Short Synopsis of entire post

I believe that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 indirectly, but clearly, prohibits crossdressing for Christians.

(From the New International Version)
2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. 3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.

13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.


This is a very complicated and heavily debated passage especially for discussions about gender roles in marriage and church leadership. However, even though there is great debate regarding those details of the passage, there is extensive agreement concerning how to apply this passage to today in terms of clothing and head coverings.

Concerning the historical context, the Corinthian Christians (c. 50-57 AD) were divided into two main factions. One faction included Christians who were functioning with an “over-realized” eschatology, a belief which tended to devalue the body and prioritize everything “spiritual.”

This faction of Corinthian Christians thought they were supposed to live like the angels, more like disembodied spirits rather than sexual beings who are distinctly men or women. For example, some of the women felt so liberated from their body and their gender that they were disregarding the cultural customs regarding female clothing (in this case head coverings), which in essence made them to appear to be dressing like men. They were intentionally breaking down the distinctions between sexes, between men and women. They were disregarding some customary distinctions between the sexes, and this practice was considered disgraceful in their culture. It is not that the Corinthian clothing customs should be universal to all cultures, but in their specific culture these head covering customs marked an important distinction between men’s and women’s dress. These Christian women were bringing shame on themselves, their marriages, the Corinthian church, and so also to Christ (their ultimate head), by disregarding this practice. We should also remember that these women were acting out of genuine piety, but at the same time this piety was anchored in an incorrect theological belief.

The important abiding principle this passage teaches us today is that Christians should maintain the cultural distinctions of dress between men and women, insofar as these customs clearly distinguish between two genders. This does not mean that we need to follow every cultural custom of dress. For example, we would not dress immodestly just because others in the culture do. But this principle means we continue to dress differently as men and women in the clothing forms of our given culture, and therefore this passage, rightfully understood, should be understood to prohibit crossdressing. How we apply this principle in our modern context will vary, since there are widely divergent cultural customs of dress. Therefore, simplistic rules like “men can’t wear skirts,” for example, are not appropriate, since such blanket statements fail to take into account the nuances of each individual culture.

This principle is one of the messages of 1 Corinthians 11 for Christians today. What follows below are the details, or the nitty-gritty of the passage which shows how I (as well as many other biblical scholars) arrived at this conclusion. It is a detailed exegesis, and only those who are interested in a more specific analysis of the passage and my arguments should read it.



Rather than examining every nuance and issue in this passage, my focus in this exegesis is to shed light on what (if any) relevance this passage has for crossdressing and related issues. I have found that most scholars are actually in agreement on the principle this passage teaches and its modern application (hence why almost all churches around the world don’t mandate head coverings for women today in worship), even though scholars have widespread disagreement on certain details of the passage.

I am deeply indebted to Gordon Fee’s commentary1 on 1 Corinthians and Kistemaker’s commentary on 1 Corinthians,2 though I have consulted dozens of other commentaries from diverse theological traditions and time periods.

Before discussing interpretations of any biblical passages, especially difficult ones, it is important to know what hermeneutical lens a person is reading the Bible through. Many disagreements about how to interpret specific biblical passages do not stem from problems in the text itself, but rather from the fact that different people use different hermeneutical approaches to the Bible. Rather than repeating myself extensively here, if you would like to see the tradition of biblical interpretation that I operate from, you can please read my post – How to interpret the Bible.3

However, there are two hermeneutical principles for interpreting biblical letters that I would like to highlight here as they are particularly important for this discussion.

1. Even though the biblical letters were written in a specific time, place, and culture, and although the author had a specific historical audience in mind, it is nevertheless true that every single word is inspired by God, and everything in the letter applies to us in some fashion today. In other words, God wants to speak to us today through everything in the book of 1 Corinthians, whether for conviction, instruction, edification, inspiration, etc. The proper way to think about this is that although we do not literally obey every command or passage in the letters, we still obey and apply all of the principles that these passages teach. But of course there are some commands in biblical letters we are supposed to literally obey in the exact same way as the original audience was to obey them, and so part of the job of the interpreter is to make sense of this.

2. In order to apply these biblical letters to our lives we need to first read and study the passage by learning its context and history. Second, we must use this knowledge to determine the abiding universal principle(s) that the passage teaches us today. Third, we wrestle with how to apply that principle to our lives in our own specific cultural context, our specific time and place and community. Here is an example I like to give that nicely illustrates this point: the biblical injunction of the “holy kiss.”

We read in 1 Corinthians 16:30 that Paul instructs the church to – “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” With a little bit of thought, we should be able to agree what principle this verse is getting at. Keep in mind that the biblical authors do not always tell us what the principle is. They give us the application in the cultural context of the people they were writing to. From that specific application of a holy kiss, we work back to the universal principle that is being taught, and then we apply the principle to our cultural context instead of the context of the letter’s recipient. In other words we move backwards to the more general, so that we can then move forwards to the more specific.

