Sometimes, it seems that certain spiritual topics keep coming up in conversation. For me recently, that topic has been the necessity of dressing up in church. Both in person and online, I’ve participated in a number of earnest discussions on the subject. I thought it would be worthwhile, then, to share my thoughts on the matter.
First, I want to address the idea that our clothing choices in the assembly are about God. Proponents of this view will ask whether we would dress up to see an important human being (the President, for instance) and conclude that we ought to dress up even more to come into the presence of the King of heaven.
The problem with the argument, though, is that it assumes that God is like us, and that we communicate respect to Him in the same way that we do to other humans. According to Scripture, that’s not true. 1 Samuel 16:7 reports that God looks at the heart, not the outward appearance.
He doesn’t have to judge our reverence for Him based on how we dress. He knows the truth. The reverent heart is acceptable to him, regardless of outward appearance, and the irreverent heart isn’t, again regardless of outward appearance.
Instead, we dress for one another. That’s fine. God is mindful of our frame, and He knows that we are silly creatures who use colored bits of cloth wrapped around our bodies to communicate an astounding variety of messages about ourselves.
Indeed, even the commandments that God issues about clothing make it evident that He is concerned with its impact on other humans. He is not affected by our nakedness. He sees it anyway. He is not intimidated by our ostentatious displays of wealth. The earth is His, and all it contains. However, He knows that we care about those things, so He instructs us to dress in a way that will not hinder others.
Here, I think, is the principle that should guide us as we decide how we should dress for the assembly (and everywhere else, for that matter). How can we dress in a way that will serve others and help them on to heaven?
This is a simple question with a complex answer. For instance, there is a sister who worships with my congregation sometimes who struggles with crippling anxiety. She doesn’t have much money, and she feels like she doesn’t belong. I am certain that the only time in her life when she encounters men in suits is when she comes to church. Every time I see her, I try to reassure her that she has a place with us. Is it possible, though, that my suit is sending a different message than my mouth is?
On the other end of the scale, I know there are brethren at Jackson Heights who aren’t comfortable when I preach a sermon without a coat on. They are very gracious about it and never would confront me, but they are quick to tell me how nice I look when I do wear a coat! These are good people who are entitled to respect from me, and I need to take them into account in the way that I dress too.
Typically, I end up wearing a coat sometimes and resorting to shirt and tie the rest of the time, and I hope that the combination makes my preaching as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. In other places, the correct answer may be “coat all the time”, “coat never”, or even “tie never”. By contrast, a one-size-fits-all answer arrived at without regard for the people involved is frequently going to be wrong.
In short, love others. Dress accordingly. Your judgment won’t be right in every instance, but in every instance, your spirit will be pleasing to God.
When we study the Bible, it’s easy for us to read it through 21st-century eyes and forget that it describes first-century events. Things that are not particularly important to us today often were very important to them, and we can find ourselves overlooking significant Scriptural themes because they aren’t relevant to us.
Consider, for instance, the ministry of John the Baptist as presented in Luke 3. It is certainly about preparing the way for Jesus, which we commonly recognize. However, to an equal extent, it is about warning the people that they need to repent because of the judgment that is coming. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees,” John warns in Luke 3:9. “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
We might be inclined to read this as a generic warning about the consequences of disobedience, but it is anything but. The fire here is not the fire of hell—at least, not directly. Instead, it is the fire of God judging the physical world once again. We see similar language in Isaiah 29:6, where, like John, Isaiah is warning God’s people to fear the fire of His judgment.
Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled in the Assyrian invasion of 701 BC (another event which we do not properly appreciate), and John’s prophecy would be fulfilled when the Romans crushed the Great Revolt of the Jews in 70 AD. Just as the former was “a day of the Lord”, so too would the latter be. God would judge His people for their sins, particularly the sin of betraying and murdering the Messiah whom He had sent.
Even though it is always offstage, the fall of Jerusalem to the legions of Titus is one of the central events of the gospels. We can’t understand the ministry of John without bearing it in mind, and to a large extent, we can’t understand the ministry of Jesus either.
Paul tells us in Galatians for that the Son came in the fullness of time, but there is also a sense in which He came in the nick of time. As was so often the case in the Old Testament, the sons of Jacob were on a collision course with disaster, and like the prophets of old, Jesus came to attempt to turn them aside: from their hypocrisy, from their self-righteousness, and from their conviction that the kingdom of God meant earthly dominance for His people. Many of the Lord’s calls to repentance that we read generically are, like the warnings of John, specifically about the dangers of opposing Rome.
Fundamentally, the Old Testament is a story of failure. The Israelites received the Law, broke it, and did not repent even in the face of predictions of doom. During the ministry of Jesus, the tragedy will be played out one last time. Despite all of His wisdom and power, the Jews will choose death instead of life. Their leaders will choose King Caesar over the King of heaven, only to be destroyed by Caesar for their faithlessness 40 years later.
