A Courteous Contrararian

Hair and Contemporary Culture

Written By: Jon - Jul• 03•12

Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.

If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice–nor do the churches of God. – 1Cr 11:13-16 NIV


To my mind, Paul is by far the most combative Apostle, and probably the most contentious writer in the whole of Scripture. Look at that last verse. Don’t argue with me. If you go to a church that condones woman with short hair or men with long – it’s not a church of God. Period.

That should have settled it but it didn’t. No iota of judgment flits through my mind when I see a woman with short hair or a men with long hair. Joel Osteen has long hair, yet that may be the one thing I’ve never heard him criticized for. Billy Graham had long hair in his prime.  So did Samson. Look what inadvertently following 1 Corithinans 11:14 did for him.

It seems as though God has always been interested in hair styles. Not only was Samson prohibited from crew-cuts, the Israelites were told not to cut their forelocks. The group of 70 (or so) that sojourned with Abram are listed, and there wasn’t a barber among them. But with the advent of Jesus, everything changed, at least according to Paul.

Today, I am careful to guard my eyes, especially at church. I don’t want to feed any possible lust. When I look at a woman, I concentrate on her face. I don’t look at woman unless she is looking at me. But I have one breach in my careful armor, a willful one. I look at the hair on the back of women’s heads.

How could I not? That is what is in front of me during services- the back’s of people’s heads. I look at the back of men’s heads, too, but as Paul boldly asserts, the back of men’s heads can’t compete with the back of women’s heads. Hair truly is one of a woman’s glories. It is shinier than a man’s hair of the same age, but that might be attributed to better care. It is also usually styled in a more interesting way. Men’s cuts compared to women’s are like rented tuxes compared to custom wedding dresses.

I get off track so easily. I have so many opinions and they are all equally valid in my mind. I meant to talk about Paul’s command.

We break it unthinkingly today, just like the early Christians broke the dietary laws. Various N.T. passages, especially in Paul writings and in Hebrews, explain the demise of the ceremonial law, but how did we ever justify ignoring Paul here? What was Billy Graham’s excuse?

Putting aside my personal considered opinion that Paul was having a bad day when he wrote this, I think the text leaves us a loophole. More properly, I think the Holy Spirit legislated a loophole and slipped it in, and Paul hadn’t the slightest notion that he was doing so.

We have no other practice–nor do the churches of God. This is a strange justification. Paul usually relies on his apostolic authority and doesn’t give a care what anyone else thinks.(Isn’t this the man who wrote of Peter and James, As for those who seemed to be important–whatever they were makes no difference to me. See why I say he’s combative?) Yet here he appeals to a contemporary consensus: Not only does Paul command no other practice, and not only does the church from which he writes have no other practice, the churches of God have no other practice. Paul’s last phrase is the Holy Spirit’s loophole, nor do the churches of God. Since it is one leg of a three-legged stool, once a leg is dismantled, the whole stool will topple.

What if we could show that a legitimate church of God does condone the practice? Does the stool stand? If so, perhaps Paul’s last reason wasn’t inspired. If the example of the churches of God doesn’t carry sufficient force to prove his argument, why would the Holy Spirit require it be written? My idea is that He required it so Paul would have made an unconscious appeal across different times and cultures.

Paul could not shed his inherent biases but showing or hiding them wasn’t his primary concern. His concern was their living witness. Women couldn’t wear short hair, or even speak in church, because it would have been viewed as unseemly by their pagan and Jewish neighbors. Just before this, he told the Corinthians not to eat food sacrificed to idols if it would offend someone. Whom would that offend but a Jew?

Paul was dealing with his contemporary culture’s expectations as they play off the Christian witness. The witness was more important than individual rights. A proper witness could bring people to Christ.

It was the same with slavery. He assumed it. His concern wasn’t to change anything but pagan opinions. Insurrection wouldn’t have brought others to Christ, but slaves and masters worshiping together was a potent witness. He wanted them to treat each other well, in and out of their times of gathering.

If Paul’s command was more a commentary on his cultural milieu, the Holy Spirit had the bigger picture in mind. The Spirit leaves another loophole in verse 10. By way of introduction to his little tripodal example, Paul writes, Judge for yourselves. I think he was being sarcastic, but the Spirit had other ideas. We can judge for ourselves, using Paul’s criteria.

The statement to judge and the appeal to the practice of other churches of God bracket this slight pericope. If, while judging for ourselves, we discover that the churches of God today have some other practice, we can disregard Paul’s pursuit of hirsute conformity. If we find in our churches short-haired women or long-haired men, all Roman era bets are off.

Might the same logic, the appeal to our contemporary Christian examples, apply to all of Paul’s cultural assumptions? We no longer prohibit women from speaking in church, either. Come to think of it, Paul didn’t even always heed his own advice. Look at this, from earlier in the same chapter,

And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head–it is just as though her head were shaved. – 1Cr 11:5 NIV

How could a woman prophesy if she couldn’t speak? I guess she could prophesize outside of church, but then whom would she prophesize to? If it was to other believers, then by definition it was being done in a gathering. Gathering is the word in Greek we usually translate as church. So in chapter 14 Paul prohibits women from speaking yet in this chapter, he acknowledges that they do. And since their speech is prophecy, clarification from God, it would seem that they must.

This inconsistency is one of the reasons that I contend Paul was having a bad day when he wrote this letter. There are more egregious examples, but we’ll save them for another day.

To me, the question isn’t only one of hair length or who gets to talk. It is a question of just how much stock we can put in any of Paul’s commands when they are given against the backdrop of the culture of his day. We might almost turn them upside down. If the churches of God practice something today that is not a good witness within our culture, like not allowing women to speak, perhaps they are the ones that need to change.




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