The context was that the church of Corinth was full of divisions and infighting. We know from historical sources that the act of kissing in that culture was a physical expression of greeting. More specifically, this particular form of greeting carried the connotations of forgiveness and reconciliation. We may safely conclude, therefore, that Paul is addressing the problem of division through this particular command, and reminding the Corinthians of the importance of unity; as such the command clearly fits with the theme of the letter. He wants them to physically display to one another their reconciliation and forgiveness, so that they can live in unity with one another. This interpretation is further reinforced by the fact that Paul also commands these kisses in letters to other churches which were suffering from division problems.

With this in mind, the abiding universal principle that God is teaching us here is that we should show forgiveness and reconciliation toward each other, and further, that we should express these notions through an outward physical act. However, the modern application of this principle will be different in each culture. In Corinth, this meaning was shown through a kiss on the cheek (because that’s what made sense in that culture). In some cultures it might be shown through foot washing. In others it might be a hug. In American culture, perhaps it is as simple as giving someone a handshake or a warm and sincere greeting. Indeed, many Churches in the United States integrate a time for greeting one another (with a handshake or a verbal blessing) into the worship service itself, for this exact reason. It is our culture’s equivalent of a “holy kiss.” Therefore, although Christians today do not believe we are supposed to literally obey this biblical command, we do believe we are supposed to obey the command in accordance with the author’s real intention that lies behind it. We have taken a specific command, we have moved backwards to the general principle, and only then did we move forward to apply the principle in specific ways that make sense in own context.

This example hopefully has shown that everything we read in these letters applies to us today. We just have to figure out together how they apply. So as we look at 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, we will attempt to figure out the historical context, then move backwards to figure out the abiding universal principle that the passage teaches, and then finally move forward to apply that principle to our specific culture today (in my case, the mainstream culture of the United States).


Context in the letter

Now that we better understand how to interpret biblical letters, let me give you greater detail of the historical context of the letter of 1 Corinthians. Paul was writing to the church located in the city of Corinth.4

The Corinthian church was founded by Paul on his 2nd missionary journey around AD 50 or 51. The church was socially diverse, consisting of members from both the upper class and the lower class, and even including some slaves. The church was mostly gentile Christians but it also had a few Jewish Christians. The members struggled with many sins including bitter disputes and arguments. Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church was long and sad.5

The Corinthian Christians succumbed to some of the most powerful enticements of the world, such as fame and power. People were hungry to impress others and wanted to climb higher on society’s ladder. Paul preached the cross of Christ and emphasized human weakness and God’s grace, which some of the Corinthians considered to be foolishness.6

Paul was continually trying to sort out disputes occurring between church members. Many of the issues that Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians end up being brought up again in 2 Corinthians. Paul was constantly was seeking to bring reconciliation among members of the Corinthian church, as well as reconciliation between the church and himself.7

The most important matter of historical context is the matter of division in the Corinthian church. There were personal conflicts and many disagreements on theological topics. But from what we can tell most of the division in the Corinthian church was between two general groups. One group was made up of the more educated, more powerful, upper class Christians. The other group was made up of the less educated, less powerful, lower class Christians (including some slaves).

The upper class Christians tended to understand Paul’s teachings better, and possibly had a better understanding of Scripture in general. But this better understanding also puffed them up with pride and arrogance. They also seemed to be experiencing more manifestations of spiritual gifts than the lower class Christians, which added to the division and to their feelings of superiority.

Aside from their serious problems of arrogance and pride, the upper class Christians also had some warped understanding of Christian teaching. Likely because of popular Greek philosophy of the time, these Christians had rejected the resurrection of the dead as a detestable doctrine. They valued spiritual things over physical things like our bodies.

This is a matter of some debate among scholars, but it is my opinion that these upper class Christians had a wrong eschatological view that theologians call “over-realized eschatology.”8 They apparently believed that they were experiencing the fullness of God’s kingdom already in this life. They enjoyed their spiritual gifts so much (as well as their comfortable stations in life) that they thought they were already God’s new perfect creations. They thought they had entered the new way of living, the new age of God’s kingdom. They viewed themselves similar to angels in Heaven. They did not appreciate the material world. They thought spiritual things were the best, and so they valued sensational spiritual gifts over more mundane Christian duties such as properly loving other Christians. They viewed Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as basically magical rites that guaranteed their salvation regardless of their conduct.

