How to read 1 Cor 11:14?

In the April, 2016 edition of the Calvin Theological Journal (41:1), Branson Parler writes a lengthy article entitled “Hair Length and Human Sexuality.”  The article is devoted to critiquing a number of recent studies (including my own[1]) regarding the appeal to “nature” in 1 Cor 11:14.  In the article, Parler argues that scholars have too quickly assumed that the appeal to “nature” in this verse is essentially an appeal to social custom or convention.  He believes that this is incorrect, and that even though the ancients were not completely correct in their assumptions about the relationship between hair length and physiology, Paul nonetheless was appealing, not to custom, but to physiology when he stated in 1 Cor 11:14f., “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?  For her hair is given to her for a covering.”

Parler goes on to cite a number of ancient sources which speculated on the relationship between hair and the male production of “seed” for procreation.  He argues, in a complex fashion, that ancients viewed human reproductive seed as being produced in the head, and that this seed was attracted to hair.  If a man wore his hair too long, the long hair would draw the seed to itself, keeping the seed in the head and impairing reproduction.  Instead, short hair on males would allow the seed to descend to the testicles, from which it could be passed to the woman, whose long hair would then draw the seed up to her uterus, where a child could be conceived and born.

Hence, Paul’s appeal to “nature” in 1 Cor 11:14 is not an appeal to social custom or convention, but rather to physiological sorts of considerations.  He writes “Paul’s underlying moral logic is an appeal to nature, understood as what is prior to and apart from human influence and not merely an appeal to custom.”[2] Parler goes on to argue that even though the specifics of Paul’s argument no longer bind us (since we know that reproductive processes work differently than the ancients thought), the root of Paul’s argument should still be conceived biologically:  the physiological differences between male and female should be respected and honored, and practices which obscure these differences (like gay marriage) must be resisted as contrary to the will of God.  Furthermore, he argues that when Paul characterizes same-sex eroticism in Romans 1 as “contrary to nature,” that language must be understood to focus on biological considerations, rather than on social convention or custom.  By this reading, what makes same-sex eroticism “contrary to nature” and thus wrong, in Paul’s view, is essentially not that it violates social standards of decency and propriety, but that it violates the will of God as revealed in the physiological differences between men and women.

So is it wrong to suggest that Paul is appealing to social custom, and not to biology in 1 Cor 11:14?  Well, the first thing to note is that the standard Greek Lexicon for New Testament studies lists, as its third definition of the Greek word phusis, “the regular or established order of things, nature.”[3]  So it is not immediately evident that all allusions to “custom” must necessarily be eliminated from Paul’s usage.  “Custom” can be another way of speaking of “the regular and established order of things.” This exclusion of “custom” becomes even more problematic when we read only two verses later, in 1 Cor 11:16, that Paul states “But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom (Greek sunētheia), nor do the churches of God.”  How is one to eliminate the notion of “custom” from “nature” when Paul explicitly speaks of custom in this same passage?

Secondly, Parler doesn’t say much about the overall intent of this chapter in 1 Corinthians, particularly about the sort of problem that Paul is seeking to address here.  These are complex questions, and I understand why he might regard them as peripheral to his more focused set of questions.  But I think a little more context will be helpful to this conversation.  Scholars have two different ways of reading the problem Paul is addressing here, and the solution he therefore proposes.  Some interpreters suggest that the problem was that women were not wearing veils, some sort of cloth covering over their heads, and Paul was trying to get them to wear veils.  Others see the problem somewhat differently.  They think that women in Corinth were wearing their hair loosely, rather than bundled up atop their heads, and that Paul was opposing this practice of loose hair for women.  In either case, it seems likely that the underlying issue had to do with sexual signals.  Whether their hair was uncovered or hanging loosely, the dress of women in the assembly was sending messages which were interpreted in that context in terms of sexual availability, and this, of course, was distracting (or worse) to the male members of the worship service, and bringing the focus away from the worship of God.  Thus Paul hoped to reduce this “distraction” so that the community could stay focused on what is central.

If there is any truth to this scenario, then Paul is not primarily concerned with upholding divinely intended gender roles in this passage (which he may well be addressing in some secondary sense); he is also deeply concerned with sexual desire.  And sexual desire, of course, is deeply shaped by cultural context (or custom).  What men find enticing or distracting about women in one context may be very different from what takes place in another context.

My third complaint about the elimination of “custom” from the notion of “nature” in 1 Cor 11:14 has to do with Parler’s own acknowledgement that we in the modern world regard the physiology of male-female differences in very different ways from the views we find embodied in this passage.  He writes, “In other words, we may continue to use Paul’s underlying moral logic even as we question some details of the first-century physiological paradigms he may have accepted.”[4]  In other words, Parler acknowledges that there are aspects of the ancient understanding of “nature” that we may rightly regard as incorrect (and culturally particular), but we must still retain something of Paul’s underlying moral logic.  And for Parler, of course, that underlying moral logic is the divinely intended difference between male and female evident in the biological differences between men and women.  We may disagree with the ancients about what those biological differences are, and thus disagree about hair length as central to male-female difference, but where such biological differences remain evident to us, we must respect them as revelatory of the will of God for male-female difference.  Hence the appeal to “nature” is an appeal to biology, even though that appeal is couched in cultural assumptions that may change over time.

This hardly seems like the elimination of “custom” from the category of “nature.”  Rather, it would seem like what we find here is an inextricable interweaving of “custom” and “physiology” in Paul’s use of “nature” in this passage.  This is, in fact, what I try to argue in my book, that “nature” in the Stoic vision represents the convergence of the personal, social, and physical worlds.”[5] I welcome Parler’s further explication of the physiological side of “nature” that is implicit in this text, but I do not accept his argument that there are no elements of custom or convention here.  Such a position is not warranted, even in the way that he frames his argument.

