What They Don’t Tell You About Adornment – A Letter to Christian Young Ladies

adornment

“Why should men grudge women their ornaments and their dress? Women cannot hold public offices, or priesthoods, or gain triumphs; they have no public occupations. What, then, can they do but devote their time to adornment and to dress?”

Lucius Varelius, Roman poet

Dear Christian young lady,

It will no doubt have occurred to you that your lifestyle is a matter of great interest to members of your faith society. Your dressing and adornment, demeanor and attitude, and even your personal life, are frequently under the magnifying glass of not so friendly criticism. Sometimes it would seem, you cannot so much as match two colors in an outfit without drawing the ire and critical glances of the guardians of the faith.

It will not have escaped your notice, however, and quite curiously so, that beyond vague and unconvincing references to certain (mainly Old Testament) Bible passages, no one has really ever been able to explain to your satisfaction why you should not dress like “other women of the world.” No one has satisfied you adequately on why we forbid you to wear earrings, necklaces, bracelets and the like. And though they gaze questioningly at your eye shadow, not so much of a shadow of evidence has been produced to persuade you.

Every time jewelry and dressing has come up for discussion in Bible study, the church has been divided, and often the discussion has crumbled into a polarizing of opinions. Accusative labels such as “liberal” and “conservative” have been slapped on people. Some have pointed to ancient stories where God asked ancient Israel to remove, bury or otherwise put aside their jewelry, maintaining that God despises the infernal stuff. Others have insisted that the real principle is modesty, but have insisted on defining for you just how you ought to express this modesty: less mascara, and, if you’re Adventist, certainly no face-or-hair-adorning metals.

All the while you have sat quietly, patiently, sometimes irritated, other times bemused, and listened. Unheard amidst all the legalistic shouting and pacifist entreaty, is your silent resolution that until they produce an argument that sticks, you will dig your (high) heels in and stick to your lipstick. After all, it seems, those are the few remaining pleasures we have not ‘doctrined’ away from you.

Even more disconcerting, you have certainly noticed a certain hypocritical partiality when it comes to similar practices by men. While we tout equality in Christ, you cannot help but notice that as part of the unspoken lifestyle economy of our churches, your earrings are an abomination, but their glistening tiepins are sanctified; your bracelets are profane, but their cuff links and gold watches are purposeful. Even your wedding ring, it seems, is not spared the occasional stare-down from “conservative” brows. All this must leave you, I imagine, a little bit frustrated.

How do you deal with the decidedly firm injunctions against your free expression in dress, especially in the midst of such weak, inconclusive theological reasons, and blatant gender discrimination?

The Contemporary Woman

As a young lady of the 21st Century, you’re quite special. Your social life and outlook are the living manifestation of decades – indeed, centuries of change – towards a more equal society. Yes, there are still enormous economic and social ceilings and obstacles to your advancement, but you are certainly not the voiceless, repressed yes-woman of yesteryear; you are not the woman in our opening poem from Varelius of Rome.

Yours is an age of higher education, a successful career and the material benefits it brings. It is an age of “upward mobility”, as the call it. You hold public office, chair company boards, and increasingly you even occupy the pulpit in church. Your voice is heard, both as a mother and as a driver of public conscience. Virtually all of the offices named by Varelius are now accessible to you.

At the same time, the pressures of a working life weigh heavily on you, often more so than they do on your male colleagues. Long enough maternity leave is harder to get; homeschooling your kids is now a dream for another life; caring for your home is a task you must delegate or outsource. If you’re a single mom, the burden is doubly felt. For the uninitiated, deciding when to actually begin a family is as tough a decision as any, and has real implications for the outcomes of your significant relationships. Life is tough.

It would seem, then, that the last thing on your mind is “dress and adornment.” Indeed it may be, but it certainly has not vacated your thoughts completely. I have heard of how a new hairdo before a board meeting can make you feel like the most powerful woman in the world, and of how the feeling can be augmented by a few extra inches of height from a pair of high heels. I have heard and seen how much more confident you feel with the right balance of powders and colours on your face.

