1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (An Alternative Understanding), Part 1

priscilla-catacombs3I’ve tried to exegete 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 several times, beginning with my book Buried Talents, written before I began blogging, and then a couple of times here on the blog.

In Buried Talents, I took the view that “head” was the opposite of “portrait” — “image” in the Greek. Hence, God is the model of which Jesus is the image or portrait; men are the image of God; women are the glory of men. Paul uses “glory” with respect to women and men because women are, of course, also made in the image of God.

And that might actually be right. But when I first posted on this subject many long years ago, the readers persuaded me to go with another viewpoint. Hence, I rewrote and reposted the series in terms of “source” or “beginning.” And ate a little crow (an all-too-familiar flavor).

A couple of nights ago, I rewrote those posts in light of new material from Bruce Winter but following the same logic. When I finished, I said to myself, “I’m fully persuaded on the Ephesians material, but I’ve not convinced even myself on 1 Corinthians 11.”

So I thought I’d take another approach, more closely tied to the Ephesians use of “head.” Although the Corinthian church could not have interpreted “head” in light of Ephesians, since Ephesians was written many years later, it doesn’t seem likely that Paul would use “head” in a radically different sense in the two letters. I mean, in both cases he’s talking about husbands and wives, and in both cases, he declares the husband the “head” of the wife.


PS — I find many readers get very upset when I change my mind on something or confess that I’m not sure of my position. In fact, they should worry far more if I were to never change my mind or never be uncertain! Those teachers who know everything and are never wrong are dangerous people, who should be fled.

We are certain of our salvation, not because we have teachers who know all the answers, but because God is certain to keep his promises and because we are saved by his unwavering love and grace. Our certainty is built on the faithfulness of God and the price he paid, through Jesus, on the cross.


As we covered several weeks ago, Corinth was a Roman city built in Greece. When Rome began expanding eastward, toward Greece, the Grecian cities formed an alliance to resist Roman aggression. And so Rome conquered Corinth and burned it to the ground.

Many years later, Rome re-founded Corinth as a Roman colony populated by retired Roman soldiers. Their pensions included a land grant, and Rome liked to place retired soldiers throughout the Empire to help remind people who is in charge.

Because of Corinth’s location on a land bridge to the Peloponnesian Peninsula with harbors on both sides of Greece, it quickly became a wealthy city. Greeks, Jews, and many others moved there to build businesses and make a living.

Greek was the language of commerce and literature, but Latin was often heard on the streets. Some of the Jews likely spoke Aramaic at home, but their scriptures were the Septuagint — the Old Testament translated into Greek.


vestal2sm.jpg - 8300 BytesIn a recent book, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities, Bruce Winter explains that, contrary to countless books and commentaries, the veil was a sign of modesty among Romans, the founders of Corinth.

The veil was the most symbolic feature of the bride’s dress in Roman culture. Plutarch indicated that `veiling the bride’ was, in effect, the marriage ceremony. Other writers in the early Empire confirm that the bride’s veil was an essential part of her apparel.’

(p. 78).

By deliberately removing her veil while playing a significant role of praying and prophesying in the activities of Christian worship, the Christian wife was knowingly flouting the Roman legal convention that epitomised marriage. It would have been self-evident to the Corinthians that in so doing she was sending a particular signal to those gathered (11:13).

It is also clear from the comments that, if she wished to appear as an adulterous married woman, she should bear the full consequences of the shame associated with that, i.e., have her hair cropped or shaved off (11:6). From the text it appears that she was not only indifferent to looking disreputable by first-century standards but, by deliberately removing the marriage veil, she was being contentious — as were the men in the Christian gathering (11:4, 16).

If, according to Roman law, she was what she wore, or in this case, what she removed from her head, then this gesture made a statement in support of the mores of some of her secular sisters, the new wives, who sought to ridicule the much-prized virtue of modesty which epitomised the married woman.

(p. 96).

In short, the absence of a veil would have been seen as immodest for a married woman. However, single women did not cover their hair. But when a Roman woman married, the marriage ceremony included the veiling of her hair — a sign that only her husband would be permitted to enjoy the sight of her uncovered head from then on.

Jewish mores were similar, but it’s likely that Greek culture did not expect married women to wear a veil. And so, in a cosmopolitan city filled with a wide range of cultures, which culture gets to have its way? Well, what does love require?


Plainly, there is nothing here about wearing hats or a bit of lace. The purpose of the veil was to cover the married woman’s hair, as a matter of modesty. It wasn’t primarily submission so much as modesty — but for a married women, a refusal to be modest would, of course, be an insult to her husband.

As La Follette observed, wives ‘depicted on tombstones are most typically in the pose called pudicitia (modesty), in which they have the mantle (palla, i.e., the veil) up over their heads, holding part of it in front of their faces’.” Therefore, it can be confidently concluded that the veiled head was the symbol of the modesty and chastity expected of a married woman.

(pp. 79-80). Plainly, modern hats and other Western head coverings have nothing to do with modesty or with submission to husbands.

