“What is glory?” This was a question I asked a group of fellow believers one evening as we ate together at a restaurant. No one seemed to be able to answer me. Many were reluctant to even attempt to give an answer, and some gave a timid and unsure stab at one, but no one seemed to be sure. Then I followed this up with the question, “Why is long hair considered to be a woman’s glory in I Corinthians 11:15?” At this everyone seemed to give up even trying to come up with an explanation. It seems I had stumped the group. Is this question one too difficult for anyone to answer?

“Glory” in the Bible is a word that is difficult for us to grasp. Unfortunately, this is a word that has become “old” in English, and its meaning is less than clear to us. We will sing “glory to God,” but if someone would ask us what exactly we mean by this we would have difficulty in answering. What exactly “glory” is is an interesting study that deserves further consideration.

“Glory” appears to have several shades of meaning. All of them seem to carry the idea of something of great importance. What one glories in is what one considers to be of most supreme importance. The thing you glory in is the thing you treasure most. The thing that causes others to glorify you is the thing that they recognize as most significant or important about you. Therefore, “glory” also carries the idea of “recognition,” because it implies that which others recognize about you as being of supreme importance. Also if you have glory with others they will consider you as being a most important or significant individual. One without glory is one who has nothing about him that would make others recognize him or assign to him any importance. Thus, “glory” might be considered that which makes one important, which causes one to be recognized, or which raises one above the norm to some exalted or supreme status.

Thus we turn to the very difficult passage in I Corinthians 11. This passage mentions “glory” in connection with a woman and long hair. In verse 15 we read, “But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering.” One must ask, then, what is it about long hair that would make a woman glory in it? Why would she consider it of supreme importance, or something that would exalt her or make her special?

Many women in our day do not consider long hair to be of supreme importance. Many consider it a nuisance to comb or care for, and short hairstyles are very popular among women of today. If these women considered long hair to be a “glory,” they would obviously not cut it short in this way. But why would even a woman with long hair consider it her “glory”? It would seem that long hair cannot be that important. We are always saying that looks aren’t everything, and what really matters is what a person is like inside. Yet does this passage belie that? Long hair does look nice, but is it really something that could be one of the most important aspects about a woman?

To answer this question we will have to consider the context of this passage. It was written to the Corinthians, a group of believers living in one of the most important as well as the most promiscuous cities at that time. From chapter 10 and verses 1 and 2 we learn that this passage is addressed mainly to Jews, for they are told that “our fathers” were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,” a fact that would only be true of the Jewish believers in that city. That brings us to chapter 11.

Chapter 11 is given the title in my Bible of “Head Coverings.” This is a very interesting and very difficult passage. Paul and the Holy Spirit appear to be talking here about veils, and the fact that women should wear them and men should not. Yet this is very strange, even acknowledging that these were Jews being spoken to. For though we read many passages in the Old Testament which indicate that the women did wear veils, yet we never read any sort of command from God that they SHOULD wear them. This appears to have been a cultural thing, and God accepts it but makes no attempt to either change it or enforce it. The wearing of veils appears to have been entirely voluntary throughout the Old Testament as far as we can tell. So why should God suddenly command the wearing of veils here?

There is another problem here in verse 10. “For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” Why would angels care whether women wore veils or not? And more importantly, if this was so important, why did God never command the wearing of veils before this time? These questions seem very perplexing.

The key, I believe, is found in considering several facts about the Bible and the city of Corinth. One is that mentioned above, that Corinth was a very wicked city in which sexual promiscuity was rampant. Moreover, sexuality with angels was something talked about in the Old Testament, and marrying human women appears to have been sort of the “forbidden fruit” of angels whereby they chose either to remain faithful to God or to fall into sin. Thus if this passage is talking in some way about sexual perversion, it would seem to clarify matters somewhat.

