Hermeneutics: Transculturality, Braided Hair, and Pigtails

[I’ve changed the title of the series, as the topic has shifted — but in a good direction. And it’s easier to type. I’m keeping the T shirt logo because I’m still an elder.]

Alexander wrote,

In 1Co 11:2-16 Paul argues on different levels:

a) Headship within the deity (V 3) – certainly not cultural

Any command regarding church order has an eternal principle behind it. The command itself, however, is an application of that principle. Sometimes the principle and the command are very closely tied (“Love one another” is essentially both principle and command), but normally there is a distinction — prohibitions on braided hair derive from the principle “love one another” in that the flaunting of wealth tempts others to envy and reflects an attitude contrary to the heart of Christ (I’m better than you.).

It’s always true that tempting others to envy or, even worse, pretending to be superior is wrong, but how one does that in a given society will vary. Hence, the behaviors that violate those principles and thus are sinful will vary from culture to culture.

Therefore, pigtails on second grade girls, even though clearly involving braided hair, do not violate the underlying eternal principle and certainly pigtails aren’t sin — even though they violate the literal words of the commands —

(1Ti 2:9 ESV)  9 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire,

(1Pe 3:3 ESV) 3 Do not let your adorning be external — the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear–

There are other approaches to the interpretation of the braided-hair passages, such as the argument, based on history, that the real condemnation was against braiding the hair with gold and silver strands, and that may be true. But if we don’t dig into the purposes behind the command, we’ll not get the application right. Rather, we’ll simply write the text out the passage and lose the very point the apostles are making!

The “rule book” or “constitution” hermeneutic approaches the text as though all commands are of equal eternality (I use “eternal” in the same sense as “transcultural”) and then rationalizes away those commands that seem too foreign. A more thoughtful hermeneutic is to seek out the eternal purposes behind the command and ask how those same purposes should be honored in today’s culture. The task therefore isn’t so much “is the command still binding?” as “how is the principle behind the command to be honored in this time and place?”

Thus, when we speak of gold, pearls, and braided hair, we don’t stop with pointing out that things have changed and therefore these commands are no longer binding! Rather, the principles that drove these commands in the First Century remain true today, but the application will often be different. It may not be fashionable to braid the hair with gold and silver strands, but women still wear gold and silver in their hair!

Hence, we aren’t done until we ask: “How do we flaunt wealth today; how do we try to mark ourselves as superior today; and how do we avoid those behaviors?” We can thus condemn modern practices that violate the heart of those verses today and cite those verses as authority. It’s not whether they apply, but how they apply that we should be asking.

And the modern application may have nothing to do with braided hair, gold, or silver. There may be other markers of status and wealth that we use to separate ourselves from others less fortunate. The test isn’t the material used and so we ask entirely the wrong question when we ask, “Is a wedding band an exception to the rule?” That ignores the step of asking why the rule exists and the need to re-test and re-apply the rule in contemporary terms. Thus, we should rather ask, ‘”Does a wedding band violate the purposes of God behind the rule?”

The process is —

1. Determine the eternal principles that drive Paul’s conclusions in the text.

2. Ask what is it about the stated principles that cause Paul to reach those conclusions in his culture.

3. Ask whether the same principles drive the same results today.

4. Finally, ask what results we should reach in today’s culture, invoking those same principles.

This means the argument that “the command is eternal because Paul refers to eternal things” isn’t persuasive. There’s always an eternal principle. On the other hand, neither are we allowed merely to write the passage out of the Bible as no longer relevant to 21st Century life. Instead, we look for the lesson that is there.

Now, this is a more challenging hermeneutical approach because it requires us to inquire of the text how Paul reasons — not merely what he says but why he says it. What are Paul’s underlying, driving concerns? What beliefs must he have had to reach these conclusions?

And it helps to know that Paul was a Jewish rabbi who read the Old Testament Scriptures with the greatest of respect. His theology was built on the Law and the Prophets as radically re-interpreted through the gospel. We can therefore skip a lot of speculation and turn our attention to the things that Paul focused on — Jesus and the Scriptures.

