Concerning the Tradition of Long Hair and Beards

The question of the appropriateness of long hair and beards is frequently put to traditional Orthodox clergy. A comprehensive article appeared in Orthodox Life concerning clergy dress in the J./F. 1991 issue. At this time we would like to address the topic of clergy appearance, i.e. hair and beards.

Anyone looking at photographs and portraits of clergy in Greece, Russia, Rumania, and other Orthodox countries taken in the early twentieth century will notice that almost without exception both the monastic and married clergy, priests and deacons, wore untrimmed beards and hair. Only after the First World War do we observe a new, modern look, cropped hair and beardless clergy. This fashion has been continued among some of the clergy to our own day. If one were to investigate this phenomenon in terms of a single clergyman whose life spanned the greater part of our century one would probably notice his style modernize from the first photographs up through the last.

There are two reasons given as an explanation for this change: it is said, "One must conform with fashion, we cannot look like peasants!" Or even more absurd, "My wife will not allow it!". Such reasoning is the "dogmatic" line of modernists who either desire to imitate contemporary fashion (if beards are "in," they wear beards, if beards are "out," they shave), or are ecumenically minded, not wanting to offend clergy in denominations outside the Orthodox Church. The other reason is based on a passage of Holy Scripture where Saint Paul states, Both not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? (I Cor. 11:14) In answer to the first justification, Orthodox tradition directly condemns Modernism and Ecumenism. It is necessary however to deal in more detail with the argument that bases its premise on Holy Scripture.

Orthodox Christian piety begins in the Holy Tradition of the Old Testament. Our relationship to the Lord God, holiness, worship, and morality was formed in the ancient times of the Bible. At the time of the foundation of the priesthood the Lord gave the following commandments to the priests during periods of mourning, And ye shall not shave your head for the dead [a pagan practice] with a baldness on the top; and they shall not shave their beard... (Lev. 21:5), and to all men in general, Ye shall not make a round cutting of the hair of your head, nor disfigure your beard (Lev. 19:27). The significance of these commandments is to illustrate that the clergy are to devote themselves completely to serving the Lord. Laymen as well are called to a similar service though without the priestly functions. This out ward appearance as a commandment was repeated in the law given to the Nazarene, a razor shall not come upon his head, until the days be fulfilled which he vowed to the Lord: he shall be holy, cherishing the long hair of the head all the days of his vow to the Lord... (Numbers 6:5-6).

The significance of the Nazarene vow was a sign of God's power resting on the person who made it. To cut off the hair meant to cut off God's power as in the example of Samson (see Judges 16:17-19). The strength of these pious observances, transmitted to the New Testament Church, were observed without question till our present times of willfulness and the apostasy resulting from it. Why, one might ask, do those Orthodox clergymen, while rejecting the above pious ordinances about hair, continue to observe the custom of granting various head coverings to clergy, a practice which also has its roots in the ancient ordinances of the Old Testament (cf. Ex. 24:4-6) and the tradition of the early Church (see Fusebius and Epiphanius of Cyprus concerning the miters worn by the Apostles John and James)?

The Apostle Paul himself wore his hair long as we can conclude from the following passage where it is mentioned that "head bands," [Webmaster note: he then cites the Slavonic word using a special font. Consult the original article if needed.], and "towels" touched to his body were placed on the sick to heal them. The "head bands" indicate the length of his hair (in accor dance with pious custom) which had to be tied back in order to keep it in place (cf. Acts 19:12). The historian Egezit writes that the Apostle James, the head of the church in Jerusalem, never cut his hair (Christian Reading, Feb. 1898, p.142, [in Russian]).

If the pious practice among clergy and laity in the Christian community was to follow the example of the Old Testament, how then are we to understand the words of Saint Paul to the Corinthians cited earlier (I Cor. 11:14)? Saint Paul in the cited passage is addressing men and woman who are praying (cf. I Cor. 11:3-4). His words in the above passages, as well as in other passages concerning head coverings (cf. I Cor. 11: 4-7), are directed to laymen, not clergy. In other passages Saint Paul makes an obvious distinction between the clerical and lay rank (cf. I Cor. 4:1, I Tim. 4:6, Col. 1:7, and others). He did not oppose the Old Testament ordinance in regard to hair and beards since, as we have noted above, he himself observed it, as did Our Lord Himself, Who is depicted on all occasions with long hair and beard as the Great High Priest of the new Christian priest hood.

