The Question of Dress and Hairstyles

These quotes are taken from the highly recommended book which can be ordered by clicking on the link:




 An Apostle's Liberating Views on Equality in Marriage, Leadership, and Love: With Questions by John Temple Bristow.


Paul faced a problem.  He envisioned a unity between Jews and Gentiles through a common faith in Christ.  In the Church, Jew­ish Christians and Gentile Christians, slaves and masters, wom­en and men, would all be equal.  But in his grand attempt to make this dream come true, Paul found an obstacle that had to be removed: the different meanings given to head coverings and hair lengths and styles.


For Jews, worshiping’ without one's head covered was regard­ed with stern disapproval.  Jewish men recited each morning the prayer "Blessed be Thou, 0 God, Who crowns Israel with beauty." They believed that the Shekhinah, the glory and radi­ance of the Almighty, surrounds the worshiper and rests upon the man and woman who please God.  Therefore, it was regarded as an act of reverence and humility for a person to wear a head covering during worship, just as Moses wore a veil after descending Mount Sinai to hide the radiance of his face after being near God (Exod. 34:29-35).  Some people wore something on their heads at all times, whether awake or asleep.


Jewish women were required to wear their hair bound up whenever they left their homes.  Unbound, flowing hair was regarded as sensual and almost a form of nudity.  If a woman let her hair down in public she was seen as tempting men to sin.  Therefore, the Mishnah declared that a husband might di­vorce his wife and not have to return her dowry in the event that she "goes out with her hair unbound ... or speaks to any man."' Men might let their hair grow long, but they were under no such compulsion to tie up their locks.  "How does a man differ from a woman?" the Mishnah asks.  "He may go with hair unbound and with garments rent, but she may not go with hair unbound and with garments rent.


Some Jewish women would refrain from letting their hair down even in the privacy of their own homes, choosing instead to wear a head covering at all times.  The Jewish Talmud tells of a high priest who was accidentally defiled on the Day of Atone­ment and therefore was prevented from officiating.  When his brother officiated in his stead, their mother bragged that she saw two high priests in one day.  When wise men asked her what she had done to merit such, she answered, "Throughout the days of my life the beams of my house have not seen the plaits of my hair.113 (The wise men observed, however, that many other women did likewise without receiving such an hon­or.)


Modern Christians sometimes suppose that Jewish women of the Bible days were required to wear veils across their faces.  Although this practice may have appeared from time to time, a veil was not required as a sign of modesty or humility.  In fact,, in the Old Testament a face veil may have been a sign of a, prostitute, as indicated by the following story.


In the age, of the Hebrew patriarchs, it was a law that if a woman were widowed without children, her deceased hus­band's brother would be obligated to take her into his house and provide her with a son, who would maintain the fancily line and inherit the deceased man's property.  This arrangement was known as the law of levirate marriage.  Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, himself had three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah.  Er married a woman named Tamar, and he died with­out issue.  Judah therefore provided Onan to Tamar, but he too died without issue.  Judah feared giving his last son, Shelah, to Tamar, thinking that he too might perish.  So Judah put her off, year after year.  At last, after Judah himself was widowed, Ta­mar decided to bear an heir by tricking Judah himself into fa­thering her son.  When Judah traveled to a nearby city, Tamar put off her mourning clothes and wore normal garments, and also she wore a veil across her face.  Then she sat at the city gate and waited for Judah.  When he saw her, "he thought her to be a harlot, for she had covered her face" (Gen. 38:15).  So he propositioned her, and through this ruse Tamar became pregnant with twin sons of the lineage of Judah.  This story indicates that veils at the time of Judah were symbols of pros­titution among the Hebrews.


The words used in the Old Testament to describe women's clothing are not well understood, especially regarding head coverings.  The Assyrian artist's portrayal of the destruction of the Judean city of Lachish shows Jewish women wearing long strips of cloth over their heads, like shawls that hung down behind them to the length of their hemlines.  None of these women were pictured wearing veils.


