For two-thousand years, Christian women have been covering their heads in prayer, whether it be in a chapel, or in public, or at home. It’s a custom as old as Christianity itself. (Technically, it’s older.) And Western women still do it, without even realizing it, and even if they’re not religious at all.
Take, for example, a wedding. What do many brides wear on their heads? Even if for no other reason than just tradition or accessory? They wear a veil. Take for example an outdoor sporting event. Here you will find both men and women in the stadium wearing hats. Before the start of the game, at the time for prayer and/or the national anthem, what do the men do with their hats? They remove them. What do the women do with their hats? Usually, they do nothing with them. They leave them on their heads throughout the prayer and/or anthem. Have you ever asked why? When you ask a man why he removed his hat, he might say it’s a “sign of respect.” So then, why do women not show such “respect.” Should they? Or does “respect” have anything to do with it at all? Now back to the wedding example. The bride wears a veil on her head. What does the groom wear on his head? Usually he wears nothing, or at least nothing during the ceremony itself. Why?
This little cultural oddity concerning veils and hats is a remnant of our once Christian civilization. The tradition remains, but everybody seems to have forgotten what it means, and why they do it. It is Christian. There is no doubt of that. It’s well document in antiquity and goes back to the age of the apostles. In fact, it’s written in the Bible by an apostle himself, and it focuses specifically on why Christian women should wear head-coverings when they pray, and men should not.
In our modern times, when we think of head-coverings for women, our thoughts immediately go to Islam. We picture the typical Muslim woman wearing a hijab or veil of some type. Yet we must remember, that it was Christianity where this tradition began, a full six centuries before the invention of Islam. We must also remember that Islam, having been invented after Christianity and Judaism, is parroting both religions on many things, and head-coverings for women is just one of them. Islam has a reputation of taking such parroted matters to extreme, and when it comes to head-coverings for women, this is no exception. In Judaism (revealed over 3,000 years ago), both men and women cover their heads in prayer. Outside of prayer, they may or may not cover their heads. It doesn’t matter. In Christianity (founded exactly 2,000 years ago), women cover their heads only during prayer. Outside of prayer, it doesn’t matter. But men are forbidden from covering their heads during prayer. Outside of prayer, it doesn’t matter. Islam (emerged about 1,400 years ago), taking the Jewish and Christian example of head-covering to the extreme, commands women to cover their heads at all times when in public, whether they are praying or not.
Judaism was the religion that started head-covering while in prayer, and as I said above, Jews still practice this today — both men and women. The reason for this is related to humility before God and a sign (or a symbol) of being under his authority. It’s not set into Jewish law, but the tradition is so integrated into the religion itself that some Jews do see it as a religious requirement.
It was Christianity (as the fulfillment of Judaism) that changed this custom so that only women cover their heads in prayer, while men are forbidden to cover their heads in prayer. This is not a matter of religious law. So it’s not seen as a “sin” if people fail to keep the custom, but it is integrated so deeply into the religion, that it’s seen as “disrespectful” if they don’t. Admittedly, because of the advent of feminism in Western society over the last 50 years, most Christian churches excuse women for not keeping the custom. However, if a man fails to keep his end of the custom, it is still seen as “rude” and “disrespectful,” bordering on “sacrilegious.” To this day, men will instinctively remove their hats upon entering a place of worship, even if they don’t know why. They will likewise do the same during public prayer at sporting events.
Islam is totally different. Under Islam, women are required to cover their heads in the presence of any men outside of their immediate family. For the Muslim women, it has more to do with modesty than prayer. This modesty code is strictly enforced under shariah law, sometimes even with corporal punishment. In the West, many Muslim women still keep this custom as a matter of modesty, religious observance and cultural identity.
The topic of this essay is Christian head-covering, not Muslim or Jewish head-covering. The Christian custom of head-covering is built on the Jewish understanding of head-covering (that being humility before God and a sign of being under his authority) but it has an added complexity that is highly symbolic. To understand this, we need to go directly to the source — St Paul the Apostle…
You should be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. I applaud you, brothers, because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you. I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his Head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head (husband). It is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should shave off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a woman ought to have a symbol of her submission to authority on her head, because of the angels. But in the Lord, woman is not independent of man nor man of woman. For as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. But all are born of God. Judge for yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long tresses of hair, it is degrading to him. But if a woman has long tresses of hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her as a covering. If any one is inclined to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God.
