Musings On Hair And Veils

By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)

When I first moved to Kentucky, I was blessed to meet so many wonderful people to study the Bible with.

Let me give you a few examples of what religious persuasions and doctrines I have been studying with:

With atheists, about the existence of God;

With agnostics, about the nature of truth;

With Druids, about the existence of the pagan gods and goddesses;

With Wiccans, about the goddess and the pagan trinity;

With Baptists, about the doctrine of salvation by faith only;

With Catholics, about the allegation that Peter was the first Pope;

With Pentecostals, about alleged modern day revelations;

With Community church members, about the differences between New Testament Christianity and inter-denominationalism;

With Muslims, about Jesus Christ versus Allah;

With Hindus, about their more than thirty million gods and goddesses, versus the one true God revealed in the inspired Word of God;

And on and on the list goes!

However, one of the most interesting Bible studies that has continually come up over the years has been the subject of hair and veils.

Many sincere disciples of Christ ask questions like the following:

Is it a sin for a woman to cut her hair?

Must a woman wear a veil in church services?

Does “nature” teach that a man who has long hair is sinning?

In this article, we are going to carefully consider some of these matters; but I do so with a disclaimer.

If you are a lady who believes that you should wear a veil during church services, that is your prerogative and I do not wish to suggest that you must take away that veil to be pleasing to God.

If you feel conscience-bound as a lady to not cut your hair, then do not cut your hair.

My intention in this study is to simply examine the relevant passages of Scripture, and then to leave the application to each individual.

Too many congregations have been divided over the “hair” and “veil” issue, and too many Christians have been hurt and offended over these things.

Let’s simply study the text and see what lessons we can learn from it, and then each one of us make application where necessary.

1 Corinthians 11:3-16

3    But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

4    Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head.

5    But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved.

6    For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.

7    For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.

8    For man is not from woman, but woman from man.

9    Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man.

10    For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

11    Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord.

12    For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.

13    Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?

14    Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him?

15    But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering.

16    But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

Starting With The Context  

The inspired Apostle Paul is addressing the Lord’s church located in the city of Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:1-3).

Corinth was a well-known city in antiquity. It’s residents were especially famous for their’ paganism and carnal lifestyles. One commentator has noted that in the ancient world, calling a man a Corinthian was analogous to calling an American in the sixties a Communist.

Located in the city was a temple of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, along with other shrines to her throughout the city. These pagan influences are mentioned throughout the Books of 1 and 2 Corinthians (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:4, 7, 10; 10:14-33; 2 Corinthians 6:11-18).

William Barclay provides us an excellent overview of the infestation of paganism in the city of Corinth:

“The very name Corinth was synonymous with debauchery; and there was one source of evil in the city which was known all over the civilized world. Above the isthmus towered the hill of the Acropolis, and on it stood the great temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. To that temple, there were attached 1,000 priestesses who were sacred prostitutes, and in the evenings they came down from the Acropolis and plied their trade on the streets of Corinth. Eventually, it became the subject of a Greek proverb: ‘It is not every man who can afford a journey to Corinth.’” (William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible: The Letters To The Corinthians, 3 (Kindle Edition); Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press)

Understanding this pagan connection is absolutely paramount to understanding what was going in the church at Corinth regarding the subject of veils and hair.

The church at Corinth was horribly divided (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). They had divided into factions over various preachers (I Corinthians 3:1-11), as well as over the prominence of false teaching (1 Corinthians 2:13; 4:1-6). They had brethren who were living in all kinds of publicly known sins (sexual and other-1 Corinthians 5:1-11), and brethren who were taking each other to court (1 Corinthians 6:1-6). There were some who were being influenced by the paganism of the unsaved Corinthians (1 Corinthians 8-9), which was tying over into the public worship and assemblies of the church.

From chapters 10-16 of 1 Corinthians, Paul deals especially with these matters of the public worship of the church.

In chapters 10-11, he deals with the abuses stemming from the veil and hair issues, as well as their sinful mishandling of the church in regards to the Lord’s Supper.

In chapters 12-14, he deals with the way that the Corinthians were misusing their miraculous spiritual gifts which were given through the laying on of the Apostles’ hands (cf. Acts 8:13-19; Romans 1:11).

