Splittin' Hairs

by Jim H. Yohe

I have no quarrel with the holiness standards of the church. I believe the Biblical injunction that establishes, "In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established" (II Cor. 13:1), was clearly followed in setting our contemporary church practices. For example, in Jesus' conversation with Peter concerning the founding of the church, He informed, "Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:19).

In response to the controversy over circumcision for Gentile converts, though they had ample Old Testament scripture to require it, in Acts 15, the elders at the council at Jerusalem decided against imposing a standard of circumcision. They concluded that circumcision was Jewish culture, not Christianity. When answering questions from Corinthian converts, Paul commended them, "Now I praise you brethren . . . that ye . . . keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you" (I Cor. 11:1). So that's one, two, three witnesses that establish the authority of the church to set standards. Without question God gives his church the authority to establish lifestyle patterns that both guide the presentation of the gospel and separate the church unto Him.

To some it seems paradoxical that we, holiness-oriented Pentecostal, promote a literal interpretation of scripture in salvational and Godhead issues, but appear to contrive extra-Biblical explanations for many of our holiness standards. Taking the position that the holiness standards are clearly spelled out "in the Book!" can get us into trouble. Our authority to set standards is clearly spelled out. I believe a more honest presentation of our lifestyle guidelines would be to acknowledge that they are godly traditions set by the councils and conferences of our faith. The world-at-large understands and appreciates church law and tradition. But when we seem to elevate them to the level of scripture is when the controversy begins! Because to other Christians, when the proof-texts don't hold up, it appears we are "adding" to the written Word of God.

For example, we don't interpret the much-debated hair segment in I Corinthians 11:1-16 as it is literally presented by Paul. If we did, our holiness women would be wearing veils during times of worship. Disagree? Let's do a quick review. Our traditional position has been that the only covering Paul is talking about is hair. If that were true there would have been no need for Paul's discourse. But the facts are the Corinthian men were wearing yarmulke-like skull caps to worship in the centuries-old custom of Jewish men. The Corinthian women were cutting off portions of their hair in sacrifice to Jesus like they had done in their previous worship to the goddess Aphrodite. Paul was informing them that Christ was worshipped differently than the God of Jewish tradition or pagan ritual. After establishing that he, too, was a follower of Christ, Paul complimented the converts on their obedience to ordinances that he had previously established. After making the line of spiritual authority clear, he then stated:

1. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered dishonoureth his head. This has to be referring to a skull cap or some additional covering other than hair. Otherwise Paul is commanding all the men to shave their heads before they pray or prophecy! Hair is obviously not the covering Paul is referring to if we are to believe the Bible literally. Also it's interesting to note that Paul qualifies the man's head to be uncovered only while praying or prophesying! Again if the covering were hair, this discussion wouldn't make sense. Nature makes the decision of how much of your skull is covered or not. Only man can choose whether or not to wear a cap in worship. The dishonor would be to the man's spiritual head which is Christ.

2. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. In the Old Testament, a shaven head was a shameful thing. It appears that Paul is arguing for the women to cover their heads with a veil. Note, he again qualifies the covering to be used while praying or prophesying, never insisting that female heads be covered outside of the worship setting. To worship with an uncovered head would bring the same shame or dishonor to her husband as if she had shaven her head bald.

Just like the Louisiana Seat Belt Law only applies to individuals while they are in their cars and nowhere else, do these ordinances of Paul concerning head-covering for men and women only apply when "praying or prophesying?" I have heard this question countered by the answer, "Well, the Bible says to pray without ceasing, so this proviso should apply all the time!" But, if that were to be true, then men could never wear a hat or cap! Neither could women ever go in public without a veil, shawl or cap! Our traditional explanation of these verses just doesn't stand up to a strictly literal interpretation.

3. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. Literally Paul is saying if the woman's head isn't covered, go ahead and cut her hair, thereby completing her shame, unless it's a shame for a women's hair to be cut or shaven. In that case cover her head up with a physical covering. Very practical, common sense advice. We, holiness Pentecostals have always skipped over the "If it be a shame" which by it's literal meaning implies a concession to local custom. Paul isn't trying to force Old Testament culture down Corinthian throats. A literal interpretation leaves the door wide open to the possibility that it might not be a shame. I know we have our own experts that out of the various meanings of a word pick one that seems to fit our own agenda, but other Christian groups also have their experts that do the same. That's why I believe that the more literal the interpretation, the better.

Let me point out something that will not be popular with contemporary holiness women with lengthy hair. When holiness women wear their hair up exposing their ears, the back of their neck and shoulders, they are not covering up any more of their head than the shortest, worldly woman's hairstyle! They've just piled it up on top of their head! In fact, my own short men's hairstyle, trimmed above my ears and off my neck covers just as much of my head as their piled-up hairstyle does! So, other than obeying the traditions set by the church, what is the point?

4. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of man. So, if human hair is the only covering that Paul is talking about, is he forbidding men to grow hair upon the top of their heads? Of course not! In both cases, men and women, Paul is teaching about physical coverings in addition to hair. The only reason hair is mentioned is to firmly eliminate the pagan practices of some female converts.

5. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels. Because in worship situations her husband bares his head in submission to Christ, she, too, must show her submission to her husband by covering her head. He bares, she covers. Yet another example of the necessary distinction between the sexes. Even the angels of God are under authority knowing that disrespect, i.e. rebellion, removes them out of fellowship with God.

6. Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God. Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? It is obvious that Paul asked this question expecting agreement from his Corinthian readers. Women should cover their heads while praying or prophesying! If Paul was just talking about the natural covering of hair, this whole discussion would be unnecessary! But when the church came together for worship, the sunerchomai or gathering together, apparently the women who actively prayed and /or prophesied weren't always covering their heads! An added covering, such as a veil or shawl was being called for.

7. Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering. Paul was shifting from a discussion of the physical covering used in worship to the natural covering of hair. IF a man had long hair, it was a shameful thing. Note that Paul was making a secular reference to nature, meaning the moral nature of the world. Though there are historical exceptions, secular society typically thought of long hair as being proper for women; an expression of effeminacy for men.

However, if a woman had long hair it was considered a glory to her! It was an asset of her feminine beauty. God had given her hair to her to cover her head, just like God gave hair to men to cover their heads! It was their hair! Not Aphrodite's or any other gods! Paul was obviously encouraging the female former Aphrodite converts to let their hair grow! They didn't have to cut off their beauty or glory and give it to God! Their new savior Jesus Christ allowed them to keep their hair! Unlike Aphrodite, God didn't want their hair, He wanted them! In Paul's words, her hair was for her!

8. But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God. I accept the traditional view that Paul is saying that the church had no custom of men praying or prophesying with their heads covered or of women praying or prophesying without covering their heads.

One last comment and then my dissertation is complete. This sixteenth verse of First Corinthians 11 has always been considered the summary of the previous fifteen verses. Whether or not they are from a denominational or holiness background, many scholars have argued against the liberal interpretation of, "Well, if someone wants to fight about this, forget it! The churches of God have no set custom!" Such arguments center around the proposition that Paul would not so lightly dismiss the lengthy discourse he had just written.

But, please allow me to throw one more curve into this subject. Instead of being a summary of the preceding fifteen verses, could verse sixteen actually be the introduction to the next subject at hand? What subject? Contention in the church! With this in mind, read the sixteenth and seventeenth verse together. I Cor. 11:16-17 "But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God. Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse." See what I mean?

But, Bro. Yohe, what about the Greek? What does the Greek say? The English New Testament was translated from the Greek! Read it! That's what the Greek says! When you read your Bible, that's what the Hebrew and Greek says! The literal interpretation doesn't require you to change the meaning of words such as long and short. Traditionally we tell people long doesn't mean long, it means uncut. Or short doesn't mean short, it means cut. Then we further confuse the issue by saying cut hair is short hair in the eyes of God, no matter how lengthy it is! But if a man stops cutting his hair and lets it grow, we then flip flop the definition applied to women and tell him that his long hair is a shame unto him. Sound confusing? Didn't we just say that cut hair is short hair no matter how lengthy it is?

Bottomline? In the worship service, men should not cover their heads. In the worship service, women should cover their heads. Their hair is a gift of God to them! It is their glory! They do not have to cut or sacrifice portions of their hair to Jesus like the Corinthian women had previously done to the goddess Aphrodite. In essence Paul is saying, "In Christ, your hair is YOUR hair!" One of the underlying themes of Paul's instruction is the deliberate distinction of the sexes in both worship and secular society. Our own church standards continue that tradition today.

In Acts 15, the council at Jerusalem set a precedent of making cultural lifestyle guidelines for the church. In the same manner, though I do believe Paul was teaching the Corinthian women to wear a second covering or veil in the worship service, I do not believe that contemporary Christians have to wear a veil today. Just as circumcision was rejected as a requirement of Christianity, I believe the veil can be rejected today. Why? Because until that particular standard is needed and prayerfully decided upon by a contemporary council of Holy Ghost-filled church elders, I don't believe it should be taught. What would cause such a standard to be considered? If women believers participating in prayer or prophesying would seem to show a lack of respect or submission to their husbands, then I believe that such a standard of a public sign of submission would be called for.

Our church standards and traditions should be respected. We, today, should seek to build upon the foundation that our spiritual forefathers have laid for us. When we receive further enlightenment on a text, our role is to make an adjustment to our presentation, not to throw out the distinctives that have made us what we are. I Corinthians 11:1-16 is a powerful teaching on the divine order of authority and respectful worship. In this chapter our beautiful women are told to enjoy the freedom and beauty of the gift of their glorious hair. Despite demands from the gods of this world, they do not have to mutilate or cut their hair to satisfy God. In his subsequent letter to the Corinthians, Paul reinforced this concept by writing, "For I seek not yours, but you!" (II Cor. 12:14). God doesn't seek our women's hair, He seeks them!

I believe a lot of confusion has come about because this passage deals with two heads, the spiritual head and the physical head, and also two coverings, the physical cap or veil and the natural covering of hair. Though the preceding exposition flies in the face of traditional holiness interpretation, what do you think? Does this passage really say what we've said it says? When the umbrella of church authority gives sufficient biblical permission to teach clear-cut distinctives in the physical appearance and spiritual roles of male and female believers, does the continual battle over this Corinthian text really make sense?

The authority for our holiness traditions are clearly spelled out.. The fact that almost every year, the hottest-selling book in the apostolic movement is yet another attempt to clarify this Corinthian text suggests that a great deal of doubt concerning the understanding of this text exists. We have no such debate on the new birth, the Godhead and other holiness issues, why women's hair? Any attempt other than a recitation of the traditional position is immediately branded as liberal or a desire to loosen the standards and be like the world. I ask you, has revelation stopped? Did Paul intend for this subject to be a continual source of division in the church? Have you ever considered that perhaps God has let this controversy fester in order to lead us to greater biblical truth?

To quote Rev. Johnny James, "Almost right is always wrong!"


This writing is the copyright of the late Jim Yohe, a United Pentecostal Church minister, and is reprinted on this site by permission given prior to his untimely death.


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