— 1 Corinthians 11:1-16
This is the go-to source for Christian head-covering, and the oldest written record of the Christian practice. To better understand this, I’m going to dissect this passage point by point…
You should be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. I applaud you, brothers, because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.
Here, St Paul is emphasizing the importance of the topic he’s about to dive into. He praises the Church at Corinth for following the traditions he delivered to them, and encourages them to continue to imitate his example. What follows is one of the traditions he delivered to them (the tradition of head-covering) which it seems the Corinthians had some questions/concerns about.
I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.
This is the spiritual principle behind the changes that the early Church made to the Jewish custom of head-covering. St Paul is reviewing it for them here. The head of Christ is God, which is to say that Christ is God. Jesus Christ has two natures. He is both fully man and fully God. To say that the head of Christ is God is to say that his human nature submits to his divine nature in perfect humility. In the union of man and God, Jesus Christ (the God-Man), the nature of humanity is elevated and dignified above everything else in nature. As St Paul explains here, the early Church used the sacrament of matrimony to symbolize this union. In the gospels, marriage is used as an example of the kind of relationship God seeks to have with humanity through Christ. Since God came to live among us as a man, the man (or husband) would represent Christ in the marriage, while the woman would represent the Church. The word “head,” in this case, takes on a representation of authority, as in “head of household.” It’s not a lordship kind of authority, but rather a family kind of authority, as in one who cares for and protects the family. The head of every man is Christ, because Christ took on the form of a man. Therefore, just as the man relies on Christ as his authority, so every Christian man represents Christ in his own family. St Paul elaborating on this elsewhere in the Bible, when he wrote…
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the man (husband) is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, being its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so wives are also subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and surrendered himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. The one who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and join to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects (be in awe of) her man.
— Ephesians 5:21-33
Please notice the two commands here — love and respect. Husbands are given the greater command. They are told to die for their wives, die to themselves, die to their own needs, even die physically if necessary, all for the care and protection of their wives. The definition of Christian love is sacrifice, which is to die to one’s self. For a Christian husband to love his wife is to make sacrifices for her; little sacrifices, big sacrifices, even the ultimate sacrifice. Christian women, however, are simply commanded to be subject to their husbands and to respect them. A Christian woman may love her husband sacrificially if she wants to, but she is not required to. In a Christian marriage, the greater commandment is always required of the man, not the woman. Women are free to reciprocate, but they are not expected to. This is because, as St Paul explained to the Church at Corinth, in the Christian marriage, the man represents Christ and his wife represents the Church. Turning back now to St Paul’s discourse with the Church at Corinth…
Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his Head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head (husband).
Now St Paul outlines the reason for the practice of Christian head-covering in the early Church. The apostles changed the practice of Jewish head-covering. Like the Jews, Christians would continue to practice head-covering as a sign of humility before God, and a sign of being under authority. However, because God had become incarnate as man, the relationship between man and woman (in Christian marriage) has just been upgraded. Now the marriage itself is a living witness of the relationship between Christ and his Church. Every husband and wife, by virtue of the sacrament of matrimony, is now a living minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not by preaching or teaching, but by simply living out their marital vows. Since the marriage now represents the relationship between Christ and the Church, the husband now represents Christ (who is the God-Man). His head will no longer be covered during prayer, and if he does cover it, he dishonors Christ. While the wife, representing the Church, will continue to keep her head covered in prayer, just as the Jews have always done, and if she fails to cover it, she dishonors her husband. She is, in effect, saying that her husband is not representing “Christ” in her marriage. He is not making Christlike sacrifices for her as he should be. This is a dishonor to him. Or, she may be saying that she is rebellious at heart, and that she refuses to submit to him. She does not wish to be subject to him, nor does she respect him, nor does she find awe in his love for her. Therefore, he is dishonored. Whatever the meaning behind her refusal to veil, the husband is dishonored.
It goes a bit further than this, because it was common also for unmarried Christian women to cover their heads. This is because, until she gets married, the Christian woman is seen to be under the authority of her father. So just as the head covering honors the husband of the married woman, so it also honors the father of the unmarried women.
Beyond that, all Christian women are still under the authority of Christ, who is considered their “first husband” by the Spirit. Christian women likewise cover their heads in honer of their “first husband” (Jesus Christ), in addition to their fathers and husbands. So all of this is connected at a highly spiritual level you see.
It is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should shave off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil.
