Once More, With Understanding: Headcoverings in 1 Cor. 11

You misunderstand. My point is that if Calvin and Henry take prayer and prophecy to be specific acts which are prohibited to women in the first place, then veiling is an unnecessary practice since women never pray or prophesy in church anyway:

  1. Veiling is specific to women praying or prophesying in church
  2. Therefore, women not praying or prophesying in church need not wear a veil
  3. Praying and prophesying is prohibited to women in church
  4. Therefore, obedient women need never veil themselves in church

But this is the opposite of the historic catholic practice, which is for women to always veil themselves in church. It’s good that Calvin and Henry followed the catholic practice, but their interpretation is inconsistent with that practice.

My assumption is that practice typically derives from interpretation, so if the catholic practice has women veiling themselves at all times in church, the most likely explanation is that the catholic interpretation of prayer and prophecy extends to the whole church service.


I’m not sure how my previous comment was off point. Were we discussing what Calvin and Henry thought or whether their interpretation was viable? Maybe I got the wrong end of the stick.

Nor was I aware that their’s was the historical reformed view. I have come across the view before, however, and consider it - honestly - ridiculous. To suggest that Paul regulated a practice only to forbid the same practice a couple of chapters later is at least a thousand steps down from the usually wonderful insight of Calvin and others. And that’s before you get on to the contradictions pointed out by Bnonn!

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I’m probably not inclined to the view myself, but here is a useful article giving some other examples of Paul doing the same kind of thing elsewhere:


His suggestion that 11:5 does not necessarily imply any approval of women prophesying is also questionable, but it should not be dismissed lightly. This view was favored by Henry Alford, who in his New Testament for English Readers quotes the following comments by Wilhelm De Wette (1780-1849) with approval…

…Although we may find it odd that Paul would deal with the subject in this manner, there are other examples of this in the same epistle, as Frederic Godet points out in his Commentary:

It might be supposed that the apostle meant to let the speaking of women in the form of prophesying or praying pass for the moment only, contemplating returning to it afterwards to forbid it altogether, when he should have laid down the principles necessary to justify this complete prohibition. So it was that he proceeded in chap. 6, in regard to lawsuits between Christians, beginning by laying down a simple restriction in ver. 4, to condemn them afterwards altogether in ver. 7. We have also observed the use of a similar method in the discussion regarding the participation of the Corinthians in idolatrous feasts; the passage, 8:10, seemed first to authorize it; then, afterwards, when the time has come, he forbids it absolutely (10:21, 22), because he then judges that the minds of his readers are better prepared to accept such a decision.


@bnonn, could not this first premise be denied? That is, it is conceivable that Calvin / Henry saw other reasons in the passage for a covering that led them to still consider it a necessary practice e.g. ‘because of the angels’ or the ‘covering her glory (hair) in the assembly’ argument of Fr. Bill and yourself etc. I.e. other arguments for covering that don’t necessarily hang on whether or not she prays or prophesies in church in the public sense of those actions.

@jtbayly @Zak_Carter
I think Calvin offered the ‘Paul is only mentioning prayer/prophesy, not permitting it’ explanation as only one possibility. After giving this explanation, he goes on to offer another:

In this reply there is nothing amiss, though at the same time it might suit sufficiently well to say, that the Apostle requires women to show their modesty — not merely in a place in which the whole Church is assembled, but also in any more dignified assembly, either of matrons or of men, such as are sometimes convened in private houses.

Michael Marlowe discusses this more in the article I linked to previously, referring to Calvin’s ‘first’ and ‘second’ explanations:

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Thanks, Henry. That is a helpful resource.

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Also, unlike what a lot of people assume, I thought that 1 Corinthians is /not/ about the public meetings, but everyday life. Paul doesn’t start addressing the public meeting until later and the previous chapter was about things that happen in the home. If women are going to pray or prophecy, they need their head covered, in the church or out. They would be praying (silently) in church, hence the need for the covering and no contradiction with chapter 14. Also hence the historic catholic practice. Also hence women historically wearing head coverings not just in church.