Because of how they depreciated the material world, these upper class Christians went in one of two wrong directions. First, some viewed sexual activity as morally indifferent since they thought they were living in a new spiritual type of existence.9 They thought that if the body doesn’t matter, if only the spiritual was real and had significance, then it makes no difference how they treated their physical bodies. Their body wasn’t really “them.” Therefore sex with a prostitute, for example, did not matter to them; they thought it could not defile them.10 However, other upper class Christians made the opposite error. This group also depreciated the material world, but this led them to take a more ascetic approach to life by avoiding pleasures of the body in order to live out their more spiritual existence. These Christians would then even refrain from sex within marriage because of their twisted view.11 They were attempting to live the heavenly life – the angelic life – in the here and now.

Over-realized eschatology summarizes the error of both factions within the rich Corinthian Christians group. Over-realized eschatology is the assumption that most or all of the blessings to come are already being experienced now in their fullness. This view is not true to Scripture. The kingdom of God is already here to be sure, but it is not yet fully here. Jesus has not yet come back to the world bodily for the final time. We have not yet been given new perfect bodies. The dead have not been raised. Sin continues. Suffering continues. We wait for the fullness. In the meantime we still live in this world and need to keep on living as physical and earthly humans, albeit in a holy way; we must avoid the two errors of the Corinthians. We need to avoid the opposite errors of both Gnostic hedonism as well as extreme asceticism. We should continue to eat and drink and we should continue to enjoy sex within marriage. In other words, we need to enjoy life. But on the other hand, we must avoid immoral activities and must treat our physical bodies as holy.

If those two errors typified the problems within the upper class Corinthian Christians, what about the lower class? The lower class Christians did not have the same feelings of superiority and arrogance, but they had incorrect views of their own. For example, it seems that the lower class Christians were worried that it was a sin to purchase meat in the market which had previously been sacrificed to idols (which was basically all meat available during this time). They wanted to avoid idolatry. But the upper class Christians knew that buying this meat was a morally neutrally action, and that it was the heart and conscience of a person that made an action sinful or not. Unfortunately we see in chapter 10 that the upper class Christians took this idea too far and engaged in feasts in pagan temples which Paul strongly denounced.12

I made a chart to try to outline these various groups more clearly.


Comments on the passage

Okay, now we’ve got a lot of the background and context out of the way. Its time to start focusing more closely on the passage we’re interested in. Here is the passage once again, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Please read it carefully with the historical context in mind.13

(From the New International Version)
2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. 3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.

Clearly, this is a very difficult passage to interpret because we don’t know as much as we’d like to about the customs and culture of the time. Another problem is that the some of the Greek words Paul uses here are unclear.14

Verse 3
There is a very large disagreement as to whether “head” is being meant metaphorically as “source” or “source of life” in this context or whether the metaphorical sense of “authority” is intended, but that discussion is not necessary for my argument in this post. (From my research however, authority is clearly the intended meaning and there is little to no evidence that this word ever could mean “source.”)15

Verse 4
What is the covering? Here are 3 possible views.
1. It is an external covering a woman puts onto her head (and that the man is commanded to not put on his head). But verse 15 seems to go against this in saying that a woman’s long hair is her covering.
2. Long hair is the covering. But the language and grammar of verses 5-6 seem to go against this.
3. It could be that “uncovered” as an adjective refers to some kind of hairstyle like loose hair worn down. But then what would Paul mean when he says men shouldn’t cover their heads? And loose hair seems very similar to long hair which Paul later calls a covering.

The first option is the most likely. If the covering was really an external covering, we could understand the “long hair” in verse 15 as an analogy which I will explain later.

Some commentaries also suggest that in the Greco-Roman culture of the time a head covering in public signified a woman’s sexual purity and her faithfulness to her husband. If you wanted to dress like a good and respectable woman, you would wear a head covering. It was a standard part of the attire of women within that culture, and one of the things that differentiated them from men as clearly stated in this quote by David Gill:

“The hairstyles of the women in the imperial family at Rome tended to set the trends for women in the rest of the empire. It is clear from portraits on coins and in sculpture that women’s hair in the middle of the first century A.D. tended to be worn longer than under Augustus. Agrippina the Younger, the wife of the emperor Claudius, and the mother of the future emperor Nero (from a previous marriage), adopted a hairstyle where “the hair is braided and gathered into a long loop; two long strands of curled hair fall at either side of the neck.” The covering of the head is an emblem found in sculptural representation in the late republic and under Augustus, where the palla is pulled up over the top of the head. This became an emblem for modesty and chastity.”16

Some women in the Corinthian church were praying with their heads uncovered. Most likely this was due to their over-realized eschatology – their insistence that there was no longer any distinction between men and women in their new “spiritual” existence, and thus no need to follow the cultural custom of dress.

