Uncovering the Truth: Head Coverings and Revisionist Biblical Interpretation


The misnamed blog Public Orthodoxy, which spends most of its efforts attacking the tradition of the Orthodox Church, recently published an article by Mark Arey, "Submission, Sexism, and Head Coverings," which attempts to undermine the Church's long established tradition of women covering their heads in Church. The article focuses its attention on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, which provides the Scriptural basis for this tradition. What is most noteworthy about this article is that it does not cite a single Father of the Church to support any of its contentions regarding the practice in question -- which is of course because there are none that could have been cited for that purpose. But in addition to lacking in any support from the Fathers of the Church, the interpretations put forth by Mark Arey also have scant support from Protestant biblical scholarship.

Mark Arey's argument in this essay runs along these lines: He first argues that this passage is focused only on married women. Then he argues that when St. Paul speaks of the need for a woman to have "authority on her head because of the angels," that this actually means that a woman should have authority over her husband (whom St. Paul refers to as the head of the wife) in a sense analogous to the mutual authority that a husband and wife have over each other's bodies in marriage (1 Corinthians 7:3-4), and that it somehow pleases the angels to see the mutual balance in the equal relationship of the husband and wife. He further argues that St. Paul is not really requiring any women (married or not) to wear any kind of head covering, so long as they have long hair, which he argues is an alternative covering, according to his reading of this passage.

So lets take a closer look at the merits of his line of reasoning here..

Married Women, or All Women?

One thing that Mark Arey does here, is he translates the word "woman" (in Greek: γυνή gunē, from whence the word "gynecology" comes) as "wife", without any acknowledgment that this is a highly questionable choice in translation. Few translations do this, the ESV being one exceptional example, but most (the KJV, DRV, RSV, NRSV, NKJV, NIV, NASB, CEV, etc) do not. Anthony C. Thiselton, in his his rather exhaustive commentary on First Corinthians, acknowledges that the husband and wife relationship is a major aspect of the context of this passage, but states that this nevertheless "does not justify restricting the translation of γυνή to wife rather than woman (NRSV, NIV, REB, NJB) as if the emphasis were exclusive" (The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns Publishing Company, 2000) p. 832).


Mark Arey cites an article which claims that it was Jewish custom for unmarried women to be unveiled, and so he again tries to advance the notion that head coverings were only obligatory for married women. However, whatever his intended point here might be, it is difficult to see how this argument squares with his subsequent argument that long hair can serve as a covering in place of a veil. If that is so, then is he arguing that unmarried women at the time had short hair until they got married? If all that St. Paul was concerned about here was that women have long hair, why mention head coverings at all? And is it really likely, that the problem in the Corinthian Church was a rash of women with butch haircuts? I am not aware of any published commentary of any significance that makes such a case.

Greco-Roman Cultural Norms, or Christian Standards?

It has often been argued that in this passage, St. Paul was simply demanding that women maintain the cultural norms of the time and place in which they were written, but the fact of the matter is that in Roman and Greek culture, it was not mandatory for women to have their heads covered in public or in religious services. Head coverings were certainly not unknown, but there was no cultural requirement for it. There is no evidence that only prostitutes in that culture went about with uncovered heads either. If you look at Greek and Roman statues and paintings of women, you find both covered and uncovered heads. It was not the cultural norms of the pagan Greeks or Romans that St. Paul was advancing, but rather the cultural norms of pious Old Testament Jewish custom that he was instructing Christian women everywhere to follow when praying or prophesying. It should also be noted that one should not assume that later Jewish customs prevailed in the first century, but rather look at the more contemporary evidence of that practice. For example, Tertullian, who was a North African Roman living in a culture very close in time and practice to that of St. Paul, noted that Jewish women were notable and stood out of the crowd because they so consistently covered their heads (De Corona, 4, see also Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 3, ed. Gerhard Kittel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1964-1976), p. 562f) -- and so the actual evidence points to this being a specifically Christian requirement, rooted in Jewish custom.

But how can we be sure that St. Paul really intended to say that this was something he expected of all Christian women, regardless of the cultural norms of their society? Well, for one thing, he brackets this passage with two appeals to the tradition of the Church. At the beginning, he says: "Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the traditions, as I delivered them to you." And at the end of this passage, addressing those who wish to do contrary to this tradition, he says in verse 16: "But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither do the churches of God." The universal practice of the Church (and even of those mainstream Christian groups outside of the Orthodox Church) prior to the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show was for women to cover their heads in Church. I was raised in an Evangelical Protestant context, but I am old enough to remember the vestiges of this practice as a boy, even among the non-liturgical "holy-rollers" that I observed. And so we know that this is what St. Paul meant, because this is how two millennia of Christians have understood what he meant. It is only within living memory (i.e. post-sexual revolution) that this question has suddenly become a problem for some.

