1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is a tricky passage to unpack. But if we look beyond the complexities, it is essentially about the hairstyles (or head-coverings) of the men and women who were praying and prophesying in Corinthian churches. The men and women were doing the same things, but Paul wanted them to maintain gender-distinct, socially respectable appearances.
Towards the end of this passage, Paul brings up the idea of nature as a teacher of hair lengths (short hair for men, long hair for women) or hairstyles. He tells the Corinthians,
“Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head exposed? Does not even nature (physis) itself teach (didaskō) you that if a man has long hair it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her as a covering (1 Corinthians 11:13-15).
Here are a few notes on what Paul meant by “nature” (physis) and its teaching power.
It’s not about Theology or Biology
In previous verses, Paul presented theological arguments, including an argument from Genesis and creation, but he doesn’t mention creation in verses 13-15, and God is not the focus. I do not believe Paul was primarily making a theological argument here.
And he can’t have been referring to the biological process of hair growth. Paul was an intelligent man. He knew that if left untrimmed, men’s hair has the potential to grow long.
Even if most men’s hair cannot grow as long as most women’s hair, Paul wanted the Corinthian men to have short hair, the usual style for first-century Roman men. This meant that, because of natural growth, most men would need regular haircuts.
Physis (“nature”) as Teacher
So what did Paul mean by “nature” as a teacher? Here’s how four Greek New Testament tools explain physis in the context of 1 Corinthians 11:14-15.
Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament
Thayer states that physis can refer to “native conviction or knowledge, as opposed to what is learned by instruction and accomplished by training or prescribed by law.” He further adds that it refers to “the native sense of propriety.” (Bible Hub)
Robertson’s Word Pictures
Robertson writes that Paul “reinforces the appeal to custom by the appeal to nature in a question that expects the affirmative answer … Here [physis] means native sense of propriety (cf. Romans 2:14) in addition to mere custom, but one that rests on the objective difference in the constitution of things. (StudyLight)
The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT)
Köster states that physis “is personified as the teacher of [people]. Nevertheless, it simply represents the general order of nature and its only task is to remind us of what is seemly and becoming… nature bears witness to what is fitting in the matter of hairstyles … Hence the use of the absolute physis here can be understood as technical, but it is of no theological significance.” (TDNT 9.272-273)
A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition (BDAG)
Bauer and Danker give the meaning of physis in 1 Corinthians 11:14 as “the regular or established order of things,” and they make the comment, “physis as well as nomos prescribes long hair for women, short hair for men.” (Nomos is probably used here with the sense of “custom” but may mean “law.”)
“Natural Expectation Within the Culture”
I don’t find the explanations above to be especially clear. More simply put, what these men are saying is that “nature” is instinctive or self-evident knowledge for what is culturally appropriate. Paul took the matter of different hair lengths for men and women as instinctively understood: different hairstyles are ordinary and customary because men and women are different (male and female).
Philip Payne agrees with Bauer and Danker and writes,
[Paul’s use] of the noun “nature” apparently carries the meaning BAGD gives for verse 14, “the regular or established order of things.” This meaning is related to the Stoic idea that Nature is the origin and guarantor of culture. Nature as “natural expectation within the culture” fits the context perfectly. What nature teaches, namely “dishonor” and “glory,” are clearly cultural categories, not categories that could be deduced solely from the natural world. The cultural background is summarized in Plutarch’s Roman Questions 267B, “In Greece … men cut their hair short; women let it grow.”
Common Knowledge: “Naturally!”
Perhaps the idea of “nature” in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 can be more simply explained by looking at the English expression “Naturally.”
When someone makes a statement or asks a question where the content is patently true or obvious, we might respond with “Naturally!” When used in this kind of context, “naturally” has an affirmative sense and means, Of course! No doubt! Obviously!
In my mother tongue Dutch, natuurlijk (“naturally”) is commonly used as an affirmation with similar meanings as in English. It effectively means “I agree.” “Naturally” and “natuurlijk” are used when the truth of what has just been stated is shared common knowledge. This common knowledge often has nothing to do with biology or nature, as it is usually understood, but has more to do with custom.