But that leads us to a deeper question of how we are to apply Parler’s interpretation of this passage to contemporary life.  He insists, on the one hand, that “Paul’s appeal to nature does not necessarily imply that his first-century application—hair length—is in force today.”[6]  But he goes on to say that “our acts of culture-making—including cutting of hair—should respond to that foundational diversity [i.e. of male and female] in a way that affirms rather than negates the male-female difference.”[7]  I can’t help but wonder, however, how such an argument would have sounded in 1920, however, when the United States was debating the 19th amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote.  It seems to me far more likely that it would have been used by those opposing the right of women to vote, rather than supporting such a change, since Parler’s view insists that innate physiological differences between men and women must be reflected in cultural practices.  One what basis, then, could one say that the cultural practice of male-only voting should be replaced by a practice that ignores the male-female distinction?  On a more personal level, I remember, as a young child, when my mother first stopped wearing a hat to church in the early 1960’s.  She was criticized extensively for her failure to uphold male-female distinctions, but within a few years, this became a non-issue everywhere in North America.  In other words, the advice to keep the principle, but be flexible about its cultural embodiment probably doesn’t give us sufficient guidance, in particular cases, for determining more precisely which cultural expressions or understandings of male-female identity or physiology should support universally binding practices, and which should not be understood in that way.  Why should physiological differences between men and women not apply to voting rights, when they do apply to marriage rights?

And this, of course, leads to the basic issue of the moral logic that undergirds Paul’s rejection of same-sex relationships in Romans 1.  I have tried to argue in my book that Paul’s own language suggests that he regarded such relationships as driven by excessive lust, a thirst for the exotic, and a shameful abandonment of customary gender roles, and that this (in addition to the fact that these relationships were non-procreative) was the basis for his rejection of these relationship as “contrary to nature,” where “nature” is conceived as the convergence of individual disposition, social consensus, and the biological world.  I tried to invite further discussion about how such a convergence between individual disposition, social consensus, and the biological world would look in our context today, given the changes in our experience and knowledge of all of these things.

Parler and others, however, take a very different reading, which focuses almost exclusively on biology.  Same-sex intimate relationships are wrong (“contrary to nature”) because they violate the biological complementarity of men and women intended by God in the creation of men and women.  My response has two sides.  On the one hand, this perspective fails to recognize the dispositional and customary dimensions to the category of “nature” in the ancient world, and thus does not engage all the relevant data.  On the other hand, this perspective fails to provide an adequate approach to male and female identity that can work across multiple times and places.  Parler acknowledges cultural variability and the possibility of growth in knowledge about men and women, but he doesn’t give us clear criteria for distinguishing between those male-female differences that are culturally particular (and thus negotiable) and those that are transcendent, requiring Christian obedience to them as equivalent to obedience to God.

This gap may, of course, be a sign that simply calls for more work.  But it may also be a sign that this entire line of argument moves in the wrong direction.  Or, to put it differently, Parler succeeds in his suggestion that there may be a component of the discussion of hair length in 1 Cor 11 that is biological (within the context of ancient understandings of biology), as well as customary.  But he has not succeeded in eliminating customary elements from the discussion of nature in this passage.  And once these remaining customary elements are acknowledged, the task of determining the moral logic of the text and its applicability to contemporary contexts becomes far more complex than Parler allows in his discussion.  It is completely inadequate to assert, on the one hand, that biological distinctions between male and female must be recognized and normatively applied to the social roles of men and women in society, while at the same time failing to identify those particular biological distinctions which deserve this normative status.

So let’s consider the most obvious biological issue in male-female distinctiveness:  procreation.  You need a male and a female to unite in order to produce children.  So, one might argue, only men and women should be allowed to marry.  But we don’t apply this principle with consistency in our society, even in the church.  We don’t refuse to allow a woman who has had a hysterectomy to be married, even though she will never have children.  We don’t refuse to marry older couples who are far beyond the age at which they could bear children.  In other words, we recognize that there are goods in marriage which justify marriage, even when procreation is not possible.  Or to put it more technically, while procreation may be part of the blessing of marriage, it is not essential to marriage.  The one thing that sets the biblical treatment of marriage apart from its ancient cultural context is the refusal to allow divorce on the basis of childlessness.  This was the primary reason, in the ancient world, why people would want to get divorced, but Scripture calls to a different path, focusing on covenant and faithfulness, rather than on procreation. So if we acknowledge that procreation is not essential to marriage for heterosexual couples, on what basis then can we appeal to the absence of procreative capacity as a rationale for denying to gay or lesbian couple the right to marry?  This sounds fundamentally inconsistent.

So in conclusion, my response to Parler’s essay has two sides.  On the one hand, Parler is probably correct in suggesting that the appeal to hair length in 1 Cor 11 may have assumed certain biological presuppositions as part of the rationale for this particular message.  On the other hand, I do not believe that Parler’s analysis excludes the more common interpretation of this passage in terms of custom.  Once we recognize that appeals to “nature” in the ancient world include assumptions about custom, as well as assumptions about biology, it becomes much more difficult to separate the biological elements as trans-culturally relevant.  What seems “natural” to us represents the convergence of assumptions involving social custom, individual disposition, and the biological world.  Unless we recognize all three of these elements, we won’t do justice to the usage of the term “nature” in the ancient world.

[1] Bible, Gender, Sexuality:  Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2013).

[2] P. 133.

[3] Frederick William Danker, rev. and ed., Walter Bauer original author, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition.  (Chicago and London:  University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1070.

[4] P. 134.

[5] Ibid., p. 255.

[6] P. 133.

[7] P. 134.