After Paul takes us on a small aside in 1 Corinthians 11:11-12, he redirects us back to the main question he is answering from 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.
Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?
At this stage, Paul thinks it’s obvious. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? “Judge for yourselves.” You have only to look, and you can come to the right answer.
Look at what?
Paul says in verses 14-15a:
Does not the 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?
The phrase, “the nature of things” is speaking of both physical nature and the natural understanding arising from those things. Paul uses this very idea in Romans 1:26-27 when he talked about homosexuality.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
“Natural relations” refers to the male/female sexual relationship based on the way the bodies of man and woman complement each other. These relations are grounded in physical nature and confirm what we naturally understand to be the type of sexual relationship God intends us to have. All others are unnatural and shameful.
When Paul talks about long hair on men and women, he is following the same kind of argument. Nature teaches us that if a man has long hair, it is shameful, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory.
We wonder how and why. Paul tells us.
For long hair is given to her as a covering.
Some people jump here to the conclusion that long hair is the “covering” Paul was talking about before now, but the covering Paul means here is different – one that wraps around like a cloak (see Hebrews 1:12 (NIV) where the word is translated “robe”).
Since the purpose of long hair is to be a cloak-like covering for women, what would long hair cover on a woman that doesn’t need covering on men?
One woman suggested that long hair becomes a covering for breastfeeding mothers. Whether she is right or not about breastfeeding, when we remember that we are looking at answers grounded in physical nature, we can agree that long hair can cover the female chest, whereas men’s chests do not require covering.
This is a sensible way to read these verses. It uses physical nature to ground the view that it is shameful for man to have long hair and it is a glory for a woman (see also vv5-6 where Paul says short or no hair on a woman is shameful).
It also roots in our physical bodies the biblical characteristic of women covering both physically (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:9) and metaphorically (e.g., 1 Peter 3:1-6). Since it is a glory (womanly) for women to be covered with long hair, it is also a glory (womanly) for a woman to cover her head while praying to God.
It’s difficult to see how else these verses can be read.
There are lots of objections raised against these verses and this particular way of reading of these verses, but they are easily dealt with.
Objection #1: People today don’t think it’s shameful for a man to have long hair or shameful for a woman to have short hair.
Response #1: Paul is not dealing with a command when he talks about hair length. He is dealing with a generally accepted truth that he says is based in nature. Is it surprising that there are many people in our society who do not see long hair on a man as shameful or short hair on a woman – a society, mind you, that has got to the point where people cannot even define what a man or woman is?
Objection #2: Some women cannot grow their hair long.
Reponse #3: Is it surprising that there are women who find it difficult to grow their hair long, or who cannot? The way a woman cares for her body and hair affects her ability to grow long hair. Added to that, different types of hair grow faster or slower depending on their characteristics, but there is no particular type of hair that God has created that is unable to grow long. There are those unable to grow their hair long because of medical conditions, and while we don’t rejoice in this, we recognise that we live in a sin-corrupted world that affects our bodies and souls. A woman who cannot grow her hair long is not sinning, but neither is she an argument against the truths that Paul is appealing to in these verses.
Objection #3: Long hair goes down a woman’s back, not their front, so how can it cover their chests?
Response #3: Some men have protested that long hair hangs down a woman’s back and so cannot cover her front. I’m not sure what their experience of long hair is, but the objection is a non-starter. A woman’s long hair hangs down their back and their front depending on how they arrange it and where they move their head. Quite apart from that, the covering Paul is talking about “wraps around” like a cloak. How could long hair hanging down a woman’s back be a sound argument against what we suggest Paul means here?
Objection #4: God commanded men taking the Nazirite vow not to cut their hair.
Response #4: The Nazirite vow is an exception to the shame of men having long hair that proves the rule. God uses a physical marker for the vow that no other man would normally have to avoid confusion. It is God’s prerogative to take what would normally be shameful and infuse it with a godly meaning in certain circumstances.
Do we need to answer every objection on this, though? We see that nature teaches us that it is a glory for woman to have long hair as a covering, and therefore it is appropriate that they cover when they pray to God. That much we can get without going into the weeds and working out every last detail. Why go further?
This 1 Corinthians 11 passage that teaches head covering has been sorely neglected for at least the last half century. Before that, its teachings seemed so common sense that details did not really matter in the face of universal obedience.
Today, however, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is poured over by individuals and pockets of everyday Christians attempting to make sense of this biblical tradition. In the process, several wrong notes have been played as people try to follow Paul’s teaching. The ramifications of some of these discordant interpretations are minor; others have led to weird and worrying places.
It is important for Christians to challenge each other, to work and pray together toward a full understanding of this neglected tradition and the doctrine it upholds. With that in mind, challenge the above interpretation of verses 13-15 and what it says about nature.
But at this stage, it remains the best reading available.