Why Did Paul Tell Women to Cover Their Heads?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In 1 Cor 11:5-6, the apostle Paul tells the Corinthians that a woman should cover her head when praying or prophesying at church assemblies. Some churches today still adhere to this command, but should they? What was the context of Paul’s statement?

Authors E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien provide a possible answer to this question in their book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible.  They write:

Paul tells women in Corinth that they must have their head covered when they worship (1 Cor 11:5-6). It is not immediately clear to us what the problem is, so we may assume something went without being said, which is a good instinct.

So perhaps we assume that a woman’s hair was somehow sexually alluring to ancient people and that therefore a Christian woman needed to cover hers. We may then reason that since hair today is not a sexual turn-on, it is okay for a Christian woman to wear her hair down.

We are correct that something went without being said, but we are wrong about what that was.

If Paul was not talking about sexual modesty, what was he talking about?

Paul is indeed talking about modesty. In our culture, if male ministers are talking about what a Christian woman should be wearing, we are almost always discussing sexual modesty or the lack thereof, so we typically assume that’s what Paul is doing here. We feel affirmed when Paul mentions that it is disgraceful if a woman doesn’t cover her head (1 Cor 11:6).

Likely, however, Paul was admonishing the hostess of a house church to wear her marriage veil (“cover her head”) because “church” was a public event and because respectable Roman women covered their heads in public. These Corinthian women were treating church like their private dinner parties. These dinners (convivia, or “wine parties”) were known for other immoral activities including dinner “escorts” (1 Cor 6), idol meat (1 Cor 8–10), adultery (1 Cor 10) and drunkenness (1 Cor 11).

The issue was modesty, but not sexual modesty. These women were co-opting an activity about God for personal benefit. They were treating church as a social club.

Thus Paul was interested in a broader kind of modesty than sexual modesty. He didn’t want the Corinthian women treating the worship assembly like their private dinner parties, dinner parties that typically went along with being wealthy. Economic modesty at church gatherings was also an important issue for Paul.

Since covering a woman’s head is no longer a cultural indicator of economic or class status, this command by Paul no longer applies to us (in the 21st century America). However, there are certainly other ways that Christians signal their economic and class status that Paul would equally frown upon today.

Church is not a place to emphasize class and economic status. It’s not a country club. It’s a place to worship God.

  • Zach

    Incredible, I could not have inferred the cultural significance of this passage without an article like this pointing the way. I’ll be checking out the “Misreading Scripture…” book, it’s been on my heart lately to find out what the original people reading these letters would have gotten out of them. Thanks!