1 Cor 11:10 Exegetically understanding "exousia/authority on the head". (It is neither man's nor woman's authority)

What does 1 Cor 11:10 “authority on the head” mean? A SIMPLE EXEGETICAL PROPOSAL.

I don’t intend to list the different views and translations, other than to say the fact that some translations need to add extra words into the text (“symbol of”) indicates that this has been a difficult verse to translate and to come to an agreed meaning upon.

I propose a 2 pronged approach to understanding.

The first looks at other uses of the phrase in the New Testament. The second looks at the role the phrase plays in its immediate sentence and the structure of Paul’s argument.


Other uses of the phrase in the New Testament. BUT, isn’t the problem in understanding this verse and the whole section on headcoverings, isn’t the problem that it is actually not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament? Yes and No.
It is true that the whole phrase “to have exousia (authority) on the head” is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible.

But, the phrase “having exousia on” actually can be found elsewhere in the New Testament.
Much of the analysis of “to have authority on the head” has treated the word “”exousia/authority” in isolation. It has focused on the word “exousia” as a noun, and as a noun in isolation from its use as part of a phrase. Most of the discussion and arguments have thus been about the rights or authority pertaining to either the man or the woman. However, a noun is not always a noun. It can be part of a phrase which is to be taken as a whole unit. And that whole unit can be acting like a verb. This is what I propose is happening with the phrase “to have exousia/authority on” “exousian echein epi”.

To see this, let us look at the other instances of this phrase which are in the book of Revelation.

All four instances have the verbal phrase “has/have/having exousia over”. The fourth 20:6 is a bit harder to find the word “epi/over” but it is there earlier in the sentence.
11:6 “they …. have exousia over the waters” → i.e control over the waters.
14:18 “having exousia over the fire” → i.e control over the fire.
16:9 “God, the one having the exousia over these ones” → ie. control over these ones.
20:6 “the second death …. has no exousia (over)… these ones” → ie. power/control of … these ones.

{Note: There are also other times the phrase “have exousia ”is used in the New Testatment but they do not include the word “epi/over” in the phrase, so I have not included them in this study}.

These phrases are all verbal phrases (ie. a phrase acting as a verb), each containing the noun “exousia” and with each having the same idea of authority in action ie. Control or control over. So, it is seems that the use of this verbal phrase “have exousia over” means “control” or “control over”. And, equally obvious is that this was probably readily understood by the original readers of the 1Cor 11 v10a.

So, “woman ought to have exousia over the head” simply means “woman ought to have control over the head” or “woman ought to control her head”. It is a statement about something the woman ought to be doing. It is not a statement about her status, her authority. And it is not a statement about the man’s status, his authority. It is simply a statement about something she ought to be doing, namely, having control over her head.


But, how does this understanding fit in with the whole passage and how does it relate to, if indeed it does, to headcovering?

In my earlier post I said that v10a “the woman ought to ……” forms an inclusio with v7a “the man ought not to ……”. Inclusio may be the wrong word. What is really happening in Paul’s writing in this passage is that he is making parallel statements within his main argument.
Below, is a re-arrangement of the text to show you how this parallelism is working in regard to Paul’s main argument. I have left out verses and sentences which are supporting background information and supporting arguments and citing of theology by Paul.

V4 & 7a combined and color coded (unfortunately the color coding did not work when I copied and pasted it here. I will take a screenshot from my Publisher file and hopefully I can insert it below)

4“every man praying or prophesying having down head, dishonours the head of him …
7a…for indeed a man ought not TO COVER the head”

V5 & 10a combined and colour coded
5a“but, every woman praying or prophesying uncovered the head, dishonours the head of her …
10a… because of this, the woman ought TO HAVE EXOUSIA/CONTROL OVER the head”

You should be able to see this parallel use of words and phrases and argument by Paul in regard to man and woman.

What is relevant is the parallelism of v7a “not TO COVER” AND v10 “TO HAVE EXOUSIA/CONTROL OVER”

V7a “TO COVER” is a verb which finds its parallel in v10 “TO HAVE EXOUSIA/CONTROL OVER” which is a verbal phrase, as discussed above.

