When Should the Gospel be Veiled?

An Exegetical Study of Head Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11

Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D. Pastor of All Saints Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA

Hair and Hats

Should the women of Bible-believing churches wear prayer shawls, veils, brightly colored hats, or just have long straight hair? Should men have hair above the ears, while women’s hair should be at least shoulder length? It is my purpose to let the light of apostolic instruction shine on this matter of hair and hats. The first section of 1 Corinthians 11 is the locus of this discussion.

The passage under consideration reads in the NASB, as follows:

 1 Corinthians 11:1 Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. 2 Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. 3 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. 4 Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying, disgraces his head. 5 But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8 For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; 9 for indeed man was not created for the woman's sake, but woman for the man's sake. 10 Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with head uncovered? 14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.

An Important Contextual Consideration

Beginning in context, in verses 1-2, Paul calls the saints to follow Christ and to hold to that which was delivered to them. This is the same term used in 15:2 (hold fast - catecho - to that which was delivered). In what are they to imitate Paul, though?

It will do us well here to remember the lack of inspiration in the verse and chapter markers. He has given instruction specifically in the matter of meat offered to idols. “Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved” (10:32-33). This is the preceding thought to “imitate me.” Paul does not offend Jews, Greeks, or other brethren. Note that the matters which offend are matters of one’s practices of things indifferent in themselves. Since “the earth is the LORD's, and all its fullness” (10:28), then there is nothing intrinsic to the meat offered to idols which makes eating it a violation of the moral law of God. Still, Paul says to take care of the other person’s conscience: “‘Conscience,’ I say, not your own, but that of the other. For why is my liberty judged by another man's conscience?” (10:29). Rather, do all you do to the glory of God (10:31) and give no offense to Jews or Greeks or the church (10:32). Those that would glorify God in eating and drinking would be concerned with the conscience of others. This to be done to seek the profit and salvation of others. “Imitate me,” Paul says, because “I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved” (10:33).

It would appear then, that the matter of which he is about to deal will be of similar character for which a similar imitation is required. The flow of the context addresses matters which offend various groups by custom, but lack an intrinsic morality character.

Holding on to Your Hat

In the introduction of the head covering passage, he exhorts, “Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you” (11:2). Interpreters that dismiss the connection of verse 1, “imitate me,” do so because they see it as the conclusion of the previous section. They read Paul no longer discussing matters without intrinsic moral character. Now he is allegedly speaking of apostolic tradition. However, most agree that “keep the traditions” (11:2) is part and parcel of the heads and hats section. But, please note the clear connection: he “praises” them because they “remember me [Paul]” (11:2). In a careful review of verse 2, there are actually two components of his charge to the Corinthians: remembering Paul (in his way of not offending) and holding to the traditions delivered. Therefore, the second verse continues the theme of imitating Paul in his manner. Both chapters (10-11) are pervaded with the larger related theme: unity in the body.

The latter point is a charge to keep the apostolic content (paradosis). Because of this, many interpreters cannot avoid thinking that some kind of veil/hat teaching was apostolic actually apostolic tradition. In fact, there is a verse about this in the Sermon on the Mount - NOT. Were they to literally “hold fast — their hats”? Did the apostles transmit their divine tradition: the Lord’s supper, baptism, deity of Christ, head coverings, the resurrection, etc. One of these things is not like the other.

In the text, Paul actually commends the Corinthian Christians for holding to the “paradosis” - the traditions delivered. “Now I praise you,” he writes, “that ye . . . hold fast the traditions, even as I delivered them to you” (ASV, 11:2). One point that might alert us here. If Paul has in fact transmitted to them the apostolic requirement to wear a veil, but now is having to reiterate the need to wear it — then how can he praise them in keeping that tradition?

We must consider the nature of the “traditions.” The English term might mean everything from the length of an Amishman’s beard to an Episcopalian's sherry. What of the original? The term paradosis is used to indicate a “handed down teaching or instruction.” Friberg’s lexicon says: it is used “as Christian doctrine handed down teaching, instruction.” The Louw-Nida Semantic Domain Lexicon considers paradosis as “the content of traditional instruction.” Liddell and Scott’s classical usage indicates “the transmission of legends and doctrines, tradition” as a central meaning.

Was this tradition (paradosis) an extra-biblical, oral tradition that is binding, yet beyond Scripture? In 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Paul clarifies, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” Paul has already admonished the Corinthians “that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other” (4:6). In this introductory point, Paul is making clear that they are to live out the gospel, being sensitive not to give offense. Yet, they are to hold to apostolic tradition/instruction (paradosis), and not proceed beyond it.