What we know about Gentile styles is the following.  During the classical period in Greece, wives wore scarves similar to those of the women of Lachish, long enough so that the Greek matrons could wrap one end of the cloth around their faces, hiding all but their eyes and foreheads when appearing in pub­lic places.  By the time of Paul, men of Hellenized culture wore their hair relatively short.  As Ovid(43B.C.-A.D. 17), a roman poet, advised young men in The Art of Love, "Don't let your hair grow long, and when you visit a barber, patronize only the best.  Don't let him mangle your beard.114 Greek girls wore long hair, and matrons wore their hair bound up on their heads in braids or with hairpins.  Prostitutes, however (other than the sophis­ticated hetairai who served as courtesans of the wealthy), wore their hair quite short, often clipped closer than that of their male customers.  Greek men would have found the Jewish insis­tence upon wearing head coverings during worship strange if not distasteful.


Paul's Instructions Regarding Hair and Head Coverings


In attempting to unify both Gentile and Jewish believers into one church, Paul felt the need to address the question of head coverings and hairstyles.  In 1 Corinthians, he wrote specific instructions in an attempt to uphold one central principle: "Be without offense both to Jews and to Greeks and to the church of God, as I also in all things please all, not seeking my own advantage, but that of the many, in order that they may be saved" (1 Cor. 10:32).  Paul wanted his readers to accommo­date themselves to practices that would not offend either Jewish or Gentile believers.


Paul then immediately entered into the matter of head cov­erings and hairstyles.  A literal translation of this passage into English discloses how confusing Paul's words are:


But I praise you because you have remembered all things of me and you hold fast to you the traditions as I delivered to you.  But I wish you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and head of a wife, the husband, and head of Christ, God.  Every man praying or prophe­sying (while) having (anything) down over (his) head shames the head of him.  But, every women praying or prophesying with the head un­covered shames the head of her, for it is one and the same thing with the woman who has been shaved.  For if a woman is not covered, let her be shorn; but if (it is) ugly for a woman to be shorn or to be shaved, let her be covered.  For a man indeed is obligated not to be covered, the head being the image and glory of God; but the wife is glory of husband.  For man is not from woman, but woman because of the man.  Therefore the woman ought to have authority on the head because of the angels.  Nevertheless, neither woman separate from man nor man separate from woman in (the) Lord, for as the woman from the man, so also the man through the woman; but all things of God.  Among you yourselves judge: is it fitting, a woman to pray to God uncovered? (Does) not nature itself teach you that a man indeed ff he wears his hair long, it is a dishonor to him, but a woman, if she wears her hair long, it is a glory to her?  The long hair has been given to her instead of a covering. (1 Cor. 11:2-15)


Traditionally, this passage has been interpreted to mean that men are required to wear their hair short (in fact, the medieval practice of priests having their pates plucked bare--tonsured­—was an overzealous application of this scripture) and keep their heads uncovered during worship, while women are to cover their heads during worship. Moreover, this passage has been interpreted to justify the notion that women, while they have souls, are by nature between men and animals in terms of pow­ers of reason, ethical understanding, and theological insights. (After all, man is the glory of God, while woman is the glory of man.) This led in turn to a denial of education to women during the Middle Ages.


As has been noted already in chapter 3, a closer look at Paul's actual words affirms rather than debases women.  The apostle rejected the idea of the inferiority of women to men that had been based on the story of Adam and Eve.  Paul pointed out that Eve was created because Adam was incomplete without her, and that the wife is the glory of her husband.  He also added that while Eve was taken out of Adam's side, every man since then has come from his mother's body.  And so he sum­marized the question this way: "Neither woman separate from man nor man separate from woman in the Lord," for all things are from God.  Men and women are not to be separate during worship-both men and women are to lead in worship by pray­ing and prophesying.


But what about prohibitions and customs regarding head coverings and hairstyles?


A Closer Look at Paul's Solution


In order to understand Paul's solution to the problem, one must be introduced to the meaning of several key words in this passage.


For example, the Greek words for man and woman also mean "husband" and "wife." This was not Paul's choosing, but is inherent in the Greek language.  Paul could have chosen words meaning "male" and "female" when he intended to indicate persons of each sex who are not necessarily married, but these words in Greek connote more than Paul wanted to say and they would have misled his readers.  So in this passage (as in many New Testament writings) the decision whether to translate one word "husband" or "man" and the other "wife" or "woman" is determined by their context.  In the literal translation given ear­lier, the words are translated "husband" and "wife" only when one can be fairly certain that Paul was referring to married cou­ples.


