Women's Hair and Racial Exclusion? )! Corinthians 11:14-15)


Salvete, omnes!

Frist off, please note that I am not in any way trying intentionally to be offensive in what I am about to say. I have legitimate and sincere questions on this passage, so please bear with me and let us not necessarily let our emotions get ahead of our head.

I must also state that I am NOT a racist and am trying my hardest to “rescue” the following passage from racial overtones as I think you will clearly see by the tone of the rest of this post.

In 1 Corinthians 11:14-15, Paul seems rhetorically to tell us that even physis (often translated “nature”) (Lat. natura) teaches us that it is an atimia (often translated as “disgrace”, sometimes “dishonor”, though I prefer the latter) (Lat. ignominia) for a man to have long hair. He goes on to state that, contrarily, it is a doxa (often translated as “glory”, soetimes “pride”–in a good sense?–which I prefer, though a sense of beauty could also be implied) (Lat. gloria) for a woman to have long hair.

My main concern stems from this latter statement. Paul seems to use an argument from “nature” in this passage. If “nature”, which God created, is being referred to here and is used to show that long hair is a doxa (glory/pride/beauty) to a woman, what of those races of people who cannot grown long hair, such as peoples of Africa? Is, for instance, their hair objectively to be considered less beautiful? After all, when you invoke “nature”, you are implicitly invoking the whole/totality of it, are you not? You are making a blanket statement. You are invoking the whole of nature and its laws.

If this text is inspired/inerrant, why would it apparently be excluding a whole group of people in this manner (unless I misunderstand the concepts of inspiration/inerrancy?)? After all, long hair can’t be the “pride”/“gory”/“beauty” of someone who can’t grow it long, can it? Or, can it? After all, I know of people of African descent who wish for long hair and, sadly(?) even light skin. Surely such is not right, is it?

On a side note, this passage may also speak to the objectivity vs. subjectivity off beauty – a topic which I plan to address on another thread, if it has not been addressed already.

Can anyone come up with an answer to this problem? I am interested in all views, of course, but I would also like to hear from those of African descent from various faith traditions and how they understand this passage.

The only solution I can think of is to translate physis as “custom” rather than as “nature” as I have, in fact, seen done. How valid linguistically, hermeneutically, contextually, theologically would this be? Can we even maintain the translation of “nature” and not exclude people? Even if we go for this solution, however, we’re still left with the problem ofPaul excluding the validity of a group of people from this discussion. Weren’t there any early Christians of African descent – men and women – at the time? At the very least, is Paul not here guilty of an oversight? But, again, if the text is inspired/inerrant, it is my understanding that this cannot be!


Let me start off by saying I am of African descent. However I do not view this passage of scripture as having racial undertones. It was written specifically to a group of people and as such will bear cultural undertones. Maybe Paul (and his society) believed that long hair was a woman’s beauty, but I know that God does not care about the length of your hair.
The issue is when we use these same customs and apply them to people who cannot possibly adhere to them for eg. biologically. I think modern christians are moving somewhat beyond this and understanding the context in which the scripture was written.


(Apologies for replying to my own thread, but my 20-minute editing limit has expired.)

If long-haired pride/beauty/glory is to be considered universal, why would God create a race fro whom long hair was impossible (or at least that of the type apparently being spoken of here)? The implications of this could seriously play into a lot of early racist propaganda! Indeed, weren’t blacks, even by some in the Catholic Church, at some point(s) in history considered inferior ofthose punished by God for an ancestor’s sin by, among other things, physical distinctions such as this?

Again, not trying to be contentious. I’m just trying to show how difficult this passage has become for me and how desperate I am to resolve the difficulties.

Also, I do not want this to degenerate into a discussion of the Church and racism. I mean, if it directly relates to the present question, all right. Otherwise, if you wish and if it’s appropriate, please take it to another thread!


Don’t get me wrong. I would like to agree with you here, but, I can only do this if the whole of “nature” weren’t being used as the basis of Paul’s argument. It may be argued that it is NOT merely referring to particular/relative custom but to an objective reality of beauty/glory/pride as manifest in laws of nature.