Paul took the differences between men and women to be a given. He further believed it was common knowledge that men and women should have different hairstyles. Paul did not want the Corinthians concealing their sex with sexually ambiguous hairstyles that were socially suspect in Roman Corinth.
Customs and Culture: “Judge for yourselves”
The verses about hair length or hairstyles in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 follow on from Paul’s directive to the Corinthians to judge the matter among themselves (1 Cor. 11:13). Namely, the Corinthians were to judge whether it was appropriate for a woman to pray with her head exposed, knowing that Paul and his colleagues have “no such custom” and neither do the assemblies of God (1 Cor. 11:16). The focus in these last few verses of the passage is on the culturally appropriate appearance of woman; man is mentioned in verse 14, in part, as a comparison.
Every culture has dress codes and hairstyles for men that are different to those for women, even if only slightly. In mid-first century Corinth, long hair on women (worn up with bands and braids) and short (unadorned) hair on men were the socially respectable hairstyles. We know from 1 Corinthians 7, however, that some men and women were renouncing sex and marriage for reasons of piety. They may have worn hairstyles that reflected this renunciation and that concealed their sex. I think some women were cutting their hair short like Thecla and other early Christian women we know of (cf. 1 Cor. 11:6, 15). Paul wanted these women with short hair to cover their heads (1 Cor. 11:6b).
Paul did not want the Corinthian men and women who were praying and prophesying to wear hairstyles that were sexually or morally confusing. Instead, he wanted them to conform to established customs of that time and place so that they would not have a bad reputation in the broader community. And to make his point, he appealed to nature, that is, to common knowledge.
 The pertinent Greek verb used in both verses 14 and 15 is komaō which means “let the hair grow long.”
The Douay-Rheims Bible, which translates from the Latin (not Greek), renders 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 as, “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that a man indeed, if he nourish (nutriat) his hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman nourish (nutriat) her hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering.”
 Philip B. Payne notes, “Almost all exegetes have correctly understood verses 14-15 as a two-part rhetorical question, not two statements.” Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 201.
 Richard Hays comments on the Stoic and Cynic use of nature.
The appeal to nature (physis) as a source of behavioural norms is characteristic of the Stoic and Cynic philosophers—and highly unusual in Paul. Thus this is perhaps another case (cf. … 3:21-22 and 6:7) in which Paul points out, with more than a trace of irony, that the philosophical wisdom on which the Corinthians pride themselves ought to lead them to behave differently.
Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, 2011), 189.
 While some scholars believe Paul is speaking about head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, others, such Judith Gundry, Philip B. Payne and Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, believe he is talking about hairstyles or hair lengths.
Payne, “Wild Hair and Gender Equality in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16,” Priscilla Papers 20.3 (Summer, 2006): 9-18. (Online: CBE Interntational)
Murphy-O’Connor, “Sex and Logic in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 42.4 (October 1980): 482-500.
Craig L. Blomberg notes, “In verses 14–15 Paul is definitely talking about relative lengths of hair for men and women, so it is somewhat more natural to assume that he has been talking about hairstyles all along.” Blomberg, 1 Corinthians (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan ), 178.
 “No such custom” is translated as “no other custom” in some English translations of 1 Corinthians 11:16, but the Greek does not support “no other custom.”
 Philip Payne believes the issue in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 was “men who wear effeminate hairstyles and women who let their hair down to symbolize rejection of Christian marital and sexual morality.” Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ, 175.
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Excerpt from The Old, Old Story by Godward (1903) depicting a woman with a typically Roman hairstyle. (Wikimedia)
More about first-century customs of hairstyles and head coverings, here.
All my articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 are here.
Man and Woman as the Image and Glory of God (1 Cor. 11:7)
1 Corinthians 11:2-16, in a Nutshell
4 Reasons “Head” does not mean “Leader” in 1 Cor. 11:3
A wife has no authority of her own body? (1 Cor. 7:4)
Chastity and Salvation and 1 Timothy 2:15