Men of that time would deem it absurd and wrong for men to have covered their heads in worship because they would be dressing like women in Paul’s time. A woman’s head covering clearly distinguished her from a man (no matter what the specific cultural reason for this difference was).

Verse 5
Paul states that a woman without a covering is like a woman with a shaved head. Having a shaved head would bring shame to herself and those around her because she would look like a man. In that time, (as well as in many times and cultures throughout history), it’s been disgraceful and/or humiliating for a woman to have her hair shaved off. There is historical evidence that prostitutes or women who had committed adultery would have their heads shaved as punishment in order to identify them and to disgrace them.17

Whatever the head covering was, the important thing to note is that the woman’s action is considered shameful, and for that reason Paul is willing to offer theological justification for maintaining a cultural custom. Even though scholars disagree on what the head covering is exactly, they still agree that Paul wanted the custom maintained. Paul is clearly teaching them to continue this particular custom of the culture. Culture is relative to each geographical place, and culture changes, but there are indeed some occasions when a Christian is supposed to follow the norms of a culture.

Verses 11-12
Paul is qualifying the woman’s Christian freedom. Women should have freedom as men do, but they are not independent of each other. God has so arranged things that in the Lord the one cannot exist without the other. As believers man and woman are mutually dependent on each other. In these verses Paul is affirming the freedom women have in Christ on the one hand, and on the other hand, showing that the freedom doesn’t go so far as to say that men and women are exactly the same or that they don’t need each other.18

We see here an important principle: although Paul reaffirms the cultural clothing customs of the time, he also presents a Christian view of marriage and the role of the woman that is better and different from Roman culture and society. In every culture there are some elements that can (and should!) be preserved by Christians, and other elements that need to be rejected or transformed.

Verses 13-16
By “nature,” Paul meant the feelings of their contemporary culture. After all, according to Acts 18:18 Paul had apparently worn long hair for a time in Corinth as part of a vow, so he obviously did not think long hair for men was wrong in all times and places. So we cannot believe that by “nature” Paul meant that biologically speaking it is natural in all places for women to have long hair.

But in Paul’s Greco/Roman culture long hair for men was not normal and was seen to be unnatural. Even in the Jewish culture of that time, long hair for men was very unusual. Paul is not making a universal rule for us about hair length. Paul’s concern is not primarily about how people appear for appearances sake, but instead about what is acceptable in their society and culture. In their culture long hair was the splendor of the woman, and not of the man.

In the words of biblical scholar Kistemaker:
“So Paul asks whether it is proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered. She was expected to follow the cultural practices of that day, come to church in acceptable and appropriate dress, and participate in the worship service.”
“What does Paul mean with the expression uncovered head? It tells a woman that she ought to uphold her feminine honor and dignity in public by wearing a head covering. In his time and culture, women wore veils to be in marked distinction from men. God has created a distinct difference between men and women and he desires that his people mark this dissimilarity with appropriate dress. If a woman refuses to abide by these codes, she purposely negates the differentiation which God has designed.”
“He (Paul) wisely omits details regarding length of hair and hairstyles, for these are often subject to fads and fashions and involve personal choices.”19

In verse 15 Paul talks about a woman’s long hair as a covering. This appears to be an argument by analogy. Paul is still arguing that women should have an external head covering. He is talking about “long hair” as a type of extra covering in addition to the external head covering. Or to put it another way, Paul could be mentioning the “long hair” as another feature that distinguishes between the appearance of men and women in addition to the external head coverings.



My belief, supported by Gordon Fee and other scholars,20 is that this problem with some of the women in Corinth is related to their over-realized eschatology and how they thought they were so “spiritual.” (Cf. My discussion in the context section). Some Christian women were praying or prophesying without the customary “head covering” or “hairstyle.” They were intentionally breaking down the distinctions between sexes, the distinctions between men and women. They thought their union with Christ had brought them into a new type of spiritual existence, and therefore they tried to act like the angels, among whom sexual distinctions do not exist.21 They were disregarding some customary distinctions between the sexes, an activity that would be viewed as disgraceful by any non-Christians who witnessed it. It is not that the customs are universal to all cultures, but that in their specific culture these head covering customs were an important distinction between men’s and women’s dress. These women were bringing shame on themselves, on their marriages, on the Corinthian church, and so also bringing shame to Christ (their ultimate head), by disregarding this cultural practice.

But what if the problem was not over-realized eschatology as some scholars argue? Some scholars instead think that the problem was that the Corinthians had an incorrect view of their freedom in Christ apart from any errant eschatological views. They felt that they were totally free in the Spirit, and that they could do anything they wanted without harming their relationship with God. This interpretation is almost identical to that of the over-realized eschatology view, at least in describing the Corinthians’ behavior. This interpretation still exactly supports the same application that I have just described in the above paragraphs. It could be that people took freedom in the Spirit to mean they could throw off gender roles that were expected by the church and society.

