For modern readers like you and me, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is one of the more difficult passages to interpret and understand in the New Testament.
It’s often been a proof text for complementarians who believe men (specifically, husbands) are designed by God to be in authority over their wives. Verses 9-10, specifically, are levied against women: “Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. This is why a wife ought to have a symbol authority on her head” (ESV).
There it is, women were created for men and men are in authority over women.
Is this another tally in the complementarian column?
It’s not that cut and dry. Arguing this way ignores other details in the text and Paul’s overall concern for a specific problem in Corinth.
I’ll work through the passage a few verses at a time. Here’s what I hope you’ll see. The issue is not who can lead in the church’s worship but how those leading present themselves.
Most interpreters believe this passage is about women wearing a literal head covering–a hijab (headscarf) something similar. But the end of the passage gives us a big clue that the issue has more to do with hairstyles.
In verses 14-15, Paul writes, “Does not the very nature of things [Gk physis] teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.”
As Paul summarizes his whole argument, he seems to indicate that a woman doesn’t need to wear anything on her head. He literally says, “Her long hair is the covering!” We must keep this in mind whenever we see the word “cover” or “uncover” in the text.
Paul desires, then, for men to look like men and women to look like women, in that particular culture. He isn’t concerned with gender subordination, but with gender distinction.
We’ll come back to Paul’s conclusion later on in the post.
Now, let’s take a look at the cultural background of the passage before getting to the commentary.
The Cultural Context
Corinth was a multiethnic metropolis. The church there, like most other churches in the Roman Empire, consisted of both Jews and Gentiles. In this first-century context, women wore their hair up and covered, while men wore it short and uncovered. In worship gatherings, Roman men and women often covered their heads. Jewish (non-Christian) men also covered their heads with a tallit.
For Jewish women, head coverings were a matter of propriety outside the home. If a woman’s hair or head was exposed, it was deemed immodest and inappropriate. The rabbis put it this way: “A woman’s hair is a sexual incitement, as [the Scripture] says, ‘Thy hair is a flock of goats.”
Consider also that nearly all historians believe that ancient prostitutes did not cover their heads, precisely because a woman’s hair was seen as an enticement. Prostitutes, including those in temples, were common throughout the Empire.
Some Corinthian women may have used their freedom in Christ to dress however they wanted in worship, not realizing it may not be beneficial for everone (see 6:12; 10:23). Others may have taken Paul’s mantra “In Christ…there is no male or female” to an improper extreme. Perhaps the way they wore their hair or coverings was an attempt to blur any gender distinctions.
Now, consider that churches met in homes, where any woman, Jew or Gentile, could leave their hair uncovered for their husbands and family to see. This may have caused a lot of confusion for many of the Corinthian Christians meeting in those homes.
As a collectivist culture, how the Corinthians conducted and presented themselves publicly–including the style of dress and headwear–would bring honor or shame to their family and community. You see hints of this as Paul uses words like “dishonor” or “disgrace” and “glory.”
The problem could be stated like this: “We are in someone’s home. BUT this is a community gathering, basically open to the public. Should her hair really be exposed like that? That’s basically a come-on! She’s bringing shame on her family! On herself! What do we do?!”
Put this way, it’s easy to see that the Corinthians had very real problems in their context.
Paul cares about hairstyles (or head coverings) because, as Marg Mowczko writes, “[He] did not want the Corinthian men and women to wear hairstyles that were sexually or morally confusing.”
The issue isn’t that women are leading and they need to stand down and submit to men. It’s that Paul doesn’t want anything–even hairstyles–to bring disrepute on the faith community and the gospel itself.
Because of these real-life problems, the Corinthians needed real-life solutions.
On to the passage.
Verse 2 is introductory, so I’m going to start with verse 3 because that’s where much of the controversy lies. Verse 3 contains the word “head,” which is kephale in Greek. In the passage, kephale occurs 14 times.
Complementarians claim that this word kephale means “authority” or to be “in authority over.” This is how we often use “head” metaphorically in English (“She is the head of a company”). So, complementarians say, men/husbands are the authority over women/wives. And that settles the issue.
But is “authority” the best way to understand kephale? I don’t belive it is.
Almost exclusively, kephale means the literal, physical head of a body. And in antiquity, it rarely ever meant “authority/in authority over.” In fact, the Liddel-Scott-Jones Lexicon (LSJ), one of the most authoritative Greek-English lexicons, doesn’t list “authority” as a possible meaning for kephale.
In our short passage, every time kephale occurs it refers to the literal, physical head of a person, except for each occurrence in verse 3: “But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”
How should we understand kephale here? I think we have two options that work better than “authority.”
Option 1: Source/Origin
First, we could understand it in the sense of source or origin. Man was created by God. Woman comes from man. The Christ (Messiah) comes from God.
