My fiancée and I have gone over 1st Corinthians 11 several times, each time being unsure how to make sense of it. It really is a difficult passage because there are a few statements that could be seen as contradictions.
For instance, verse 5 says that if a woman does not cover her head in prayer or while prophesying, she dishonors her head in the same way she would if her head were shaven. But the verse immediately following then proposes shaving her head as an alternative to covering it. If it is a dishonor to shave her head, why would that be an option?
Furthermore, the fact that verse 15 describes woman’s hair as a natural covering would seem to negate the whole argument Paul is making. If all the passage means to say is that woman should have long hair as her covering, verses 5 and 6 become completely bizarre and redundant.
After a lot of dwelling on this chapter, we think we’ve found a way of reconciling all these difficulties. I thought it might be worth writing down our conclusions, since doing so will solidify it in my mind. Perhaps it might also help someone who is looking for answers on this topic.
Before I start, I want to plainly admit that we have no clue whatsoever what the reference to angels means, nor have we found any explanations that we find particularly convincing. However, in our view, the interpretation stands in spite of that uncertainty.
Secondly, this interpretation will not please egalitarians. If you are able to find a coherent, egalitarian explanation of this passage, please link me to it in the comments, because I see no other way to read this passage than in a complimentarian way.
Instead of starting at the beginning, I want to jump straight to verse 14, since it is the basis for everything Paul says about dishonor.
“Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?”
I am comfortable enough granting this premise because I think that even 2000 years later, it is generally true. And it only needs to be generally true, since the tradition he wants the church to practice is simply a symbolic extension of this natural difference between men and women.
“For her hair is given to her for a covering.“
The natural follow-up to this statement would be to ask why her hair is given to her as a covering. This explanation was provided earlier in verse 8.
“For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have power* on her head, because of the angels.”
Again, don’t look at me to solve the angels riddle. Fortunately, ‘because of the angels’ is only the second reason given. The first reason we see for why a wife should have her head covered is because of the order of creation: woman was created from man, and for man.
This symbol of authority is actually not referring solely to the covering she is to wear during prayer and prophecy, but to the natural, distinctly glorious covering God gave to her from creation. This order is communicated through the aforementioned natural principle that there is glory in a woman having long hair, glory that is not found in men with long hair. On the contrary, and with few exceptions, men with extremely long hair are not seen in a positive light.
Hopefully you can see that this tradition that Paul is delivering to the church is a visual and symbolic representation of this fact. It is on this basis as well that he explains the spiritual ramifications of abandoning it.
“But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.“
If we understand the tradition as an acting out of the natural principles, the head covering a wife wears is simply a representation of the natural head covering with which she is already endowed. When Paul writes, “it is the same as if her head were shaven,” he means that she is symbolically shaving her head by her decision not to wear the covering during prayer or prophecy. When he writes, “since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head,” he is arguing that, just as it would be unseemly for a wife to remove her God-given glory by shaving her head, so she likewise disgraces herself before God by refusing to keep the tradition of wearing a head covering.
Contrarily, man, who has not been given a natural head covering, should not cover his head, because that symbol is reserved for his wife. This means both that man should not have excessively long hair in general, and that he should not disrupt the tradition by wearing something on his head while praying or prophesying.
You will notice I have been careful to specify wives, and not women in general. I see no logically consistent interpretation by which this should apply to unmarried women, for the simple reason that an unmarried woman has no husband to dishonor. Additionally, Paul himself is quite obviously referring specifically to wives.
Now, it is essential to note that because of the order described throughout this passage, the consequences of disobedience do not stop at the individual. If the head of man is Christ, and man dishonors his head, he dishonors Christ; if the head of woman is man, and she dishonors her head, she dishonors her husband. Again, if man is the glory of God, and he disgraces himself, it is an affront to God; if a wife is the glory of her husband, and she disgraces herself, it is an affront to him.
“Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.”
When the Word of God prescribes that we keep a tradition, we do well to take it seriously. It’s hard to know why this part of the Bible seems to be written in such a confusing way. My best guess is that Paul’s audience was very much on the same wavelength with him, and that many of the things which require mental gymnastics on our part were more intuitive to the Corinthians.
Anyway, this article is the product of many, many readings, hours of discussion, a modest amount of research, and a lot of stubbornness on the part of me and my future wife, for whose brain I am extremely grateful. It may be that we change our minds on a few of these points as God reveals things we’ve missed (hopefully the angels) or flaws in our reasoning. We hope it helps someone out there.
*Although I have been using the ESV translation throughout this post, I have opted for the more literal translation here because of the vast consensus among commentators that ‘symbol of authority’, although a completely reasonable interpretation, is also a lone exception.