“In other words, they confused equality with sameness or lack of gender difference. Collins writes: “It is probable that the situation was one that resulted from the attitude ‘anything goes’ (see 6:12; 10:23).… [But] because God has created the human genders in different ways a distinction is to be maintained when the community assembles for worship.”22

As this quote shows, even if the problem was a confusion about freedom in the Spirit, Paul’s point still stands that he does not want them to abandon gender differences, and that he wants them to continue to dress as their true sex/gender in the culturally appropriate way. True freedom in the Spirit is feeling free as the person God created us to be – not freedom to be something else.

While scholars disagree on whether over-realized eschatology is the best explanation for the Corinthians behavior, there is still overwhelming consensus that Paul is arguing for gender clothing differentiation and gender roles to be maintained. Although we have trouble figuring out every detail in this passage, such as what exactly the head coverings were like, and the nature of submission, we can all agree that it teaches that blurring the lines of gender within a culture is wrong. Some of the women were disregarding the specific forms of dress for women. They ended up looking as if they were trying to dress like men, even if that wasn’t their direct intention. In addition, (according to my interpretation of the passage), they were also giving up their womanly role by not submitting to men, and by getting rid of the sign of their husband’s authority – their head covering.

The important abiding principle for us is that this passage teaches that Christians should maintain the cultural distinctions of dress between men and women. How we apply this principle today will be different in every culture, as the differences in dress between the sexes is different in every culture. So in our American culture, for example, we would not insist that women wear head coverings today while in church. This covering is no longer a distinction of dress between men and women in our culture. Paul did not say anything about gradual cultural change. It was not his purpose when he wrote the letter, and I’m sure he thought Jesus would return very soon before culture changed much. He wasn’t thinking about how other cultures in the world would change in dress customs over 2000 years. We can assume that if he was here today he would continue to teach this principle of distinction rather than blurring of the sexes, but he would not insist that women need to wear head coverings.

Notice we are not saying, “this passage only applies to the people of Paul’s time,” or “this passage is just about cultural stuff so we can ignore it.” No. All Scripture applies to us, and the principles this passage teaches apply to us as well. But the way it is applied in each culture and place will be slightly different. Kistemaker explains this well:

“In today’s culture, the presence of a hat does not signify subordination of a wife to her spouse. And Paul is not asking a woman to wear a headpiece or to put up her hair. Rather, he wants a woman to be distinctively feminine in respect to hair and dress and thus fulfill the role that God has intended since creation. He wants her to be submissive to her husband in her femininity.”
“The unique beauty of a woman is gloriously manifest in the distinctive femininity portrayed by her hair and her attendance to feminine customs.”23

This view, that Paul is teaching against the blurring of the sexes, came up in almost every commentary that I read. Almost all biblical scholars agree on this point despite their many other disagreements about this passage.

Our American culture desperately needs to hear the teaching of this letter and this passage today. Our culture resembles the Corinthian culture in many ways. I’ve made a chart to show some of the errors I see in American culture regarding sex/gender.

americans3Of course, there are some people in the United States who have a healthy biblical view of sex/gender. But many fall into one of the errors on the chart. Some conservative traditional Christians and some of our mainstream culture over-emphasize the distinctions between men and women. They take the general differences that God created between the sexes, and push people to live out the gender extremes (extreme meaning the farthest endpoints of cultural expression of gender on a spectrum of masculine-feminine) in behavior and sometimes dress. This is where body image and eating disorders come in. This is where we get people who grow up feeling like they cannot be themselves because they don’t fit all the gender stereotypes so often rampant in our culture. I refer to stereotypes such as that women must always be passive, fragile, emotional, and beautiful, and men should be strong and emotionless beasts interested in sports and cars.

Over-emphasizing sex/gender differences can also manifest in transsexualism if you add spiritual/physical duality in the mix as you can see on the chart. Some people function with such extreme gender stereotypes that they do not recognize that they are a healthy man somewhat different from average men, and instead wish to be a woman, or indeed feel like they are one. The rationale for getting extensive bodily altering surgeries for these people is as follows. They say that their soul is female, and therefore they should alter their bodies to fit what is in their souls. Their bodies don’t matter and don’t give them identity, but rather their souls. (Yet they live in internal contradiction because their bodies matter so much to them that they are desperate for surgery to rectify their bodies).

Another result of this same dualism manifests in sexual immorality. Like the Corinthians, many Americans believe that what we do to our bodies does not matter so we can commit any kind of sexual acts without harming ourselves.

