The Apostolic Tradition of the Headcovering

"Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. 10 Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.11 However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God."- 1 Corinthians 11:4-16

Let it be clear from the start that I reject the idea that Paul was only accommodating himself to Jewish or Near Eastern cultural practice, and that therefore such restrictions no longer apply. My position is that such an idea is a totally Modernist and relativist concept that does violence to Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. This command regarding women wearing a headcovering, as it has traditionally been understood, is grounded not only in Sacred Scripture, but also in Apostolic Tradition itself. The Church Father Tertullian specifically states that this command applies “everywhere and always.” This leaves absolutely no room for relativist interpretations of the command as being specific to time and place.

Reasons for a Headcovering
The Apostle Paul provides us with two reasons for the 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 first reason speaks to the subordinate role of women within marriage. 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 the husband of Christ, just as the Church should have no Head but Christ, so the woman should have no head but her husband. It is about the divinely appointed structure of marriage and family.

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.” (Gal. 3:28)

However, within the social relationship, reflecting the relationship of the Church to Christ, the wife does have a subordinate position. As Ambrosiaster wrote:“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 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 Post-Modernist ideas of gender roles and family–conscious or unconscious–no longer consider the family as the human societal norm, and whatever loyalties they have are more oriented toward the hyper-egalitarianism of 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.

"Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.."
Under normal circumstances the father is head of the family. In this he reflects the priest/pastor 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 any other principle than divine right, that is, if he institutes his own private and arbitrary rules for those of God, he becomes a tyrant and the very antithesis of a godly husband and father. But if indeed the head of the family patterns his behavior after Christ, the wife 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 goes on to explain that children are obliged to obey their parents. It might be argued by some that this is a rather “idealized” picture, but if the normal has become only an idealized picture in our age, this merely serves to illustrate how far we have moved from the divine will for the family. The impact of this rejection of divine will is acutely felt in our culture.

The feminist agenda holds that women and men are equal in absolutely everything. It is the subordinate role demanded by divine will that most agitates and infuriates the feminist woman. Now nobody would argue against the idea that justice requires working women should be treated with equal respect in the workplace. Nor is there justification for paying women less or making them work longer hours for the same pay as men, if they are just as capable, productive, and dedicated. But this in no way militates against the Pauline precept. 

Feminism is not content with such equal treatment however. It seeks the overthrow of the divine will for marriage, the family, and society. Feminists seek in essence to usurp the headship of men. 

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 ChristIf 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.

Feminine Glory
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.

Angelic Considerations
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 be pleasing to their husbands, efforts to be attractive to others is frowned upon. Head covering is therefore seen as an important aspect of modesty. 

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 a woman's 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.” 

He also wrote, “among Jewish women, so customary is it to wear a head-covering that they may be known by it.” 

Suffice it to say, the mystery of a woman’s beauty is reserved for the husband, her will should be in accord with divine will for the family and marriage, and she should desire to follow the dictates of Sacred Scripture.


  1. I tend to side with Saint Paul on this. For as long as I can remember, I've seen at least ONE (or two) woman/women who wear veils during Mass. I even remember that My maternal grandmother did this.For me, this is nothing new; I only wish that it were more common nowadays.

    1. Unfortunately, many women of our current year are infected with the ideology of Modernity, which militates against the divine will; especially that for human society and the core unit of society, the family. Thus infected, even Christian women have fallen prey to certain deceptive feminist ideas, such as a rejection of the headcovering.

      The headcovering has always been understood in the sense I explained in the article. Your grandmother was keep an Apostolic Tradition to the best of her ability and knowledge.


Post a Comment