Posted by: mattcolvin | May 27, 2007

Headcoverings as Visible Eschatology in 1 Corinthians 11

Hair is a glory — it proceeds out from its subject — and a covering, given by nature to conceal certain parts of the body. The removal of a veil or covering reveals the glory of the person who is the “head” of the one with the covering. Hair is the covering provided by nature, as an indication of where one ought to be covered.

Symbolically, a woman has “authority” on her head. Whose authority? Presumably her husband’s. That is, her hair is a symbol of her husband. “For a glory and a covering” – The physical head of a person under authority makes a statement with its hair about the glory of that person’s metaphorical head.

Thus: the head of man is Christ. Man is the image and glory of Christ. In verse 7, the phrase εἰκὼν καὶ δόξα θεοῦ ὑπάρχων indicates the reason for the main clause (ἀνὴρ…οὐκ ὀφείλει κατακαλύπτεσθαι τὴν κεφαλὴν). Man should not cover his head, because he is supposed to be revealing the glory of Christ, not concealing it.

The head of woman is man, however. And woman is the image and glory of man. Paul says that she ought to cover her head, i.e. she ought to cover her hair, which is (symbolically) the glory of man. If she fails to do this, she shames her head, i.e. the man.

Now, compare all this with what is said of Moses in 2 Cor. 3:13. He veiled his face so that the people might not see the end of the glory of the Torah, which was fading away (since the Torah was a temporary administration of God’s relationship with men). But we, with unveiled faces, unlike Moses, reflect the glory of Christ (3:18), which does not fade.

I submit that this is a key to the understanding of 1 Cor. 11:

The man, whose head is Christ, ought not to cover his head, since the glory of Christ ought to be revealed publicly. Modesty about displaying the image and glory of Christ would be shaming to Christ.

But the woman’s case is not the same. Her head is Man, from whom she was taken, and for whom she was made. And Hebrews tells us that “we do not yet see all things under man’s feet” (Heb. 2:8) — Man is not yet glorified; that must await the consummation.

The distinction between man and woman and their headgear in 1 Cor. 11 thus is a disclosure, in public semiotics, of our present moment in redemptive history: after the glorification of Christ, but before the glorification of man. We ought not to suppose that the covering of women’s heads is a permanent feature of God’s plan. If Christ’s words in Mt. 10:26 are a general principle with application beyond their context to our present topic as well, then veiling or covering must of its very nature be temporary: “for there is nothing veiled that will not be unveiled (οὐδὲν γάρ ἐστιν κεκαλυμμένον ὃ οὐκ ἀποκαλυφθήσεται).

The glory of man, presently concealed, but to be revealed later, is the motive for Paul’s otherwise puzzling mention of the angels. The creation was under their authority until Christ was elevated to the right hand of God as the first of many brothers. The angels ought to see the glory of Christ — i.e. the public claim that the Son of God has attained greater honour than the angels — declared publicly by the uncovered heads of the men of the church. But they ought not to be confronted with premature and inappropriate claims — via uncovered women’s heads — about the glory of man. The creation waits with eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed; but man’s glory is not yet.

Jesus’ becoming man is described as being “made a little lower than the angels”; elsewhere, He is described as being “born under the Torah” (Gal. 4:4). Stephen says that the Jews “received the Torah by the direction of angels.” (Acts 7) The Torah is “the word spoken through angels” (Heb. 2:2), “appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator.” (Gal. 3:19). Angels are “ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation.”

Hebrews 1 contrasts the everlasting rule of Christ with the temporary and inferior rule of angels: “the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You remain; and they will all grow old like a garment. Like a cloak you will fold them up, and they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will not fail.” God “has not put the world to come, of which we speak, in subjection to angels” — implication: He did put the present world in such temporary subjection.

The angels’ temporary rule was associated with the heavenly bodies: “the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He made the stars also…to rule over the day and over the night…” (Gen. 1) Paul says that the Galatians are “observing days and months and seasons and years” (Gal. 4:10) — all time periods determined by the motions of the heavenly bodies — and are thereby “turning again to the weak and beggarly elements (stoicheia), to which you desire again to be in bondage” (4:9). The angels’ rule is thus that of “guardians and stewards” (Gal. 4:2), and those who are under them are “in bondage under the elements (stoicheia) of the world” (Gal. 4)

Paul also mentions, by way of urging the Corinthians not to engage in lawsuits before unbelievers, that the church will judge angels. This will occur when the glory of man is revealed. At that point, the tables will be turned on the angels, and they will find themselves under men, as they are even now under Christ.

