Cultural Relativity & The Question Of Hair

Cultural Relativity & The Question Of Hair
By T. R. O’daniel

As a former missionary I appreciate the importance of culture in applying values and concepts of right and wrong. As a student of the Word of God I also acknowledge that the Scripture often gives us principles and not specifics to live by. When the Scripture does not furnish specifics, then specifics may vary from culture to culture.

For example, the Scripture commands us not to steal, but it does not provide a complete definition of stealing. In other Western culture we have a highly developed sense of personal property, while in many cultures like the African, property belongs to the family or village. If a Westerner moved into an African village with his “personal” property, very likely he would be shocked to find that people who had need of one of “his” possessions would use it as if it were their own. If he became angry and accused those people of theft, he would do so based upon his cultural definition of stealing, while in the perspective of the villagers he would be improper for being angry and falsely accusing members of the village.

Often, however, God in His Word does provide us with specifics about the do’s and don’ts of applying scriptural principles to our daily lives. When the Bible provides specifics we should not alter them to conform to cultural variances. I often told our African pastors, “Western culture is not above African culture, and neither is African culture above Western culture. There is much we can learn from each other. However, all cultures must submit when they are in violation of the Word of God.” For instance, polygamy is an acceptable practice in African culture, while divorce for any reason has become acceptable in Western culture. But both practices (customs) violate the Word of God. Disobedience to the Word of God is sin no matter what the cultural setting.

Unfortunately, much of professing Christianity has abandoned this viewpoint. Biblical specifics are deemed irrelevant on the basis of a doctrine of cultural relativity. Cultural relativists teach that biblical principles were expressed relative to the cultural setting and should be reinterpreted in the light of the cultural setting we are in. In other words, we can ignore the specifics of the Bible and only pay attention to the general principles, and even the principles may be altered. Obedience to the specific commands of Scripture becomes selective, varying from culture to culture, This view can ultimately lead to the acceptance of polygamy, divorce, and even homosexuality.

But the Bible does not endorse this approach. Peter warned of unstable people who wrest the Scriptures to their own destruction (II Peter 3:16). John warned against adding to or taking away from what he had written (Revelation 22:18-19). The doctrine of cultural relativity ignores both of these warnings, as well as many others. It says that the Bible merely contains the Word of God instead of affirming that the Bible is the Word of God. Under this approach, ultimately we could not teach against any sin; sin would only be a matter of cultural interpretation.

As a specific example, many people today apply cultural relativity to the Bible’s teaching on hair in I Corinthians 1:1. Our twentieth century Apostolic fathers rightly interpreted the Scripture to teach that a woman should not cut her hair. Many Bible scholars such as Dr. Gordon D. Fee, a scholar of international reputation in the field of New Testament textual criticism and exegesis, acknowledged this to be the scriptural teaching. Dr. Fee, an Assemblies of God minister, states on page 190 of his book Corinthians, a Study Guide (Brussels, Belgium:  ICI) in reference to I Corinthians 11: “Full ‘specific obedience’ demands that a woman never cut her hair.” However, he goes on to question the necessity of “specific obedience” to Scripture in this case. He allows for readers to choose to “translate” the specifics into something culturally comparable.

But the inspired apostle Paul certainly did not give his readers any cultural latitude here. Even though he ministered in many different countries and cultures he expected conformity on this matter. He obviously was trying to correct a problem in the Corinthian church, where at least some people either had introduced or were trying to introduce another custom. He proceeded to let them know where the church should stand on the matter, fully recognizing his teachings should be objectionable to some people with a contentious spirit. Rather than giving into their contentious spirit, as some misinterpret verse 16, Paul prepared the church for the contentious by saying, “Now if any one is disposed to be argumentative and contentious about this, we hold to and recognize no other custom [in worship] than this, nor do the churches of God generally” (Amplified Bible).

There is no intimation of cultural relativity in Paul’s position here, which is the position of the Word of God.

Later in 1 Corinthians we find a test to administer to anyone who claims to be a prophet or spiritual: “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:37). We should note that Paul did not divide his letter into chapters or verses; these were added many centuries later for convenience. Thus all the teachings of the epistle, including the matter of hair, are included in what the prophets and the spiritual must acknowledge as being the commandments of God. And Biblical commandments are not cultural options that we can ignore as culturally irrelevant.

Apostolic Pentecostals have stood for decades against cultural pressures to compromise the truth that a woman’s hair is given to her by God as a covering and a glory to her and that it should not be cut. More and more Bible scholars are acknowledging that we have read the Scriptures correctly, but they disagree with our stand against cultural pressures. They have proposed a “doctrine” to justify conformity to the world. Of course, the Bible teaches against such conformity-“Be not conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2)-but then cultural relativists would probably use their new “doctrine” to invalidate Romans 12:2 also.

Cultural relativity is not a valid justification for abandoning our biblically based standards of holiness. We must not abandon a biblical position in a day when the world so desperately needs the church to be a light to a lost and dying generation, and when millions of Christians around the world watch in despair as their denominations abandon all semblance of using the Bible as the basis for daily living. Bible-based
holiness standards are not a hindrance to true apostolic revival. On the contrary they will prove to be one of our greatest assets as millions cast their eyes about them looking for a church where the glory of God still resides.

“And every woman who prays or prophesies with no covering (of hair) on her head dishonors her head-she is just like one of the ‘shorn women.’ If a woman has no covering, let her be for now with short hair, but since it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair shorn or shaved, she should grow it again” (1 Corinthians 11:5-6, NIV footnote translation).


T.R. O’Daniel is executive vice president of Indiana Bible College. He formerly served as field superintendent for Kenya and for Uganda. Christian Information Network

The above material is copyrighted and may not be reproduced in any form without permission of the author and is to be used for study and research purpose only.

Pentecostal Herald, November 1991, Page 6.