Here, St Paul is drawing from the culture of the time period. Corinth was/is in Greece. We learn from the ancient Greek playwright Euripides, in his tragedy entitled “Electa,” that when a woman’s head is shaven, it is either a sign of slavery or mourning. St Paul is not commenting on hair styles here, nor is he telling women how they should wear their hair. Surely, there were many Greek female slaves in the Church at that time, and so these Christian women most certainly had very short hair as a sign of their social status. Some modern Protestants have tried to equate short hairstyles for women as a sign of a sinful lifestyle. Based on the cultural context of the time, that would not appear to be the case. Rather, based on what we actually know from historical documentation close to the time period when St Paul was writing, it would appear that the “disgrace,” St Paul writes of, is one of the lowest social status (slavery), or else one of extreme mourning. It’s as if St Paul is saying: “Look, if a Christian woman refuses to cover her head in prayer, it’s like she’s demoted herself and her marriage. Or it’s like she’s in mourning over her marriage. It’s disgraceful.”
For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.
St Paul reminds his readers of what he just said above. In the early Church, the sacrament of matrimony takes on the image of Christ and his Church. Christ is God, so the husband becomes the image and glory of God (symbolically speaking). The wife then becomes the image and glory of man (that is, the Church).
For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.
This is simply a reminder of the creation order as we see in the second chapter of Genesis. St Paul is appealing to nature here.
That is why a woman ought to have a symbol of her submission to authority on her head, because of the angels.
Again, St Paul writes here about a symbol of authority on a woman’s head. He has just appealed to nature, the natural order, as in the creation of humanity, that this is how God intended it to be. He has just reminded his readers that the Christian marriage is a upgrade from natural marriage, in that the husband represents Christ, and in representing Christ he must follow Christ’s example of sacrificial love for his wife. The Church must submit to Christ and respect him. So too a wife is supposed to do the same for her husband. The Jewish custom of head-covering has always been a sign of humility and a symbol of authority. They wear head-coverings in prayer to remind themselves that they are under God’s authority. St Paul argues here that the Christian wife does the same, to remind herself that she is under Christ’s authority, and Christ is represented in her husband, just as she represents the Church. The last phrase, “because of the angels,” is a curious one. Some have suggested that angels wear symbols of authority to show God’s authority over them. Still others have suggested that the angles are present in human worship of God, and therefore witness everything that goes on. Some have suggested that angels are scandalized when they see Christian women who do not wear head-coverings. The exact meaning is unknown to us in today’s time. We can only speculate.
But in the Lord, woman is not independent of man nor man of woman. For as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. But all are born of God.
St Paul digresses a bit here, to remind his readers that men and women are dependent upon one another. The natural order of creation, and the sacramental order of marriage, does not in any way mean that men are somehow independent of women. On the contrary, women have always been an essential part of God’s plan, and remain even more so within the Church.
Judge for yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long tresses of hair, it is degrading to him. But if a woman has long tresses of hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her as a covering.
St Paul appeals finally again to nature. Many Christians (particularly some Protestants) have historically turned this passage into a dictate of hair styles for men and women. That is not what St Paul intended here. Rather, he’s just talking about nature as an example that God has given us, to teach us a much higher spiritual lesson concerning the symbols of authority.
In nature, it is very rare for a man to be able to grow his hair as long and as full as a woman. Now St Paul didn’t have a biology degree, but he could observe what was obvious to him in nature. Modern science tells us why women have longer and fuller hair than men. It has to do with a byproduct of testosterone called dihydrotestosterone. All people have it, even women, but most especially men, and depending on genetics, some men have this byproduct more than others. Women have such low levels of testosterone that their dihydrotestosterone levels are virtually non-existent. Furthermore, the estrogen hormone protects them from whatever dihydrotestosterone they might have in their bodies. What does dihydrotestosterone do? Aside from causing inflammation in the male prostrate organ, it also shortens the growth cycle of hair follicles. It makes it almost impossible for a man to grow his hair as long or as full as a woman. As a man ages, the amount of dihydrotestosterone increases, shortening the growth phase of his hair even more, and for some men (depending on genetics) dihydrotestosterone levels may be so high, that the growth phase of hair follicles is reduced to nothing, and the result is baldness. St Paul surely knew nothing about hormonal chemistry, but he could easily observe the world around him. A healthy man could grow his hair relatively long, maybe a little past shoulder length as was the case with Jesus Christ, but not nearly as long or as full as a woman could. Unless, of course, he were a eunuch, as a number of slave boys were. Eunuch males do not have high levels of testosterone, and as a result, their dihydrotestosterone levels would be very low too, virtually nonexistent. As a result, a slave eunuch could grow his hair just as long and full as any woman could, and apparently, some of them did. This would especially be the case for eunuch slave boys in the pederast culture of ancient Greece.
