Have you ever worshiped at a place where the women all wore a hat or something on their head to church because of what is said in I Corinthians 11:1-16? This is one of those passages that has been horribly confusing to people down through the years. It is the only time such a veil is mentioned in the Bible. Let’s take a closer look at the verses and what is commanded.
It begins with the admonition for us to follow Paul as he follows Christ. It is near impossible to know for certain whether that verse was intended to be part of chapter 10 or the beginning of chapter 11. Immediately Paul starts telling them of praise he has for them as he remembers them and how they hold firmly to the traditions he delivered to them. He gave a chart for them to use in their conversations on what was right. “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.” It is worthy of noticing that Christ is subject to the Father but not because the Father is above him by nature. In Philippians 2:5-9 He pointed out that Jesus gave up equality with the Father to become one of us as a man. In the same way the woman isn’t inferior to the man because of her being told to be subject to the man.
In preparing to discuss the point of contention he said, “Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. 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. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful fro a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head.”
There are several points that need to be made in looking at these verses. Remember the whole thing had to do with when one was praying or prophesying in a church gathering of some kind. Also remember that Corinth was a city made up of a large segment of slaves or freed slaves and those who were retired soldiers in the Roman army. In their culture the only woman allowed to wear a veil out in public was a married woman who was free. A slave woman couldn’t legally be married and couldn’t wear the veil. It is a form of segregation that kept them down below the privileged. When the church started in Corinth there was a problem. Married, free women came to the worship time with their veil on while those who were slaves came with their head bear often having them shaved as well. It has also been said that the women prostitutes who were priestesses at the temple of Aphrodite were bear headed with their hair cropped off. I’ve not been able to confirm whether that is accurate or not.
I suspect that the problem in Corinth had to do with the fact that many of the slave women had been added to the church and were told of their freedom in Christ. Since they were free in him they felt free to wear the veil as the married, free women did. But when they wore this form of clothes that were by their tradition a means of keeping the free women and the slaves separate, it caused trouble. Rather than command that all women wear the veil, I think the point was that all women should be allowed to wear the veil if they wanted to so that the distinctions that had built up among the people might be destroyed. It seems to me that Paul was dealing with a civil rights issue instead of some deep theological point. There shouldn’t be the separation between the married women that are free from the women who were slaves and not allowed to marry the man they loved to keep them separate. They might live together and have children together and be committed fully to each other for their life time but they couldn’t legally get married. Since, in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave or free, Paul is telling them to drop the distinctions and allow the slave women to wear the veil just like the others.
Likely the reason when discussing the head of every woman being the man, that Paul used the generic word, “Man” instead of “Husband” was that the slave women couldn’t legally have a husband. They had a man they lived with, loved and were committed to. Notice in the same point that he is saying that such slave women that have been converted are to be allowed to participate in the praying and prophesying just like the free women. The distinctions are to stop. Also, it seems that some of the men were trying to wear the veil as well and he told them to not do so that they were dishonoring their head in doing so. Notice the fact that both at the beginning of the discussion and the end of it he notes that it has to do with traditions and customs. He is making the point that in the church we are to treat all people with love and compassion but not to act in a way that would bring shame on the church by our refusing to follow any customs.
He stressed that men need the women and women need the men and neither is independent of the other. One somewhat strange statement is found in verse 10 when he told the women to wear the veil because of the angels. The most reasonable answer to what this means seems to be to go back to the fact the word translated “Angels” is also the word translated “Messenger” and I think it refers to the preacher or messenger for the church. If it indeed refers to angels it must mean that angels are there when we gather as Christians and that we should be aware of their presence and act accordingly.
He asked them to judge for themselves as to whether or not it was proper for a woman to pray or prophesy with her head uncovered. Even that demands that this is about some custom or practice unique to them and not like the teachings about the Lord’s supper. You can’t even imagine Paul telling them to judge for themselves as to the rightness of how they were partaking of the communion.
When there are customs in our society that go against the clear teaching of Scripture such as keeping one class of women or people generally separated and not allowed to participate fully it is wrong to allow such to come into the church. There the distinctions are to fade away. Treat all people with love, respect and as your brother or sister in Christ. If we make the distinctions based on race, color, sex, education or prosperity it is still just as wrong as when they made them based on whether one was a slave or free. There is no place in God’s kingdom for such distinctions.
Praise the Lord he accepts all people as his children and part of the family. No one has to sneak up to the table of the Lord to reach for some crumbs. There is a seat for everyone who comes to Christ at the table.