That is, we are not to read “exousia/authority” as an isolated noun. If we read it as an isolated noun, we will have many discussions about whose exousia it is, the man or the woman’s BUT we will not understand what Paul is saying. He is simply, telling the woman she needs to control her physical head.

AND additionally by association through parallelism with v7a ”to cover”, the way she is to control her head is by covering it.

So, both the FIRST and the SECOND approaches support each other.
In Revelation, “have exousia over” is a verbal phrase.

In 1 Corinthians 11:10 “to have exousia over” is a verbal phrase that parallels the verb “to cover” in v7.

The meaning of v10 is thus “the woman ought to control her head (by covering it)”.

Paul is abundantly clear in what he is saying. He is telling women to cover their heads and he is telling men not to cover their heads.

Even, if we didn’t have or if we don’t understand his theological reasoning for doing these, it is still abundantly clear what he is telling men and women what they ought to do.

Over the years I’ve taken a simple straightforward approach. To me it makes sense though to many moderns not so. I think Paul is simply importing into the new covenant era the Jewish practice from time immemorial — that women cover their heads (when praying specifically in NC). Here is he is expounding the theology and giving many reasons why: Adam created first, angels, nature, glory, etc.

I have spent too much time on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, even to the point of putting up a website (headcovering.org), but by God’s grace I’ve got a lot of blessing in return.

Here is an article I wrote about the phrase, “authority over her head”.

In short, it means “have a covering on her head” rather than “have authority over her own head” because:

  1. the context supports the former.

  2. if you understand “authority” as a metonym, the argument that it means women have authority over their own heads falls apart.

  3. the exact wording in Greek in 1 Corinthians 11:10 is used elsewhere outside the Bible to talk about putting something on a person’s head.

Same basic conclusion.

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For the sake of testimony to God’s kindness, I’d like to register here that Mary Lee and I practice headcovering/unheadcovering in corporate worship. I suppose there are places and times when it would be culturally inappropriate, but we haven’t yet found it so. After years of thinking “when in doubt, err on the side of safety,” I finally asked Mary Lee to wear a headcovering in worship, and so that was that.

We didn’t require it in our corporate worship of Trinity, but almost every last man uncovered and a fair number of women covered. Just for the record,


Encouraging. My wife started doing it and it prompted a lot of discussion. Some have been convinced, others not. Recently she hosted a ladies prayer meeting at our house and left scarfs on the backs of the chairs; sparked some discussion in the group. One of the ladies took her up on the offer and donned it. Was encouraging to us.

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Is it fitting for women of the church to be encouraging one another in the practice of wearing head coverings, apart from the influence of husband and pastors? Wouldn’t this seem to contradict the very essence of the symbol of a head covering?

It always seemed to me that if we’re going to conclude from the text that women are to be wearing head coverings, then it seems like a persuasion that needs to be implemented from the top down, not the bottom up.

For the women to go off on their own and have their own theological persuasions apart from the men of the church would create the exact kind of disorder that Paul is advocating against, yes?


A good encouragement and reason to stop.

There are all kinds of areas where older women instruct the younger in which the pastor might not enforce it top down. I’m convinced of headcovering and my wife and daughters wear them. I’ve never preached on it. It’s not a top down rule in our church but I’d say the majority of the women do wear them. In our men’s group, I have explained my view but it was connected to a broader discussion. My elders also all agree with the practice. But we think there is wisdom in an approach other that top down.


The very fact that you and your elders agree with it means that the position is held from the top down, though. Whether it’s preached on or not, the persuasion exists among the leadership, therefore it follows that there would be a pull toward that view over time. A healthy congregation will always be actively considering the example of their elders, and seeking to be aligned to their persuasion, yes?

But what of the situation where the elders of the church, and the churchmen as a collective, do not hold persuasion that head coverings are commanded by Scripture? For a woman to go off and wear one herself, and to persuade other women to do likewise, seems to be upside down.