Shaving the head

Dio Chrysostom … recorded that Medea’s own daughter became an adulteress and had her hair cut off according to the law. It is clear that part of the punishment for adultery was cutting off the offender’s hair.

(pp. 82-83). For a woman to have her head shaved was a shame — a mark of adultery as well as the removal of one of her most attractive features, to make her less tempting to men.

Husband or man? wife or woman?

And so we see that Paul is not announcing a law from God’s handbook of how to do church. Rather, he is insisting that Christian wives — not women generally — must adhere to societal norms so that they don’t bring shame to themselves, to their husbands, or to the church.

And this helps solve a translation difficulty. The Greek words anēr (husband or man) and gunē (wife or woman) are perfectly ambiguous, and so whether a spouse is in mind has to be taken from context. Now we know that we should prefer “husband” and “wife” in this passage.

Genesis 2

And if Paul is referring to spouses, rather than men and women generally, we can expect him to use Genesis 2 as his standard of conduct, just as he did in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7. After all, except in Genesis 2, the Torah says very little about marriage, husbands, and wives.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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13 Responses to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (An Alternative Understanding), Part 1

  1. R.J. says:

    But why is it shameful for a man to cover his head if Bruce Winter is correct? Is being flirtatious while married considered adulterous?

  2. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Will be addressed in a future post. Read 2 Cor 3.

  3. mrjgardiner says:

    Hi Jay, While you’re working through this topic I just wanted to point you to two critiques I’ve written on Winter’s “Roman Wives, Roman Widows”.

    Part 1: http://www.headcoveringmovement.com/articles/a-critique-of-bruce-winters-roman-wives-roman-widows-part-1
    Part 2: http://www.headcoveringmovement.com/articles/a-critique-of-bruce-winters-roman-wives-roman-widows-part-2

  4. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    Thanks for the citations and the material in them. Has anyone else taken issue with Winter’s arguments? I’ve done a Google search, and all the other reviews I can find seem to agree with his conclusions. If he’s as wrong as you suggest, I’d think the academics would have published some criticisms. Are there any?

  5. mrjgardiner says:

    Appreciate the response Jay. I think it’s fair to be skeptical of a blog critique of a very smart, PhD scholar writing in his own field of study. I can only encourage you to try weigh the strength of the arguments rather than the credentials (not that I’m saying you wouldn’t do that.)

    Head covering is a taboo topic so there’s very few who take it on. However, all those who agree that headcovering is for today would of course disagree with Winter’s conclusions. Some notable academics who take this position include: Bruce K. Waltke (Double PhD, Harvard Divinity School & Dallas Theological Seminary), R.C. Sproul (PhD, Whitefield Theological Seminary), Elliott E. Johnson (PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary), Gerald Bilkes (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary), Miton Vincent (mDiv, The Master’s Seminary), Alexander Strauch (mDiv, Denver Seminary).

    I’m not aware of any academics who have responded to Winter directly. However, if you look at virtually any biblical commentary you’ll see them taking issue with many of Winter’s arguments, most notably of “angels” being human spys.

  6. Larry Cheek says:

    Sometimes education just destroys good judgement. I have seen many educated idiots.

  7. Dwight says:

    We have literally destroyed I Cor.11:2-16 by dissecting it into words instead of a complete thought that we wouldn’t do with any other verses in I Corinthians. We have to pick it apart so we don’t have to confront the theme and application. Forest for the trees. We don’t pick the next section on the Lord’s Supper apart like we do this. Whatever happened to reading and applying to the best of our ability, instead of laying down excuses after excuses. We make it a point of contention, even though it is easy to do and there is a good reason to do it. We make it about culture, even though it is put forth because of the headship of God-Jesus-man-woman and not culture, unless this order was only applied to this culture and then accordingly we shouldn’t have to understand the order today, because it was only applied to them. It either all stands or it all falls under its singular and unified thought. We have turned something simple into something complicated.

  8. Dwight says:

    Having looked through Winter’s arguments he tries to make an argument using culture, even though intially saying this was removed from culture. I do think that Winter makes a good point in that here we have someone not ignoring the application, but rather trying their best to do it on some level. It is clear that a headcovering on a woman was being pushed for and a headcovering on a man was being argued against in I Cor.11:2-16 because of God’s order. I understand that per the text long hair was given to her for a covering, but even then a covering of some sort is being asked for and it is a shame for a man to be covered. Read and apply.

  9. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    You’ll notice that I didn’t buy his argument re human spies. I just don’t think an apostle wouldn’t use “angels” to mean “messengers of Caesar” in such an ambiguous (if Winter is right) way. On the other hand, regardless of the details, I’m not buying head coverings as a universal rule for today. If that’s the rule, then it is JUST a rule. After all, there is nothing in the OT or the Gospels to justify such a rule.

    Many in the Churches of Christ are entirely comfortable with the notion that God has laid down all sorts of arbitrary rules about how he should be worshiped, not bothering to write it all down in a systematic way as he did for Moses. But I think the NT plainly rejects such thinking, is not a book of laws comparable to the Law of Moses, and should be read in terms of the gospel, the kingdom, and becoming like Jesus. And head coverings do not make us more or less like Jesus. Jesus is the goal — the way, truth, and the life.