In ancient Greece, a free woman would grow her hair as long as possible, especially if she was married, as a sign of her social status and her joy in being married. When St Paul says “judge for yourselves,” he isn’t saying “you be the judge and decide what’s right for you.” On the contrary, he’s saying you should be able to judge for yourself that what he’s saying about head-coverings is true, because nature itself should be able to teach you. In nature, God himself designed women to have a natural covering of long hair. So likewise, nature being a reflection of the spirit, God wants women to cover their heads with something in prayer.
If any one is inclined to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God.
And this is St Paul’s last word on the matter. If this teaching bothers you, don’t make too big of a deal about it. The early Church did not have any more customs concerning manner of dress or grooming. The Church doesn’t care if you have long hair or short hair. The Church doesn’t care if you dress up or dress down. The Church doesn’t even regulate what kind of head-covering a woman should wear. It’s totally up to her. What matters is that she does cover her head with something, and that she understand the spiritual and sacramental reason why. Her marriage represents Christ’s relationship to the Church, and she represents the Church in particular. The Church must be humble before God and under the authority of Christ. Therefore, as has always been the Jewish custom, a woman should cover her head when she prays.
The custom of Christian women covering their heads during prayer has been faithfully kept for nearly 2,000 years, that is, until about the 1970s. This was about the same time the modern feminist movement took center stage in Europe, North America and throughout the West. It was at this time that women threw off their head coverings in both Catholic and Protestant churches alike. The argument feminists used against head covering was primarily based on the Muslim definition of the practice. Feminists placed Christian head covering on par with Muslim head covering, and in fact, claimed they were the exact same thing with the exact same meaning. Thus, they convinced Christian women that covering their heads during prayer was a sign of an “oppressive male patriarchy” which must be put down.
The problem with the feminist attack on Christian head coverings is that it’s just plain ignorant. It conflates the Christian practice with the Muslim practice, when in fact, there is no connection at all. Christian women cover their heads in the presence of God to make a religious statement about Christian marriage. The covering is strictly a religious practice, and was never expected outside of prayer. It’s based on the Jewish practice of head covering, where both men and women cover their heads in prayer. Muslim women, on the other hand, cover their heads in the presence of men. It is done for the sake of modesty, not prayer, so that men will not see their hair. Muslim women are expected to wear their head coverings at all times, both in the mosque and out on the street, as well as in the markets, restaurants, theater, parks, schools, library, you name it! The only place where Muslim women are allowed to remove their veils is in their own homes, in the presence of their immediate family. This is clearly not the same thing as Christian or Jewish head covering. Both the meaning and the practice are entirely different.
Today, most Protestant women have completely forgotten the meaning and practice of head covering. There are a few exceptions in some Charismatic and Pentecostal churches within Protestantism, but for the most part, Protestant head covering is dead in the West. It was attacked by feminism and never recovered. In the Catholic Church, however, while head covering nearly disappeared for a few decades, there is now a small resurgence. We see it primarily in Catholic parishes with a more traditional atmosphere. Occasionally, however, it can also be seen in contemporary Catholic parishes too. In the Catholic Church, it’s mostly a generational thing. The older generation of Baby-Boomer women, for the most part, tend to steer away from head covering. While the younger Generation X and Millennials tend to be more open to it. For the most part, women who choose to cover their heads are left alone, and most Catholic men are appreciative of the sentiment. There have been reported cases of some enraged feminists scolding women after mass, who chose to cover their heads during mass. Most of the time, these enraged feminists are older Baby-Boomers, who were heavily influenced by feminist propaganda from the 1970s, scolding younger GenXer or Millennial women. Such encounters are rare though, and seem to be dropping off in frequency. It would seem that the younger generations of Catholic women are more concerned with the Biblical and historical connection to head covering, and less concerned with the feminist agenda.
