This came up in conversation recently, and I thought I’d address it systematically.
1. Paul is dealing in 1 Corinthians 11 with the church’s conduct in corporate worship being orderly. Part of this involves living out the distinctions between male and female, which even nature shows us.
2. One argument put forth by James Jordan is that the prophesying going on among women, predicted by Joel 2:32, ceased with the passing of the apostolic age (around the time of the destruction of the temple). So this whole discussion is not directly relevant. This is partially convincing. Women (or men!) spontaneously prophesying in church was unique to the apostolic age, in my view. But this assumes a position on a separate controversial issue I don’t have time for! And it doesn’t really deal with women praying in church, or how the natural distinction applies today. The context seems to be more than just prophecy. (Check out the Jordan article for other good thoughts, though.)
3. So the passage is relevant to us, and cannot be explained away with the old “that was their culture” line. We need to figure out how to obey this text. But as we do, cultural custom does come into play.
4. Can women obey this passage by wearing their hair long, as verse 15 seems to say? I believe so. There is no other explanation of verse 15 that makes sense. Its meaning is plain and a principle, along with verses 3, 7, and 10.
Objection 1: long hair and a covering seem to be different things in verses 6-14. A woman with long hair could pray uncovered, it seems.
Response: this is because of the cultural practice in Corinth (all of Greco-Roman world, really) of women wearing a veil or shawl of some sort at a religious service. Verse 15 actually gives more freedom to the church from that cultural practice, while maintaining the gender distinction principle.
Objection 2: This position makes verse 6 a tautology. Verse 6 says if she won’t cover her head she might as well (and should) have short hair. If long hair IS the covering, this would be a given, not a command.
Response: Paul’s point is that a woman uncovered in dress or behavior should be shown such by cutting her hair short. If she is speaking, praying, or prophesying in a way that shows lack of submission to her husband, she might as well dress unsubmissively, too.
Objection 2: what about older women who cannot or do not grow their hair long?
Response: as long as a distinction from men is being made in her dress and behavior, there isn’t a real problem. Length of hair is a factor in this principle, but not the only one. Verses 3 and 10 are broader and more controlling than verses 14-15.
Objection 3: there is really no way to disobey this text, if a woman simply needs to wear her hair in a feminine way.
Response: yes there is. For one thing, Sinead O’Connor comes to mind. And a woman can do her hair with a mind to being sexy and catching a man. Even at church. Hm… The principle is that a wife should do something to her hair (or other apparel?) to show she is bound to her husband. Culturally, we don’t have a category for how specifically to do this today, besides wedding rings. Almost all other cultures did. This is where the confusion comes in. I’m uncertain that the hair itself must be adjusted, if the rest of her dress and behavior is ordered. The hair requirement might be a culturally adjustable thing, here, but the principle of maintaining gender distinctions in corporate worship is not. Each family can work through this themselves and come up with something. It is an area for future Christian culture building.