Peter describes the revelation of the gospel as “things which angels desire to look into” (1 Pet 1:12). Paul, likewise, speaks of the gospel as a “mystery hidden in God” (Eph. 3:9), “to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of god might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” I have noted before that the sectarians at Qumran believed that angels are present with the assembled congregation; so does the author of Hebrews, with his “thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly gathered”. Fitzmyer thinks that angels would be affronted if women failed to wear a covering, but he does not explain why. I think my interpretation answers that question.

I leave to one side some of the other interpretive puzzles about the passage, such as whether the women expected to cover their heads are wives only, or virgins too; what the nature of the covering is (hair only, or an artificial covering as well); and whether the covering is required during all prayer and prophecy by a woman, or only during Lord’s Day corporate worship, or what. I have views on all of these, but I haven’t argued for them here, because I’m interested in persuading those who don’t share my answers to those questions.

But I submit that we can fairly well understand “because of the angels” on the basis of the other passages of Scripture that I have adduced here; and we can conclude that whatever Paul was telling women to do, it was not culturally determined, but motivated by redemptive history, and by the Biblical doctrine of man as image of God.

This teaching of Paul’s represents a deep and significant liturgical distinction between men and women — and one that has nothing whatever to do with officers or a clergy/laity division. Men and women are, by virtue of their relations to each other and to Christ, declaring publicly a teaching about eschatology.


  1. […] Observations on women’s headcoverings in 1 Corinthians 11 […]

  2. What do you think of this:

    3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered [with long hair] dishonors his head [Christ], 5 but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered [no hair or short hair] dishonors her head [her husband], since it is the same as if her head were shaven [disgraced]. 6 For if a wife will not cover her head [her husband], then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head [her husband]. 7 For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man [so _she_ ought to cover his head]. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman _for_ man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol [crown] of authority on her head [her husband], because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered [no hair or short hair]? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her [long] hair is given to her [not man] for a covering.

  3. Artificial head coverings are a confounded nuisance, too.

  4. Well, that depends. Some persons in my household find that long, frizzy hair is a nuisance, and that things were simpler in the days when a cloth covering obviated the need to get it all looking tame. (Not everyone is so fortunate as to have straight, cooperative hair, you know.)

  5. […] and women dress and act in worship (Matt discusses Paul’s teaching regarding headcoverings here). As in the case of the apostle and his serving apostle, the serving apostle can represent the […]

  6. Matt,
    Have you looked at Bruce Winter’s historical reconstruction of this passage? I ask, not because I necessarily think he’s right, but because in the last few years I’ve always found Winter’s name cited whenever this passage is commented on.

    Now that I’ve mentioned him, let me put him aside and make a few comments about your post.

    The concept of headcoverings as visible eschatology is intriguing and seems worth pursuing. However in my very amateur reading of the passage some of the details that lead you to that conclusion seem questionable. I trust you won’t mind me pointing these out.

    1. You say hair is a glory and a covering. However, verse 15 seems to say (in English at least) that a woman’s hair is her glory because it is a covering. An important point in the logic of Paul’s argument.

    2. You then assume that the authority on the woman’s head in verse 10 is her hair. This leads you to the conclusion that a woman’s hair is the symbolic glory of the man/her husband. And yet verse 15 says that a woman’s hair is her glory, not the man’s glory. Calling a woman’s hair the man’s/husband’s glory results in further misreading of what Paul is trying to say.

    3. There is also no discussion of the length of a woman’s hair in your post, and yet that seems to be an important part of what Paul is saying. The fact that it’s possible to follow the logic of your post without any thought about the length of a woman’s hair is an indication that either Paul put a lot of redundant hair in the passage, or you’re reading of the passage is missing something.

    I haven’t tried to exhaustively work through the effect of these points on your theory of eschatological symbolism. It may be that there is little effect. And yet I believe that taking these points into consideration leads to a much more straightforward reading of Paul’s logic in the passage itself.

    What do you think?

  7. My up-to-date Note on this passage:

  8. Hmm, didn’t click on the “Notify me of follow-up comments via email” box. That’s all this comment is about.

  9. Ali and Frank,

    I apologize. I’ve been very busy, and the stuff about Junia and women’s ordination is all the extracurricular theologizing I’ve had any time to do. I reposted this from an old 2007 entry on my Upsaid blog, and didn’t actually rethink it for 2011. It’s possible that I would have very different ideas now, though I still think that the idea of semiotically visible eschatology is likely to be fruitful for understanding 1 Cor. 11. If I get time over the Christmas break, I’ll revisit the passage. I’m administering my last high school exam today, but I have a kitchen remodeling job to finish, and an ordination exam to write. So we’ll see.

    Again, sorry. I can see that you’ve both put some serious thought into this, and I want to engage with you, but it will require more time than I have at the moment.

    • No problem. Whenever you’re ready.

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