You are not likely to find anything in the Bible comparable to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Nowhere else can I find directions like these. In order to pray, a man must not cover his head? In order to pray, a woman must cover her head?
How do we make sense of this?
In the first place, Paul’s concern is less for head coverings than for something else: preserving divine order. This is a big deal throughout the Bible. Humans and animals are given priority over plants – though all are living things. Humans are given priority over everything. This is a part of God’s order. Men and women are different. God made them that way. It is God’s created order and the sexes are not to subvert that order by trying to look like or act like those of the opposite sex. It’s why God forbade mating two different kinds of animals, why he forbade homosexual activity and bestiality. It all messes with God’s created order.
In activity that involves power (authority), God has given the man priority.
And so, in worship, in activities that involve authority, God desires that the lines of authority not be blurred.
In the pagan Roman world (and Corinth, though in Greece, was a thoroughly Roman city), men and women all prayed with their heads covered to show recognition of divine order – the gods are superior. But in Christian worship assemblies, with men and women engaging in leading the same activities, the custom of both sexes covering the head blurred the lines of God’s created order. Men and women may be equal, but they are not the same. So, to respect the distinctions of God’s created order, men were to lead prayer (and it is a matter of “leading,” private personal prayer is not contemplated here) without covering their heads, and women were to cover their’s.
Is this a practice we should engage in today?
Probably not. The covering of the head means nothing in our society and to follow Paul’s rules here would have no meaning. For the most part, Christians in centuries following the time of Paul (and other cultures) observed God’s order by not opening authority roles in the church to women. It was not that women were incapable, nor that they were less valuable. It was simply, in a world where divine order is routinely ignored, a way for that order to be recognized in the Christian life.
There’s a lot of excess in the Christian church, closing some ministries to women that have nothing to do with authority which should be open to them, and opening ministries up to women that, because of God’s created order, ought to be closed. The Church needs to pay better attention to scripture and the theology it reveals.