I don’t think the issue is with God, I think the issue is with man. What I (and many other christians who don’t fit into these cultural norms) have done is to separate out the cultural rules set up by man and pay attention to the underlying message. I don’t look at that scripture and think “God thinks I am ugly because Paul and the cultural norm at the time only thought that long, thin flowing hair was beautiful”. I know God thinks I am beautiful because he made me.

I went to an all-girls catholic school in the caribbean (not singling out the catholics, all the christian schools had the same rule). And some the rules imposed on us had nothing to do with the church/God/morality. For example we were not allowed to wear braids (still not sure about why? ). Our uniform was made of Garberdine, had to be way below the knee and our ties had to be pulled up all the way to your neck (imagine dressing like this everyday for school in > 90 degree weather). Failure to comply meant demerits and detention.
Now that I am older, I realise that these rules were brought wholesale from England to the Caribbean with no allowances made for the climate or the culture of the people. Of Course making clothes out of Garberdine makes sense if you live in colder climes. As harsh and rigid as these rules were I do not attribute them to God. You are correct in the notion that some of these rules/attitudes were backed up by a superiority complex and maybe a little racism. But again these I attribute to men, not to God.

I am not sure I agree that all of nature is being used as the basis of Paul’s argument. If this is true, it means that either man is correct or God is correct. I know who I choose in that scenario.
If I believed that God somehow thinks I am less than the others he created how would I remain a christian. This is why for example I will never be part of a belief system that tells me the colour of my skin means I am cursed.


First, I’m not sure I follow your argument about nature/man/God above. Nature is God’s Creation and thus reflects, to whatever degree, His Intent.

Secondly, about racial superiority: Yes, this is precisely the kind of thinking I’m trying to avoid here. Yet, passages like the above are troubling.

Would appreciate others’ comments as well!


I used to lurk on an Evangelical Christian forum called Crosswalk. Discussion have been held there on the requirement, yes, requirement for women to have long flowing locks. If a woman does not have long flowing locks, she was in rebellion against the natural order and could be in sin. I’m thinking to myself, what about women who cannot have long straight hair? My own hair resemble corkscrews and on a humid day, I resemble a dandelion.

Of course there were posters in that same forum that thought women wearing pants were in sin.


This is indeed very informative about Evangelical Protestantism, but it does nothing to answer the questions at hand. Why do we believe such people are wrong, especially in light of the current passage under discussion? (Again, let’s please limit it to women’s long hair and race on this particular thread!)


Thinking more on this topic, I am wondering if physis (“nature”) could plausibly be rendered as “the nature of things”, as I recall at least one person rendering it. In this case, the phrase “the nature of things” may have some exclusionary power in that it limits the argument with the addition ofthe notion of “of things” to the local/cultural situation. However, again, what about any African converts who were present at the time?

Our passage also says that a man’s long hair is “atimia autoi” (I may render “a dishonor to him” and that a woman’s having long hair is “doxa authi” (I may render it “pride to her”. (emphasis added and please forgive the clumsy Greek transliteration! So many different standards and I’m never quite sure how to do it!) So, there seems possibly to be some kind of (either “conscious” or “unconscious”) relativization of the matter here. In a similar, perhaps more conscious(?) way, I’ve always interpreted passages of the Law speaking to the Israelites such as those declaring such-and-such “unclean for you” as obviously relativizing the matter specifically for Israel, in that these things are not inherently clean or unclean but that they are to be so specifically as a sign to Israel. Indeed, earlier on in the Corinthians passage under discussion, we see phrases along the lines of “if she considers it a shame to have shaven or shorn hair”, again, possibly relativizing the issue. Still, we have the problem of the application to all women universally and the exclusion of those women who cannot grow their hair long, so, even with these modifications, we’re essentially back at the beginning, are we not? So, I suppose I’m just offering this up in case anyone else can gather some insight for a resolution of these questions in this.

