Archive for July, 2009

Beyond I Corinthians 11: Holiness, Hair, and Ancient History

2 July, 2009

Modern Apostolic believers give great emphasis to St. Paul’s teachings to the Corinthians concerning head covering and appropriate hair length; but increasingly, less attention is devoted to other Pauline New Testament directives concerning the superfluous dressing of the hair: “ . . . not with broided hair” (I Tm. 2.9) and “Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair . . . “ (I Pt. 3.3). Patristical writings, appealing to the epistlary precepts of Paul and Peter, preserve for us a solid record of ecclesiastical stricture on the ostentatious and vain arrangement and alteration of the hair.

Like St. Paul, the Church Fathers viewed hair as a signification of order. The beauty of hair was seen in its simplicity rather than ornate arrangement or adornment. One of the earliest descriptions of acceptable hairstyles for women comes from Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.), who wrote in his Pædagogus: “It is enough for women to protect their locks, and bind up their hair simply along the neck with a plain hair-pin, nourishing chaste locks with simple care to true beauty.” It is clear from this passage that Christian women were expected to care for their uncut (chaste) hair and to wear it in a style consistent with modesty and simplicity.

Clement’s contemporary, Tertullian (160-220 A.D.), vehemently criticizes women for their elaborate hairdressing, asking: “What service, again, does all the labour spent in arranging the hair render to salvation?” He continues:

Why is no rest allowed to your hair, which must now be bound, now loosed, now cultivated, thinned out? Some are anxious to force their hair into curls, some to let it hang loose and flying; not with good simplicity: beside which, you affix I know not what enormities of subtle and textile perukes; now, after the manner of a helmet of undressed hide, as it were a sheath for the head and a covering for the crown; now, a mass drawn backward toward the neck. The wonder is, that there is no open contending against the Lord’s prescripts!

There is absolutely no toleration for immodest peacockery amongst these early Christians, and the hair was not to be piled with either jewels or bands.

Patristical writers also universally condemned the tincture of hair with dyes. Tertullian says:

I see some women turn the color of their hair with saffron. They are ashamed even of their own nation, ashamed that their procreation did not assign them to Germany or to Gaul. Thus, as it is, they transfer their hair thither! Ill, ay, most ill, do they augur for themselves with their flame-colored head . . . God saith, “Which of you can make a white hair black, or out of a black a white?” And so they refute the Lord! “Behold!” say they, “Instead of white or black, we make it yellow—more winning in grace.”

For Tertullian, the coloring of hair was an affront to the Creator. He believed that all cosmetic alteration of the person was adulterating and indicated dissatisfaction with the artistry of God Himself. In further disapproval of dyeing, he cites the damage that these chemicals cause to the hair: “Nay, moreover, the force of the cosmetics burns ruin into the hair; and the constant application of even any undrugged moisture, lays up a store of harm for the head.”

Cyprian, third century Bishop of Carthage, also laments the increasing ignorance in the Church of what believers had “done before in the time of the Apostles”, saying that “in women, their complexion was dyed: the eyes were falsified from what God’s hand had made them; their hair was stained with a falsehood. Crafty frauds were used to deceive the hearts of the simple, subtle meanings for circumventing the brethren.”

Commodianus, another Christian writer of the third century, in an address to the “Matrons of the Church of the Living God” rails against Christian women who embrace vanity “with all the pomp of the devil,” saying:

Thou art adorned at the looking-glass with thy curled hair turned back from thy brow . . . thou dyest thy hair that it may be always black. God is the overlooker, who dives into each heart. But these things are not necessary for modest women. Pierce thy breast with chaste and modest feeling.

Early Christian writers viewed undue attention to appearance and personal decking as diametric to Christian virtue.

