The sexual revolution in America has led to the deterioration of a beautiful, ancient practice in the Orthodox Church: 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 the covering of a woman’s head, or they claim the verses mentioning head coverings should be interpreted differently.
In this post, we explore Holy Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers to shed some light on this not-at-all-controversial, pious custom.
Scriptural basis for head coverings
Whether someone agrees or disagrees with the practice of Christian women covering their heads, he/she almost always points to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. It is in flawed, incomplete interpretations of these verses that contention arises. Let’s first look at the external context of 1 Corinthians, and dive a bit deeper into what was happening in the Corinthian church.
Organization of 1 Corinthians
St. Paul writes to the church of Corinth, which finds itself suffering from a number of problems. These problems included church disunity, doctrinal speculations, moral failure, self-centeredness, and insecurity in dealing with idolatry. Paul’s 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)
Our particular cluster of verses falls under the sub-theme of Eucharistic theology and practice. This tells us we are dealing with worship in the church, rather than other aspects of everyday life. This is a key distinction that must be made, 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.
1 Corinthians 11:2-16
What does St. Paul mean?
In the first verse of this passage, St. Paul clearly exhorts the people to follow the traditions (oral and written) that 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; Daniel 13:31-33). It carried over into the Christian tradition, as we can see in St. Paul’s letter, the writings of the Church Fathers, and in Orthodox iconography (more on these last two in a bit!).
Contrary to the views pushed by modern feminism, the covering of the head during worship is not an insult to women, nor does it oppress them. In fact, 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 during worship, is an act of submission to God and humility before Him. Any woman who submits to God in this way truly is a shining example to those around her.
Writings of the Church Fathers on Christian head coverings
During the days of the ancient Church, Christian head coverings among 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 practicing 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 Church 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), writes, “…the business of whether to cover one’s head was legislated by nature (see 1 Cor 11:14–15). 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 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 veil and its prominence in Orthodox iconography.
Christian head coverings in Orthodox icons
The Orthodox 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 women wearing head coverings. 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 who don’t wear 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.
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 our parish, we don’t require that women wear head coverings. However, should women attending services wish to cover their heads, they are encouraged to do so. If you wish to cover your head but don’t have a covering, we have some head coverings you can borrow. 🙂
After my pilgrimage to Israel, I regularly began wearing head coverings when attending services. Many have asked about it, and with love and patience, I explained why I 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.
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.
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 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 Christian Church in every way possible.
- Tertullian. (1885). On the Veiling of Virgins. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), S. Thelwall (Trans.), Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second (Vol. 4, p. 33). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.
- Clement of Alexandria. (1885). The Instructor. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire) (Vol. 2, p. 290). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.
- 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. (1886). Letters of St. Augustin. In P. Schaff (Ed.), J. G. Cunningham (Trans.), The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin with a Sketch of His Life and Work (Vol. 1, p. 588). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.