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The Ultimate Guide to Christian Head Coverings

Congregation gathering for prayer in an Orthodox church.

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.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

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.[1]

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.[2]

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…[3]

John Chrysostom

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.”[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

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.”[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 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?

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



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!

Conclusion

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.

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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10 Responses

  1. 1 Corinthians 11 is the reason I left Christianity. Paul clearly did not believe women to be in God’s image. The head covering is a symbol of a woman’s sub human status in Christianity, her unfitness to stand uncovered in God’s presence and her subjection to men, like a slave. The head covering is as sad as a gimp mask and has the same intention to degrade, objectify and depersonalise the wearer. Ghastly. The saddest sight in church was to see a baby girl in a head covering. Why would her parents do such a thing, it was like spitting in her face.

    1. Pat,

      Christ is in our midst! Did you read through the article in full? We address many of your concerns therein. Within marriage, men and women are called to submit to one another, to achieve the relationship and communion that Christ has with His Bride, the Church. In practicing modesty, women make the burden lighter for their brothers in Christ, and make themselves humble before God, not before man. And as we addressed, the headcovering is not a requirement in most of Orthodoxy. Many women choose to wear it because of its spiritual benefits.

      God bless!

      1. I have been Orthodox for 33 years. I have been baptized into Christ. I have put on Christ. I am His daughter. He is my God. I am covered by His precious blood. Thank you, Lord.

        I only wear a head covering when I go to a monastery.
        Head coverings do not make a heart closer to God. That comes from within.
        Head coverings do not make a person more modest. If head coverings are to not be distractive then everyone would wear the same color and not have so many stylish ones.

        I got this from another Orthodox source.
        “Let’s clear up this common misunderstanding about head covering in the Orthodox Church. We refer to I Corinthians:”

        “But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved.” (1 Cor. 11:5)

        Notice St. Paul is giving instruction to the Corinthians. In Corinth, prostitutes were plenty and shaved their heads. This is what he is referring to. If we continue to read on to verse 15, it says:

        “but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.” (1 Cor. 11:15)

        We need to put 1 Corinthians into proper context to realize St. Paul’s meaning here regarding head covering.

        The prostitutes in Corinth had shaven heads because they were slaves. Their masters kept the elaborate wigs they wore while on duty locked up. This prevented the shaved prostitutes from running. Some of these prostitutes became Christians and went to Mass. St. Paul didn’t want the women with long beautiful hair putting down these slaves and glorying in their own long hair.”

        Proper Christianity is clothed in love. So whether a woman wears a head covering or not it’s her heart that is really the focus. A woman can worship God just as good without a head covering as she can with one. It’s an individual decision where no one should judge either way for God knows the heart of someone. We really don’t. It’s not our right to know either. That’s God’s job.

        Modesty is important. Dresses in church that are long or if pants are woren then cover-up your torso area with a long blouse so we aren’t exposing ourselves.
        Most importantly, respect for others’ choices. Head covering or no head covering. Love the person not what they wear.

        1. Donna,

          Christ is in our midst! Yes, thank you, Lord – we are grateful to call you a sister in Christ. Everything you’ve stated is 100% correct, and we do not disagree. Anything done without the proper disposition toward humility and desire to do the will of God, is meaningless and does not profit us at all. This article is not meant to say a woman must wear a head covering in order to be a modest, authentic Orthodox Christian. Rather, it is to highlight the beauties of this practice to encourage those who are wondering whether or not it is okay to do in their parish. We humbly ask that you please forgive us any offense or scandal this may have caused you.

          We will be making updates to the article in the coming months to include the historical commentary you so graciously provided for us. God bless you!

          1. God bless you as well!

            P. S. I wasn’t offended. Just wanted to share what I know, but thanks for extending an apology.

            God’s many blessings,
            Donna

  2. The church IMHO must stand up for what is right and good before God and for our working out of our salvation. Nowhere in Orthodoxy are women considered less than men as indicated by the post written by “Pat”. In saddened by her scorn for the church and the faith in general due to such a perspective. But this is the unfortunate case of many who have left the faith or scoffed at what is right under God since the beginning.

    The enemy has shown many snares into the flesh of mankind and one of the greatest challenges all mankind faces is our pride. A snare and hook that our adversary has now brought to full fruition in and out of the church and secular world in this age.

    Lord have mercy on our souls! How difficult it is to stand and it will be to stand as the days close in more quickly every day towards the end of all things.

  3. 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.

    1. God bless you, dear sister, for deciding to humble yourself before Him. We are so glad you found this content reassuring, and we hope that other Orthodox women, no matter their age, strive to follow your example.

  4. Thank you so much for this article. I was received into the Orthodox Church 3 months ago and I can happily testify that this very headcovering practice was the first eye-opener for me to realize the depth of Biblical symbol, sacramental cosmology, divine headship order, Christ and Church relationship, Theotokos and eventually to Orthodoxy.
    I love headcovering! It’s beautiful, true, biblical and liberating. It touches the core of my femininity.
    To me, it’s an external expression of what’s going on inside me as a Christian woman.
    If you know the Orthodox headcovering womens’ online group/ testimony site, please let us know:) May God bless you all.

  5. I also want to add that a recent caller on a talk show on Ancient Faith Radio called in to ask about wearing head coverings. The answer given was the angels they are talking about are the fallen angels being tempted by women while being in the house of God, not the holy angels (those who serve God).

    My comment to that was since we are in the house of God making the sign of the cross and saying God’s name over and over again which causes the fallen angels to flee, then why would that be an issue unless perhaps a person isn’t really into worshipping God. It made sense to me because I would think the Holy angels would be joyful to see God’s daughters worshipping Him and not jealous since we are a community of God’s creation.

    Another talk show on AFR was talking about the fear of demons and how the saints don’t fear them because they know God is greater than the demons and we are baptized into Christ. We have put on Christ. You can’t put on anything better than to put on Christ. To hold a love for our Creator in your heart.

    One last thing, when Metropolitan Phillip was alive I believe during 9-11 his opinion on wearing head coverings was to not necessarily wear them even though a woman gets to choose. That reasoning was because the muslim women are required to wear them and he didn’t want the world to associate our women with their women of their faith for we have the true faith.

    Whatever we do may it be to the glory of God with are whole being.

    Love in Christ, ☦️

    Donna

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