Excerpt from Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth
by Wayne Grudem

Egalitarian claim 9.2: Head Coverings: Just as the church has now learned that women do not have to wear head coverings as commanded in 1 Corinthians 11, so it needs to learn that women do not have to submit to their husbands or to give up leadership roles in the church to men. All of these were simply traditions Paul was following in that culture.

Rich Nathan writes:

Paul commands women in the church at Corinth to wear head coverings. Yet, most churches today (even the most traditional ones) don't require women to wear head coverings ... It is very rare, especially in America, for men to follow the explicit teaching of Scripture by kissing each other. We must admit that we all read the Bible with the understanding that the New Testament culture is different from ours. (6)

Such reasoning sounds plausible enough on first reading. When lay persons read that Paul required head coverings, and when they realize that few churches require head coverings for women today, it is easy to reason from (1) we don't require women to cover their heads as they did in the ancient world to (2) we don't need to exclude women from Bible teaching to the church, as they did in the ancient world.

The passage under discussion is as follows:

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head— it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, 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. (1 Corinthians 11:4-6; see also vv. 10, 13)

(Some translations render the Greek word gune in this passage as "woman" rather than "wife," and both meanings are possible for this word.) (7)

Answer 9.2a: Paul is concerned about head covering because it is an outward symbol of something else. But the meaning of such a symbol will vary according to how people in a given culture understand it. It would be wrong to require the same symbol today if it carried a completely different meaning.

No matter what people think about requiring head coverings for women today, all interpreters agree that head covering was a symbol for something else, and that Paul was concerned about it because of what that symbol meant. People have thought that head covering for women in the first century was a symbol of (a) a woman being in submission to her husband (or perhaps to the elders of the church), (b) being a woman rather than a man, (c) being a wife rather than an unmarried woman, or (d) having authority to pray and prophesy publicly in the church. There may be other explanations of the symbolism, but everyone agrees that Paul's concern is not to protect women from catching a cold or getting a sunburn on their head. Rather, he is concerned because of what wearing a head covering symbolized to people in Corinth.

So we should ask whether wearing a head covering symbolizes any of these things today. At least in twenty-first-century America, it symbolizes none of these things! When people see a woman wearing a hat, whether in church or outside of church, they don't immediately think,

Whatever we think a head covering symbolized in first-century Corinth, it does not symbolize the same thing today. And that means if Paul's concern was over what a headcovering symbolized, then he would not want women to wear a head covering in a situation where a head covering did not carry the same symbolic meaning. Therefore if we cannot be sure what the head coverings symbolized for women in the first century (for interpreters differ on this), the very fact that it does not symbolize much of anything to people today, even to Christians, is a strong argument that Paul would not have wanted us to follow it as sort of a meaningless symbol. I think it also means that God Himself does not intend us to follow this practice today, in a society and culture where it carries no symbolic meaning.

In fact, the response most people today are likely to have when they see a woman wearing a head covering in church is, "I suppose she's trying to be old fashioned, like someone from the 1950's or earlier. Well, she is free to do what she wants, but it certainly looks strange." That is surely not the symbolic meaning that people attached to a woman's head covering in the first century.

Answer 9.2b: The most likely meaning of a woman wearing a head covering in first-century Corinth was to indicate that she was married. But no such meaning would be understood from a woman's head covering today.

The translators of the English Standard Version (quoted above) understood a woman's head covering in the first century to indicate she was married. Therefore in every verse in which head covering is mentioned, the ESV translates gune as "wife." But the other verses it translates gune as "woman," because these verses have more general statements about womanhood that Paul was using in order to discuss this specific application.

Evidence that head covering for a woman indicated that she was married is found both in literary sources and in archeological discoveries of artwork portraying wedding scenes. Bruce Winter writes,

The very mention of the word "veil" by Paul would automatically indicate to the Corinthians that the females under discussion in this passage were married ... The marriage ceremony involved what was called in Greek "veiling the bride" (ten numphen katakalupsantes). Both Tacitus and Juvenal describe the taking of "the veil of a bride" as one of the essential components of marriage. It was the social indicator by which the marital status of a woman was made clear to everyone. (8)