That being said, peer pressure can go the opposite direction as well. In some traditional Catholic parish, where most women cover their heads, there can be an overwhelming pressure for all women to do the same, even if they don’t want to, or don’t understand why. Worse yet, sometimes women who refuse to cover their heads can be ostracized by women who do. This kind of pressure is no better than the feminists who do the same in reverse. Originally, head covering was included in the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law, not necessarily to force women to do it against their will (though it was used that way sometimes), but simply to acknowledge what has always been the normal practice for generations. The requirement has since been removed from the Code of Canon Law, not because Church teaching has changed on the matter (it hasn’t), but because it probably didn’t belong there in the first place. The practice is a custom of the Early Church, faithfully kept by Christian women (on their own) for 20 centuries. If it is to be kept in the future, it should be kept by women, on their own, for the right reasons, and not because somebody else is using canon law to force them into it.
Styles of Head Covering
If anyone were to claim that a certain type of lace mantilla should always be used while in a chapel, that person would be wrong. First, head covering isn’t just for the chapel. It’s for public prayer, and public prayer can happen anywhere. Second, while St Paul made it crystal clear that head covering is the custom, the Church has no other custom it wishes to burden people with. That means neither St Paul, nor anyone else, is going to mandate a certain kind of head covering on Christian women.
That being said, the lace mantilla is extremely popular in the West, and has been the norm for at least a few hundred years. Nevertheless, there is nothing “official” about it. When we look back over the last 20 centuries, the only thing we can say about the lace mantilla is that it happens to be a popular style that is relatively modern. By modern, we mean the last few centuries. Some women love them. Others don’t. Again, we’re talking about popularity here. It’s certainly not mandated, never was, and never will be.
During the 1920s – 50s, when women’s hats were a common fashion accessory in the West, the small cap with thin (almost invisible) netting became a common sight in many churches, both Catholic and Protestant, but most especially Catholic. In some Protestant churches, large full hats, with feathers and decoration became very popular. In England, women’s hats were a cultural norm. During the Middle Ages, tall pointy, hats were common, as well as shawls and bonnets of various styles. In ancient times, the shawl or mantle was probably the norm. Then, of course, let us never forget the ever popular neckerchief, worn on the head, by some Pentecostal women today. The Jewish snood, wrap and yarmulke have also been adopted by some Christian women. A few Christian women are even taking fashion styles from Muslim women, donning hijabs and various other head coverings popular in Muslim culture. There is certainly nothing wrong with Christian women doing this, provided of course that they understand the Christian reason for head covering, and practice it accordingly. A head covering is just a head covering. Styles and types are not nearly as important as the reason why it’s done.
Among young women who are wearing head coverings today, the lace mantilla appears to have returned as the go-to staple of popularity, especially among Catholics. However, some women are wearing modest hats (nothing too big or flashy) as well as berets, scarves and shawls. One a personal note, I have always encouraged my wife and daughter, that if they choose to wear anything on their heads for prayer, it should always be something that feels natural to them and goes with their personal style. I say this so that head covering for prayer will never feel uncomfortable or unnatural to them. My teenage daughter, for example, is fond of small black caps, usually with a matching bow or sequin design on the side. My wife rarely wears a veil, namely because she never wears anything on her head at all, but on occasion (when she does wear a prayer covering), it’s usually a small hat of some type.
Whenever I blog on a subject like this, I am usually asked to include a link to a retailer that sells chapel veils. There are so many that I believe it would be unfair to highlight one Christian retailer over another. Nor do I wish to give the impression that a certain style of head covering is “more approved” than another. There is no approved style. So, I’ve decided that the only link I will include within this essay, will be to a non-Christian retailer, just for the purpose of example. Headcoverings by Devorah is a retailer that specializes in Jewish head coverings for women and other Jewish accessories. I thought bringing it back to the Jewish origins of Christian head covering might help my readers remember where it all comes from, and why we do it. In truth, there is no such thing as an “authorized” seller of Christian head coverings. Any cloth or hat, from any store, will do.
The most important thing about Christian head covering is understanding what it means. In today’s world, it’s equally important to understand what it doesn’t mean. It’s also important for Christian women to cover their heads for the right reason, and not because they feel pressured or forced to do it. Likewise, those who discourage head covering, be it for a feminist agenda or some other reason, should be put in their place. The practice is Biblical and beautiful when understood and done for the right reasons. I hope this essay has cleared up any misunderstandings about this custom, and I do hope it encourages Christian women to begin covering their heads for prayer again — when they are ready.
More answers to questions such as these can be found in the book “Are Catholics Christian?: A Guide to Evangelical Questions about the Catholic Church,” available both in digital and paperback. Learn more here. Priests and catechists, throughout the United States and Canada, have already used portions of this book in their regular RCIA material, and some simply read portions of the book to their class. It’s highly recommended by priests and catechists alike.