But if kephale means source or origin, wouldn’t we be guilty of the Arian heresy that claimed Christ was created by God the Father?
Of course, Jesus was not created! But “source” doesn’t only have the connotation of “beginning.” As Richard Cervin writes, “[T]he English words origin and beginning are not always equivalent. The origin of a book, movie, or play is not the same thing as its beginning.”
Instead, we have the option to understand “source” as meaning “to come from.” The Son is begotten of the Father. The Son was sent by the Father. The Messiah (Christ) is most definitely from God.
This idea is clearly articulated later in the Nicene Creed, written about 300 years after 1 Corinthians: Messiah Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light…begotten, not made.”
Option 2: Prominence/Honor
Kephale can also have the sense of “prominence” or “honor.” LSJ offers “the noblest part” as one possible meaning.
As I mentioned above, the Corinthians, like the Jews, were a collectivist, honor-shame culture. Women did not have their own honor. Their honor was connected to and derived from a male relative (usually a husband or father). Yet women could bring shame and disrepute upon their family.
This is the likely backdrop to Paul’s words in verses 4-5:
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. (NIV)
Notice the language of shame Paul uses in those verses: dishonors (twice) and shaved (a symbol of shame in the ancient world).
I’m inclined to think “head” must mean source/origin or prominence/honor precisely because verses 4-5 make clear that both men and women are praying and prophesying!
This is something patriarchal commentators often miss. The passage cannot possibly be used to restrict women’s leadership activity because both genders are exercising their God-given spiritual gifts in the Corinthian congregation.
Paul assumes both genders will pray and prophesy–both leadership activities in the first-century–when the church comes together. He never says, “Men, you need to step up and lead! And, oh ladies, please submit and let the men do all the talking!”
So what’s Paul’s point? He wants to prevent women (or wives) from bringing shame/dishonor on the men (or their husbands) in the church becuase of their hairstyle or lack of head covering.
Whichever option we choose, both fit the cultural context much better than the complementarian view that focuses on men being in charge.
Paul’s solution to all this was very simple: Ladies, cover your hair. If you don’t want to do that, why don’t you shave it all off? (see v 6). Of course, Paul knows a shaved head reeks of shame. That’s why he essentially says at the end of verse 6, “Just cover your head.”
He’s not putting women “in their place” here. As the Apostle of the heart set free, he never treated women that way. Ever! Indeed, the high-status women he met on his missionary journeys would have never joined the Jesus movement if they weren’t treated as equals.
Paul helps the Corinthians understand how the church ought to conduct itself in the midst of a society that has certain norms and expectations for men and women. Yes, they have freedom in Christ. Praise God for freedom! But using your freedom is not always beneficial (cf. Gal 5:1).
While women must cover their heads, Paul writes in verse 7, “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.”
Notice that he does not say that “woman is the image of man” but the glory of man. The word for glory here is doxa (think “doxology”). It does usually mean “glory” but it can carry the meaning of “good repute or honor.”
Considering that Paul talks about disgrace/dishonor throughout, it’s reasonable to conclude “glory” relates to the honor/shame dynamic (see verses 14-15 as well). Complementarian Craig Blomberg concedes, “In both places [glory] probably carries the sense of ‘honor.'”
What’s Paul saying then? A Christian man’s behavior affects how people view God. He can bring honor, glory, a good reputation to God’s name. Similarly, a first-century woman’s behavior can affect her husband or family’s honor and reputation.
Listen to how Marg Mowczko puts it:
In honour-shame cultures, it can be difficult for a woman to attain honour for herself. Rather, women protect the reputation and honour of the men in their family by being discreet and socially respectable. This respectability usually has a heavy emphasis on being, and appearing to be, sexually chaste. In such societies, family members, especially women, who display aberrant behaviour or loose morals bring dishonour on the whole family, but especially on the senior male.[17
What about the “created order” in verses 8-9? Complementarians teach that a wife exists to serve and support her husband and his calling based on who was created first.
It shouldn’t take someone being an egalitarian, however, to see that this is outside the scope of the passage. Again, Paul’s not saying anything about gender roles. They would need to be read into the passage. Instead, Paul’s talking about one’s physical appearance in a worship gathering to prevent bringing shame upon oneself and family.
Verses 8-10 bring up an interesting translation dilemma. Look at the ESV:
8For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9Neither was man created for [dia] woman, but woman for [dia] man. 10That is why [dia] a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of [dia] the angels.
You can see from the brackets that the word “for” is the Greek word dia. It’s one of those elastic Greek pronouns that can be translated many different ways. The ESV choose to translate dia as “for” verse 9. Curiously, it’s translated as “That is why” at the beginning of verse 10 and then as “because of” at the end. (The NIV is almost identical to this, by the way.)