I must say that I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer on this topic and it rather disturbs me. For, this could have major implications both for Christian race-relations as well as for our notion of the inspiration/inerrancy of Scripture, if I am understanding them properly.



As QuestLove and others have already pointed out on this thread, Paul’s epistles were addressed to specific populations in specific places during a certain thirty-year period, or less, in history. Were there people of black African descent in Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, and elsewhere? Does anyone know? In Rome there were, but would there have been a sufficient number of them among Paul’s flock there for him to have felt the need to go into details about exemptions from the general rule? I suspect you may be pushing the notion of “inerrancy” too far, and trying to make it carry more weight than it can bear.


In my opinion this has nothing to do with any racial exclusion. It seems to be referring more to Jewish tradition. Although the bible does not go into any details about it, I can see that there is a possibility of conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians about hair and coverings. A brief look into “shaving in Judaism” from Wikipedia shows that there may be disagreements on these things even among the Jewish Christians. There is no racial exclusion any more than there is exclusion for people who have gone bald or lost hair due to illness or for genetic reasons.

Having said that, it seems that St. Paul is making a disciplinary requirement, and not a universal doctrinal statement. As he states in the previous chapter (1 Cor. 10:23) “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful”. It seems in this regard the disciplinary requirements he was setting forth were to avoid scandal (10:28-29) and I look at the following chapter 11 in the same manner.


Paul is talking about what the society of the time would consider “natural”. He is not saying that women can not be beautiful unless they have long hair. He is making the point that women should have their heads covered when they pray, as was the custom of the time.

1Cor 11:5-6 But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled brings shame upon her head, for it is one and the same thing as if she had had her head shaved. For if a woman does not have her head veiled, she may as well have her hair cut off. But if it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should wear a veil.
1Cor 11:13-15 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 his hair long it is a disgrace to him, whereas if a woman has long hair it is her glory,** because long hair has been given [her] for a covering? **


Might St Paul be talking about the fact that women take care of fheir hair and do things with it to make it more beautiful? That seems to me to be the nature part: that it is a woman’s nature to do things wjth her hair.

OTOH, men ought not to fuss wjth their hair–they should keep it short. Why? Possibly because it is in men’s nature to fight, for example, if a man and a woman are tgether and they are attacked, the natural thing is for the man to fight and the woman to be protected. So men do 't really have the luxury, because of their nature, to have long hair because an enemy can grab it in a fight.

Plus, most people would think that a man who is even only half as fussy about his hair as the average woman is a bit woman-ish, no?

So I don’t think it is the length of hair per se that St Paul is talking about, but the fact that a woman’s hair adds to her beauty and when men have long hair, it takes away from their maculinity.

Consider what was said to those long-haired hippie men in the 1960s :slight_smile:

This may have been a sort of real-life example he was using to convey some idea rather than a “rule” in and of itself. Women should hang back more in church than men–why? Because it is men’s nature to act and not to reflect, reflection needs more development in men because it doesn’t come as naturally to them. When I consider how the men have disappeared from our churches since we started treating men and women more the same, it makes me think maybe St Paul had a point there!

I want to mention that St Paul does not seem to have said long flowing locks, just long hair for women as opposed to short hair for men. Older women often have a lot of trouble with maintaining any sort of length to their hair, and there are women who go bald as well as men. This is why I think that he was, in a way, not really talking about hair lenth as the measure of beauty or feminity, but using it as an example for something more internal.



Exactly. Context is everything.


All good points.

I would still appreciate an answer as to why Paul (seemingly) appeals to “nature” (physis). Nature is made by God. Nature is universal. Thus, when nature is invoked as an argument, it is invoked with a view to its universality and to its universal laws as created by God, not with a view to some culturally-relativist notion. (Not to say that this is always a bad thing.) Nevertheless, I still have a problem with his appeal to “physis”.

What answer shall we give to this point specifically?


My younger daughter takes after her father’s side and has a “short active phase of hair growth.” She cannot grow her hair past her shoulders.