One might snidely posit that such a woman is doing the Lord’s work, leading the charge of reformation like a Deborah, as the men sit idly by. I don’t think that’s the case, though. Instead, her efforts have the net effect of subverting the authority of husbands and of the elders, who are tasked with the oversight of the corporate gathering (and everything else). In such a case, it seems to me that she would do better by holding her peace and submitting to the rule of her husband and the church, yes? Such submission would adorn the gospel, and bear witness to her submission to authority far better than any cloth on her head would do in that situation.

Reminds me of a podcast where Tim was answering the hypothetical situation of what a wife should do if her husband decides that the family should go outside and play volleyball instead of doing family devotions. The answer given was that she should go play volleyball. The Lord will deal with the man if he stands derelict of duty in that moment. The wife is not culpable for the error of the husband, and can submit herself under it in faith.

In WI, the women elders at my dad’s church became convicted that they shouldn’t be elders, so they resigned.

Was that them leading the church toward biblical truth? Yes. But it was good.

I would see this in the same light.

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I can sympathize with that in some ways. If the men of the church were content with being led by women elders when Scripture states that they ought not have been, then even the act of the women repenting of their attempt at leadership will, ironically, be itself an act of leadership – but a fitting one.

But I’m not sure the two examples are the same. For a woman to be an elder is a direct usurpation of male headship. To merely occupy that office is a direct affront to God’s ordinance of male headship, which has ripple effects throughout the entire fabric of a church – even regardless of the woman’s disposition. The good biblical order of the church is twisted from the ground up when women exercise authority over men.

By contrast, the wearing or not wearing of a head covering states nothing intrinsic about the woman’s demeanor of submission. Many a submissive wife wears no head covering; many a rebellious wife wears a head covering. The external symbol does no intrinsic harm and gives no intrinsic boon – at least so far as I can tell. The order of male headship in the church (and in the world), however, impacts everything visibly.

For this reason, the whole issue of head coverings remains a seemingly misplaced topic in the New Testament to me. To what else in the New Covenant shall we liken it? It’s like the general thrust of the New Covenant is away from the weakness of Old Covenant signs and symbols; tassels in our garments; do not handle, do not taste, do not touch. But then this head covering thing appears in passing in 1 Cor. 11, and makes us scratch our heads. It seems so off-beat with the rest of the New Testament, doesn’t it? To be transparent, it’s this underlying sense that may be the force that keeps me from embracing what may otherwise be fairly exegetically straight forward (i.e. to conclude in favor of head coverings). And I’m saying that as a baptist. You know, the ones always insisting on claiming the exegetical high ground.

Anyway, someone will try to point out, I am sure, that there are churches where women elders allegedly don’t operate in capacities of leadership over men, or that they just lead women, or whatever, but it doesn’t make a difference. For a woman elder to exercise elder-like authority over my wife is, in effect, for her to exercise authority over me, because my wife and I are one. For this same reason, there is a world of difference between an elder’s wife acting with some level of authority to admonish the younger women of the church – because she is exercising that authority as an extension of her husband. This is substantively different than the woman wielding authority unilaterally in her own person.

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This seems like a sub-case of “person in authority over me demanded that I sin,” which is well-worn ground here. (Not to say the discussion isn’t worthwhile, just that we’re likely to see some of the same ideas.) This one is an odd case where the one who is supposed to be in subjection is wearing a symbol of that subjection. What’s the husband to do? “I demand that you not be in subjection to me?”

The vast, vast majority of American Christian husbands are silent on the issue of head coverings. No more than 1% of Christian wives would be disobeying husbands by wearing a covering, though no doubt some husbands would demand they stop.

I hear what you are saying here, and it’s a real possibility that a woman could approach this with Moxie-you-go-girl feminist rebellion. But it’s also possible that she could approach it humbly and submissively. Given that the symbol itself is one of submission, it seems to me more likely that it would be the latter, but our hearts are wicked, aren’t they?

And there is always just the simple expedient of asking permission.


Interesting thing abt this is our inability to remember there are orders of authority outside the citizen/civil authority relationship. We’re perpetually hearing men belligerate saying “we must obey God, rather than man” or “we must repudiate our governor’s authority which in this or that is contrary to our state constitution’s authority,” but when it comes to the church (only rarely) and the home (perpetually) we somehow seem to lose the thought.