It’s perfectly reasonable to translate dia as “because of” every time, however. In fact, “for” is not a common translation for dia. With a word occurring four times this closely, there’s no reason to translate it differently if one translation makes good sense for every occurrence. “Because of” works quite well all four times:
8For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9Neither was man created because of woman, but woman because of man. 10Because of this, a wife ought to have [a symbol of] authority on her head, because of the angels.
Why does this matter?
Remember back to our discussion of Genesis 2? There we saw that the woman was created so that the man would not be alone. Not mainly that he’d have a romantic partner (though that’s part of it, I’m sure). In the context, he needed someone to help him work and keep the Garden. The man was needy. God sent him help. The man finally found his “corresponding strength” (‘ezer kenegedo in Hebrew) in the woman.
Seen this way, Paul reminds the Corinthians that “women…are placed by God in the human scene as the strong who come to help/save the needy (the men). In this reading of the text, Paul the Middle Eastern male chauvinist disappears.”
Yet some complementarian somewhere is still shouting, “BUT THE CREATED ORDER!”
The problem with “created order,” as Kenneth Bailey points out, is that if we want to give priority to what’s first, then the empty void at the beginning would take the cake. But creation moves from lower forms of life to higher ones.
What comes later is most precious.
The crescendo of Genesis 2 is the formation of the woman. Humanity, indeed all of creation, has reached its apex when she enters the story.
Now, what about verse 10? I should have mentioned at the beginning that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is a chiasm. This is a literary structure in the shape of an X (chi = X in the Greek alphabet). A chiasm is used to emphasize a particular point. In the case of our passage, verse 10 is at the center of the chiasm. This means that while we may debate about what Paul meant here or there, we can be sure that verse 10 was his “big take away.”
Verse 10 in the ESV says, “That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.”
Having “a symbol of authority” (a passive activity) would mean women are subjugated to men, evidenced by their head coverings.
Walter Kaiser calls this “one of the weirdest twists in translation history.” Why?
The word for “a symbol of authority” in Greek is exousia. It’s just the typical Greek word translated “authority,” It’s never used in a passive sense, but always active. In other words, authority is not something done to you, it’s something you have or do.
The NIV gets it right: “It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head.”
Paul wants the Corinthians women to know they have authority to pray and prophesy in the gathering so long as they present themselves in culturally acceptable ways.
If you are still unconvinced at this point, listen to verses 11-12. These two verses reveal Paul has little regard for “created order” when it comes to gender roles.
“Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.” (NIV)
So what if the first woman came from a man? Every man since has come from a woman (aka his mom!). Much more importantly, everything comes from God.
He meticulously expresses the interdependence and partnership of both genders under God, without elevating one over the other.
Paul ends this discussion by appealing to nature. “Does not the very nature of things [Gk physis] teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him?” This word physis can be understood as “naturally” or “what’s natural” to you.
In other words, Paul expected men to wear their hair short and women to wear their hair long because that is what humans naturally do. Of course, hairstyles have deviated from this at times in certain cultures. But we can all agree that for the most part, this has been humanity’s norm.
Then, as I mentioned in the introduction, Paul says something that helps us make sense of the whole passage: “For long hair is given to her as a covering.” The word “covering” here is different than the word Paul uses for “cover/covered” (vv 4, 6, 7) and “uncovered” (v 5, 13). It means something like “cloth, clothing, robe.”
But Paul’s usage here suggest that women do not need to wear anything on their head. Their appropriate hairstyle is sufficient! Biblical scholar Philip Payne agrees:
“This implies that Paul did not require women to wear any item of clothing on top of their modestly-done-up hair. After all, why would Paul end his argument by stating that a woman has been given long hair as a covering if his point all along was to require a garment head covering?”
In the end, the issue isn’t authority, but how men and women distinguish themselves in worship by their appearances–namely their hairstyles.
How Do We Apply This Today?
As we read more and more of the biblical text, we begin to see that we can’t always make one-to-one applications. That’s the case for this text! In many Western contexts today, women can wear short hair and men can wear long hair and no one is confused or offended by that.
Complementarians, who think the passage is about authority structures, will apply this passage by saying women who participate in worship need to wear a wedding ring as a sign that they are under their husband’s authority. But this passage is not about which gender has authority, so that application is completely off base.
To apply the text, we start with the abstract principle: don’t present yourself in a way that is sexually or morally confusing. Getting to the concrete expression will vary from place to place.
One scholar offered this wise approach:
The cultural markers for [the uniqueness of each gender] will vary widely from time-to-time and from place-to-place, but the principle endures. Although our appearance should not be dictated by the culture around us, we should be sensitive to how we appear within that context—especially regarding those to whom we minister.