In chapter 15, Paul addresses the public false teachings in which some were claiming Christ had not risen from the dead (despite the irrefutable case the Apostle laid out in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8).

Finally, in chapter 16 Paul deals with the collection of the saints (1 Corinthians 16:1-2) who were going through terrible famine (Romans 15:25-26) and which could also be used to help non-Christians (2 Corinthians 9:14-15).

The Cultural Clues 

It is in the midst of this discussion of the corruptions of the public worship of the church that Paul states what he does regarding the “hair” and “veils.”

Please notice that these corruptions are listed immediately after his discussions regarding the influences of the paganism in the city upon the Christians (1 Corinthians 8-9), suggesting that this influences plays a crucial role in what he writes regarding these matters. The Apostle was dealing with situations which were unique to Roman society, as will now be demonstrated.

Notice with me that the language of the passage shows that Paul is dealing with cultural issues here.

Carefully examining the original wording and cultural setting of the passage, brother Everett Ferguson (esteemed and noted scholar in the field of Church History) elaborates:

“Notice how Paul’s reasons for the head covering for women and its absence for men are loaded with the language of culture. (1) Honor or shame (disgrace) for the man— “any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head” (1 Corinthians 11:4- 5). (2) Shame (disgrace) to the woman— “It is one and the same thing as having her head shaved…. If it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil” (1 Corinthians 11:5- 6). (3) What is accepted as a sign of authority “For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head” (1 Corinthians 11:10). (Angels are perhaps invoked as witnesses to the order of creation.) (4) What is regarded by human beings as natural (that is, what is customarily done)— “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” (1 Corinthians 11:13- 15). (5) The practice of the churches “We have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16). Honor and shame were major considerations in determining conduct in the societies of the ancient Mediterranean world…Since a culture tends to regard its customs as the “natural” way to do things, as the established order of things, “nature” ( physis ) had as one of its derived meanings “[accepted] custom.” 14 Observe that all of the considerations urged by Paul, with the possible exception of the fifth, refer to conditions or circumstances established by culture— having to do with honor, shame or disgrace, a sign or symbol, the natural or customary, and the customs of others. Where something is not considered a matter of honor or shame, has no symbolic significance, is not regarded as natural, then the specific expression has no force.” (Everett Ferguson, Women In The Church: Biblical And Historical Perspectives, 386-405 (Kindle Edition): Abilene, Tx; Desert Willow Publishing)

Speaking of the word “nature” used in 1 Corinthians 11:14, other historical commentators have pointed out the fact that Paul is talking primarily about “custom” or “tradition,” not to what we would call inherent nature:

““Nature” sounds like an appeal to the way God created things, but Paul the Jew would have known of the Nazirites whom God blessed precisely because they did not cut their hair (of whom Samson was the most famous example; Judg. 13:5). In the Greek world, the Spartan men were known for their shoulder-length hair. But it was true, then as now, that most cultures maintained a relative difference in hair length between men and women. So “nature” is probably best understood here as that which is “almost instinctive because of long habit,” a “long-established custom.”15” (Craig Blomberg, The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians, 181 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)

“Verse 14 makes the same appeal. It is an appeal to “nature.” What is “nature” here? And what does nature teach them? Vincent says nature is the “recognized constitution of things.” That is another way of saying, “the way things are” equals “nature.” I think he is right. Paul is not speaking about innate knowledge, knowledge we are born with. Nature, in this passage, has nothing to do with birth. In Ephesians 2:3 speaks of people who followed their own wicked lusts and lived in disobedience. They were, says Paul, “by nature children of wrath.” He doesn’t mean by birth or constitutional structure. He means by practice which has become their make up, their character, their nature. In this case, what they thought and did and said summed up their person. What they are as they now appeared to an observer, is their nature. What things or people are (as they are observed) is their nature! Nature in 11:14 is the way things can be observed to exist! A horse is a horse, a rock is a rock, a male is a male and a female is a female. Nature (things just as they are and appear to you) tells you that.  Nature is not “innate moral instinct.” Nature (in this passage) has nothing directly to do with birth. Nature is not “inbuilt knowledge” or some inner illumination. Nature (in this passage) is the observable make up of reality. What is it that nature teaches them? It teaches them that something is shameful.” (Jim McGuiggian, First Corinthians, 2833-2843 (Kindle Edition); Lubbock, Tx; Sunset Institute Press)

Thus, the context of these teachings regarding hair and veils, as well as the specific wording used, indicate that Paul is dealing with a situation unique to Roman civilization.