Resurrecting a dead thread but trying to refine my thinking.

This coming from this lecture given a few years ago.

Along that line, for those who advocate head covering here, do you advocate it just in the context of the church service, or take 1 Cor 11 to mean broader life, whenever praying?

Edit: Part of this stems from my wife who asked me — she pointed out that Paul makes no distinction here as to where a woman prays being important. My gut reaction, and what I told her, was no — but that was mainly due to not wanting my wife to walk around town covered all the time if she chose to do so.

Having thought about it more, I know before 1900 it was much more common for women to do so, so all over the western and eastern worlds you’d see women covered in public, presumably for tradition/modesty reasons — but part of me wonders if there was a theological impetus behind it, i.e. Christian women were doing it as to always be praying, or some such.

A similar question:
What about men removing their hats when praying outside the church?

This one is still very acceptable in our culture.

We have a Facebook forum where this is the main point of disagreement, i.e. should women wear headcoverings whenever they pray or prophesy, or only in church meetings?

My take is that it is it applies only in church meetings. Prophecy has a flexible semantic range, and in this case I understand it to include congregational singing etc.

Historically, women did wear coverings outside of church meetings, but historical teaching on head covering applied 1 Cor 11 to church meetings, even if veiling was also encouraged for reasons of modesty. (Chrysostom was a weirdly reasoned exception). Tertullian’s “On the Veiling of Virgins” has a telling argument nearer the end. He asks why virgins cover their heads in society and take them off inside the church. His argument reveals that he sees the two contexts as being separate.

All that to say, head coverings are not required outside church meetings.

This definitely seems like an area that could use a book on the history of it, as well as the differing views. If one doesn’t exist, I guess by mentioning it am I volunteering to write it? You’d all have to put up with terrible dad jokes.

Happy for Dad jokes!

David Phillips has compiled historical quotes in, “Headcovering Throughout Christian History: The Church’s Response to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16”.

The Kindle version has hyperlinks which is helpful to get more context for the quotes. It would be good to also have sustained reflection on the quotes, but it’s a good and helpful starting point.

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Thanks brother,

I’ll look into it, the one current thought I can’t get over is that 1 Cor 11 is not about the gathered meeting because of the context as well as 1 Cor 14 saying women should remain silent in the worship service.

The passage naturally reads as talking about the meeting, not about outside the meeting, and historically, most commentaters read it the same way.


We can get into it, if you like, but I won’t unless you’ve got the time.

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Oh please, that’s why I’m here :smiley:

If you’ve got the time, I’m indebted. Right now I’ve got my plane circling two airfields and I’m trying to figure out in which to land.

So in what way does it naturally read talking about the meeting since Paul formally addresses the public meeting starting later in Corinthians? Also, how could this refer to the public meeting if Paul commanded women to remain silent in the meeting, but here it is talking about women prophesying?

I appreciate the back and forth.

This will be way too quick - which means long and unedited - but here you go.

The passage naturally reads as part of a church meeting because of the similarities between the first and second half of the chapter. Paul is talking about traditions, first head covering and then communion. The transition to the Lord’s supper includes an explicit mention of “when you come together” but this in no way indicates (certainly does not prove) that Paul was not talking about church meetings in the first half. Instead, the fact that they both come under the heading “traditions” encourages the reading that they are both situated in the same context.

1 Corinthians 11 also begins a larger section in which church meetings are the context for communion and spiritual gifts. It is too jarring to read head coverings as not being situated in the same context.

The act of covering the head is also a public sign. Many people understand it as a personal thing, but glory is witnessed, not a private affair.

And while a much weaker argument, Paul’s reference to the Churches of God in v16 does lend support to the context being a church meeting.

How does this line up with the silence of women in 1 Cor 14:34-35? Prayer does not need to be out loud, and silent prayer is how women historically prayed in Church meetings. Prophecy, in 1 Corinthians itself, is used in both a general way to refer to any spiritual utterance, and also to a specific gift of bringing a message from the Lord. So while speaking as an individual to the chruch is forbidden, taking part in congregational singing or even liturgical call and response (or other spiritual utteramces as a congregation) is not.