Artistic evidence is mentioned by Roy W. Christians in a recent study of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. (9) Christians mentions a marble statue from Rome in what is clearly a wedding scene in which, "the man's head is uncovered and the woman's head is veiled." (10) Christians also mentions a similar scene in "a funerary relief from the Via Statilia outside Rome. Once again the husband has his head uncovered and the wife has her head covered." (11) He also refers to additional examples of similar archeological evidence in the form of statues or other art objects that are discussed by David Gill in a 1990 article. (12)

Figure 9.1: British Museum Sculpture 2307: "The couple join hands, the man holds a scroll (the marriage contract), and the goddess Juno (between the couple) joins them in marriage." (13)

Therefore Bruce Winter appears to be correct in concluding, with regard to 1 Corinthians 11,

Because any reference connecting a woman and a veil would immediately alert a first-century reader to the fact that she was a married woman, there are secure grounds for concluding that the issue here was married women praying and prophesying without their veil in the Christian meeting. (14)

But is it possible that a head covering in first-century Corinth was not a sign of being married, but was simply the way women dressed, and therefore a sign distinguishing women from men? (15) This does not seem likely in light of significant evidence connecting marriage and the veiling of a woman's head, but if it were true, it would not significantly affect our argument. If wearing a head covering in ancient Corinth was a symbol of being a woman, that is still not the meaning for a woman wearing a head covering in western societies today. And therefore head coverings should not be required for women today. (16)

Answer 9.2c: Today we obey the head covering commands for women in 1 Corinthians 11 by encouraging married women to wear whatever symbolizes being married in their own cultures.

In modern American society, a married woman wears a wedding ring to give public evidence that she is married. Just as Paul was concerned that women in Corinth not throw off their veils and thereby dishonor their husbands by not acting like married women in the church services, so married women today should not hide their wedding rings or otherwise publicly dishonor their marriage when they come to church. (There are probably a number of other symbols of being married in other cultures around the world, and the application of 1 Corinthians 11 to churches in those cultures is that married women [and men!] should not discard those symbols.) (17)

Notice that I am not saying that "we no longer have to obey 1 Corinthians 11." I am saying, rather, that the outward form in which we obey the passage may vary from culture to culture. This is similar to the way that "you shall not covet your neighbor's ... ox" (Exodus 20:17) applies today to not coveting our neighbor's car (or, in an agricultural society, his tractor).

Our approach here is very different from any egalitarian argument that says, "We don't have to obey the passage on headcoverings, and we don't have to obey the passage on holy kisses, and we don't have to obey the passage on foot washing, so we probably don't have to obey the passages on male headship in marriage, either." That form of argument is particularly dangerous because it accumulates more and more sections of Scripture that "we don't have to obey today." But our submission to the authority of God as He speaks in His Word means that we have to obey all of these passages, though the specific form that obedience takes will vary from culture to culture, because the thing that God was concerned about in each case was not the outward form but the meaning conveyed by that form. (See the "Additional Note," pp. 397-402, on which commands take culturally variable forms of obedience.)

Answer 9.2d: The situation is far different with male headship in marriage and the church. These are not just outward symbols that can vary from culture to culture, but they are the reality itself.

It is easy enough to understand that a physical object can be a symbol of something else, such as a wedding ring or a head covering being a symbol of being married. (Similar physical symbols are a policeman's hat or badge as a symbol of his authority, or a crown as a symbol of royalty, or a chef's hat being a symbol of a preparer of fine foods, or a general's stars being a symbol of holding the rank of general in the army, or the black and white striped shirt of a referee being the symbol of the status of being a referee at a football game. These symbols could all change from culture to culture, but the underlying status that they represent would be the same.)

Similarly, we can understand how a physical action can be a symbol for an underlying reality. A kiss or a handshake or a hug can be a physical symbol for the reality of a warm greeting. But a similar kind of greeting might be conveyed by bowing in a Japanese culture. Sticking one's fingers in one's ears can be a symbol for not wanting to listen to something. (That symbol might be nearly universal.) And we understand quite well how the physical actions of baptism and partaking of the Lord's supper are physical symbols of deeper spiritual realities.

But "Wives, submit to your own husbands," and "Husbands, love your wives" (Ephesians 5:22, 25) are not mere symbols of some deeper reality. They are the reality itself! These commands are not physical items of clothing or momentary actions like a holy kiss, but they are fundamental, ongoing attitudes that should characterize the marriage relationship every hour of every day throughout one's married life. Similarly, leadership of the church by male elders (1 Timothy 2:12; 3:2) is not a temporary symbol of some deeper reality, but is the reality itself. It characterizes the ongoing leadership pattern of the church throughout all of its days.