The other key is that God often uses delicate terms in dealing with sexual themes. This is so that the Bible can be read in any culture, whether it is a sexually permissive culture like ours wherein these things can be freely discussed, or whether it is a sexually restricted culture wherein such things are not discussed openly in polite company. Thus God’s brilliance in opening up the Bible to either mindset. So we can expect that when some of the grossest sexual sins are discussed, God may very well couch them in softened or beautified terms. For example, the gross sin of Ham sleeping with his mother in Genesis 9 is described as “uncovering his father’s nakedness.” This term is a beautiful way of describing a grossly sinful and disgusting act. However, with the different culture we have, many have difficulty in interpreting this figure. Nevertheless, if one is knowledgeable in the Scriptures and knows Leviticus 18:8, which proclaims, “The nakedness of your father’s wife you shall not uncover; it is your father’s nakedness,” one will know exactly what this figure must mean.

Thus we return to I Corinthians 11. It is my belief that much the same thing is going on here. In some ways this is more difficult, for we are partially ignorant of the culture at that time, and see no key in the Bible to indicate what these figures mean. However, knowing from 6:12-20 that some in the Corinthian church were actually trying to justify prostitution as being “natural,” we know that this was a practice which was plaguing some of the believers in Corinth. Thus we begin to have the key to our puzzle. The second key that I believe unlocks the door for us is the fact that in the Roman society of the day, all males wore their hair short and all females wore their hair long. This was the style and the custom, and was so universally followed that breaking it would have been most bizarre and immediately noticeable. Thus it was that the prostitutes took up the habit of making a statement of their trade by reversing this cultural norm. The female prostitutes would cut their hair short to indicate their trade, and the male (homosexual) prostitutes would grow their hair long for the same reason.

In this passage, it would appear that hair length and head coverings are used as symbols for sexual immorality and morality, and for prostitution and abstention from prostitution. The language is very delicate and somewhat confusing to those of us who do not understand the customs of the day. In verse 3 we learn that the head, which is the word for source or sum, of the man is Christ and of the woman is the man. Thus, the next two verses tell us that a man who prays or prophesies (prays to God or speaks God’s words) with his head covered (without sexual purity) dishonors his head (Christ,) and the woman who does so without her head covered dishonors her head (her husband.) The argument goes on from there, and gets more complicated, but it always seems to carry this idea of sexual purity along with it. “All things are from God,” is stated in verse 12, which seems to sum up the argument thus far as being that God created sexuality and has the right to demand what He wants from us in regards to it. Anything less is dishonoring to Him.

Then we come to verses 13-15, which deal with long hair and glory. “Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?” If there was no figure of speech there, we would say yes, of course it is. Why shouldn’t it be? But once we interpret the figure and understand that what is meant is praying to God while living in sexual sin, then we understand that no, it is not proper to pray to God while living in sin. As believers we dishonor God if we disobey His laws, and to pray to Him while living openly in sin is dishonoring to Him.

Verse 14 read, “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him?” If this was not a figure of speech, we would say, “No, it certainly doesn’t. Look at the lion…the male has much longer hair than the female, and this is no shame. Nature teaches us nothing of the sort.” But when we understand that long hair was symbolic of homosexual perversion, we can see that yes, nature does indeed teach that this is dishonoring. Even if God had not commanded against this, we could easily see just from the construction of the male and the female that what is right is heterosexual union, and that homosexuality is against nature and is dishonorable.

Finally, we come to verse 15, where we now have the key to interpreting what “glory” means here. Because long hair is symbolic of not being a prostitute, it here is an indication that a woman is sexually pure, whether that is before marriage and means she is a virgin, or whether that is after marriage and indicates that she is faithful to her husband. This is what makes it a “glory” to her. It is not that she has long hair, but that she is pure. This is indeed something to glory in. Many women in our day do not have this glory. Even many Christian women have cast this glory aside. But for the woman who can truly tell her husband-to-be that “I have been faithful to you even before I knew you,” it is indeed something to glory in. And to the wife who can tell her husband that “I have always been faithful to you” with all the force of truth behind her words it is also a glory. This makes her stand out above the women of the world who are all-too willing to throw this glory away. This makes her worthy of being recognized and admired. It is this in which she can glory. For long hair of this sort is indeed a glory to any woman, and blessed is the woman who can claim to have it.