Horton and Wilson Spar over “Muscular Christianity”

Michael Horton and Doug Wilson have begun a conversation about gender roles that is not to be missed. Horton began the discussion last week in a short article in Modern Reformation titled “Muscular Christianity.” Doug Wilson responded on his blog just today in a post titled, “Michael Horton, Gender Stereotypes, and Me.”

I won’t summarize the whole argument, but here’s the gist of it. They are both complementarians. They both affirm that God assigns different roles to men and women in the home and in the church. They also agree that these differences are rooted in the order of God’s creation. They are disagreeing, however, over the extent to which cultural norms govern and inform our fulfillment of these roles. Michael Horton warns against culturally-derived hyper-masculine expressions among the “young, restless, and reformed.” Doug Wilson pushes back, arguing that culture must inform how we live out our God-assigned roles as men and women.

Horton and Wilson are great writers and thinkers, so these essays are great reads no matter which side of the question you fall on. Having said that, I want to add one observation to the conversation.

In 1 Corinthians 11, the apostle Paul argues for male headship (1 Cor. 11:3), and he does so on the basis of the order of God’s good creation (1 Cor. 11:8-9). Yet in the midst of laying down this creation norm, Paul also references a number of particular issues that are conditioned by cultural considerations. The one that immediately comes to mind is the bit about hair length.

The passage overall is concerned with men and women inhabiting their proper roles, and a part of that means looking the part. Men should look like men, and women should look like women. And so Paul says, “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her?” (1 Cor. 11:14-15).

There are a number of thorny exegetical questions in this passage that I am not even going to begin to unwind in a blog post. Having said that, one thing is clear. In the Corinthian assembly, hair-length mattered. It was a feature of one’s appearance that communicated something about a person’s masculinity or femininity. If you were a man, there was a way to wear your hair and a way not to wear it. If you were a woman, there was a way to wear your hair and a way not to wear it (whatever that was).

Though ancient statues from that day may leave us some hints, we really know very little about what “too long” or “too short” might have been for the Corinthians. These are norms that were set almost entirely by cultural influences. Nevertheless, Paul seems to be commanding the Corinthians to show some deference to those cultural norms in fulfillment of the roles God had assigned to them. So here is an instance in which the apostle Paul himself says that God-ordained gender roles must be lived-out with an eye toward cultural expectations of masculinity and femininity.

There are other texts that we could go to that illustrate this same principle (e.g., Deut. 22:5), but let’s leave it at just the one for now. The point is that we have to live out our gender roles in the culture that we find ourselves in. The apostle Paul probably never wore trousers. But that doesn’t mean that he was less masculine for wearing something that would probably have looked more like a dress to us. His own culture informed the way he obeyed God, even though the creation norm remained an ever-fixed mark. He had an eye to his culture’s impressions about masculinity and femininity. I don’t think we can do any different.


  • Nathan Cesal

    So Denny, the natural thing in 1 Corinthians is cultural, but the unnatural thing in Romans 1 is absolute?

    I think it is dangerous to defend cultural norms as Biblical standards. When do you say that culture has crossed the line? Obviously Wilson can inform us — it’s whenever culture steps on his sensibilities.

  • David Pitman

    Horton struck a nerve, no doubt. Wilson seems to be thrashing about a bit in his “essay.” Is his syntax always that ragged? As expected you have given food for thought; Thanks!

  • Don Johnson

    It simply cannot be the case that 1 Cor 11 is Paul proscribing hair length for all the believers at Corinth.

    Paul was a Torah-observant Jew even after coming to faith in Christ, see Acts 21 which is not a theological treatise and so is easier to understand than the complex 1 Cor 11. We know that the believers at Corinth consisted of Jews and gentiles. Exactly because he was a Torah-observant Jew Paul paid for the fulfillment of Nazirite vows of 4 men, per Acts 21, and a Nazirite (male or female) does not cut their hair for the length of their vow or else they need to restart the process. The length of the vow can be for any length of time and the Pharisees said it needed to be for a minimum of 30 days, but set no maximum; some Nazirites were such for life. So there is simply no way that Paul would write something that contradicted the CHOICE for a person to have long hair.

    There are also other problems with the comp interpretation of these verses, but this is one that is easy to see.

  • Henry Bish


    I’m not sure the Nazirite argument carries the day. Aside from the fact that scripture does not say how long it is appropriate for the Nazirite vow to last, there are many rules that may have legitimate exceptions is some circumstances. E.g:

    o The command to be baptised is not negated just because the thief on the cross did not obey this command and yet was received by Jesus.

    o The requirement of appearing modestly dressed is not nullified by Saul prophesying naked with the prophets.

