September 9, 2023 | Daniel L. Segraves, Ph.D.
During the year 2009, Simeon Young, Sr., who was at that time the editor of the Pentecostal Herald, asked me to write an article for the magazine that would examine the meaning of I Corinthians 11:10. I did, and the article was published in the November 2009 issue. I am posting the article here to respond in part to a request for assistance from a university student who has an assignment to write. I will also post another article I have written related to this subject, titled “Letting Our Hair Down: Another Look at I Corinthians 11:2-16.” Finally, I would like to remind my readers about my book Hair Length in the Bible: A Study of I Corinthians 11: 2-16. This book can be purchased at pentecostalpublishing.com. It is also available in the Kindle format at amazon.com.
I am thankful the teaching discussed in the following article seems to have waned among us. I am posting it here, however, for the reason mentioned above. I feel the liberty to do so because the article has also appeared in the Pentecostal Herald, an official publication of the United Pentecostal Church International.
Another Look at I Corinthians 11:10: A Plea for Caution
Daniel L. Segraves
I have become aware of a teaching on I Corinthians 11:10 that takes its cue from reference works on witchcraft and reported conversations aboard aircraft. The idea seems to be that witches recognize that a woman’s long hair provides magical protection against evil spirits and that the power of a witch’s spell is increased when she lets down and shakes her hair. Reports are circulating about remarkable results in the spirit realm following the laying of women’s long hair over the altar or on persons needing healing.
This teaching is misguided and dangerous. Here is why: (1) Scripture says nothing to support this notion; (2) Scripture opposes this idea; (3) This teaching will result in disappointment, and perhaps even despair, among those who try the recommended techniques and find they do not work; (4) This belief may influence some to further investigate the claims of witchcraft in order to discover other “insights” into the spiritual realm.
Here is the text that is central to this teaching: “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels” (I Corinthians 11:10). This verse is the subject of an amazing variety of interpretational efforts. Although the best attempt to understand this verse may lie in the future, there are some things that can be said about it with certainty: (1) It says nothing about evil spirits. Some may speculate that the reference to “angels” refers to fallen angels and thus to evil spirits, but that is speculation; (2) It says nothing about how a woman’s hair is arranged; (3) The verse, in fact, says nothing about hair; (4) It does not clarify whether we should understand “head” (kephalē) to refer to the woman’s physical head, to man, or to her source or origin. All of these are contextual possibilities. Let’s talk about each point in more detail.
Scripture Says Nothing to Support This Teaching
I Corinthians 11:10 Says Nothing about Evil Spirits
The closest reference in the verse to spirit beings is the reference to “angels.” If Paul had intended to refer to evil spirits, it would have been quite easy for him to do so. He wrote about evil spirits on several occasions in clear language. Although the word “angels” may refer to spirit beings, it may also refer to human beings who are serving as some kind of messengers, which is what the word angelos means. For example, many Bible students understand the angels of the seven churches in Revelation to be the pastors of those churches. Even if the “angels” in I Corinthians 11 are spirit beings, the verse does not explain the connection between them and the “power” on the woman’s “head.” Those who believe the “sons of God” of Genesis 6 were fallen angels may suggest that women are to have this “power” on their heads to prevent fallen angels from lusting after them. If this is what Paul meant there could certainly have been clearer ways of saying it. Following the same line of thinking, some may suggest that the problem is that if women do not have this “power” on their heads, faithful angels may be tempted to lust upon seeing these women. Again, this begs the question of why Paul didn’t simply say this if that is what he meant. Other suggested interpretations may not be quite as colorful, but the point is that this verse has been treated to a long history of interpretative efforts, none of which have yet been so convincing as to settle the issue.
To read “spiritual warfare” into the verse seems to border, at least, on Scripture twisting. When Paul wanted to discuss spiritual warfare, he talked about things like truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, salvation, and the word of God. (See Ephesians 6:13-17.) He did not mention hair arrangement. When Jesus talked about our power over demons, He said it was available on the basis of faith. (See Mark 16:17-18.) John said that the works of the devil were destroyed by the manifestation of the Son of God. (See I John 3:8.) If a woman’s long hair is a weapon against evil spirits, it is remarkable that it is mentioned only once in such obscure terms.
