Faith in Focus

Keeping up Appearances

We live in a society, where many former taboos have become acceptable. It has long been chic to be a social iconoclast. It is uncool to be decent and cool to be indecent. What was once evil is now good (Isaiah 5:20).

            When it comes to specifics like appearance, standards and values have indeed changed. Growing up in the fifties and sixties, you will recall that male students were expelled from school if they failed to cut their hair to the required length. How times have changed, although hair length has always been the subject of fluctuation. Take a look at portraits of some of those old Puritans – they had no problem with long hair. But times have changed in Church life as well. Few young men wear a tie these days, and often instead wear casual clothing, which once would not have been considered acceptable in Church.

I'm sure that there are some reading this, who lament this change, as indeed I do. I think, however, that we can agree that it is very unlikely that most of the younger generation will begin to wear suits and ties again. Some people don't even own one. And it is also true that "best clothes", for the younger generation are now something other than a pin-striped suit. For some, I know, if a suit is required as part of one's employment, it is seen by them as a uniform, say like that of  a policeman or a bus driver. If you remember back to the fifties and early sixties families would go uptown on Friday night and dad would wear his suit and probably a hat as well.  There were also recognisable occasions when you've donned your suit. You probably only had one and it was definitely your best clothing. Today if you attend different functions, where once a suit  would be worn, chances are that is no longer the case, including Church.


Should there be standards of appearance?

But this raises the question, are there to be any standards concerning appearance for the Christian at Church? I want to suggest that not only are there such standards, but that our standards are slipping. There are two areas of appearance that we will briefly look at – tattoos and body piercing.

As in all areas of morality or duty, we should not automatically take the standards of the world as our standards.  Rather our standard must always be the word of God  - Isaiah 8:20. "To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn."

The  Old Testament has something to say about physical appearance.  At the base of the Bible’s teaching on man is his creation as the image of God. Often the “image” of God is confined to the qualities of knowledge, righteousness and holiness (see WCF 4:2). But there are good grounds to extend the image to the whole man, body and soul. Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds man's blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man,” rests on the idea that man represents God. To injure man is to injure God. Added to this is the likelihood that man’s dominion task is another reflection of the image of God – a task which requires physical as well as mental attributes (Gen.1:27f). Respect shown to a dead body, which will one day be resurrected, is also to be shown to the body when alive. In 1 Cor. 6:19,20 in the New Testament, man is also said to be the temple of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s teaching requires that we think of the individual as the temple in the context of the community of saints. We are only temples in so far as we are conceived jointly as the temple of God the Holy Spirit. This last point means that we do not have an autonomous status as a temple, but are responsible to conform to the required standard of holiness of that other analogy Paul uses – the body of Christ. There is a mutual responsibility to conform to the Bible’s requirements of the temple or body of Christ, under the supervision of Christ’s authority delegated to the Elders. However, it is not uncommon to see covenant youth bearing decorations on their bodies of various forms, with no consciousness that the wider body of believers might be offended or the holiness of the body compromised. And that holiness of the body is compromised by the lack of holiness of even one member (1 Cor. 5:6). Holiness requires that we live and worship according to the Word of God. Holiness is partly defined by the church's separation from the world. This means separation from the world's practices which exist in the pagan society around about us. This is particularly important when it comes to the sort of image we present to society. But it is also important in our denominational situation to present the most Christian image to other fellow Christians in other churches as well. Holiness also means that we will not give offence where it is unnecessary. And it is unnecessary when the world's standards of personal appearance are sanctioned in the Church. It gives real offence to many Christian parents who do not want their children influenced by other Covenant youth, turning up with body piercing  and other types of decoration of the body that identifies with the worldly culture. It is a reality that serious Christians are turned off Churches that have a lax view of social drinking and smoking for the same reasons.



Under the Mosaic law, tattooing was prohibited. The commentators suggest different reasons for this prohibition found in Lev. 19:28. “You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead, nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.”

R. Laird Harris in The Expositors Bible Commentary series suggests: "There was nothing morally wrong with cutting the hair or the beard or with tattooing. But these practices then, and also now in some places, were parts of heathen ritual.” However other commentators affirm that there is something morally wrong with the practice.

Unlike Harris, Keil and Delitzsch say that tattooing, "had no reference to idolatrous usage, but it was intended to inculcate upon the Israelites a proper reverence for God's Creation." Here is this idea that because bodies are God’s creation - bodies of man created in God’s image, they are not to be defiled by tattooing.

