Well, men should not wear long hair. At least, the apostle Paul says so. Why? Because nature says it’s unnatural. But how does Paul arrive at such a conclusion? Isn’t nature the reason why men can grow long hair in the first place? Today’s question comes from the one and only Dr. Andy Naselli, who asks this.
“Hello, Pastor John! Paul argues from ‘nature’ in both Romans 1:26–27 and 1 Corinthians 11:14–15. In Romans, Paul argues that same-sex passions and intercourse are ‘contrary to nature’ because they fundamentally rebel against God’s created design for sex. In 1 Corinthians, Paul asserts that ‘nature’ teaches that long hair on men and short hair on women are dishonorable. How do you reconcile those two passages?
“Is Paul using the word ‘nature’ in the same way? Or is he using the same word in different senses? It’s problematic to see Paul using ‘nature’ in exactly the same way in both passages. If you say they are both only cultural, then that opens the door to same-sex passions and intercourse being okay in other cultures. But if you say that they are both based on God’s created design, then you have to say that long hair on men and short hair on women are always wrong in every culture without exception. And, as a friendly reminder, Jonathan Edwards had long hair!”
Well, we will get to Jonathan Edwards in a minute. But this is a great question coming from Dr. Andy Naselli, professor of New Testament at Bethlehem College & Seminary. Even as we speak, he is writing a commentary on 1 Corinthians. I’m sure he knows way more than I do about this text and all the others.
This answer may sound a little complicated. I suggest that those who want to go deeper and think harder read a short article on this at Desiring God called “Creation, Culture, and Corinthian Prophetesses.” Let me state the problem and the solution as simply as I can, at least the solution as I see it.
First, let’s quote the two passages.
They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature [that’s the word Andy was referring to] and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:26–27)
Now, I think what Paul means by nature in this passage is who we are as male and female humans, designed by God with our built-in, God-designed natural differences — both physical, and more essentially, the deeper-than-physical, distinct realities of manhood and womanhood rooted in our God-designed male and female souls.
“The key question is, how does nature teach us that it’s disgraceful for a man to have long hair?”
Now, that’s a long definition of nature, but you can pause and go back and listen to it rather than me repeating it here. The implications for Paul are that we should conform our sexual relations to what God has designed our natural bodies for and written on our natural male and female souls. Homosexual intercourse, Paul says, is contrary to this nature and so is shameful and dishonorable.
Now, here’s the text in 1 Corinthians 11 that Andy is specifically focusing on, dealing with how women may properly pray and prophesy in mixed gatherings in Corinth in the first century. Here’s what he says: “Judge for yourselves: is it proper” — prepōn in Greek: fitting, seemly. That’s an interesting ethical category for Paul. It’s very important. “Is it proper” — is it seemly, fitting — “for a wife [woman] to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature [same word as in Romans 1:26] itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering” (1 Corinthians 11:13–15).
So a women takes her hair, wraps it up, and puts it on her head for a covering. Now, the key statement is, “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is a disgrace for him?” (1 Corinthians 11:14).
Andy asks, “Is Paul using the word nature in the same way in these two texts? Or is he using the same word in different senses?”
Then I think Andy makes a wrong assumption. Now, perhaps he’s doing this for the sake of asking the question, not because he’s got a settled conviction, but I think he states a wrong assumption for me to react to.
He says, “If you say they are both based on God’s created design, then you have to say long hair is wrong for men in every culture.” In other words, if they have the same meaning, and they refer to God’s created design, then you have to say that long hair on men and short hair on women are always wrong in every culture without exception.
My response is “No, you don’t.” This is not true. That’s a false inference from saying that the word nature has the same meaning in both texts. I do think Paul is using the word nature in the same way in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 11, at least essentially the same way.
I don’t think this demands that we think Paul was teaching that any particular length of hair in relation to women is a universal requirement. The key question is, how does nature teach us that it’s disgraceful for a man to have long hair?
What Does Nature Teach?
If you think about it, in one way nature teaches exactly the opposite of what Paul says. Male lions have longer hair; they have manes. Cocks have combs. Peacocks have long feathers and the female peahens don’t.
“Paul is saying that by nature a man feels shameful for wearing culturally defined symbols of womanhood.”
Human males, left to nature, will have just as much hair on their heads as women, and more hair on their faces. If you think one way, you seem to get the opposite of what Paul’s saying. But Paul’s not stupid. He could feel his cheek — he’s not stupid.
I don’t assume that Paul is thinking that way. I think Paul is saying that nature — that is, natural, intrinsic maleness — inclines a man to feel repulsed and shameful for wearing culturally defined symbols of womanhood. Paul is saying that nature — that is, natural, built-in, God-given, intrinsic maleness — inclines a man to feel repulsed and shameful by wearing the culturally defined symbols of womanhood.
If I walked into church five years ago, while I was still preaching, wearing a dress, high heels, stockings, long floppy earrings, and lipstick, the elders should hustle me off to a side room and with dismay say, “Pastor, doesn’t nature teach you not to wear a dress?”
They would be right. It does. It would be horrifically contrary to my maleness. Nature does teach me that. This is the very same nature that teaches me that having sex with a man is shameful. But this is not because kilts in Scotland are sinful or that long earrings on men in Papua New Guinea are sinful. This is because whatever culturally defined accompaniments of femininity are in a culture, a man’s nature as a male will find this — that Greek word prepōn — unseemly, improper, shameful, and repulsive.
Edwards on Long Hair
Since Andy mentioned Jonathan Edwards, maybe I should cite him, because he argues exactly this way in his blank Bible, his notes on Scripture. He’s got a long section on this with remarkable illustrations. I would love to give all of them, but let me just give one. Here’s a quote:
It is against nature in a proper sense, to bow down before an idol, because it is against nature to adore an idol; and bowing down, by universal custom, is used to denote adoration; but if bowing down by universal custom were used to denote contempt, it would not be against nature. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, II:800)
That’s brilliant. That’s exactly right. The universal truth that it is against nature to bow down to what is false becomes relative in its outward expression according to what customs denote adoration.
Here’s my summary. Did nature teach the Corinthians that if a man wears long hair, it is a disgrace for him? Yes, it did. Nature did because the God-designed, healthy male soul revolts against clothing himself in symbols of femininity, just like the God-designed, healthy female soul revolts against presenting herself as a man. That revolt from nature is a God-given teacher.