Bible Answer

Should women today wear head coverings?

As a married, Christian woman, I am struggling to understand if Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 11 are applicable to us today?

With regard to the Bible's teaching on the matter, the key in understanding Paul's teaching is to take note of Paul's motivation for giving his instructions in 1 Corinthians 11. His teaching on wearing hair coverings (and the length of hair) were directed at a rebellious spirit within that church. We provide a complete explanation of this rebellion in the following article:

Do women have to wear long hair?

Paul's teaching in that chapter draws a comparison between a cultural point (the wearing of head coverings) to a spiritual point (the necessity of respecting authority and headship in the Church). In Paul's day if a women dispensed with head coverings, she was making a statement that she refused to submit to male headship or that she viewed herself equal in authority to men( who did not wear head coverings). Such a statement was an act of rebellion against Christ, therefore in Paul's day failing to wear a covering was a sinful protest.

So is the requirement to wear head coverings still appropriate for women in the church today in our culture? We believe the answer is no, because the act of wearing a head covering has no inherent spiritual value apart from the significance assigned by culture. In fact, Paul gives us several indications within the text that he is arguing from a cultural point of view. 

First, in v.2 Paul calls these matters "traditions" indicating that they are not universal prescriptions. Secondly, in v.16 Paul says if someone would prefer a different standard or cultural practice, he could give them no other option, because he couldn't change the customs and culture of the day (therefore, conformity with the cultural expectation was required). 

The primary challenges to our interpretation centers on Paul's statements in vs.14-15. First, Paul says in v.14 it's "natural" for a man to wear his hair short and a woman to wear her hair long, but what does Paul mean by natural? Is he suggesting that these hair styles were instituted in the order of Creation itself and therefore they are God-ordained and unchangeable? 

The answer is clearly no, because biologically speaking, a man's hair grows no differently than a woman's. If a man does not cut his hair, it will grow out indefinitely just like a woman's hair. Conversely, some women find it difficult to grow long hair even when they try, so self-evidently the length of hair on men and women is not a biological standard set by the Creator.  

Therefore, what does Paul mean when he says it's "natural" for men and women to wear different hair styles? The logical conclusion is that Paul used the term in the sense of cultural standards. In other words, it was natural (i..e, culturally expected) for a man to wear short hair and a woman to wear long hair. 

Then in v.15 Paul says that women who grow their hair long were especially honored and her hair was "given" to her for a covering. To some these statements suggest Paul was saying that long hair is God's expectation for women to be her covering, but if that is what Paul meant, why insist that women also wear a head covering in addition to long hair? If long hair (by itself) is a covering for women, why require additional covering? 

The answer is found in the Greek words Paul uses in this text. When Paul is referring to spiritual covering (e.g.,v.5, v.6, v.13), he uses the Greek word katakalupto meaning "to cover up" or "covering." This is the only use of this Greek word in the New Testament, and by the context we understand it means "a token of submission" (i.e., to be under the cover of authority). 

But in v.15, Paul uses a different Greek word for covering: peribolaion. This Greek word literally means "cloak", as in an article of clothing. So Paul is saying that a woman's long hair is to her like an article of clothing that brings her attention and compliments her appearance. Just as a woman wears long hair to gain the approval of others, so should women in the church seek to wear a head covering in order to gain the approval of the Church culture. Just as a woman wouldn't risk cultural shame by shaving her head (see v.6), nor should she risk disgrace within the Church by refusing to wear a head covering. 

Therefore, Paul was arguing for women in Corinth to observe certain traditions and cultural standards of that day to ensure they didn't undermine biblical headship, since the culture made an association between head covering and headship. To go contrary to the culture in this area was tantamount to a rejection of biblical headship (because the culture has made that association). 

On the other hand, when culture changes and that association no longer exists (as is the case today), then the behavior is no longer meaningful or necessary. A woman who refrains from wearing a head covering today is no longer perceived as rejecting biblical headship. In fact, the decision to wear or not wear a head covering in church is little more than a fashion choice in the eyes of the church today, and therefore it no longer carries the same spiritual significance. 

In the end, the simplest answer to your question is that you should follow your convictions in this matter. Pay no attention to what other Christians may do or believe in this area, but obey what you believe the Spirit is asking you to do. In this way, you will not sin either by imposing your view on others (perhaps incorrectly) nor by ignoring your own convictions.