1 Corinthians chapter 11 verses 3 to 16: 'Headship and Headcoverings' - JS Gillespie 

1 Corinthians chapter 11 - Headship and Headcoverings 


In verse 3 we see the principle of Headship,  operative throughout the whole of Gods administration. 

What do I mean by headship? 

'κεφαλή' : is used in at least 3 ways in the NT: 

Physical head -  majority of uses 
Place / Position / Power / Dignity / Authority -  Matt 21:42; Acts 4:11; Ephesians 1:22; Ephesians 4:15; 5:23-24 
One one probable occasion of origin (Colossians 2:19) – W. Grudem 1985 – study of 2336 mentions of 'kephale' in Greek Literature – concluded no evidence of 'kephale' being used to mean 'origin / source.' 

Not superior / inferior; 'head of Christ is God' 

cf. John 5:19,30,36; John 8:28-29,38; John 14:13,31 

Just because you are a man, doesn't make you better / more spiritual than a woman, but it does mean that we have a role / responsibility to step up to! 

Illust: Church appointing women elders, no men prepared to take on the role, easy to criticize the sisters but where is the problem? 

Illust: Friend who complained about poor standard of ministry where he was in fellowship, moved elsewhere, women were preaching, eventually accepted the erroneous practice on the basis that it was a lot better than the ministry he used to get! If we have the responsibility for preaching / teaching Gods word, we need to make the sacrifices, spiritually and practically and ensure that we bring something of substance and profit to Gods people, half of whom may well know more than we do but graciously put up with us. Lets not try their patience! 

Note the correct role for sisters: 1 Co14:34; 1 Tim 2:11-12; 3:1-2 

In verse 3 we see: 

System of Headship 
Source of Headship 
Structure of Headship 
Symbol of Headship 

Notice the structure of Headship in verse 3; not only the fact or system by which God operates but note the structural detail to that headship: 


Woman to man 

            to man to Christ 

                        to Christ to God 

Notice the structure,  the overlapping steps in this Headship Structure 

Illust: working in the NHS: 

GP to primary care Medical director to trust Medical director to Chief executive to minister for health to First minister 

So if I can't get any aspirin,  I don't skip all of the intermediates and phone Nicola Sturgeon.  

This detailed understanding of Headship feeds into our interpretation of verse 4. 

V4 -  the covering of the man's anatomical head dishonours the man's spiritual head 

2 ways to read verse 4 

If verse 4 was read in isolation from the chapter the simplest way to read it would be; 'if a man prays with his anatomical head covered he dishonours his anatomical head' 

We would naturally take the same word,  appearing in the same sentence,  with the same possessive pronoun to refer to the same object. 

Illust: I have put the car in the driveway,  the car needs petrol by the way. 

We would naturally take out that I am referring to the same car,  so too in verse 4. 

Illust: listening to recording of a bible reading on 1 Corinthians chapter 11 -  debate between 2 brothers over the meaning of verse 4,  each taking the opposing view.  What was interesting was how the brother with the correct interpretation was unable to explain why 'head' in verse 4 did not mean the same thing twice.  Where did he get the idea that the second mention of head referred to the man's spiritual or metaphorical head?  

The answer to that is very important. 

Where he got that meaning from was verse 3 of course.  Not only did he get that meaning from verse 3 but it is critical that the meaning of headship in verse 3 continues into verse 4 otherwise verse 3 would have no real reason for being there. Verse 3 would open up and expound a subject; headship: 

System of Headship 
Source of Headship 
Structure of Headship 
Symbol of Headship 

Which would then be completely dropped, if that symbolic meaning of  'κεφαλή'  does not continue into verse 4. 

So in verse 4 the covering of the man's physical head dishonours the mans symbolic head. 

Once we are clear on that,  we see the parallel with Verse 5; that the uncovered head of the woman brings dishonour on the woman's spiritual head -  the man.  

Notice that the reality of headship of male over female continues. 


What was the headcovering? 

Is it hair (v15) 

After the objection that this chapter can be dismissed on cultural grounds, probably the second commonest way of dismissing headcoverings is with the argument that a womans hair is the covering expected in verse 5. 

This would never have taken off was it not for the NIV, which very naughtily introduced a footnote interpretation to the text of 1 Corinthians chapter 11: “and every woman who prays or prophesies with no covering of hair on her head dishonours her head...” 

That is not a translation it is a very dishonest interpretation. 

It is also completely untenable: 

It is bad exegesis to read verse 5 retrospectively in the light of the later verse. 
The word for uncovered in verse 5 is: 'ἀκατακάλυπτος' – a covering hanging down like a vail; and the word for covering in verse 15 is: 'περιβόλαιον' – covering around about 
This makes no sense in the context of verse 4 where the man is to pray uncovered. If hair is a covering then for the man to be uncovered would require a shaver to be taken to his head before coming to the assembly, some of us may find that no great sacrifice! 
So in a last ditch attempt to make their theory work you may hear it claimed, ah but it is not hair that is the covering 'it is long hair.' So the woman is to have long hair and man short hair. In response to that I can only encourage believers to read their bible. Long hair is not a covering in verse 15; hair is a covering in verse 15, long hair is a glory, when present, hair is the covering wither long or short. 

When was it to be worn 

In the assembly – certainly (11:16-18); but not exclusively (11:5) (cf John Heading and WE Vine) 

The simplest way to take verse 5; is that Paul has in mind spiritual activities beyond what we might regard as assembly gatherings; otherwise we are left with something of a difficulty in which Paul legislates on something he later condemns (1Co14:34). 