In our passage noted previously, Both not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? (I Cor. 11:14) Saint Paul uses the Greek word for "hair." This particular word for hair designates hair as an a ornament (the notion of length being only secondary and suggested), differing from [Gr.] thrix (the anatomical or physical term for hair). [1] Saint Paul's selection of words emphasizes his criticism of laymen wearing their hair in a stylized fashion, which was contrary to pious Jewish and Christian love of modesty. We note the same approach to hair as that of Saint Paul in the 96th canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council where it states: "Those therefore who adorn and arrange their hair to the detri ment of those who see them, that is by cunningly devised intertwinings, and by this means put a bait in the way of unstable souls." [2]

In another source, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, we read the follow ing concerning the Old Testament practice: "To an extent, hair style was a matter of fashion, at least among the upper classes, who were particularly open to foreign [pagan] influence. Nevertheless, long hair appears to have been the rule among the Hebrews (cf. Ezek. 8:3), both men and women" [3] (cf. Cant 4:1; 7:5). Thus we observe that cropped or stylized hair was the fashion among the pagans and not acceptable, especially among the Christian clergy from most ancient times up to our contemporary break with Holy Tradition. It is interesting to note that the fashion of cropped or stylized hair and shaved beards found its way into the Roman Catholic and Protestant worlds. So important had this pagan custom be come for Roman clergy by the 11th Century that it was listed among the reasons for the Anathema pronounced by Cardinal Humbert on July 15, 1054 against Patriarch Michael in Constantinople which precipitated the Western Church's final falling away from the Orthodox Church: "While wearing beards and long hair you [Eastern Orthodox] reject the bond of brotherhood with the Roman clergy, since they shave and cut their hair." [!] [4]

Igumen Luke


* Webmaster note: In the original article footnotes 2 and 3 were reversed in the text and footnotes.

1) Joseph Thayer D. D., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 354.

2) The Rudder, trans. by D. Cummings, p. 403.

3) A. C. Myers ed., The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, p.455

4) N. N. Voekov, The Church, Russia, and Rome, (in Russian), p. 98.

From Orthodox Life, Vol. 45, No. 5 (Sept-Oct 1995), pp. 41-43.

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Uncut Hair and Beards of the Clergy

You often state that clergy must not cut their hair and beards. There are church canons to support this and certainly it is part of church tradition. But you also know that St. Paul says that men should not have long hair and that certain church canons even allow for a monk with hair that is too long to cut it, as well as to cut his hair when he is away from the monastery. I would like your guidance on this apparent contradiction in tradition. (Fr. J.K., MA)

Your comments are intelligently stated and do not, as is often the case, seek to dispense with a difficult discipline—the uncut hair and beard of Orthodox clergy—by posing false contradictions in practice. The tradition of maintaining uncut hair and beard among the monastic and married clergy no doubt traces back to the ascetics of the desert. Just as monastic practice has influenced parish worship, so monastic dress and grooming have played an observable role in establishing the standard for clerical dress among married Priests. Except among "Westernized" Orthodox, with their anti-monastic bias, this influence by the barometer of spiritual life, the monastic estate, on the so-called "secular" clergy has always been thought positive.

Since an ascetic monastic foregoes the cutting of his hair and beard in order to avoid vanity, this custom has a practical purpose. Thus, it is obvious that a monastic would also avoid looking effeminate or styling his hair. It is for this reason that, if his hair gets too long, such that it resembles that of a woman, a monastic may ask his superior to cut it. When he goes out into the world, too, he should, in such circumstances, trim his hair and keep it tied up in back, as is the custom in the Greek and some Slavic Churches. This is in keeping with the spirit of St. Paul's admonition against men having long hair like that of women, when this admonition is read in context.