A scene from the 1955 movie "A Man Called Peter," which was a biographical film about the (then) nationally known Presbyterian minister Peter Marshall. The scene is depicting a Church service in the 1930's in Washington D.C., and you will note that every woman has some sort of head covering.

Furthermore, we can look at our iconographic tradition. It is extremely rare to see any icon that depicts a mature woman without a head covering. St. Mary of Egypt and our First mother Eve are the only examples that comes to mind to the contrary. In the case of St. Mary of Egypt, this is because the clothes that she wore into the desert rotted off of her, and she had only the tattered monastic cloak given to her by St. Zosima. In the case of Eve, she is depicted before fall in such a way as to convey the fact that she and her husband were "naked and unashamed." And then after the fall, she is shown with either the fig leaves she and Adam cobbled together, or the garments of skin given to her by the Lord. In both cases, their own stories require these depictions. Aside from that, if there are any other examples, they would be extremely rare, and probably aberrations from the general mainstream iconographic tradition.

Authority on the Head?

The King James provides a very literal translation of verse 101:

"For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels."

"διὰ τοῦτο ὀφείλει ἡ γυνὴ ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς διὰ τοὺς ἀγγέλους."

The word translated as "power" here (ἐξουσία) is usually taken to refer to the power of an authority. and most translations add some words to clarify the meaning. for example:

"For this cause ought the woman to have a sign of authority on her head because of the angels."

Mark Arey dismisses this, because the word "sign" or "symbol" is not there in the Greek. However, it is often the case when translating from one language to another that one has to supply some words that are not literally in the original in order to convey the actual sense of what the other words (which are in the original) actually mean in their particular arrangement in a given context.

And for Orthodox Christians, if we have any doubt about the meaning of a text like this, our first resort should be to the Fathers of the Church, and as Thiselton observes,

"most patristic commentators saw no problem in understanding ἐξουσία in an active sense as a metonymy for a sign of power over. Chrysostom observes: "Being covered is a mark of subjection and authority" [St. John Chrysostom, Homily 26:5 on First Corinthians], and Theophylact explicitly understands the metonymic sign of power. Ireneaus understands κάλυμμα [veil, Against Heresies 1:8:2] here" (Thiselton, p. 838).

To these three fathers, we could add the following examples:

"By authority he referred to the covering, as if to say, Let her show her subjection by covering herself, and not least for the sake of the angels, who are set over human beings and entrusted with their care" (Blessed Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, Vol. 1, trans. Robert Charles Hill, (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2001), p. 205).

"The veil signifies power, and the angels are bishops, as it says in the Revelation of John, where, because they are men, they are criticized for not rebuking the people, though good behavior on their part is also praised" (Ancient Christian Texts: Commentaries on Romans and 1-2 Corinthians, Ambrosiaster, translated and edited by Gerald L. Bray (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2009) p. 143).p. 172

Furthermore, I think it is safe to say that no Church Father ever took this passage as if it referred to a wife having authority over her husband, because if any did, those who dispute the traditional practice of head coverings would have alerted us to such statements long ago.

We should also wonder why, if in fact St. Paul was affirming the equality of the wife with her husband in verse 10 that he would have felt the need to follow that verse with a statement that affirmed that very thing, but which begins with "Nevertheless" (πλήν):

"Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God" (1 Corinthians 11:11-2).

Clearly, these verses are meant to balance out what precedes it, which would be unnecessary if what precedes it said essentially the same thing. Thiselton, approvingly referencing the commentary of Gordon Fee, writes:

"Fee rightly observes, "With these two sets of sentences, in each of which woman and man are in balanced pairs, Paul qualified the preceding argument." The strong force of πλήν, nevertheless, confirms this" (Thiselton, p. 842, emphasis in the original).

There are some Protestant commentators that argue that what St. Paul is saying here is that a woman ought to keep power over her own head by wearing a veil and thus either protecting herself from others in public (through her modesty), or from fallen angels, or both; and some have argued that it was a sign a woman was empowered to prophesy (Thiselton, p. 837-841). However, no Protestant commentator of any significance, as best as I can tell, has ever attempted to put forth any interpretation remotely similar to that of Mark Arey.

