"I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman (or wife) who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have a symbol of authority to cover her own head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God." (1 Corinthians 11: 2-11)
And all God's people scratched their heads and said, "What?"
There are plenty of topics to discuss in 1 Corinthians 11, but for the sake of brevity I will discuss only one. The other questions are not unimportant; they are simply a topic for another time.
The Corinthian church contained a mix of Greek, Roman, and Jewish people. As in all people groups, social status was really important. In this case the status was very visual, from shoes to togas to hats and hair. It was a way of saying very clearly, “I am somebody. I matter. And I am better than you.” Those less fortunate showed the opposite very clearly. In this particular passage there a particular visible issue – the status and symbol connected with hair and head coverings.
The Greek and Roman men generally did not cover their heads. If they wore anything, it was a wig to cover their baldness. Long hair was out by this time in Corinthian history, and baldness was considered an infirmity. A good head of hair was important.
Jewish men normally did cover their heads with a yarmulke as a symbol of humility and complete unworthiness and shame. They wouldn’t dare be so presumptuous as to uncover their head when God was around – and he always was. That’s doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it was apparently creating some conflict.
The Jewish converts apparently thought they were more holy because their yarmulke was a sign of their humility, and they wouldn’t dare uncover their heads in God’s house. The really pious wouldn’t walk 4 meters without one (they were very specific on this point). One rabbi noted the importance of the yarmulke was that it distinguished Jews from their non-Jewish counterparts, especially while at prayer.
So that’s not good. A reminder of piety was becoming a symbol of divisiveness. A symbol meant to remind the men who they were in relation to God was reminding them who they were in relation to other people.
The Greek converts felt the opposite. Free men were, well, free. Why couldn’t they do what they wanted? Why should they have to use a symbol that meant nothing to them and was not necessary?
If nothing else, this prohibition may have been one way of leveling the playing field – no one could distinguish religious background based on a shallow exterior symbol.
In addition, men were “the image and glory of God.” The yarmulke was a constant reminder of of guilt and shame. But Jesus did not come into the world to condemn, but to save. Removing the symbolic covering of guilt is a great reminder that forgiveness and freedom, not shame and bondage, is a reality for all who are in Christ.
It was different for the ladies, and the reasons were a little more complicated
Head coverings for Greeks, Romans and Jews symbolized modesty, chastity, virtue, status, and security. Hair was considered very erotic. If you don’tthink sexual temptation was problem in Corinth, read the rest of the book.
A veil (or lack of it) sent a message. A veil said, “I am my husband’s,” or at least, “I am waiting.” A woman covered her head if she was married to signal this relationship and honor her husband (or future husband).
The lack of a veil said, “I’m up for grabs,” and that wasn’t always by choice. An uncovered head usually indicated either prostitution, adultery, or slavery. Even in the temples, the priestesses (who were usually prostitutes) had their heads shaved so that if they ran away they could not escape their past. In addition, in the first century there was a growing fashion trend among upper class women to show off very elaborate headdresses.
Paul's command seems to once again be a great “leveler.” No longer would what women wore on their head define them. Now, female converts to the church who had been prostitutes, adulterers, or slaves could not be distinguished on a Sunday morning from the most highborn lady in the congregation. Same with the rich (who could afford the latest styles) and the poor (who could not).
Sarah Ruden wrote in Paul Among The People, “All Christian women were to cover their heads in church, without distinction of beauty, wealth, and respectability….If the women complied, you could have looked at a congregation and not necessarily been able to tell who was an honored wife and mother and who had been forced, or maybe was still being forced, [into prostitution]. This had never happened in any public gathering before.”
Men, yarmukles don’t make you better than anybody else. Get rid of the distraction by agreeing that you will dress in such a way that you send a clear message within the church and the community. All men will stand before God equal and unashamed.
Women, veils don’t make one person better than another, but they do send a message that you have worth and dignity. Everyone wear them – after all, doesn’t Christ say to you all, “You are mine”? Nobody is unredeemable or “up for grabs.”
Who we are is not determined by history, status, or social class. In Christ, we are all free from judgment and shame.