Since some folks have been discussing headcoverings in 1 Corinthians 11 recently, here is what you need to know:
My sermon on this text:
(I think this sermon demonstrates pretty conclusively that first century Christian women did NOT wear headcoverings in worship.)
Sermon follow up:
My essay “Women, Ministry, and Liturgy” which takes up headcoverings starting on page 11:
A few bullet points based on these recent discussions, supplementing what I have linked above:
  •  Women (and men) may have worn head coverings in daily life in old covenant Israel, but if so, it is not something the OT takes notice of, much less commands. Numbers 5:18 could possibly say that the woman "uncovers" her hair, but a better translation (following the ESV and the first definition of the Hebrew word in Strong's concordance) is "unbind" or "loose."
  • 1 Corinthians 11:15 says that the woman's hair is given to her as a covering. It is a natural head covering. What head covering proponents need to demonstrate is that the natural covering is not enough, that the woman actually needs two head coverings, an artificial one on top of her natural one. The ESV rendering of 11:15 is an excellent translation. Her hair has been given to her as a covering, or for a covering. What could be the rationale for needing another covering?
  • To repeat myself, if Paul is requiring an extra artificial covering over her hair, why does Paul give instruction about how women braid and wear their hair in worship in 1 Timothy 2:9? If her head/hair will be covered, why bother warning women about how they decorate their hair? It will not do to say that Paul's command that women adorn themselves with "modesty" could include a head-covering since Paul explicitly addresses the woman's hair style.
  • I have not seen convincing evidence that women in most ancient cultures wore head coverings at all times. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that in many cultures (including first century Corinth) this was not standard practice. Further, I do not think 1 Cor. 11 is about following pagan or even old covenant customs anyway, so what people in Corinth may have done does not seem relevant. The whole passage has to do specifically with Christian liturgical practices. One writer (who actually favors an artificial head covering) says this, debunking the myth Corinthian women always wore head coverings and Paul wanted Christian women to follow suit:

Myth #1: Only prostitutes went about with their heads uncovered and Paul did not want the Christian women associated with prostitutes.

This myth has been passed along because of a lack of good scholarly historical research. Ancient Greece and the time of Corinth under the Roman Empire have been lumped together. It would be similar to someone two thousand years from now saying what America was like in 2000 AD by studying life in colonial America.

The ancient city of Corinth with its temple prostitute system was destroyed in 146 BC. Julius Caesar restored Corinth a hundred years later. By the time 1 Corinthians was written, 200 years after the temple prostitute system was destroyed, Corinth was a thoroughly Roman city.1 Life in the Roman Empire, during this time in the first century AD, was in many ways more like society today than any other time in history. Women had a lot of “freedoms” that they did not have before. They were allowed to educate themselves, speak in public, and initiate a divorce. Women used contraceptives, practiced abortion, and exercised “sexual freedom.”2

The book of Acts mentions “chief” women in several of the cities, and women at Paul’s speech on Mars Hill. Many non-Christian women during this time did not cover their heads with a veil, although there were some who wore a veil or other head covering. Elaborate hair styles also became popular during this time.....

There is no command in the New Testament where the Church is instructed to follow the practices of non-Christians. As Christians, we are not to pattern our lives after the world but after Jesus and His commands. As you can see from the description of women in the Roman Empire in the first century, the head covering teaching in 1 Corinthians 11 was not based on the Corinthian culture. Nor was it based on the Jewish culture, where both men and women covered their heads. Jewish men at that time were easily recognized by their broad brimmed hats.

The woman’s headcovering in 1 Corinthians 11 is a practice that is distinctly Christian. The command for women to cover their heads and men not to cover their heads is based on creation, not culture (v.7-10).

