Letting Our Hair Down: Another Look at I Corinthians 11:2-16 [A]

September 9, 2023 | Daniel L. Segraves, Ph.D.

            The title I have chosen for this paper is intended to carry two meanings.  First, we’re going to “let our hair down” in the sense that we’re going take the liberty of a fresh look at I Corinthians 11:2-16 with the possibility of interpreting the text in ways we have not previously understood it.  Hopefully, this will result in gaining understanding that is closer to Paul’s original intent and that provides greater distance from interpretations that perpetuate the notion that men are to rule over women.  Second, we will respond briefly to the idea that verse 10 means that women can gain greater power in prayer and virtually assure the receipt of affirmative answers from God by letting down their hair and laying it over an altar or over another person or by letting it blow in the wind.[1]

            This paper is an attempt to come to the text with a willingness to receive new dimensions of insight, if indeed the text opens itself to perspectives in addition to or beyond traditional readings.

            Here is a summary of my approach to this topic: (1) the text is relevant for the church in all cultures and time periods.  Paul’s words are not couched in the language of culture but of creation and nature; (2) long hair (from komaō and komē) refers to uncut hair[2]; (3) there is no magic formula enabling us to obtain whatever we want when we want it; God cannot be obligated to answer prayer.

            In contrast to some views of this text, (1) I don’t think kephalē (translated “head”) refers to leadership, and (2) I am not optimistic about the possibility that a woman’s prayers are more effective if she lets her hair down when she prays.  Let’s talk about these points.

The Meaning of “Head”

            Because of the use of “head” to translate kephalē in the New Testament, as in I Corinthians 11:3, it is quite common for interpreters to read this as a reference to some kind of superiority or higher ranking.  As far as the English word “head” is concerned, this could be legitimate, depending on the context in which the word is used.  One English dictionary offers forty-five possible meanings for “head,” two of which fall into this category: “the position of leadership; chief command; greatest authority; one to whom others are subordinate; a leader or chief.”[3]

            To read “head” this way in I Corinthians 11:3 shapes one’s understanding not only of the phrase “the head of woman is man” but also of the phrases “the head of every man is Christ” and “the head of Christ is God.”  Whatever “head” means in one phrase, it must also mean in the others.  If man is the head of woman in the sense of leadership, command, or authority, so must Christ be the head of man in this same sense, and so must God be the head of Christ in this sense.  This immediately invites a variety of questions: (1) Is there no sense in which Christ is the head of a woman? (2) Must women come to Christ through men? (3) Is God not the head of men? (4) In what sense is God the head of Christ?  Is this a reference only to the Incarnation, so that God is the head of the human existence in which He was manifest?  If so, in what sense is that human existence the head of man?  Would this not lend itself to a Nestorian bifurcation of Christ’s deity and humanity?

            Further, to interpret “head” as a reference to leadership, command, or authority colors how we read verse 10: “For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.”  It is quite common for interpreters to read this text as calling for a woman to have something on her head to indicate her submission to her husband’s authority.  For some this means a woman should wear a material veil or hat in church.  Those of us who understand a woman’s long hair to be the covering in view in the text typically understand her hair to be the sign or symbol of her submission.  This is in spite of the fact that there is no word for “symbol” or “sign” in the Greek text (as indicated by the italics in the KJV) and that it is “authority” (exousia) that she is to have on or over (epi) her head, not “submission.”

            Once we begin reading this passage as having to do with the submission of women to men, other portions of the text may be understood in the same way (e.g., “the woman is the glory of the man” and “neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man).  Nowhere in the text, however, is a husband-and-wife relationship demanded.  The Greek andros, translated “man,” can mean “husband,” but it can also simply refer to a male.  Likewise, gynaikos, translated “woman,” can refer to a “wife,” but it can also refer only to a female.  Because of this, some think that the point is the authority of men in general over women in general.  Others suppose that the idea at least includes the submission of daughters to their fathers.