What we must understand, here, is that the cutting of hair in all of these instances means nothing more than trimming off hair that falls below the middle of the back. We are not talking about the modern haircut, which is, in fact, the equivalent of the desecration of the head that led to Samson's loss of strength and power. Clergymen are, therefore, unjustified in cutting their hair in the modern style, which is almost unknown in Christian history, until recent centuries. With regard to shaving, the Old Testament, the Church Fathers, and the Canons forbid a clergyman to cut his beard. One of the observations made by the Orthodox against the Popes during the union councils (and repeated by a number of Orthodox Fathers in modern times) was that, as they began to deviate from the Apostolic Faith, they also, oddly enough, began to shave off their beards. Moreover, not only should clergymen not shave, according to various Church authorities, but many holy men, such as St. Kosmas Aitolos, hold that laymen should let their beards, or least a moustache, grow naturally.

All of this does not, of course, mean that an Orthodox clergyman should not be clean and well groomed. The Canons allow for the trimming of the moustache (primarily for the purpose of insuring care in taking Holy Communion), and certainly by economy a Priest can trim his beard slightly, if he has to hold a secular job. Long hair should also be tied up in back or tucked under the collar, for which reason it rarely presents a problem for a working Priest who truly wishes to abide by canonical exactitude. (And by Priest, here, we mean, of course, both the Presbyter and the Deacon.) Nor would we argue that a beard and uncut hair are the sure signs of a good Priest. They are, as Bishop Chrysostomos of Etna always tells us, no more or less important to a Priest than "feathers are to a bird."

Finally, in anticipation of those who oppose the canonical disciplines placed on Orthodox clergy, let us acknowledge that some monks, in the history of the Church, maintained a tonsure which involved cutting hair from the top of the head. This was one of many customs which did not last, and is not an argument against the living tradition of the Church as it has survived today, which assigns to monastics and "secular" clergy alike the discipline of leaving the hair and beard uncut, This discipline, combined with adherence to the canonical dress of the clergy (in Church, on the street, and at home), is a powerful deterrent against improper behavior on the part of Priests, who should be moral exemplars for the people, and provides a vivid witness of the peculiar nature to the people of God, the Christians.

St. Tikhon and Clerical Appearance

When Patriarch St. Tikhon was Bishop in America early this century, he ordered his clergy to shave and wear Western clerical dress. What does this say of your "traditional" dress? (J.K., NJ)

We have seen only one directive attributed to St. Tikhon on this subject, and it by no means "orders" clergy in America under his jurisdiction to abandon traditional Orthodox dress and grooming. It is also well known that the late Father Georges Florovsky disputed the authenticity of this directive. Whatever the case, St. Tikhon did openly speak of a distinction between the "essentials" and "accidentals" of the Faith, allowing for a number of innovations, including some in clerical appearance. A distinction of the kind made by the Saint is atypical in Orthodoxy, wherein "externals" (matters of apparent accident) are thought to reflect and to be inseparable from an "internal" (or essential) reality. St. Tikhon of course embraced this principle, and his deviation from it merely entailed practical accommodations necessitated by difficulties facing the early Orthodox immigration to America. It is both dishonest and an insult to the Saint's memory that his use of justifiable oikonomia in what was then a relatively new mission is now invoked as a standard of Orthodox practice in a local Church that is more than two centuries old.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XII, No. 3, pp. 19-21.

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St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite's Comments on Canon 96 of the Sixth Oecumenical Synod

Those too incur the excommunication of this Canon, according to Zonaras, who do not put a razor to their head at all, nor cut the hair of their head, but let it grow long enough to reach to the belt like that of women, and those who bleach their hair so as to make it blond or golden, or who twist it up and tie it on spills in order to make it curly; or who put wigs or “rats” on their head. This excommunication is incurred also by those who shave off their beard in order to make their face smooth and handsome after such treatment, and not to have it curly, or in order to appear at all times like beardless young men; and those who singe the hair of their beard with a red-hot tile so as to remove any that is longer than the rest, or more crooked; or who use tweezers to pluck out the superfluous hairs on their face, in order to become tender and appear handsome; or who dye their beard, in order not to appear to be old men. This same excommunication is incurred also by those women who use rouge and paint on their face, in order to look pretty, and in this way to attract men beholding them to their Satanic love. Oh, and how the miserable women have the hardihood to dishonor the image which God gave them with their wicked beautifications! Ah! how is God to recognize them and tell whether they are His own creatures and images, at a time when they are wearing another face which is devilish, and another image, which is that of Satan? Hence it is that St. Gregory the Theologian says the following in his epic verses:

“Build yourselves not towers of spurious tresses on your head, women,
While petting soft necks of rocks invisible;
Nor apply shameful paint to forms of God’s,
So as to be wearing masks, and not faces.
Lest God requite you for such things when He has come to resent them.
Who? Whence is the Creator? Avaunt, get thee away from me, strange female!
I did not paint thee a bitch, but created an image of myself.
How is it that I have an idol, a specter instead of a friend?”

