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1 Corinthians 11:4

ESV Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head,
NIV Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.
NASB Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head.
CSB Every man who prays or prophesies with something on his head dishonors his head.
NLT A man dishonors his head if he covers his head while praying or prophesying.
KJV Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.

What does 1 Corinthians 11:4 mean?

Paul has established the principle that every person has a "head." Christ is the head of men. Husbands are the head of their wives. God is the head of Christ. While this could be a reference to authority, Paul seems more focused on the sense of having a representative. In the verses that follow, Paul does not say much about the authority of the one who is the head. Instead, he is focused on how each of us, men and women, can bring shame on our spiritual "head" by what we do with our physical heads and physical appearance during group worship times.

Honor and shame were fundamental aspects of the Jewish and Roman cultures of Paul's day. Success in life was thought to bring honor to a person's family or other group. Women and children, especially, felt the pressure not to dishonor the head of the family in how they behaved in public. More so than in the modern era, physical appearance was tied to honor; those who were "dishonored" were often marked by their clothing or hair. In an era without billboards and neon signs, clothing and hairstyle were also used to signal social and even sexual concepts.

Speaking into that culture, and that context, Paul warns the Corinthian Christians. Every man who publicly prays or prophesies in their meetings together with his physical head covered dishonors his spiritual head, who is Christ. Context, as always, is key to interpreting this statement correctly, as with all of Paul's comments in this letter (1 Corinthians 10:14–22).

First, this verse implies it was common in the early church for both men and women to "prophesy" during services. Some scholars understand this to mean that they were proclaiming supernatural revelations from God. Others see the word "prophesy" to mean proclaiming more general Christian guidance and instruction. Paul doesn't give deep details in this passage.

In either case, Paul writes that for a man to pray or prophesy in a certain way brings shame to Christ. The Greek phrase is kata kephalēs echōn. "Having down from the head" is the literal translation, most often rendered in English as "with his head covered." What, exactly, this means, depends greatly on the context one places on Paul's references to a "head" in this section.

Some understand this phrase to describe having long hair. Others suggest some men in Corinth had started wearing feminine head coverings. It's also possible Paul is describing the practice of Roman men in their pagan worship services: pulling their robes over their heads in a sign of humility before their gods. Paul does not directly say any of these are happening in the Corinth church services. He merely states that it would bring shame on Christ if men were to do whatever it is, exactly, he is referring to. Further verses will provide additional information which helps to provide an answer.

In short, Paul has two ideas in mind. First, all Christians need to place Christ at the top of their spiritual authorities. Second, it's dishonorable for Christians to send "mixed signals" about things like gender, through their choice of clothing and hair styles.
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