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1 Corinthians 11:3-16 (NRSV)   

v. 3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.    The “head” of the husband is Christ. The head of the wife is the husband. The head of Christ is God. The words “man” and “woman” are just as easily translated “husband” and “wife.” Every man is not the “head” of every woman.  Paul is describing the relationship of wife to husband and both of them to Christ.  The conversation does not deal with single people because they are automatically assumed to be under the authority of their parents (in Paul’s day, the age of the single child would have been irrelevant).  The discussion is about roles, responsibilities and the hierarchy of “authority” in Christ.

v.4 Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head,     Paul says that if a man prays or prophesies with his head covered, he dishonours Christ.  His “head” represents Christ, and so, symbolically, should not be “covered.”  

v. 5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved.    His wife, in the context of prayer and prophecy, should have her head covered because her head represents her husband and so should be covered, symbolically at least, during communion with God. This acknowledges that, at such times, her only true head is the Lord Jesus Christ. If she is not willing to cover her head, she needs to remove the covering which represents the authority of her husband by having her hair cut off – shorn or “shaved” as Paul puts it.  The word means to be shorn like a sheep.  Ordinary “short” feminine styles don’t exempt a sister from wearing a head covering.  Indeed, if she were shorn at the meeting, would she then have to wear a covering in presence of her husband until her hair grew back?

v. 6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil.    Here Paul says, if a woman will not wear the veil during “prayer” and “prophecy” she should then be willing to have her head shaved.   From the context, Paul is talking about the three different classes of “fellowship events.” These are the same as those we read about in Acts 2:42 “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.”   “Doctrine” would correspond to “Prophesying” in 1 Cor 11 (means to speak forth God’s word) and is equivalent to our Bible Class. They had regular meetings for prayer.  And, finally, the rest of the chapter, starting at verse 17, deals with behaviour at the breaking of bread (other churches say "communion") where both “praying” and “prophesying” occur.  

v.7 For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man.    The divine hierarchy is: God, Christ, Man, Woman. It is a hierarchy of love and service not of domination. Since our relationship to God is mediated by Christ, and the woman or wife is under the authority of her husband, that authority ought to be covered before God because, in Christ, we are all one.

vv. 8,9 Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man.9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.    So, he says, since the woman is in the image of man, and was created for her husband, she needs to have her hair, a symbol of that subordinate role veiled.  Man, woman, husband, wife in an environment of worship are equal in Christ; equal in privilege and responsibility before God. (Gal. 3:28).

vv. 10,11 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.  11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman.    In an environment of worship, a sister needs to have her head covered to signify her temporary exemption from the authority of her husband. 

The idea of having “power on her head”, as the King James Version puts it, comes from the Greek word “exousia.” Kittle and Friedrich define “exousia” as first, the ability to perform an action; it then means “right or permission” (as granted by a higher court).  She has been given a “court injunction” so to speak by God which suspends, during worship, the authority of her husband. 

Because of the angels” I think means that we are “formally” in the presence of angels during times of worship in their role as representatives of God. Because of that, a sister is truly a part of the “bride of Christ” with her husband, only under the authority of Christ who is “our head” – "our" meaning all of us, Jew, Gentile, bond, free, male, and female (cf. Galatians 3:27-29) This means that in wearing the veil during times of fellowship with God, the authority of her husband is temporarily suspended and her loyalty is expressed directly to God through Christ.  It points forward to that time, in the Kingdom of God, when distinctions based on gender will have passed away completely. Far from being a symbol of deference to men, the veil is a symbol of the equality of men and women before God because, in matters of prayer and fellowship, the natural relationships become secondary – Christ is exalted as the true head of the woman and the husband’s authority is covered. It also means that a sister-wife is still responsible to do the right thing before God even if her husband expects her to act differently. She is still personally responsible before God for her actions.

Paul is careful to keep things in balance. Husband and wife are indispensable to each other.

v. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.     We are all under God – even the Lord Jesus Christ – and one day we will all, even the Lord, be totally one with Him and subject to Him. Christ, man/husband woman/wife will all one day be one and “equal unto the angels.”  God is the head over all. Our one true head. The other “headships” are typical of that relationship. (cf 1 Corinthians 15:26-28)

v. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled?     He sums up and says “Judge for yourselves.” Paul is saying, “After what I have just laid out, can you honestly say that it is right for a woman to be in an environment of prayer or divine teaching with her head uncovered?” 

v. 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him,     Even in the natural course of things, it is undignified for a man to have “long hair.” 

v. 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.     A woman’s long hair is her “glory.” It is given to her for a “covering.”  This is a bit of a problem (but not really). The argument runs that if a woman has long hair she doesn’t need to wear a covering because her hair IS her covering. However, Paul says that her hair is her GLORY and, in verse 7, he says that the “woman is the GLORY of the man.”  Her hair is given to her as a symbol of her subjection to her husband.  So, a woman’s long hair is only a covering in the presence of her husband. In her relationship to God, that whole structure is “covered up” symbolically so that what is represented is the “right” of a sister in Christ to have her own direct relationship with God, equal to that of any husband/brother in Christ. 

So the veil is at once a symbol acknowledging the authority of her husband in all things pertaining to their marital relationship because it acknowledges that her submission to him is suspended in matters of her worship. It is thus an acknowledgement of the equality of a woman/wife in matters of her personal relationship to God.

This is just the opposite of what the world would have us believe. They teach that the covering is a symbol of the domination of women by men and as such should be done away. As usual, such people get the principle wrong. In fact, the principle of head covering is exactly the opposite of what they say!

v. 16 But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.    Paul brings down the hammer.  Here’s how the New Living Translation puts this passage: “But if anyone wants to argue about this, all I can say is that we have no other custom than this, and all the churches of God feel the same way about it.” End of story. Paul has laid out the scripture and meaning and requirements. He is like the judge passing sentence and banging his gavel. God has spoken. “If you don’t understand it,” he says, “then just do it as a matter of obedience.” (Note that at least 5 translations and 4 paraphrases support this view of v. 16)

I hope you have found this helpful.

God bless,