Search for "Christianity and dress" to see what I mean; I just did it on Google, and the first page of results was filled with phrases like "dress code" and "how Christian women should dress" (rarely men, always women!), and well-meant but somewhat hysterical rants about the evils of leggings and earrings. Thankfully, it wasn't all legalistic proscriptions: one author pointed out that modesty is foremost a heart condition, not a clothing condition, and another talked about the message of the clothes being the important thing: do the clothes I'm wearing tell people I'm a child of God, imbued with dignity because of Him? Yet even those positive messages have the feeling of rebuttal, because the louder Christian narrative about clothes is that women need to cover up and stop tempting men.
COMMONLY CITED BIBLE VERSES
Here are two commonly used verses used to justify modern-day dress restrictions and censure. Both come from New Testament epistles (letters), and they have similar phrasing. In a letter where Paul describes how worship services should be run, he writes:
9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
In another letter, in a paragraph about godly women being witnesses to their husbands, Peter gives us this:
3 Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 4 Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.
Both writers are really specific in what they condemn: elaborate hairdos (which might take hours to do and require servants/slaves), expensive jewelry, and fancy clothes. A different focus indeed from today's focus on bodily coverage! It seems like flaunting wealth was more of an issue than flaunting skin.
Anyway, today people take these verses to support any number of extra-Biblical stances:
THE PROBLEM WITH PROOF TEXTS
Cherry-picking verses is never a good idea. As the admonition goes, "A text without context is a pretext for proof text"! (To Bible-nerds, a "proof text" is a single text that's cited to prove a position.) "Context" covers a lot of things. What kind of writing is it, for instance. Poetry? History? Letter? Prophecy? What other text surrounds it? What culture does it come from and whom does it address?
In my post about modesty, I discussed the verse in Corinthians that said women should cover their hair, and offered my interpretation that, taken in context, it means women should abide by the cultural standards of modesty in their time and place. Out of context, it could mean women have to cover their heads in all times and places.
So the verses about beauty not coming from outward adornment could be taken as proof-texts for a ban on ornament or pretty clothes, but let us be wary of proof texts.
CONTEXT: THE WHOLE BIBLE
God didn't just give us the Epistles; He gave us the whole of Scripture as revelation of His character and interactions with humanity. Could a God who devotes all of Exodus 28 to minute descriptions of priestly garments really dislike pretty clothes? Let's look at some quotes:
3 Tell all the skilled workers to whom I have given wisdom in such matters that they are to make garments for Aaron, for his consecration, so he may serve me as priest. . . 5 Have them use gold, and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and fine linen.
God wanted his priests decked out in blue, purple, and scarlet, with embroidery and pomegranates and bells! He specially blessed the makers with gifts of craftsmanship so they could do this work. This attention to artistic and lovely detail is is not limited to clothing; God's instructions for the building and decorating of His Temple are equally fulsome.
But wait, you say; He's talking about priestly vestments, not women's wear. Let's not compare apples to oranges! So, okay, let's look at women. The sayings of King Lemuel (which he got from his mother, apparently), are recorded in the wisdom literature. Here's a description of a virtuous and praiseworthy woman:
21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
Fine linen and purple, you say? So it would seem that a woman of peerless character, hard work, entrepreneurial spirit, and all the other good things described in these proverbs can also wear nice clothes and it does her no discredit! She can even make nice clothes and sell them to others, and there's no judgement. Instead we see her children, her husband, and her works praise her. When her beauty comes from within, she can also wear pretty things and they are, as Maude would say, "incidental and not integral".
In various parts of the Bible, woman is used as a metaphor or symbol of the Church, the "bride of Christ". And how is Christ's bride described?
11 Let the king be enthralled by your beauty;
Well, that sounds pretty.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
When feminine beauty represents the beauty of the church, then feminine clothing and adornment is both a way of honoring her King/groom and a sign of His honoring her! Why would God use metaphors of female beauty and dress if He disapproved of women dressing well and looking beautiful? He wouldn't. This doesn't mean that we all have to be knock-outs, but certainly we can take care of our appearance, as any bride would, and not be ashamed that clothing is "trivial" or "un-spiritual".
So if God's not opposed to beauty, and He's not opposed to art, or beautiful clothes, or women, what about those oft-quoted verses reproving women for fine hair/clothing and outward appearance? The context of the verses is vital.
