Hi @Jamie_Hobbs, thank you for bring forward this question! It is a perplexing passage. I would be curious to hear from the @Interested_in_Bible group!
One starting point is that this passage reminds us that responsible interpretation of the Bible requires us to understand the cultural context of the Biblical world - as well as the cultural vantage point from which we are reading the text.
In 1 Corinthians 11:4, Paul states that men should not pray or prophesy with their heads covered. The ESV Study Bible says:
As background for understanding Paul’s point in this verse, Roman men sometimes practiced the custom of pulling the loose folds of their toga over their head as an act of piety in the worship of pagan gods. Paul thus draws on the example of this pagan custom (which everyone in the Corinthian church would have thought absurd) to make the point that men should not dishonor Christ by praying according to pagan custom.
In 1 Corinthians 11:5, like in the article that Jimmy provided, the ESV Study Bible points out that, “a woman’s head covering in first-century Roman society was a sign of marriage.”
Dr. Verlyn Verbrugge, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, adds this:
But why would women fail to hold to normal cultural conventions in a church setting, of all places? I once again agree with those scholars who see as one of the main issues here the nature of the setting of NT worship, namely, in the house church (cf. Ac 18:7; Ro 16:5; 1Co 16:19; Col 4:15). Women were normally unveiled in their own homes and in homes with other women, though not in public places. But what about in a church worshiping in a home? This setting was culturally mixed — it was a home, where women would normally be unveiled, but the church gathered for worship was a public gathering of sorts. Because of this ambiguity some women apparently took their veils off and thus became a distraction.
Dr. Verbrugge also concedes that there may be limits to our understanding. I think that is refreshing. In his comments on verse 10, for instance, he writes:
We should recall that the setting for vv. 2–16 is a worship setting, so that the presence of unseen angels at their worship events is not impossible. But the precise nuance of how angels might be affected by the presence or lack of veils on women escapes us.
To sum it up, I think we need to understand the meaning of these cultural symbols in the Corinth of Paul’s day, reflect on how those symbols help us understand the doctrine that Paul is teaching, and then prayerfully ask what it looks like to faithfully apply these same teachings in our own cultural context.
For instance, in contemporary American society, I would say that when men pray or prophesy in church, they should avoid doing so in ways that are similar to pagan practices. Perhaps when leading worship or preaching, there should be care taken not to mindlessly imitate the style of a rock band or a motivational speaker. Rather, the style of worship and preaching should consciously and obviously honor Christ. (That said, I’m all for guitars, drums, and lavalier microphones, though I enjoy a cappella hymn singing too!)
Or, when married women pray or prophesy in church, they should wear a wedding ring or another symbol that publicly communicates and honors the exclusive marital relationship a wife has with her husband. Likewise, we can see the wisdom of this principle for married men. Especially in light of the justice concerns that the #metoo movement has rightfully elevated to greater public awareness, I think it would be wise for married men to be equally publicly and symbolically clear about their married status.
Perhaps particularly in a house church or small group situation, we should take especial care to navigate the complexities of intimate fellowship and worship with the dynamics of human sexuality in a manner that is holy, honorable, and culturally sensitive. For instance, I think this passage raises the question, if your neighbors joined you for a small group meeting, and there was a mix of married and single members in the group, would they be able to easily identify who was married to who, and that these husbands and wives honor their relationship and one another?
These are some initial, tentative thoughts. I look forward to learning from your insights and the contributions of other members.