The word Paul used in this passage for head is kephale (kef­ah-LAY), and not arche (ar-KAY).  As was noted in chapter 3, arche means "beginning," "boss," or "chief," while kephale means "physical head," or, figuratively, "one who proceeds an­other into battle." Although Paul did describe Christ as arche of the Church in Col. 1:18, in this passage whenever "head" ap­pears, it is a translation of kephale.


"Shorn" translates a form of the verb keiro (KY-roe), which means "shear" (as, a sheep) or "cut short" (as one's hair).


"Covered" is the verb katakalupto (kata-ka-LOOP-toe), which is used nowhere ' else in the New Testament.  Elsewhere, kalupto (ka-LOOP-toe) is used to mean "cover," "hide," or "conceal.,, When Paul added the preposition kata to the verb, he was de­liberately altering its meaning from just "cover" to "cover down over." In verse 4, when Paul spoke of a man praying or pro­phesying with something down over his head, he used the same preposition, kata (ka-TAH), "down over." Now, at all other times in the New Testament, including the writings of Paul, when something is said to be "on" someone's head, the prepo­sition epi (eh-PEE) was used.  Only here did Paul write of some­thing being kata, "down over," one's head.  Some translators render katakalupto as "wearing a vefl." If veil implies a face cov­ering, then such a translation is misleading.


"Hair" in Greek is thrix, but Paul, in this passage, chose a different word, kome (KOH-mee).  It too is used nowhere else in the New Testament.  It does not mean, simply, "hair." Rather, it denotes hair that is long and ornamentals "Nature," which Paul said teaches that long hair on a man is dishonorable, is phusis (FOO-sis).  It means "nature" and "the natural order," but it also can be used to describe a mode of feeling or acting that is almost instinctive because of long habit.  In that sense, phusis means "long-established custom."


What, then, was Paul saying?


He began by referring to the "tradition" that he had already delivered to the church in Corinth.  This may mean the gospel, but usually Paul used the word we translate "gospel" when he meant the good news of Christ.  It is much more likely that by "tradition" Paul was reminding church members of teachings and interpretations he gave to them concerning how they could apply the gospel to their daily lives.  But since modern readers were not present when Paul preached in Corinth, it is often difficult to reconstruct the oral teachings he gave that church from his all-too-brief references to those teachings in subse­quent correspondence.


However, an argument Paul made in 2 Corinthians may en­able us to understand more fully the attitude among Jews re­garding covering one's head during worship as well as Paul's puzzling instructions to that church about head coverings.


In 2 Cor. 3:7-18, Paul referred to the veil that Moses put over his face after descending from Mt.  Sinai because his skin shone with a brightness that frightened the Israelites (Exod. 34:29-35).  Paul remarked that this glory on Moses faded, just as the splen­dor of the old covenant through Moses had faded away.  Now, Paul declared, the new covenant we have through Christ is of greater splendor, for this covenant is permanent.


The Jewish custom of wearing head coverings during worship was linked to the idea of God's radiance (Shekhinah) shining upon the devout.  Just as one might wear a hat to keep off the sun's rays, one would wear a hat when entering the brilliance of God's splendor.  The custom of wearing something on top of one's head became a symbol of the kind of glory that Moses covered with a veil.  The head covering in Paul's day was usually a prayer shawl, the tallit, which would hang down from the devout man's or woman's head.


Now, in 1 Corinthians Paul gave a theological reason why a Christian man ought not to wear something hanging down from the head while praying or prophesying.  He began by re­minding his readers that their head is not Moses, but Christ.


His next sentences imply that what one does with one's head makes a theological statement about Christ.  To cover one's head, Paul seems to be saying, is to act as if one were ashamed of Christ, our head, who is the image and glory of God.  The question is not what a man does with his head, but what a man says by what he does with his head.


Jewish custom demanded that women too cover their heads when worshiping.  If Paul wished to be consistent in his insis­tence on the oneness of men and women in Christ, one would expect him to offer the same instructions to women concerning head coverings as he did to men.  But what a woman did with her head held different social significance from what a man did with his.