The idea that a wife is in some respects under the authority of her husband does not require an affirmation that women are inferior to men, anymore than the fact that Christ submitted Himself to the will of His Father implies inequality in the Godhead. Commenting on the meaning of "head" (κεφαλή) in this passage, Thiselton notes:

"Chrysostom is highly sensitive to the multivalency of κεφαλή in 1 Cor 11:3. Chrysostom is aware that a parallel between men/women and God/Christ should not give "the heretics" grounds for a subordinationist Christology. In certain respects head denotes a kind of primacy, but both God and Christ on one side and men and women on the other are of the same mode of being. "For had Paul meant to speak of rule and subjection... he would not have brought forward the instance of a woman (or wife), but rather of a slave and a master.... It is a wife (or woman) as free, as equal in honor; and the Son also, though He did become obedient to the Father, it was as the Son of God; it was as God" [Homily 26:3 on First Corinthians]. ...Chrysostom (a) reflects Paul's notion that in the context of love between God and Christ, or between man and woman, obedience or response is chosen, not imposed; and (b) reflects the endeavor to do justice to the duality or wholeness of difference and "order" on the one side and reciprocity and mutual dignity and respect on the other" (Thiselton, p. 818f).

For more on what the meaning of the phrase "because of the angels" in this verse, see: Stump the Priest: Because of the Angels.

Head Coverings or Long Hair?

Mark Arey concludes his essay with the claim that St. Paul is not really concerned with any woman, married or not, actually wearing a head covering in Church, because St. Paul speaks of a woman's long hair as being a covering, This is an interpretation completely absent from the Fathers. You do find a tiny minority of Protestants that will make such arguments, but few serious scholars buy such arguments.

The point that St. Paul makes is that just as it is a shame for a woman to have her head shaved -- which was a punishment sometimes given to women of ill-repute, so is it a shame for a woman to not cover her head in Church. Any other reading of this passage makes everything that precedes this point meaningless.

It is especially difficult to see how St. Paul could have in his mind the notion that long hair is the covering he wants the woman to wear, when he says:

"For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.(1 Corinthians 11:6).

You would have to believe that he is arguing that if a woman has short hair, her hair should be cut short... which it already would be. Furthermore it is hard to imagine how a woman's hair could ever grow long again, if it was being cut, because it was short.


The more common argument that contemporary Protestants make, who try to to avoid the obvious intent of this passage, is to argue that St. Paul was simply addressing a culturally specific issue, and that the principle at work in this passage would only be that one should not use Christian liberty to flout cultural norms and gender distinctions. N. T. Wright, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, evidently feels the weakness of this argument. After laying out all the reasons why it might be that this was a culturally specific question, he writes "That's a lot of 'perhaps'es" (Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), p. 140). He then adds a few more 'perhaps'es, and then says:

"The trouble is, of course, that Paul doesn't say exactly this, and we run the risk of 'explaining' him in terms that might (perhaps) make sense to us while ignoring what he himself says" (Ibid, 141).

Perhaps, because N. T. Wright is a Protestant, we can cut him some slack for approaching this text in this way, and ignoring the history of the interpretation of this text in favor of one that comports to contemporary Protestant sensibilities, but Mark Arey should know better.

On what basis does Mark Arey present his novel interpretations as if they were the correct Orthodox understanding of this passage? Certainly not on the basis of the Fathers. Certainly not on the basis of how the Church has always understood this passage. And he can't really claim much of a basis for his readings of this text in Protestant biblical scholarship.

In the service for receiving converts from other heterodox Christian groups, one of the questions the convert is asked before he is received is:

"Dost thou acknowledge that the Holy Scriptures must be accepted and interpreted in accordance with the belief which hath been handed down by the Holy Fathers, and which the Holy Orthodox Church, our Mother, hath always held and still doth hold?"

The correct answer to this question for a right believing Orthodox Christian is "I do," ...not, "I don't."

Fr. John Whiteford's News, Comments, & Reflections

Fr. John Whiteford


1The King James Version, while providing a very literal translation of this verse, also provided a margin note that says: "That is, a covering, to sign that she is under the power of her husband."
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Ben Marston6/27/2017 12:43 am
I know this is subjective, but I have noticed a choir in an Orthodox Church where all the ladies were covered, and there was such an angelic presence to that choir and their singing....it had the same spiritual 'feel' as the icon of St. Rublev of the Holy Trinity. Unspeakably beautiful.
My personal take on this is that failure to observe the Apostolic tradition 'alienates' a class of angels that grace the service .

Fr. John Whiteford6/26/2017 10:10 pm
See http://fatherjohn.blogspot.com/2014/07/stump-priest-men-with-long-hair.html

And also http://www.opc.org/qa.html?question_id=458
Fr. Steven Kostoff6/24/2017 7:24 pm
Fr. John,

How would you interpret I COR. 11:14 in the light of the fact that some Orthodox priests, and Orthodox male monastics have "long hair?"
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