Out of this disaster, much good would spring, especially for us. Without the cultivated olive branches being broken off, we could not be grafted in. However, neither should we forget the violence and the significance of the breaking.
If you haven’t downloaded your copy of The Life and Teachings of Jesus 2020 Reading Plan it’s always a good time to get started.
Week 4 January 26-31:
Monday – Mark 1:1-8 (cf. Matthew 3:1-6; Luke 3:1-6): If Mark intends for his gospel to have a title, this is probably it, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (v. 1). Echoing Genesis 1:1, the introduction of Jesus is no less momentous than the creation of the world. Then Mark quickly moves to discussing the work of John the Baptist. John is important in all the gospels, not for his own sake, but as the beginning of the unfolding story of redemption which centers on Jesus.
In your own words, describe John’s mission (vv. 2-3), work (vv. 4-5), appearance (vv. 6), and preaching (vv. 7-8). What do you think it would be like to meet John?
Tuesday – Luke 3:7-18 (cf. Matthew 3:7-12): With a forceful and uncompromising tone, John bursts on the scene proclaiming a message of repentance and judgment. As the “crowds” flock to John, he challenges their motives (vv. 7-9; cf. to Matthew 3:7, “Pharisees and Sadducees”), calls for them to live out their repentant spirit by “bearing fruit of repentance” (vv. 10-14), deflects their Messianic expectations from himself (vv. 15-16) and warns them of the Messiah’s judgment to come (v. 17). Luke summarizes John’s work by saying, “With many exhortations he preached good news to the people” (v. 18).
Repentance and judgement aren’t always popular topics. How could you explain that these two elements of John’s message are indeed “good news” (v. 18)?
Wednesday – Matthew 3:13-17 (cf. Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22): The first appearance of John in Matthew’s gospel takes place in the context of John’s baptism. Unique to Matthew’s account is the exchange between John and Jesus in vv. 14-15. John, recognizing his inferior state (ref. Matthew 3:11-12) to the Savior states, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (v. 14). The substance of Jesus’ reply is clear enough: John is to overcome his objections and carry out the baptism as requested, “Let it be so not, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15). Jesus never rebelled against the Father’s will (see: 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22), so He did not need to be baptized for repentance of sin. However, the exact why behind Jesus’ words to John, “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” is not spelled out in Matthew.
Using the following verses: John 1:31-34; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 2:3-11; Hebrews 2:17, how would you answer someone you questioned why Jesus was baptized?
Thursday – Luke 3:23-38: Whereas Matthew records Jesus’ lineage from Abraham thru David to emphasize Jesus’ Jewish heritage, Luke traces Jesus through seventy-seven men back to Adam to connect the Savior with all of humanity. From Matthew’s perspective, Jesus is the fulfillment of Abrahamic and Davidic promises, but in Luke, Jesus is the fulfillment of humanity’s hope of redemption. By placing Jesus in a human lineage that ends with God, Luke signals His dual identity, human yet divine, both Son of Man and “Son of God.”
Reflect on this idea, Jesus is one of us! He stands with humanity, sinful humanity nonetheless, which He came to redeem. How does this idea deepen your appreciation of Him?
Friday – Matthew 4:1-11 (cf. Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13): Immediately after identifying with humanity through baptism and heritage, Jesus goes into the wilderness to be tempted as a man. Three times the Devil tempts Jesus (vv. 3, 6, 9), three times He counters with the authority of Scripture (vv. 4, 6, 10; cf. Deuteronomy 8:3; 6:13, 16). The scriptures make God (the Holy Spirit here in Matthew) the author of “testing” (see: Genesis 22:11; Deuteronomy 13:3; Psalm 81:7), not in seeking to make a person fall but in the sense that He proves the depth of a person’s commitment. Having proven His commitment to God’s plan, Jesus will now embark on His public ministry. Jesus’ temptations appear to have little resemblance to ours. Yet, Hebrews 4:15 tells us that He was “in every respect tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
Think of your fiercest temptation. In what way(s) is it like one of Jesus’ temptations? How will you combat your temptations in the same way Jesus did?
In many churches, it’s been the custom since time out of mind to have one of the young men read a two- or three-verse passage that introduces the sermon topic. Less commonly, the preacher will get up, read a long context (the Sermon on the Mount) or even a whole book of the Bible (Ephesians), offer an invitation, and sit back down.
Recently, there’s been some discussion online about the practice. Is a prolonged Scripture reading beneficial to the church when any of us could pull up the same book of the Bible on our phones and listen to it by ourselves? I think the answer is yes.