It is important to note here the negative usage of “tradition,” in the New Testament. Paul’s praise for keeping these traditions he delivered is completely antithetical to other kinds of traditions which are not the content of apostolic instruction. To church at Colassae, he challenges unbiblical so-called wisdom and doctrines of men, referring to them as “philosophy and empty deceit” which is “according to the tradition (paradosis) of men” (Col. 2:3; also Matt. 15:3, Mark 7:9, et al).

Particularly, on the matter of “customs” which exalt one group over another, they are not to go beyond the apostolic-biblical instruction (“what is written” 4:6), so as to claim a level of spiritual superiority. This is critical to the deeper theme of the 1st Corinthian epistle: a central theme is unity in the body, in light of the fact that the church was being pulled apart by all manner of divisions. This theme is explicitly and frequently recurs in very explicit language (1:10, 3:3, 11:18, 12:25). Moreover, it is almost everywhere implicit. Even in this passage, there is a connection to that overall theme. Do not let head coverings be a matter of division and contention (11:16).

Headship, Heads, and Hats

In the matter of covering one’s head (katakalupto) in verses 11:4-7, Paul has set a theological background for the matter of submission and conduct in the church between men and women. On the whole matter of women prophesying, B.B. Warfield is very astute in observing, “Precisely what is meant in I Corinthians 11:5, nobody quite knows.” Footnote Is this women preachin’ - or private, non-assembly preachin’ and prophesyin’ (as in Philip’s home, Acts 21:8-9) - well, “nobody quite knows.” It is not my purpose here to settle the dispute over women’s roles in church. The point is: there are Corinthian circumstances which evade our knowledge, like baptism for the dead. Let us consider the topic at hand: headship, hats, and hair.

The instruction/“traditions” are the teaching handed down with regard to the lines of authority in the church and “headship.” This is all grounded in a creational rationale: “For man is not from woman, but woman from man” (11:8). Yet, there is a balance given. “Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God” (11:11-12).

Many have read this passage only to conclude that Paul enforces with apostolic tradition the artificial covering of the head for woman in worship. By “artificial covering,” I only mean a non-hair covering. Others have concluded that the covering designated is only hair.

For example, Greek scholar, A.T. Robertson, suggests that a “moral obligation therefore rests on woman in the matter of dress that does not rest on the man   . . . . The veil on the woman's head is the symbol of the authority that the man with the uncovered head has over her.” He connects this rationale with the phrase “because of the angels” (11:10). He says, “Paul has in mind” “angels present in worship (cf. 1Co 4:9; Ps 138:1) who would be shocked at the conduct of the women since the angels themselves veil their faces before Jehovah (Isa 6:2).” Many have followed Robertson’s view and therefore require a cloth veil on the head of women in worship.

However, Paul does not mention covering the face at all (cf 2Cor 3:7). He is certainly not calling for a veiled face as a particular class of angels do with their wings. This particular calling for “covering” is, in fact, not at all similar to the seraphim who cover their “faces” (Isa. 6:2). Their covering is certainly irrespective of gender. These magnificent, holy dragon-like beings cover their faces out of a sheer vision of God’s holiness. Certainly that reason for wearing a covering is not given by Paul. None of the key terms of 2 Cor. 3:13, referring to Moses “who put a veil over his face” (veil, kalumma; face, prosopon) are used in 1 Cor. 11. The only time the term Paul uses here (katakalupto) is used with regard to covering the face is in Genesis 38:15 (in the LXX/Greek version): “When Judah saw her, he thought she was a harlot, because she had covered (katakalupto) her face.” Paul can hardly mean this as the proper attire for worship.

Another difficulty, if Paul is justifying women wearing a head covering and men not wearing such a covering in worship by a creational standard, then what can be said of the Levitical garments? Of course the high priest wore a hat, a turban (Exo. 28:4), which could hardly have been “dishonoring his head.” Exodus 29:6 says, “You shall put the turban on his head, and put the holy crown on the turban.” These head coverings for the Levites are described as “exquisite hats of fine linen” (Exo. 39:28). At this point, when interpreters argue for an artificial head covering which is symbolic per creation for women and the converse for men in worship — what of the Levitical system where God actually required hats for men in his most holy presence? Then one has to come up with some kind of theory with respect to a covenantal change so that now Christ is a man’s head and no covering is permitted . . . etc. It becomes difficult to take Paul’s statements about covering and headship in a simplistic way, or else we run aground with previous revelation.

