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On Modesty for Women

St. John Chrysostom

“Homily XXVI,” On 1 Corinthians 11:4-16

Symbols many and diverse have been given both to man and woman; to him of rule, to her of subjection: and among them this also, that she should be covered, while he hath his head bare. If now these be symbols you see that both err when they disturb the proper order, and transgress the disposition of God, and their own proper limits, both the man falling into the woman’s inferiority, and the woman rising up against the man by her outward clothing.

For if exchange of garments be not lawful, so that neither she should be clad with a cloak, nor he with a mantle or a veil—for the woman,” saith He, “shall not wear that which pertaineth to a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garments” (Deut. xxii. 5.)—much more is it unseemly for these things to be interchanged. For the former indeed were ordained by men, even although God afterwards ratified them: but this by nature, I mean the being covered or uncovered. But when I say nature, I mean God. For He it is Who created nature. When therefore thou overturnest these boundaries, see how great injuries ensue.

And tell me not this, that the error is but small. For first, it is great even of itself, being as it is disobedience. Next, though it were small, it became great because of the greatness of the things whereof it is a sign. However, that it is a great matter is evident from its ministering so effectually to good order among mankind, the governor and the governed being regularly kept in their several places by it.

So that he who transgresseth disturbs all things, and betrays the gifts of God, and casts to the ground the honor bestowed on him from above; not however the man only, but also the woman. For to her also it is the greatest of honors to preserve her own rank; as indeed of disgraces, the behavior of a rebel. Wherefore he laid it down concerning both, thus saying,

Ver. 4. “Every man praying or prophesying having his head covered, dishonoreth his head. But every woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled dishonoreth her head.”

For there were, as I said, both men who prophesied and women who had this gift at that time, as the daughters of Philip, (Acts xxi. 9.) as others before them and after them: concerning whom also the prophet spoke of old: “your sons shall prophesy, and your daughters shall see visions.” (Joel ii. 28. Acts ii. 17.)

Well then: the man he compelleth not to be always uncovered, but only when he prays. “For every man,” saith he, “praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoreth his head.” But the woman he commands to be at all times covered. Wherefore also having said, “Every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head unveiled, dishonoreth her head,” he stayed not at this point only, but also proceeded to say, “for it is one and the same thing as if she were shaven.” But if to be shaven is always dishonorable, it is plain too that being uncovered is always a reproach.

And not even with this only was he content, but added again, saying, “The woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels.” He signifies that not at the time of prayer only but also continually she ought to be covered. But with regard to the man, it is no longer about covering but about wearing long hair that he so forms his discourse. To be covered he then only forbids, when a man is praying; but the wearing long hair he discourages at all times. Wherefore, as touching the woman, he said, “But if she be not veiled, let her also be shorn;” so likewise touching the man, “If he have long hair, it is a dishonor unto him.” He said not, “if he be covered” but, “if he have long hair.” Wherefore also he said at the beginning, “Every man praying or prophesying, having anything on his head, dishonoreth his head.” He said not, “covered,” but “having anything on his head;” signifying that even though he pray with the head bare, yet if he have long hair, he is like to one covered. “For the hair,” saith he, “is given for a covering.”

Ver. 6. “But if a woman is not veiled, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be veiled.”

Thus, in the beginning he simply requires that the head be not bare: but as he proceeds he intimates both the continuance of the rule, saying, “for it is one and the same thing as if she were shaven,” and the keeping of it with all care and diligence. For he said not merely covered, but “covered over,” meaning that she be carefully wrapped up on every side. And by reducing it to an absurdity, he appeals to their shame, saying by way of severe reprimand, “but if she be not covered, let her also be shorn.” As if he had said, “If thou cast away the covering appointed by the law of God, cast away likewise that appointed by nature.”

But if any say, “Nay, how can this be a shame to the woman, if she mount up to the glory of the man?” we might make this answer; “She doth not mount up, but rather falls from her own proper honor.” Since not to abide within our own limits and the laws ordained of God, but to go beyond, is not an addition but a diminuation. For as he that desireth other men’s goods and seizeth what is not his own, hath not gained anything more, but is diminished, having lost even that which he had (which kind of thing also happened in paradise), so likewise the woman acquireth not the man’s dignity, but loseth even the woman’s decency which she had. And not from hence only is her shame and reproach, but also on account of her covetousness.

Having taken then what was confessedly shameful, and having said, “but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven,” he states in what follows his own conclusion, saying, “let her be covered.” And he said not, “let her have long hair,” but, “let her be covered,” ordaining both these to be one, and establishing them both ways, from what was customary and from their contraries: in that he both affirms the covering and the hair to be one, and also that she again who is shaven is the same with her whose head is bare. “For it is one and the same thing,” saith he, “as if she were shaven.” But if any say, “And how is it one, if this woman have the covering of nature, but the other who is shaven have not even this?” we answer, that as far as her will goes, she threw that off likewise by having the head bare. And if it be not bare of tresses, that is nature’s doing, not her own. So that as she who is shaven hath her head bare, so this woman in like manner. For this cause He left it to nature to provide her with a covering, that even of it she might learn this lesson and veil herself.

Then he states also a cause, as one discoursing with those who are free: a thing which in many places I have remarked. What then is the cause?

Ver. 7. “For a man indeed ought not to have his head veiled, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God.”

