Long Hair and the Bible
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? (1 Corinthians 11: 14-15, NIV)
Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, 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 (1 Corinthians 11: 14-15, KJV)
I am a man and I have long hair. What does the Bible say about this? The response a lot of conservative Christians give will be to quote 1st Corinthians 11:14-15 (above) and tell me that it is wrong for a man to have long hair. Obviously, I don’t agree with this. Understanding this verse is interesting, and by studying it we can learn a lot more about the Bible and how to apply the teachings of the New Testament to our everyday lives.
There are two things that 1st Corinthians 11:14 could mean: either
- It is always wrong for a man to have long hair; or
- It is sometimes wrong for a man to have long hair.
Lets look at the first option. Can it be that it is always wrong for a man to have long hair? The answer is obviously no. Consider the Nazarite vow in Numbers 6:
Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When either man or woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a Nazarite, to separate themselves unto the LORD: … All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head: until the days be fulfilled, in the which he separateth himself unto the LORD, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow. (Numbers 6: 2, 5)
Nazarites were holy men. There was nothing shameful about their long hair. Although most people who took the Nazarite vow took it for a fixed, and fairly short, period of time, such as 100 days, there were men who were lifelong Nazarites, such as Samson (Judges 13:5) and Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11). The Nazarite vow shows that it is not always wrong for a man to have long hair. There is no universal “law of nature” that dictates that men ought to have short hair. We can safely conclude that 1st Corinthians 11:14 means it is only sometimes wrong for a man to have long hair.
We can come to the same conclusion just looking at 1 Corinthians 11:14 itself. The verse itself uses cultural specific phrases – not something we would expect to find in a verse telling us about a universal law. Consider the phrase “long hair”. Long is a culturally relative term. Most of the men of my age in my office have very short hair – a fraction of an inch long at most. Long hair for the twenty- and thirtysomethings in my workplace would be two or three inches. In the 1970s men with four-inch-long hair would have been considered short-haired.
The most interesting culture-specific phrase in 1 Corinthians 11:14 is “nature itself”. It is tempting to read this as implying there is a universal law of nature that prohibits long hair on men, but the Nazarite vow shows that this is not true. It is also tempting to read this as pointing to the animal kingdom – no male animal has long hair, so human males shouldn’t. Again, this can’t be the case. Even ignoring the lion’s mane, there is no animal that cuts its hair, so cutting hair is far “unnatural” than long hair.
The anthropologist John J. Winkler has this to say about “nature”:
Indeed, what “natural” means in many such contexts is precisely “conventional and proper”. The word “unnatural” in contexts of human behaviour quite regularly means “seriously unconventional”. (John J. Winkler, The Constraints of Desire, page 17)
When Paul writes “Doth not even nature itself teach you…” he seems to be using “nature” in the way that Winkler describes. Paul’s meaning is close to “Does not even social convention teach you…”
1 Corinthians 11:14 could only mean that it is sometimes wrong for a man to have long hair. But when is it wrong? In verse 13, Paul tells us to “Judge for yourselves”. 1 Corinthians 11:14 gives us all the information we need to judge for ourselves: “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?” When is it wrong? It is wrong when nature – “social convention” – tells you it is shameful. It is wrong when the culture you are living in tells you it is wrong. In the Western world, long hair in men is perfectly acceptable – so Christian men in the West may of course have long hair. (I don’t know enough about non-Western cultures to make any comments there, but the rule still applies: if society says long hair is OK, then it is OK for Christian men.)
Why was Paul concerned about the Corinthians adhering to hair-length standards in the surrounding culture? When Paul wrote the first letter to the Corinthians he was writing to a church that was disrespectful to God and disorderly in the eyes of the surrounding people. This was not what the church was supposed to be. It was supposed to be an ordered and respectful organisation. “If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?” Paul was concerned about how the church appeared to unbelievers. “Let all things,” writes Paul, “be done decently and in order.” (1 Co 14:23,40). Paul was concerned about men’s hair length, not because of some violation of a universal law of nature, but because the first century Christians had to behave in a way that the other Corinthians found respectable.
The epistles in the New Testament were written, first and foremost, to groups of Christians in the first century. The instructions and advice that they contain were not always applicable to other groups of first century Christians, and they are not always applicable to us, living in the 21st century. We can’t pluck one verse out of context – that is out of its literary context or out of its cultural context – and generalise to get a hard and fast rule to live by today.