Heads and Coverings: Observations (Part 1)

My friend’s Facebook status this week struck a familiar chord with students who have learned Bible Study methods: “Stuck at 30 observations. Need 20 more!”

No doubt she was doing the assignment that requires students to make 50 observations about a Bible verse, such as Acts 1:8. The assignment teaches people to notice every single, solitary detail about what the text says, the first step in studying the Bible—after asking the Spirit to grant insight, of course.

As I’ve been prepping for a Role of Women in Ministry class I teach, I’ve been re-reading different authors’ understandings of 1 Corinthians 11:3–16, which speaks of women praying and prophesying in the church. And it occurs to me that some writers might benefit from doing “the observation assignment” on this section of scripture. Here are a few points sometimes missing in the discussion:

• Whatever “head” means, it has nothing to do with women (wives?) being silent in the Body of Christ, because Paul assumes females will pray and prophecy (11:5)—both of which require using the voice box in the church. That’s a given. So the passage is not debating the “if” of her speaking in public but the “how.” Thus, a woman having spiritual truth on her tongue in church was not assumed to be edging a man out of his opportunity to be a “spiritual leader.”

• The words for “man” and “woman” in this passage could also be translated the more limited, “husband” and “wife.” Because elsewhere Paul says the husband is head of the wife (Eph. 5), it is worth considering that he is making the exact same statement here.

• The man or husband is not told to “be the head.” He is the head. Head is a noun, not a verb. He is never commanded (here or elsewhere in the Bible) to be the head. (He is also not commanded to be the spiritual leader.)

• Nowhere is the male referred to as the head in the church—as in “male headship in the church.” This is true here and everywhere else in Scripture. The only one ever said to be either “head of” or “head over” the church is Jesus Christ.

• Observation includes doing word studies. And the word “head” in Koine Greek is a metaphor referring to a body part. Latin and Hebrew have a meaning for “head” that includes hierarchy, just as we use it in English: “head of an organization.” Yet that is not one of the nuances in Greek unless “head” appears with the preposition “over”—as in “head over” (see Liddell-Scott, kefalh). And Paul was writing in Greek. In Koine, when Paul says “head of,” he is referring to a body part (see 1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:8). He says “head over” when he wants the metaphor to have the idea of authority (see Eph. 1:22; Col. 2:10). The emphasis on “head of” is interconnectedness—as in “head of the body,” where two are united (Christ and the Church; husband and wife). The phrase “head of the home” is not, as Kelley Mathews has pointed out, a New Testament phrase. It is an IRS phrase.

Stay tuned for more observations next time. What have you observed in the text?

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.


  • Sue Bohlin

    “Head” Coverings

    I love when you do multi-part blog posts because it means you had too much meat for just one, and there's more good stuff to come!

    "The phrase “head of the home” is not, as Kelley Mathews has pointed out, a New Testament phrase. It is an IRS phrase." 

    OK, that is just too funny. Thanks for bringing it up again!

    The timing of reading your post makes me smile because just moments ago I answered an email from India that came to me at the Probe Ministries website: "If Christian women can wear headgear, why are Muslim women not allowed to do the same in some countries?" It made me reflect on how different women in different settings can make very different statements by wearing a head covering. For some of us, it can mean "I am submitting to the Lord Jesus Christ and I want the angels to see it." How different that joyful, personal, and relational submission is from the submission of, and to, Islam!

    Looking forward to Part 2.

  • Sandra Glahn

    If Not Veils, Then What?


    Thanks for commenting, Sue. 
    Interestingly enough, I doubt Paul was talking about head coverings in the sense in which we usually mean them (veils, shawls). Married women do appear to have worn their hair in a way that signaled they were "taken," similar to what our wedding rings announce–only a LOT more obviously!  And the Christian women in Corinth may have been demonstrating an over-realized eschatology ("in the latter days, no one will be given in marriage") by removing the signs they were married, thus dishonoring their husbands. Meanwhile, Paul may have been similarly concerned that Gentile men coming out of Dionysus worship (see hair in photo by following link) were wearing hair as they were accustomed to wear it during pagan worship, and were thus dishonoring Christ (see 11:4, 7, 11). For more on hair stuff in 1 Cor. 11, readers can see a previous post I wrote  on the topic. My point here was about observation, not interpretation, so I'll stop there. But as a teaser for next time, notice that the text says the "woman has authority on her head." Not a sign of  authority, nor its opposite–a sign of submission.  😉 
    And maybe in some future post I'll talk about how the word rendered "angel" in this passage could instead be translated "messenger," and how Paul's concern may have been over the wrong impression the "hair signals in church" gave  to human messengers, not spiritual ones, who checked up on whether wives in particular gave off the appropriate signals in public.  (A view developed in Roman Wives, Roman Widows by Bruce Winter.)  

     Isn't Bible study fun? 🙂

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