The Foundation Is Headship, 1 Cor. 11. 2–16


The distinctiveness of the roles and contributions of the male and female in the assembly is being increasingly questioned. The issues arise against the background of the call for ‘gender equality’ and the confusion over ‘gender identity’ in modern society. These matters give increasing significance to the subject of women’s ministry and the need for clarity on the separate roles of men and women in the assembly. What happens in the world soon has ramifications for the assembly. Note, however, that the doctrinal subject before us is based on New Testament teaching - not the culture of the day, but the abiding and binding authority of the Holy Scriptures. Remember, too, that the important practical contribution sisters make is immense.1 Indeed, today many assemblies depend on them for their very existence.

The subject of 1 Corinthians chapter 11 verses 2 to 16 is that of ‘headship’ - the word ‘head’ occurs nine times with five of these being metaphorical and four literal (e.g., in verse 4 the first reference to ‘head’ is clearly literal while the second reference in this verse is equally clearly metaphorical) - see verses 3 (three times), 4 (twice), 5 (twice), 7 and 10. In passing, note that verses 17 to 34 deal with the subject of ‘lordship’. The title ‘Lord’ occurs eight times - see verses 20, 23 (twice), 26, 27 (twice), 29 and 32. ‘Headship’ denotes responsibility and accountability, not superiority - no qualitative or essential difference is assumed. It is therefore altogether appropriate that it occurs in the same context as Lordship. An appreciation of Lordship will lead automatically to the ready and willing implementation of the requirements of headship.

Two explanations have been advanced in applying the truth of headship in verses 2 to 16. The first is that it is individual, private and moral - e.g., it applies in the home. This may be a possible understanding of the passage, but in this case the principles involved would have an automatically wider application to assembly gatherings. The second sees it as applying directly to church gatherings. This latter seems the better conclusion for several reasons:

  • It is in an overall context (chapters 11 to 14) where there are six references to the phrase ‘come together’ in relation to the church - see 11. 17, 18, 20, 33; 14. 23, 26.
  • The nature of the Epistle as a whole. It has been called the ‘Charter of the Church’ - note references to ‘church(es) of God’, 1. 2; 10. 32; 11. 16, 22; and 15. 9.
  • The reference to the tradition of the apostles in chapter 11 verse 2. They were the foundation of the church, Eph. 2. 20, 21.
  • The fact of angelic interest in verse 10, cp. Eph. 3. 10.
  • The practice delineated was the custom of the ‘churches of God’, v. 16.
  • The subject throughout is applied to man/woman and not to husband/wife.

The burden of the apostle is, then, to deal with the evidence for headship in the public gatherings of believers. This will be seen in two particulars, viz. the men being uncovered (interestingly dealt with first) and the women being covered. Several distinct and important reasons are given. All of these reasons adduced will be outlined below. In particular, the seven reasons for sisters being ‘covered’ in church gatherings will be highlighted.

Outline of the section

Introduction and statement of the principle, vv. 2, 3.

  • Introduction, vv. 2, 3
  • The principle of headship stated, ‘the head of’ is mentioned three times, v. 3

Application of the principle, vv. 4-6.

  • The act to which the principle applies - ‘praying or prophesying’, vv. 4, 5
  • The ‘covering’ which implements the principle, vv. 4-7, 13, 15 (seven references)
  • Application of the principle to the man, v. 4
  • Application of the principle to the woman, vv. 5, 6

Explanation of the principle, vv. 7-12 - note ‘For’, vv. 7, 8, 10, 12.

  • In the case of man, v. 7
  • In the case of woman, vv. 7-10
  • The interrelation between man and woman, vv. 11, 12

Illustration of the principle, vv. 13-15

The practice of the principle as the custom of the churches, v. 16

Introduction and statement of the principle, vv. 2, 3

Introduction, vv. 2, 3

This whole paragraph may be part of the ‘Corinthian correspondence’2all introduced by ‘Now’, v. 2. The other six references are introduced by ‘Now concerning’.3 Paul takes care to praise before censuring (cp. also verse 17) and the risen Christ does this in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. The commendation is for keeping the traditions.4 Traditions must be kept intact, ‘as I delivered them to you’, v. 2, and to keep the traditions, we must be intelligently informed. Hence, Paul states, ‘I would have you know’, v. 3. There is no premium on ignorance! You will note that ten times in the Epistle, Paul asks ‘know ye not?’5 The knowledge to be imparted here is on the subject of headship.

The principle of headship is stated in unambiguous terms, v. 3

‘The head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God’.

This affirmation will be used as Paul’s foundation for all his subsequent teaching on head covering, both negatively and positively. The principle is true universally with no exceptions. It teaches that authority and subjection pertain to the Godhead, cp. John 14. 28; Matt. 24. 36. Thus, there is no thought of personal inferiority nor inequality envisaged, but rather positional subjection. The idea is that of being ‘ordered, ranked, placed in rows’ with its origin being in God, e.g., Rom. 13. 1. As Vine6 points out, it is for the preservation of divine order in society.