First of all, I think this whole discussion is going off on a bit of a wild tangent, and missing the entire point of what Paul was saying. As far as hair itself is concerned, he’s referring to the fact that men typically had short hair, and women grew their hair long. Since this was the custom of the time and place, he’s just stating it as a matter of fact. The reason behind the custom is that it serves to differentiate men from women in society. So, if a man grows his hair long, it’s considered to be shameful because it would make them look like a woman. It would be the same thing for women to cut their hair like a man. I think that’s what Paul means when he says “nature” teaches us. It’s because men and women are different by nature. Pretty simple, isn’t it?

All of this was said by Paul, to make the point that a woman’s long hair enhances her beauty (glory), especially in the eyes of men. So, it can easily cause some of them to be looking at her, and become distracted from whatever it is they should be doing. In this letter, Paul’s teaching them about what they should and shouldn’t do during prayer, specifically while they’re in church. He says that a woman should cover her head, first of all out of respect for God, and for the rest of the people in church, so she doesn’t distract anyone from praying. It shows respect for God, because He should always be the focus of everyone’s attention at church. People shouldn’t be looking around at someone’s hair, or what they’re wearing (like fancy clothes and jewelry), when they’re supposed to be praying to God.

That’s why women always used to wear veils or hats in church, until some folks decided that it was too “old fashioned”, or somehow “demeaning” to think that women should have to cover their heads. They didn’t seem to consider the fact that it might also be seen as a sign of their showing disrespect to God, in favor of women. (IMHO, showing our respect to God should always come first, but some people don’t see it that way.) :shrug:

I have no idea how anyone, by any stretch of the imagination, could ever come to the conclusion that this subject might have something to do with race. Seriously? :dts:


Well, with all due respect, I did, and I consider myself to be a fairly scholarly and thoughtful person.

Why I did may, in fact, be a simple misunderstanding of the word “nature” here, which is easy enough to do. For, “nature”, without qualification, very often signifies Nature, as in the whole of the world and its natural laws or, at least, what we today refer to as the “natural” (non-man-made) world.

What you’re saying, and I consider the point quite valid, is that Paul is not referring to Nature/nature in either of these two senses, but that he is referring rather to “our” or to “human” nature, i.e., that little voice within us that tells us that can tell us, for lack of a bettter word, “intuitively” what is right/good. You have indeed made very good and valid points and have responded very precisely to the main question at hand here.

Yes, I should know this, but, can anyone who knows Greek and has read sources both biblical, Christian and secular clue me in on whether using “physis” in the sense of our human nature has ever been done before this particular text? Even if it hasn’t been used this way directly, is it plausible that Paul is using the word “nature” in the sense of natural law to as operating in our minds via some “sense” of what is proper/natural? Has such a thing been done in any other texts you know of? (Anymore, I’m more on the Latin side of things, and my–classical–Greek is rather rusty these days, so I’d appreciate folks’ help!) As far as I know, Latin “natura” (as is found in Jerome’s rendering of “physis” in this passage) is not used in this way, unless perhaps qualified.

Also still interested in hearing any other insights folks may have about the topic!


I can certainly see that you’re trying very hard to make sense of this passage, to ease your own mind. In my opinion, you might just be over thinking it a bit too much, for the most part based on one simple word. It’s really not that complicated. Sometimes, it’s better to look at the whole context of the passage, instead of trying find alternative meanings for a single word or phrase, as if it were some kind of a word puzzle. Some passages in the Bible can certainly contain ‘hidden meanings’, but we don’t usually have to twist things up in a knot to find them. And, they don’t contradict what the rest of the Bible teaches.

Remember, God is not a ‘respecter of persons’, as Peter says: Acts 10: [34] And Peter opening his mouth, said: In very deed I perceive, that** God is not a respecter of persons**. [35] But in every nation, he that feareth him, and worketh justice, is acceptable to him. After all, Jesus sent the Apostles out to preach to ALL nations, and peoples and tongues, without any exceptions. :wink:


Nature is not necessarily universal. Some things relate to the nature of men and women, for example, and one could also derive from the nature of authority.

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