In 1 Corinthians 11, there is different instruction given in relationship to this issue that we will now explore. Paul picks up the theme of liberty from 1 Corinthians chapters 8-10 and brings the argument into 1 Corinthians 11 and continues with it. Without a doubt, this is a fascinating section to interpret. Sorting out all of these issues and principles in context is a big challenge. He seems to be making a circular argument dealing with issues of culture in Corinth, and at the same time, proclaiming universal principles for all Christians. There are certain situations pertaining to creation revealed in vv.2-3, 8-12, and situations of culture in vv.4-7, 13-16. The primary issue, here, is concerning respect and submission. There were a number of problems with the Corinthian church in relationship to submission. Women in the Greek culture were feeling restricted culturally and religiously, and some of them were rebelling against the customs of the day. They were not submitting to the principles of “freedom in Christ,” concerning which Paul just shared in chapters 8-10, and they, therefore, were not respecting the authority of God. The men and women (or husbands and wives) were not living with respect to one another. Paul begins dealing with the issue and continues his argument in the following chapters, which we have already discussed.
When Paul talks about Christ being the head of every man, there are a couple of different ways that this can be understood. The word “head” can mean either “origin” or “master”. In other words, man has His spiritual origin in Christ, or Christ is the master of man. Either interpretation makes sense, but it only becomes clear when we consider the second part of the statement -- “the head of the woman is man.” I don’t believe that Paul would be talking about the relationship in terms of “order”, that is “man being the master of woman” especially considering his argument from vv.11-12. There are two truths here that are in tension with each other in this passage (v.3 and v.11), but both are true -- woman comes from man, also man and woman cannot be independent from each other. It makes more sense if he is talking about “origin”. Woman has her origin from man, in that the woman, Eve, was formed from the rib of the man, Adam (Genesis 2:18-25). And of course, Christ has His origin in God -- He was with God and He was God at the same time (John 1:1).
Another consideration here is that Paul is also talking about the husband and wife relationship (as we see in chapter 14). The word for man, here, is aner, which can mean either man or husband. The word for woman is gunay, which can mean either woman or wife. As Paul proceeds to make his argument throughout the course of this section, culminating with chapter 14, he seems to be talking in terms of husbands and wives in some contexts (vv.4-7, 13-16), but men and women in others (particularly the “universal” passages, vv.2-3, 8-12).
There were problems with men and women coming into the assembly with the wrong mindset in relationship to how they should be properly covered. It is really easy to miss the main thrust of what Paul is saying here. We must keep in mind that the big issue is respect and authority (v.10) -- not hair. Now while Jewish men would wear a prayer shawl or covering called a tallith, this was not the case with the men in Corinth. It would also appear to be a cultural taboo for men to have long hair (v.14). The men in the Greek culture were to have their heads uncovered when they prayed or prophesied. (Prophesy here could be either “fore-telling” the future or “forth-telling” the message of God -- it doesn’t really matter for the purpose of the argument that Paul is making).
The instruction for the women was just the opposite of that given to the men. They were not to pray and prophesy with their heads uncovered. Even though it is not a part of the argument that Paul is making, it would appear that at this time and in this place that women were indeed praying and prophesying. When we consider that Philip had four daughters who prophesied in the early church (Acts 21:8-9), it is hard to say definitively how and when this took place. As we can see, it was not to be at a time or in a manner that would be disruptive to the assembly, but it is apparent that it was taking place. If this passage is in relationship to an assembly context (11:1-16), which it certainly appears to be, it would help us to further understand the nature of the assembly at Corinth. Now, we must also understand that it is possible that some of this instruction has been modified by the time that Paul writes to Timothy and the church in Ephesus. We will consider this later when we come to Paul’s instruction to Timothy.
The women needed to have their heads covered in order to show respect and submission to the men (i.e. their husbands) and to higher beings as well. It is important to talk about the covering itself since it, historically, has been the subject of some discussion. The KJV has the translation “veil” whereas other of the more prominent translations (NAS, RSV, NIV) have translated it “covering.” The KJV translation was the result of its own cultural bias at the time; the rendering “veil” comes from a 13th century Byzantine manuscript, whereby women in the culture of that time (particularly “Muslim” but not excluding other cultures) wore actual veils. This practice continued through the 17th century during the time that the KJV was translated, and is still true even today in some cultures (once again, predominantly the Muslim religious culture).
During the time of Christ (when the letters to Corinth were written), the covering for women at that time was long hair (v.15). This was particularly so for Greek and Roman women, but not necessarily for Jewish women at that time. Jewish women would wear a long body shawl that would be wrapped around them ornamentally which they would pull up over the heads at the appropriate time and place. The women in the Greek culture were to come to the assembly with their hair up, as in a bun. In this way, they would be living with respect to the men, culturally and religiously. Some rebellious women were coming to the assembly time with their hair down which was a cultural taboo -- this was how the prostitutes of the day wore their hair. It was also ritual practice for many women in non-Christian religious associations, such as those who would be worshippers of Isis, the primary goddess of those living in Corinth. Therefore, proper ladies would not be seen in public with their hair down -- it would be an offense. So, it would appear from all of the information that the “covering” was more of a cultural issue that needed to be respected at the time of the writing of the Corinthian letters.
Any interpretations concerning “veils” or “coverings” applied to other cultures and contexts would be of a personal/communal nature, that is, it would be up to them. But, it is apparent that the cultural issues that the Corinthians, and others at that time, were dealing with were not binding on others. However, the spiritual principles of submission and respect lined out in this passage would still appear to be applicable to all cultures. Men and women must not have a cultural style or demeanor that is “shocking” to those around them. Once again, men and women, husbands and wives must live with respect to one another (see Ephesians 5:21-33).