And last, this dualism also results in the opposite of over-emphasizing sex/gender differences. It results in under-emphasizing them. If our bodies are not important, it’s an easy jump to say that sex/gender is not important. Some take this idea to further argue that there are not only two sexes, but as many as we want. People can be whatever they want to be according to their feelings (contrary to what biology and common sense tell us). Your sex/gender is simply unimportant. And others devalue their bodies so much that they want to deny gender completely and live androgynously.

I believe this passage directly counters such ideas. Paul affirms not only the true reality of the distinct sexes of men and women, but he also commands that we continue to keep the distinct genders of men and women. Men and women have different roles and are to dress differently according to their sex and their culture’s norms. Of course, I do not believe it is necessary to dress according to the most extreme stereotypes of masculinity and femininity in our culture (for example women being told to wear dresses and high heels and makeup all the time). But to try to dress in an androgynous way so as to conceal your true sex would be doing what the Corinthian Christian were doing. Doing this would go against this passage.


Further Theological Reflection on this theme

If we look at the biblical narrative as a whole we can see that distinction of the sexes is a common theme all throughout. Men and women have different bodies, different roles, and they are made for each other. Together they were made in God’s image (Gen 1-2), and both were beautiful and important creations of God. The blurring of the sexes is prohibited in the Old Testament Law (Deuteronomy 22:5). Gender distinctions are maintained throughout the Old Testament.

When we get to the New Testament we see that Jesus emphasized a view of women that was very different from how the Jews of his time treated women. He elevated their status from how they were treated in that culture. He treated them with respect. He taught them. He treated them as more than just wives or mothers and more than just sexual objects. Women supported Jesus’ ministry financially. Women became his disciples. And women became the primary witnesses of the resurrection. Some of the most important teachers in the early church were women.

We see that in the church men and women are both equal being made in the image of God, and have both been gifted for helping God’s church (1 Corinthians 12-14). In Galatians 3:28, Paul explains that we are all equal in Christ Jesus, receiving his salvation. This is true for male and female and Jew and Gentile. We are all united together in the church.

But even though women are shown to be equal to men, with rights, (even rights over their husbands’ bodies! – 1 Corinthians 7), we see that distinctions among the sexes remain. We don’t completely cease to be who we are when we come to Christ (1 Corinthians 7:17-24). We remain in the cultures we come from even though how we act changes. We remain slave or free when we come to Christ. We remain Jew or Gentile. We remain man or woman. The distinctions among the sexes don’t go away. And even the different roles for the sexes remain. Men and women have different (though similar) roles in marriage (Ephesians 5:21-33, 1 Peter 3:1-8). Men are to lead in love, and women are to humbly submit. Both men and women are both supposed to serve each other, but in slightly different ways.24

The rest of the Bible confirms this view of the equality of the sexes in regards to dignity and worth, and yet different-ness of the sexes that we see in 1 Corinthians 11. We must continue to live as men and women, and not blur and confuse the beautiful sexes that God has made.


Answers to Anticipated Questions

I’ve already noted that, for our culture, this passage does not teach that women need to wear head coverings in church. But let me address other practical questions that arise in the matters of dress and gender difference.

1. May men wear hats in church? I would say that the answer in our culture is “yes.” At least, men wearing hats does not confuse the differences between the sexes. But there may be other reasons to refrain from wearing hats in our culture. For example, some people (maybe as a result of years of bad interpretation of this passage), still think it is disrespectful for men to wear hats for things like church services, funerals, or the singing of the National Anthem. In these cases, we may wish to refrain from wearing hats in order to not offend those who hold tightly to this tradition.

2. May men have long hair? As in the question above, it depends on the culture and time. In some cultures it might be blurring the dress between sexes for men to do so. If so, then men should not. In our culture, however, I think men can. But even in our culture we see differences in the styles of long hair for men versus long hair for women. I believe we should respect and find beauty in those different styles rather than intentionally blurring the differences.

3. May women wear short hair? Same answer as above. It depends on the culture. In our culture, women often have short hair. And it is not usually an attempt to look sexless or like men. And almost always there are distinct differences between short hairstyles of women and short hairstyles of men. I think a woman shaving her head in order to look like men look with a shaved head, and not for some practical reason, might be guilty of going against this passage.

4. Should Christians have paid more attention to this passage during the last century when women started wearing pants? This is tricky for me to answer since I don’t know what it was like back when women starting wearing pants. Was it viewed as crossdressing or just good cultural change? Again, Paul was not thinking about slow cultural change. In this passage, Paul is admonishing those who were trying to deny their gender and their gender role, or blur the lines of gender. I think women who began wearing pants were doing so for practical reasons, not to try to appear sexless or to blur the lines between gender or to look like men. Besides, women’s pants back in that time of change looked different from men’s pants, and usually still look different today.