For you, these are not merely the frills of a carefree young girl. I understand that in the contemporary age they may well be a significant part of the self-image that is essential to your professional and social success. In Varelius’ day, adornments may have found and kept one a husband; in yours, they may help you form and maintain a life.

Increasingly, then, the way you look has more and more to do with the way you self-identify. Not that this is a new thing, indeed, our looks may be our most basic underpinning of the way we perceive ourselves. Still, it will hardly be argued that the complexities of modern life and its expectations on us has meant that society’s view of us is more complex and more demanding, and that in turn our view of ourselves has had to keep up. This has meant that the way we look, as part of this response, has had to become more sophisticated.

Finally, though no less significantly, as a 21st Century lady, you are also strongly religious. You are a Christian, and this is a big part of your self-identity as well. Indeed, you are do doubt constantly aware of the fact that it should be your normative view of yourself; the one by which all other self-opinions are measured. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where every decision made in front of the mirror meets the test of the faith inside your heart.

So how do you handle it? How can you be a Christian and be cool at the same time?

No Grey

Jonathan McReynolds is the composer and singer of the popular song No Grey. In it he opines:

“Lord, I’m split in two;
Part of me loves the world
And the other loves you.
So what do I do?
I want to be saved,
But I gotta stay cool too.”

Clearly McReynolds echoes a common conflict in the mind of many a Christian, let alone Christian young lady. Jesus Himself was well aware of the necessary conflict when He made His final, agonized prayer:

“ My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” – John 17:15 (NIV)

Without breaking into sermon, let me submit that objectively speaking, you will continue to struggle with this cognitive dissonance until you have formed a personal conviction on what your own life should look like as relates not only to how you should dress, but how you should live generally. A minister whose name I do not recall once said,

“If He is not Lord of all, then He is not Lord at all.”

The Lord expects a struggle, yes; He is well aware that there are legitimate social pressures on his young ladies, especially in these post-modern, precipitous times, but He also expects a victory. He expects a personal, self-willed subjugation of the “lusts and desires of the flesh.” But at the same time, He wants you to have as expressive a life as you can. The question is not so much how expressive you are allowed to be, as what it is you wish to express.

“If the mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart, then so does the rest of the body.”

Go ahead, then, study out the matter, and be the mistress of your own philosophy of dress and adornment. Do not be bullied by the thoughts of others, others who very often cannot begin to identify with your struggles, connect with your tastes or appreciate the wonderful textures of your personality. Go ahead, open your Bible, and study it.

A Good Beginning

You are a Christian. It is only reasonable that your own, personal view of dress and adornment should be formed by your study of the Bible. Allow me to propose that in order to succeed in your mission, you should be familiar with the Bible’s general attitude towards ornamentation, and conversant with the major texts discussing the subject. This can be the only sure way of framing a correct, self-asserting response to the pressure exerted by society.

There are several instances in the Bible where the use of various adornments is in view. Some of them have become the mainstay of poorly reasoned defenses of the most radical notions of dress. Often they are taken out of context, and almost always they are separated from the big picture as it appears across the books, eras and intentions of various Bible passages.

A Timeline of Adornment

Instead of surveying the broad landscape of those approaches, we might spend our time better on a general timeline of ornamentation as treated across the Bible. This is not an attempt to give you the answers I’ve just invited you to dig out for yourself. Rather, it is a kind of map, with which I hope your search will be made easier. Except that it’s not a map of land, but of time.

The Undateable Past

In the fall, Adam and Eve were the firs inventors of fashion when they sewed together fig leaves to cover their nakedness (Gen 3:7).

The Patriarchal Era (1300s BC)

Jacob demanded that his household put away their idols and ornaments before coming before the presence of God at Bethel. They did so, and he buried them under a tree.

