Nature is not the green trees and gentle brooks, the majestic mountains or wide open prairies – at least, not in 1 Corinthians 11. The ancient Greek understanding of ‘nature’ is (1.) The thing from which a thing grows without interference and (2.) The tendency of a thing to grow without interference. It is is the nature of a plant that causes it to grow, and it is the plant’s nature to grow only so much as is natural for it to grow.
“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?”
One thing that’s pretty circular about this reasoning is to put it into a modern context: it’s a modern belief that short hair is preferable to long hair on men because the Bible said that nature says it’s a disgrace. If nature is a constant, then we should be able to see that even without the Bible, long hair is a disgrace for men. It’s a modern belief that long hair is preferable to short hair on women because the Bible said that nature says it’s a disgrace. If nature is a constant, then we should be able to see that even without withe Bible, short hair is a disgrace for women.
But we’ve come to culturally accept long hair on men and short hair for women. For the former, rock stars proved that guys could rock long hair just as much as their music; it was also a counter-cultural statement because of the times they lived in. Today we have Troy Polamalu who is known for his famous locks of long hair. We’ve also seen the rise of the popularity of short permed hair and styles such as the Pixie Cut for women. Either way, it is the nature of hair to grow; without interference, for most of us our hair would grow long. We assign no labels of ‘shameful’ or ‘disgraceful’ at particular lengths for men or women.
But that wasn’t the case in Paul’s day; for one, the Roman’s considered the long-haired barbarians to be uncivilized. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, published in 8 A.D. detailed the long-standing cultural belief that long hair on men meant effeminacy, decadence, and lasciviousness. Only Greek scholars were permitted to have long hair, and that was due to their tendency to be so focused on learning that they never really bothered with maintaining shorter hair. Slaves, on the other hand, had such little status that they were expected to have short hair. By the middle ages, men who had long hair had greater status and wealth than those who did not. Sometimes long hair came to be associated with loyalty, other times – rebellion. Sometimes it was a symbol of devout faith or a lack there-of. Hair lengths, their meaning, how appropriate they are – have always varied from one culture to the next. ‘Shameful’ or ‘disgraceful’ is a cultural label that is not evident in the nature of hair; in it’s tendency to grow. It’s not as if a man’s hair has a tendency to grow to ‘short’ and once it reaches that point it decides not to grow any longer or women’s hair has a tendency to grow ‘long’ and to keep on growing past ‘short’ until it gets there.
If one is so inclined to understand this verse in this context: “The Bible says that hair lengths denote gender differences, long hair for women and short hair for men because of nature. Therefore, defying nature by having short hair for women and long hair for men is shameful because women are not trying to be womanly, but manly and men are not trying to be manly, but womanly.” then there’s precious little room left for argument about what the person believes about what is meant by nature/natural. I would like to point out that if nature supported their belief, then without interference men would have shorter hair than women. But that’s one of those things they’ll never find out for once a man’s hair is grown to a certain length, they interfere with it to keep it short. At any rate, this ‘natural’ tendency is the reason why the assert that women must wear a head covering over their natural covering of long hair and men mustn’t wear a head covering over their natural covering of short hair because it’s glorious. Paul had, at one point, undertaken a Nazarite vow that involved not cutting his hair; then he had to shave it all off. One would think this would have given him perspective as to the management of both long and short hair.
Long hair is glorious on anyone – and that’s to a point. Short hair can make a few decades vanish, which is probably why it’s the hairstyle of choice for many elderly women in Christian churches (which, apparently, isn’t a problem). The Seven Sutherland sisters were famous for their floor-length hair. They even traveled with the circus – Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. Long hair stops being glorious long before it stops being long; in times when it gets in the way, trips people up, weighs you down, is a target for being pulled, and is expensive to maintain. That’s why so few people tolerate really long hair, they get annoyed with it whenever they decide it’s a problem. It’s a problem at different lengths for different people. For some too short of hair gets too curly for some too long of hair gets too tangled. Some can’t really grow long hair because of genetics.
To be honest, when I came to believe in freedom in Christ, that included human rules about style and fashion. It never occurred to me that there would be biblical rules about hair length to contend with. I couldn’t imagine Jesus getting a letter like this: “Dear J.C.; Love what you did on the cross. I feel so free. Just a minor question – my hair is medium length ought I to grow it or cut it?” I can understand the difficult choice that has to be made – if he says ‘cut it’ then a new batch of legalistic rules will be made about how long is too long and how short is too short; same goes if he says ‘grow it’. In fact, that’s exactly what has happened because of this verse – some churches don’t let women cut their hair and require men to cut their hair short. I’ve read the testimony of a pastor who used to have long hair until he read this verse and decided that he had been disobedient so he had his hair cut. If we’ve gotten to a point where we’re so busy checking each others haircuts and hairstyles to see if they’re sufficiently masculine or feminine and yet we fail to care for the poor, feed the hungry, visit the ill and the prisoners in our midst – then we’ve very much missed the point of the gospel. I know, most groups that do care about hair say they can do both – but I’d wager their attention is divided and they can’t do both very well.
What is human nature is to use anything, any rule, any teaching to assert power and control, to chose who’s in and who’s out. Verses like this one play into that all too well. Having the power to decide how long long hair is and how short short hair is and which hairstyles are feminine and which hairstyles are masculine and what treatment is fitting to people with the wrong hair and what punishment ought to be dealt to those whose hair doesn’t fit within the prescribed limits and refuse to change does tend to go to someone’s head. It’s what the Christians did when they tried to Christianize Native Americans by requiring them to cut their hair and abandon their own cultures. Even further back, when the English colonized Ireland, one of their first regulations was to order that Irish men and women cut their lengthy locks – in essence, turning back on their Irish heritage and any Englishmen who had long hair were viewed as Irish supporters – so one could easily tell a true Englishman by his or her short hair (though it seems to be the case that women tend to wear long hair and it’s put up in a bun, it seems that English women had shorter long hair than Irish women). Puritans were the sort to keep their hair short, and their chief opponents in the English Civil War, the Cavaliers, tended to wear longer hair. This is not the kind of Christianity that Jesus died to create but is the kind of Christianity we have inherited because of the power that we have accumulated over centuries. When it comes to this verse and this passage, we have to remember Paul’s’ and Jesus’ advice is to fit into culture, not to war against it. They said that because in their day Romans made the rules and the Roman’s decided that it was natural for men to have short hair and women to have longer hair than men. Paul didn’t say it because he wanted it to be rule for all time, everywhere. Our own culture no longer cares about hair lengths and neither should we. Nature doesn’t teach us that it is a disgrace or a glory, nature teaches that it’s just hair.