Hat or Hair?

Noting the lack of the term for “veil” (kalumma) and the repeated interlacing of hair (kome and the verbal form “wear long hear” komao) has led some interpreters to conclude he is talking about hair as the covering in the entire passage. He never states that a kalumma (veil) is to cover anyone’s head or face. Yet, he says for a woman “her hair is given to her for a covering” (11:15). Paul's final drawing together of the theme is: “Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?” Notice the response “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering” (11:13-15). On this verse, commentator Gordon Clark translates, “it is her glory because her hair is given to her instead of a veil.” Footnote He reasons:

 Although the eastern custom was veils or mantles for women, and although some words in the last ten verses seem to refer to such coverings, it now becomes evident that hair, not hats, is the important matter. God has given women long hair instead of veils. This fits in well with the phrase in 11:4, “something hanging down from the head.” It also allows a fairly good sense to the question, “Does not nature itself teach you...” surely nature does not teach that women must wear hats in order to pray, but nature does teach that a woman’s hair is normally longer than a man’s.

No Other Custom or No Such Custom?

NKJV: 1 Corinthians 11:16 But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

It is amazing that in many articles and popular discussions relatively little value has been placed on Paul’s final comments in the passage (11:16). In fact, John Calvin, usually a very reliable commentator, does not even comment on the phrase “we have no such custom,” or take time to explain these terms in his commentary. I recently listened to three hours of teaching on the subject which was to be an exposition of 11:2-16. Footnote While other verses were dealt with in fine detail, all that was mentioned on verse 16 was that “this verse tells us that all the churches enforced the practice of head covering in worship for women.” Almost every other important term was detailed, verse 16 received no such attention. Influential Greek scholar, Daniel B. Wallace of Dallas Theological seminary merely says, “How do we reconcile 1 Cor 11:2 with 1 Cor 11:16? Verse 2 governs v 16. That is to say, because the practice was a paradosis, it was put on the level of orthopraxy.” Footnote He argues that headcovering was the “outworking of this ‘tradition.’” He reasons,

 This would be like saying, ‘Christ died for you; therefore, you should observe the Lord’s Supper. Besides, other Christians are already doing this and none have a different practice.’ The practice puts flesh to the doctrine.

This is an analogy to clarify his view, which tradition is a meaningful symbol with allowance for cultural variations. “The head covering is a meaningful symbol in the ancient world that needs some sort of corresponding symbol today, but not necessarily a head covering.” Footnote

However, a very significant translation issue rests in this summary verse. Note the two ways verse 16 are translated. This is, after all, Paul’s summative comment on the matter. Consider the translations:

NASB 1 Corinthians 11:16 But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.


NIV 1 Corinthians 11:16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice-- nor do the churches of God.

Note the difference below:

NKJV 1 Corinthians 11:16 But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.


NRSV 1 Corinthians 11:16 But if anyone is disposed to be contentious-- we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.


While NAS/NIV have “no other” practice or custom, NKJ/NRS have “no such” custom. What accounts for this difference? The demonstrative adjective, toioutos [toiauten - in this verse is an accusative, feminine singular].  The difference is illustrated wittily by Gordon Clark in his commentary on this passage.

 Do you have turkey for Thanksgiving? We have no such custom.

Do you have turkey for Thanksgiving? We have no other custom.

These are entirely antithetical interpretations. Is the term toioutos to be translated, “other” or “such”?

As a matter of record, no other passage in the Greek NT  tranlates this term (toioutos) as “other.” We have no such passage. It is not translated in any other way. Moreover,  none of the Greek lexicons is “other” even given as a possible definition (Liddell-Scott, Louw-Nida, Thayers, UBS, Friberg).

It would appear that the NAS/NIV translate this as “other” because they just can’t see how Paul could conclude with saying that we do not have a determined practice on this matter. On the contrary, it can hardly be disputed on basic lexical grounds that toioutos means “such” and not “other.” Hence, the KJV, ASV, NKJ, RSV, NRS are all correct: “But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such (toioutos) custom, nor do the churches of God.” (One wonders how many other translation decisions by the NAS/NIV et al have been made by what the translators think or expect the Biblical writers should say.)