Answer 9.2e: Christians who believe that 1 Corinthians 11 requires women for all times to have head coverings in church should obey this passage and not disregard it.

Some Christians today, particularly in countries outside the United States but also some in the United States, believe that 1 Corinthians 11 teaches that all Christian women in all churches for all times should have some kind of headcovering. While I disagree with this understanding of the passage, it is right for Christians who hold this view to be consistent with their view in practice. If they think that God requires women to have their heads covered during the church service, then that is the practice they should follow. Not to follow it would be to disobey something one believes to be God's command.

Answer 9.2f: A woman's head covering in 1 Corinthians 11:10 is not a symbol of her authority to prophesy, but is a symbol of her husband's authority over her.

In an influential article in 1964, Morna Hooker argued that a woman's head covering was a symbol of her authority to prophesy publicly in church. (18) Hooker based her argument on 1 Corinthians 11:10: "That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels."

In the Greek text, it does not literally say "a symbol of authority," but simply "authority," so we might literally translate, "A wife ought to have authority on her head." Hooker examines other examples of exousia ("authority") and finds that it always refers to a person's own authority, not the authority of someone else. Therefore, she argues, Paul must be saying that a woman's head covering symbolizes her authority to speak publicly in the worship service.

While I agree that Paul assumes that women can pray and prophesy publicly in church (see 1 Corinthians 11:5), I do not think this is the proper understanding of verse 10. The problem with Hooker's analysis is that most other examples of exousia refer to authority itself, not to something that is a symbol of authority (which her view also assumes for this verse). So most of the other examples are not really parallel.

In addition, Thomas Schreiner points out an interesting parallel from an ancient writer, Diodorus of Sicily, written sometime between 60 and 30 BC. Diodorus describes a statue of the mother of King Osymandias as follows:

There is also another statue of his mother standing alone, a monolith twenty cubits high, and it has three kingdoms on its head, signifying that she was both daughter and wife and mother of a king (the word for "kingdoms" is basileia, "kingdom," not something like stephanos or diadema which would represent a physical crown). (19)

The description clearly means in the context that the statue has three crowns, which are symbols of governing over kingdoms. But, as Schreiner points out,

Here the three crowns (which Diodorus calls kingdoms) all represent someone else's authority—the authority of the woman's father (who was a king), husband (who was a king), and son (who was a king). In no case is the woman's own authority symbolized by the crowns she wears. Similarly, the head covering of the woman in 1 Corinthians 11 may well represent the authority of the man to whom she is subject in authority. (20)

Schreiner gives several other reasons why Hooker's argument is not persuasive, including the fact that in verses 3–9, head covering is what distinguishes women from men. But surely men had the authority to pray and prophesy as well, so it does not make sense to say that a head covering symbolized authority to pray and prophesy. (21)

It is best to conclude, then, that Paul sees a woman's veil on her head as a symbol of her husband's authority, and the fact that it is placed over her (on her head) is a rather transparent indication that she is under his authority.

Then what are we to make of the puzzling phrase, "Because of the angels" at the end of verse 10? It is difficult to be sure, but, as Schreiner says, "The best solution is probably that the angels ... assist in worship and desire to see the order of creation maintained." (22)


6. Nathan, Who is My Enemy (2002), 146. In this present section I deal only with the objection about head coverings, since it is used more often. Regarding the question of a holy kiss (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14), see the additional note at the end of this chapter, pp. 396-402.

7. For example, see section in Brown, Women Ministers (1996), 249-55.

8. Bruce W. Winter, After Paul Left Corinth (2001), 127. Winter refers to a statement by Plutarch (born before AD 50, died sometime after AD 120) where the marriage ceremony is called "veiling the bride": "In Boetia, after veiling the bride, they put on her head a chaplet of asparagus" [as part of the wedding ceremony], Plutarch, Advice to the Bride and Groom, 138D (quoted from Plutarch's Moralia, 301). The historian Tacitus (lived ca. AD 56 to ca. AD 118) described a marriage in which a man and woman "met for the avowed purposes of legitimate marriage," and where "the woman ... assumed the veil," (Annals, 11.27; see also Annals, 15.37). Winter also refers to two statements from the Roman poet and satirist Juvenal (born sometime between AD 50 and AD 65), one in which a bride is "all prepared in her flaming veil" (Juvenal 10333-334), and another in which a man who holds his new bride is covered by her "long dress with veil" (Juvenal 2.124).