Our biggest deficiency in this area is, I think, that we fail to adequately understand the gospel. Rather, we are too quick to accept a Pharisaic view: It’s a rule and we must obey it even if it makes no sense.

I find it sadly ironic when, one Sunday, we look down on the Pharisees for arguing over whether a Jew may wear a shoe with metal tacks in it on the Sabbath — for fear of “carrying a load” in violation of the Sabbath laws — and then the very next Sunday we condemn each other for building a fellowship hall, because perhaps that would be to eat in the building, if the fellowship hall is part of the same structure as the church building.

It’s the same kind of thinking applied to different passages. It’s the same mindset — a mindset that ignores God’s purposes and defends itself by claiming a great zeal for God as evidenced by the sacrifice such rulekeeping involves. And yet, it’s just not the kind of service God wants.

God is not all about testing our faith with meaningless rules, just to make life inconvenient. God has higher purposes, which we are fully capable of understanding, with the Spirit’s help —

(Rom 12:2 ESV) 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

But, of course, Paul wrote 2,000 years ago, in a culture that is incredibly foreign to us. There will be times when even the best scholars struggle to understand Paul’s conclusions just because our knowledge of the local setting is incomplete and likely will be until Jesus returns. But if we can discern the eternal principles from which Paul reasoned, well, we know our local culture very well, and so we can apply those principles as experts.

You see, this approach allows us to soundly and scripturally apply Paul’s teachings today even when we’re not entirely confident of what he was saying to the First Century church — because the eternal principles don’t change, and while Paul’s conclusions can be unclear, the principles are usually quite clear.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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18 Responses to Hermeneutics: Transculturality, Braided Hair, and Pigtails

  1. My major professor in grad school said in a course on “The New Testament World” that if we could have a time machine take us back so we could spend 24 hours in a Palestinian village, we would learn more about the world in which Jesus lived than all of the scholars’ studies of that culture from the distance with which we have to view it.

    We make a huge mistake to read 21st (or even 17th) century mores and customs into the world of the New Testament. While we may never understand it thoroughly, we can understand it well enough to discern in Paul’s or Peter’s or Jesus’ words the eternal principles. When the Pharisees confronted Jesus about his disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath (Matthew 12), he pointed them to eternal principles: God desires mercy more than sacrifice; the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. He also pointed out their common behavior: if your son or your ox is in a pit, you will get him out even on the Sabbath; the priests work in offering sacrifices on the Sabbath; you untie your ox to take him to food and water.

    He also asked penetrating questions: is it right to do good on the Sabbath – or to do evil? This was when they watched to see if He would heal the man with a withered hand. In Jesus’ thinking, for Him to know to good and NOT do it would be evil (cf. James 4:17, written by the brother of Jesus). Rather than being evil to violate the letter of the law of the Sabbath, it would be evil to fail to heal the man before Him.

    Jay, thank you for restoring some sanity to this discussion. It’s really very simple: what would Jesus do? That is what He wants us to do.


  2. Alabama John says:

    Excellent Jay,

    What a gift to be able to express yourself like that.


  3. Price says:

    Whup, there it is… a path to take 1st century Apostolic direction and apply the eternal principals to 21st century life.

    Jerry…good point…Jesus was surely seeking deeper understanding than just memorizing the rules… “eyes to see and ears to hear”… really good point.

  4. JMF says:

    Alabama John —

    …And I appreciate your speaking life over Jay. I often think the same thing as you mention: how great it would be to be able to write and argue as clearly as Jay does. What a gift, truly; whether one agrees with his thoughts or not.

  5. Jim Neely says:

    A somewhat humerus aspect of the holy kiss. Being a good old southern boy I gladly follow the American tradition of not doing it. In the 90’s I made several trips to Bucharest, Romania where I found that they do it pretty consistently. (It really isn’t a kiss, just the brushing, or almost touching, of the cheeks.) Never-the-less, it was not something with which I was comfortable. My “friends” kidded me about shaking hands with my elbow straight and my arm stiff. It was mostly true.
    I don’t know if I offended any one, or if they just marked it off as “that strange American”.