    Head coverings made sense if, in the local culture, their removal would symbolize a refusal of a wife to be a suitable helper for her husband, rebellion, immorality, or other sinful attitudes or behaviors. But they make no sense as a permanent fixture.

    I mean, the usual interpretation is to insist that women wear a symbolic head covering in church but not at home or elsewhere, as though we were required to behave better at church where — where what? God is? Why would male/female relationships be one way in the assembly — in someone’s house when 1 Cor was written — and yet a different at your own house or in the market?

    And so I find such an interpretation extremely problematic. It raises far more questions than answers. Why a head covering? Why at church? Submission to who — husbands or men? And if men, all men? Even baptized youths? If not, what is the age of adulthood for head covering purposes? Non-Christians or just Christians?

    Cover the face? The hair? All the hair? Just a bit of lace on top? What about a $200 hat nearly the size of a chair? Flowers? Ribbons? Gold and pearls?

    In the building? Or just in the auditorium during the assembly? In Bible class? In a committee meeting at church? Same meeting in a coffee shop? At home?

    Is it the wearing that’s important or the message that the wearing tells? What is the message? Do we really expect visitors to understand? Wouldn’t we have to publish something in the Sunday handout saying that this is because women must all be submission to men from 9:00 am to 10:00 am every Sunday morning while in the assembly? What about Wed night class?

    If we really want to communicate the submissiveness of our women, why not wear hats/lace/veils everywhere so that the message is heard by others? What’s the point of telling church members — who already know — about submissiveness and not telling those outside the church?

    And please don’t take me as being sarcastic. I really wonder these things: if head coverings for women are really required by God in all assemblies in all places at all times.

    On the other hand, my understanding doesn’t require the invention of pages and pages of rules and understandings not found in scripture. So under the KISS principle, or if you prefer, Ockham’s Razor, it seems that it’s really about modesty and submission to one’s husband — a principle easily found in Genesis and Ephesians. The rationale is given. It makes sense. And Paul has carefully balanced the lesson so that husbands have a submissive responsibility as well so that’s not about a worldly hierarchy.

    I don’t have those kinds of degrees, but I could certainly compile a vastly longer list of scholars who reject the necessity of head coverings. I’m sure you’d agree that the number of scholars is not the test.

    On the other hand, I’m certain that God accepts, honors, and approves the worship of those women who cover their hair to honor God. It is, for them, an act of worship and accepted as such. And I’m just as certain that God does not reject the worship of those women who worship him with their hair exposed, just as the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair was approved and even blessed by the Son of God. (And what an odd lesson to be recorded if the church wanted women to cover their hair when in the special presence of Jesus!)

  10. mrjgardiner says:

    Your questions are good, but I don’t think the abundance of questions takes anything away from the argument Paul lays out himself for the universal practice. I think there’s a satisfactory answer to every question you mentioned (most of which I’ve written an article for on our site).

    We see the Law of of Christ differently. I do believe Christ issues us new commands, like to baptize, to work, to provide for our family etc.

    Jesus said in John 14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Notice they’re “his” commands, meaning Jesus and commands are not antithetical.

    Thanks for the conversation and for hearing my points. I’m going to be dropping out of the conversation now. I just wanted to give one final response to your questions.

  11. The real value in questions such as Jay asks is when we stop and consider them. It requires us to think in ways we may not have before. Sometimes even this frightens us. When such questions arise, we may quickly realize that (a) we have no good answers to them, which opens the possibility that (b) we may not have all the answers after all, which might just mean that (c) some of the answers we do have might be wrong.

    The best way to cut off this distressing line of thought is to simply stop considering the questions, forget that we couldn’t answer them, and try to limit our exposure to anyone else asking such questions. Or if we really want the last word, it’s best to disengage, walk away a safe distance, and address the issues in a different venue where no one is there to challenge our reasoning.

  12. mrjgardiner says:

    Charles, I don’t find the questions distressing. They are good questions but they also have really good answers. Whenever we learn about a new topic we always think “what about this?” “and what about that?” I’m just pointing out that the questions have already been contemplated and answered. You are more than welcome to interact with any of the answers we’ve already provided to Jay’s questions should you desire to. I just don’t see the need to re-hash them here.

  13. Dwight says:

    The problem with open ended questions is that they are mean to cast doubt on the intended concept with by not anssering them or alluding that there could be answers. We can ask questions about Jesus diety and not seek to answer them and thus we leave doubt.
    There is no headcovering that is a permanent fixture that cannot be removed, even hair, it is only permanent depending upon the person who has the hair and hair can be shortened, but can be grown long. This shows intent by the wearer to comply or not.
    The scripture only points to prayer and prophecy, which can be done anywhere.
    The passage is very specific about coverings on women and/or a lack of on men relating to headship of God,Jesus,man and woman. If praying was done in secret and we are told to, then this praying would be to God without anyone else in sight and yet the concept of honoring the headship of God,Jesus,man and woman would still exist. This isn’t about show, but reflection and honoring and doing and relating.

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