            Gordon Wenham in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, concurs: “This law conforms to other holiness rules which seek to uphold the natural order of Creation and preserve it from corruption (cf.v.19;18:22-23; 21:17ff). God created man in his image and pronounced all creation very good(Gen.1). Man is not to disfigure the divine likeness implanted in him by scarring his body. The external appearance of the people should reflect their internal status as the chosen and Holy people of God (Deut.14:1-2). Paul uses a similar line of argument in 1 Cor. 6. The body of the believer belongs to Christ, therefore, “glorify God in your body (1 Cor.6:20).”

            Keil and Delitzsch and Wenham take the context of  the image-bearing requirement for holiness, more seriously than Harris and for that reason are to be preferred. We are brought with a price and are to be a holy people – adults and children. And since respect for the body is rooted in creation, we cannot restrict that respect to the Mosaic economy. As Wenham says, the same principle is evident in the New Testament.

But we need to be sensitive to longstanding practices when we apply such teaching in our own day. In our own society tattooing is part of the culture of Polynesians, often signifying the status of a person or to mark their passage into adult life. Two other groups come to mind in European societies as well. Someone who had joined the Navy often became tattooed.  The third group are obviously criminals, who see certain tattoos as a mark of status in a perverted way.  Several spots above the eye, for example, indicate the amount of time you have spent in prison. These three groups are different, but even in the case of cultural tattooing, we should not be silent in teaching that it is contrary to the Bible to permanently mark the body for decoration.

            Furthermore tattooing for most people now, including women, is considered to be fashionable. Added to the reason for prohibition we have just canvassed must be the desire to associate with worldly fashions. We don’t hear that word “worldly” too much these days do we? A modern getting a tattoo, will probably not be consciously identifying with criminals or with some pagan idolatry. But they will be identifying with the non-Christian culture which embraces this body art or tattooing. It is certainly not a part of Christian culture.

Tattoos can now be removed by laser, and I would suggest a tattooed Christian should give serious consideration to that. We should be less forthright when it comes to discussing tattooing with those of Polynesian descent for whom tattoos are not so much fashion, but a remnant of a very ancient tradition. But even so, a use of your body, which glorifies God and not man, must be the goal of each one of us.


Body piercing

When it comes to Jewellery, and in particular body piercing, the Bible has more to say. Modern archaeology has uncovered a lot of examples of ornaments used in the ancient Near East. And there are a number of references to ear and nose rings and other ornaments in the Bible.

It is not always clear what ornament is being described in some places in Scripture, but it seems that men, women and children wore rings of different sorts and on different parts of their bodies. Take Exodus 32:2, when Aaron made the molten image from the rings of the people. “And Aaron said to them, ‘Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring [them] to me’” (Here I suppose you could argue perversely that idolaters take their rings off). The most common jewellery for men in Scripture, however, seems to be a signet ring, which doubled as a seal, and we see examples of the wearing of such rings in both the Old and the New Testaments (Job 42:11 and James 2:2). Furthermore, it is likely that men wore bracelets around their wrists, one being given to the prodigal son by the father (Luke 15:22) “But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a  ring  on his hand and sandals on his feet.” Pharaoh is also recorded giving Joseph a necklace in Gen. 42:42.

It is only in Exodus 32, where there is an unambiguous reference to males wearing earrings in Israel, considered as a nation under God. In Exodus 35:22, it is difficult to know what rings were worn by what sex, because they collectively donated their jewellery for the tabernacle. Moreover, the Ishmaelites in Judges 8:24 are singled out as male wearers of earrings in a way that suggests Israelites do not wear them. In Numbers 31:50, the male Midianites are also identified as wearers of earrings. And in Genesis 35:2, Jacobs household are required to hand over their earrings, because they were a part of idolatrous worship. We get a negative picture of the wearing of facial jewellery on males of God's chosen people.

There is a more positive tradition for the wearing of such body piercing jewellery among the women of God's people. Abraham had seen nothing wrong with such jewellery when his servant gives a nose ring and bracelets to Rebekah (Genesis 24).  The Bible also uses rings in simile and analogy. For example Proverbs 25:11  “[Like] apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances.  12  [Like] an earring of gold and an  ornament  of fine gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.” When the Lord reminded Israel of His covenant faithfulness in Ezekiel 16:8-22, he uses the analogy of adorning a bride with fine things including jewellery: “And I adorned you with ornaments, put bracelets on your hands, and a necklace around your neck.  "I also put a ring in your nostril, earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head. "Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your dress was of fine linen, silk, and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour, honey, and oil; so you were exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty.”