  6. Charles McLean says:

    Jay said: “A more thoughtful hermeneutic is to seek out the eternal purposes behind the command and ask how those same purposes should be honored in today’s culture.”

    Now, this statement seems to acknowledge that the church is a living, breathing, real-time entity, alive in the here and now, rather than a long-dead institutional model which needs to be resurrected and reproduced with exactitude no matter what the time or culture.

    Ahh, I love fresh air!

    One of the downsides of the old forward-to-the-past line of thought is that it so stultifies real thought and chokes off spiritual revelation that even the most obvious examples of our bad reasoning and inconsistency and rationalizations elude our consciousness, apparent to only the reasoning folks outside the milieu. But, I do notice that people who manage to step outside this model in their thinking start seeing things in the scriptures and in the church that we are later amazed that we could have ever missed.

    Jay, I continue to appreciate your capacity to speak to the institution. It strikes me that light appearing to the body of Christ takes many forms. You are a bit like the man holding a lantern, leading travelers on a way he himself is still discovering. Sometimes, those travelers are illuminated — and frightened– by flashes of lightning along the way. Such flashes may come from the most unlikely places.

    Then, there is the occasional crowd carrying torches and pitchforks. The light of those torches is hard on the status quo, but unfortunately is occasionally necessary. Limited, this “light” is useful, but when unmetered, it eventually burns down the village.

  7. Jenny says:

    It’s really horrifying how people can focus on the particulars of a passage rather than the underlying principles. I’ve heard mothers, who say they can’t ever cut their hair, insist that they can’t wear it braided or in a bun to keep it out of their way! Worse, young women with never trimmed hair think of themselves as pillars of Christian modesty while flaunting their never-trimmed, thigh-length hair that’s been curled and decorated with lace and flowers. Totally missing the point of the passage!

  8. abasnar says:

    I am very much with you in this post, Jay. As I see it, Paul and Peter give incomplete lists fort he application of a command that can be summed up as:

    Dress modestly and chastely

    And of course we can say, that this command, too, is embedded in the greater command of loving God and your neighbor. How is it embedded in these two?

    a) Love for God: We cannot love both God an Mammon, therefore we should neither strive for wealth nor disply it. And: It’s a command, so whoever professes to love Christ, will obey it whether he understood the deeper meaning of it or not.

    b) Loving your neighbor: I think dressing chastely is the flipside of “don’t look after women lustfully” – we shall not provoke each other to sin (I think we had this discussion earlier this year).

    Understanding these connections does make it even more important to seek for clear and consistent applications. We cannot ay: “Oh, I got the idea! So I am done with this command.” It’s not about ideas, but about action. But I think (hope) we agree on this anyway.

    Now Paul and Peter give a list “don’ts”, and I think by the way they put it this list is not complete. The ECF at least never treated this list as exhaustive, but made some other applications. Clement of Alexandria for instance taught we should use undyied cloth for our clothes (it was way cheaper); Tertullian wrote a lot against make up.

    But if we take a second look at the list, we see that both Paul and Peter name three “areas” of outward appearance:

    a) What we do with our hair
    b) How we dress
    c) Expensive accessoires (Gold, pearls …)

    If I look at our society, I see the same issues: Women (more than men) still want to impress or to enhance their outward beauty by investing a lot of time and money for their hairstyle which they want to be seen and admired – instead of being covered. In fact: One of the main reasons the headcovering disappeared was the development of hair setting lotions. (My mom liked to wear scarves because they protected her hair in the wind.) Look at what barber shops offer, and you knmow what I mean. The issue is still the same, isn’t it.

    How we dress: What can be bought at the store is mainly designed to create sexual attention (I have that from a director of a school for clothes-design). And we have this in church and we feel unasy about it. But it is equally wrong to wear expensive clothing that would associate us with the upper class. We don’t belong there anyway.

    Our society is not that different from 1st century Rome, Jay. In fact – aside the use of cars and computers – nothing really has changed.

