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The eleventh chapter of First Corinthians is one of the most difficult passages in
the Pauline Epistles.
As a result, it is perhaps one of the most frequently misinterpreted. One common
is that it teaches that women should not cut their hair, but is that what this passage is really saying?
“… He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth…”
In this verse,
keiro is used in reference to the shearing of sheep, which suggests more than just a simple trimming of the hair. Instead, it suggests a complete or near complete removal of hair from the skin. No one would suggest that a sheep has been
shorn if only one lock of hair has been cut from the sheep, yet that is what those that maintain that
shorn means “cut at all” are suggesting by saying that if a woman trims her hair (even unnoticeably), she is shorn.
“And Paul after this tarried there yet a good while, and then took his leave of the brethren, and sailed thence into Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila; having shorn his head in Cenchrea: for he had a vow.”
Here we see that Paul had taken the Nazarite vow. Those who took the Nazarite
vow (both men and women) were required to cut off all of their hair at
its completion (Num 6:18; cf. 6:2, 6:5), not simply trim it.
“But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.”
Suggesting that shorn means “cut at all” fails to address what Paul means by covered and uncovered in these verses. As a result, those that have adopted this definition (cut at all) must then argue that when Paul refers to an uncovered head, he is describing the head of a person from which hair has been cut. In this scenario, shorn would refer to hair that has been cut and uncovered would refer to a head that has had hair cut from it. If this were the case, verse 6 would read,
“For if the woman [has cut hair from her head], let her also [cut her hair]…”
Obviously, this interpretation would render the reading of this verse illogical.
As a result, anyone that takes the “uncut hair” position must abandon his
definition of shorn.
“For if the woman [has cut hair from her head], let her also [cut the rest off]…”
could then be argued that Paul is saying that if a woman even trims her hair, she might as well
cut off all off it. Looking at verse 6 in isolation, it is conceivable that this is what Paul is saying. This interpretation, however, is dependent
upon two things. First, it must be shown that the word
uncovered describes a head from which hair has been cut, and secondly,
such an interpretation must be logically consistent within the
“According to the passages cited by Bauer and Moulton and Milligan's Vocabulary of Greek New Testament 'kome' is uncut hair. The passages cited by these works where this word occurs in Greek literature demand a meaning of 'uncut hair.'”7
Ferguson then states that kome is used in Greek literature in relation to the Nazarite vow, but read Ferguson’s statement carefully. He never directly states that Bauer, Moulton and Milligan defined kome to mean “uncut hair,” because they never have. Yet that seems to be the impression he is trying to give. However, to suggest that kome means “uncut hair” is to ignore the fact that this same word can be used to describe cut hair. Just as the English word hair is used to mean “uncut” in this phrase:
“The hair of John the Baptist, a Nazarite from birth....”
Hair can also be used to mean “cut shortly” as seen in the following phrase:
“The hair of Samson, after Delilah caused his fall...”
The futility of trying to find a teaching of strictly uncut hair for women in these passages is now seen. It is worthwhile, though, to examine a few more problems with the teaching that
I Corinthians 11 requires strictly uncut hair on women.
Consider also the question that Paul asks in verse 13,
“Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?”
the word comely refers to a woman’s appearance, the only way one
can determine that it is not “comely” for a woman to pray uncovered is if being uncovered
visible. Often a woman can trim her bangs or her dead ends, and it is not visible to anyone. If Paul
is referring to a woman cutting
or trimming her hair, why does he ask this question when her cut or
trimmed hair may not be visible? Apparently, Paul is saying that being uncovered is visible – to the point of being
“...uncovered head and bound hair was to signify both commitment to the strange god of wine and at the same time repudiation of male injustice.”
In describing the practices of similar cults, Clark further states that,
“A relief from Rome shows a high priest of Cybele. The castrated priest wears veil, necklaces, earrings and feminine dress.”8
A telling artifact that was discovered is a vase painting from Corinth that depicts a woman dancing before Dionysus with a shaved head. 9
Jimmilea Berryhill, M.A., adds additional insight:
“In the Dionysiac cult, as well as other Greco-roman mystery rites, transvestitism was a specific distinction and by the second century A.D. was considered to be indispensable. Veils and long hair were worn by men as sign of dedication to their god while the women used unveiling and shorn hair. Men masqueraded as women and women as men.”10
It seems apparent, then, that the focus of Paul’s
writings was to admonish the Corinthians to avoid paganistic and counter-culture
practices. Essentially, the veiling of women was the cultural norm in Corinth and pagan worshippers rejected this practice out of rebellion against “the establishment.” Paul was merely instructing the women of Corinth not to remove their veils during worship either because they too were
rebelling or because they would be inappropriately identified with pagan practices, or both.
By admonishing the women to wear veils and the men not to wear veils during worship, he was instructing the church to not engage in
or be identified with the rebellious cross-dressing practices of the pagans
that included female
unveiling and male veiling.