It is difficult to understand the rational of legislating on how something should be done if we believe it aught not to be done! 

We would be left with a verse instructing us on how to do something Paul does not want us to do? 

Furthermore the apostle appears to give a further endorsement of something very similar in verse 13; asserting that it is comely for a woman to pray providing she has a head covering! 

Some have suggested that in verse 5 Paul condemns both the uncovered head and the praying and prophesying with a double condemnation of: 

'as if she were shaven' 

The man on the other hand has only a single condemnation in verse 4 for his covered head. 

If this is the case however it would seem to remove any need for the head covering in verse 5 which is surely there because of the spiritual exercise of the woman and it would do violence to verse 13. 

Does it really matter? 

Some not too Serious objections 


At first it may seem strange to give place / credence to an object on someones head, we may be tempted to think that perhaps this idea of head coverings belongs to a time and place now long gone, at best lost in translation for the present day, until we consider that far from being an extraordinary practice, significance is attached to this practice right through the Word of God and even in social structures today: 


Does it matter what we put on a kings head? 

Baseball cap do? 

A fascinator will suffice? 

“So I stood upon him, and slew him, because I was sure that he could not live after that he was fallen: and I took the crown that was upon his head, and the bracelet that was on his arm, and have brought them hither unto my lord.” (2Sa 1:10) 
“And he took their king's crown from off his head, the weight whereof was a talent of gold with the precious stones: and it was set on David's head. And he brought forth the spoil of the city in great abundance.” (2Sa 12:30) 
“And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!” (Mat 27:29) 
The crown symbolic of rule, reign, authority and dignity, at times of the transfer of that rule from conquered to conqueror 


“And he put the mitre upon his head; also upon the mitre, even upon his forefront, did he put the golden plate, the holy crown; as the LORD commanded Moses.” (Lev 8:9) 
“And they made the plate of the holy crown of pure gold, and wrote upon it a writing, like to the engravings of a signet, HOLINESS TO THE LORD.” (Exo 39:30) – What difference a head covering? Holiness 
“Neither shall he go out of the sanctuary, nor profane the sanctuary of his God; for the crown of the anointing oil of his God is upon him: I am the LORD.” (Lev 21:12) – What difference a head covering? Life and death! 



The significance of the symbol appears dependany upon: 

The System of Headship 
The Structure of Headship 

Note the structure of headship in verse 3: 

The step wise progression: 

from woman to man 

            from man to Christ 

                        to Christ to God 

Yet here in verse 4, the woman is praying and prophesying. 

This Christian woman has a relationship directly to Christ 

When she prays she does not need to go through a man, seek a Levite nor a priest or ask a brother to pray for her. 

She too is a child of God, born again, and is able to cry “Abba Father” 

She has equal access, as the man to the throne of grace, to find help in time of need! (Heb 4:14-16; 10:19-23) 

A problem arises however, in the ordained temporal order, the head of the woman is the man, not Christ directly. 

In the eternal sphere of course all male and female distinctions will be lost; “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.” (Mat 22:30) 

Our spiritual blessings and privileges in Christ are a foretaste of those eternal privileges, yet we are not in heaven yet. 

Both male and female, are now children of God. 

That leaves no room for one having headship over the other in the spiritual sphere; and in the spiritual sphere we do not (Gal 3:28) 

Does God then destroy the headship order which still persists in creation and marriage within the temporal sphere? 

No He does not! 

The order of the temporal is maintained, whilst the new order in the spiritual is being enjoyed! 

As the sister prays she is looking forward to heaven, as she covers her head she is looking back at earth. 

The headship of the man is respected 

The liberty in Christ is acknowledged 

In verse 5 the head covering is not simply to cover the glory of man, as it is in verse 7, but in verse 5 we have an additional thought, that the spiritual exercise of the woman would cause 'dishonour' to the man, her 'head', presumably in by passing that head to god directly to Christ. 

Why does the covering prevent that dishonour? 

Does it symbolise a temporary covering over of man; her head; so that this exercise belongs to a different sphere – that of the heavenly and eternal? 

This is Christs Church, Christs body, in which there is only one head – Christ. 

The man need not feel that he is being overstepped or sidelined, the mans position of head is recognised, yet the veil reminds that this is a spiritual exercise, in which the sister has perfect liberty and freedom from the hierarchy of male and female. 

I would judge that this explains v5b; “that is even all one as if she were shaven” - here would be a further step in dismissing and despising the headship of the man; she would cast off her femininity and look like a man, usurping his place as a man. 

It would also explain the reassurance of verse 11 that having said all that he has said, Paul wishes to reassure us that nonetheless he maintains the headship and pattern of male and female relationships, so what he has been teaching must in some way appear to bring unity and liberty for the woman in the spiritual sphere. 

The Spiritual exercise of the woman 

Some not too Serious objections 

Pauls presentation of head coverings does not depend upon culture: 

Church practice (11:16) 
Principles of headship (11:3) 
Biblical significance of head coverings (11:4-6) 
Creatorial order (11:7-9) 
Testimony to angels (11:10) 
Personal sense of decency (11:13) 
Natural order (11:14)

Notes from a sermon preached  as part of our systematic bible study series on 1 Corinthians. 

Free audio, mp3 downloads  available above, of these messages as we expound verse by verse through the first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. 

Yours by Grace in Christ 

Dr J Stewart Gillespie