bible. Therefore if a man wears long hair for the purpose of seducing men, it would be sinful. This reason would be why men and women are told not to crossdress in Deut 22:5. It was not about wearing specific kinds of clothing like pants, but rather how people’s clothes are perceived by the community in regards to distinguishing the sexes.
I don’t think this scripture can be applied on a global scale because of cultural, ethnic, and historical differences from today’s hair views. That’s why Paul says, “But if any man seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God” (1 Cor 11:16). It’s just a social custom, not a commandment. Furthermore, since hair covering was only for married women who practiced that, one could infer that this was done to indicate that a woman was married so that men would not lust after her. In the modern era, we just use rings and wedding bands, but back then they may have wanted an extra visual queue, to prevent lusting after a married woman unknowingly. Wedding bands existed in the ancient world up to 3,000 years ago at least, but the head covering would have been more obvious and more easily accessible for people who were poor.
Lastly in verse 10, Paul makes a note about women covering their hair because of the “angels” and some have stated that there is a connection here with the fallen angels of Genesis 6 that reproduced with humans and created giants. The idea is that women have to cover their hair so that they don’t tempt angels to sin. However, neither Genesis 6 nor the book of Enoch mentions hair as relevant to what the “sons of God” did. There is an alternative reading of this passage. The word angel in English simply means messenger or Aggelos (ἀγγελος) in Greek, the Hebrew equivalent is Mal’ak (מלאך). Examples: In Genesis 32:1-3 it says, “Now as Jacob went on his way, the angels (Heb. mal’ak) of God met him. Jacob said when he saw them, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Mahanaim. Then Jacob sent messengers (Heb. mal’ak) before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. The new testament also does this as well in greek and one example is James 2:25. Here James uses the word “aggelos” to reference the two spies from the story of the invasion of Jericho in Joshua chapter 2. There were human spies, not heavenly beings, and this same word is what is used in 1 Cor 11:10. THe original Hebrew and Greek words for messenger can refer to both spiritual messengers of God and human ones. English translations like the KJV have a convention of distinguishing heavenly messengers from earthly messengers by keeping Angel untranslated for heavenly messengers and translating the word to its English equivalent “messenger” for humans. This is similar to the way Western Bible translations capitalize the G in God to distinguish it from pagan gods. So since the whole chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians is about the church of Corinth maintaining a good reputation, it’s possible Paul wants to make sure human messengers or spies (angels) don’t spread gossip that disparages the church based on their lack of respect for cultural norms regarding things like hairstyles and causing them to stand out for unnecessary reasons.
Paul’s point is that If the church is persecuted it should be for the sake of the gospel and the message of Jesus itself, not because of cultural norms being challenged in a brash way that causes social upheaval. This can lead to avoidable, slanderous, accusations, which can cause misunderstanding of what Christians were teaching and limit the spread of the gospel. In other words, there is a difference between opposing the sinful cultural practices of the world like idol worship which would anger metal workers who manufactured these idols by disrupting their business and exposing their false gods as powerless (Acts 19:23-41) and initiating unnecessary social upheaval over issues that are not super important theologically, like hairstyles and clothing. The latter is an avoidable distraction that the church doesn’t need.
An article on the subject
An incredible series of writings on 1st Corinthians 11:2-16
The “angels” in 1 Cor 11:10 may actually be human messengers
Hairstyles cultural practices to distinguish the sexes