Hair wars: Does the Bible teach that men can't have long hair?

How men and women relate to each other is a hot topic in some circles, with complementarians teaching that men and women have clearly defined roles and egalitarians teaching that they don't. In practice this means that complementarians believe women shouldn't be preachers or pastors and that they should submit to male authority, while egalitarians are happy with women preachers and don't believe they should be in submissive roles. 

There's one rather awkward verse in 1 Corinthians 11 that no one seems to talk about very much. Paul says: 'Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 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? For long hair is given to her as a covering' (13-15).

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Hair length has been very contentious indeed at variously points in history. The Bishop of Worcester, St Wulstan, was very hot on the question and carried a small knife in his pocket. Whenever someone with long hair knelt to receive his blessing he would whip it out and cut off a handful; then he would tell him to cut off the rest of it or he would go to hell. King Henry I and his nobles wore hair in ringlets down their backs; a priest named Serlo preached a fiery sermon on our passage that moved him to tears, and seeing his chance he pulled out a pair of scissors and cut off the king's hair there and then*.

During the English Civil Wars the two sides were distinguished by the length of their hair, with Cavaliers wearing theirs long and Roundheads wearing theirs short.

Beards and moustaches, too, have been causes for quarrels: Russia's Peter the Great introduced a tax on them in 1705, and King Ludwig of Bavaria banned them outright in 1838.

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Nowadays hair length isn't something we worry too much about. However, the issue is being reinterpreted for modern times. According to many conservatives, it's not so much the length of hair that matters as what it stands for – men, they think, should look like men, and women should look like women. As Got Questions.org says: 'Men and women have different, God-ordained roles, and part of that difference is shown by their hair. A man's hair should look masculine. A woman's hair should look feminine.'

And an old article by John Piper says it's culturally relative – a man with long hair is like a man wearing a dress today. The point, he says, is the 'essential truth about the difference between man and woman, namely, the man's headship and the woman's submission to it'.

On the other hand, it would be a very brave preacher, or a foolish one, who dared to prescribe to anyone how long their hair should be or what they ought to wear. Most Christians have decided that the idea women should have their heads covered when they pray is really a cultural rather than a gospel issue. Furthermore, seeing it as indicating the submission of women to men is – with due respect to complementarians – very much a minority view. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul is talking about propriety in worship. In his letters we are seeing just one half of a conversation; we have to reconstruct the rest, and it looks as though some women were abusing their new-found freedom in a way Paul thought would discredit the gospel in the eyes of wider society. He's using all the arguments he can think of to preserve good order. Today the world is different; arguably the scandal is when women are not treated as full and equal partners in ministry, rather than when they are. How long men and women wear their hair isn't nearly as important as making sure they can both wear the trousers.

*The stories are in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay. 

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods

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