aint Paul the Apostle, in his first letter to the Corinthians says, “δια τουτο οφειλει η γυνη εξουσιαν εχειν επι της κεφαλης δια τους αγγελους” (1 Cor. 11:10). There are some, more timid souls among us, who have declared that this is “one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament.” The NKJV translates the verse in a modern rendering, reading: “For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” Another modern Protestant translation renders the Greek as : “This is why a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head: because of the angels.” The KJV simply reads, “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.” A very literal translation, reads, “Wherefore owes authority to woman-being on the head by the angels.”
No matter how you translate this passage, this is a very powerful statement. Almost all the discussion, mainly among Protestants and accepted by modern Orthodox clergy out of their own sense of deficiency, centers on whether the word εξousia should be translated as “power” rather than “authority”, and the use of the English “Symbol” in the translation, and, of course, there is always the modernist translator who, out of ineptitude, simply relegates the entire thing to cultural practices of the era... that is always a neat and easy disposal of what is too difficult and uncomfortable to deal with. Interestingly, no one really seems to seriously question the fact that St. Paul is making his argument because it is “for the sake of the angels.”
I do not mean to over-simplify the problem of this passage. Canon 17 of the Council of Gangra (c. 340 AD) reads, "If a woman, from supposed asceticism, cuts off her hair which has been given her by God to remind her of her subjection, and thus renounces the command of subjection, let her be anathema." So, we might ask, was the council’s belief that a woman’s hair was “given her by God to remind her of her subjection,” based on an interpretation of this passage of St. Paul’s letter? Were the members of the council who made this interpretation native speakers of Greek? Had there been a substantial shift in the usage of these Greek words between the Paul's writing (c. 40 AD), and the council (c. 340 AD) that might have led to a misinterpretation? Might the council have intentionally misrepresented the meaning of the text? How similar is the use of language in the discussion in this canon to the discussion in 1 Corinthians?
Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 AD) says of this passage, “It is on account of the angels, he (Paul) says, that the woman’s head is to be covered, because the angels revolted from God on account of the daughters of men.” Ambrosiaster (366-384 AD) says of this passage, “The veil [the woman’s head covering] signifies power, and the angels are bishops.” Saint John Chrysostom (c. 347–407) says, “Being covered is a mark of subjection and authority. It induces the woman to be humble and preserve her virtue, for the virtue and honor of the governed is to dwell in obedience.”
In truth, it seems that no woman or man had any issue with this passage until the 1960’s in America. You will find no canonical icon of a female saint of the first two thousand years of Christianity who does not wear a veil over her hair, in as much as her life was immersed in salvific repentance and prayer to her Creator.
It is often said, in comments on cultural expression in our Orthodox faith, that the covering of the head belongs to an ancient culture, and not our own. And yet, history reveals that if culture has any bearing on the matter, it is relatively modern American culture that has disposed of this practice. Sometimes, we conveniently make a distinction between the small “t” traditions brought from Russia, or Bulgaria, Syria, Greece, etc. and the capital “T”, representing that which was delivered by the Apostles. Again, conveniently, this argument is used to reject a vast array of things we Americans simply wish not to accept. We are very slow – and rather arrogant – in recognizing our own American contribution to Orthodox cultural tradition.
Bulgarian, Russian, Syrian and all other Orthodox women wore their head covered in prayer until very recently. Christian women – Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant – universally wore a covering on their head until the 1960’s. Satan, being his clever self, first substituted hats for coverings, and when hats became passé in American style culture so did the head covering in prayer. In fact – Satan is so marvelously clever – the covering of one’s head was eventually identified with a loss of one’s individual and uniquely independent feminine identity. To cover one’s head meant that you subjugated yourself not to God the Creator, but to the dominion of man. Suddenly, it was no longer a question of the woman’s standing before the celestial powers, but it was a statement of whether she would “subjugate” herself to a human man.
The result? Today, women feel obliged to go to prayer without their head covered – despite the “power” that Saint Paul speaks of, and despite the order of hierarchy among angels and all beings, because they are first and foremost free of subjugation... even unto God.
Just a thought.