Friday, July 15, 2016

Hairdo Hermeneutics

A guy named Luke Geraty wrote a piece a while back on the issue of hair length in 1 Corinthians 11. I came across it recently and felt that it would be a good foil to use in putting down some thoughts on the issue. It’s a good example of the standard way in which modern Christians interpret the passage.

But the first thing I want to establish here at the front end is that while everything the Bible says is important, there are some things that are of first importance and other things that are not even close to that. So let it be heard loud and clear that I think the hair-length question belongs in that second category.

I do take a view on the issue, and it’s a view that I think is reasonably defensible exegetically. But I’m open to the possibility that I’ve misunderstood Paul, and I don’t for a minute assume that anyone with a non-traditional hair length is a pagan or a second-class Christian. It just isn’t that kind of issue to me. The topic mainly interests me for the hermeneutics that are involved. Not everything deserves a crusade, and so I tend to scratch my head at organizations that characterize themselves entirely by a particular view on questions of this sort.

With that said, and hopefully heard, here is the passage under consideration:
[3] But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. [4] Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, [5] but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. [6] For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. [7] For a man 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 was not made from woman, but woman from man. [9] Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. [10] That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. [11] Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; [12] for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. [13] Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? [14] Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, [15] but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. [16] If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God. (1 Cor. 11:3–16)
Alright, now here are some things Geraty said.
Geraty: “The apostle is discussing the issue of head coverings . . . It has nothing to do with Paul teaching that women were required to have long hair. . . . Again, to make this passage about hair length is to miss the entire point of the text. Garland makes this clear when he writes, ‘That he specifically mentions hair in these verses does not mean that hair has been the topic throughout this section . . . It is brought up only as a final illustration as to why women should have a cover but men should not.’ (1 Corinthians, 530)”
This is an extremely common tactic in exegetical debates: appealing to the main point of a passage as a way of minimizing a secondary point of the passage. It’s as though Geraty and Garland think that if the passage is primarily about head coverings, then we’re somehow taking it “out of context” if we look for it to teach us about anything else. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the passage is primarily concerned with head coverings, but in the course of making God-breathed statements about head coverings, Paul makes God-breathed statements about other things as well. And one of those other things is hair-length.
Geraty: “The apostle is discussing the issue of head coverings and is actually stating that even though the women in the ancient world had longer hair, which was their glory, they needed a head covering. That is the point.
But that doesn’t seem to be the point at all. Isn’t it interesting that I’ve slowly and carefully read this passage multiple times and didn’t take it to mean anything like Geraty’s summary? This leads me to a general observation: In exegetical debates like these, I think we need to be honest about who has the advantage of the most straight-forward reading. And we should feel no hesitation in conceding that advantage to our opponents sometimes, because the most straight-forward reading of a passage is not always the best.

So when it comes to those who argue, based on 1 Corinthians 11, that men should have short hair and women should have long hair, I think it’s fair to say that they have the most straight-forward reading of the passage. Again, that doesn’t mean they’re right. They may still be wrong. But I certainly don’t think it’s fair to characterize their interpretation as fanciful eisegesis.

Be that as it may, let’s examine the specifics of what Geraty just said. First, he emphasizes that the passage is simply about “women in the ancient world” (i.e. not women in our modern world) and how long hair was simply “their glory” (i.e. not modern women’s glory). But what reasons does the passage itself give us for thinking that Paul was simply referring to a cultural custom of that day? Are there any at all? I’m not denying that sometimes our interpretation of a passage needs to be tempered by cultural considerations, but I think we need to at least try to have a sound exegetical basis for it.

Second, Geraty says Paul’s point is that even though the women had long hair, they still needed a head covering. But that doesn’t seem to square with the text either, particularly verse 15: “For her hair is given to her for a covering.” A woman’s long hair is a natural covering that God has given her. So what need is there for an artificial one?

In all fairness, there are plenty of things about this passage that are perplexing to me as well. For example, I don’t understand how verse 15 squares with verse 6: “If a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short.” But if what I just said about verse 15 is right, then the logic of verse 6 doesn’t add up to me. If a woman won’t wear a head covering, why must she then cut her hair short? I digress.

Garety eventually quotes a lengthy passage from Craig Blomberg.
Blomberg: “Careful attention to the nature of Paul’s argumentation in this passage supports these consensus views. When he speaks explicitly of length of hair, he grounds his arguments in what is proper (v. 13), normal practice (vv. 14–15) and contemporary custom (v. 16). None of these verses, as we have seen in the discussion of original meaning, implies a timeless, transcultural mandate . . .”
(1) One thing that we need to keep straight as we interpret and apply this passage is when it’s talking about head coverings vs. when it’s talking about hair-length. Blomberg seems to conflate the two ideas. He makes points about hair-length by appealing to verses that are talking about head coverings. In verse 13, Paul doesn’t even mention hair length. He’s talking about head coverings there.

(2) In verses 14–15, what version is Blomberg reading? By what scholarly sorcery does he take something that Paul says nature teaches, and turn it into a simple cultural norm? If there is one word in this entire passage that keeps me from buying into the idea that Paul’s hair-length standards were simply cultural, it’s the word nature in verse 14. Nature is what teaches us that “if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory.” Not culture. Nature.