    Or many others.

    There can be legitimate exceptions to all sorts of strictures. It should also be noted that if anything the Nazirite vow showed it was not normal for a man to grow out his hair long.

    In my view your argument is also further weakened by my next point…

    • Henry Bish

      Given that Paul does not define how many centimeters ‘long’ or is, Denny is right to say that we have to look to cultural definitions of such. But I think it would be going too far to say that the very categories themselves of ‘long’ and ‘short’ are cultural, for that would seem to cut directly against what Paul says. Consider this quote from the excellent book ‘Man and Woman in Christ’ by Stephen B. Clark:

      ‘By “long,” Paul probably means long by comparison. Men in his day wore their hair longer than most men do today in Western society. He is saying that women should wear their hair still longer than men. Paul presumes that the Corinthians will accept what he says about hair length without question. He understands longer hair for women as either a natural or cross-cultural practice (depending on how one understands the word “nature” or physis in verse 14… In this he could rely upon the practice of the many cultures he was acquainted with and, in fact, longer hair for women is the practice of a majority of human cultures…’ (p119 Tabor House 2006 edition)

      This would explain how African men and women who (I suspect) cannot grow their hair as long as many Westerns, are still be able to obey this verse by having distinctions in the length of their hair between men and women (as they often do anyway).

  • Andrew Cowan

    Hmm. I think I agree with the point you are making here: appropriate expression of manhood/womanhood is always entangled with cultural norms and expectations. But I do have questions about the example you have chosen. On the one hand, it illustrates your point admirably: what was long or short hair at the time? How long was effeminate and how short was manly hair? On the other hand, your post could be (mis-?) read as claiming that hair length mattered then as a culturally appropriate differentiation between cultures but has no bearing now. I have a hard time seeing how the latter could be argued from 1 Cor 11:14-15 because Paul describes what he is reporting as what “nature” teaches. Thus, whatever the culturally constructed particulars of length might have been, Paul seems to imply that the long/short distinction he makes is not a cultural construct through and through but a non-negotiable feature of how things ought to be in this created world; it is written into the fabric of nature. This could very well be what you are affirming (hair length matters, but the particulars are culturally determined), but it seems that the direction in which argument tends could be pressed to suggest that in certain cultures it might be the expectation that men would have long hair and women short, and we ought to conform to those standards in order to maintain the biblical principle. I absolutely concur that we must distinguish between principles and cultural norms, but we must also be careful to make sure we are not dismissing as cultural something that the Scriptural logic suggests is creational. (Note again: I’m not saying you did this; you didn’t. You just weren’t quite as clear on what was essential and what was cultural in 1 Cor 11:14-15 as I would have liked.)

  • Don Johnson

    The whole idea that short hair is masculine is a modern idea, due to the army cutting off all a man’s hair and beard to fight lice.

    It is also not the case that ONLY a Nazir wore their hair long, this is entirely the wrong way to understand the concept. Anyone might wear it long or short (a personal decision), but a Nazir was required to do so by their voluntary vow. It was a way to keep track of the length of time of their vow, as they were shaved at the start and shaved at the end, the hair then being offered to God as a way to show the length of time. The point is that there are some theoretically possible ways to translate the hair length parts of 1 Cor 11 that are just not possible when Torah is understood and those ways should be excluded, unfortunately, some famous translations do not realize this (yet). They did their best as they saw it, but lacked some understanding of Torah.

    Furthermore, it also cannot be the case that women should wear their hair longer than men; it was considered immoral and a come on for a woman to wear her hair loose, just as it was considered the same to show her arms or talk to an unrelated man in public; it was a lot of bondage for a woman (which Jesus set us free from), but that was the culture of the time. It is just better to admit it was a very different time and different culture and different assumptions applied and not teleport 21st century ideas back into the 1st century.

  • Andrew Lindsey

    Re: “Though ancient statues from that day may leave us some hints, we really know very little about what ‘too long’ or ‘too short’ might have been for the Corinthians.”

    -I agree that the limits of length may be informed by culture, but isn’t it also significant that Paul points to “nature itself”– and not culture– as the foundation for the principle regarding male/female hair length being (at least relative to the opposite gender) short or long respectively?

    • Don Johnson

      The point is obscured by some translations, but Paul’s point is that nature does NOT set a hair length for a man nor for a woman. Nature does no such thing because if one does not cut one’s hair, it just grows until it falls out and sometimes can grow to a great length. It was NOT thought shameful to have long hair, Greek philosophers commonly let their hair grow as a sign of what they did in that culture.

