The word for wives in Greek is the same as the word for women. It is my assertion that 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 is addressed to husbands and wives, not all men and women. So I switched “man” for “husband” and “woman” for “wife”, except for the verse where it is obviously referring to Adam and Eve as the type for a husband and wife. This is an interpretation, but it’s also a justified one. Hear me out and here we go:
But I want you to know that the head of every husband is Christ, and the head of the wife is the husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every husband praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every wife praying or prophesying with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for it is one and the same thing as if she were shaved. For if a wife is not covered, then she should cut off her hair. But if it is a shame to a wife to have her hair be cut or shaved off, let her be covered. For a husband indeed has an obligation not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God, but the wife is the glory of the husband.
For Adam did not come from Eve, but Eve from Adam; for indeed, Adam was not created for Eve, but Eve for Adam. This is why the wife has an obligation to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless in the Lord, the wife is not independent of the husband, nor is the husband independent of the wife. For as the wife is from Adam, so is the husband also by Eve, but all things are from God.
Judge among yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God uncovered? Doesn’t even nature itself teach you that if a husband has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a wife has long hair, it is a glory to her, for her hair is given her for a covering. But if any husband seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.
The first thing to note is how the first verse is nearly identical to Ephesians 5:
Submit yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ; Wives to their own husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, being himself the Savior of the body. But as the church submits to Christ, so also wives are to submit to their husbands in everything.
The second thing to note is how neatly this conforms with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:
Let the wives keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted for them to speak, but they are to be in submission, as also says the law. And if they want to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home, for it is shameful for a wife to speak in the church.
It has long been noted that the advice for unmarried women—especially widows—to ask their husbands is nonsensical and cruel, leading some commentators to conclude that Paul was quoting these verses in condemnation of them. Alternatively, addressing this only to husbands and wives makes much more sense.
The third thing to note is that the head of every woman is not just any or all men. In no society ever has every man had a right to any woman he chose. The head of a woman is a specific man: her husband. The Bible never says that a father is the head of his daughter (or son). Indeed, even the head of the church is a specific man: Christ. No other men are the heads of anyone else, man or woman. Not only do virgins not have a head (because they are unmarried and any man can claim them), but in particular, a widow isn’t even under the authority of any man (and cannot be claimed by one), let alone a man who is her head. It makes no sense at all for Paul to speak of an unmarried woman being the glory of a man that she does not have and is not under. The context is clearly married women.
The fourth thing to note is that a married woman who is uncovered is acting like a shorn woman—a prostitute—or a unmarried—uncovered—woman. The meaning behind Paul’s statement that…
For if a wife is not covered, then she should cut off her hair. But if it is a shame to a wife to have her hair be cut or shaved off, let her be covered.
…is perfectly clear: if a married woman insists on being uncovered—like an unmarried woman—she should be treated as if she really were shorn like a prostitute. Such a married woman announcing herself as unmarried is no better than a prostitute and will be treated as such. Paul says that women who do not wish to be treated as whores—shaved—should cover up. John Chrysostom—writing in the late 4th century—agrees that Paul is arguing from absurdity:
For he said not merely covered, butcovered over ,meaning that she be carefully wrapped up on every side. And by reducing it to an absurdity, he appeals to their shame, saying by way of severe reprimand, but if she be not covered, let her also be shorn. As if he had said, If you cast away the covering appointed by the law of God, cast away likewise that appointed by nature.
Notice that Chrysostom—a native speaker—interprets “for if a wife is not covered [over], then she should cut off her hair” as an intentional absurdity: “For if a wife is not completely wrapped up on every side, then she should cut her hair short.” Obviously cutting her hair short isn’t a solution to revealing skin on the face and neck, or not having enough hair to do-up your hair! In English it is easy to miss the sarcastic bite in Paul’s words and draw the wrong conclusion. This is the answer to those who believe Paul is talking about veils instead of just long hair, even though Paul never explicitly mentions covering outside the context of hair and explicitly states that long hair is a covering.
As an aside, it is interesting that I came to the same conclusion as John Chrysostom after reading only the English translation, but before I had read John Chrysostom’s analysis. The sense of the original still bleed through the somewhat obscure translation.
The fifth thing to note is that unmarried women are not covered when they prophesy and pray, because they are not under the domain of a husband. They have no allegiances to any man but Christ.
