In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul delivers important instructions to the church at Corinth regarding the order God designed and the practical unity that should result from putting that order into practice. In this context Paul makes the curious statement often understood as saying that a woman should cover her head because of the angels (1 Corinthians 11:10).
The Corinthian believers were struggling with division and disunity (1 Corinthians 1:10), and Paul attributes this struggle, in part, to pride and going beyond what God had said (1 Corinthians 4:6). Many in the church were ignoring God’s standards, and some were creating their own arbitrary standards. As a result there was increasing confusion regarding what God intended.
In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul explains the order that God had put in place: Christ is the head of every man, man is the head of woman, and God is the head of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:3). At first glance this statement may come across as misogynistic, and some have assumed that Paul is arguing that male and female are not equal in God’s eyes. That is not at all what Paul is saying, however. Paul asserts on more than one occasion that male and female are ontologically equal, and in 1 Corinthians 11:11 he affirms that man and woman are interdependent. If Paul is arguing that male is essentially superior to female by his statement that man is the head of woman, then he must also be asserting that Christ is essentially inferior to God, because Paul says that God is the head of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:3). Yet, in other contexts, Paul makes it clear that Jesus is God and that, while the Son’s role is different than that of God the Father, Jesus is equally God (e.g., Titus 2:13 and Philippians 2:6–7). Paul is not asserting the inequality of male and female any more than he is asserting the inequality of Father and Son. Rather, Paul is explaining that each person has a different role and function within God’s design. For example, Jesus explained previously that the Holy Spirit reveals the Son (John 16:13–15), the Son glorifies the Father (John 17:4), and the Father glorifies the Son with Himself (John 17:5). Jesus acknowledged submitting to the Father (Matthew 26:39), but that didn’t make Him less than the Father.
In the same way, Paul affirms the creation order (compare 1 Timothy 2:13 with Genesis 1:26–28, which affirms that both are made in God’s image). And Paul explains that man and woman each fulfill different roles meant to illustrate God’s relationship with His people. Man is the head of woman (as woman originated from man in the creation order, 1 Corinthians 11:8), and he is not supposed to hide that headship (1 Corinthians 11:4) but to portray Christ’s headship over the church (Ephesians 5:23). The woman is to respond to that headship as the church is to respond to Christ (e.g., Ephesians 5:24). Both the man and woman are to treat each other in such a way as to reflect the picture God intended (Ephesians 5:33). The man is to take his headship seriously, just as is the woman. The angels, who are also under authority, are present in worship services and observe the behavior of men and women in the church.
As a testimony to the angels, the woman is to have authority on her head (some translate “a symbol of authority on her head” in 1 Corinthians 11:10). It is often understood that Paul is suggesting that a woman should cover her head because of the angels; however, Paul actually says that the woman has “authority” or “power” on her head. This authority refers to the headship God has placed over her, based on the order of creation and illustrating the church’s response to Christ. Paul explains that is the reason the woman naturally has long hair: it is a glory to her, and her hair is given to her as a covering (1 Corinthians 11:15) and can serve as an illustration of her role in the matter of headship.
Throughout church history, some have concluded that women should cover their heads with external head coverings. Paul is not mandating that, although he may have been affirming the rightness of following the cultural norm in Corinth, where women normally wore head coverings as a symbol of submission to their husbands. In Corinth, to dispense with the head coverings would send the entirely wrong signal to the culture at large. More basically, Paul is explaining how a woman’s hair helps illustrate the headship principle and is a glory to the woman.