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Thursday, 7 June 2007

Head Covering and History

Should Christians be baptized in the nude?

My readers may wonder why I've started out an article on head covering with such a startling question. What reason, they may further inquire, could there possibly be for such a practice?

Well, this is an important question to keep in mind as we consider the historical ramifications of The Head Covering. Because you see, it is recorded in Church History that the early Christians practiced Nude Baptism. Despite a widespread desire to return to the practices of the Early Church, I know of no such practice today among adult Christians--in fact even the most modesty-obsessed sects today practice Mixed Baptism, as opposed to the practice of our spiritual forefathers who were accustomed to being surrounded only by members of the same gender when they emerged from the baptismal waters in their Birthday Suits.*

No Nude Baptism? Then we cannot use the practice of the Early Church as an infallible guide for own own. But how about the beliefs of the Church Fathers--can we not use them as a guide to understanding Scripture?

Is it of any significance that the women of the Early Church covered their heads in prayer, and that it was universally believed that such a covering must consist of something other than their own natural covering of long hair?

As it turns out, an entire treatise on the subject has come down to us from antiquity. Let's take a look at it. It's by Tertullian, who wrote around the turn of the 3rd century, and it's called On the Veiling of Virgins.

Let's establish a few things right off the bat:

1) By veil, Tertullian refers to a cloth covering coextant with the unbound hair:
The region of the veil is co-extensive with the space covered by the hair when unbound; in order that the necks too may be encircled.

2. In Tertullian's world, all Christian women recognize a need for such a distinct covering, although they are not always consistent in wearing one of sufficient size:
(who) even when about to spend time in prayer itself, with the utmost readiness place a fringe, or a tuft, or any thread whatever, on the crown of their heads, and suppose themselves to be covered?

3. It can be seen from the above quote that the recognized primary purpose of the Head Covering was to comply with the specific requirements of 1 Corinthians 11, although Tertullian's main point in this tractate was to urge the use of the Head Covering for reasons of modesty as well.

Tertullian assumes three basic points about the Head Covering; these are the undisputed facts, universal custom based on Scripture:

1) It is to characterize, along with long hair, the feminine gender
2) It is to be worn in conjunction with public worship and prayer
3) It serves two purposes: not only as a symbol of headship, but also as a protector of modesty.

Building on these assumptions, Tertullian makes the following applications, which he realizes are not universal in the Church, but supposes that they should be:
1) All females who have reached puberty should wear this sign of their gender--not just wives.
2) Women should customarily wear their hair completely covered so as no not have to grab for any old thing to plop on their heads when circumstances arise to require it.
3) Women should keep their hair out of view, not only among strangers, but also in the relaxed confines of the church.

Did Tertullian's applications establish an obligation for Christians of all time? No, he was giving his opinions and was certainly entitled to them, but they do not reflect the direct teaching of Scripture, nor the universal understanding of the Church.

But do Tertullian's writings serve any other purpose? Yes, they certainly do. They demonstrate that the undisputed interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11, among those who were in the best position to know, did not allow for the modern notion that Hair is the Covering. Whatever else it may have going for it, this interpretation flies in the face of two millennia of Church History.

Should we baptize in the nude? We have no reason for it, nor has any enduring sect of Christians seen any need to resurrect this ancient custom. It is not so much as hinted at in the New Testament, and goes against so much of what we do find there.

Should we cover our women? We have every reason to: the direct teaching of the Apostle, the testimony of saints of every age, and the unbroken custom of Christian women down through the centuries. Should it militate against the customs of our age, so be it; since when can any feature of Christianity be made comfortable to the unrepentant?

Postscript on Febuary 3, 2010:
Philip Payne posted the following interesting list of patristic quotes on the topic:
Macarius Aegyptius (d. c. AD 390), Homiliae spirituales 12.18, explicitly identifies the covering: “Question: Why is it said, ‘a woman praying with uncovered head?’ Answer: Since in the present apostolic time they have been permitted hair instead of a covering.” He specifically interprets 1 Cor 11:5 as referring to hair, not to a veil. Cf. See H. Dörries, E. Klostermann, and M. Kroeger, Die 50 geistlichen Homilien des Makarius (PTS 4; Berlin: DeGruyter, 1964.

Ambrose (c. AD 339–397), Duties of the Clergy 1.46.232, writes, “Is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered; doth not nature itself teach you that ‘If a woman have long hair, it is a glory unto her’? It is according to nature, since her hair is given her for a veil, for it is a natural veil.” NPNF2 10:37.

Chrysostom (c. AD 354–407) quotes 1 Cor 11:6b followed by 11:14b–15. He notes in hom. 26.4, “he said not, ‘let her have long hair,’ but, ‘let her be covered,’ ordaining both these to be one … he both affirms the covering and the hair to be one. . . But with regard to the man, it is no longer about covering but about wearing long hair, that he so forms his discourse. ‘Every man praying or prophesying, having any thing on his head, dishonoreth his head.’ He said not, ‘covered,’ but ‘having any thing 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.’”

Clement of Alexandria, Paed. 3.11, writes, “It is enough for women to protect their locks, and bind up their hair simply along the neck with a plain hair-pin, nourishing chaste locks with simple care to true beauty.” ANF 2:286.

A detailed commentary by John Chrysostom on 1 Corinthians 11 can be found here. Clue: It can't possibly refer just to hair.

It has come to my attention that the audiences at Christian baptisms were not this restricted.
 "Another Syrian woman, a servant called Mahya, was also stripped naked at her trial, but instead of feeling ashamed, she responded by saying:
It is to your shame … that you have done this; I am not ashamed of myself … I have been naked in the presence of men and women [referring to baptism] without feeling ashamed, for I am a woman – such as was created by God."  --Brock, S.P. and S.A. Harvey, 1987, Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, Berkeley.

However, I don't believe it. I looked up this quote, stripped of all the ellipses, and there is no reference to baptism--just to a loud, boisterous, and masculine woman who bragged of having been publicly naked many times.


  1. You wrote:
    "Should we baptize in the nude? We have no reason for it, nor has any enduring sect of Christians seen any need to resurrect this ancient custom. It is not so much as hinted at in the New Testament, and goes against so much of what we do find there."

    Actually it is not an 'ancient' custom, it is a still practiced custom... in Judaism. As it was in Jesus' day, so the Jews still baptize (mikveh) in the nude. The baptism itself has died back from its full OT rigor, but when they do baptize it is in the nude... which includes baptism of conversion.

    I don't think we will have churches converting back to this any time soon, but I would be interested in what you find in the NT that argues against this NT practice.

  2. The conclusion that nude baptism was not the practice of the NT church is inferred from the situation in Philippi, where Paul arrived to find a group of women worshiping at the river. He preached to them, whereupon Lydia and her household were baptized. Following this, the Jailer and his household were baptized. Since Paul and Silas were the only ones there to baptize, one of them would have had to baptize Lydia. It is a short jump from this to conclude that when Lydia's household were baptized, they did so fully clothed.

    One can argue, however, from the Apostolic Constitutions that it was thought no more inappropriate for a bishop to administer baptism to a nude woman than it would be now for a gynaecologist to administer a pelvic exam to a nude woman; the only requirement being that another woman be present, and that he touch her no more than necessary to the procedure.


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