Since this is the case, we must be careful not to bind the specific commands of the passages upon Christians of all ages; for (as we will see) not all of the commands carry the same cultural significance in other civilizations as they did at Corinth and other Roman cities.

We will now carefully examine the subject of “hair” and “veils” as they related to the Corinthian situation.

Why “Veils” And “Hair” Were Especially Important In Corinth 

Winter Bruce has done us an incredible service in carefully studying and describing the importance of the veil in ancient Roman civilization. His book, Roman Wives, Roman Widows-The Appearance Of New Women And The Pauline Communities, is a must read for anyone who wants to seriously understand the contextual importance of the veil.

He points out that the veil was a very important part of a respectable Roman wife.

For example, he notes:

“The veil was the most symbolic feature of the bride’s dress in Roman culture. Plutarch indicated that `veiling the bride’ (if v vt i4rw KazaxaX1 lpaVTEs) was, in effect, the marriage ceremony. Other writers in the early Empire confirm that the bride’s veil was an essential part of her apparel.'” (Winter Bruce, Roman Wives; Roman Widows-The Appearance Of New Women And The Pauline Communities, 942-946 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

However, Roman society was turned on its head by the rise of a social reform identified by Roman historians as “the New Women.”

These women, in attempting to combine their pagan religious beliefs with their disdain for traditional Roman marriage, would set aside their veils in public and in the pagan temples of worship.

What were they trying to communicate by this symbolic act?

“What signals might be given by the actual removal of the veil? Sebesta argues, `As the veil symbolised the husband’s authority over his wife, the omission of the veil by a married woman was a sign of her “withdrawing” herself from the marriage.'” (Winter Bruce, Roman Wives; Roman Widows-The Appearance Of New Women And The Pauline Communities, 987 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

In essence, the removal of the veil was the sign to the population that a woman was available sexually.

Speaking of how this applied to Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians, Bruce notes:

“There is firm evidence that Corinthian women were connected to the cult of Demeter which we know operated in Roman Corinth in Paul’s day in the temple on the slopes of the Acrocorinth overlooking the city.59 Curse inscriptions written by women have been discovered there…It can be concluded, therefore, that those wives who undertook religious functions would have covered their heads with the marriage veil, given that all respectable married women would wear their veil outside the home, as Roman law and custom prescribed. scribed. This raises the possibility that those who sent messengers to spy out the activities of Christian gatherings could have reported to the men elected to officially supervise women’s dress codes in Corinth that some Christian married women were inappropriately attired while engaging in a religious activity…Their deliberate removing of their veils while praying and prophesying would have sent a signal that they were identifying themselves in this religious gathering with the new women who behaved loosely at banquets which were often held in private homes.” (Winter Bruce, Roman Wives; Roman Widows-The Appearance Of New Women And The Pauline Communities, 1063-1098 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

So for a woman in Corinth to toss aside her veil in church services and in public would be to suggest to others that she was a prostitute.

This, therefore, underscores why Paul ordered the Christian women at Corinth to wear a veil.

The Hair

In the same cultural setting, Paul explains now how hair plays an important role for the Corinthians.

Keeping our eye on the pagan context, it will help us to remember that the pagans of Paul’s day often used the length of their hair to make statements about their lifestyles and inclinations.

For example, men who had exceptionally long hair (more on this later) were often advertising homosexual relationships; and in much the same way, women who had their heads shaved were known to be offering lesbian relations in pagan religious rites:

“If hair styles are in view (men wearing long hair and/or women letting their hair down rather than putting it up), it may suggest that homosexual influences were penetrating the church, since long hair was associated with homosexuality in the Roman world.32…While the shame was probably based on association with nakedness, the humiliation of having a woman’s hair shaved off may also have to do with the suggestion that she has forfeited her very identity as a woman (which is marked by the possession of her hair) similar to the way in which a married woman’s failure to cover her head in public could be understood as suggesting that she had forsaken her identity as a married woman. In the case of the lesbian the move indicated a desire to abandon a female identity for that of a man.73” (Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The First Letter To The Corinthians, 512-521 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; WILLIAM B. EERDMANS PUBLISHING COMPANY)

Paul’s emphasis in this section is that how a Christian woman wore her hair in Corinth could potentially cast a bad light on the church.