I Corinthians 11:10 Says Nothing about How a Woman’s Hair is to be Arranged
It may seem beside the point to say that there is no reference here to how a woman’s hair is arranged, but some are teaching that the power of a woman’s long hair in the spirit realm is especially heightened when it is down and loose. It has been suggested that remarkable things would happen in the spirit realm if women around the world would let their hair down and allow it to blow in the wind. If a woman’s long hair truly did give her power over evil spirits, it is difficult to see how this power would be enhanced by the arrangement of her hair. Paul said nothing about this. The notion apparently has its source in witchcraft.
I Corinthians 11:10 Says Nothing about Hair
To say that the verse says nothing about hair may at first seem shocking to those of us who appreciate what Paul says about the glory of a woman’s long hair. But when strange teachings are introduced, it is necessary to take a close look at the text. Although in the context of I Corinthians 11:2-16 Paul certainly did discuss hair – both for men and women – it is not universally agreed that verse 10 is about hair. It would have been easy for Paul to write, “For this cause ought the woman to have long hair on her head because of the angels,” but he did not do that. He wrote that a woman ought to have exousia on or over her head. Like most words, exousia has a range of possible meanings. But in a specific use, a word does not mean all it can mean. Context determines the one meaning among all possible meanings that a word can have. The possible range of meaning for exousia includes various kinds of authority. Although some assume that this word is a synonym for “long hair,” that remains an assumption. Many translations read this verse as referring to some kind of covering or veil that should be worn by a woman as a symbol or sign of authority. One common idea is that it is a symbol of the husband’s authority over the woman.
But again, all of this is speculation. Not only does the word “hair” not appear in the verse, neither do the words “symbol” or “sign.” Perhaps Paul’s point did have to do with something the woman was to have on her head as a symbol of some kind of authority, but the verse is not clear enough to know for sure. When we are not absolutely certain of the meaning of a verse, it is best not to be dogmatic about its meaning. It is certainly best not to insist on a novel reading that may eventually produce unimagined problems.
I Corinthians 11:10 Does Not Clarify How We Should Understand “Head”
Like the word exousia, the word translated “head” (kephalē) has a range of possible meanings. In the context of this verse, “head” is used to refer to man as the “head” of woman, Christ as the “head” of man, God as the “head” of Christ, man’s physical head, woman’s physical head, and—as indicated in verses 8-9, 12—man as woman’s source or origin. In this latter use, kephalē presents the idea of “head” as in the “head” of a river (i.e., the river’s source or origin). Although verse 10 does not specify how we are to understand “head,” the closest contextual indicator—the two verses before and after verse 10—suggest that we should think about “head” as source or origin. Kephalē is rarely used in Greek literature to mean “chief” or “person of the highest rank.” The Septuagint almost never uses kephalē with this meaning. It is almost certain that the only meaning “the Corinthians would have grasped, is ‘head’ as ‘source,’ especially ‘source of life.’ ” (See Lawrence O. Richards, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985], 327-328 and Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987], 502-503.)
Scripture Opposes This Teaching
Much could be said about the things the Bible connects with spiritual warfare and about the absence of any discussion of hair in those references. But due to limitations of space, I will mention only one indication that Scripture opposes the idea that a woman’s long hair gives her some kind of spiritual protection from evil. Numbers 6 describes the requirements of the Nazarite vow. It is important to note that these requirements pertain to both men and women (Numbers 6:2). Although the masculine pronoun is used in Numbers 6:3-21, we are to understand this to refer to both men and women who take the vow, as seen in verse 2. In this case, the masculine pronoun refers to both men and women, in much the same way as the English masculine pronoun has been historically understood to refer both to men and women, given the appropriate context.
