Navigate / search

Are Appropriate Hair Lengths Dictated by Culture?

Head Covering Objections
The Objection: Appropriate hair lengths are dictated by culture, not nature. In many cultures long hair on men is normative such as the Native American Indians. When Paul mentioned ‘nature’ he was appealing to their cultural perception of what was right to them.

One objection to calling long hair unnatural for men is the fact that in many cultures it isn’t seen as offensive. One example often cited is the Native American Indians in which many men wore their hair long. If in some cultures it’s acceptable for men to wear long hair, how can we say nature teaches the opposite?

Right In Their Own Eyes

First it’s important to establish that just because a culture embraces something does not make it right. A good example are the Mosuo people of China where the heads of their households are women. Though they probably see this as right in their own eyes, it is not how God designed it to be. It is the opposite of God’s created order (1 Cor 11:3).

Was Long Hair on Men Shameful?

Another misconception is a wrong view of Paul’s own culture. Since Paul called long hair on men “dishonorable” (1 Cor 11:14) those who advocate a cultural view of hair lengths assume that long hair on men would have been seen as shameful. The problem with this view is that solid literary evidence suggests otherwise.

Cynthia L. Thompson (PhD, Yale) writing in Biblical Archaeology quotes Dio Chrysostom (40-115 AD) to show that there were notable exceptions to men wearing their hair short. She says:

Paul was in harmony with general Greco-Roman customs as observed in iconography. His argument that “nature,” with its universal implications, teaches men to have short hair, however, ignores important exceptions that, as a Roman citizen with claims to literacy in Greek, should have been known to him. Philosophers, priests, peasants, and barbarians are mentioned as exceptions to the rule of men’s short hair by Dio Chrysostom, who criticizes philosophers for making a connection between their long hair and moral superiority: “I still maintain that long hair [koman] must not by any means be taken as a mark of virtue. For many human beings wear it long because of some deity; and farmers wear long hair, without ever having even heard the word philosophy; and, by Zeus, most barbarians also wear long hair, some for a covering and some because they believe it to be becoming. In none of these cases is a man subjected to odium or ridicule.” 1) See ‘Hairstyles, Head-coverings, and St. Paul: Portraits from Roman Corinth’ by Cynthia L. Thompson (Biblical Archaeologist, June 1988) page 104

Chrysostom says that there were many men who wore their hair long and they were not “subjected to odium (hated) or ridicule”. That’s another way of saying it was normal. Not only that, but they weren’t doing so to rebel against society as they saw it as a “mark of virtue”. This is really important because the cultural argument assumes that Paul’s Corinth had a completely different view on these issues than the modern Western world. Their view is propagated by saying that if a man was seen with long hair in that culture, people would have dropped their jaws in shock at the public display of shamefulness.  As we’ve seen, that picture just doesn’t fit the evidence.

Cynthia Thompson seems to find this troubling by wrongfully assuming that something taught by ‘nature’ would be universally practiced. I don’t believe that we should be surprised when sinful men and women do what’s right in their own eyes. Men and women regularly do the opposite of what both natural and special revelation 2) Natural revelation is the created universe (Rom 1:20) and special revelation is God speaking through words (Scriptures and prophecy) teaches us.

Defining Nature

When it comes to how we should define terms, it’s important to see if the author who used the word in question also provides the definition. We can gain some insight to Paul’s understanding of ‘nature’ in Romans 2.

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature (phusis) do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them (Romans 2:14-15 ESV)

Here Paul teaches us that humans by “nature” have an inborn sense of right and wrong. He further says that “nature” lines up with God’s written law. When we (apart from special revelation) follow that natural sense of right and wrong, we’re bearing witness that God has indeed written a law upon our hearts. Since Paul sees nature as lining up with God’s law, it’s erroneous to define it as a cultural opinion.

Elsewhere in the New Testament wherever ‘nature’ (phusis) is used, it always refers to aspects of God’s creation. Here’s a sampling of the 14 times phusis appears in the New Testament:

  • Born Jewish: “We are Jews by nature (phusis)” (Gal 2:15)
  • Naturally uncircumcised: “he who is physically (phusis) uncircumcised” (Rom 2:27)
  • Created identity: “you were slaves to those which by nature (phusis) are no gods.” (Gal 4:8)
  • Born sinful: “were by nature (phusis) children of wrath” (Eph 2:3)
  • Kinds of created beings: “every species (phusis) of beasts…has been tamed by the human race (phusis) (James 3:7)
  • Natural branches of a tree: “for if God did not spare the natural (phusis) branches” (Rom 11:21)

Since “nature” (phusis) is never used in the Bible to refer to a cultural practice or decision, it would be arbitrary to start defining it that way when referring to our hair lengths (1 Cor 11:14-15).

Homosexuality and Long Hair

One last example of something that is taught by “nature” is heterosexuality. This example is important to this discussion because the Apostle Paul condemned both homosexuality and men wearing their hair long using the same Greek words. He says both are against nature (phusis) and both are dishonorable/disgraceful (atimia). Before we look at these passages it’s important to clarify that this is not to say that both are equally dishonorable. Paul also taught us that there are different degrees of sin, with sexual sin being on its own level (1 Cor 6:18 ESV).

Here’s what he says on both topics:

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable (atimia) passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature (phusis); and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another… (Rom 1:26-27 ESV)

Does not nature (phusis) itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace (atimia) 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 11:14-15 ESV)

So in light of these verses, here’s a set of questions for you.

  1. Do you believe that homosexuality is right or wrong based on culture’s judgment or do you believe that God has an original design for sexuality that should be followed?
  2. Do you believe that long hair on men is right or wrong based on culture’s judgment or do you believe that God has an original design for our hair lengths that should be followed?

However you answer these questions, to be consistent you must answer both the same. Since we have the same author, making the same moral judgment (dishonorable), by appealing to the same reason (nature) we must treat both the same.  In the Western world today, homosexuality is culturally acceptable as is short hair on women and long hair on men. However, just because culture blesses a practice, that does not make it right.


 See ‘Hairstyles, Head-coverings, and St. Paul: Portraits from Roman Corinth’ by Cynthia L. Thompson (Biblical Archaeologist, June 1988) page 104
 Natural revelation is the created universe (Rom 1:20) and special revelation is God speaking through words (Scriptures and prophecy)
Jeremy G.

Send this to a friend