(1 Cor. 11:4) Is it wrong for a man to wear a baseball cap while praying?

CLAIM: Paul writes, “Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head.” What does this mean? Should men remove their hats when they are in fellowship or while praying?

RESPONSE: No doubt, this is a very difficult passage. The expression “something on his head” is literally “‘having down from (his) head’ (kata kephalēs echōn).”[1] To what is Paul referring?

OPTION #1: Paul is referring to HATS

This view seems implausible. For one, nothing in the context explicitly refers to a hat. Moreover, God commanded the Jewish high priest to wear an elaborate head covering when entering the Holy of Holies. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why hats would be such a theological problem with God. (What does God have against hats??)

OPTION #2: Paul is referring to physical HEAD COVERINGS

Gordon Fee takes the view that Paul is referring to a physical head covering, but he is also not sure what physical covering this would be.[2]

Richard Oster notes that Roman worshippers practiced capite velato (“with head covered”) during Pagan worship services. This was “used by both permanent Roman clergy and by officiating laymen, that provides the matrix for the devotional apparel mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11.4.”[3] Likewise, Bruce Winter argues, “Men were depicted with the toga drawn over their head, the capite velato, while praying or offering up a libation to a god or gods. Evidence of this is found in Corinth.”[4] Augustus Caesar and Nero both have well preserved statues showing this in the Julian Basilica. Winter writes, “There a former emperor is dressed as a Roman magistrate offering up a sacrifice and wearing a veil… Evidence for this practice is widespread in the Empire… It was a part of Augustus’ propaganda and was meant to project a particular image of the emperor… The social elite overtook this function.”[5] David Garland writes, “Plutarch (Mor. 200F) uses this very language in describing Scipio the Younger seeking to walk through Alexandria incognito by ‘having his garment down from the head’ (κατὰ τῆς κεϕαλῆς ἔχων τὸ ἱμάτιον, kata tēs kephalēs echōn to himation). In using this language, Paul is not referring to a hat or long hair. According to Paul, this action does not shame the man’s anatomical head but his metaphorical head, Christ. Because of the clear association of this practice with pagan devotion, pulling the toga over the physical head in Christian worship would shame the spiritual head of the man, Christ.”[6]

Under this view, Paul doesn’t want these Corinthian men to imitate their Pagan neighbors during times of prayer. This would be a sort of syncretism that would be misleading to non-Christian visitors. This view seems plausible.

OPTION #3: Paul is referring to LONG HAIR

Paul never mentions what was on their head (e.g. a hat, a toga, etc.). Paul does write, however, that he is referring to long hair in verse 14 (“Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him”). If we think that he is referring to hat or a toga on their heads, this comment in verse 14 seems abrupt and out of context.

Why would Paul write against long hair for men? In this culture, long hair implied that a man was effeminate. Paul wanted the men to make sure the Corinthians weren’t tacitly endorsing this by coming to fellowship with long hair. NT scholar Philip B. Payne observes,

It was generally regarded as disgraceful for men to wear long effeminate hair. Effeminate hair was commonly ridiculed as disgraceful because of its association with homosexuality… There is, however, abundant evidence in the Greek, Roman, and Jewish literature of Paul’s day that it was disgraceful for men to wear long effeminate hair, whether hanging down or done up like a woman’s hair. Long hair fits Paul’s expression in verse 4, literally ‘hanging down from the head,’ and Paul confirms in verse 14, ‘If a man has long hair, it is degrading to him.’[7]

Payne claims that there are “more than one hundred references to effeminate hair in classical antiquity… the greatest number of these coming from around Paul’s time.”[8] Here is a short list that Payne provides:

Pseudo-Phocylides (30 b.c.–a.d. 40) 210–14 advised, “Long hair is not fit for men.”[9]

Philo’s The Special Laws (a.d. 39) III. 37–42 states, “A much graver . . . evil . . . has ramped its way into the cities, . . . the disease of effemination. . . . Mark how conspicuously they braid and adorn the hair of their heads. . . . [The Law] ordains that the man-woman who debases the sterling coin of nature should perish. . . . [These are] grievous vices of unmanliness and effeminacy . . . licentiousness and effeminacy.”[10]

The Stoic Musonius Rufus (a.d. 66) called hair “a covering by nature” and objected to men “cutting the hair . . . to appear as women and to be seen as womanish, something that should be avoided at all cost.”[11]

Josephus’s The Jewish War (a.d. 70) 4, 561–63 states, “[They] unscrupulously indulged in effeminate practices, plaiting their hair.”[12]

Plutarch’s Moralia (a.d. 80) 785E calls a man having his hair curled “disgraceful.”[13]

