To figure out Paul’s position in this passage, let’s jump ahead to his conclusion—verse 16: “But if anyone wants to argue about this, we have no other custom, nor do the churches of God.” Immediately we encounter a problem. It is with the qualifier “other,” used here by the HCSB. This Greek word—toitoutos—is also translated other by the NIV, the NASB, and the NET—some pretty strong support there. But the word is translated as such by the KJV and the ESV. Also throwing weight to the such translation is Young’s Literal Translation and just about any lexicon you pick up. Does it make a difference? Yes, a big one. Does Paul say, “We have no such custom,” indicating the custom under discussion? Or does Paul say, “We have no other custom,” a custom other than the one under discussion. It would appear that saying “We have no other custom” would mean Paul was in favor of the custom under discussion. But the use of such in saying, “We have no such custom,” would mean Paul was not in favor of the custom under discussion. So the problem is big—one reading seems to be in direct opposition to the other, concluding the very issue.
It is strange that the HCSB, NIV, NASB, and NET would choose to translate toitoutos as other. Based on the lexicographical evidence, there is no support in either the Bible or classical Greek for anything except such (or such as this or of this kind or sort). And from that lexicographical evidence, we have to conclude Paul’s position to be one that is against headcoverings (or at least, not supporting a custom in the church mandating them). That conclusion may be exactly why those other translators may have chosen to change the word to other. If by reading straight from the beginning, they concluded Paul was requiring headcoverings for women, they would reason Paul’s conclusion would have to go along with his position, and so they aligned the text to make it read so in the translation. And in doing so, they have given us the exact opposite of what I believe to be Paul’s intent. There is just no legitimate way to alter the Greek of that last verse to imply that Paul is disallowing other customs in favor of headcoverings. So, Paul’s statement in verse 16 is this: “You can argue all you want, but you have no defensible position. Neither we (apostles) nor any other Christian churches hold to such a custom as headcoverings for women in church.”
With that conclusion, then, let’s go back to where we left off in moving forward through the passage. We’ll start in verse 4, right after the introduction of verses 2 and 3, which we’ve already discussed.
Verses 4 and 5 say this: “Every man who prays or prophecies with something on his head dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophecies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since that is one and the same as having her head shaved.” Now, obviously we have a contradiction with the conclusion. The conclusion told us Paul was not in favor of the custom of headcoverings. Verses 4 and 5 are definitely in favor of headcoverings. We could throw our hands up and decide to go back to the conclusion and adjust the translation so it appears that the conclusion is consistent. But that would not be the correct approach. We need to keep thinking to find the reason for the contradiction.
And actually, we have already discussed the probable reason for the contradiction—since this portion of the letter is in response to the Corinthian’s letter and Paul has already shown he is quoting from their letter, these verses must be a quotation Paul is reading from the Corinthians. Understanding that neatly identifies the issue. The Corinthians thought it right for women to wear headcoverings when praying or prophesying. By his conclusion, we understand that Paul will be arguing against that.
Verse 6 appears to be classic Paul. Paul uses irony and sarcasm at times in his letters. He had already used sarcasm in this very letter in chapter 4:8–9 when speaking of the Corinthians’ vaunted opinion of their own spiritual state. (And considering that sarcasm, it is hard to believe that Paul is entirely serious as he begins the letter in 1:4–7.) In 11:6, then, Paul appears to look up from their letter at precisely the phrase: “since that is one and the same as having her head shaved,” to remark about how absurd the statement really is. Therefore, verse 6 appears to begin with an incredulous restatement of the Corinthian’s phrase. Paul says (in paraphrase), “So, let me get this straight—you’re saying, if a woman’s head is not covered, her hair should be cut off? Really?” Paul wonders at how they got from one point (no covering veil) to the extreme opposite (shaving the head). The second half of verse 6 repeats those two extremes. It is as if Paul is trying to get them to say the absurdity of their demand. His thought process seems to be this: “Okay, you’re saying it is disgraceful for her to have her hair cut off. But what makes having her hair cut off a disgrace? Is it not the fact that she no longer is covered by her hair? So then when praying and prophesying, whether she had a veil covering or not, wouldn’t her head still be covered—by her hair? This line of thought seems to be confirmed at the end of verse 15 when he insists again that her hair is given to her for a covering.