    Now, what I see in all of this: Unless we DARE to make clear applications in line with Peter and Paul we are misleading the flock (and you are still an elder, as you said). AS I see it and others bemoan it: These passages are – if at all – taught as mere priciples without offering a list of “dos and don’ts” – but Pter and Paul did, didn’t they? And we can and shall build on their list, I’d say. Which means: We don’t have to use the word “principle” in this context – because, as I said, it tempts us to be content with the “idea”. Rather we should think about the way we style our hair and dress and make clear applications in line with what is being worn and done to our hair (and faces – Tertullian) today.

    Yet – once more – I have never heard a sermon like that in 24 years.


  9. “Hence, we aren’t done until we ask: “How do we flaunt wealth today ”

    How about, we construct buildings that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars while there are people in the community who sleep outdoors.

    This is tough stuff. We, a bunch of frail persons, attempt to live to God’s standards. Let us never stop thanking God for His grace.

  10. Charles McLean says:

    I very much like Alexander’s last post, which seems to ask us to look at cause rather than effect, and not to confuse intent with expression. I would suggest that the reason that he has not heard a sermon on this in 24 years is that we are accomodating a cultural shift. This is NOT in the fact that we display ourselves, (that’s as old as “do these fig leaves make my behind look fat?”) but in the manner in which we display ourselves.

    In America, we are an “acquisition culture”, so it is very anti-cultural to encourage people not to display wealth. It’s almost anti-capitalist to do so. We are the planetary poster child for conspicuous consumption. House, car, furniture, plasma TV…

    We are also a youth-culture, with everyone under 80 hoping to seem younger than they are. (That’s why there is no store called “Forever Forty-One”. ;^) So, makeup and Rogaine and Miss Clairol are consistent sellers. We seek to be seen as what we are not, that we might be admired by others. How many of the “seven deadly sins” can one find in liposuction?

    But the majority of sermons continue to reflect –either directly or indirectly– the idea that “I thank you, Lord, that I am not as other men are.” We do preach against sin, but while pulpiteers rail against great sins of which the church members consider themselves innocent, they give short shrift to addressing more mundane (and germane) things like greed, pride, gossip, materialism, judgment, bitterness, selfishness, sloth.

    It’s hard to keep a pulpit job for long if a fellow has regularly “quit preachin’ and gone to meddlin'”. Oh, and that comes from the voice of experience.

  11. Charles McLain wrote:

    It’s hard to keep a pulpit job for long if a fellow has regularly “quit preachin’ and gone to meddlin'”. Oh, and that comes from the voice of experience.

    Charles, now I can better understand your caustic cynicism – ’cause I’ve been there and had that done to me.


  12. Charles McLean says:

    Jerry, I’m not cynical, just experienced. (One of the greatest kindnesses anyone ever did to me was to fire me from a pulpit.) The cynic finds no hope, and dismisses the idea that men of goodwill can accomplish much. I find plenty of hope in the body of Christ, and I see many people accomplishing positive things in the church. The fact that I don’t find much of hope in certain of our institutions is not cynicism.

    And identifying me as a cynic does not answer even one of the doubts that have arisen over the years. It’s dismissive, and that’s all. One can hit the snooze button all day long, but that does not change what time it is.

  13. Charles,
    Actually, I was identifying with you. Perhaps “cynicism” is too strong a word. Maybe “skepticism” would be better. I skeptical about many of our institutions – though there are encouraging signs from place to place. I have much hope in our Lord – and I am absolutely thrilled at many who are first learning of His way and are seeking to walk in it. Maybe one of the biggest challenges of leaders today is to encourage those newbies without stifling them with our traditions and inferred commands….

  14. Keith says:

    Jerry wrote — I have much hope in our Lord – and I am absolutely thrilled at many who are first learning of His way and are seeking to walk in it. Maybe one of the biggest challenges of leaders today is to encourage those newbies without stifling them with our traditions and inferred commands…

    This is so very true Jerry. If we could only learn to treat babes in Christ, as a new-born baby is treated in a loving family, the future of the church would become much brighter! … feeding on the milk of the Word and nurtured and protected by all without harshness. Not expecting a babe to grow up and be fully mature over night.