Subjection and authority are seen in the New Testament in a variety of ways:

  • ‘Citizens to civil authority - Rom. 13. 1; Titus 3. 1
  • Employees to employers - Titus 2. 9
  • Church members to their leaders - Heb. 13. 7; 1 Cor. 16. 16
  • Church members to one another - Eph. 5. 21
  • Children to parents - 1 Tim. 3. 4
  • Wives to husbands - Eph. 5. 22; Col. 3. 18’.7

Application of the principle, vv. 4-6

The act to which the principle applies - ‘praying or prophesying’, vv. 4, 5

Having laid the foundation, the apostle is now keen to apply the principles he has established to the problem in relation to head covering being faced at Corinth. He begins by establishing the act to which the principle applies. The two acts he addresses are clearly public exercises in the gatherings of the saints. It is made abundantly clear in this overall section of the Epistle (chh. 11-14) in which this paragraph is found, that both these exercises are available for the male. The question arises - does Paul also authorize the woman to pray and prophesy publicly? These are two possible answers to this question:

  1. The woman participates silently in the public contribution of the brother, as do other brethren. The saying of ‘Amen’ at the end of public praying or ministry (the current application of prophecy) indicates this (see 1 Cor. 14. 16).
  2. There were two problems at Corinth - women uncovered, and women taking part publicly. Paul is a clever teacher and he always bases practical truth on a doctrinal foundation. Thus, he deals with the first problem in the context of headship, here in chapter 11, and the second in the context of due order for public contributions, in chapter 14. Therefore, his appeals are given in context!

The teaching relative to head covering is the same no matter what solution is favoured relative to the meaning of ‘praying or prophesying’.

The ‘covering’ which implements the principle, vv. 4-7, 13, 15 (seven references)

There are three words used for ‘covering’ in these verses:

  • Covering, v. 4. This is essentially a preposition, kata, which, according to Thayer,8 means ‘down from, through, out, toward’. The phrase ‘having his head covered’ is thus translated as ‘having anything on his head’ JND. This seems to clarify the meaning in this context. The word is only used once in these verses.
  • The second verb, akatakaluptos, is translated as ‘uncovered’ in verses 5 and 13 (negative); and ‘covered’ (positive) in verses 6 (twice) and 7. Therefore, the word is used five times (and nowhere else in the New Testament), and always of the literal ‘head’ either of the woman or the man. The fundamental meaning of the word is ‘to veil’ and always of the ‘head’ and not the hair. In addition, it should be noticed that the hair is never referred to as the covering in verses 4 to 14, the special case of verse 15 will be considered below.
  • The third word for covering in the passage is in verse 15, peribolaion. It is used only twice in the New Testament. The other occurrence is in Hebrews chapter 1 verse 12, ‘And as a vesture [peribolaion] shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail’. The word means ‘a covering thrown around, a wrapper’. It is used for illustrative purposes as a picture of long hair used to cover the body and, as will be seen, is a figure of the veil used to cover the head. If the covering referred to the hair in all the other references the man would need to have his hair shaved off to be uncovered!

Application of the principle to the man, v. 4

It is interesting that the ‘man’ is addressed first. The man is to be uncovered, unlike the priest in Old Testament times who served in the presence of God. In that case, they were covered either with the ‘mitre’, Exod. 28. 4, or the ‘bonnets’, Lev. 8. 13. The reason for their covering was because of the visible presence of God in the tabernacle. But now the man has to be uncovered because he represents the visible presence of God in the assembly and if covered he ‘dishonoureth his head’. The word ‘head’ here is clearly metaphorical and refers to Christ. In dishonouring Christ, as Vine says, he ‘practically abdicates the sovereignty and dignity with which his Creator has invested him’.9



Relevant passages of scripture include: John 12. 1-11; Luke 10. 38-42; 1 Tim. 5. 10; etc.


The Corinthians had written to Paul on a number of matters - see 1 Cor. 7. 1 - and he was answering them sequentially.


See 7. 1, 25; 8. 1; 12. 1; 16. 1, 12.


Doctrine and practice - see 1 Tim. 6. 20; 2 Tim. 2. 2; 2 Thess. 2. 15; 3. 6, cp. for Old Testament examples, Naboth, 1 Kgs. 21. 3; and Shammah, 2 Sam. 23. 11, 12.


Cp. also 10. 1; 12. 1; Rom. 11. 25; 1 Thess. 4. 13; 2 Pet. 3. 8.


W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, World Bible Publishers, 1991.




Joseph Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, e-Sword resource.


W. E. Vine, op. cit.


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