1. 1 Corinthians 11:4–5 (ESV)
  2. Exposition

By “covered head” does Paul refer to “hair” or a “head covering” in 1 Corinthians 11:4–5?

1 Corinthians 11:4–5 (ESV)

4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head,

In short

By covered head Paul refers to

  1. wearing a garment on one’s head; or

  2. one’s hair.

Paul explains that men should not cover their heads when they pray or prophesy, but women should cover theirs. What does it mean to cover one’s head? Does Paul refer to wearing a garment on one’s head or to a hairstyle?

We can determine Paul’s meaning by reflecting on the cultural situation in first-century Corinth. For one, we know that Roman men would cover their heads with part of their toga when they offered sacrifices to the gods. In fact, there is a statue of Augustus from Corinth that depicts Augustus with his toga on his head as he prepares for worship. This historical detail makes of Paul’s statement that men should not cover their heads when they pray or prophesy. Men show themselves to pray or prophesy to the living God when they do so with uncovered heads.

Added to this, we know it was standard for respectable married women to cover their heads with a garment when they went in public. The reason for this is that in first-century Corinth, uncovered hair was a signal used by women to attract men. This meant that single women would show themselves in public without a garment on their heads to show that they were available. Given this cultural detail, we can understand why Paul says it would dishonour a married woman’s husband if she prays or prophesies without covering her hair.

Some argue that Paul does not have a garment in mind when he says that men should not cover their heads in worship while women should. Rather, Paul has in mind the notion of hairstyle. This argument is based on the fact that Paul does not mention anything about a garment in 1 Corinthians 11:4–5, but he does mention shaving one’s head in 1 Corinthians 11:5–6, and hairdos in 1 Corinthians 11:14–15.

The problem with this argument is that we need to understand why Paul mentions a shaved head (1 Cor. 11:5–6) and hairstyles (1 Cor. 11:14-15) before we can say that these references imply that Paul talks about hair in 1 Corinthians 11:4–5. And when we look closer, we notice that neither 1 Corinthians 11:5-6 nor 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 shows that Paul has hair in mind in 1 Corinthians 11:4–5. First, when Paul says that if a married woman will not cover her head she may as well shave it, he has a rhetorical motive. In first-century Corinth, prostitutes would wear their hair short or shaved. Also, if a woman committed adultery, a man would sometimes shave his wife’s hair and send her from the home. Paul’s point is that if a married woman is willing to leave her head uncovered, she acts dishonourably toward her husband. Also, when Paul mentions hair in 1 Corinthians 11:14–15, he uses nature to argue by analogy. Since by nature men have short hair, this shows they should not cover their heads with a garment. And since by nature women have long hair, married women should cover their heads with a garment in worship.

Based on the cultural norm that married women covered their heads with a garment so as not to attract sexual attention, when Paul says covered head, he likely means to cover one’s head with a garment.

Interpretation 1:
By covered head Paul refers to wearing a garment on one’s head.


In first-century Corinth, men would offer sacrifices to the gods with a garment on their heads. Thus, Christian men should not cover their heads like the pagans when they worship, or they dishonour Christ. On the other hand, married women should cover their heads with a garment. That’s because women who wore a garment on their head signaled that they were married, and therefore unavailable. A married woman who did not cover her head dishonoured her husband.

Cultural standards change across geography and time, but the principles of modesty remain the same. Married women may not cover their heads to show that they are unavailable, but married women should dress appropriately in worship so as not to dishonour their husbands. Likewise, men should remember that their spiritual head is Christ, and therefore they should not dishonour Christ in public worship.


  • Gordon Fee

  • David Garland

  • Craig Keener

  • Anthony Thiselton

Minor differences:

Our authors agree that when Paul says a man must wear his head uncovered in worship, and a woman wear her hair covered, he refers to covering their head with a garment. Still, there is a difference between David Garland and Gordon Fee. Garland points out that in Corinth, when a woman went in public with uncovered hair, this suggested that she was available.1 In other words, uncovered hair was used by single women to attract the attention of men. Paul’s point is that it is inappropriate for married women to worship in public without covering their heads, because they are not single and so should not try to attract men. In fact, such behaviour dishonours their husbands.2

Fee agrees that Paul has in mind the fact that women should wear a garment on their heads in public worship, but his reason is quite different. He thinks that the problem Paul addresses is the fact that the genders are distinct, and if men go around with their heads covered, and women their heads uncovered, this blurs the distinction between men and women. Since men and women are created distinct, such blurring is inappropriate.3


Interpretation 2:
By covered head Paul refers to one’s hair.


Paul did not want men to wear their hair in such a way that they would look like women. Likewise, it was not appropriate for women to wear their hair loose and unbraided.


  • Raymond Collins

  • Frederik Grosheide

Minor differences:

Of our two authors, Raymond Collins is more sure that when Paul talks about covering one’s head, he has hairstyle in mind. Collins suggests there were various worship practices in first-century Corinth. The Romans and Jews covered their head in worship, while the Greeks did not. In order to avoid cultural conflict, Paul tells the men to have their heads uncovered and the women to cover theirs. Collins sees no indication from the text that Paul has any garment in mind, so he concludes that Paul is talking about one’s hairstyle.11

Frederik Grosheide, on the other hand, thinks the reason Paul wants men and women to uncover or cover their heads is because men should not dress like women, nor women like men.12 Grosheide thinks that Paul could have hair or a garment in mind when he discusses head coverings, writing, “The presence of her husband and children, with her head unveiled, i.e. without her head covered or with loose hair.”13