Paul, then, returns to their letter because he is about to get to the main point—the Corinthian reasoning for a man’s head not to be covered but a woman’s to be covered. Paul reads, “A man, in fact, should not cover his head, because he is God’s image and glory.” Now, why would the Corinthians claim this? They claimed it because that is what they were taught—or so they supposed. We are at the heart of the matter—the Corinthian error. Remember that this whole letter is correcting Corinthian faults, and this passage began by Paul reasserting something he had taught them (verse 3). But the Corinthians had veered off from fully applying the teaching well.
Were the Corinthians wrong in saying that man was the image and glory of God? No, not really. They were confused maybe as to imagery and how it actually played out. But the concept is correct. And to see that, we must first put forward some definitions. What is glory? John Piper has a good definition—it is the manifestation of worth. Therefore, God’s glory is the manifestation of his worth. What is God’s worth? It is his essential character—his essence—his truth, goodness, and beauty. So how does God manifest his TGB? He does so through love expression. And that flow of thought is why Paul would argue that since God is the head (attender) of Christ—watching over him, caring for him, expressing his love to him—Christ therefore is God’s glory. In other words, it is through God’s expression of love to Christ that he manifests his TGB. By receiving that TGB, Christ shows God’s glory. So the Corinthians were right—mostly.
What they didn’t account for is Paul’s point as he corrects them in the second part of verse 7. Paul responds, essentially, “Well, yes, BUT woman is also man’s glory.” What does Paul mean? Well, what is man’s glory? To be consistent, we understand man’s glory as the manifestation of his worth. What is man’s worth? Here we don’t look to man’s essence as his worth because man was created to image God. And that means that mans’ worth is also God’s TGB expressed in love. How does man show (manifest) this worth? He shows it in his attending care toward woman. And that is why the woman is man’s glory (the manifestation of his worth). He is able to show God’s TGB in expression of love toward her.
Paul follows in verses 8 and 9 by taking the Corinthians back to Genesis to see the imaging point. Man did not come from woman, Paul declares, but rather woman came from man. That means that man did not display this picture of attending care until woman was brought forth from him—from his body so that he could care for her. And (verse 9) man was not created for woman—for her to image attending care to him as the vulnerable one, but rather the woman was created for man—for him to picture that attending care.
Thus, Paul’s point is that man shouldn’t try to cover woman when she, as man’s glory, shows the same thing that man shows—the glory of God.
After showing why the Corinthians were mistaken in their headcovering ideas, Paul concludes the point in verse 10. Of course, translators have added words to this verse again to try to make it say the opposite of Paul’s intent. There is no “symbol” of authority discussed at all. Simply translated, the verse says this: “This is why a woman should have authority over her head: because of the angels.”
The phrase “because of the angels” really should not present as much difficulty as some people surmise. Hebrews 1:14 tells us the angels are “ministering spirits sent out to serve those who are going to inherit salvation.” That’s us. And the book of Revelation shows the multiple ways they serve—as messengers, prayer deliverers, judgment deliverers, encouragers, supporters, evil suppressors. In other words, angels support the glory of God through God’s care for all, Christ’s care for God and humankind, and humanity’s care for God and each other. These attending, care-giving activities are administered by the assistance of angels. So Paul is saying, don’t put on an artificial symbol of covering and hiding to cloak a relational aspect problematically confusing even the angels whose very business it is to assist in the care-giving conduct we should be expressing.
Verses 11 and 12 make clear distinction between the imagery focus of verses 8 and 9 and the actual living out the image to be done by us all. In the Lord, Paul says, men and women are not independent. What does it mean to be independent. It means having specific roles or positions assigned based on sex. Rather we are dependent on each other in a back and forth relational tie. We all have strengths, and we all have vulnerabilities. And our imaging pictures show how we are to relate based on those. All of us come from God, designed for that everlasting love relationship he established.
Paul presents a concluding argument in verses 13 through 15. It is an argument from nature. The verses read as follows:
13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?
14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair it is a disgrace to him,
15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her as a covering.