5. Does this passage prohibit crossdressing? Yes I think it clearly does. I don’t think it prohibits slow cultural change concerning what is acceptable for men or women to wear in a culture. For example, in our culture if a group of men started to wear skirts, not in order to look like women but for some reason of fashion or comfort or practicality, this would be a slow cultural change and not necessarily crossdressing. It’s hard to know where to draw the line on these things and I’m glad I don’t have to be the one to figure it all out. I’m personally very uncomfortable with any slow cultural changes that look anything remotely like crossdressing. But I know that slow cultural change in dress is inevitable and probably a good thing. I think much of it comes down to motivation. Women who began to wear pants were mostly not trying to appear as men. They were doing so because it makes practical sense to have pants for warmth, modesty, or work.25 If our motivation as men dressing a certain way is to try to look like women, (as it is for almost all crossdressers of any type) then I believe that is a problem and goes against Paul’s teaching in this passage. And if our motivation is the same as that of the Corinthians, to try to disregard sex/gender differences, then it is also wrong motivation.

So this passage does not universally prohibit men from wearing skirts or any other type of clothing. In fact, there are tribal cultures in which men traditionally wear skirts. If those cases, this passage would actually be enforcing men to wear skirts in those cultures.

God created two sexes for a reason and created us to be different but complementary. Together we share God’s image. Together we work in this world. Together we make love and reproduce. Together we glorify God. But we do so in our different ways. Men and women are not the same. If we all dressed the same it would not only be boring but also confusing. Why would we try to make these two beautiful creations God has made, male and female, and confuse them into one thing? We are to find the beauty in these two distinct creations, rather than confusing them together. Therefore, I think it is very good that each culture has continued to keep different styles and types of dress for men and women all over the world, throughout history.

Please feel free to comment below and ask questions. But please don’t criticize my view or ask questions without having carefully read my post. Thank you!




1. Fee, G. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987.

2. Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953-2001). Vol. 18: Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

3. I have recently updated this old post with more information about how I interpret biblical letters.

4. The city of Corinth was a diverse city. It was originally a Greek city that had been conquered by the Romans, and so by Paul’s time it was a thriving Roman city. Like most Greco-Roman cities, it had many pagan temples, and Corinth specialized in the worship of Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love. Corinth was a wealthy city. Corinth had a reputation for being a “loose” city morally. They were essentially known as “sin city.” Before ancient Corinth was destroyed by the Romans, people would use the verb “to Corinthianize” meaning “to fornicate.” A “Corinthian girl” was the term for a “whore.” Much of the sexual immorality specifically was connected to the worship of Aphrodite.

5. From what scholars can tell, 1 Corinthians was actually the second letter Paul wrote to the church. We know that Paul wrote at least 3 or 4 letters to the Corinthian church, and Paul made at least 3 personal visits to Corinth. What we know as the letter of 1 Corinthians seems to be the 2nd letter by Paul to the Corinthian church. Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church was very painful; it was a relationship in which the Corinthians periodically shifted in their loyalty to Paul. At times they challenged his authority and judged him to be inferior to other Christian teachers that they came in contact with.

6. Because of this, the Corinthians tended to prefer other more powerful speakers instead who were skilled in rhetoric. (E.g. 1 Corinthians 1:18).

7. We see from 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 that Paul had written to the church earlier to tell them not to associate with sexually immoral people. He did not mean immoral non-Christians, but rather those who profess to be Christians who are living in unrepentant sexual sin.
When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, he was doing three main things:
1. Paul addressed the problem of division that he heard about from Chloe’s household (see 1 Cor. 1:11).
2. Paul addressed the misunderstood issue from the first letter about not associating with sexually immoral people.
3. Paul answered the doctrinal questions the Corinthians had raised, questions that the church was having internal disputes over (see 1 Cor. 7:1). It is easy to see the distinct matters that they asked about because Paul begins each separate topic with a “Now about” or “But concerning” formula. (see 1 Cor. 7:1, 7:25, 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 16:12).

8. For the scholars who reject the idea that over-realized eschatology was the problem causing the Corinthians to behave this way, a common idea is that the Corinthians had a faulty understanding of their freedom in Christ. Perhaps they felt so free in the Spirit, that they felt like they could do anything and nothing would affect them in a negative way. This could also then account for them devaluing the body and committing sexual immorality.
Although I do not find this “freedom in the Spirit” view quite as convincing, we shall see later that this view and the “over-realized eschatology” view both will lead us to the same application of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

9. Cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1-12, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20.

10. Garland, D. E. (2003). 1 Corinthians. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (226). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Fee also frames this is a helpful way: “Apparently, some men within the Christian community are going to prostitutes and are arguing for the right to do so. Being people of the Spirit, they imply, has moved them to a higher plane, the realm of the spirit, where they are unaffected by behavior that has merely to do with the body.” (1987: 250-51).

