Many of us Christians have a tendency to view God’s rules as completely arbitrary, but something we must follow because He makes them and it’s good to get on His good side. Upon deeper reflection, however, it appears clear that the Old Testament Law, as well as Judeo-Christian morals that are consistent between the Old and New Testaments, serve a specific purpose: they point us to Christ and they conform us to His image. In short, living a Godly life is part of our own salvation.
It is easy for us to ignore rules that are arbitrary and in some sense, we perceive, play no role in our salvation. This reductionist “if it is not a matter of salvation it is optional” approach leads to the degradation of Christian norms and practices. We have seen this particularly with issues of fasting, sex, money, and gender. Due to our own sinful desire to live an egocentric instead of a Theocentric life, if we do not have a clear rationalization as to why we cannot just go ahead and do whatever we want, we conveniently conclude that the Christian norm is optional and only applied to a specific sociocultural context.
Being that the preceding is obvious enough, if not too charitable of an assessment of the liberalization of Christian norms, I will not dwell any more on it. Needless to say, this article pertains to how head covering practices have a specific application that is just as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago.
To put it briefly, the context in 1 Cor 11-14 pertains to worship practices. The section on head coverings is specifically concerned with prayers and prophecy, or in the present day context, prayers and Scripture readings.
Scripture readings are the present day equivalent to prophecy, because during the Apostolic age the New Testament/the Deposit of Faith was not yet completed and so prophetic gifts were given as a stop-gap. The preceding is not a consensus opinion of the early church fathers, as such a consensus does not exist. Irenaeus (A.H. Book 3, Chap 11, Chap 9) and Chrysostom (Comments on 1 Cor 11:2) believed that the gift of prophecy was something special which entirely ceased after the Apostolic age. Severian of Gabala believed that prophesy persisted “about particular things and people” (Pauline Commentary of the Greek Church quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament VII, p. 106). These preceding fathers did not make the mental leap between what we see in 1 Cor 11 and a specific analogous application that we see in a contemporary worship service.
Saint Basil of Caesarea, in an interesting aside detailing what he believed to be late third century worship practices, did view his contemporary practices as applications of 1 Cor 11 in Letter 207. In the following section, Basil is arguing against the clergy of Neocaesarea’s objection to all-night vigils that had Psalm-singing instead of hymn-singing:
Now as to the charge relating to the singing of psalms, whereby my calumniators specially scare the simpler folk, my reply is this. The customs which now obtain are agreeable to those of all the Churches of God. Among us the people go at night to the house of prayer, and, in distress, affliction, and continual tears, making confession to God, at last rise from their prayers and begin to sing psalms. And now, divided into two parts, they sing antiphonally with one another, thus at once confirming their study of the Gospels, and at the same time producing for themselves a heedful temper and a heart free from distraction. Afterwards they again commit the prelude of the strain to one, and the rest take it up; and so after passing the night in various psalmody, praying at intervals as the day begins to dawn, all together, as with one voice and one heart, raise the psalm of confession to the Lord, each forming for himself his own expressions of penitence. If it is for these reasons that you renounce me, you will renounce the Egyptians; you will renounce both Libyans, Thebans, Palestinians, Arabians, Phœnicians, Syrians, the dwellers by the Euphrates; in a word all those among whom vigils, prayers, and common psalmody have been held in honour.
But, it is alleged, these practices were not observed in the time of the great Gregory [the Wonderworker]. My rejoinder is that even the Litanies which you now use were not used in his time. I do not say this to find fault with you; for my prayer would be that every one of you should live in tears and continual penitence. We, for our part, are always offering supplication for our sins, but we propitiate our God not as you do, in the words of mere man, but in the oracles of the Spirit. And what evidence have you that this custom was not followed in the time of the great Gregory? You have kept none of his customs up to the present time. Gregory did not cover his head at prayer. How could he? He was a true disciple of the Apostle who says,
Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonours his head. 1 Corinthians 11:4 And
a man indeed ought not to cover his head forasmuch as he is the image of God.1 Corinthians 11:7 … If you have none of these things, and are clear of all, then are you verily disciples of the disciple of the Lord; if not, beware lest, in your disputes about the mode of singing psalms, you are straining at the gnat and setting at naught the greatest of the commandments (Par. 3 and 4–For more context on the argument here read this book. For those curious, Orthodox Christians still apply what Basil is writing about today).
In the preceding, we can see that he considered the singing of Psalms and reading of the the Gospels to be an ancient and universal application of 1 Cor 11. So, I am not making it up out of whole-cloth folks. When the gift of prophecy was rescinded to some degree, Christians continued fulfilling the prophetic function by reading prophecy–the Scriptures.
This is how the preceding applies to head coverings:
As referred to before, prayer and prophesy is something that still happens in present-day worship services. When someone prays during a service…he or she is doing the exact same sort of prayer that Paul was talking about. When someone reads the Scriptures to the congregation, he or she is fulfilling the function of prophecy.
In the early church, the function of official “reader” existed, just as it does today in a modern Orthodox Church. (See Saint Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition, Chap 12 in Greek Manuscript fragment). As Saint Hippolytus made clear, readers are not ordained–and they are men. Nevertheless, they are “appointed” by the Bishop and they are a minor order below the sub-Deacon.
In the modern Orthodox Church, both within conservative ROCOR circles and the “mainline” OCA branch, it is not uncommon for women to read the Epistle reading during the Liturgy or other Scripture readings during Vespers, Vigils, and etcetera. The consistent practice of the Church has been that Bishops only appoint men to be readers, but reading may be done by people other than official “readers.”
In the Scriptures, the gift of teaching and reading is given by the “laying on of hands” (1 Tim 4:14), but this combination is only ascribed to Elders. In the Apostolic Tradition, only Deacons and Elders are appointed by the “laying on of hands,” and the people in these offices were exclusively men.
Now, the full picture comes into view. Both men and women pray and read prophesy in church. In this sense, they are not distinguishable. However, only a man may be ordained to the Deaconate or Priesthood or appointed to a more minor office which may ultimately lead to an ordination. So, even when these ordained men wear funny Russian hats (or whatever the ancient equivalent was,) the hats were (and are) removed during Eucharistic prayers (which is probably what is specifically in view in 1 Cor 11) and Scripture readings.
Therefore, if a women prays or prophesies uncovered, the appearance is the usurpation of an appointed (reader) or ordained (Deacon or Elder) office–a function reserved for men for specific Christological reasons (see 1 Cor 11:3). Hence, by sticking with the traditional interpretation of 1 Cor 11 (which is dying in Orthodoxy outside of Russia), we help preserve important distinctions. Not just between men and women, or the ordained and the “unordained,” but between the roles of the Persons in the Godhead.
If our salvation begins when we have faith in Christ, it is incumbent upon us to enjoy partaking in Christological realities in the here and now. Therefore, this requires understanding the important distinctions in the Godhead and to exhibit this in our worship and decorum. To do otherwise betrays ignorance of their importance and a refusal to be conformed to Christ.