Friday, January 18, 2013

Questioning I Corinthians

Samson Destroys the Temple (1890), Holman Bible (Wikipedia)
Samson Destroys the Temple (1890)
from the Holman Bible (Wikipedia)
It’s fairly common for certain teachings presented in the Bible to lend themselves to an enormous amount of controversy. Often Christians (and non-Christians) are so wrapped up in arguing over these teachings that statements within the same passages that really should be examined are brushed over.

Take, for example, Paul’s infamous passage about women’s head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:2-16). Some question whether Paul tells women to cover their heads (v. 10) or if he says that Christians have no such custom (v. 16). Many insist it’s a matter of choice (v. 13). Some claim that this passage says that women can preach and pray in worship services if they’re veiled (vv. 4-5), while others say that women are to remain silent regardless (1 Corinthians 14:34-35). Some say a hairnet or hat is appropriate, while others advocate the burqa. There even arguments about whether “short hair” and “long hair” are to be considered in relative terms (“shorter than” and “longer than”) or absolute terms (such-and-such exact length). And the opinions about Paul are as polarized as the opinions about the passage. Many conclude that he was a saint, a champion of virtue and protector of female modesty, while others dismiss him as a misogynist, bent on keeping women imprisoned in patriarchal slavery despite their equality in Christ.

Much figurative blood has been shed over this passage, but possibly never over what might really be the most controversial thing Paul says. In 1 Corinthians 11:13-15, he makes this claim (ESV):

Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.

This appeal to nature is often the last say in a discussion on this topic. It usually comes in the form of “Even the pagans know…,” echoing much of what’s said in the Bible. Yet on what grounds can Paul even make that claim? For example, what does it suggest about the Nazirite vow?

Numbers 6:1-21 gives the requirements for those “set apart”: abstaining from any grape products, especially wine; separating oneself from the dead; and, of course, not cutting one’s hair. This vow was generally kept for a specified length of time, but lifelong Naziritism is associated with the judge Samson (Judges 13:5 & 7, 16:17), the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11), and John the Baptist (Matthew 11:18; Luke 1:13-15, 7:33). References to practicing Nazirites can be found in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and in Early Church writings. It is believed that Paul took the vow himself (Acts 18:18) and was later ordered by the Church’s leaders to accompany Christian Nazirites, who needed to make their sacrifices before shaving their heads (Acts 21:23-24, 26).

Some men’s hair grows rather quickly, and any lifelong Nazirite would likely end up with quite a head full of hair. If men having long hair is against nature, then why is it sanctioned in the Mosaic Law? Why are its practitioners ranked with the prophets (Amos 2:11-12)? And why would Paul allow himself to be associated with the practice if it were sinful (especially if his supposed rival, James the Just, is rumored to have been one)?

There’s more: Paul also says in 1 Corinthians 11:6 (ESV):

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.

So where does this leave female Nazirites? Are they to be shamed for participating in this ritual designed to include them? Numbers 6:1-21 doesn’t give separate instructions for men and women on how to carry out the vow, while such attention is paid to the act of making the vow. (Numbers 30 makes it clear that married women must have the permission of their husbands and unmarried women of their fathers.) If God wanted women not to shave their heads, He could’ve easily given Moses alternative instructions for them. He doesn’t.

And if this weren’t controversial enough: Deuteronomy 21:10-14 lays down rules for dealing with captive wives. Removing her clothes, shaving her hair, and cutting her fingernails were part of the process of severing connections with her old pagan culture and adopting her into the Israelite one. Yes, the text says that the captive bride has been humiliated (v. 14), but that is obviously in reference to the degrading experience of being kidnapped and raped, not particularly for having a bald head. The concern is that a wife taken by force is not made to suffer further humiliation by being sold or treated as a mere slave in the household. The shaved head of the captured pagan wife seems to have more in common with the consecrated head of the former male or female Nazarite or the clean head of the healed leper (Leviticus 13:33, 14:8-9). It’s all tied in with the idea of ritual purity and cleanliness in the Mosaic Law.

So we’re back to where we began: How can something be against nature if it is sanctioned and praised by God? It seems rather clear that no Jew (Christian or otherwise) in Paul’s day would’ve agreed with his statements about hair. How are we Christians today going to deal with this contradiction? I recommend, first, that all further discussions about women’s head coverings cease until this issue can be satisfactorily resolved.

17 comments:

  1. In your questioning of Paul's teaching rather than merely the correct interpretation, do you hold to a modified view of all scripture being divinely inspired, per an orthodox conservative view?

    Paul espousing solely personal views vs a human conveyance of divine teachings?

    And do you believe that the Mosaic law has flaws, and is not wholly morally upright?

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    1. I'm merely asking how we Bible-believing Christians can resolve this apparent contradiction. Did I give an incorrect interpretation? Then please tell me why it's so.

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  2. My understanding of this issue is that 1-The Corinthians were mostly Gentiles, not likely to be keeping many Jewish vows or Jewish purity rituals; 2 - the temple prostitutes identified themselves as prostitutes by shaving their heads. This would explain why early Christian women maybe ought not do so. Needless to say, if one's advertisement is covered, one would not generate much business. It was (and somewhat still is) the custom of middle-eastern women to portray their efforts toward modesty by covering their hair. Prostitutes today have other methods of identifying themselves (but still with anti-modesty). Romans 14 makes the point that the most important issue is what we are communicating to others, and our consideration of others, rather than the following of any customs or standards. "Let us follow after things that make for peace and how we may edify one another."