            Although it is always difficult to do so, we may understand the text more clearly if we try to come to it as if we had never read it before, reading carefully and noting the meaning of kephalē as opposed to reading the word “head” as it is popularly used in our culture.  Although kephalē is frequently used in reference to a person’s physical head – and it is certainly so used upon occasion in this text – it is also used to indicate “source,” as in the source or mouth of a river, or “nourisher of life.”[4]  Kephalē is rarely used in Greek literature to mean “chief” or “person of the highest rank.”  The Septuagint almost never uses kephalē with this meaning.  It is almost certain that the only meaning “the Corinthians would have grasped, is ‘head’ as ‘source,’ especially ‘source of life.’”[5]

            David K. Bernard offers convincing insight as to why we should understand kephalē to mean “source” and not “authority” in I Corinthians 11:3:

  • “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.” We can also translate the middle clause: “and the head of the woman is man” (NIV). This verse distinguishes God, Christ, man, and woman in what sounds like a hierarchy. According to recent scholarship, however, the word translated “head” (kephalē) means “source” in this context and not “authority.” The point is not to establish a rigid hierarchy but to draw an analogy from creation and redemption based on time sequence. The transcendent God is the source of Christ as the manifested image of God (2 Cor 4:4). Christ is the source of humans both in the original creative concept of God (1 Cor 8:5) and in the new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Man is first of the human creation and the historical source of woman in the creation account (1 Cor 11:8).[6]

            The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek confirms “beginning, origin” and the mouth of a river as possible meanings for kephalē. [7] Words are defined by the context in which they are used, and the context of I Corinthians 11:2-16 virtually requires the meaning “source” rather than “chief.”[8]  This can be seen in the statement, “For the man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man.  Neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man” (I Corinthians 11: 8-9).  But the notion of the authority of men over women is not in view, as can be seen in these words: “Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.  For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman, but all things of God” (I Corinthians 11:11-12).  In Christ, there is equality and reciprocity between men and women.  (See Galatians 3:28.)

            If we read the text as Paul apparently intended it to be read by the Corinthians, the phrase “the head of every man is Christ” is a reference to creation by Christ (Ephesians 3:9), “the head of the woman is the man” refers to Eve being made from Adam’s rib, and “the head of Christ is God” captures the idea that Christ came from God (John 13:3).[9]

I Corinthians 11:10

            I Corinthians 11:10 is interpreted by some to mean that if women have long hair, it gives them some kind of special power or authority in the spiritual realm.  It has even been suggested that women should let down their long hair, laying it on the altar, on another person, or shaking it in the wind to evoke this power.  Support for this view is found in anecdotal evidence and reference works related to witchcraft and occultism. To interpret Scripture by anecdotal evidence is dangerous; our final authority is Scripture, not experience.  To interpret Scripture by reference to witchcraft and occultism is even more dangerous.  Scripture warns us to avoid the influence of these ideas; we are to be simple concerning evil and wise concerning what is good.  (See Romans 16:19.) 

            Concerning the meaning of I Corinthians 11:10, we can say with certainty that it says nothing about evil spirits, it says nothing about how a woman’s hair is arranged, and the word “hair” does not appear in the verse.  I will forego further discussion here in view of the fact that my article Another Look at I Corinthians 11:10: A Plea for Caution appeared in the November 2009 issue of the Pentecostal Herald . The article addresses this subject in detail, and I commend it to those who are interested in this text and/or concerned about this novel interpretation.

My concern is that the teaching that at one time circulated among us was presented as a technique guaranteeing all kinds of miraculous results from the salvation of lost loved ones to the healing of diseases to the protection of children from any harmful effects of immunization to the ability to win back lost romantic affections.  This was in addition to the idea of power over evil spirits.  It seemed there was no end to this.

            We have biblical precedent for the use of prayer cloths (Acts 19:11-12).  We even have a biblical example of people being healed as the shadow of a person of faith passed over them (Acts 5:14-16).  But we have no biblical precedent for a woman letting down her hair in an attempt to motivate God to do something He might not otherwise do. There are such things as “special miracles” (Acts 19:11), and we have no reason to think the biblical record exhausts the ways miracles may occur. 