In other words, be free, but do not use your freedom as a cover up for evil (see Gal 5:1).
Summing It All Up
Once again, we see that a passage traditionally held to favor complementarians can easily be explained another way that is faithful the cultural context and takes into consideration all that Paul has to say about women.
First Corinthians 11:2-16 isn’t about gender roles or gender subordination. It’s about gender distinction in worship. Men and women both led worship in Corinth and Paul knew this. He never told women to stop leading because it wasn’t wrong for them to do so. His aim was to remind the women not to ignore cultural gender norms so that they did not distract others from worshiping God.
Now, let’s tackle the final controversial text on women in the church: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (London: SPCK, 2011), 300.
 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Correcting Caricatures: The Biblical Teaching on Women,” Pricilla Papers 19/2, 2005, writes that Paul may desire that men stop the practice of covering their heads because of the Jewish tallit, mainly because it symbolized the law (and thus the guilt that comes with failing to uphold the law). Because there is no condemnation in Christ (Rom 8:1), why should men continue to cover their heads?
 Quoted in ibid., 305. See Babylonian Talmud, Berakot 14a for original quote. It is very unclear to me how a flock of goats can be an illustration for a sexual enticement. Alas, I am not an ancient Jew. And I never will be.
 Craig Keener, “1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), on BibleGateway.com..
 Remember 14:24 which suggests the possibility that anyone may enter the gathering at any time, even unbelievers.
 Marg Mowczko, “A note on nature and hairstyles in 1 Cor. 11:14-15,” 9/2/2021. “Sexually” doesn’t mean “She’s trying to be sexy.” Instead, it’s related to the physical makeup of an individual (e.g. is this person male or female?)–what the ancients called a person’s “constitution.”
 LSJ Online Lexicon, kephale.
 Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 301.
 Craig L. Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), on BibleGateway.com.
 Richard Cervin, “On the Significance of Kephalē (“Head”): A Study of the Abuse of One Greek Word,” Priscilla Papers 30/1, April 30, 2016. In this case, the text would mean something like 1) the origin of every man is Christ since Christ is the agent of God in creation; 2) the origin of woman is the man (Adam) since the woman was “taken out of man” (see Gen 2:21-23); 3) the origin of Christ is God since the Christ (i.e. not Jesus’ last name but literally “the Messiah”) comes from God. See Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 302.
 Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership (Colorado Springs: Lewis and Roth, 2003), 61-63 also uses the Nicene Creed to prove his point that Jesus is equal but subordinate to the Father. But the authors of the Nicene Creed were surely not trying to show that Jesus was subordinate to the Father. They wanted to be clear he was equal to the Father. While complementarians may be uncomfortable with this “source” language, it makes me equally uncomfortable to say that the authority of Christ is God! If Jesus is “of the same essence of the Father,” then isn’t he of the same authority? It’s true that Jesus says he can only do what he sees his Father doing (John 5:19). But he can also say that no one can take his life from him and he has authority to lay it down (John 10:18). Something has to give. So while Jesus does submit to his Father, we should be very careful to argue that Jesus was always subordinate to his Father or continues to be lest we begin to sound like we’re saying he is “not quite as much God” as God the Father. This, too, is straight from the Arian playbook.
 Marg Mowczko, “1 Corinthians 11:2-16, in a Nutshell,” 8/10/21.
 Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 306.
 LSJ Online Lexicon, doxa.
 Keener, “1 Corinthians 11:2-16.”
 Marg Mowczko, “Man and woman as the image and glory of God (1 Corinthians 11:7),” August 7, 2018.
 Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 311.
 Ibid., 310.
 Ibid., 303.
 Kaiser, “Correcting Caricatures.”
 What’s the deal with the angels? The word for “angels” is a generic word that can also be translated as “messengers.” We don’t need to understand this word to mean angelic beings. There may have been messengers who were spying on the Corinthian church, hence the reason Paul is so concerned about how they dress in the gathering. This same word is translated “spies” in James 2:25. For more on this, see Mowczko, “Man and woman as the image and glory of God (1 Corinthians 11:7),” and “1 Corinthians 11:2-16, in a Nutshell.”
 Mowzcko, “A note on nature.”
 Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman: One in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 205.
 The ESV Study Bible, “1 Corinthians 11:14,” (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), 2008, a complementarian work, says, “Paul’s point is that men should look like men in that culture, and women should look like women in that culture, rather than seeking to deny or disparage the God-given differences between the sexes.”
 Jeremy Gardiner, “Can Wedding Rings Replace Head Coverings?” critiques the typical complemetnarian application. This is a very interesting perspective because the author founded the “Head Covering Movement.” Yes, there is such a thing. And of course it would be a man who leads it.