Should Christian Women Wear Head Coverings?

Congregation gathering for prayer in an Orthodox church.

For centuries, Christian women have worn head coverings during worship. Only recently has this ancient, pious practice fallen by the wayside in many Christian communities, including Orthodox ones. Feminism considers head coverings oppressive and sexist, insisting that women must look and act exactly like men. However, covering the head during prayer helps women nurture their God-given feminine nature by cultivating humility, chastity, and obedience. In this post, we tell you everything you need to know about the practice of head covering (or veiling) for Christian women.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Scriptural basis for women covering their heads

The main passage involving women’s head coverings in Scripture is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. In this letter to Corinth, St. Paul speaks to a number of problems occurring in their church community. The letter contains several sections, which he uses to discuss seven major issues with his spiritual children:

  • Factionalism (1:10 – 3:23)
  • Civil lawsuits (4:1-21; 6:1-8)
  • Sexual immorality (5:1-13 – 6:9 – 7:40)
  • Meat sacrificed to idols (8:1 – 9:27)
  • Eucharistic theology and practice (10:1 – 11:34)
  • Spiritual gifts (12:1 – 14:40)
  • Resurrection life (15:1 – 16:24)

The passage in question falls under the third to last category: Eucharistic theology and practice. This tells us we are dealing with worship specifically, rather than other aspects of everyday life. This is a key distinction, as it differentiates Orthodoxy from Islam, which requires women cover their heads (and in some cases, everything but their eyes) at all times when in public.

Naturally, an Orthodox woman can choose to wear a veil in public if that is her desire; however, the Faith does not require this, nor is it enforced in the way we see in Islam.

Now let’s take a look at the passage itself and examine it more closely.

What does St. Paul mean?

In 1 Corinthians 11:2, St. Paul clearly exhorts the people to follow the traditions (oral and written) he passed down to them. A woman covering her head is one of these traditions, which was also an accepted Jewish practice throughout the Old Testament (Numbers 5:18; Genesis 24:64-65). It carried over into Christian tradition, as we can see in St. Paul’s letter, the writings of the Church Fathers, and in our iconography (more on these last two in a bit).

Requesting this of a woman is not oppression or sexism, but rather, an incredible compliment. Early Christian women chose to submit themselves to the Church and not allow their beauty to distract others during worship. St. Paul writes that this form of piety brings honor upon a woman, as her hair is “a glory to her.” Covering the thing that brings her glory in the presence of God is an act of submission and humility before Him. Any woman who submits to God in this way truly is a shining example to those around her.

Evidence for Christian head coverings in the early Church

During the days of the ancient Church, wearing head coverings was a unanimous practice among Christian women. Multiple Fathers of the Church mention this in their writings, including Tertullian of Carthage, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus of Rome, John Chrysostom, and Augustine of Hippo, among others.

Tertullian of Carthage

So, too, did the Corinthians themselves understand. In fact, at this day the Corinthians do veil their virgins. What the apostles taught, their disciples approve.[1]

Clement of Alexandria

Woman and man are to go to church decently attired…for this is the wish of the Word, since it is becoming for her to pray veiled.[2]

Hippolytus of Rome

In The Apostolic Tradition, a work ascribed to Hippolytus, he says: “And let all women have their heads covered with an opaque cloth…[3]

John Chrysostom

“…the business of whether to cover one’s head was legislated by nature. When I say “nature,” I mean “God.” For he is the one who created nature. Take note, therefore, what great harm comes from overturning these boundaries! And don’t tell me that this is a small sin.”[4]

In a sermon during the Feast of the Ascension, he further asserts, “The angels are present here . . . Open the eyes of faith and look upon this sight. For if the very air is filled with angels, how much more so the Church! . . . Hear the Apostle teaching this, when he bids the women to cover their heads with a veil because of the presence of the angels.

Augustine of Hippo

“It is not becoming, even in married women, to uncover their hair, since the apostle commands women to keep their heads covered.”[5]

We could spend hours pouring over quotes from the Church Fathers, but for the sake of brevity, we will stop there, and look now toward the head covering and its prominence in Orthodox iconography.

Head coverings on women in iconography

We use icons as visual guides to the Faith. They teach us about the lives of Christians who have come before us, and about the life of Christ Himself. They also teach us about piety and modesty.

Orthodox icons almost always depict Christian women wearing a head covering. You would be hard-pressed to find a female saint in the Orthodox tradition who is not wearing one. Even the Blessed Theotokos, the Mother of God, wears a head covering. Who better to serve as an example to women than the Mother of all Christians?