Paul is not teaching that it is sinful for a woman to have short hair, nor is he teaching that it is a sin for a woman to cut her hair.

Paul’s commands here were not universal commands for all cultures and times (since we have established that it is clearly cultural in setting).

So in Paul’s day and age, there were some women who were temple priestesses to Aphrodite.

These pagan religions would combine worship to false gods and goddesses with ritual acts of sex.

These women would advertise themselves by removing the traditional Roman veil, thus also showing disdain for traditional Roman society.

They would often cut their hair to certain lengths-perhaps even shaving their heads-to advertise different types of sexual acts.

Some of the Christians at Corinth were encouraged therefore not to imitate their religious neighbors.

Christian women were exhorted to wear their veils, and the men were encouraged not to have hairstyles which could be confused with male prostitutes advertising homosexual availability and acts.

Now, was this meant to be practiced for all ages?

Let’s ask ourselves this.

If I see a woman walking around without a veil in American society, do I naturally conclude that she is a prostitute?

Of course not.

If I see a man with hair to his shoulders, do I conclude that he is a male prostitute advocating homosexual worship to pagan gods?

Of course not.

The cultural language of the passage clearly demonstrates that these commands were for a limited time and reflect a cultural significance that is not akin to our day and age.

A Modern Analogy

Allow me to suggest a modern example of the significance of the principles of this passage.

Right around the time that I moved to Kentucky, there was a growing “fad” in parts of West Virginia involving wrist bands.

Young men and women would wear certain colored wrist bands to demonstrate their sexual availability and what sexual acts they were willing to engage in.

Drawing upon the principles found in 1 Corinthians, I would quickly encourage Christian young people not to wear these wrist bands.

Even though they were not participating in these things, it would not be good to “send mixed messages” to our non-Christian neighbors.

Brother Foy E. Wallace Junior once said that if it ever became commonplace in America for prostitutes to advertise themselves by carrying a red purse, he would similarly encourage all Christian women to not carry a red purse in public.

How Long Is Long Hair?  

One of the questions that I am often asked deals with the subject of men with “long” hair.

What exactly does it mean for a man not to have “long” hair?

Before we examine this, let’s remember that Paul was primarily talking about the “custom” of his day in 1 Corinthians 11:14.

With that in mind, let’s notice a few things.

First, it was customary in the first century for men to have hair that was to their shoulders. This is the testimony of the ancient historians, and descriptive of many civilizations.

For example, reporting the practice of the Hebrews, we are told:

“On the other hand, the Hebrew people, like their Babylonian neighbors (Herod. i.195), affected long and well-cared-for, bushy curls of hair as emblems of manly beauty. Proofs thereof are not infrequent in the Scriptures and elsewhere. Samson’s (Jud 16:13, 19) and Absalom’s (2Sa 14:26) long luxuriant hair is specially mentioned, and the Shulammite sings of the locks of her beloved which are “bushy (the Revised Version, margin “curling”), and black as a raven” (So 5:11). Josephus (Ant., VIII, vii, 3 (185)) reports that Solomon’s body-guard was distinguished by youthful beauty and “luxuriant heads of hair.” In the history of Samson we read of “the seven locks of his head” (Jud 16:19). It is likely that the expression signifies the plaits of hair which are even now often worn by the young Bedouin warrior of the desert….In New Testament times, especially in the Diaspora, the Jews frequently adopted the fashion of the Romans in cropping the hair closely (1Co 11:14); still the fear of being tainted by the idolatrous practice of the heathen, which is specially forbidden in Le 21:5, was so great that the side locks remained untouched and were permitted to grow ad libitum. This is still the custom among the Jews of Eastern Europe and the Orient.” (H. L. E. Luering, ‘Hair,’ in James Orr, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 75342-75371 (Kindle Edition); OSNOVA)

Second, I know some in our country who believe that “long” hair is anything past the ears.

As such, they feel empowered to kick people out of church and to lay down laws about what they believe is “long” hair.