The Exodus Era (1440s BC)

At Mount Horeb, the Israelites gave Aaron their golden ornaments (Exodus 32: 2 – 4) to make gods they could worship. As part of His chastisement God famously asked them to put away their ornaments “That I may know what to do with you.” The people obeyed, and did not wear their ornaments from that time onwards. (Exodus 33:5, 6)1. Indeed, in their repentance, even the men did not have the temerity to put on their ornaments (Exodus 33:4).

Pre-Babylonian Exile (700s BC)

Isaiah chapter 3 the prophet foretells the destruction of Judah by Babylon as God’s judgment, and articulates it yet again in terms of how God will humble the pride indicated by their ornaments:

“18 In that day the Lord will snatch away their finery: the bangles and headbands and crescent necklaces, 19 the earrings and bracelets and veils, 20 the headdresses and anklets and sashes, the perfume bottles and charms, 21 the signet rings and nose rings, 22 the fine robes and the capes and cloaks, the purses 23 and mirrors, and the linen garments and tiaras and shawls.
24 Instead of fragrance there will be a stench;
instead of a sash, a rope;
instead of well-dressed hair, baldness;
instead of fine clothing, sackcloth;
instead of beauty, branding.”

In verse 24, “branding” does not mean marketing communication. It refers to the marks (brands) that masters made on the bodies of slaves with molten hot iron. The message should have been sobering: Babylon with its Nebuchadnezzar was coming, and Israel was going to go into captivity and slavery.

New Testament Era (1st Century AD)

In the New Testament, the Book of Revelation pictures two women, both adorned. The first “was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls.” She represents religion gone bad, much like what Isaiah showed us earlier in Judah.

The second woman represents the true church. She is “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” Clearly, her attire is not literal, but symbolic: hers is a spiritual adornment. We do not need to digress into exegetical interpretation of the symbols, to notice a reminiscence of the kind of adornment Peter affirms:

“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 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.” 1 Peter 3: 3, 4

Similarly – and famously – Paul asserts:
“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, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” – 1 Timothy 2:9, 10

Putting It All Together

In the beginning, God made humankind a robe of glory. This was fitting; because human beings were made in the image of a God Who Himself is clothed in glory (Psalm 104:2). When man sinned, he made himself clothes of fig leaves. This was functional, and had the purpose of covering their perceived nakedness rather than of adorning or beautifying themselves. God replaced these with goat skins, obtained from the first symbolic sacrifice for sin.

God then called Abraham to walk with Him. Abraham was a Chaldean. These people were idol worshipers, and part of the dress economy was jewelry and adornment. Nose rings, bracelets and earrings, for example, were associated with betrothal and marriage, slavery or office. They also wore amulets and other trinkets of pagan religious significance (Genesis 24:22).

When the Israelites entered Egypt, they carried along their culture, which was in turn influenced by an Egyptian culture heavily reliant on exterior shows of splendor, beauty, power, and other cultic or ritual significance. Rings, earrings, nose rings, amulets and others (Genesis 41:42).

All this while there is not indication that God had any issues with their jewelry. It was a case of progressive revelation of His character, and it just wasn’t the truth they needed for their time yet.

When Moses led them out of Egypt, the incidents we’ve seen in Exodus chapters 32 through 35 transpired, and from that time onwards God banished jewelry from the dress economy of His people.

After settling in Canaan, the Israelites experienced national apostasy time and again, which climaxed in the years before their forced exile into Babylon. During these days they evidently went back to the culture of dress of the nations around them. Isaiah once again pictures their dressing as an expression of their pride and separation from God (Isaiah 3:18 – 24). He cites not only jewelry, but also expensive clothing.

In the New Testament Bible writers maintain a negative view of adornment. The cross did not change the Spirit’s view of dress and adornment. Christians were expected, just as the Jews had been, to be minded on God rather than on themselves, and this was to be reflected in the adornment of good deeds and Christlikeness.

“The ornamentation of the person with jewels and luxurious things is a species of idolatry. This needless display reveals a love for those things which are supposed to place a value upon the person. It gives evidence to the world of a heart destitute of the inward adornment. Expensive dress and adornments of jewelry give an incorrect representation of the truth that should always be represented as of the highest value. An over-dressed, outwardly adorned person bears the sign of inward poverty. A lack of spirituality is revealed.” 3

Ellen White

Just Be Modest?