            But some of the ideas we have discussed are so troubling, so divisive, and so potentially harmful that I do not wish to suggest any degree of legitimacy to a practice that is based on misinterpreting a text, that draws on the claims of the occult, and that promises the ability to control outcomes.  Instead, I would rather point people to simple faith in God that requires no props and that avoids any appeal to non-biblical sources for insight.  I am concerned that some women, thinking they have found new depth of meaning in Scripture, will be tempted to look further into the realm of the occult for new insights on spirituality.


            Although the teaching found in I Corinthians 11:2-16 may be countercultural, there is no indication in the text itself to indicate that the teaching is culturally conditioned.  Paul does not address culture, but creation and nature.  The church will often find itself at odds with culture as it seeks conformity to Scripture and as cultural norms increasingly distance themselves from biblical ideals.

            The only way to determine the meaning of words is by their use in specific contexts.  The lexicons most recognized by scholars indicate that komaō means something like to “wear long hair, let one’s hair grow long.”  Louw-Nida goes so far as to say it may be necessary in some languages to translate the word “not to cut one’s hair.”

            The contextual use of kephalē in I Corinthians 11:3 indicates that Paul’s discussion does not have to do with female submission to masculine authority.  Instead, Paul explains the equality between men and women, especially in the context of public prayer and prophecy.

            Novel interpretations of I Corinthians 11:10 drawing on sources related to witchcraft and the occult have no place in the church.  Nor do promises of a woman’s ability to use her long hair to get guaranteed results by manipulating the spirit realm.  When Paul discussed spiritual warfare, he talked about things like truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, salvation, and the word of God.  (See Ephesians 6:13-17.)  He did not mention hair arrangement.  When Jesus talked about our power over demons, He said it was available on the basis of faith.  (See Mark 16:17-18.)  John said that the works of the devil were destroyed by the manifestation of the Son of God.  (See I John 3:8.)

[1] This response will be brief because my article dealing at length with this subject appears in the November 2009 issue of the Pentecostal Herald.  The article is titled “Another Look at I Corinthians 11:10: A Plea for Caution.”

[2] In its comment on I Corinthians 11:15, the Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament says, “In a number of languages it may be necessary to translate komaō as ‘to let one’s hair grow long’ or ‘not to cut one’s hair.’”  Louw-Nida is a leading lexicon for Bible translators. The idea is that if the receptor language does not have a word for “uncut hair,” the translator should communicate this idea by his choice of words.  See Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 8.14, 11.15.

[3] The American College Dictionary (New York: Random House, 1964), s.v. “head.”

[4] Lawrence O. Richards, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 327-28.

[5] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 502-03.

[6] David K. Bernard, The Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ: Deification of Jesus in Early Christian Discourse, Journal of Pentecostal Theology Supplement Series 45, general editor John Christopher Thomas (Blandford Forum, Dorset DT11 1AQ, UK: Deo Publishing, 2016), 126-127). Bernard refers to Philip Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 123-37. Thus “God is the head of Christ” refers to “Christ’s source as from God in the incarnation.” Ibid., 138-39.

[7] Franco Montanari, The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek, ed. Madeleine Goh and Chad Schroeder (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2015), 1120.

[8] It is interesting that the range of meaning for the English word “head” includes “the source of a river or stream” (American College Dictionary, s.v. “head”).

[9] In my book Hair Length in the Bible: A Study of I Corinthians 11:2-16 (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1989), I argued against “source” or “origin” as the meaning of kephalē.  This was based largely on D. A. Carson’s treatment of kephalē in his Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984).  But further research, including an examination of the use of kephalē in the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament, a consideration of the context in I Corinthians 11:2-16, and investigation of the broad teaching of Scripture on husband-and-wife relationships has convinced me that the meaning here relates to man as the origin of woman as recorded in Genesis 2.[archive]