The sexual revolution in America led to the deterioration of a beautiful, ancient practice in the Church: Orthodox Christian women covering their heads during worship. Many in our society see this practice as sexist and oppressive. Others say there is no scriptural basis for it, or they claim the verses mentioning head coverings should be interpreted differently. In this ultimate guide, we tell you everything you need to know about this pious custom.
Table of contents
- Scriptural basis for head coverings
- Evidence for Christian head coverings in the early Church
- Head coverings in iconography
- Spiritual benefits of head covering
- Where can I buy a head covering?
- How do I wear a head covering?
Scriptural basis for head coverings
The main passage involving 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 (sub-themes) 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.
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!).
Modern feminism will try to demean the Orthodox Christian practice of women covering their heads. It will call it insulting and oppressive. In reality, though, requesting this of a woman is an incredible compliment. Early Christian women chose not to 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, Christian head coverings among Orthodox women was a unanimous practice. Multiple Fathers of the Church mention this practice in their writings, including Tertullian of Carthage, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus of Rome, John Chrysostom, and Augustine of Hippo, among others.
Tertullian of Carthage
Tertullian of Carthage (150-220 A.D.) contributed much to Orthodoxy with his early writings. Nearly one-hundred fifty years after St. Paul’s letter, he writes of the Corinthian church still using head coverings. He tells us: “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.“
Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.) was an early theologian in the Church, whose lasting impact was attempting to unite Greek pagan philosophy with Christianity. He writes, “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.“
Hippolytus of Rome
Much is not known about the identity of Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 A.D.). However, his writings place him in incredibly high esteem among the ranks of the Fathers. In The Apostolic Tradition, a work ascribed to Hippolytus, he says: “And let all women have their heads covered with an opaque cloth…“
A vital leader in the ancient Church, John Chrysostom (347–407 A.D.), writes, “…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.” 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
Augustine of Hippo (354–430), whose writings greatly influenced the development of the Western church, writes about hair coverings as well. He writes, “It is not becoming, even in married women, to uncover their hair, since the apostle commands women to keep their heads covered.”
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 Christian head covering and its prominence in Orthodox iconography.
Head coverings 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 a head covering. Even the Blessed Theotokos, the bearer of God, wears a head covering. Who better to serve as an example to women than the Mother of all Christians?
The only two women without head coverings in their icons are St. Mary of Egypt and Eve, the first mother. The former did not wear a head covering 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.
Spiritual benefits of head covering
A young woman at our parish went to Israel. And while there, she wore head coverings to visit the churches and holy sites. After her return, she regularly began wearing head coverings to services. Many have asked about it, and with love and patience, she explained why she began fervently following the practice:
Covering the head encourages humility. We come to church to focus on worship, not to draw attention to ourselves. We may be tempted to show off a new hair style, but remember, we should never serve as a stumbling block to a fellow brother or sister. When we cover our head, the temptation to seek validation is removed.
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.
It saves so much time! Admit it, ladies. We can spend over an hour in front of a mirror doing our hair and makeup. It is certainly tempting; we feel a lot of pressure from society to do our hair, to cover our eyes and face in layers of powders. Wearing a head covering removes all that stress from preparing for worship. Simply tie your hair back, and put on the head covering! Done!
It shows love and consideration for our brothers. Just as godly women come to church to worship God, so do men. But again, ladies, let’s be honest. We know the effect we can have on men. Our goal in communal worship is to worship God and focus only on Him. How can our brother do that if we deliberately flaunt our beauty through our dress? By veiling our hair, we display modesty and piety, and remove the distraction our appearance may cause a brother.
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:
How do I wear a head covering?
There are endless ways you can wear your head coverings! At first it can be a bit overwhelming, when you see all the styles out there. 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!
Ultimately, in America, most jurisdictions in the Orthodox Church leave the woman to decide whether to cover her head. However, over the last several years, many more women in Orthodox churches (and even Catholic and Protestant churches) have started veiling 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 Christian Church in every way possible.
- Tertullian, On the Veiling of Virgins.
- Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor.
- Hippolytus, and Easton, B. (1934). The Apostolic tradition of Hippolytus. New York: Macmillan, p.43.
- L. Kovacs, Judith (2005). The Church’s Bible (1 Corinthians). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. Page 180.
- Augustine of Hippo, Letters of St. Augustine.