I have a question about this passage: “For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of man” (1 Cor. 11:7). Isn’t Paul saying that women should cover their heads?
To understand this passage, several issues must be considered: the context of the passage, the problem Paul was addressing, and the customs of the time.
The passage in question is part of a letter in which the apostle Paul was addressing specific problems in the Church at Corinth. The problem here was regarding liberties that certain women in the Church were taking. Paul begins the eleventh chapter by commending those who remembered him, and were keeping the standards he had set. Then he says: “I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3). Or, as translated in the New Living Bible, “There is one thing I want you to know: a man is responsible to Christ, a woman is responsible to her husband, and Christ is responsible to God.” (“But I wish you to understand that, while every man has Christ for his Head, woman’s head is man, as Christ’s Head is God”—New English Bible.)
Did Paul teach that women should be subordinate to men? No, he taught that all are equal in Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
What, then, could he have meant in 1 Cor. 11? The problem was the apparent permissiveness of the women of the Church as they would be viewed by those outside the Church. A principle of Bible teaching is “to abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22 KJV). However difficult this be to interpret, Paul was concerned that the women of the Church not use their Christian liberty in a way that would appear immoral to those outside. At the time, a veil, or wimple (as it was called) was a “headdress worn by women over the head and around the neck, cheeks, and chin. From the late 12th until the beginning of the 14th century, it was worn extensively throughout medieval Europe, and it survived until recently as a head covering for women in religious orders” (1999 Encyclopaedia Britannica CD). From ancient times it had been a custom of women to wear a veil (see Gen. 24:65). A woman who did not wear a veil was considered to be of very loose morals, as only prostitutes went without them (Dake Annotated Reference Bible, footnote, see also Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines on the New Testament).
To be seen in public without a veil was also to disgrace one’s husband, therefore Paul’s comment, “Let her also be shorn.” A shorn head was a punishment for prostitution (Dake Annotated Reference Bible, Footnote).
The same principle applied to the observing of Jewish laws. Paul did not tell the Jews not to observe their law. He only told them that obedience to their law could not bring them salvation, that to be saved they had to obey Christ’s law. He even advised believing Jews to cooperate with Jewish customs (this was his underlying reason for circumcising Timothy, because he was part Jew, and Paul would rather remove an occasion for criticism). Never were the Christians in the category of social “rebels.” He had the same attitude toward the observance of the Sabbath. Under Christ’s new law, the keeping of the seventh day was not required. However, believers, who lived in Jewish communities—and Paul when he was traveling—attended the synagogue on the Sabbath day. It was a place to worship God, and God can be worshiped honorably on any day. There is some evidence that believers who were not associated with Jewish customs or communities observed the first day of the week as a remembrance of Jesus’ resurrection.
Was Paul right in viewing Christian conduct in relation to the customs of the times? We can be certain his first obligation was to obey the law of Christ. But if there was no conflict between the law of Christ and the current custom, if following the custom did not result in any transgression of the law of God, it seems that Paul advised that the custom be followed. One example was the institution of slavery. The law of God, with its insistence that all men are equal, would not support the institution of slavery. But neither would believers be in a position to overthrow slavery. So it was prudent for Paul to advise believing slaves to be subject to their masters, and believing masters to treat their slaves as brothers in the Lord, recognizing that they too have a master in heaven (Eph. 6:5–9; Col. 3:22). Even though the basic institution was wrong, believers could honor God by conducting themselves according to His law.