The sixth thing to note is that only husbands and wives are not independent of one another, because they are one flesh. Unmarried men and women are plainly not dependent upon each other like a husband and wife are.
The seventh thing to note is that not all long hair is shameful to a man. Nazirites take a vow and may not cut (or even comb) their hair for the duration of the vow. In some cases—as with Samson and Samuel—this vow is lifelong. This is proof that long hair on men is not inherently offensive to God based on some natural standard, but is in fact evidence of a vow to God. Nor does Paul give any idea what the threshold between short and long hair is, making a strong distinction absurd. But if one views this in a husband and wife relationship, it becomes a fairly straightforward explanation: the husband should have hair that is shorter than his wife, differentiating between them, lest the culture treat him (or her) with contempt.
The eighth thing to note is that wives (or women) come from Adam (or man) and husbands (or men) also comes by Eve (or woman). This is counter to the claim that the image of God only applies to men because sons come from Adam and daughters come from Eve. Paul teaches that men and women come from each other, which of course makes sense to anyone who understands biology. Paul is stating the obvious.
The nineth thing to note is that a married woman must cover because Adam came first and Eve came second, so that even though men are born from women and women are produced by men, the ordering of creation is the reason she needs “a symbol of authority on her head.” Her covering is a symbol on her head of her head—her husband—of being married.
The tenth thing to note is that Paul seems not to be talking about veiling at all, but about women wearing short hair. “Covered” means long hair: “But if a wife has long hair, it is a glory to her, for her hair is given her for a covering.” “Uncovered” means short hair. Paul explicitly equates the effect of short hair with having no hair, saying “…with her head uncovered … for it is one and the same thing as if she were shaved” and “For if a wife is not covered, then she should cut off her hair.” This is a ban on short hair. It is a mystery to me how people read this and conclude that a veil is required. Paul is very clear that if short hair or a shaved head is shameful, she should grow her hair long: “But if it is a shame to a wife to have her hair be cut or shaved off, let her be covered.” This is all rather obvious.
John Chrysostom—writing in the late 4th century—agrees that Paul is instructing that a woman always be covered, regardless of whether or not she is praying, and that this covering is her hair:
“[Paul] both affirms the covering and the hair to be one, and also that she again who is shaven is the same with her whose head is bare”
This is counter to the modern head covering movement that assumes that an artificial covering only is required for prayer. For Chrysostom also says:
But if to be shaven is always dishonorable, it is plain too that being uncovered is always a reproach. And not even with this only was he content, but added again, saying,The woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels.He signifies that not at the time of prayer only but also continually, she ought to be covered.
Because of the reference to the angels, whether prayer or otherwise, the covering is the same. The claim that…
The fact that the church unanimously understood Paul to mean an artificial covering until recent times is worthy of mention.
…is simply untrue.
The eleventh thing to note is that the original audience would have automatically known that wives and husbands were being addressed because they understood the practices of covering that were implemented in the church at Corinth.
The twelfth thing to note is that if a husband contended with Paul’s judgment, there was no tradition, including within the church, to supports the husband’s view. Paul is implicitly stating here that tradition determines the proper behavior and should be followed, just as he said in Chapter 10 regarding food sacrificed to idols. But being uncovered is no longer a sign of sexual availability because traditions of have changed. Far from being an immutable law of nature, the proper behavior of men and women—their propriety—is culturally determined. Now a husband has the authority to choose what he and his wife do, and there is no custom of today’s church that says otherwise. Husbands should judge themselves what is the right thing to do. This is, ironically, far more patriarchal than the standard patriarchal interpretation of this verse.
The last thing to note is that Paul says that the wife is the glory of the husband, and that her hair is the symbol of her husband, but he also says that her hair is her glory. So her hair—the symbol of her husband—is her glory, and she is the glory of her husband. This glory is a reciprocal arrangement that has, heretofore, been neglected: she glorifies him and he glorifies her. He glorifies her by her having long hair and she glorifies him by, you guessed it, having long hair.
In summary, Paul is telling wives to have long hair (i.e. covered) and husbands to have short hair (i.e. uncovered).
Even John Chrysostom notes that the point Paul is making is that men and women should be visually distinguishable when he condemns men cross-dressing:
Consider then the excess of the transgression when being honored with so high a prerogative, you put yourself to shame, seizing the woman’s dress. And you do the same as if having received a diadem, you should cast the diadem from your head, and instead of it take a slave’s garment.