Does the Bible require women to wear their hair long?
The Apostle Paul addressed the question of hair length in his first letter to the church in Corinth, when he writes:
1Cor. 11:2 Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.
1Cor. 11:3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.
1Cor. 11:4 Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head.
1Cor. 11:5 But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved.
1Cor. 11:6 For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head.
1Cor. 11:7 For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man.
1Cor. 11:8 For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man;
1Cor. 11:9 for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake.
1Cor. 11:10 Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.
1Cor. 11:11 However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.
1Cor. 11:12 For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God.
1Cor. 11:13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?
1Cor. 11:14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him,
1Cor. 11:15 but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.
1Cor. 11:16 But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.
We quoted this entire passage, because the context is essential to correctly interpreting Paul's comments on hair length.
In this passage Paul is contending with a situation in the Corinthian church where women had rebelled against male headship and authority. He cites two specific cases of rebellion: the traditions of head coverings and hair length.
First, the first case involved women wearing a head covering, typically a shawl draped over the hair. Wearing such a head covering was required of women at all times in public, including in church services. It symbolized the woman being under the authority of God and her husband or father. If a woman refused to wear a covering, it was considered an act of rebellion and protest (somewhat like women in the United States burning their bras in the 1970s to protest sexism).
Men also followed a custom of wearing a head covering in public, but unlike women men were required to remove their head covering when entering a synagogue or church. By exposing their heads, men demonstrated they were under the Lord's authority. So while women were expected to use a head covering in church, men were required to remove a head covering in church. (Some Christian congregations choose to follow this practice still today.) If either sex were to go against these traditions, it was considered an act of rebellion and protest.
The second case was hair length. Contrary to the Hollywood movies depicting men with shoulder-length locks, men traditionally wore their hair short unless they were under a vow (see Acts 18:18). Women, on the other hand, traditionally let their hair grow long. In the same way as the head coverings, if a man or woman went against these traditions, it was considered an act of rebellion.
In the Corinthian church, some women were refusing to wear their head coverings in church and some had even shaved their heads entirely. These actions were intended to make the women look like men as a way of proclaiming they were equal in authority with men, and they constituted a bold and offensive protest against male church leaders, including Paul himself.
It also seems these women may have justified their actions by claiming they had liberty in Christ to ignore tradition, but Paul begins this passage in v.2 by commending those who have held to the traditions. These traditions were important to Paul not because hair length and head coverings themselves were important, but because of the underlying issues of obedience and submission.
If a woman refused to wear a head covering or if she shaved her head, she was making a statement that she wouldn't submit to the authorities placed over her by the Lord. She sent a message loud and clear to the men in the church, and she couldn't have communicated her protest any more clearly had she had written them on her forehead!
Paul responds to their show of disobedience and disrespct for authority by commanding the women to return to the accepted traditions of his day. Again, Paul's orders are not for the purpose of mandating a certain hair length for all women forever; the context makes clear Paul's concern is for the women to demonstrate respect for authority. In this situation the only way for these women to correct the sin is to return to the accepted traditions of that day to reverse their misbehavior and regain a testimony of submission to authority.
Notice how Paul ended this passage. He said if someone (meaning these women) is inclined to be contentious (i.e., not follow the traditions), there will be no other alternative offered. In other words, if the women want to continue their protests in the hope of forcing a different arrangement or changing the traditions, Paul says he is not willing to negotiate. The traditions will stand.
Therefore, the Bible doesn't mandate a specific hair length for women today. Instead, the Bible mandates that Christian (men and women) submit to authority and conform to the traditions and guidelines of their church. To do otherwise is a display rebellion and disrespect for authority.