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    1. dw: Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, in this case, this common argument is unsatisfactory. This isn't about Gentiles keeping Jewish laws. It's about an honorable Jewish practice being labeled as unnatural (a word carrying sinful connotations). Paul criticized circumcising Gentiles, but he never indicated that he thought that it was contrary to nature for Abraham, Samson, Samuel, John the Baptist, himself, and a host of others to have been circumcised. In contrast, the wording about men having long hair in 1 Cor. 11:14 resembles what's used in Rom. 1:26, discussing "natural" and "unnatural" sexual relationships.

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    2. Jenny,
      I disagree. The culture of the Corinthians is very relevant. When Paul says "Judge for yourselves" - he is not addressing all Christians, or even Jewish Christians. He is addressing gentile Corinthian Christians. We know from historians that in Corinth, head coverings were something akin to today's wedding rings: showing a woman's status and availability. Analogously, if a woman today made a show of taking off her ring whenever she stood to pray she would be bringing shame to her husband and also cause a fair disturbance in her church. Paul's questions about nature etc. are, it should be noted, rhetorical, and rhetorical questions are asked of people who aren't expected to give an answer because it is obvious to them, at their time and place (not necessarily all people everywhere). Do you agree, given the context, that Paul is discussing something specific to the Corinthian situation? About glory and honor and shame and respect? And do you agree or disagree that some of these principles can be expanded to other Christians, if not the specifics?

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  3. I have always taken this as a simple and yet profoundly important indication of absolute gender roles. That isn't to say, there aren't women who have "shorter" hair that aren't female, but that the woman should never be mistaken for being anything but her feminine self. The same goes for the man, in a modern world hell bent (pun intended) on making the distinction between the sexes arbitrary, it's an important separation needed for the glory of God and His children's place as pilgrims rather than citizens of this world.

    The argument for long hair or short hair is a stumbling block for Christians if taken in any other way than the role of Gender and the believers duty to adhere to it, I have met many men whom were short haired but limp wrists in every other way, barely worthy of being called male, meanwhile I've met men who were long haired whom loved the Lord and were in all ways truly masculine, examples of the gender and glorifying the Father through their role.

    What we are being admonished about is the role of Gender and the need for it. The same goes for the women being silent in Church. Let's face it, if men stepped up to be the God-fearing leaders of their homes, churches, and communities that they're designed to be then there would be no need for a women to take that role and she would be glorified in the way that she has been created.

    However, God does choose God-fearing women when there is no man present (Deborah) and women are capable of the great commission right along side their husbands (Priscilla).

    The trouble with these passages has come from a dissolution of the roles as well as the lie that somehow one is better than the other. Both are to bring glory to God and like the body analogy neither is of lesser importance but must be in sync with the other part.

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    1. sorry, I forgot to mention that the single woman can also fulfill the great commission in her own right when in the godly role she has been born to. (Philips virgin daughters)

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    2. Ajay Pollarine: Your insights about gender roles are interesting, but don't address my concern with this passage. As I indicated in my last sentence, I think there's little point continuing discussions about Paul's conclusions about hair and head coverings and, therefore, also any inferences we can make about gender roles. There's a lot at stake here: One false premise renders an entire argument unsound, and it appears that Paul makes two unsupportable statements. How are we to resolve this issue?

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  4. I'm okay with contradictions. Its taken me along time to get there. But now I'm okay with it.

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    1. Wideopenground.com: You might be comfortable with them, but I suspect there are a number of others besides me who'd find it extremely bothersome.

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    2. Understand. But there is contradictions. Junia was a woman in leadership. Then there is a passage in the same book that says women can't speak at all. Its fishy.

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  5. Allow me to snip from each of your snips:

    "For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short." v6

    "For her hair is given to her for a covering." v15

    And why do people make a big deal out of having a head covering (such as a scarf, etc.), v6, when v15 says that her hair itself is the covering?

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    1. Steve Scott: I have no clue other than they're apparent desire to impose rule on each other. But as I indicated before, I think it's rather pointless to discuss the meaning of Paul's conclusions until his premises can be proven true.

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    2. My question: why should she need a head covering at all?

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  6. Oops. I agree with you and was providing my own example of it, but didn't mention that. :-/

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  7. Jenny, what do you see as the answer to this contradiction? I am confused as to the problem since we are talking about two different cultures. But when we are talking about the Old Testament, some of the laws were just that: laws. I find it difficult to believe that God sanctioned all the laws, such as stoning a girl if she didn't bleed on her wedding night, etc. Anyway, just curious your thoughts. Glad you raised this question as I had never noticed this before.

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    1. wideopenground.com: The problem, as I mentioned to JMHead above, is that Paul uses the same wording about hair in 1 Cor. 11:14 that he does when discussing "natural" and "unnatural" sexual relationships in Rom. 1:26, and not how he does when discussing circumcision in other places. This isn't about Gentiles following Jewish law or traditions. This is about Gentiles doing things that Paul is saying is, in and of itself, contrary to nature.

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