  • Women are certainly free to wear an artificial head covering to church (and elsewhere) if they wish, but I do not believe it is required. Her long hair is a natural and sufficient covering. Her long hair is both a sign of her glory and of her sexual differentiation from her husband. Her longer hair is a sign of her submission to his authority. Again I ask: What purpose could a second head covering serve? Would it not be redundant?
  • On the counterpoint, it should be noted that Calvin that if women ever began uncovering their heads, they would eventually uncover their stomach and breasts as well. Unfortunately, it looks like Calvin may have gotten that right, given how immodest female dress has become. But I am still not convinced that artificial head coverings are the answer, exegetically speaking. This what Calvin preached: "So if women are thus permitted to have their heads uncovered and to show their hair, they will eventually be allowed to expose their entire breasts, and they will come to make their exhibitions as if it were a tavern show; they will become so brazen that modesty and shame will be no more; in short they will forget the duty of nature... So, when it is permissible for the women to uncover their heads, one will say, 'Well, what harm in uncovering the stomach also?' And then after that one will plead something else: 'Now if the women go bareheaded, why not also [bare] this and [bare] that? Then the men, for their part, will break loose too. In short, there will be no decency left, unless people contain themselves and respect what is proper and fitting, so as not to go headlong overboard."
  • To reiterate my previous argument, even if an artificial head covering is required in 1 Cor. 11, it seems it is only required when women pray or prophesy in public worship. But should women be praying and prophesying in worship at all? It seems not. While women certainly pray, and pray the corporate prayers in public worship with the rest of the body, no other text indicates they should have a role leading in the public prayers of the church. Indeed, since this is a priestly function, the one leading should be a man since he will be symbolizing the ministry of Christ before the gathered assembly. It is the same with prophesying. We know there were prophetesses in the early days of the new covenant era (cf. Acts 2, etc.), but we have no indication they carried out their prophetic ministry in the midst of the gathered assembly; in every example we have a women prophesying, they are outside the assembly. 1 Timothy 2:9-15 suggests very strongly that prophetesses did not speak in the assembly since a prophetic ministry is a teaching ministry and Paul forbids women from teaching or having authority in the assembly. Further, Paul's command that women remain silent in the assembly (that is, not exercise liturgical leadership) in 1 Cor. 14 cannot be restricted to a supposed "judging of the prophets" in the service since Paul grounds this command in the law (probably referring Genesis 1-3, with a rationale similar to 1 Timothy 2:9-15, and the fact that the Torah only authorized males to lead worship in the synagogue and tabernacle/temple).
  • The biggest challenge to my view comes from verse 5: Paul says that if a woman uncovers her head it is the same as if her head were shaven. Here's the problem: if the covering  is her hair, then uncovering her head (= cutting her hair) is not merely "as if" her head were shaven; it IS shaving her head (or at least cutting her hair short which seems to be the same thing for Paul). Thus, it seems there must a covering in addition to her hair. A couple responses: First, some have suggested that Paul is dealing with an artificial covering in verse 5 and then later on, in verse 16, teaches that the natural covering of long hair is sufficient. An artificial covering can be used, but does not have to be. Another option is that Paul is saying if a woman is going to cut her hair short like a man's (so she can pray and prophesy like man) she might as well go all the way and shave it off -- which everyone knows would be shameful. The argument thus is similar to what Paul says to the Judaizers in Galatians 5 -- if they are going to circumcise themselves, they might as well go all the way and castrate themselves. This is exactly what Paul goes on to say in verse 6 -- if a wife will not cover her head with long hair, she might as well cut her hair short or shave her head, but since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut her hair short or to shave her head, let her keep her head covered with her long hair....for her hair is given to her as a covering. I would ask: If she is going to have her head covered, why does it matter if her hair is cut short or shaved since the artificial head covering will cover her head? Paul never gets away from the issue of hair and hair length. And further consider: If public/liturgical praying and prophesying can only be done by someone with an uncovered head (the principle apparently laid down in verses 4-5), women must either cut their hair short or shave their heads. But this is disgraceful to them, since it is androgynous and disrespectful to their heads. The only option left for women is that they must keep their heads covered (with long hair) and not exercise liturgical leadership.
