Many non-apostolic churches may criticize the purpose behind this tradition, and for this reason, we will only see this humble act of women wearing a head covering during a Church service in Orthodox churches… even still today, there are some Orthodox and Apostolic churches that have deemed this tradition non-compulsory while others have completely abolished its practise.
So where did this tradition originate from? Why do we still hold it today if other Churches no longer practice it? And if this tradition has been abolished by others is it truly approved by God? Let us turn to God’s word to find the answers we need for ourselves and learn where to direct our sisters who are questioning this practice…
It is fitting that we learn about the reasoning for head coverings in church as we follow on from the previous series of articles on ‘Humility’, as the act of women covering their head in church is yet another form of showing humility; first to God as she acknowledges His created order and then to man, who is the head of the woman in God’s created order (see blog on humility of a woman).
We can learn about the relevance of this practice very plainly and clearly from St Paul’s epistle to the Church in Corinth. If read the main verses pertaining to head covering in their context, St. Paul throughout his first letter to the Corinthians is addressing their moral deficiencies, concerning sexual immorality in the church, divisions in the church, and general disorder and confusion among the gentile Christians in the main city of Corinth (modern day Greece).
When we come to 1 Corinthians 11 Paul starts the chapter with an enormous statement… “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” This statement alone teaches us that we are to imitate our Apostle’s faith and actions, heed their commands and learn from them. St. Paul here, like all the other saints who we respect and learn from, are great examples of faith for us to follow and imitate.
St. Paul continues to teach the disorderly church of how to worship God in public in an orderly manner… as God Himself is a God of order (1 Corinthians 14:33) and expects order and reverence from us His faithful. After giving instructions for the administration of the Holy Eucharist and also correcting the church about rightful Christian living, Paul goes on to address the way in which women should conduct themselves in the church. He clearly states in 1 Corinthians 11 verses 5 and 6, that “every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But it is shameful for a woman to be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.”
He continues…”For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man [Genesis 2:21-23]. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. For this reason, the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head because of the angels. (1 Corinthians 11:7-10)
St. John Chrysostom comments on the verses above; But if to be shaven is always dishonourable, it is plain too that being uncovered is always a reproach. And not even with this only was he [St. Paul] content, but added again, saying, “The woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels.” 1
Some churches teach and believe that the head covering for women was only commanded of the women in Corinth at the time of Paul's writing as it was customary of the day and should not be practised today. History indeed shows us that women of that era would also cover their heads in public as was the societal custom of the times, but here St. Paul is clearly identifying the need for women to cover their heads when praying or prophesying within the context of orderly worship in the Church when partaking in the Holy Eucharistic worship service.
There are some who have interpreted these verses and also teach that the woman's hair alone should be her covering and a veil is not needed. But St. Paul clearly states otherwise in verse 6; “For if a woman is not covered [with a veil], let her also be shorn.” For if the covering Paul was speaking of here was a woman’s hair alone, why would it need to be shorn off to bring her shame? But indeed he is speaking of a covering that symbolically covers the woman’s head apart from her hair.
These various teachings have been created as a result of turning away from Apostolic teachings of the Church or maligning the traditions that have been passed down to us through Christ's Apostles to all the churches.
The importance of adhering to this tradition is magnified when St. Paul the apostle purposely tells us to remember him in everything and to hold firmly to the traditions, just as he has delivered them to us (1 Corinthians 11:2). He states this about his apostolic authority before he starts teaching about the relevance of women covering their heads and for men to keep their heads uncovered in the context of worship in the church. He gives these commands to ensure orderly worship of the Lord in His Church.
Having learned the Apostolic and biblical foundation of this important tradition, we may be left to ask; are married women alone required to cover their heads? Or do virgins (or single women) and young girls have to adhere to this command also?
Tertullian elaborates on the usage of the sole word “woman” in this passage. He states that in all of Paul’s writings, when he wants to stipulate a command to a married woman or a virgin, he distinctly uses the title “married woman or wife” and or “virgin”. In this case, and in these verses regarding head covering, no such distinction is made… “Proceed we, then, to the word itself [woman]. The word (expressing the) natural (distinction) is female. Of the natural word, the general word is woman. Of the general, again, the special is virgin, or wife, or widow, or whatever other names, even of the successive stages of life, are added hereto… So, too, by naming woman, he has named whatever is woman’s.” 2
Tertullian further elaborates on St. Paul’s teachings by addressing women; ‘I pray you, be you mother, or sister, or virgin-daughter— let me address you according to the names proper to your years—veil your head: if a mother, for your sons’ sakes; if a sister, for your brethren’s sakes; if a daughter for your fathers’ sakes. All ages are perilled in your person. Put on the panoply of modesty; surround yourself with the stockade of bashfulness… 3
And yet you do not belie yourself in appearing as a bride. For wedded you are to Christ [as daughters of the Church - Christ’s bride]: to Him you have surrendered your flesh; to Him you have espoused your maturity. Walk in accordance with the will of your Espoused. Christ is He who bids the espoused and wives of others veil themselves; (and,) of course, much more His own. 4.
On the veiling of female Children (virgins), Tertullian also writes: from the time when she begins to be self-conscious, and to awake to the sense of her own nature, and to emerge from the virgin’s (sense), and to experience that novel (sensation) which belongs to the succeeding age. For withal the founders of the race, Adam and Eve, so long as they were without intelligence, went “naked;” but after they tasted of “the tree of recognition,” they were first sensible of nothing more than of their cause for shame. Thus they each marked their intelligence of their own [gender] by a covering. (Genesis 2:25, 3:7).
So too, when a girl is awakened to her own sense of nature, she is regarded as a “woman.” 5 Therefore a general guide for us today as to when a girl should cover her head in church is when their bodies begin their journey into womanhood.
As members of our Holy and Apostolic church, we are called to faithfully adhere to the timeless commands that were instated by the Apostles themselves and were handed down to us through the generations. Our traditions have not been adulterated or altered in ways that some churches have so easily abrogated through the years due to various individuals creating their own doctrines apart from the Apostolic succession.
By holding to this holy and humble tradition of covering our heads during public prayer and the Eucharistic service, we as women are:
1. Heeding Gods command as taught to us through His word (1 Corinthians 11:2-10) and handed down through the apostles
2. Symbolically showing that man is our head in Gods given order (1Corinthians 11: 8-10)
3. And importantly we are showing our willingness to submit to the Lord and His commands of orderly and reverential worship when we pray to Him and during the most precious, sacramental service of partaking in the Holy Eucharist; the Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
As women of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, we are called to faithfully follow these ordinances given to us by our Lord through His apostles and teach them to the generations that follow to ensure we preserve the traditions we have been taught and uphold them throughout the life of the Church on earth.
This week’s song: Shabbakh L’Marya (Praise the Lord) – Linda George
1. Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians; Homily XXVI, p.p. 235
2. Ante Nicean Fathers Volume IV; Chapter IV.—Of the Argument Drawn from 1 Cor. XI. 5–16, Tertullian, p.p. 64
3. Ante Nicean Fathers Volume IV; Chapter XVI.—Tertullian, Having Shown His Defence to Be Consistent with Scripture, Nature, and Discipline, Appeals to the Virgins Themselves, Tertullian, p.p. 81
4. Ante Nicean Fathers Volume IV; Chapter XVI.—Tertullian, Having Shown His Defence to Be Consistent with Scripture, Nature, and Discipline, Appeals to the Virgins Themselves, Tertullian, p.p. 81
5. Ante Nicean Fathers Volume IV; Chapter XI - The rule of the veiling not applicable to children, Tertullian, p.p. 74