The Church Fathers and the Woman's Headcovering
Let it be clear from the start that the idea that Paul was only accommodating himself to Jewish or middle eastern practice and that therefore such restrictions no longer apply, is a totally post-modernist and relativist concept.
Tertullian specifically states that this command applies “everywhere and always.”
The Apostle Paul provides us with two reasons for this practice. The first is that “the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man… the man indeed ought not to cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of the man, for the man is not of the woman but the woman of the man.”
The second reason, perhaps less explicit, is that a woman should have a cover over her head (‘power’ being an alternate word for ‘cover’) “because of the angels.”
The first reason seemingly speaks to the subordinate role of women. Paul however is not concerned with the sexes as such, but rather with higher realities of which men and women are reflections.
It is not because Paul is a typical 1st century Jewish male that he says ‘the head of the woman is the man,’ but because she is the type of the Church and he of Christ, just as the Church should have no Head but Christ, so the woman should have no head but her husband.
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slavenor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."- Galatians 3:28
The Church Fathers in discussing this issue make it clear that this “subordination” in no way implies that women are inferior to men or in any way limited in their relationship to God. Paul himself says that “in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female.”
However, within the social relationship, reflecting the relationship of the Church to Christ, she does have a subordinate position. As Ambrosiaster says “Although man and woman are of the same substance, the man has relational priority because he is the head of the woman. He is greater than she is by cause and order, but not by substance. Woman is the glory of man, but there is an enormous distance between that and being the glory of God.”
Severian of Gabala, another early father is even more explicit: “what we are talking about here is not nature but a relationship.”
Under normal conditions the majority of women live within the married state. The family is in fact the building block of any healthy society. Those imbued with worldly ideas of gender roles and family –conscious or unconscious – no longer consider the family as a norm and whatever loyalties they have are more oriented toward cultural Marxism, which encourages single parent “families,” same sex “marriages,” homosexuality and a host of parallel agendas. But for the Christian, the family unit remains the norm, and to understand the proper status of women in the married state we should turn once again to Paul, who speaks to this in Ephesians 5:22-25.
Under normal circumstances the father is head of the family. In this he reflects the elder who is “father” to the local Christian community, and both in turn reflect God who is “our Father in Heaven.” The father of the family is spiritually responsible for those under his care, and following the teaching of Our Lord, he can say: “if you love me you will obey my commandments.”
He is of course himself under the obligation of obedience to Christ. He rules the family by “divine right,” – “right” being an older word for “law.” If he rules by other than divine right, that is, if he institutes his own private rules for those of God, he becomes a tyrant. If indeed the head of the family is to pattern his behavior after Christ, the woman should have little trouble in giving him obedience.
The end result of such a relationship is that the family itself becomes a microcosm of the Church, or a Nazareth in which the children can grow up “subject” to their parents as Jesus was to his parents. Paul tells us in the next sentence that children are obliged to obey their parents. It will be argued that this is a rather “idealized” picture, but if the normal has become only an idealized picture in our age, this is indeed a tragedy, the fruits of which we see all around us.
The feminist agenda holds that women and men are equal in everything. It is the subordinate role that agitates and infuriates the feminist woman. Now clearly justice requires that working women should have equality in the workplace. There is no justification for paying women less or making them work longer hours for the same pay as men. But this in no way militates against the Pauline precept.
The feminist attitude is not entirely modern. For example, John Chrysostom commented in the fourth century that “a woman does not acquire a man’s dignity by having her head uncovered but rather loses her own. Her shame and reproach thus derive from her desire to be like a man as well as from her actions” (Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, 25.4).
He likens the situation to a governor approaching a king without the symbols of his office, and holds that a woman in covering her head in church is approaching God with the symbol of her office. For those in the Christian faith, the same subordinate role requires their obedience both to the rule and to the superior who is spiritually speaking, Christ. If there is “rebellion” in the family, there is even greater rebellion in the orders, and this very often starting with the superiors who are themselves refusing obedience to Christ.
All this does not deny that women are of the same substance as man, but rather gives expression to a relationship between them. As Ambrosiaster says, “man is the head of the woman. He is greater than she is by cause and order, but not by substance. Woman is the glory of man, but there is an enormous distance between that and being the glory of God.” (Commentary on Paul’s Epistles).
The idea of obedience is of course not without its difficulties. Paul stresses this with regard to marriage. It is forgotten that if obedience is incumbent upon the wife, it is also incumbent upon the husband to be Christ-like.
Like a king who rules by divine right - that is by God’s laws, so also the husband must rule as a representative of Christ. If he were to rule by his own law, he would in fact be a despot. If then the husband is truly Christ-like, than obedience becomes a blessing.
What is frequently not realized is that it is far better to live under obedience than to be placed in command. Of course we are all under obedience to Christ, but as is true in any organization, Obedience flows from the “top,” through a hierarchy of authorities to those below. Obedience is not blind and can never be used to command what is sinful. One must always understand what one is obeying.