So yes, I think it’s entirely proper for a man to come under conviction about removing his ballcap during worship and prayer and a woman to come under conviction about wearing a covering during worship and prayer. After all, do women never have moral agency of their own and was not Sapphira held accountable for her part in the sin?

Now she shouldn’t do this in any way to make a statement to other women or her husband or her pastors and elders which is obviously a denial of what her covering is saying or testifying to. That is true. So yes, one woman’s quiet repentance and obedience could be another woman’s rebellion, using the same symbol. And she also likely shouldn’t do it if the thing is divisive in her context and the pastors and elders and/or husband ask her to defer for now.

On the other hand, speaking of my own conscience, I felt I was the one who needed to ask Mary Lee to wear a covering, not expecting her to do it on her own. Can’t quite explain it, but I’ve said to a couple men that I think the husband owes his wife the relief of his taking the decision in hand. Would this hold if his decision were to be against it? Well now, that’s a good question! Context, context, context… Love,


Alistair. Thankyou for your comments. We are indeed agreed in our end point. Covering of the head is the meaning. In fact, your analysis and line of argument is my fall back position, it is the approach to this verse that I previously held. However, as I analysed the structure of the passage I came to the conclusion that it is the parallelism inherent in Paul’s argument that leads to the conclusion that covering is the meaning. Seeing “exousia” as a metonym is not necessary. There is something more basic, more fundamental going on in the structure of Paul’s argument, ie. in the parallelism.

“Not to cover” is parallel to “to have exousia over”. What we expect Paul to say is “to cover”. But, he says “to have exousia over”. He is paralleling one action “to cover” with another “to have exousia over” - one verb to another verb.
And so I went searching to see if this verb, this verbal phrase “to have exousia over” has an understandable meaning. And as I pointed out above it does in those passages in Revelation. It means “to have control over”. So because of the parallelism, the reader would expect Paul to say “ought to cover the head” but instead he says “ought to have control over the head”. So because of the parallelism there is now an association between between “to cover the head” and “to have control over head”. So, the reader hears in their mind “to have control over the head by covering it”.
Why does Paul do it like this? 1. It emphatically puts the responisibility strongly on the woman that she is responsible for her actions. She is to have control over herself in this matter, and cover her head. 2. It is a masterful play by Paul with the word “exousia”. Exousia elsewhere in 1 Cor is used as a noun - rights. But, as you read there what Paul says about exousia, being in Christ leads us to exercise our responsibilities towards others rather than our claiming and using our rights. So, now in 1Cor 11:10 Paul uses the “rights” word in a clever way, he uses it as part of a verbal phrase where it points out the woman’s responsibility to control herself and cover her head. It is most definitely not about anyones rights. It is not about the woman’s rights, as it is something she ought to be doing.
3. It is not only this verse that Paul is using this parallelism in regard to headcovering, or in this case the state of being covered or uncovered. It is also present in vv 4&5 . “having down head” in v4a parallels “uncovered the head” in v5a. This time it is not an action that is being paralleled but a state. V5 is clear in its language “uncovered the head” and the seemingly more obscure “having down head” is paralleled to it. Once again, the reader is not expecting “having down head” but "“having the head covered”. So, here also, by parallelism Paul’s meaning is clear, whatever he means by saying “having down head” it is a state of having the head covered.
Finally, seeing the meaning through the parallelism, helps us to see the logic and structure of Paul’s main argument in this whole passage. He is not giving any possibility of escape from the logic that man is not to be in a state of having his head covered and woman is not to act in a way that leaves her head uncovered.
Second finally, it is this main argument around which the whole passage v1-16 is built. Once, you see the main argument, you can then determine what part everything else plays in it. An Illustration.
A father says to a child “Go to bed” is the main argument. But, he also says additional things “because 8 oclock is your bedtime, that is the rule” and “because children get tired and cranky the next day if they do not get enough sleep”. Once you know the main argument then you can understand why the other things are said.
If we see what is Paul’s main argument, then that frees us to classify the other things he is saying and so to better understand them. In my next instalment, I will suggest a way to classify the other things that Paul says and so make sense of the whole passage as a coherent whole. Classification is necessary for without it, one can make something that is not theology into theology. e.g. many people make a theology out of Paul’s mention of long hair ie. they make a law about long hair in men. But, is Paul really using theology when he talks about long hair in man?
It is recognising Paul’s main argument that enables us to have any chance of making sense of all the other things that he says.
Third and final finally. The great difficulty with this passage 1 Cor 11:1-16 is understanding how everything fits together. One would normally expect Paul to be making a logical and coherent argument, with each part fitting together to make the whole. Starting from what I call the main argument