Married Jewish women were obligated to keep their hair bound up on their heads or else covered over whenever they appeared in public, as was the practice of many Greek ma­trons, as well.  It was a symbol of their married state, much like a wedding ring today.  For a Jewish woman to loosen her hair in public would have been even more dramatic than for a wom­an today to throw her wedding ring away.


Therefore, Paul objected to those wives who appeared in pub­lic worship with hair hanging loose, uncovered before the eyes of the congregation.  It was the same, he argued, as if they had their hair cut close (the style of prostitutes) or as if they had their heads shaved.  To take such a liberty with her hair would shame a wife's "head," her husband.  It was not a matter of a woman's hair being unseemly-Paul stated that it is her "glory." But she herself is the glory of her husband, and she should not shame him.  The question is not what a woman does with her head, but what she says by what she does with her head.


Since customs have changed and hairstyles no longer mean what they did in the societies of Paul's time, his specific instruc­tions are no longer relevant to modern Christians.  However, the principle behind these instructions, of being sensitive to what message our dress codes and styles convey to others, still holds.


What of the Angels?


In the midst of this passage, Paul made a strong assertion that has puzzled many readers.  He wrote, "Therefore the wom­an ought to have authority on the head, because of the angels" (1 Cor. 11:10).  Some translators assume that Paul was speaking metaphorically when he wrote of authority for women, and so they word this sentence, "Therefore, a woman ought to wear a veil, because of the angels." What would wearing a veil have to do with angels?  Tertuilian offered one suggestion.  He believed that if angels looked down and saw women without veils, they might fall in love with them!


The word Paul used, however, is not the word for veil.  It is exousia (ex-OU-see-ah), a word used of kings and magistrates.  It was used by Christ when he said that he had the authority to forgive sins (Matt. 9:6) and that he was given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18).  It is used many times in the New Testament, and it means just what the English equivalent says-"power," "right," "strength," "authority." It is never used metaphorically to stand for a piece of clothing.


To explain with certainty the phrase "on the head" is impos­sible.  The "therefore" at the beginning of the sentence refers back to Paul's phrase "woman is the glory of man"-"therefore" a woman ought to have authority "on the head." Does "head" designate her own physical head or does it mean her husband?  The use of epi with exousia strongly suggests the latter, because elsewhere exousia epi means "authority over" someone or some­thing (for example, in Matt. 9:6 and 28:18 those words are used in the phrase "authority on earth," and in Luke 9:1 they are used in the phrase "authority over demons").


If this is what Paul meant, he did not elaborate on how much or what kind of authority a woman is to exercise over her hus­band.  One thing is certain, however: Paul affirmed that women are given authority in the Church.


Then what do angels have to do with authority?  Before Pen­tecost, women were not recognized as spiritually equal with men.  But on that day, Peter proclaimed that Joel’s words had now come true, that both sons and daughters would prophesy and both men slaves and women slaves would receive the Holy Spirit.  Women as well as men would receive communication from God.


This spiritual authority now given to women as well as men was foreshadowed in the Gospels by the action of angels.  An angel came to Mary to enlist her cooperation in the birth of the Christ child.  And two angels announced the resurrection of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James at the empty tomb (Luke 24:1-12).6 The fact that angels came to women affirms the spiritual authority women may en­joy from God and that they may exercise within the church of Christ.


Perhaps this is what Paul had in mind when he said that a woman should have authority on the head "because of the an­gels." But this interpretation is by no means certain.  It may be that the thought Paul had was known only to him and the re­cipients of his letter, and is now lost.


Paul's Message About Women's Attire


In one of Paul's letters to his beloved Timothy, he added an appeal regarding women's attire (1 Tim. 2:8-10).  He began by stating a desire that men should lift up "holy hands without wrath and doubting." The word translated 'doubting" is dialo­gismos (dee-ah-lo-gis-MOS).  It can mean either "doubting" or "quarreling." In the context, it would seem likely that Paul meant to say doubting, but since the word is associated with one meaning "wrath," it could just as well mean "quarreling.  Perhaps Paul meant both.