(3) Verse 16 is admittedly tough to pin down: “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.” I’m not sure what this “practice” is intended to refer to. It could be referring to the practice of artificial head covering. Or it could be referring to the inclination to contentiousness. I don’t think it’s likely that Paul’s referring to hair length here, since he’s already grounded hair length in nature (vv. 14–15). And keep in mind that Blomberg is presenting verse 16 as an example of when Paul “speaks explicitly of length of hair,” despite the fact that the verse says nothing about hair length.
Blomberg: “When Paul does ground his commands in the order and purpose of creation (vv. 8–9), he does so to support his statements that husbands are the image and glory of God and that wives are the glory of their husbands (v. 7).
Yea, but after verse 9 is verse 10, where Paul says that for those very same creation-order reasons, a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head. And as an additional reason for this, he throws in “because of the angels” at the end of verse 10. Now that’s certainly an obscure reference that I would love for Paul to have elaborated on. But to say the very least, if Paul grounds the practice of head covering by an appeal to some aspect of the spiritual realm, that doesn’t immediately make me think “cultural custom.”

But again, these verses have more to do with head coverings than with hair length per se.
Blomberg: “When in a particular culture, appropriate honor to God and husband cannot be maintained without certain head coverings, such coverings must be used. When covered or uncovered heads and long or short hair imply nothing about one’s religious commitment or marital faithfulness, worrying about the appearance of one’s physical head in these ways becomes unnecessary.”
That’s great practical wisdom as long as it’s true that Paul’s hair-length standards were simply the cultural custom of that day. But I don’t think that’s been adequately demonstrated. Now back to Geraty.
Geraty: “Here are questions I have for those who suggest that Christian women are biblically required to have long hair:”
I’d just like to point out that we’re talking just as much about expectations for men as for women.
Geraty: “Just how long is long enough? Must it be to the middle of the back? Or must it never ever be cut? What is the appropriate length, and how is that determined? What Scriptures give that length?”
Questions like these are an attempt to make the issue seem more complicated than it actually is. But the problems with this sort of tactic are manifold.

(1) The original audience of 1 Corinthians could just as easily have asked Paul the exact same fastidious questions (even if this were all just a cultural custom). My guess is that they probably never did ask Paul such questions. Why? Because figuring out what’s long hair as opposed to short hair is not rocket science. Not then and not now.

(2) I imagine that people who argue for traditional hair-lengths are often characterized as pharisaical. But nothing is more like a Pharisee than to become preoccupied with the minutia of law-keeping. This is the kind of mindset that would lead some Jews to start wondering whether or not they were allowed to pee on the Sabbath day. I’m not really interested in wranglings of that sort.

(3) By the way, does Geraty ask these kinds of a questions when it comes to other biblical requirements? Flee fornication! “Well, what exactly is fornication? Just how chaste is chaste enough?” I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that this is just a debate tactic for this particular occasion.

(4) For the first 75% of Geraty’s post, he was expressing his disapproval of the view that men should have short hair and women should have long hair. But in order to even disapprove of that view, you have to have an idea in your mind of what it means to have short or long hair.

And of course Geraty already has such an idea in his mind. Because he’s a normal human being. My guess is that if Geraty witnessed a robbery, and the police needed to know if the suspect’s hair was short or long, he would be able to tell them without any difficulty. This is ordinary human language we’re using. There’s no need for a precise number of inches to be prescribed. A variety of lengths can fall under the category of long, and a variety of lengths can fall under the category of short.
Geraty: “The Bible can also be read in a way that would require women to never wear gold because both Paul and Peter state that women should not wear gold (1 Tim. 2:9; cf. 1 Pet. 3:3). . . . Who gets to decide which cultural standards still matter?”
Well, I think that’s just a simple misunderstanding of those verses. Peter and Paul both say that a woman should not adorn herself with such things: gold, pearls, braided hair, etc. But what does adorn mean? Peter says that the woman’s adorning should not include clothing: “Do not let your adorning be . . . the clothing you wear” (1 Pet. 3:3). Of course, that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t wear clothes. So adorning is not the same as simply wearing.

A woman’s adorning is whatever she puts forth as the most valuable things about her as a person. It’s the things she most desires for others to see about her. So both Peter and Paul are telling women not to let their adorning be material things like their jewelry and such, but immaterial character qualities like good deeds, modesty, self-control, the hidden person of the heart, a gentle and quiet spirit, etc.

So bringing this back to the issue at hand: There are good exegetical reasons for rejecting the idea that women shouldn’t wear gold, but are there good exegetical reasons for rejecting the idea that men should have short hair and women should have long hair? That’s what Geraty still needs to demonstrate.
Geraty: “I have also observed that many of these same people who state that women with short hair are disobeying Scripture rarely wear head coverings (hats?) during public worship gatherings. Why? Because that was “cultural” and women in America aren’t required to wear a head covering anymore. Hmmm. Sounds like selective biblical interpretation to me!”
Here I’ll just reiterate something I said earlier. Even though head coverings and hair length are closely tied together in this passage, they’re not the same issue. It seems to me that there’s plenty of room for taking the position that Paul’s statements about hair-length are transcultural, while his statements about artificial head coverings are not:

(1) Paul never says that artificial head coverings are something that nature teaches, but he does say that about hair length (v. 14).

(2) Paul says that a woman’s long hair is a natural covering (v. 15), which would seem to remove the need for an artificial one.

(3) Paul may be referring to artificial head coverings in verse 16, when he says “we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.”

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