I will in the following instalments attempt to show you how all the various things Paul says meld together in a logical and sensible whole.

Here’s where I, personally, am at at this point.

I don’t think the exegesis is really the issue with this text. I think the exegesis is pretty plain in favor of head covering/uncovering. I don’t think one needs to dig too deeply into the bowels of the Greek to pick up what Paul’s putting down. Our objection isn’t exegetical. I confess, I think it’s probably pragmatic.

I’ve spent plenty of time weighing the speculative arguments about the cultural context of ancient Corinth and such, but ultimately can’t get them to hold water in my thinking. Even if Paul completely left out his appeal to nature in verses 13-15, we’d still be left with his appeal to created order in verses 1-12. It seems like we’re cherry-picking in our hermeneutics to, for example, hold Paul’s appeal to creation as checkmate in 1 Tim. 2:12-15, only to equivocate in his appeal to creation in this text, right? We can cede ground on verses 13-15 to those who want to argue that Paul is appealing to cultural context only. Fine, I agree. But that was never his central point anyway. That’s just his, “moreover,” point.

And as for the argument that states that the woman’s hair, itself, is the woman’s covering (verse 15), I’ve tried that one on too. I don’t think it holds water against a close reading of verses 4-6. There is a clear distinction being made between the symbol (the covering) and the hair itself. The fact that her hair is given to her as a covering in verse 15 seems to speak to a different kind of covering – an ornament of her station as the glory of man.

In the past few years I’ve loosely argued that in our particular cultural context and day in age – filled with butch feminism and short haired women – the simple fact that a woman in the church has long hair really is something of a symbol of her subjection to her station. For a woman to simply have long hair these days is markedly feminine in a world that has grown to hate all semblances of manhood and womanhood. In this point, I sort of loosely appeal to cultural context (nature) in verses 13-14, coupled with her hair “given to her for a covering,” to conclude as I always have – that a physical cloth head covering is not necessary in order for a woman to be in subjection.

But again, I’ve never been satisfied that such an argument is exegetically watertight.

So what’s my real issue? It’s that I recoil at the ramifications of this text saying what I am fairly convinced it actually says. It would mean that our practice as a church would need to change, which would mean the hard and grueling work of reformation – the kind of reformation, by the way, that will divide, and draw blood. It would necessitate that fathers be taught and be persuaded by their elders that the Lord requires this of us, and would require reform in the life of their families. To force the symbol of authority over a woman’s head (and in some cases, to force men and their sons stop wearing ball caps), will force out of the woodwork all sorts of deeply-engrained – even hidden – rebellion in certain women, and effeminacy in certain men. And then we have to actually deal with all of that. It would be hard, it would be grueling. It would invite new waves of slander against the church from apostate outsiders. It would be scandalous in the eyes of a God-hating culture.

I confess in my weakness that I don’t have the constitution for that kind of trouble. God help my unbelief. But that’s the kind of trouble that seems necessary to endure to see the thing through in the fear of God before his word.

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that every man and woman can figure for themselves. Paul lays the matter forward as something that is to be observed by the practice of the church in corporate gathering. For every family to follow their own judgment on the matter seems to be something Paul would oppose. Paul means what he says, and the church is expected to obey. Which means elders are expected to lead the church in that obedience.

Somewhere in our previous thread on this a few years ago, someone shared a story about I think an Orthodox church they had attended where there were shawls in the back of the sanctuary, and it was expected that women would grab one to wear when they came in they didn’t have one. This seems odd to us, of course, but it made perfect sense to me. If we are convinced that head coverings are a matter of church order, it has to flow from the top down.