As I write this I am involved in preparing a children’s ministration on humility for the upcoming 12 Sabbath children’s programme at my church. When I tried to engage our team of youth Sabbath School teachers in a brainstorm on the content of the programme, I met frequently with the suggestion, “It’s simple, let’s keep it that way. Let’s just get some stories in the Bible about humility that are easy to understand, that the children can work with.”

Simple indeed. Humility is truly the simplest thing there is. Yet I was a little disturbed. I was – and still am – impressed with the feeling that God’s people still do not appreciate the depth of life He has called us to. I remarked at that meeting, “If we understood and achieved the kind of humility Christ expects form us, He wouldn’t delay; He would come.” I felt then that if the children were to impart something valuable about humility to the church, then we had the great task of breaking down heaven’s most important lesson for humanity for their little minds to grasp, and their anointed lips to proclaim.

You will often have heard it said at the end of a lengthy argument on adornment that at the end of the day the issue at hand is “simply” or “just” modesty. It often comes framed as an anticlimactic concession and compromise. The deeper claims it makes on us are all but lost to us. You see, for the Christian, modesty is more than merely a virtue. It is the outward expression of the highest virtue, that of Christ-mindedness.

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”

– Philippians 2:5 – 7

The mind of Christ is the mind of humility; the kind of humility we literally call selflessness. Paul tells us that Christ gave up his glory, and took our likeness. Get this: in doing so, Paul says He made Himself nothing!

If only every Christian would see that this is true perfection of character – that this is the aim of the whole struggle of the Christian walk, the transformed heart; the renewed mind!
Christian young lady, when you sit in front of your mirror, what are you aiming to do; to cover yourself with an external appearance of modesty, or to let the inner radiance of your humility shine forth? Jesus said of food and that it’s not what goes into the mouth that sanctifies, but what comes out (Matthew 15:11). I’ll add that when it comes to dress, it is not what gets put on, but what gets let out, that counts.
In many Ghanaian homes it is a common experience when a parent is chastising a child that they command them to take off some or other adornment. They may be a hat, dark spectacles, or some other flamboyant piece of clothing. A likely command is “Take off that hat and listen to me!” Another is, “Will you remove those glasses and look at me?” Often, the command is not even needed, as a child or youth under reprimand will remove such items of their own accord, from an inward sense of their inappropriateness.
This is so because deep down we are all aware that adornments are a silent, psychological statement of boasting or exuberance. In the context of rebuke and repentance, such postures are out of place, and we promptly undeck ourselves in such situations. This is why the Israelites removed and buried their ornaments, and why God asked them several times to take them off before pronouncing judgment or rebuke. The natural human tendency is to add to self; to make one’s self greater and greater. The tendency of Christ is to take from self, become less and less, while adding to others. This has been called other-centeredness, and it is the natural complement of true selflessness.
When Paul admonishes women to dress with “decency and propriety” he utilizes a Greek word sophrosune, which means “soundness of mind” or “sanity” . The word stems from a word which pertains to the mind, or cognitive faculties . Clearly, Paul is inviting you to a deliberate, intelligent consideration of the way you dress. He’s not asking you to rely blindly on the confusing advice of a thousand voices who think they have the power to lay down the law for you, but to reason it out for yourself, and to decide for the Lord. So you see, Paul can only beg you to present yourself as a living sacrifice unto God. Consider this radical idea from one author:


“Christians are not to decorate the person with costly array or expensive ornaments. All this display imparts no value to the character. The Lord desires every converted person to put away the idea that dressing as worldlings dress, will give value to his influence. The ornamentation of the person with jewels and luxurious things is a species of idolatry. This needless display reveals a love for those things which are supposed to place a value upon the person. It gives evidence to the world of a heart destitute of the inward adornment. Expensive dress and adornments of jewelry give an incorrect representation of the truth that should always be represented as of the highest value. An over-dressed, outwardly adorned person bears the sign of inward poverty. A lack of spirituality is revealed.”