This is again another cause. “Not only,” so he speaks, “because he hath Christ to be his Head ought he not to cover the head, but because also he rules over the woman.” For the ruler when he comes before the king ought to have the symbol of his rule. As therefore no ruler without military girdle and cloak, would venture to appear before him that hath the diadem: so neither do thou without the symbols of thy rule (one of which is the not being covered), pray before God, lest thou insult both thyself and Him that hath honored thee.

And the same thing likewise one may say regarding the woman. For to her also is it a reproach, the not having the symbols of her subjection. “But the woman is the glory of the man.” Therefore the rule of the man is natural.

[5.] Then, having affirmed his point, he states again other reasons and causes also, leading thee to the first creation, and saying thus:

Ver. 8. “For the man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man.”

But if to be of anyone, is a glory to him of whom one is, much more the being an image of him.

Ver. 9. “For neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man.”

This is again a second superiority, nay, rather also a third, and a fourth, the first being, that Christ is the head of us, and we of the woman; a second, that we are the glory of God, but the woman of us; a third, that we are not of the woman, but she of us; a fourth, that we are not for her, but she for us.

Ver. 10. “For this cause ought the woman to have a sign of authority on her head.”

“For this cause:” what cause, tell me? “For all these which have been mentioned,” saith he; or rather not for these only, but also “because of the angels.” “For although thou despise thine husband,” saith he, “yet reverence the angels.”

It follows that being covered is a mark of subjection and authority. For it induces her to look down and be ashamed and preserve entire her proper virtue. For the virtue and honor of the governed is to abide in his obedience.

Again: the man is not compelled to do this; for he is the image of his Lord: but the woman is; and that reasonably. Consider then the excess of the transgression when being honored with so high a prerogative, thou puttest thyself to shame, seizing the woman’s dress. And thou doest the same as if having received a diadem, thou shouldest cast the diadem from thy head, and instead of it take a slave’s garment.

Ver. 11. “Nevertheless, neither is the man without the woman, nor the woman without the man, in the Lord.”

Thus, because he had given great superiority to the man, having said that the woman is of him and for him and under him; that he might neither lift up the men more than was due nor depress the women, see how he brings in the correction, saying, “Howbeit neither is the man without the woman, nor the woman without the man, in the Lord.” “Examine not, I pray,” saith he, “the first things only, and that creation. Since if thou enquire into what comes after, each one of the two is the cause of the other; or rather not even thus each of the other, but God of all.” Wherefore he saith, “neither is the man without the woman, nor the woman without the man, in the Lord.”

Ver. 12. “For as the woman is of the man, so is the man also by the woman.”

He said not, “of the woman,” but he repeats the expression, (from v. 7.) “of the man.” For still this particular prerogative remains entire with the man. Yet are not these excellencies the property of the man, but of God. Wherefore also he adds, “but all things of God.” If therefore all things belong to God, and he commands these things, do thou obey and gainsay not.

Ver. 13. “Judge in yourselves: is it seemly that a woman pray unto God unveiled?” Again he places them as judges of the things said, which also he did respecting the idol-sacrifices. For as there he saith, “judge ye what I say:” (c. x. 15.) so here, “judge in yourselves:” and he hints something more awful here. For he says that the affront here passes on unto God: although thus indeed he doth not express himself, but in something of a milder and more enigmatical form of speech: “is it seemly that a woman pray unto God unveiled?”

Ver. 14. “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that if a man have long hair, it is a dishonor unto him?”

Ver. 15. “But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given her for a covering.”

His constant practice of stating commonly received reasons he adopts also in this place, betaking himself to the common custom, and greatly abashing those who waited to be taught these things from him, which even from men’s ordinary practice they might have learned. For such things are not unknown even to barbarians; and see how he everywhere deals in piercing expressions: “every man praying having his head covered dishonoreth his head;” and again, “but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be veiled:” and here again, “if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him; but if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her, for her hair is given her for a covering.”

“And if it be given her for a covering,” say you, “wherefore need she add another covering?” That not nature only, but also her own will may have part in her acknowledgment of subjection. For that thou oughtest to be covered nature herself by anticipation enacted a law. Add now, I pray, thine own part also, that thou mayest not seem to subvert the very laws of nature; a proof of most insolent rashness, to buffet not only with us, but with nature also. This is why God accusing the Jews said, (Ezek. xvi. 21, 22.) “Thou hast slain thy sons and thy daughters: this is beyond all thy abominations.”

And again, Paul rebuking the unclean among the Romans thus aggravates the accusation, saying that their usage was not only against the law of God, but even against nature. “For they changed the natural use into that which is against nature.” (Rom. i. 26.) For this cause, then, here also he employs this argument signifying this very thing, both that he is not enacting any strange law and that among Gentiles their inventions would all be reckoned as a kind of novelty against nature.

So also Christ, implying the same, said, “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them;” showing that He is not introducing anything new.

Ver. 16. “But if any man seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.”

It is then contentiousness to oppose these things, and not any exercise of reason. Notwithstanding, even thus it is a measured sort of rebuke which he adopts, to fill them the more with self-reproach; which in truth rendered his saying the more severe. “For we,” saith he, “have no such custom,” so as to contend and to strive and to oppose ourselves. And he stopped not even here, but also added, “neither the churches of God;” signifying that they resist and oppose themselves to the whole world by not yielding. However, even if the Corinthians were then contentious, yet now the whole world hath both received and kept this law. So great is the power of the Crucified.

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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st Series, Vol. XII, ed. by P. Schaff, Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, pp. 151-157.

 


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