  • Starting with the ESV of 1 Cor. 11:4-16, here is my interpretive paraphrase that fills in some gaps in the key verses and demonstrates how much gender confusion/androgyny is really at the heart of the issue Paul is addressing: "4 Any one who prays or prophesies in the church’s liturgical assembly with his head covered (like an old covenant priest, with a mitre, or with long hair) dishonors his head, Christ, because he treats Christ’s priestly ministry as incomplete and ineffectual, as if there were still a veil between us and God. And if a woman/wife were to pray or prophesy in the liturgical assembly with her head uncovered (that is, with her hair cut short), she would dishonor her head (her husband), since it is the same as if her head were shaven which is shameful. Her attempt to look like a man and lead the assembly like a man would be a sign that she is in rebellion against her husband's headship and wants to displace him, much like Eve did to Adam in the Garden of Eden. For if a woman/wife will not cover her head with her long hair, then she should be shorn of her hair to humiliate her. But since everyone knows it is disgraceful and shameful for a woman/wife to be shorn or shaven, let  her keep her head covered with long hair (and thus let her refrain from leading the assembly in praying or prophesying since women are not permitted to lead the assembly by speaking, but should remain silent -- 1 Cor. 14:33-35). For a man ought not to cover his head with a head covering or long hair, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man, under his headship. For man was not made from woman, but woman from (and after) the man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man, to be his helper. 10 That is why a woman/wife ought to have a symbol of her husband’s authority on her head, because of the angels, who are present in the gathered assembly, and who are jealous that God's creational order be preserved since a fallen angel (Satan) led the woman and the man to rebel against this order in Genesis 3. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman -- man and women are complementary and the goal is mutuality; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman -- thus, the sexes are interdependent. And all things are from God, who rules over all. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman/wife to pray to God (publicly, like a man) with her head uncovered (like a man), that is, with her hair shorn or shaved? Of course not! If a woman were to lead the assembly, she would need to do so with an uncovered head (like a man's head) but it is shameful for her to usurp man's position in this way or to make her head look like a man's by cutting her hair short.14 Does not nature -- that is, God's creational design --  itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, because he becomes like a woman 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? The sexes should be distinguished in appearance and in role. For a woman to have short hair like a man is shameful, because it is an act of rebellion against God's creational design for the sexes, but by contrast her long hair is given to her for a glory and covering — and, indeed, the only head covering she needs on her head. 16 If anyone is inclined to fight about this, we have no such practice, nor do all the other churches of God, including those churches that will be given instruction about how women should wear their uncovered long hair in church (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:9)."
  • There are many reasons I am confident that Paul was not permitting women to publicly lead the church in prayer and prophesying in this chapter. One reason is that the overriding concern in this section (much like 1 Cor. 14:33-35 and 1 Tim. 2:9-15) is sex roles in the assembly. Paul is jealous to guard the church against any kind of androgyny or sexual role reversal. As in Paul's day so in ours: confusion about the sexes is rampant and so it is vital that we get sex roles right in worship since worship is the center of life. Some women in the Corinthian church (much like what Timothy had to deal with in the Ephesian church) wanted to use their freedom in Christ to push a proto-feminist agenda. These women apparently wanted to become like men in appearance (e.g., short or shaved hair) and role (e.g., liturgical leadership). In doing so, they actually risked replaying the gender confusion manifested in the fall in Genesis 3. This is why 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 cannot be read without also consulting 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, where Paul commands the women to be silent. These texts taken together show that Paul is very, very concerned that proper sex roles be maintained in the church's liturgical gatherings. Some want to restrict the silence in 1 Corinthians 14 to the "judging of the prophets" since the women are not the only ones in that chapter commanded to be silent. But the silence required of the woman there is unique; it is not merely a matter of doing things decently and in order, as in the other cases, but rooted in the law. Where does the law (presumably the Torah) deal with this? There is obviously no place in the law that deals with the judging of the prophets in the assembly. But there is a lot in the law about the respective liturgical roles of the man and the woman, going back to Genesis 2-3 (set in the Garden-sanctuary of Eden) and to the instructions given to male priests and their female helpers at the tabernacle (Ex. 38:8). Paul's appeal to the law in 1 Cor. 14 is basically an appeal to the broad pattern of male liturgical leadership, established at creation and  re-established/reinforced in the Torah. Unless we want to make 1 Cor. 11 an exception, at odds with the rest of Scripture, we should not use this text to conclude that Paul authorized women to lead the church's liturgy. It makes much more sense to see Paul reining in rebellious Corinthian women and reminding them of how God's creational design for the sexes is to be manifested in the church's gatherings.