The way the verses are translated make it appear that Paul’s appeal to nature is an appeal to a feeling derived from nature. But is that how Paul wants the Corinthians to settle this issue—by reaching deep into their core feelings and decide whether it feels icky to imagine a man with long hair? Is that ever how Paul argues doctrine?
Well, some Christian homosexuals would say yes. In Romans 1:26–27, Paul says it is wrong to go against nature regarding sex. But that is not what Paul is saying. Paul does not appeal to us to depend on our fallen physical essence feelings to make judgment decisions. Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden for doing that. We are not to set our standard of TGB on our essence. We are to set it on God’s essence. Paul didn’t want the Romans to go by their feelings, and neither does he want the Corinthians to go by theirs.
The problem with this passage is that verse 14 to 15a is translated as a question. There are no question marks in the Greek manuscripts. Translators were guessing that this is a question. Now in verse 13, the phrase in Greek looks like a question, and we even have some comparison verification in 1 Cor 10:15 to show that when Paul asks the people to judge, he presents them with a question as to what to judge. But 11:14 is written in the Greek as a statement. A word-for-word translation renders this:
13 Not nature herself teaches you that a man indeed if he wears his hair long a dishonor to him it is, but a woman if she wears her hair long, a glory to her it is.
Smoothed out, we read this:
13 Indeed, nature itself does not teach you that if a man wears his hair long it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman wears her hair long, it is a glory to her.
Translating the passage according to the Greek, instead of according to our preconceived opinion, renders a consistent concluding argument with the concluding statement of verse 16.
The passage is then read without difficulty. Paul is not trying to enforce some custom as if we need to set up and abide by ritual in order to worship God. Rather that societal custom was the Corinthian problem, which Paul tears apart. Here is how I would paraphrase the entire passage:
1 Corinthians 11:2–16
I believe you Corinthians have sincerely tried to follow the instructions I have given to you, but I want you to reflect a little more on this: among men, Christ is the example of the one who watches out for others. Regarding men and women, men, because of their structural advantage, should care for the more vulnerable women. And we see this care-giving picture especially as God watched over Christ.
The Corinthian Letter (4–5)
But you wrote,
Every man who prays or prophesies with something on his head dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since that is one and the same as having her head shaved.”
Paul’s Comment—Showing the Absurdity (6)
Seriously?! If a woman’s head is not covered by a veil, she should have her head shaved?! And you think the only way to avoid the disgrace of a shaved head is to have, not only her hair, but another covering on her head as well?
Return to the Letter Giving Corinthian Reasoning (7a)
And then you said,
A man, in fact, should not cover his head, because he is God’s image and glory.
Paul’s Response to the Corinthian Reasoning (7b)
Now, I know you say this because I had told you that God in Christ watches out for men, and caring for others is the manifesting of God’s truth, goodness, and beauty, by expressing it with love into others’ lives. So, yes, of course, men shouldn’t hide themselves with coverings in worship. But you missed the fact that women are the glory of men. In other words, men are supposed to care for women, which also then showcases the TGB of God in the very same way! So, why would you want to have her covered up diminishing that?!
Showing Where Their Reasoning Failed (8–9)
Man didn’t come from woman so that she was to care for him; rather, woman came from man. And woman was made for man—made for the purpose of man showing this care-giving love for her that all relationships should exhibit.
Paul’s Conclusion and Reason (10)
Therefore, regarding headcoverings, don’t mandate unnecessary dress regulations. A woman has the authority over her own head to cover it or not. After all, the idea of providing care is the very activity in which the angels are charged by God to assist, so don’t interpose arbitrary, artificial, regulative symbols to discourage that.
Clarification of Mutual Dependency (11–12)
And recognize that what we have been talking about is only the imagery of the marriage union. In actual practice, we all should care for each other based on abilities and vulnerabilities. Men and women do not have assigned roles to play. In the Lord, they are dependent on each other for this expression of love.
Argument from Nature (13–15)
Seriously think about it: Nature itself doesn’t differentiate. Both men’s and women’s hair, left alone, would grow long; there is no built-in, natural disgrace regarding hair length. So, the hair God gave women by nature serves the purpose you want to artificially impose with a veil.
Now, if you want to argue with what I say to still insist that women wear veils in your services, you need to realize you are alone in this—no apostles give such instruction, and no other Christian churches have this practice.