At the conclusion of the Nazarite vow, the person who took the vow, whether male or female, was to shave his or her head and burn the hair as an offering to the Lord. Although this provision of the Law of Moses is no longer in effect, it is evident that the Lord would not require any woman to do something that would expose her to spiritual danger. Some may think that if the New Testament declares long hair to be a glory to a woman, it would be a contradiction for the Law of Moses to provide for a woman of faith to shave her head under any circumstance. But this is to confuse the Old and New Covenants. There were many practices and even commandments under the Law of Moses that are not in effect under the New Covenant. For example, the Law commanded death by stoning for anyone who violated the Sabbath. There would be no penalty today for plowing with an ox and donkey together, although it may be quite awkward!
This Teaching Will Result in Disappointment
It may indeed be that some women who have followed this teaching have had things turn out as they had hoped. But it is a fallacy to think that we can definitely trace every event in our lives to specific causes. We do not know what would have happened in other circumstances. But one thing that is for sure is that many who follow this teaching will not have things turn out as they had hoped. God’s people are not immune to disappointment, tragedy, and grief. People of faith suffer and die. (See Hebrews 11:35-40.) There is a good possibility that women who attempt to follow this teaching will question themselves and even God when things do not work out. This can lead to despair.
It has been said that a person with an experience is never at the mercy of a person with an argument. This is not true. In many non-Christian religions people have testimonies of experiences they have had which they think is the result of following some religious ritual. The fact that they think their experience validates their religion does not make it so. For the Christian, the final authority is Scripture, not experience.
Some may wonder, then, about the connection between prayer and results. Can we ever say for sure that a specific event is an answer to prayer? We can, because the Bible commands us to pray with the promise that God will answer, although His answer may not be what we want to hear. It could be yes, no, maybe, or later. But the claim that women have enjoyed specific positive results from letting down their hair, laying it over the altar, or otherwise following this teaching is based on no biblical text.
Investigating the Claims of Witchcraft
We are to be simple concerning evil and wise concerning good. (See Romans 16:19.) An idea included in the word translated “simple” is that we are to be innocent about evil. It is dangerous and counterproductive for Christians to investigate falsehood, deception, and evil—especially if it is done with the idea that there may be some truth there that can help in the development of spirituality! If this teaching alleging a connection between a woman’s long hair and power over evil spirits continues unchecked, we may be sure that some will be encouraged to further investigate possible links between witchcraft and biblical spirituality. This is a dangerous violation of Scripture, and it could result in the loss of salvation for some sincere person. Instead of seeking insights from occultism, we must seek the true God. (See Isaiah 8:19-20.)
If we do focus on what is good and avoid exposure to what is evil, “the God of peace will crush Satan under [our] feet” (Romans 16:20). This will be a far better result than attempting to manipulate the spiritual realm by means of novel interpretations of Scripture with questionable origins linked to occultism. Authority in the realm of the spirit comes from knowing Jesus, not from ritual incantations or actions.
The United Pentecostal Church International affirms the relevance of I Corinthians 11:2-16 for all times and cultures. Until the early twentieth century, the significance of this text was recognized by virtually all people of faith. As Western culture and customs have changed, many have questioned or rejected the relevance of biblical texts that now seem out of step with the times. As it relates to what is said about long hair, the text uses the Greek komaō. In its comment on I Corinthians 11:15, the Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, says, “In a number of languages it may be necessary to translate komaō as ‘to let one’s hair grow long’ or ‘not to cut one’s hair.’” Louw-Nida is a leading lexicon for Bible translators. The idea here seems to be that if the receptor language does not have a word for “uncut hair,” the translator should communicate this idea by his choice of words.
But we must take care that in embracing a biblical teaching that is increasingly unpopular, we are not driven to unbiblical extremes in an attempt to defend our understanding of the text. Scripture will stand on its own. When we take liberties with Scripture, reading meaning into it that is not there, we weaken its message. In effect, we add to the word of God, a sin just as severe as taking from it. [archive]