11. Cf. 1 Corinthians 7. Perhaps they were also trying to base their actions on teachings of Jesus such as is found in Matthew 22:23-33. This error can be found at various times throughout Church history. Any place where Christians teach that sex is dirty and shameful is evidence of this theological error.

12. Cf. 1 Corinthians 10:14-22

13. For those interested in the literary context, 1 Corinthians 11 is in the large section of the letter in which Paul is answering the congregation’s questions about various doctrinal and practical matters. In the previous chapter Paul finished talking about food which had previously been sacrificed to idols. The passage after chapter 11 talks about spiritual gifts. 1 Corinthians 11 is part of a longer section (chapters 11-14) that deals with problems concerning the Corinthians’ communal worship. The first half of chapter 11 discusses the dynamics of how women and men are to worship together. The second half of chapter 11 is about the Lord’s Supper in which Paul addresses the division and injustice taking place during their Lord’s Supper meals.

14. The word “head” is used many times in this passage but it is confusing because sometimes the word is referring to a physical head on a body, and other times to a metaphorical head. And when we take it metaphorically, some scholars insist (in my view incorrectly) that “head” can mean source, authority, or even something else. To add to the confusion, the generic Greek words for man and for woman in this passage also can be translated as husband and wife. So Paul could be talking about the interaction between men and women in general, or between husbands and wives in particular, or even both at once.

15. The interpretation of this one word does change the meaning of the passage. For those who take it to mean “authority,” then Paul is teaching about the authority that men have over women in church and/or in husband/wife relationships. For those who take it to mean “source,” they see Paul as not teaching subordination but explaining the unique relationships that are predicated on one’s being the source of the other’s existence.
I would strongly argue for the interpretation of “authority” and think it makes more sense of the passage, as well as other parallel passages in Scripture (I suggest reading Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood for a great essay by Wayne Grudem about the word in this passage). This means that there is a differentiation of roles in marriage, and that the husband does have some kind of headship.  But most importantly for our present discussion, neither interpretation changes the force of my argument regarding this passage’s connection to crossdressing.

16. Gill, David. “Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head (11:5).” In Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Volume 3, Romans to Philemon. 157. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

17. See the next verse, verse 6. Paul says she should shave her hair off, because she might as well fully give in to the shame. Both things are shameful so she might as well be fully shameful. But then he says (my paraphrase) – “But if it is a disgrace for a woman either to have her hair cut short or be shaved, (and it obviously is), then let her be covered.” One kind of action (being uncovered) is just like another (having mannish hair). If the latter is shameful, so is the former. I don’t think Paul actually wanted the Corinthians to shave the heads of these women. Rather, he wanted the women to see that what they were doing was equally as shameful, and therefore they should stop doing it.

18. Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953-2001). Vol. 18: Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. New Testament Commentary (362–363). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House. Kistemaker also explains: “Paul is not in the least diminishing the force of God’s creation order. He adds a second qualifying statement to these two verses: “and all things are from God.” He means to say that the husband has no advantage over the wife because Adam was created before Eve. In the Lord, both parties show reciprocity and complementary dependence and assistance, for all these things have been designed by God himself. Man and woman, everything that pertains to birth, relationships, and married life—all come from God.”
Also from David Gill: “This develops the idea in Christian marriage that there is mutual respect…This is in contrast with the status of a Roman wife, whose identity was entirely bound up with that of her husband.” Gill, David. “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman (11:11).” In Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Volume 3, Romans to Philemon. 158. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

19. Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953-2001). Vol. 18: Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. New Testament Commentary (362–363). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

20. Fee, G. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987. And A. C. Thiselton, “Realized Eschatology at Corinth,” NTS 24 (1978): 510–26.
“This view boasts support from impressive array of scholars, including Barrett, Thiselton, Mearns, Fee and Witherington.”

21. A commonly held viewpoint, probably based on testimony given by Jesus as is found in Matthew 22:30.

22. Thiselton, A. C. (2000). The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A commentary on the Greek text. New International Greek Testament Commentary (829). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.

23. Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953-2001). Vol. 18: Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. New Testament Commentary (362–363). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House. He goes on to say:
“Paul does not intend to tell believers everywhere throughout the centuries to adopt the customs he wants the Corinthian Christians to follow. What he does stress in this segment is that in the marriage relationship the wife honors and respects her husband and the husband loves and leads the wife. This is the basic principle that may be applied in diverse ways in the varying cultures throughout the world. The principle remains the same, even though its application varies.”

24. It is outside the scope of this blog for me to write about the debate of women in church leadership. Both sides of the debate have good arguments.


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