1 Corinthians 11:14—How can nature teach that long hair is wrong for a man when length of hair is culturally relative?
Problem: Paul asked, “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him?” But, the length of a man’s hair is relative to the culture and time in which he lives. It is not something that is known by nature.
Solution: This is a difficult passage, and commentators are not in agreement on it. But, there are two general kinds of answers.
Nature Understood Subjectively. In this sense, “nature” denotes the instinctive feelings or intuitive sense of what is proper. This, of course, may be affected by habits and practices unique to the culture. If this is the sense of the passage, then Paul’s statement means something like this: “Do not your own customs teach you that long hair is a shame for a man to have?” This interpretation is difficult to justify in terms of the normal meaning of the word “nature” (phusis) which has a much stronger sense than “custom” in the NT (cf. Rom. 1:26; 2:14).
Nature Understood Objectively. In this sense, “nature” means the order of natural laws. Paul speaks of homosexuality as being “against nature” (Rom. 1:26) and of Gentiles knowing “by nature”—that is, by the “law written in their hearts” (Rom. 2:15)—what is right and what is wrong. In this sense, Paul is saying something like this: “Even heathen, who have no special revelation, still have a natural inclination to distinguish the sexes by the length of their hair, women generally having fuller and longer hair.” Human beings instinctively distinguish between the sexes in different ways, one of which is the length of hair. There were exceptions arising out of necessity (health, safety), perversity (homosexuality), or special sanctity (the vow of the Nazarite). But, these only serve to prove the general rule based on the natural tendency to differentiate the sexes based on length of hair.
Of course, no absolute standard of what is “long” was in mind. This would vary with the culture. The main point was to aid in distinguishing the sexes. It was for this reason that the OT also forbade a man to dress like a woman (Deut. 22:5), a practice that would have given rise to all sorts of improprieties, both social and moral.
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.