Furthermore, Paul's reference to shorn and shaven heads as being
shameful in 1 Cor 11:6 also seems to be directly related to the
practices of the pagan women in and around Corinth.
That 1 Corinthians 11 refers to the practice of veiling was universally agreed upon by the early church as evidenced in their writings. Not one single early church writer ever wrote that 1 Corinthians 11 taught strictly uncut hair (see chart).
If these verses are primarily dealing with the practice of veiling, then what implications does this have for the church today? To fully understand Paul’s teachings and their implications, it is best to read the entire passage in context, verse by verse.
11:3 – “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.”
This is perhaps the most important verse in this chapter, for it is the basis of the entire passage. Paul is teaching that there is a spiritually ordained, hierarchical arrangement between man, woman, Christ and God. God is the head of Christ; Christ is the head of man, and man is the head of the woman. It must be noted that woman in these passages does not refer to the female sex in general, but a wife.11 These passages define the relationship between a man, his wife (woman) and God. This arrangement is one of spiritual leadership. Jesus Christ was not an authoritarian, but a servant-leader and as such, this is the role that the man should play in the household and in the church. He, in following the example of Christ, should be a servant-leader to his family and to the church. A true servant-leader, as Christ was, never takes a heavy-handed, dictatorial approach to those in his charge but leads by example in love.
11:4 – “Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.”
A man wearing a veil is effeminate and dishonors his head, Jesus Christ (v. 3), because he is rejecting the spiritually ordained hierarchy by rebelling against the role that he has been placed in by God.
11:5 – “But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.”
Likewise, any woman that refused to wear a veil was also rejecting God’s spiritually ordained hierarchy by rebelling against a custom of that day that showed her submission to her husband. In fact, she was committing the same sin of rebellion committed by the pagan women who cast off their veils and shaved their heads in protest against “male dominance.” Veiling was a custom practiced by women to show their commitment to their husbands in the ancient Greco-Roman world.
11:6 – “For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.”
If a woman refused to wear a veil as the pagan women did, she might as well shave her head as the pagan women did. However, since such pagan practices were shameful, then the women should have put on a veil while worshipping.
11:7-9 – “For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.”
At this point, we begin to see that Paul is speaking as much about spiritual coverings as he is about physical coverings. God, through Jesus Christ, is man’s spiritual “covering,” and man is woman’s spiritual “covering.” Again, this is a reflection of the servant-leader role played by Christ to mankind and of the servant-leader role played by man to his wife. A man is to act as a spiritual protector, or covering, for his wife as Christ does for us. The man-made covering (the veil) was a symbol of this relationship, providing a sign of spiritual submission by the wife to the husband. By refusing to wear a veil, the Corinthian women were showing a rebellion towards this Godly relationship. Verses 8 and 9 tell us that just man was created for God, woman was created for man. As such, the spiritually ordained hierarchy has been in place since the creation of mankind.
11:10 – “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.”
The word power in this verse is the Greek word exousia and refers to hierarchical authority.12 Since woman was created for man, then a woman should have “power on her head” or, in other words, authority over her. Furthermore, a woman should not rebel against this divine relationship as the pagan women did because doing so is the sin of rebellion which was also committed by the angels that followed Lucifer – they too rejected the authority over them, which was God.
11:11,12 – “Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.”
Though woman was created for man, man also exists today because
the woman gives birth to man. Paul is teaching that there is a check and balance. Man does not have sovereign authority over a woman, for both were made by God. God alone is the sovereign authority.
11:13 – “Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?”
Since veiling of women was commonplace in the Corinthian culture as a sign of submission, any woman seen praying without a veil would have been repugnant to the observer. To them, the women would be praying to God while simultaneously rebelling against Him.
11:14 – “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?"
In the pagan culture of Corinth, men often wore long hair to appear feminine. The “shame” here is not so much the long hair itself, as many men in the Bible including John the Baptist had long hair (e.g. the Nazarite vow), but the attempt to appear feminine and reject the male role.
11:15 – “But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.”
A woman’s long hair is a glory in that it is a natural covering that, like the veil, reflects her acceptance of her husband as her spiritual covering. In reflecting her acceptance of her husband's role, God is also glorified. Paul is not saying that her hair is given instead of a covering (as addressed previously). He is merely reinforcing his original argument for female veiling, not contradicting it by saying that a woman’s hair replaces the veil.
11:16 – “But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.”
While this verse is translated
as saying, “no such custom,” most Bible scholars agree that it would be more appropriately translated, “no other
custom.” Paul is saying that if anyone wishes to be divisive over this, tell them
that we accept nothing less than veiling in the church of God. It is unlikely that Paul would have gone through such a lengthy discourse
only to say in the end, “Well, if you disagree, that’s okay because we don’t have such a custom anyway.”
Neither is Paul referring to being contentious as not being a custom in the church.
Veiling is indeed a custom, but it would be
inaccurate to call contentiousness a custom.
11-Thayer and Smith. "Greek Lexicon entry for Gune". "The KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon".
Strong's # 1135.