Notice that every female saint in this icon wears some sort of head covering.

The only two Christian women without head coverings in their icons are St. Mary of Egypt and Eve, the first mother. The former did not wear one in her icon because the clothes she took with her to the desert disintegrated into rags. She had only the cloak St. Zosimas brought to her. And the latter, Eve, is depicted either with fig leaves or garments of skin, because it was until she ate of the fruit that she remained “naked and unashamed” with Adam in Paradise. Aside from these two women, if there are any other examples, they are extremely rare. And they are most likely aberrations from iconographic tradition.

Why do Christian women cover their heads during worship?

The primary reason Christian women choose to wear head coverings during worship is to adhere to the Holy Tradition of the Church. After all, women covering their heads during worship is an ancient practice in the Christian Church, one that has fallen into disuse, especially in the West. Note that there may be other secondary reasons why women choose to wear head coverings and that these differ from person to person.

For example, some women wear them to help themselves or others focus more on prayer – in other words, they dress a certain way out of modesty. Others may decide to wear them to express their respect for a sacred space and their desire to be different from the secular world around them. Naturally, women can express all of these things without wearing a head covering or veil. But many Christian women choose to express these things through the very wearing of a head covering.


Is it required?

Some Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches require women to cover their heads in church. However this is not universally enforced. Here in the United States, the custom varies depending on the congregation and its origins. In most parishes, should women wish to cover their heads, they are encouraged to do so.

Where can I buy a head covering?

You can usually find scarves and headbands to use for coverings at your local thrift stores and clothing outlets. Target and Walmart also have nice products for a modest price. Alternatively, if you prefer to purchase online, here are a couple great companies we have found that specialize in head coverings:

How do I wear a head covering?

There are endless ways you can wear your head coverings! A simple Google image search will show you just how many options there are. At first it can be a bit overwhelming, when you see all the styles out there. Start with a style that appeals to you, and change it every couple weeks or so until you find one you like most.

Depending on what you use for your covering, the way you wear it differs. In this video tutorial, Christy Overlin shares a few easy styles for beginners using handkerchiefs, scarves, and headbands. The best part? All of these styles are appropriate for attending Orthodox church services!

Conclusion

Ultimately, in America, most jurisdictions in the Orthodox Church leave the woman to decide whether to cover her head. Over the last several years, many more women in Orthodox (and even Catholic and Protestant) churches have started covering their heads during worship. In a world that insists on tossing Christianity and its treasured values by the wayside, we are eager to connect with the ancient roots of the Church in every way possible!

References

  1. Tertullian, On the Veiling of Virgins.
  2. Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor.
  3. Hippolytus, and Easton, B. (1934). The Apostolic tradition of Hippolytus. New York: Macmillan, p.43.
  4. L. Kovacs, Judith (2005). The Church’s Bible (1 Corinthians). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. Page 180.
  5. Augustine of Hippo, Letters of St. Augustine.

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18 Responses

  1. I read articles like this and am reminded again and again of WHY we’re in church. It’s exactly right that we are not there to “show off” to others. We are there to worship God, end of story, full stop. Not only should I be less distracting to others, I should also be less distracted by what I am wearing. Yes, we need to dress nicely for church as we are in the presence of the King of Kings, but skin tight pencil skirts and glittering 4 inch heels don’t really depict piety. (Not to mention, how on Earth can you STAND for 1.5 hours or so, let alone prostrate in such attire?) I have made the choice to cover my head and be one of the vast minority who does so in my pew filled orthodox church. By doing so, I become less distracted and hopefully provide an example for new women coming into the church. Regardless of any of that, I am following the instructions given to me by God through the Bible, which, in the end, is really all that is important in this discussion. The wants of feminists and rebellious women can’t trump the law and commandments of God, no matter how much they kick and scream about it.

  2. Would a hat also be acceptable in an Orthodox Church? (as long as it’s not flamboyant). Or must the covering absolutely be a piece of fabric?

    1. Isidora,

      Christ is born! We recommend asking your parish priest, as preferences differ depending on jurisdiction. Generally, the simpler, the better. Whether you are wearing a cloth covering or a hat. The idea is not to draw attention to oneself and instead to adopt a posture of humility. God bless!

    2. The answer to your question may be found by asking yourself what is most modest the hat or a vailing that covers the head including perhaps the neck and most of the face? Many in the past covered their eyes because we know the song about ” sexy eyes”; it is the eyes of the woman might be used to flirt with another man and that would certainly be inappropriate in a worship service.