Dear Jason,

Soon, I will die. I’m so thankful for you. It would be hard to do a better job than you’ve done above in stating my own conscience and convictions. I’ve said privately a number of times that headcoverings is one (only one of many) of the areas where I expect to be ashamed before the throne of God for being faithless, and precisely for the reasons you state so eloquently above.

Now that I’m no longer the pastor of TRC, I can say it. How pathetic.

A number of times during the past couple months, we have entered Roman Catholic churches (or “cathedrals”) and have watched women given shawls to cover their skin (shoulders, thighs, breasts, etc.). No slightest objection from any of them.

It hit me hard. I will only add that Calvin himself speaks of the cultural context of the Apostle Paul’s instructions, and I think that too is inarguable. But hey, when in doubt…

With respect and appreciation,


Another point to bring up here is that in the OT law, women were allowed to make pledges, and if the husband heard about it, and says nothing, it stands.

Same principal of headship in the NC

I agree with you Jason that the best approach is the speak to the session and say “and we’ll have scarves available”. If they say “ABSOLUTELY NOT”, then fine. But I think most would be indifferent as most view it as a tertiary matter and a kind of “whatever my wife wants to do”.

Not saying that this is right, but it’s the way I perceive it.

If in this context, the wife dons one and the husband goes along, no harm no foul.

Is one way more optimal? Yes. Will the other way get the job done? Yes.

Yes I think it was @Fr_Bill who had the shawls at the back of the church.

I long for a day when we return not just to corporate gathering covering, but also publicly. My great grandmother in South Georgia in the 1930s wouldn’t dare go out without her bonnet on. Calvin, in one of his sermons, also warned of what would happen if society lost the public head covering.

But baby steps, let’s get it right in the church first.

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A wonderfully honest response.

Have you come across Carlton McLeod? His story as a pastor who preached on 1 Corinthiams 11:2-16 is heart-rending and encouraging. It’s easy to admire others. If I was a minister, I’d like to think I would be as faithful, but don’t know what I would do

Take heart, dear gray-haired pastor. The kings of old were commended by the Lord as doing what was right in his sight, even though certain high places remained erected in Judah (1 Kings 15:14). Perhaps a Josiah will arise one day later and take them down, but the faithful pastor can still go to his fathers in peace and hear the words, “Well done.” Truly, be encouraged.

I did happen to be reading Calvin’s commentary on this text this morning. As I read him, he does seem to conclude/concede that Paul’s appeal to nature in verses 13-14 is an appeal to the culture of the time. Among the Greeks of this time, it was a strange thing for a man to be “unshorn.” This wouldn’t have been strange in generations and cultures prior, he conveys.

But that’s about where Calvin leaves it, it seems. There seems to be an unspoken, “So what?” in his conclusion of the passage. The appeals to the created order in verses 1-12 are where he seems to point us to focus. This is in contrast to our modern dealing with the passage, where we try to use 13-15 to basically dispel 1-12.

Maybe he writes more exhaustively on the passage elsewhere. His commentary is the only thing I’ve read from him on the subject.

Can you get there from 1 Cor. 11 though? If we apply the concept of the head covering from 1 Cor. 11 to mean that the woman’s head should be covered in all of public life, wouldn’t that force us to also conclude that the man’s head must be uncovered in all of public life? I don’t know anyone who takes that position.

I can certainly appreciate the general longing to return to a world where manhood and womanhood were generally respected in society. But I don’t think I can stretch 1 Cor. 11 to lead me to head covering in public. Thoughts?

I am not familiar with him.

Reminds me of something Tim said in a thread or a blog on here a year or two ago (time flies?). It was something to the effect, “Few doctrinaire men have any real responsibility.” It’s stuck with me.

Over the past few years, I’ve grown far less critical of church leadership, and far more sympathetic to the weight of their office. We need to be churchmen who care deeply about the purity of the church, but that care ought channel us into being the kind of men that hold up Moses’ arms in the battle (Exodus 17:12), not the kind of men that kick against Moses’ right to rule over us.

As with all such analogies, they break down somewhere, but you get the point.