Editor’s Note: This is a CBE 2022 Writing Contest Honorable Mention!
At face value, 1 Corinthians 11:5–16 seems to explicitly require that all women cover their heads in church, particularly when praying and prophesying. Yet varying interpretations and applications continue to spark heated conversation today — even among women — with strong opinions on both sides of the issue weighing in on shame, dishonor, and the subjugation of women in the broader narrative of Scripture. Questions to consider include: Did Paul really advocate for the head covering of all women as a function of their faith and access to Christ? If so, how do we reconcile Paul’s foundational declaration that the saving grace of Christ is freely available to all with no strings attached? When Paul states, “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it,” did that not include women? Or do women have to earn God’s honor and gift of grace by covering their heads?
Let’s take a closer look at the historical and cultural context of the first-century world. When appropriately applied, the interpretation of this passage shifts considerably to reflect Paul as acting counterculturally in support of all women veiling, demonstrating the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by offering God’s free gift of salvation to all. Even as we look back to the ancient world, explosive topics such as veiling and the position of women in the church today continue to impact critical decisions within the family of God. We are wise to carefully look back while thoughtfully and humbly thinking forward, keeping God’s call to expand the Kingdom firmly in focus.
From a historical perspective, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is addressed to members of the early church, likely meeting in homes in the port city of Corinth — an area widely known for its diverse, cosmopolitan behavior and particularly for its wild sexual immorality, drunkenness, and cultic practices. The early church welcomed those from all walks of life: Jews and Gentiles, women and men, the social elite, the working poor, and even those from the lowest classes (slaves, prostitutes, and freedwomen). Paul’s commitment to equality, mutuality, and unity as one body in Christ is evident throughout many of his early letters (Romans 12:1-6, Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 4:1-16, 6:23-24). As a result, women from all social classes and backgrounds were attracted to Christianity as a community where their contributions, presence, and callings were recognized and appreciated in stark contrast to the cultural norms of the day. William B. Bowes, author of A Religion of “Women and Children”? A Christian Woman’s Place in the Greco-Roman World Before AD300 paints the picture of a completely new experience for women who “found in the Jesus movement a God who called them worthy and valuable . . . who valued them equally to men, [and] intended to work through them as females and not in spite of their femaleness.”
Not only did Christianity establish women’s inherent value in Christ, but its high standard of ethics also provided a level of safety and security that otherwise barely existed for women in the first century. Thus, when reading chapter eleven of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, there are cultural questions that must be asked to avoid assumption and misinterpretation of his audience and intent. The chapter is often assumed to be Paul delivering an imperative ruling to women in the church. Yet when readers set aside this assumption, what will they find? Perhaps, that Paul was speaking not directly to the women but directly to the men of the early church instead.
If we look at the first-century world’s historical and cultural context, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:5–16 may have been directed toward men. Paul’s combative tone suggests a two-way conversation, with phrases like those found in verses 13–16 — “Judge for yourselves, isn’t it obvious, if anyone wants to argue about this . . . ” — suggesting an ongoing debate or banter, as was common among men in the first-century world. It is doubtful that women would have entered into this type of conversation with anyone besides their husbands (if that), and they would have been even less inclined to do so with a publicly acknowledged leader and apostle such as Paul. Les Bridgeman states, “This one change in perspective allows us to see Paul siding with women against men, rather than imposing unwanted restriction on women.” This consideration opens the door to further exploration. What do we know about men’s behavior toward women in the first-century world, the cultural standards for head covering, and how women interacted with men as a result?
First-century Roman customs regarding veiling stemmed from Assyrian law — laws made by men, not by God. They are often misunderstood, and there are even varying interpretations as to whether “veil” is a good representation of the “head covering” mentioned in verses 5, 6, and 13, especially when compared with the original Greek manuscripts, Greco-Roman culture, sculpture, and other first-century portraiture. How do we see women portrayed in ancient art? Was it an actual veil (a word that in modern English usually means a cloth covering the face or head)? A shawl or palla, a cloth draped around the body? Or does it refer to hair left down to flow loosely versus hair respectfully pinned up and secured? Regardless of the form that veiling took, the focus of the Assyro-Roman law was not so much to require women to cover their heads so as to restrict their rights and subjugate their value; instead, it specified those women who were prohibited from veiling due to their lowly or shameful social status. In other words, women of high social status wore veils to signify their modesty and virtue, sending a clear message to men that they were off-limits and sexually unavailable as respected women of good repute. Conversely, lower-class and disgraced women were not allowed to veil, thus signaling their sexual availability to men at large. This was taken so literally that men were not held liable for the sexual assault of a woman with her head uncovered.
Couple the ever-present risk of sexual assault that women faced in the first-century Greco-Roman world with the probability that Paul spoke directly to men in 1 Corinthians 11:5–16, and a new question arises. Given a choice to veil and assume the protection of virtue and modesty, or to not veil and open the door to unwanted male attention, is it really likely that women wanted to unveil to brandish their independence? Or is it more probable that men wanted the women to unveil in order to access and abuse them sexually? Or that higher-class women wanted lower-class women to remain unveiled so as to keep those class distinctions visible and rigidly in place?
The examples in Jewish literature where women were forced to unveil, both literally and figuratively, to satisfy men’s sexual pleasure suggest the interpretation that all women could veil is a possibility. Women, especially in the first-century world, would have been more likely to choose their safety over unwanted male attention and abuse. As Cynthia Westfall states, “When we understand more accurately, our interpretation is bound to change. If I were a woman in Corinth in the first century, I would veil.”