      Ripping the text out of its cultural context like comps do is a horrible way to try to understand the text.

  • Henry Bish

    Good discussion. Here are some (very) interesting quotes from:


    In the appeal to “nature” (?????) here Paul makes contact with another philosophy of ancient times, known as Stoicism. The Stoics believed that intelligent men could discern what is best in life by examining the laws of nature, without relying on the changeable customs and divers laws made by human rulers. If we consult Nature, we find that it constantly puts visible differences between the male and the female of every species, and it also gives us certain natural inclinations when judging what is proper to each sex. (Footnote 16) So Paul uses an analogy, comparing the woman’s headcovering to her long hair, which is thought to be more natural for a woman. Though long hair on men is possible, and in some cultures it has been customary for men to have long hair, it is justly regarded as effeminate. It requires much grooming, it interferes with vigorous physical work, and a man with long hair is likely to be seized by it in a fight. It is therefore unmanly by nature. But a woman’s long hair is her glory. Here again is the word ????, used opposite ?????? “disgrace,” in the sense of “something bringing honor.” Long and well-kept hair brings praise to a woman because it contributes to her feminine beauty.

    (Footnote 16) We might also consider the possibility that when Paul says “her hair is given to her for a covering” he is referring to the more abundant supply of hair which nature has given to woman. Her hairline does not recede like a man’s does, and she does not go bald on top as a man often does (a consequence of testosterone). Piper and Grudem are far out on a limb when they suggest that “When Paul says that a woman’s hair is given to her for a covering (v. 15), he means that nature has given woman the hair and the inclination to follow prevailing customs of displaying her femininity, which in this case included letting her hair grow long and drawing it up into a covering for her head.” (John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Fifty Crucial Questions. An Overview of Central Concerns about Manhood and Womanhood [Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1990].) Ancient writers used the word ????? in contradistinction to mere custom, not as an equivalent term. The idea that Paul would use it as shorthand for “the inclination to follow prevailing customs” is quite odd, and it seems to be an arbitrary injection of the idea of “prevailing customs” into the verse. As we have noted above, there is little reason to think that Paul would recommend mere conformity to “prevailing customs” of Corinth, and we have no sure knowledge of what these prevailing customs were. If even the word ????? may be bent to this cultural accommodation theory of Paul’s intention, one may ask whether consistency demands that a similar equation of ????? with “custom” in Romans 1:26-27 is also admissible: “they exchanged the customary for the uncustomary … abandoned customary relations with women,” etc.


    I thought that was very insightful and does the best justice to the text that I have so far seen.

    • Don Johnson

      The basic challenge of 1 Cor 11 is that it is so unclear that people form it to say something as if it were made of Play-Doh based on their presuppositions. In other words, they see what is not there and even change what is there based on their expectations.

      It is true that Paul is interacting with Greek philosophies in 1 Cor in general and in 1 Cor 11 in particular.

      Ken Bailey does a very good job on 1 Cor in his recent book and he points out that the pericope is in the form of a chiasm with the center at 1 Cor 11:10. The center is the key of a chiasm and is the most important thing to get right. It makes perfectly good sense in the Greek that a woman can decide for herself whether to do the “head thing” or not in a congregational setting, but both the ESV and the NET Bible add words to the text to make it say something entirely different, because they do not understand the argument Paul is making and so (wrongly) think he is making a totally different argument and they do this due to their comp assumptions in coming to the text.

  • Jack Riley

    This is a great dialogue between Horton and Wilson. However, I find Wilson’s article to be mostly on the personal offense side. Rather than looking at some of the very excellent corrective points that Horton brought out, it seemed that Wilson was more or less taking offense with minor points as they pertained to his views.

    Finally, I almost displayed a “technicolor yawn” here on my laptop when Wilson started talking ’bout the women folk knowin’ their place:
    “They know their stuff, and they embrace their calling. They have razor sharp minds, and know how to dissect the pretensions of the theological bloviators, whose tribe appears to be in the ascendant. They don’t do these dissections in public because they don’t think it would be fitting, and prefer that the menfolk do that stuff.”

    Seriously? That’s the kind of stuff that makes me grateful for Dr. Horton’s article! And grateful for my wife (who fits the much more dynamic Proverbs 31 model).

    • Don Johnson

      Anyone that terms people that differ from their understanding as “theological bloviators” is not evidencing the peace of the Spirit. Who among the comps is willing to call Wilson to rebuke him?

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