So whether you want to read Paul’s use of prayer and prophecy as him referring to those activities alone or as Paul using prayer and prophecy as a catch-all phrase to reference participation in the meeting, there is no need to say there is a contradiction between 1 Cor 11 referring to church meetings and 1 Cor 14:34-35.

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Your argument makes sense, I see how one could tie the first half of the verse into Paul referring to the church service. It’s not explicit, and given that women veiled outside of the church at that time, I think one would want to follow the principle of erring on the side of caution, not potentially limiting the scope of something not meant to be limited.

Sure, in public by people, in private by you and God. Oh, and potentially the angels which are explicitly mentioned.

I’d like a reference for what you are specifically thinking of. As far as I know prophesying was speaking of God, which was forbidden in chapter 14.
Paul tells us to sing psalms, hymns, etc — not to prophesy them.

I appreciate the response. I think it makes a lot of sense and is possibly right, but the early/mid/up to the 1800s church women veiling much more frequently gives me pause for jumping into Calvin’s interpretation (love you, Calvin!)

I also don’t think it makes sense for Paul to make an argument based on the creation mandate that women shouldn’t pray unveiled in church, but oh — not in church? Well the creation mandate doesn’t apply so much out there. It’s the same for the argument against women elders… they are not to have authority over men in the church because of the creation mandate, but oh, out in the world? Well the mandate doesn’t really hold out there…

Earlier societies I think understood this much more intuitively, even America until 1900!

  1. Prophecy.

1 Cor 14 is the best chapter to note the different ways Paul uses the word “prophecy”.

For most of the chapter, prophecy is used as a catch-all for spiritual utterances other than tongues, but in v6 prophecy is used as aspecific gift. And yet, even in that verse, it is clear that the words Paul uses are flexible when we compare it with verses 29-31. In verse 6, revelation and prophecy are two items on a list; in verses 29-31, revelation and prophecy are the same thing.

So, we need to read the context to understand how Paul uses “prophecy”. As said, in most of the chapter, prophecy is used as referring to spiritual utterances (“intelligible words” v19) other than tongues, and includes singing in verse 15.

That is why I include congregational singing as prophecy.

  1. Creation mandate.

There are a number of ways to answer your contention that appealing to creation means women should wear head coverings outside church meetings. The easiest one is to ask if you also think men should not wear hats outside church meetings. If you reply that men can wear hats outside church meetings, then the argument doesn’t hold.

But maybe we could say the passage limits covering/uncovering to prayer and prophecy. If we allow those limits, though, why can we not also limit the tradition to prayer and prophecy inside a church meeting.

The basic answer is that there are times and places and situations where certain truths are displayed. A bride wearing a white wedding dress is meant to signify purity, but she is not meant to wear white all the time. In the same way, the fact that truths about headship are taken from creation does not automatically mean they must be displayed all the time.


Thanks, brother.

  1. I think you make a good case and I’m fairly well convinced to your side on the meaning of prophecy.

  2. I think the core issue here is whether you think prayer and prophecy is a synecdoche – I am unsure at this point. If it is, then your point stands. If not, then it refers to the specific acts and I think the creation mandate question stands so that, yes, outside of the service, whenever praying or prophesying, man needs to have his head uncovered. I even encountered this as late as 2002 when in a public high school and in band. Before football games we would pray(!) and the male students were asked to remove hats.

Sure, but like 1 Timothy, do we want to limit male leadership to the church meeting?

I certainly agree, the Lord’s supper being one. You don’t examine yourself in the same way before the Friday night roll of sushi. But the two aren’t exactly equivalent either, since communion is more specifically tied to the event, whereas prayer and prophecy can happen anywhere. It also isn’t tied to the creation mandate.

Then there’s still the issue of church history which, afaik, is largely in favor of covering while outside of the church service, as a matter of practice, despite what certain commentaries say.