9. See Roy W. Christians, "The Permanent Relevance of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 in Light of Recent Research into Its Historical and Cultural Background," paper given at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, November 16, 2001, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Christians's area of research for his PhD dissertation in New Testament is 1 Corinthians 11, and we may hope that the results of his research will be published in the near future. I realize that brides also veil their heads today in weddings without ongoing symbolism after the wedding, but the ancient literary evidence connecting veiling to the status of being married (see above) indicates a closer connection than we have today between veiling at the wedding and head coverings after the wedding.

10. An excellent photograph of this statue is found in Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (1993), 67.

11. Christians, "Permanent Relevance," 13.

12. See David Gill, "The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16," TynBul 41 (1990), 253. Gill mentions the following evidence: S. Walker, Memorials to the Roman Dead (1985), 48-49, figure 39; B.F. Cook, The Townley Marbles (1985), 20-21, fig. 18; S. Walker, Catalog of Roman Sarcophagi in the British Museum (1990), 16-17, pl. 2, no. 4.

13. This is the description given by Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 67, for a nearly identical photo of a sarcophagus with a scene from a Roman wedding , 2nd century AD. I wrote to Dr. Ferguson and got the information about the photo from him, and then wrote to the British Museum for a photo of the same statue. However, the photo in Dr. Ferguson's book (p. 67) seems to be of the same couple and the same wedding, but with the heads of the bride, groom, and Juno in a slightly different position (the veil is much clearer in Dr. Ferguson's photo). The photos are so similar that I am unable to tell if they are two photos of the same statue taken from different angles, or photos of two different statues of the same wedding. In any case, the bride has a veil on her head and the groom does not in both photos.

14. Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 127.

15. This is the viewpoint I held, along with several other complementarians, before we were aware of the substantial evidence from ancient literature and from archeology that connected marriage and wearing a veil in the first century. See, for example, Piper and Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (1991): "Paul is saying that ... creation dictates that we use culturally appropriate expressions of masculinity and femininity, which just happened to be a head covering for women in that setting" (75), and "Paul wants the women to wear a head covering because such adornment appropriately distinguishes women from men" (Schreiner, "Valuable Ministries of Women" [1991], 135). In light of this new evidence, however, the earlier arguments in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood are strengthened rather than weakened. That is because the basic argument presented there would be the same: Head covering in ancient Corinth had a symbolic value that it no longer has today. But one detail in the argument is changed, and that is the explanation that head covering was a symbol, not of being a woman in general, but of being a married woman. The argument is stronger now, however, because of the significant amount of ancient evidence explaining just what was symbolized by the head covering.

16. For an analysis of the claim that exousia in 1 Corinthians 11:10 ("symbol of authority" or "authority") implies that women have the authority to speak or teach in the church, see answer 9.2f, below.

17. It is likely that a head covering symbolized not only being married but also being under the authority of one's husband in the ancient world (see answer 9.2f below). There may be no specific modern counterpart to this aspect of the symbolism other than a submissive demeanor and public words and actions that hint at the nature of the husband-wife relationship.

18. See M.D. Hooker, "Authority on Her Head: An Examination of 1 Corinthians 11:10," New Testament Studies 10 (1964): 410-16.

19. Diodorus Siculus, 1.47.5. It is interesting, however, that the Loeb Classical Library translation renders it "three diadems on its head," in a manner similar to the way most English translations have rendered 1 Corinthians 11:10 not as "authority" but as "symbol of authority" (Diodorus of Sicily, trans. C.H. Goldfather, 1:168-69).

20. Schreiner, "Head Coverings, Prophecies, and the Trinity: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16," in Piper and Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 136.

21. See ibid., 135-36, for other objections to Hooker's view.

22. Ibid, 136. Schreiner adds that "uncertainty on this point does not affect the significance of the passage for today since the main burden of the text is quite clear" (487n26). He adds that other passages in the New Testament mention angels watching human activity, and this is viewed as a positive motive for obeying God's commands (see 1 Timothy 5:21; 1 Peter 1:12).