The circumscription of holiness

Things I’ve heard recently that give me pause for thought:
“God doesn’t care how you dress for worship.”
“I don’t think God is that concerned about whether we use ‘cuss words’ or not.” “I don’t see how the kind of music I listen to has anything to do with my relationship with God.”

On and on the comments go, usually followed by words to the effect of, “what matters is what’s in your heart.” Now I certainly do not dispute the notion that the condition of our hearts is of prime importance. Nevertheless there is a strange line when our purported “freedom in Christ” becomes a license to do whatever we want to do, usually by taking cues from our surrounding culture rather than allowing scripture to shape how we live. In this reaction there is a misunderstanding of the ways culture and faith intersect to the point that culture is always seen as something to accommodated with rather than being something that needs to be transformed and renewed in light of gospel revelation.

I give an example. Recent scholarship about the passages in scripture about women covering their heads in worship usually asserts that such head coverings were a culturally conditioned reflection of modesty. This is true. However what is not mentioned is that the Christianization of European society and culture made it normative for women to cover their heads totally or partially, especially when conducting religious activities, for over 2000 years. It has only been since the 1960’s that it became socially acceptable for women to go to church without wearing a hat. It is still generally viewed as disrespectful for men to wear hats indoors, in the presence of superiors, or certainly in church, while women incur no such approbation.

What many people fail to realize is that this very ingrained cultural practice is rooted at least partially in the application of scriptural instructions to the church, as is evident when looking at other cultures that do not have so long an exposure to Christianization. It is a wonder then that Christians look aghast at Muslim cultures that insist on particular standards of modesty when for much of church history such standards would have nearly identical.

The larger point is that for several centuries, indeed for most of Christian history, it was assumed that God indeed care how we dressed for worship or about modesty in general. Indeed it was assumed that our Christian faith ought to dictate much of how we lived. There was no separation between our private beliefs about and relationship with God and our public life. It has only been in the last several centuries that the realm of holiness has grown steadily smaller; God suddenly being unconcerned about dress, language, music, recreation, and any number of other things you can imagine. As a consequence, Christians live almost identical lives to the unbelieving world. There are no distinguishing characteristics in terms of our behavior, dress, language, entertainment choices, recreation, and labor practices… almost anything you can think of. When holiness gets reduced to the kindly thoughts and feelings that roll around in our heads, we are in bad shape.

In comparison, I think of Islam, which is a religion with similar moral demands as Christianity, albeit, one with very different foundational principles. Muslims who are serious about their faith are quite distinguishable for everything from their practices of prayer to the Mecca pilgrimage to the ways women and men dress. I do not say this to suggest that we should import and impose some legalistic morality that is contrary to the Spirit of Christ and Christian liberty. I just point out the irony.

Closer to home perhaps in the Christian experience is the discipline and devotion of Christian believers who come from non-Western places. The attention to prayer by Korean believers, the modest dress of African Christians, and the fervent worship of Latin American Christians are well attested. These believers are noticeably different in many ways than their co-nationals who do not believe and the lines drawn are often stark. Short term mission participants often marvel at the kinds of sacrifices routinely made by believers “over there” and yet often dismiss their life choices as being simply “cultural” rather than questioning whether we are simply a bit too enamored of our culture to stand in critique of it by living discernibly different lives.

It would be interesting if every Christian woman in America wore a head covering for a year in public as a sign of her devotion to God. Or better yet if every Christian refused to charge any interest on loans. If believers all chose to refrain from doing any work at all on Sunday – a Sabbath strike so to speak. It would be an interesting experiment to say the least, and is certainly unlikely to happen. Even so, any of these things would be an important visible sign that holiness matters – not just inwardly, privately, and devotionally – but in all of life.