Ellen White 2

“I would remind the youth who ornament their persons and wear feathers upon their hats that, because of their sins, our Saviour’s head wore the shameful crown of thorns.” {421.6}

Deeper Still: Prettiness or Parousia?

Self-denial is not the same as humility. It is borne of humility, to be sure, but it is another level of piety. Humility, properly understood, is how one is; self-denial is what one does. The former is a disposition of character, as deliberate as breathing is. Self-denial, however, is a considered response to the needs of others. Christians are called first to be humble, Christminded, and then out of that mindedness to do what Christ did, and deny themselves for the sake of others.

“Humility reflects what is natural to the Christian; self denial reflects what is important to him (or her).” If this is true, then the biggest motivation for self-denial in these times must be the soon return of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is, afterall, the most important event the entire universe waits in anticipation for; it is the yearning of the groaning creation (Romans 8:21, 22), and the figurative cry of the martyred saints “How long?”


If the second coming, the parousia, is indeed the present obsession of every Christian, then the propagation of the gospel must be her primary occupation. What had that to do with dress?

“Those who have bracelets, and wear gold and ornaments, had better take these idols from their persons and sell them, even if it should be for much less than they gave for them, and thus practice self-denial. Time is too short to adorn the body with gold or silver or costly apparel… the the very ones for whom Christ has done everything that was possible to do to save the perishing souls from eternal ruin feel so little disposition to deny themselves anything they have money to buy.”1

Ellen White 3

Again, without making any prescriptions, a useful question to answer in your searching is this:
“How compelled am I by the second coming of Christ, and the gospel work that is to prepare people for it? What am I willing to give up so that they do not have to perish at His coming?”

There is a Ghanaian proverb that says “If it’s happening to your neighbor then it’s happening to a tree.” The proverb is a reprimand against a lack of empathy. No one will be saved who does not care that others are as well.

True, there are many expensive clothes and adornments we may feel called to give up. Do we really need endless choices of shoes, bags and dresses, suits, cuff-links and ties? Even when our wardrobes are already “modest” can they be more reflective of the urgency of the times? I am not calling you to a vow of poverty, but there is nonetheless a lesson to be taken from those who have taken such vows. At the same time, for many of us an earring or tie does not cost more than a few Cedis (or cents). The real sacrifice may be that of time: time witnessing instead of making up, time distributing literature instead of reading beauty magazines, time praying for a stranger on the way to church that might have been lost trying out different ties.

You Decide

There are many ways in which the discussion on this subject can be corrected. If you do indeed undertake to study it out, I believe you will find the right responses to the issues of principle, contemporary culture, gender bias, Christian mission and more, as they relate to the subject of dress and adornment. You will identify the true scope of adornment, well beyond the provincial realms of tinkling jewelry; you will see that the outermost horizon of exterior adornment is pride, and that the deepest point of the inner adornment is true Christ-like humility.

You will also learn that while many would gladly think on your behalf where adornment, modesty and Christian deportment are concerned, you need not allow them to. In all their stolid sermonizing, what they never tell you is that the decision is entirely yours to make.

Each day you step out into the world reflecting clearly one of two persons: yourself, or the Lord. May you choose to reflect Christ. Like Captain Planet used to say, “The power is yours.”

 

1 Hebrew prepositional form ( מ-) renders “from Horeb (onwards)”

2 Bible Training School, May 1, 1908 par. 4

3 Manuscirpt Releases, Volume 6, pp 117 par. 1


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Agana-Nsiire Agana is a theologian, communicator and writer. His passion is for communicating eternal truth in a contemporary context which is influenced by postmodern, secular thought. The gospel, though unchanging, can and should be expressed in terms of the challenges, philosophy and language of the present day.
  • Nancy Kyerewaa Agyemang

    Great piece. May God bless you abundantly.

    • Agana Agana-Nsiire

      Thanks, Nancy. God bless you too!