There is yet another reason why women are veiled, and that is that every soul is, at least potentially, is a member of the bride of Christ. While this is as true for man as for woman, in the relationship that exists between them, it is the woman who most clearly gives witness to this potentiality. And as such, like a bride, she should be veiled.
Again, beauty, a quality that women manifest, is of a mysterious nature, for it is itself a reflection of that quality having its origin in God. But beauty is appropriately veiled, for its real nature is hidden and we see but its remote reflection in the female form. The veiling of women then is not a denigrating imposition placed on them by men, but rather reflects their own intrinsic glory as mothers, daughters and brides of Christ.
The model then is nothing less than the women in Jesus' life, since they manifest all these varied levels and qualities. For example, his mother Mary. While she was the mother of God incarnate, she in many ways remained “hidden.” She only spoke seven times in Scripture and with only one exception always in an attitude that bespoke humility and submission to her role. In this there is a mysterious quality that in fact, every woman has a quality that requires veiling that both protects and hides. This is why in traditional iconography she is always portrayed with her head covered. Just as Mary is the mother, daughter and part of the bride of Christ, so also every woman is potentially the same. And brides are to be veiled in public.
Women who accept the practice of veiling then are assuming to themselves the virtues reflected in the life of Mary and other Biblical women. To reject the veil is to state, consciously or unconsciously, that one has no desire to follow the pattern established by God for women.
The second reason Paul gives is “because of the angels.” Some say this reflects the Book of Enoch and the Church Fathers seem to have by and large accepted the belief that those Watchers who fell out of lust for women should be deprived as much as possible of the vision of their object of lust. Personally, I take this position.
Another reason offered by theologians is, in church, especially during the Lord's Supper, angels are present, and just as veiling reflects the proper attitude of women before God, for they are potentially brides of Christ, so also they should be veiled before His angels, (Chrysostom, Theophylact, Theodoret).
Anselm and Clement understand by “angels” not just supernatural beings, but also good and holy men. Ambrose, Anselm and Thomas take it to mean elders and overseers who in Revelation are called angels, and who might be provoked to lust by the beauty of women with uncovered heads.
The commentary on this passage provided by the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture is of great help: “The difference between men and women lies not in their nature, but in their relationship (Chrysostom, Severian of Gabala). Woman is the glory of man, but there is an enormous distance between that and the glory of God (Ambrosiaster). A man who approaches the throne of God should wear the symbols of his office, which in this case is represented by having his head uncovered (Chrysostom). Just as God has nobody over him in all creation, so man has no one over him in the natural world. But woman lives under the protection of man (Saverian). The relation of man and woman to God makes all the difference in understanding their relation to each other (Ambrosiaster, Chrysostom). Being covered is a mark of voluntary subjection (Ambrosiaster), calling the woman to be humble and preserve her virtue (Tertullian, Chrysostom). Since woman is the glory of man, it is shameful for a woman to desire to be like a man (Chrysostom). In the Genesis narrative man precedes woman in the order of their creation (Epiphanius, Theodoret of Cyr). The woman was created with gifts of serving, the man with gifts of ordering (Theodoret of Cyr). Paul appears to be not confining his instruction about hair to a particular plae and time (Tertullian). He appealed to church tradition (Chrysostom), to nature (Ambrosiaster, Ambrose) and to the argument from general consent of reasonable people in these matters (Chrysostom). Since hair is potentially erotic, it can play into temptation (Pelagius). Natural hair is preferred to deceptive wigs (Clement of Alexandria)”.
To avoid the confusion raised by the term “prophesizing” it should be noted that this term is used in several places in Scripture (Chron 30:1; Sam. 10:10) to denote “giving praise to God.” Paul forbids women to speak or take a public role in the assembly, so in what way can she “prophesy”? The Church Fathers interpret this as directing women to sing those parts of the service in which everyone sings.
Some of the Church Fathers point to the fact that man has priority in creation: Indeed, “woman was created after man and for man, to be his helpmate, to serve him and not vice versa” (Theodoret of Cyr).
In conclusion, it is worth noting that in the majority of traditional societies, while women are instructed to take efforts to please their husbands, efforts to be attractive to others is frowned upon. Head covering is therefore seen as an important aspect of modesty and Christ Himself said “let your modesty appear before men“ (Phil. 4:5). It is only in the privacy of the home, in the presence of the family and close friends, that the head is uncovered.
Tertullian tells us that “the gentile women of Arabia will rise up and judge us, for they cover not only the head, but also the whole face.”
Similarly, “among Jewish women, so customary is it to wear a head-covering that they may be known by it.”
The mystery of the woman’s beauty is reserved for the husband and the home, and a woman who sincerely wishes to please the Lord will follow this biblical teaching.