Q&A: Biblical Hair

Biblical Hair

Question

1 Corinthians 11:2-16 seems to indicate that women are to wear a head covering while in the worship service. What is the text saying when it refers to a woman dishonoring her head? I am curious because it says that the head of man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and that the head of Christ is God. I know that in essence Christ and the Father are equal but that the Father is positionally superior in the Godhead; likewise men and women are image bearers equally, but in the creation order men are positionally over women (marriage, church office). What's going on here? Are women to wear head coverings as a universal sign of submission? Or is the passage referring to head coverings as a cultural expression of the universal principle of male headship? Also, is a man disqualified from office because he wears his hair in a ponytail?

Answer

Many commentators have suggested various ways that all the headships listed in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 are parallel, but none really holds water. The fact is, "headship" itself is the only consistent thing in those relationships, but the nature of "headship" changes from one relationship to the next. Paul's point was that wives (not women in general) ought to honor their husbands in public worship (honoring others in worship is a theme that runs through 1 Cor. 11-14). The problem with the issue of head coverings is that we don't really know why head coverings were perceived as honoring to husbands when worn by wives in worship. For my money, head coverings were a culturally specific way that wives in the first century were to show respect for their husbands in worship, but we don't know why it was perceived as such.

As to the issue of long hair on men, my hair is past my beltline, so I'm a bit biased on the issue. In any event, many commentators have suggested that Paul was referring to general revelation, to contemporary culture, to contemporary philosophy, or to any number of other things. But as I have researched original sources behind these arguments, none of them really seems to stand the test. Moreover, the Bible actually presents long hair on men as a positive thing with regard to the Nazirites (Num. 6) and Absalom (1 Sam. 14:25-26). Frankly, I don't think we have a clue what Paul was talking about at this point, other than the basic idea that he was encouraging women to honor their husbands in worship. Beyond that, I would say that Paul would have contradicted Scripture if he had argued that long hair on men was sinful or inappropriate in and of itself. Thus, his argument must have been culturally conditioned.

And as to long hair on women/wives, archaeological artifacts indicate that in Corinth around this time respectable women wore short hair or long hair. And the Bible itself never indicates in any other passage that long hair should be the norm on women/wives. So, we really don't know the basis for Paul's comments when he spoke of it being shameful for a woman to have short hair (which by the way is much more common in today's churches than is long hair on men). There must have been a very specific reason that this was important in Corinth, and I would argue that the silence of the rest of the Bible on this matter indicates that the reason was probably culturally conditioned.

In summary, I think women and men today can wear short or long hair, if the culture permits it, and that they may or may not wear hats, veils, hair up or down, etc. on the same basis. On the other hand, there may other things that cultures require of women to demonstrate respect for their husbands that were not issues in Corinth, but which become legitimate issues today. As a completely hypothetical example, perhaps in some cultures a woman shows public disrespect for her husband if she waves with her left hand. In that culture, Paul's principle here would require that she not do that in public worship.


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.