  15. jay altieri says:

    I was recently directed here by Edward Fudge’s GracEmail and I’m glad that I read this post. I fully agree. Although I’m not Church of Christ, rest assured that we have lots of pharisaic interpretations throughout the entire body of Christ. Obey the letter, but ignore the spirit is a long standing Jewish and Christian legalism.

    Another good example is found in 1Cor 11:6. It flat out says that women should have their head covered in worship/public. Perhaps the burka has its roots in the bible. The cultural understanding is that in Israel long hair and/or head covering was a sign of submission. Nazarites submitted to God with long hair, women submit to husbands with long hair, and rabbis submit to Torah with kippot (skull caps). How times have changed! In our society, long hair on a man is a sign of rebellion and taking your hat off is a sign of respect. But the eternal principle that 1 Cor 11 is ringing is that women should submit to husbands, men should submit to God, all humans should submit to authority. Submission is a sign of humility. Definitely not popular in our modern women’s lib era.

    Verse 4 and again v7, Paul specifically says that men should not wear a kippa or head covering. A major point for Paul throughout the epistles is that we as believers are free from bondage (1Cor 9:1). We are joint heirs with Christ (Rom 8). We enjoy a law of Liberty (1Cor 8). We are not under the law (Rom 6:14), so we should not wear the traditional kippa as servant of the law. Paul says that messianic believers (the Way was mostly a Jewish sect at this point) should not wear a hat because we are not under the law- we are brothers to Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. But women should wear a hat because they are in marital submission to husbands.

    I think the modern Western practice of men removing hats indoors, during prayer and national anthem is directly influenced from Paul. But nobody understands the cultural symbolism so deeply embedded with Nazarites of ancient Israel.

    So I believe (using brother Jay’s applicational hermeneutic) women need not don a burka nor hat in the USA. (In Egypt it would be wise-but that’s a different post). The cultural symbolism of a head covering displaying submission is lost on Amercians, so that conforming with the letter of the law is pointless. However wives should obey the eternal motive of the command and be submission to husbands through speech and behavior and husbands should be submissive to Christ.

    Since it has become our own cultural tradition for men to remove hats, this practice should be honored by Christian men. However there is nothing wrong with a male donning a kippa when visiting the Kotel (Western Wall in Jerusalem) or a Passover Seder per modern Jewish and Messianic custom. Paul’s original cultural statement has been long lost and shrouded over the centuries. No one will understand the cultural symbolism of hats anymore, but we must continue with humility and submission to authority with simultaneous liberty and sonhood through grace.

  16. Charles McLean says:

    I get you better now. My most recent phase has me listening to people express long-held ideas, after which I ask simply, “Who told you that?” So I suppose that IS being skeptical. Very often, we have traditions and practices for which we claim divine imprimatur, which in truth have none. But that does not mean we can’t have traditions and non-biblical practices– just that we should be humble enough to acknowledge that this is what they are, and go on from there.

    I think one of the best things that I experience is spending more time listening to newbies instead of indoctrinating them. It’s amazing how effective the Holy Spirit is in teaching these new believers and how much I am challenged by listening to what He tells them.

  17. abasnar says:

    @ Jay Altieri

    Good first try on 1Co 11 – but now go back and just ignore all you know from ancient and contemporary culture and read how Paul explains the symbolism he teaches. It will be revealing to follow the terms head and glory throughout the chapter.

    Then – in the end – you might ask yourself: Does Paul want this “eternal principle” be made visible (also) by a symbol – and if so: is the NT-symbol for submission still sufficient for this purpose or should we “invent” a different symbol?


  18. abasnar says:


    It is distracting from the text and the reasoning of the apostle if we – before having followed and understood his line of thought – skip to theories about ancient customs. Theories? Well, just take three different commentaries and you get five different explainations …

    Think about it (This goes for all here): Does Jesus ever use this “cultural” approach when talking about scripture? Or any of His apostles? So why don’t we just follow their example? Just read what they wrote and follow their reasons without adding (cultural theories) nor taking away (their reasons for what they wrote)!


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