Reading long contexts or even books is particularly important because it gets us out of our verse-by-verse mentality. As I am fond of observing, the Bible was not originally formatted with chapter and verse notation. The former was added during the medieval era by an archbishop of Canterbury named Stephen Langton; the latter is the contribution of Renaissance printer Robert Estienne. Certainly, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians did not arrive in Ephesus subdivided into six chapters and 155 verses!
Though an innovation, the formatting of our Bibles has a powerful grip on our understanding. We read the Bible differently than any other written work. We don’t go through books or online articles parsing the meaning of each phrase and sentence. Instead, we figure out the overall point and move on. The Bible, by contrast, nearly always gets put under the microscope.
This is not to say that verse-by-verse analysis of the Bible is problematic, but it is not the only, or even the most obvious, way to understand the text. Indeed, it is not the way the text was originally received. When a church received a letter from Paul, it read the whole letter out loud, beginning to end, in an assembly. No, the church wasn’t going to get every nuance in the text from that one reading (though there may have been a certain amount of, “Hey, Herodion, go back and read that part again!”), but it was going to get the point that Paul and the Holy Spirit intended it to get.
I suspect that when Christians are resistant to long readings, it’s because they’re trying to import their individual-tree perspective to a whole-forest exercise. The first time I ever tried listening to the Bible on CD (I know; I’m old), I felt like I was trying to drink out of a fire hose. I was trying to place more importance on each detail than the mode of transmission allowed.
The solution to the problem, though, isn’t always to slow down and take in all the details. Sometimes, it’s to speed up so that we can’t. I think a daily Bible reading is a great way to speed things up (my usual plan takes me through 3-4 chapters a day), but so is public, out-loud reading.
I doubt that more than a tiny percentage of Christians habitually listens to audio recordings of the Bible. Those that do probably have developed the knack of zooming out, but that’s a knack that the rest of us need to learn. When we listen to public reading, we’re learning not only the message of the gospel or epistle, but a different way of understanding that message. We’re coming at truth from a different direction, and that’s an exercise that always will be valuable.
At the risk of re-igniting the smoldering debate about the role of women in the church, I did see one issue in the comments on the subject that I wanted to address (and no, I am still not interested in a sprawling online argument about the issue generally! I leave that for local congregations to work out for themselves.). In 1 Corinthians 11:5, Paul writes, “. . . every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head. . .” I am not interested in debating the covering either, but it is evident from this text that there were women in the Corinthian church who had the gift of prophecy, and that when they were prophesying, they were supposed to cover their heads.
In this, many see a contradiction with the rule of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, which says that women were to keep silence in the assembly. In fact, back in my religious-studies days, I read authors who argued that 11:5 was proof that 14:34-35 is a later, non-Pauline insertion.
I agree that these texts could contradict each other, but they don’t necessarily do so. 1 Corinthians 14 specifies a setting: the assembly. However, the same is not true in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. In fact, the language “every woman” is quite broad, and it leads naturally to the assumption that Paul is speaking of what is proper for women in any setting. Whether the whole church was gathered together or not, Corinthian women were supposed to cover their heads when praying or prophesying.
Thus, it’s reasonable to read these passages as telling women in the assembly to remain silent and women with prophetic gifts to cover their heads when prophesying outside of the assembly. As always, we shouldn’t read contradictions into the Scripture unless the apparent contradiction cannot be harmonized.
This interpretation might seem strained to some, but it lines up with the Scriptural evidence. To my knowledge, there are only two places in the entire Bible where we see a prophetess prophesying (I think it’s unclear what Miriam is doing in Exodus 15). The first is in 2 Chronicles 34:22-28, when Huldah the prophetess predicts disaster for the kingdom of Judah after Josiah dies. The second appears in Luke 2:36-38, when Anna the prophetess starts telling anyone who will listen that the Messiah has come.
Neither one of these prophecies occurs in the context of an assembly. In 2 Chronicles 24, Huldah speaks her piece in her own home when Josiah sends some court officials to her. Luke 2 is a little murkier because it at least occurs on the temple grounds (in the Court of the Women, naturally), but it’s hard to imagine that the chief priests would have allowed a woman (of the tribe of Asher, no less!) to address a temple assembly. The best reading of the text is that Anna is going from worshiper to worshiper, telling them the good news.
Clearly, prophesying outside of an assembly was something that God’s prophetesses could do and did. On the other hand, we have no examples of a woman prophesying in an assembly in either the Old or the New Testament. Those with a mind to use 1 Corinthians 11 to overturn 1 Corinthians 14 may object, but the best reading of the text is that the Corinthian prophetesses were out-of-the-assembly prophetesses too. Thus, the passage poses no obstacle to the plain meaning of 14:34-35.