In the first one (Paul's letter to Timothy), Paul is giving a young pastor instructions about how to conduct church services to bring credit to our Lord. He tells Timothy that the men should pray "without anger or disputing", and that the women shouldn't show off their finery. The whole admonition is about fostering a spirit of humility instead of competition and display.
In the second one (Peter's letter to exiles), he talks at length about being God's people among pagans, and advises them to show, through their orderly and submissive behavior to proper authorities, that God's Kingdom is one of peace and order, not rowdy rebellion. At the end of Chapter 2, we have everyone being told to submit to the Lord, to the emperor, to governors, slaves to their masters, and then in Chapter 3, wives to their husbands.
I am not claiming to be an expert in these texts; I haven't studied their source languages or cultures. I am basing my interpretation on what I can read and what the Spirit of God inside me tells me. When I read that a woman's beauty should not come from outward adornment, I believe that means she needs to focus on inward development and godly works, but I don't believe it means outward adornment is always wrong or that caring about clothes is sinful. If it were, the Bible wouldn't celebrate the beauty of an adorned bride or the linen and purple of the virtuous wife. It is the heart condition of using clothes to flaunt yourself, your wealth, or your sex appeal that is a problem; then your clothing distracts from worship or discredits Jesus in the eyes of non-believers. A woman of virtue can wear a pretty dress without losing her virtue! And a woman of wisdom who's filled with the Spirit will have discernment about how to dress in different situations and company.
I find godly perspective in an unrelated text, a letter written by Christ-follower Richard Twiss about the use of drums in Native American worship:
I want to be as fully Lakota as I can be, while being fully Christian. ¶ Because the devil is not a creator, he can only pervert and abuse what the Creator has made. The drum, the dance, the gourd, the piano, the cymbal, the guitar, and the saxophone each belong to God. Because the devil has perverted the use of God's drum, people have bought into the lie that the drum is his.
I think: clothes belong to God, just like everything else God made. God made the first clothing in the Garden of Eden when man first became aware of, and ashamed of, his nakedness. God fashioned him clothing from skins... the first sacrifice that sin occasioned was of animals for our dignity. And later, when it came time to dress His priests, God had a lot to say and it wasn't all shoulds and can'ts and "better not be too flashy"; it was beauty and art, dignity and cleanliness, and remembrances of the names of the tribes of Israel.
Satan perverts clothing by turning it from something that covers and dignifies a person into something that exposes and cheapens a person. He wants us to wear billboards, status symbols, and enticements to lust or envy. He wants us to care about whether our brands impress our neighbors, whether our wealth is obvious so people know we're "doing well", and whether our sexual signals attract a mate. He wants us to feel good when we're in style and feel crummy when someone else has something better. He even wants us to write legalistic dress codes to try to avoid all of the above, and judge each other when we fall short! He rejoices when we stumble. He is the enemy of our souls, and he'll use clothes to hurt us if we let him.
But God doesn't use clothes to hurt us. Jesus says that he sees us naked and wants to cover us. He wants to provide us with new, bright, clean clothing. He wants us to live lives of fullness and abundance, filled and guided by the Spirit, not hobbled by rules we make from our fear and shame.
A TEMPLE & A BRIDE
So what does all God's care for priestly vestments and Temple decor and bridal wear have to say about how I, Karen Roy, should dress in 2018?
The Holy Spirit dwells in me, and my body is a Temple. If God had a care for how His Temple looked when it was a building, how much more so when it is a person? The first thing He does when he moves in is start cleaning out His temple and setting things to rights:
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, 5 not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; 6 and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister.
God's sanctifying work is on my heart, not my clothes, but when my heart comes into line with His, then my clothes become a natural expression of His values. I don't need legalistic dress codes to know how to honor the One Who made me, Who loves me, and Who redeems me.
Richard Twiss offers his Lakota drums to God in worship. I offer my clothing the same way. God is the One I want to please, and he wants me beautiful on the inside, and honoring Him with my whole self, which includes my outside.
“Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord”
Martell, Sue, with Ray Martell, Richard Twiss. Dreamcatching: Following in the footsteps of Richard Twiss. PP32-33. Cherohala Press, Cleveland, Tennesee, 2017.
Quilting, dressmaking, and history plied with the needle...
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