Regarding I Corinthians 11.1-16, do women have to cover their heads?

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In order to have the full text of I Corinthians 11.1-16, please refer to your version of the Scriptures.

This passage of Scripture is a source of interesting discussion, teaching, and application for many brethren. Upon reading this passage there are brethren who have been convicted of the necessity for women to wear head coverings, and support the wearing of head coverings. Yet, others have read this same passage and reasoned that head coverings are not necessary, and they do not support the necessity of head coverings.

The Short Answer
It seems that many spend much time examining Paul’s logic for the reasons why a woman is to wear a head covering, found in I Corinthians 11.3-15. Upon reading this passage, one does find the reasons expressing why the woman should cover her head during prayers and prophecies. However, the interesting aspect to the head covering is the caveat that Paul provides in verse 16.

In verse 16, Paul expresses that there is no commandment, nor tradition, nor any other edict requiring women to wear head coverings. The ESV states the verse this way, “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.” If someone, anyone, wants to be argumentative about the issue of head coverings, Paul states that the fact of the matter is that neither we (I’m presuming the apostles) nor the churches of God (any congregation of the Lord’s people) have any custom, habit, practice, or tradition requiring the ladies to wear head coverings.

So, are women required to wear head coverings? No.

The Long Answer
The passage we are considering, I Corinthians 11.1-16, is interestingly situated in this letter. Because of its location, and the mention of prayers and prophecy, many associate this passage with Paul’s admonitions toward the Corinthians and their worship, which concludes in 14.40.

However, there is a distinctive change of direction with 11.17-18. It is with these two verses that Paul begins his corrective statements regarding the Corinthians’ worship practices. He addresses:

  • Improper partaking of the Lord’s Supper (11.19-34)
  • The diversity of spiritual gifts, but only one body of Christ and that no part of Christ’s body is superior to another (12.1-31)
  • That the gifts were temporary and only three items would remain (13.1-13)
  • Details are given on the proper handling of the special gifts and that all things were to be done decently and in order (14.1-40)

Our passage is not found within Paul’s corrective language regarding worship, instead it is found prior, but following the discussion regarding things offered to idols (8.1-11.1). While 11.2 reflects a minor change of direction in Paul’s dialog, it is not of the same magnitude as that found in 11.17-18. It almost appears that Paul is dove-tailing his own discussion of how eating meat offered to idols is a matter of Christian liberty, similarly he discusses how women’s head coverings are also a matter of Christian liberty.

Because of the placement of this passage regarding head coverings, it seems that it becomes a dual-purpose (or cross over) issue. In answering the issue of head coverings, Paul aligns it partly with Christian liberty, but also associates the issue of head coverings with how they are to be handled during worship.

With 9.19-22 Paul gives his strategy for helping others come to the knowledge of Christ with the hope that he can help save some of those who are lost. With his strategy, Paul is in no way compromising the truth, but his purpose is not to offend anyone – causing them to lose salvation (cf. 8.11-13).

With 10.23 Paul clarifies that he, and by association Christians, indeed has liberty, but liberty does not allow actions that would negate influence by, in, of, and with the Gospel. With 10.24 Paul exhorts Christians to seek the benefit of others, not the benefit of self. On a side note, seeking the benefit of another requires the sacrifice of one’s ego. He then proceeds into a practical example of meats offered in idol worship being bought/sold in the market places. He encourages the Christian to understand that no matter what one chooses to do, the Christian is to provide no offense to anyone, but to seek what benefits other people (10.32-33).

In 11.2 Paul says that he praises them for keeping the ordinances (KJV) or traditions (NKJV, NASB, ESV) that he had given to them. Thayer says this Greek word for ordinance/tradition means “a giving over… done by word of mouth or writing” being the “substance of a teaching.”

Just because Paul is praising the Corinthians for observing the teachings he gave them, does not necessitate that what he is about to say regarding head coverings is tradition, or new teaching, especially when he concludes his reasonings for any action with a statement of “we have no such custom, neither the churches of God” (11.16). His teaching about head coverings is simply the Scripture based reasons for why a woman would wear a head covering, if a head covering was necessitated by God.

However, given this newfound liberty, it did not allow the Christian women to have free rein with their attitude in the wearing of a head covering. If their society in Corinth demanded that the woman wear the covering, she was to wear it (11.6). With 11.13, Paul is asking the Corinthians to judge the matter, is it necessary for the woman to wear the covering? If yes, then wear it; if not, then she does not have to wear the covering.

Regarding the caveat in 11.16. The KJV reads, “But if any man seem to be contentious we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” Any man refers to any person, man or woman; contentious refers to someone who is fond of strife or disputations; no is the Greek word for absolute negation; such refers to having a sort, such as a like or a kind; custom refers to a mutual habitual practice or convention. So we could think of 11.16 as: but if any person seems to be fond of disputations, we have absolutely no kind [of head covering] convention, neither [is this convention found] in the churches of God.

I Corinthians 11.2-16 is a Romans 14 issue, because “the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 14.17). Head coverings fit so aptly within Romans 14, that just prior to addressing head coverings that he makes similar statements about non-binding non-argumentative aspects to Christianity in I Corinthians 10.23-11.1.

The issue of women being required to wear head coverings is similar to the attire necessitated by a black tie event. If the dress code is “black coat and tie” does that allow someone to come with no coat, no tie, and in work jeans? The answer should hopefully be self-evident, if the dress code requires certain attire, then the appropriate attire should be worn, so as not to offend.

Consider the custom of middle-eastern countries. If a Christian woman were to be in a middle-eastern market place, we need to judge, which is more appropriate for her to wear American modest apparel, or for her to wear middle-eastern modest apparel? This is the issue of the head coverings and this is the meaning of I Corinthians 11.13.

Is it necessary for Christian women in 21st century America to wear head coverings? Generally, the answer is no. While today head coverings may not be social necessity, this was not how it was in the 17th, 18th, and a portion of the 19th centuries where it was considered fitting for women to wear a bonnet or similar covering. Similarly, in the 1940s it was fitting for men to wear ties and hats.

But, today, our country’s acceptable attire is so diverse that a Christian woman must consider the town and general society in which she operates as to whether or not head coverings are fitting. In so doing, this allows the Christian woman to be socially acceptable (I Corinthians 10.31-33) and allows the Christian woman to be acceptable during worship (I Corinthians 14.40).