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Is It Wrong to Have Long Hair?

"Is it wrong to have long hair?"

It's funny, but I thought the long hair controversy got over way back in the sixties and seventies, but apparently that's not the case. The question stems from Paul's instructions to the church in Corinth about proper attire in prayer and worship. "Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him?" (1 Corinthians 11.14).

Hairstyles have obviously changed over the millennia. In the Old Testament long hair was a sign of manliness, handsomeness, and purity. One of the most famous "long-hairs" was Samson. Samson was an Israelite leader whose strength was attributed to his hair. His mother had taken a lifetime Nazirite vow on his behalf, and so no razor was to touch his head, "he must let the hair of his head grow long" (Numbers 6.5). When Delilah cut Samson's hair his strength left him and he was weak until his hair grew long again (Judges 16). Thus Samson's long hair was attributed to his prowess and manliness.

Another famous long-hair was Absalom (who was known for good looks too). Absalom's hair was so long and thick that when he had it cut each year the hair weighed in at about 5 pounds (2 Samuel 14.26). Alas, his long hair was his undoing and after leading an unsuccessful rebellion against his father, his hair got tangled in some branches of a tree during his escape. His predicament cost him his life (2 Samuel 18.9-14).

Long hair was a sign of purity when it was a part of the Nazirite vow (Number 6). The vow included abstinence from any grape products, including wine and raisins, avoidance of any corpse-even from funerals, and an abundance of long hair and an untrimmed beard. Indeed, if someone who took the Nazirite vow accidentally came in contact with a corpse or a grape product, the steps to become pure again included shaving the head completely (as a symbol of impurity). Thus, long hair was seen as a sign of purity.

By the New Testament times, however, hair styles had changed significantly. Roman busts of that age portray the Caesars with short hair worn in ringlets. If this was the custom of the day, at least in Rome, it is likely the fashion of shortened hair had become more acceptable throughout the Roman Empire, including in Israel, and we can be sure some avant-garde folk were sporting short hair.

However, Paul was a Jew and a trained Pharisee (Acts 23.6) who, at least before his conversion, lived by very strict laws and traditions. As such, Paul's tradition would have almost certainly included rather long hair, at least by today's standards.

So, what could Paul be concerned about? There are a couple of possibilities. For one, the custom in Corinth may have been for men to have shortened hair. However, since their Jewish brothers likely wore long hair, they may have been attempting to emulate them. Paul, however, used a fair amount of ink to discourage new Christians from falling into the same traditions trap (cf., Galatians 3, Romans 16.17, Colossians 2.20-23). Thus, the command to maintain shortened hair may have been as a reaction against Jewish customs.

Another possibility regarding the length of hair may be related to grooming. In the Old Testament, disheveled hair was a sign of public shame. Lepers had to keep their hair loosened as a sign of uncleanliness (Leviticus 13.45) and women accused of infidelity wore their hair down as well (Numbers 5.18). This being so, it is possible that Paul is concerned not so much with the length of the men's hair as with their grooming. Certainly, poor grooming can be distracting in prayer and worship and it shows a measure of disregard for others.

But what about today? Are we bound by Paul's command to wear short hair? Probably not. Paul's letter to the Corinthians was a letter written to a very troubled church. They were having problems with several individuals, troubles in worship, questions about factions, and enough controversy and conflict to make Paul's head spin. Apparently, long hair was problematic there too. But we are no more obligated to keep our heads shorn as women are to wear hats or scarves as symbols of their subservience (1 Corinthians 11).

Our hairstyle reveals much about who we are. Long hair or short, permed, dyed, or rolled, our hair reflects our personality and is no longer a matter of faith. There really is much more the church needs to be busy worrying about than one another's hairstyle.

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