Such are abusing this text of Scripture as well as their fellow man (not to mention dishonoring God).

Paul was talking about the culture of his day and how the lengths of men’s hair in HIS day could “send the wrong message” to non-Christians; however, we live in a different culture.

Let’s not misuse this passage by applying it to situations it was not designed to cover.

Women Preachers?  

Some have thought that this passage is teaching that women may preach in the assembly, as long as they are wearing their veils.

However, this is not Paul’s point at all.

Paul is going to show how the Corinthians bad behavior has begun with disgrace (by their collective appearance of supporting paganism by their disregard for cultural norms) and has culminated in sin (in the breakdown of the family and in the assemblies of the church).

First, Paul points out that the behavior of the Corinthian women’s behavior has brought shame upon their husbands, and visa versa (1 Corinthians 11:4-15). Their disdain for cultural traditions was showing their disdain for God’s design in marriage and in the functioning of the church.

Men and women are dependent upon each other and are both equal, even though they have different roles. This is what Paul emphasizes in 1 Corinthians 11:8-12.

By showing disrespect for the traditional cultural emphasis on marriage (by removing their veils and altering their hairstyles in contemporary trends which extolled the movement of the “New Women”), they were showing disrespect for God’s created order and design for the home.

This was a disgrace, as it not only seemed to initially support the pagan religions of the day, but also in that it set aside the very foundation of the family that God had designed.

Whenever a culture turns away from God’s ideal for the home, it is a sad disgrace and will lead to trouble.

Second, it is important to realize that many of the ancient church fathers point out that the “prophesying” of these women was only done in assemblies of the women, not in the mixed assembly of the entire church (see Ferguson’s comments).

Third, Paul absolutely forbids women in the congregation “speaking” (in the context of 1 Corinthians, the ‘speaking” was preaching in a mixed assembly of men and women).

He wrote:

1 Corinthians 14:34-Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.

The “silence” here was not absolute (i.e., the women and the men in the congregation could join in congregational singing and in the congregational “amen” to prayer-1 Corinthians 14:15-16); however, they were not permitted to have a preaching appointment in a general worship assembly of the church.

It is helpful to remember that Paul’s reasons for this are not cultural (seeing that the pagan culture of Corinth supported the role of prophetesses).

Rather, Paul’s reasons were rooted in the Creation and in the differences between Adam and Eve’s sin in the Fall. Eve was deceived by the lies of Satan (2 Corinthians 11:1-3), but Adam was not (1 Timothy 2:14). Knowing that Satan lied in the beginning (Genesis 3:1-5) and being present with Eve at the temptation (Genesis 3:6), Adam chose to say nothing and decided to choose his wife over God (Genesis 3:17).

Hers was a sin of ignorance, and his was a sin of willful defiance.

For this act of rebellion, we are told that men are to be the public preachers of the Word of God (1 Timothy 2:12-15).

Final Lessons

One, the study of context is absolutely essential to properly understanding the Word of God (2 Timothy 2:15).

This will include the study of the Bible words, as well as non-biblical works which may enhance our study of the original setting of the Bible writers (Acts 17:11).

Those who claim that we should never study outside the Bible ignore the fact that the Bible Prophets and Apostles encourage students of the Word of God to do just that (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:33; Acts 17:26-29; etc.).

Failure to take the context of a passage into account can lead to disastrous consequences.

The issues of veils and hair lengths were of paramount importance to Corinth of the first century due to their unique situation. We must not make the mistake of confusing cultural practices for limited groups of people with universal decrees for all of God’s people of all times and places.

Second, the limited cultural commands of 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 (while not binding upon all Christians in every time and culture due to the fact that these specific conditions are not the same in every society) nevertheless reflect very real principles which are eternally binding due to the eternal and unchanging Nature of God (cf. Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8).

The Bible teaching regarding the home and the family are paramount for the optimum happiness of man (Psalm 68:6; Genesis 1:26-31). Any cultural changes which would attack that Divine institution must be resisted.

Third, the Bible prohibition against women preachers is not due to chauvinism from the Apostle Paul (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:37) or from the cultural norms of his day and age; rather, it is rooted in the events of the Creation and the Fall in the Garden of Eden.

Religions which teach that women preachers are acceptable to God are in violation of Scripture.

The grace of The Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

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