In the case of Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, a curious countercultural position now arises as Paul advocates for the head covering of all women. His belief in the Good News of the Gospel of Christ as being available for all people is consistently repeated across his epistles as a core tenet of the Christian faith, thus continuing to affirm a diverse church that included women of any social standing (or lack thereof). Paul does not differentiate among women in any way in his references to head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:5–16. This implies that he was pushing back against the laws that prohibited some of those women from veiling; he was opening the door for all women to reclaim honor, dignity, and, ultimately, safety. This interpretation also aligns with Paul’s contempt for legalism since it would have been unlikely for him to demand adherence to the law as a requirement for worship. Finally, the countercultural nature of his “broad stroke” application of veiling for all women would have undoubtedly ruffled feathers among the men, thus explaining Paul’s combative tone.
Within this cultural context, the troubling passage that seems misaligned with Paul’s appreciation of women and his discontent with legalism is now revealed to be satisfying and reflective of his overarching patterns of behavior. “Paul’s painting on the largest canvas imaginable, past, present, and future, uses the same bright colors for both men and women. Together with men, he supports the full dignity, destiny, and gifting of women.” Paul is allowing all women the freedom to veil.
How then should we live today? Regardless of varied opinions and interpretations — between women and men, egalitarians and complementarians, and the wide range of in-betweens — as to the what, why, and how, the first-century context is ever key to the application of this passage. When we explore curiously conflicting statements by Paul in his early letters, we should step back to consider his overarching position, behavior, and mission as an ambassador of Christ and builder of the early church. As Craig Keener states, “Although Paul often advocated the mutuality of gender roles, he also worked within the boundaries of his culture where necessary for the sake of the gospel.” Paul’s ultimate goal was to protect and preserve the sanctity of worship and the reputation of the early church while also elevating and honoring the diverse body of women who found their home and freedom in Christ. “Head coverings are not about women knowing their submissive place, but about turning contentiousness into mutuality and cooperation for the sake of the whole.” We are wise to follow Paul’s example, measuring our actions, individually and collectively, by the resulting impact on the whole. Where division fractures unity, we should challenge ourselves to consider our methods and modes, remaining open to adjusting our interpretation and application to better cultivate and represent the unified body of Christ Paul so frequently promotes.
The spirit of Paul’s words remains relevant as we carefully explore the church’s modern reputation in order to address those areas that are creating stumbling blocks to the Kingdom, undermining how the unbelieving world perceives the Good News of the Gospel. Just as Paul’s advice to first-century churches was calculated to preserve the honor and dignity of every person in the family of God and reflect the ultimate intent of God to reconcile all to freedom in Christ in a way that made sense within the cultural norms of his day, so modern churches should do the same with modern cultural norms. Should women wear veils today? As a reflection of modern-day society — no. As a requirement for entry and access to the church and to Christ — no. As a sign of women’s subordination — no. As a concession to men’s mythical inability to control themselves sexually — no. As a personal choice to protect and preserve their sense of self and safety in a world that continues to leave women at higher risk of unwanted male attention — yes, absolutely. If she so chooses.
Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.
 Ephesians 2:8–9 (New Living Translation).
 Philip B. Payne, “Wild Hair and Gender Equality in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” Priscilla Papers 20, no. 3 (2006): 11. Cynthia Westfall, “The Symbol of the Veil in the Ancient Near East and Today: Subjugation or Honor,” CBE International, last modified July 25, 2013, accessed April 26, 2022, https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/audio/symbol-veil-ancient-near-east-and-today-subjugation-or-honor. N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird, The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019), 477.
 William B. Bowes, “A Religion of ‘Women and Children’? A Christian Woman’s Place in the Greco-Roman World Before AD 300,” Priscilla Papers 35, no. 4 (October 2021): https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/religion-women-and-children-christian-womans/.
 1 Corinthians 11:13–16 (New Living Translation).
 Westfall, “Symbol of the Veil.”
 Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 27.
 Payne, “Wild Hair and Gender Equality,” 10–12.
 Westfall, “Symbol of the Veil.” Marg Mowczko, “Head Coverings and 1 Corinthians 11:2–16,” Marg Mowczko (blog), June 30, 2019, https://margmowczko.com/head-coverings-1-corinthians-11/.
 Bridgeman, “Paul’s View of Women.” Queen Vashti (Esther 1:10–13, New International Version) and Susanna 1:31–33.
 Westfall, “Symbol of the Veil.”
 Galatians 4:12; 5:1.
 Bridgeman, “Paul’s View of Women.”
 Craig S. Keener, “Was Paul For or Against Women in Ministry?,” Enrichment Journal Spring (2001): 82–86.
 John B. Polhill, Paul and His Letters (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2020), 244-245.
 Nijay Gupta, “Why I Believe in Women in Ministry: Part 11 (Gupta),” Crux Sola: Formed by Scripture to Live Like Christ (blog), Patheos, May 29, 2019, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/cruxsola/2019/05/why-i-believe-in-women-in-ministry-part-11-gupta/.
 1 Corinthians 11:10 (New International Version). “It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.”
Wild Hair and Gender Equality in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16
“I’ve Got You Covered”: The Cultural Background for Veiling Women
Video: The Symbol of the Veil in the Ancient Near East and Today: Subjugation or Honor