  3. I’m a protestant looking into Orthodoxy. I wear a headcovering to church because I’m fully convinced of everything written in this article. My daughter and I are the only people in our church who do because the church as a whole no longer believes in its validity. My family has visited one orthodox church and every married woman covered. They even had a basket of extras out for any visitors to use. I just assumed this was the case in all EO churches. I was taking aback reading this article that some Orthodox churches don’t take as strict of a stance. Especially amid all of the evidence (scriptural and traditional). Since the Orthodox church confirms the validity of the practice, can you please explain the reason for not requiring headcoverings in your church? When/how did it fall away?

    1. Stephanie,

      First of all, we are overjoyed to hear that you are inquiring into the Church; how exciting that must be for you! With regard to your question, Orthodoxy typically does not “require” things in the sense most of us might be used to in Western Christianity (specifically with regard to the legalism present in Roman Catholicism). For spiritual disciplines like fasting and covering the head during worship/prayer, the Church allows for flexibility depending on the spiritual state of each individual. The Church does not “require” anything that is not considered of dogmatic importance – for instance, belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, rejection of the filioque and Immaculate Conception of Mary, etc.

      In some cases, the underlying culture in many Orthodox countries tends to shine through in its spiritual practices, particularly with regard to head coverings. Which is why the Russian Orthodox parish may enforce head coverings a bit more sternly than a Greek Orthodox parish, for instance. In many Orthodox parishes in America today, however, the practice is coming back after a couple generations of falling away from it. Glory to God for that!

      God bless!

  4. Such a great article. I always thought that the long hair in a woman IS her covering? And that all Christian women should therefore have long hair. Never before have I heard that because “it is her glory” she should actually cover it.

    God bless!

  5. Thank you and may you be blessed for sharing this article and video. I’m not Orthodox, but Roman Catholic. I received a call to cover several years ago. It has really helped me, not only to stay focused in prayer, but I find it easier to improve my modesty in both action and language as well when I lead with more modest dress.

    I usually wear a mantilla style, but have always struggled with keeping it in place; everything simply slides off my head, as my hair is extremely straight.

    I will definitely be trying out these other ways to cover.

  6. Hi, I read this article, and I was rather surprised by the overall tone. I think the way feminism is described seems rather simplistic. To say that, “Feminism considers head coverings oppressive and sexist, insisting that women must look and act exactly like men” is a rather odd interpretation of feminism. The goal of feminism is not to be exactly like men, but rather, egalitarianism between men and women. Additionally, the words oppressive and sexist are inherently negative and seem to devalue alternate viewpoints. Is the deeper issue not that women change their behavior and appearance for the benefit of men’s focus / purity? Can we not teach men to behave more virtuously and take responsibility for their impure thoughts or actions? The expectation seems to be that women will bear the burden for male indiscretion. To be clear, if a woman feels that a head covering brings her greater focus and piety within the church, I think that is great, and every woman should have the right to choose to dress in any manner that brings her closer to God. However, the dismissal of feminism, and the overall tone of the article (ex. “In a world that insists on tossing Christianity and its treasured values by the wayside”) is rather one sided. It does not give value to both viewpoints. From a church, which preaches love, mercy, and humility, I would expect a more empathetic and compassionate response to such an issue. I was personally quite disappointed to read.

    1. Kirsten,

      Christ is in our midst! While egalitarianism may have been the goal of first wave feminism, that is no longer its goal. The goal now merely consists in elevating women above men through the request of special privileges (the right to kill her own child in the womb, for example) and special treatment in the eyes of the law.

      Women change their behavior and appearance for the benefit of their souls. The benefit you mention is merely secondary, and what should be at the heart of every woman – Christian love for those around her. We, as Christians, make sacrifices every day of our lives for the sake of our love for Christ. The nature of that sacrifice may be something as simple as wearing a covering during prayer or in wearing something less revealing to protect the temple of the Holy Spirit which is the body. In Orthodoxy, men also are called to behave virtuously. However, this is a topic specific to women, as society has pressured women into dressing and behaving in an ungodly manner to a greater degree than men.

      This article is not meant to “give value to both viewpoints”. Rather, it is geared toward those whose goal lies in pleasing the Lord rather than the world. That may sometimes come off as lacking empathy and compassion; however, there is no greater love than in letting go of pride, sacrificing one’s own opinions, and submitting to the will of God. May the Lord bless and keep you.