Men also were censured by Clement and Tertullain for their effeminate attention to the arrangement and care of the hair and general appearance. Clement says: “they become effeminate, cutting their hair in an ungentlemanlike and meretricious way.” He also attacks the vanity of elderly men feigning youth with hair dye:

As for dyeing of hair, and anointing of grey locks, and dyeing them yellow, these are practices of abandoned effeminates; and their feminine combing of themselves is a thing to be let alone. For they think, that like serpents they divest themselves of the old age of their head by painting and renovating themselves. But though they do doctor the hair cleverly, they will not escape wrinkles, nor will they elude death by tricking time.

Tertullian’s writings also rebuke elderly brethren who would “ . . . arrange the hair, and disguise its hoariness by dyes . . . “

The Apostolic Constitutions, which date from the early centuries, also warn Christian men:

it is not it is not lawful for thee, a believer and a man of God, to permit the hair of thy head to grow long, and to brush it up together, nor to suffer it to spread abroad, nor to puff it up, nor by nice combing and platting to make it curl and shine; since that is contrary to the law, which says thus, in its additional precepts: “You shall not make to yourselves curls and round rasures” [Lev. 19.27].

Clearly, men were not exempt from sins of vanity or clerical invectives.

Interestingly, the wickedness of wiggery is consistently upheld amongst early post-apostolic Christians. While the Bible says little about the practice of wearing wigs, their use dates from Ancient Egypt, where they were worn by all but labourers and slaves. In his excellent study of hirsute history, At the Sign of the Barber’s Pole (1904), William Andrews catalogs the consensual condemnation of the Church Fathers. Gregory of Nazianzus, praising his modest, Christian sister, Gorgonia said: “She neither cared to curl her own hair, nor to repair its lack of beauty by the aid of a wig.” St. Jerome called wig-wearing “unworthy of Christianity” and relates a harrowing, didactic tale of one Praetexta who, at the bidding of her husband, ornately fixed the hair of her virgin niece, Eustachia, with false ringlets. In a dream, an angel of judgment appeared to Praetexta and declared:

Thou has obeyed thy husband rather than the Lord, and hast dared to deck the hair of a virgin, and make her look like a daughter of earth. For this do I wither up thy hands, and bid them recognise the enormity of thy crime in the amount of thy anguish and bodily suffering. Five months more shalt thou live, and then Hell shall be thy portion; and if thou art bold enough to touch the head of Eustachia again, thy husband and thy children shall die even before thee.

St. Bernard found the wearing of wigs to be no laughing matter: “There is no joke in the matter, the woman who wears a wig commits a mortal sin.”

Clement of Alexandria would not confer a blessing on wearers of wigs because, said he, the blessing would remain on the wig rather than the wearer.

Tertullian also denounced false hair, which seem to have been worn by some in an effort to increase their natural height: “It has been pronounced [by the Lord] that no one can add to his own stature. You, however, do add to your weight some kind of rolls, or shield-bosses, to be piled upon your necks!” He also makes an intriguing argument that believers should not be covered with the locks of those who may be prepared for eternal punishment: “If you feel no shame at the enormity, feel some at the pollution; for fear you may be fitting on a holy and Christian head the slough of some one else’s head, unclean perchance, guilty perchance and destined to hell.”

Whether condemning ostentation and superfluity or the utter falseness of appearance, these early writers, from diverse regions and time periods, agree on issues of hair! The moral detectable in each instance is that Christians must flee all vanity and maintain a visage consistent with a life of moderation and holiness. It seems that many modern Pentecostals content themselves with the observance of I Corinthians 11 without stringently applying the equally apostolic precepts of Paul and Peter concerning the ornamentation of hair. If we accept the historicity of these writings as valid applications of the epistlary principles of adornment in Timothy and Peter, we must question whether our sisters should garnish their crowning glory with twinkling trinkets or whether our brothers should tint their temples with Grecian Formula! Certainly, human nature is not much altered from the time of the patristical writers of the early centuries, and their arguments stand nearly 2,000 years later, validated by our carnal tendency toward pride. We would all do well to set ourselves before the looking-glass of God’s Word and study our personal appearance in the light of Christ’s perfect likeness.