And the poor wretches do not know that by what they are doing they are managing only to make themselves like that hag and whore called Jezebel (II Kings 9:30), and are themselves becoming new and second Jezebels, because she too used to paint her face in order to please the eyes of men, just as is written: “And when Jehu was come to Jezreel, Jezebel heard of him; and she painted her face, and attired her head, and peeped through the window” (ibid.). So all men and all women who do such things are all excommunicated by the present Ecumenical Council. And is these things are forbidden to be done by the laity in general, how much more they are forbidden to clerics and those in holy orders, who ought by their speech and by their conduct, and by the outward decency and plainness of their garments, and of their hair, and of their beard, to teach the laity not to be body-lovers and exquisites, but soul-lovers and virtue- lovers. Note that the present Canon censures the priests of the Latins who shave off their moustache and their beard and who look like very young men and handsome bridegrooms and have the face of women. For God forbids men of the laity in general to shave their beard, by saying: “Ye shall not mar the appearance of your bearded chin” (Lev. 19:27). But He specially forbids those in holy orders to shave their beard, by saying to Moses to tell the sons of Aaron, or, in other words, the priests, not to shave the skin of their bearded chin (Lev. 21:5). Not only did He forbid this in words, but He even appeared to Daniel with whiskers and beard as the Ancient of Days (Dan. 7:9); and the Son of God wore a beard while he was alive in the flesh. And our Forefathers and Patriarchs and Prophets and Apostles all wore beards, as is plainly evident from the most ancient pictures of them wherein they are painted with beards. But, more to the point, even the saints in Italy, like St. Ambrose, the father of monks Benedict, Gregory Dialogus, and the rest, all had beards, as they appear in their pictures painted in the church of St. Mark in Venice. Why, even the judgment of right reason decides the shaving of the beard to be improper. For the beard is the difference which in respect of appearance distinguishes a woman from a man. That is why a certain philosopher when asked why he grew a beard and whiskers, replied that as often as he stroked his beard and whiskers he felt that he was a man, and not a woman. Those men who shave their beard are not possessors of a manly face, but of a womanly face. Hence it was that Epiphanius blamed the Massalians for cutting off their beard, which is the visage peculiar to man as distinguished from woman. The Apostles in their Injunctions, Book I, ch.3, command that no one shall destroy the hair of his beard, and change the natural visage of the man into one that is unnatural. “For,” says he, “God the Creator made this to be becoming to women, but deemed it to be out of harmony with men.” The innovation of shaving the beard ensued in the Roman Church a little before Leo IX, Gregory VII even resorted to force in order to make bishops and clerics shave off their beard. Oh, and what a most ugly and most disgusting sight it is to see the successor of St. Peter close-shaven, as the Greeks say, like a “fine bridegroom,” with this difference, however, that he wears a stole and a pallium, and sits in the chief seat among a large number of other men like him in a council called the college of cardinals, while he himself is styled the Pope. Yet bearded Popes did not become extinct after insane Gregory, a witness to this fact being Pope Gelasius growing a beard, as is stated in his biography. See the Dodecabiblus of Dositheus, pp. 776-8. Meletius the Confessor (subject 7, concerning unleavened wafers) states that a certain Pope by the name of Peter on account of his lascivious acts was arrested by the king and one half of his beard was shaven off as ‘a mark of dishonor. According to another authority, in other temples too there were princes, even on the sacerdotal list, who had a beard, as in Leipzig they are to be seen painted after Martin Luther in the church called St. Paul’s and that called St, Thomas’s. I saw the same things also in Bardislabia.

From The Rudder, pp. 403-405.