The whole first chapter of Book III of Arrian’s Discourses of Epictetus describes Epictetus (a.d. 90) rebuking a young student from Corinth with effeminately dressed hair as “a dreadful spectacle . . . against your nature . . . half-man and half-woman . . . Dress your locks . . . God forbid!”[14]

Dio Chrysostom (a.d. 100) 33, 52 states, “In violation of nature’s laws . . . the wretched culprits commit their heinous deeds all unobserved; yet . . . style of haircut . . . reveal[s] their true character. . . .”[15] Thirty-five, 11 states, “Long hair must not by any means be taken as a mark of virtue.”[16]

Juvenal’s Satire II (a.d. 116) 93–96 depicts “secret torchlight orgies” for “none but males: One prolongs his eyebrows . . . another drinks out of an obscenely shaped glass, and ties up his long locks in a gilded net.”[17]

Payne also notes that Paul uses the same language to denounce long hair for men in 1 Corinthians 11, as he does in Romans 1:26-27. Compare the similarity of language in both passages:

 

1 Corinthians 11:4, 14

Romans 1:26-27

“Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces [kataischynei] his head” (v.4)

 

“Does not even nature [physis] itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor [atimia] to him” (v.14)

“For this reason God gave them over to degrading [atimia] passions; for their women exchanged the natural function [physiken] for that which is unnatural [para physis]” (v.26).

“Men abandoned the natural function [physiken] of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error” (v.27).

 

The context of chapter 11 comes on the heels of being “all things to all men.” Paul spent three chapters writing about the necessity of surrendering our rights for the sake of the gospel. In chapter 8, he addresses meat sacrificed to idols. In chapter 9, he gives a list of the rights he regularly surrenders to spread the message of Christ (e.g. marriage, pay, cultural norms, etc.). And in chapter 10, he returns to the principle of surrendering rights for the sake of Christ (see especially 10:29-33). As chapter 11 opens, Paul urges the Corinthians to imitate him, as he imitates Christ (11:1). This sets the stage for his comments throughout chapter 11.

Conclusion

We hold to option 2, but consider option 3 also plausible. Regardless, both interpretations would result in the same application—namely, we shouldn’t bring non-Christian practices into the church. Does this mean that Paul is denouncing head coverings as a universal, moral imperative? No. Instead, as in 1 Corinthians 11:5 where women had their heads uncovered, Paul is stating that we should fit in line with cultural standards, so that we do not provide a stumbling block for others around us. In this culture, head coverings had certain implications, but in another culture, these might not. The universal principle here is this: avoid sending the wrong message to your culture by the way you dress or carry yourself.

See also comments on (1 Cor. 11:14) Does nature teach that long hair is wrong?

[1] Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: an introduction and commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 150.

[2] Fee, G. D. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians (p. 507-508). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[3] Richard Oster, “When Men Wore Veils to Worship: the Historical Context of 1 Corinthians 11.4” New Testament Studies (Volume 34, Issue 4, October 1988), 496.

[4] Winter, Bruce W. After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001. 122.

[5] Winter, Bruce W. After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001. 122.

[6] David Garland, 1 Corinthians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 517.

[7] Philip B. Payne. “Wild Hair and Gender Equality in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16.” Priscilla Papers. Vol. 20, No. 3. Summer 2006. 9.

[8] Philip B. Payne. “Wild Hair and Gender Equality in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16.” Priscilla Papers. Vol. 20, No. 3. Summer 2006. 9.

[9] P. W. van der Horst, The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides with Introduction and Commentary, SVTP 4 (Leiden: Brill, 1978) 81–83.

[10] F. H. Colson, trans., Philo, 10 vols. (LCL, 1988) 7:498–501. See, similarly, Philo’s The Special Laws I.325, The Contemplative Life 59–62, and On Abraham 133–36.

[11] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “Sex and Logic in 1 Corinthians 11:2– 16,” CBQ 42 (1980), 487.

[12] H. St. J. Thackeray, trans., Josephus, 9 vols. (LCL, 1979), 3:166–67.

[13] Harold North Fowler, trans., Plutarch’s Moralia, Volume X (LCL, 1969), 10:90–91.

[14] W. A. Oldfather, trans., Epictetus: The Discourses as Reported by Arrian, The Manual, and Fragments, 2 vols. (LCL, 1966), 2:15–21.

[15] J. W. Cohoon and H. Lamar Crosby, trans., Dio Chrysostom, 5 vols. (LCL, 1979), 3:320–23.

[16] Cohoon and Crosby, Dio Chrysostom, 3:401.

[17] G. G. Ramsay, trans., Juvenal and Persius (LCL, 1979), 25.