Then Paul turned to another matter that, like quarreling, can divide people within the Church: the matter of how women dress.  "In like manner also," the Authorized (King James) Ver­sion reads, "that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works." More modern trans­lations replace the word shamefacedness with its modern equiv­alent, modesty.  The Greek word aidous (aye-DOUS) also means "reverence" and "respect." Its partner word, sophrosune (so-fro­SOON-ay), translated "sobriety," is not a word referring to al­coholic drinks.  Instead, it describes someone who has good judgment, self-control, who can act with moderation.


Paul asked that the clothing women choose be modest (the Revised Standard Version reads "seemly").  Once Jesus de­scribed a man who drove out demons from his house.  Later the demons returned and found the house empty, swept clean, and put in order (Matt. 12:44; Luke 11:25).  The word for "put in order" is kosmeo (kos-ME-o).  When Paul asked women to choose modest clothing, he used a form of this word.  It means "put in order," "adorn," "make beautiful or attractive." In other words, Paul admonished Christian women to choose clothing that is orderly and attractive, but to do so with a sense of good judg­ment and moderation.


Paul then added a note about jewelry.  Unfortunately, most translations overlook one word, and leave the impression that Paul was forbidding women from wearing any kind of jewelry or braiding their hair.  The literal translation reads, "not with braiding and gold, or pearls or costly outer clothing."


Paul mentioned pearls because they were the most expensive gems of the ancient world (compare Jesus' parable of the pearl of great price, so costly that a man had to sell all he owned in order to buy it [Matt. 13:45-46]).  Modern cultured pearls have brought this item of beauty to within modest prices.  But even before mentioning costly pearls, Paul wrote of "braiding and gold." Here he used the word kai (and), braiding and gold.  Then he wrote "or" pearls, "or" costly outer clothing.  Paul was not forbidding the wearing of gold nor the braiding of hair per se, but the practice of braiding gold items into one's hair.


In the time of Paul, the Greek hetairai were schooled by older prostitutes in the fine art of cosmetics, fashion, and adornment.


One of their practices involved braiding pieces of gold jewelry into their hair, an artistic touch that more wealthy matrons be­gan to imitate.  It may seem strange that respectable women would follow the styles of courtesans, but in Rome, where pros­titutes were required by law to make their hair yellow, it became a fad among married women to peroxide their hair or else to wear blond wigs!


Paul warned women in the Church not to adorn themselves in the style of courtesans.  Or to wear extremely expensive pearls.


Last, Paul urged women to avoid costly "array," a word that in Greek refers to outer garments (a cloak or robe or stole).  The arrangement of the wording places the emphasis on "costly," indicating that Paul was not denying women the right to wear warm clothing, but urging them to choose garments that are modest in cost.


A woman who manages a jewelry store once related to me how another woman wearing an expensive fur coat entered the store and informed the salesperson that true Christians do not wear gold jewelry because it is forbidden by Scripture.  The woman misunderstood Paul's admonition to women: wear clothing that is tasteful and attractive, not disheveled or osten­tatious, and avoid jewelry that is extravagant in cost or worn in the style associated with courtesans.  Rather, women are to adorn themselves in ways suitable to one who professes the faith, remembering that the most beautiful aspect of a woman's appearance is not her attire but her good works in Christian love.


Questions for Thought and Discussion


  1. Paul spent some time writing about hairstyles, head cov­erings, cost of clothing, and symbolism of jewelry.  Are these matters really that important?  Why or why not?


2.      In this chapter the statement is made, "since customs have changed and hair styles no longer mean what they did in the societies of Paul’s time, his specific instructions are no longer relevant to modern Christians." Do you agree or disagree?  Why?


3.      Many women in Muslim countries even today prefer to wear veils across their faces whenever they go out in pub­lic places.  Why do you think they find this custom com­fortable?


4.      This chapter states that Paul based his instructions about head wear on the belief that "what one does with one's head ... makes a theological statement." Is it true today that what we wear during worship makes a statement about our religious beliefs?  If so, what statements are being made in our churches?  Should clothing be given such theological importance in the church?  Why or why not?


5.      Paul's words indicate that what a wife may do with her hair, will reflect on her husband.  In what ways would this be true today for wives?


6.      Paul states that women are to have authority, and he does so at the conclusion of his discourse on hairstyles and head wear.  How are hair and dress styles today associated with the matter of authority?