    2. The headcovering is not about “modesty” per se rather it is a symbol of women’s subordinate and secondary status to men and also implies that women are not in the image of God. Paul’s silence on this in 1 Corinthians 3-11 is deafening. According to this passage, only men are the image and glory of God, hence only they are acceptable uncovered. Historically, it has fueled the view that women are not fully human in the way men are, a sort of derivative sub-human species, which some of the early Christian commentators alluded to in their writings.

      1. Jenny,

        We aren’t sure what verse you are pointing to for the justification of your novel interpretation, as you did not provide an accurate one in your comment. If you are referring to 1 Corinthians 11, this passage focuses on worship specifically; However, it does speak briefly of the natural hierarchy of the universe. Hierarchy does not imply degradation or subordination in the way you are suggesting. We mention this in our article about biblical submission of wives to their husbands; we encourage you to take a closer look at that for a more detailed response. In short, though, hierarchy is part of God’s natural order. Even Christ has someone above Him in this hierarchy, and Christ is certainly not subordinate, as He is the Son of God, consubstantial and co-eternal with the Father.

        While you would be correct in your assertion that wicked men have twisted this passage and used it to justify the subjugation of women, that is not at all what the Lord or the Church intended. We would be intrigued to know what “early Christian commentators” have alluded to in their writings that suggests women are “sub-human”. For historically, more women than men have converted to the Christian faith because of the equality they had with men in the eyes of God. Their pagan societies subjugated them and treated them as little more than property; but the Christian faith changed that and presented a view that completely upended the way society treated women.

        1. Certainly in the Latin Church Augustine and Tertullian point to the male as being in the image of God in his own right. St John Chrysostom’s Homily XXVI on 1 Corinthians 11 is a complex text which I think could be used in some of its parts to imply an ontological inferiority of the female. The fact is Paul left it open. Whether or not Christianity actually upended the way society treated women is a moot point since Paul implicitly referred to the paterfamilias structure which viewed women (children and slaves) as entirely at the disposal of the male head. And this structure continued over the centuries supported by the Church East and West. The problem is for many that the Roman worldview and societal norms are unsatisfactory in the modern world. Most people are generally against slavery nowadays, for example, an antipathy which is largely modern. If some women want to wear the veil as a mark of their subjection to men that’s up to them. If they believe there is a hierarchy where they occupy the bottom rung, go with it. But, for many decent people, a God who demands what is effectively a caste system leading to a person’s lifelong subjection and diminishment simply based on their birth is not particularly a God worth worshipping.

          1. Jenny,

            As I’m sure you have surmised from our blog, the Latin Church is not part of the Eastern Orthodox Church and therefore, the writings of their theologians are viewed with quite a lot of skepticism. You say that St. John’s Chrysostom’s writings could be used to imply ontological inferiority. However, that does not mean that St. John Chrysostom himself ever purported such a belief. Especially when one takes into account the totality of his homilies on 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5. It only appears to you as though St. Paul left things open because you are limiting yourself to those things which have been written down.

            We forgot to link to it in our previous response, but we highly recommend reading through our article on the submission of wives to husbands from an authentic Orthodox Christian perspective. Women do not wear a veil as a mark of subjection to men, but of submission to God. When you arbitrarily enforce meaning upon something when that is not the true meaning, you misunderstand the gesture and therefore inherently judge those women as inferior according to your paradigm, rather than theirs. Most of the characterizations you have enumerated are from your flawed interpretation, which is based upon a paradigm filled with false assumptions.

  7. That is an excellent response to Kirsten!
    Thank you for being so articulate and scriptural, because the Christian does not seek alternative viewpoints but rather God’s will.

  8. I have recently started to cover my head during worship . We have a few women in our parish that do. Personally I feel that it has helped me to be more
    focused on God the Father and really digesting the mass and focusing more on their meaning and God’s word. I am a little torn because I attend classes at my parish in the basement rooms weekly and now feel that maybe I should be covering my head there as well because God is present. Even though I am not in worship per se during that time, I am
    still in the building where the Eucharist is present. Any thoughts would be helpful. Thank you and God Bless.

    1. Shelley,

      We would encourage you to veil yourself any time you feel convicted within your soul to do so out of submission to God. That could even be when you are at home cooking a meal or when you are out shopping. Simply take this to God in prayer and ask Him to help you discern when you should and should not veil. When we undertake a practice like this, we must take care not to allow it to be a cause for pride or to become a stumbling block to those around us. Much like anything else we say or do! We hope this helps 🙂 God bless you!

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