The term “custom” in 11:16 is sunetheia. It is only used here, in 1 Cor. 8:7, and in John 18:39. John 18:39 reads, “But you have a custom (sunetheia) that I should release someone to you at the Passover.” And 1 Cor. 8:7, it is used of those “accustomed to idols.” It is a cognate word of ethos, as in “sunethos”— sunetheia. The term ethos is, for example, used in Acts 15:1: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And in Acts 6:14 “the customs which Moses delivered to us.” It used to refer to the “the burial custom of the Jews,” (John 19:40), “the custom of the feast” (Luke 2:42), “the customs of our fathers” (Luke 28:17), etc. The Louw-Nida semantical domain lexicon says of ethos and sunetheia,

 a pattern of behavior more or less fixed by tradition and generally sanctioned by the society [the examples given are:] - 'custom, habit.’ ‘as is the burial custom of the Jews' Jn 19.40. 'bad companions ruin good habits' 1 Cor 15.33.'we do not have such a custom' 1 Cor 11.16.

It is rather clear that the term sunetheia, like ethos, refers a pattern of behavior. In the context of 1 Cor. 11, it surely refers to the practice of head covering in whatever form. It is squarely outside the usage of sunetheia for it to mean, “we have no custom of being contentious on this.” Being “contentious” (philoneikos - argumentative) is not a sunetheia or “custom.”

Another view commentators take, like Leon Morris, is “We have no such custom, i.e. such as women praying or prophesying with head uncovered....” [emphasis mine]. Clark rightly points out, “It is obvious that Dr. Morris wishes to accommodate his correct knowledge of Greek [e.g., toioutos means “such” not “other”] to what he believes Paul ought to have said.” Footnote Thus Morris reverses the discussion to mean the “custom” is praying uncovered, of which we have “no such custom.” Morris then dismisses the need for actually wearing a covering “today,” as many others do, saying that we can keep the principle in heart without the hat.

I hope the reader can see that the whole problem arises from what we expect Paul to say, rather than what he actually says. After reading verses 4-15, without reading verse 16, we think the case is closed. He just must say, “here’s the apostolic custom - you must wear a covering, this the custom in every church.” Of course, then almost all evangelical commentators find a way to dismiss actually keeping this custom. Is this what Paul actually said about the custom?

He has been talking about the interplay of customs, culture, headship, and proper appearance. But if one listens to what Paul actually says, many of the difficulties vanish. And this is a difficulty. Consider, how could Christ’s resurrection tradition (paradosis), the Lord’s supper, and wearing a veil all be on the same level of apostolic instruction? A common sense appraisal would lead us to question the parity of these as all being equally part of the authoritative apostolic instruction. Thus, the entire discussion is framed between the paradosis in verse 2 and the sunetheia in verse 16. This is what I believe he says: imitate me, keep the paradosis, but we have no sunetheia on head covering. Thus, Paul concluded with words which should be definitive about the matter. In keeping with holding the authoritative headship instruction, yet imitating him in not offending for the sake of the gospel, please observe his (actual, not our expected) conclusion: we have no such custom (of a head covering requirement).

Hats Off?

Paul’s summative point addresses our modern context, almost exactly. What is to be said to a person strongly persuaded that a definite custom must be practiced? What do we say to those who think the prayer shawl is the third sacrament? If a person is contentious (philoneikos) about this they are to be told that apostolic churches do not have “such a custom.” So if a person actively seeks out opportunities to persuade others to concede to a certain practice and becomes divisive, there is a definite response which he must yield to: there is no apostolic custom regarding head covering in the church. Thus, there can be no law about this which the church should enforce.

Hats On?

It is clear from verse 16 that no law can be instituted or enforced. Contextually, rather, we are to “imitate” Paul in his gospel-motivated actions to accommodate others. Please note, though, this may lead to hats on, too. Given a certain context the application may call for women wearing a covering for the purpose of accommodation - to give no offense. Yet, when the issues are fully understood, no cultural form can be imposed as normative.

In resolving difficulties on convictions and customs, the principles and process is discussed in Romans 14. It is the process of gentle and winsome instruction, pastoral admonition to cause no contention, and disciplinary action on the factious behavior if it is not ceased. We are to remember Paul’s example, here. Therefore, I think that the non-negotiable principles taught in the passage are 1) the principle of gospel-motivated graciousness in avoiding offense toward those whose customs are different; 2) hierarchy of headship which is grounded in the authority of God and the creational pattern of men and women, which also includes mutual dependence; and 3) the flat denial of any apostolic custom of any specific head covering practice.

Each of these is clear in explicit terms. Given the principle of headship, we should not seek to blur gender differences toward some androgynous standard. And given the flat denial of any apostolic custom of any specific head covering practice, no law or requirement should be made in the context of churches for a specific practice.