In 1 Corinthians 11:14, the apostle Paul says “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him.” How does nature teach us?
The first part of the verse is what is called a “rhetorical question.” It presumes an obvious answer. Of course, nature teaches us. But the context used to puzzle me. The first image that came to my mind was that of a lion with his magnificent mane. That seems contradictory in the context of long hair.1 I was missing an important observation which I will return to in a moment. First, I want to think about some more obvious examples.
Our Lord frequently used parables. These often were incidents taken from ordinary life to illustrate important spiritual lessons. Being from ordinary life they frequently involved natural phenomena of various kinds. The parable of the sower comes immediately to mind. The parable of the woman kneading leaven into flour is another that is particularly interesting since presumably, microbial activity was unknown at the time. It was perhaps a mystery how the whole was leavened. But, now that the underlying process is understood the parable is even more, not less, applicable. God is truly the God of nature. The Creator has designed His creation with the utmost care to contain lessons for us.
In Scripture God speaks to us in a manner “face to face”. In nature, He speaks in parables. The Lord enjoins His disciples, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (Mk. 4:13) We are very poor, it seems to me, at discerning the parables pervading natural phenomena. The prevalence of the parables of nature is none other than a testimony to God’s purpose to make Himself known to us. God is not willing that any should perish (2 Pet. 3:9). Even such a simple act as washing our hands should remind us of the “washing of water with the Word.” (Eph. 5:26) I was once asked in a Chemistry class (on a quiz) what solvent was the best in terms of the number of different substances it could dissolve. Many missed the question. The answer was water–not some expensive acid or complex chemical. This is an obvious answer, when you think about it, and the one with great spiritual significance.
God created all things at the beginning and He is still sovereign over His creation. Christ was and is Head of all creation. (Col. 1:15-18) This is an important truth that is sometimes very strangely missed. A very reliable expositor of the 19th Century wrote:
Scripture being witness, however, nature does teach. “The invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being known by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead.” (Rom 1:20.) “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork.” (Ps 19:1.) The work must needs declare the Artificer and the Worker is, we are assured, He who, because He is the Revealer, is called the “Word of God.” (John 1:1-3.) Creation must be, then, part of this revelation.
The parables and types of Scripture take up, therefore, and use Scripture to this end. They are not merely an adaptation of what has strictly another meaning. Rather, they develop what is there. It is in this way that they become so significant for the interpretation of nature. Analogies of this kind we argue from constantly without apology, and without suspicion of deception. They are the marks of the One Mind which everywhere delights to show itself to us, and thus would make all things intelligent to creature intelligence. The proof is that it really does this: as light, it illumines.
Yet nature remains unfallen from its place as the eldest of revelations. There is nothing fallen but man, and even his fall has only in a sense confirmed its witness to us as from Him to whom man’s ruin is no surprise, and redemption no after-thought.F. W. Grant, Spiritual Law in the Natural World (New York: Loizeaux Brothers Publishers, 1891) p 40-42.2
Returning to the original question, the real context for 1 Corinthians 11:14 must be seen by looking at the previous verses and the verse immediately following. The real subject being discussed is order in creation.3 In this context, nature teaches us very profound lessons. We already saw in the quoted text above that God’s power and wisdom is shown by creation. But, the lessons are everywhere. Jeremiah gives a very profound lesson.
Thus says the Lord: If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed order of heaven and earth, then I will reject the offspring of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his offspring to rule over the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.Jeremiah 33:25-26. See vv. 23-26 and also Jer. 31:35-36.
The significance of these verses is that the immutability of the “laws of nature” is directly tied to the immutability of God’s promises to Israel and by extension to us. We can be assured of His promises because we see the unvarying regularity of the laws of nature. This reflects the very nature of God.
I was impressed by the truth of this on a recent road trip. For 8 hours I watched the GPS reliably tell me how far I had driven, how far I had yet to go, and when I would arrive. This task is one we all do intuitively without thinking. When we say, “I will be there in X minutes.” Our brain is actually calculating the relationship we all probably learned in Elementary school. In the algebraic form this is: D = R x T. Or, Distance equals speed of travel (Rate) times Time of travel.
Another amazing fact is we can manipulate this formula using algebraic rules and the resulting formula is still true. This is profound evidence of the fundamental mathematical nature of creation. So, we can also say, Time past is equal to the Distance we travel divided by the Rate at which we are walking, driving, or even flying. (T = D/R) It does not matter if an ant is traveling at 1 meter/hour or a rocket is traveling thousands.
But, these laws are also universal. The relationship works on earth, the moon, Mars, distant stars, and planets. This is how we know that the sun was still in its place 8 and a half minutes ago. It might not be there now! When I look through my telescope at Saturn and admire its rings, I know that is how it looked about an hour ago. We actually know nothing until after it has happened. This is how we can calculate the distance to a lightning strike. Have you done that? The flash travels almost (!) instantly, but the sound takes a while to reach your ears. For astronomical objects, it is light itself that allows us to see the objects as they were. This amazing fact allows us to know something of the past and actually see how God has unfolded the universe for our amazement. (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:20)
1. Yet, even here, “nature” teaches us there is a difference between an adult male lion (with mane) and an adult female lion (without mane). (Daniel Hayes, Ed.)
2. Although the scientific statements could be updated, they are largely still true and the spiritual insights are extremely valuable. I strongly recommend the third chapter of this book to anyone interested in this topic. It is available, as indicated by the link, at stempublishing.com.
3. Taken with v. 16, verse 15 seems to caution us not to confuse the sexes (something pervasive in today’s culture) in creation’s order. Nature would teach men not to appropriate a woman’s glory (long hair) for himself. This thought is picked up again in connection with resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:40-41 where the sun, moon and stars each are given a different glory. It would seem unnatural to look up and see the moon shining with the sun’s intensity. (Daniel Hayes, Ed.)