It would seem unlikely that the Lord would compare His covenant love to something He disapproved of. But there is a definite context where nose and earrings find this approval-by-association. The analogy uses the imagery of marriage. We see it also in Isaiah 61:10, “As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”  In both these cases, Jewellery is associated with marriage and with the female sex. This would seem to lend approval to a judicious use of such jewellery by women. Proverbs 11:22, “[As] a  ring  of gold in a swine's snout, [So is] a beautiful woman who lacks discretion,” suggests the association of legitimate facial rings with female beauty. Such beauty turns to ugliness in the indiscrete woman.       If we can follow the examples of God’s people then nose and ear rings would seem acceptable on women, but not on men. Men usually wear finger rings and bracelets. When facial rings worn by men are mentioned, it is in an association with idolatry, or as the practice of pagan nations. The frequent association of jewellery with females and marriage is also telling. Added to this Western Culture which owed its ethics to Christianity, at least that until the middle of the last century, decried tattooing and body piercing for males. More importantly Christians have always had higher standards of appearance than those sanction in non-Christian society.

            In the light of this background can we discover how we should view the wearing of male and female jewellery as well as the extreme forms of body piercing we see in our own day - not infrequently among covenant youth in our Churches?  Can one or several studs in eyebrows, ears, and even tongues be harmless decoration? In our own day, we do know that this modern practice does not come from Christian tradition, or Christian culture. It definitely does come from non-Christian worldly counterculture. In New Zealand, those of us who grew up in the dominant culture of rugby, racing and beer, are aware of gradually more people taking up ear piercing. For men it began here in New Zealand with homosexuals as an identification with the group, but grew into a practice among heterosexuals as well. Foreign homosexual pop-stars like Elton John, and many others, encouraged the trend. And probably heterosexuals who wore earrings from other nations, and who settled here, probably helped in normalising the wearing of earrings among men. It was a daring thing to do in the sixties and even the seventies, and really has only became part of the dominant culture in the 90s.

Modern women can find some approval for wearing ear and nose jewellery in Scripture. However, there is also another strand of teaching which should be born in mind. Wearing jewellery was also associated with shallowness and immorality in Isaiah 3:16-18, and brought about God’s judgement on the daughters of Zion specifically. (See also Hosea 2:13) In 1st Tim. 2:9, Paul too has something to say about the proper ornamentation for women. “Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments;   but rather by means of good works, as befits women making a claim to godliness.” Or 1st Peter 3:3-5. “And let not your adornment be merely external-- braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewellery, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands [my emphasis] .

In this latter quotation, the NASB (and the NKJV) inserts the word “merely” here which is not in the original text. However, in the light of the example of Sarah, the one Peter is referring to, and who most probably wore a nose ring or earrings, it must be possible to have both godliness and jewellery. The insertion of “merely” is therefore judicious. But when such things become more important than a godly life, then God condemns them. If a woman’s focus is on earthly beauty, she has missed the point, and not yet learned what proper adornment is. Peter is also comparing the external to the internal. Our external appearance can indeed be an indication of our inner thoughts, habits and spiritual maturity. It is difficult not to read a blatant "in the face" type of body piercing, seen among both males and females, as a downright lack of respect for the older generation in the Church, and a rebellious unwillingness to recognise a responsibility for corporate holiness. Many older people are offended by the array of metal protruding from various parts of the anatomy of Church members, and rightly so. When they see this, they see worldliness coming into the Church.  

            It is one thing when a betrothed woman wants to appear physically attractive for her husband to be, or a married woman for her husband, it is another for men to follow the vagaries of a new fashion which blur the distinctions between the sexes and give offence to many of the older generation.

But you might argue, that it’s better that the youth are in church and we shouldn’t make a fuss, because we might drive them away. Behind such thinking is an abandonment of Covenantal theology and an embracing of Arminianism. We cannot forget that our children are Covenant youth. We as parents, and they as young adults, have a responsibility to ensure that they live godly lives. They too are in covenant with a Holy God and are obliged to live according to the terms of that Covenant. This fear of driving them away, is an Arminian idea. Overlooking wilful sin and rebellious worldly behaviour is not the Bible's way of leading sinners to Christ. This kind of tolerance has its parallel with the seeker-service mentality, where Churches change the God ordained method of worship to a compromise with worldly music, an artificial mood-altering atmosphere, humour and drama. Both ideas suggest we should overlook what God requires in His word.

What about people off the street? What a great opportunity to speak to such a metallized  person and explain that God calls us to holiness, which extends even to the way we use our bodies. Perhaps then, God in His grace will convict him of his sin, and he too will become a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. Although standards are slipping in the world, we need not capitulate in the Church. God will honour such an attitude. However, if as God's people we saw this 'in the face' body piercing as a legitimate form of decoration among Christians, I have this frightening vision of our young Ministers preaching while wearing either facial rings, nose studs, eyebrow studs or a stainless steel tongue bolt, or all of the above. It doesn't bear thinking about does it?




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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised July 2000 / Copyright 2000