Although most Christian women do not use head coverings, the Apostle Paul addresses the issue in the New Testament, with 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 being the primary passage.

3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. 4 Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. 5 But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8 For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; 9 for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. 10 Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. 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 dishonor to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God. (1 Corinthians 11:3-16, NASB)

From this passage, I see the following points:

  • The command for men not to wear a head covering (verse 7), and the command for women to wear a head covering (verse 10), is limited to when they are praying or prophesying (verses 4 and 5).
  • Disobedience to the command disgraces one's head (verses 4 and 5). This is not the physical head of oneself, but rather the head of the man or the head of the woman which, respectively, is Christ or the man (verse 3).
  • A woman who does not cover her head is as disgraceful as a woman who has her hair cut off or her head shaved (verse 6).
  • The reason why men should not wear a head covering is because he is the image and glory of God, and the reason why women should wear a head covering is because she is the glory of man (verse 7).
  • In the Lord, men and women are dependent on each other (verse 11). The woman, Eve, originated from the man, Adam (verse 12). Yet, men are birthed through women (verse 12). Ultimately, all things originate from God (verse 12).
  • Although men are birthed through women (verse 12), men do not originate from women (verse 8). Men were not created for women's sake but rather women for men's sake (verse 9). As a result of this, women should wear head coverings as a symbol of authority or submission to their man as Ephesians 5:22 teaches (verse 10).
  • Even unmarried women should wear head coverings because of the angels (verse 10) who desire to look into the glory of man and how mankind has received the Gospel as we see in 1 Peter 1:12.
  • We can see from nature itself that men having long hair is dishonourable to him (verse 14), and that women having long hair is a glory to her (verse 15).
  • A woman's hair is a covering in and of itself (verse 15), but a covering is more than just not cutting one's hair short or shaving it off (verse 6).
  • If anyone is contentious about this practice, the Apostle Paul tells them that there is no other practice amongst his churches or the churches of God (verse 16).
  • Based on all what is presented, and not on our own preferences, we have to judge for ourselves whether it is proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered (verse 13).

Many Christians try to frame the command as being culturally-specific and thus not applicable to us today, but I do not see that. The reasoning the Apostle Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 does not mention being culturally-sensitive to Jewish culture or Corinthian culture.

Some surmise that the Apostle Paul was being culturally-sensitive to Jewish culture because the shaving of a woman's head is connected to mourning in Deuteronomy 21:12. However, if that were the case, the Apostle Paul would not have spoken against men wearing head coverings whilst praying or prophesying because Aaron and his sons wore head coverings or turbans as part of their priestly uniform in Exodus 28:37-41. Furthermore, the Apostle Paul would not have spoken against men having long hair because the Nazarite wow involved long hair in Exodus 6:5.

Others surmise that the Apostle Paul was being culturally-sensitive to Corinthian culture because women using head coverings as a sign of submissiveness was allegedly widespread and that women lacking a head covering would be associated with prostitution. However, this is far-fetched because marble portraits of women in Corinth suggest it was common and socially acceptable for women to be bare-headed. Furthermore, the association of Corinth with prostitution ended in 146 BC long before the Apostle Paul. Additionally, a Roman custom of male liturgical head coverings is documented long before and after Christianity came to Corinth, therefore the Apostle Paul was not trying to be culturally sensitive to the Corinthian culture when speaking against men wearing head coverings whilst praying or prophesying.

David W. J. Gill (PhD, University of Oxford) writing on “The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16” says:

Some have taken the urge for women to wear veils as Paul ensuring that they were not mistaken for prostitutes or hetairai. Part of the reason for this view lies in the interpretation of Corinth as a ‘sex-obsessed’ city with prostitutes freely roaming the street. The 1000 hetairai linked to the cult of Aphrodite, and the corresponding notoriety of Corinth, belong to the hellenistic city swept away by Mummius in 146BC. In contrast, the Roman shrine was far more modest…

Dr. Gill agrees that Corinth did have a wild sex-obsessed reputation and 1000 cult prostitutes in the temple of Aphrodite. However, that belonged to Greek Corinth which was destroyed about 200 years before Paul wrote 1 Corinthians.

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Going hand-in-hand with this view is the claim that if women were seen uncovered, they’d be mistakenly identified as a prostitute. However, this claim is unfounded and there’s good reason to suggest that wasn’t the case. Dr. Gill explains:

Public marble portraits of women at Corinth, presumably members of wealthy and prestigious families are most frequently shown bare-headed. This would suggest that it was socially acceptable in a Roman colony for women to be seen bare-headed in public.

As he points out, the archaeological evidence supports the fact that is was normal for women be seen bare-headed. This isn’t an isolated piece of evidence but what is “most frequently shown”.

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Since the Apostle Paul also commands men to remove their head covering when praying or prophesying (1 Cor 11:4) let’s also see if men having something on their heads would be culturally out-of-step. Richard E. Oster, Jr. (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) writing on the “Use, Misuse and Neglect of Archaeological Evidence in Some Modern Works on 1 Corinthians” says:

This Roman custom [of male liturgical head covering] can be documented for several generations before and after the advent of Christianity in Corinth. This custom is clearly portrayed on coins, statues, and architectural monuments from around the Mediterranean Basin.

Dr. Oster is saying that men covering their heads during this time in (non-Christian) worship has strong archaeological support. Since Paul instructs the men to go against a common cultural practice, a cultural explanation cannot be accepted. Dr. Oster then summarizes:

…the practice of men covering their heads in the context of prayer and prophecy was a common pattern of Roman piety and widespread during the late Republic and early Empire. Since Corinth was itself a Roman colony, there should be little doubt that this aspect of Roman religious practice deserves greater attention by commentators than it has received.

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The Apostle Paul and other Apostles delivered ordinances unto all (verse 16) but the Corinthians were lacking the ordinance concerning head coverings (verses 1 and 2). We are to be imitators of Paul, even in this aspect, as he is an imitator of Christ (verse 1).