Q: Does 1 Corinthians 11 teach that a woman must wear a head covering?
A: To answer this, let’s follow Paul’s thoughts from verse to verse:
11:1 – Paul urges the Corinthian believers to mimic him as he mimics Christ (key question: mimic Paul in what?)
11:2 – The believers were holding to the teachings or traditions (paradoseis) that Paul presented. Apparently one of those is identified in v.3.
11:3 – Sets the critical contextual tone: the issue here is headship: Christ of man, and man of woman.
11:4 – If a man prays or prophecies with covered head (tricky phrase here – kata kephales is literally “down head” and it takes some interpretive assumption from v. 5 to derive “with covered head”), he shames (kataiscunei – pretty strong term) his head.
So, for a man to pray with (apparently in light of contrast with the “uncovered” in v. 5) covered head in some way is shameful in relation to the headship principle of v.3.
11:5 – By contrast, the woman engaging in the same activities shames her head if it is akatalupto, or uncovered. Further she is described as the same as the one having been shaved (exuremene).
11:6 – If a woman does not cover her head, she should cut (or shear – shave) her hair. If a woman’s head is not covered, she may as well have a completely shaved head. If but disgraceful to a woman to shear her hair to the point of being shaved (xurasthai), then let her cover.
Paul is suggesting that if a woman is not covering her head during the aforementioned activities, she may as well cut her hair completely off, but since that would be a disgrace to here, she should cover her head.
Somehow, Paul is relating this covering to the headship principle of v. 3, but he has not yet identified what the covering is specifically. But that is coming…
11:7 – A restatement of the headship principle in v. 3: this time, it is a glory principle – man is glory of God, woman is glory of man.
11:8 – Paul identifies the source of the reason for the headship and glory principles: origin. Simply put, Paul argues from the Genesis 2 account that woman came from man.
11:9 – Paul restates v.8 – woman created for man.
11:10 – Therefore, woman must wear authority (lit.) on her head for the angels. Oh goody. Paul adds another complexity. The head covering is for the benefit of angels.
11:11 – Paul asserts the equality of man and woman, acknowledging their dependence on one another.
11:12 – Again, interdependence, and ultimately both are dependent on God.
11:13 – In light of these ideas, the believers are challenged to judge the propriety of a woman praying or prophesying with head uncovered.
11:14 – Nature itself teaches the dishonor of a man wearing long hair. What is long? This is a cultural element in the passage: long is whatever would make a man appear as a woman, thus portraying a poor representation of the headship principle.
11:15 – Long hair is a glory to a woman. But why? This is the key to the passage, I believe, and the explanation as to why a woman is not required to wear an additional head covering. For the hair, or long hair, is given to her on behalf of or as (anti) a covering (peribolaiou). At this point Paul finally identifies the covering: the long hair itself.
If the long hair is to be cut so as to make the woman look like a man, she is portraying a different persona than the one for which she is designed. She is, in essence, trading in her lofty position for a position given to another. If she was to cut her hair short, so as to portray a roleshift, then she might as well shave her head completely (a disgraceful thing in that culture).
Thus Paul is not advocating an external haircovering as some legal requirement, instead he is advocating that men and women keep their appearances consistent with their design for purposes of (1) reflecting God’s glory and design, and (2) relating properly to each other and in some way to angels (perhaps this is a reference to angel/female relationships as in Gen. 6, as some suggest, but that would be highly speculative.)
So, how do these things apply today? Well, we live in a Western culture in which hair length is not typically reflective of gender. In our Western culture just about anything goes. So while the specifics may not pertain directly to us (notice that prophecy is an outdated function as well, see 13:8ff), the principle of carrying ourselves appropriately (before God, each other, and angels) in regard to headship is universally applicable.
For example, 11:14 warns against long hair. In some cultures a buzz cut would be considered long for a man, while in others shoulder length would not. So, while the principles in this case are universal, the applications of these principles are nuanced depending on cultural norms.
That is not to say that application of Biblical principles is always culturally influenced – in many cases it is not, but in this case, cultural conditions are quite important.
Hope that helps…