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Should women cover their hair in church?

The Apostle Paul writes about head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11. As we try to apply his teaching to our own time it is very important for us to understand the culture that the apostle Paul was writing into.

In Greece during the 1st century the clothes men and women wore were very similar in style apart from the head-covering which was only worn by women. The uncovered hair of a woman was considered sexually arousing and was believed to provoke lust in men. So it was normal, dignified and socially appropriate for women (especially married women) to wear the head-covering.

However the rich influential mistresses of Corinthian culture did not wear the head-covering. These women were brazen and sexually immoral. Along with this the punishment for women who were convicted of adultery was to have their heads shaved as a sign of their shame. Some have also suggested that the female prostitutes who served in the temple of Aphrodite did not wear head-coverings either. So the failure of a woman to cover her hair became a sign of sexual infidelity, immorality, promiscuity and dishonour.

Some of these women who had been found guilty of adultery and used to be temple prostitutes were becoming Christians. If all women in church meetings covered their heads then these ladies would not stand out as different. They would be treated as forgiven and accepted into the Christian church through the grace of God however wrong their past had been.

However it seems there were a number of women in the church who used their freedom in Christ as a justification not to wear the head-covering during meetings. Perhaps they wanted to show off their latest hairstyles or attract attention to themselves. Paul sees this as an unnecessary and unhelpful distraction to the men in the church (who would see this as a flirtatious act and were likely to struggle with lust as a result).

What is more Paul identifies that their refusal to wear the head-covering comes from a defiant attitude that goes against God’s creation order: that Christ is the head of the church and man is the head of the woman (see Ephesians 5:23). His reasoning is that if a wife of a man in the church comes with her hair uncovered it would not bring honour to her husband because the uncovered hair is a sign that she is like the adulterous, sexually promiscuous women in the pagan world. It is as though she is not recognising her duty to honour her husband and is behaving like an unbeliever.

So he argues that in order to honour their husbands the woman should show the proper restraint and wear the head-covering. It is an issue of submission. The woman who covered her head was showing that she submitted to her husband’s authority and therefore to God’s order.

Paul’s further argument in 1 Cor 11:11-16 is about the nature of male and female identity is simply explaining that women are given long hair as a covering whereas men have short hair. Obviously he was writing into a culture where that was almost universally true – but his point is that men and Women are different; of equal worth but different! As a way of supporting his argument from creation in 1 Cor 11:7-10 that men must pray with uncovered heads and women with covered.

What does all this mean for us today?

Paul wants the women to dress appropriately for Christian meetings. Not to ignore the normal cultural conventions (which can be helpful) or to go against God’s creation order because that would simply give rise to further problems in the church. In some churches today it may be culturally appropriate for women to wear head-coverings. But we must realise it is the attitude underlying the Corinthian women’s refusal to do so that Paul is addressing here.