The world loves distinctive dress and titles.
If I wear an expensive suit and fancy tie to an event, that will probably result in my being treated differently than if I show up in street clothes. Having “PhD” behind my name would earn me more respect in some circles.
The world judges by outward appearance.
People rank and categorize other people based on what clothing they wear and what positions they hold. Wear the wrong dress to an occasion and expect to be shamed in the gossip columns. The climb up the social ladder can be brutal.
The church, unfortunately, is not much different. The expectations and dress standards might vary, but the harmful focus on distinction of title or outward appearance is the same.
What did Jesus say about obsession with dress and titles?
Jesus, continuing his rebuke of unhelpful religious elites, said…
Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called “Rabbi” by others. ‘But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:5-12)
The religious elites were obsessed with what other people thought and how they appeared.
Jesus mentions the “phylacteries” and “tassels” they wore, meant as symbolic reminders of their devotion to God, became about drawing attention to themselves. They pranced to the front benches, loved to be noticed when out in public, and sought titles to impress their religious peers.
Jesus was unimpressed. It is apparent that their religious devotion was not about God’s glory and honor as they would claim, it was all to draw attention to themselves and prideful. Jesus again alludes to the tables being turned and roles being reversed—a time when the first shall be last and last shall be first.
But how is this applicable today?
Nobody I know wears phylacteries or tassels.
However, I believe the warnings against obsession with appearance still apply as much to religious people today as it did then. We have different versions of the same prideful behavior in our churches today.
Here’s what we are doing:
1) Seeking the important seats: I sit anywhere in the church because it does not matter. There is nothing wrong with sitting in the back benches in an age of microphones and amplifiers. Socially awkward people do not enjoy parading up to the front of the church; they don’t want the attention. And so what if the rebels sit in the back, at least they are at church, right?
Funny how some Mennonite leaders have apparently not gotten the memo about those who love the “place of honor” and “most important seats” in a religious setting. From the way they commend people who sit in the front benches you might be led to think that Jesus said that makes a person special or better.
Yes, there is something to be said for accommodating visitors and mothers with young children. There’s also something to be said for not creating a distraction by yukking it up with your buddies. We should always be considerate of others.
That said, seating position is no indication of spiritual condition.
2) Loving important titles: There are some people who use the letter of what Jesus said as a means to bash Catholics for their use of “father” in reference to church leaders past and present.
Unfortunately they entirely miss the point being made and in their arrogance are potentially slandering those who appropriately use these terms. The admonition against calling anyone “teacher” or “father” is not about the specific words used, but about how and why they are used.
How do I know this?
Well, the Apostle Paul refers to himself as “father” (1 Corinthians 4:15, Philippians 2:22) and I’m doubtful he did it in ignorance of or contradiction to what Jesus said. I believe he used it as a description of his true fatherly love and affection for the children of the faith and not vainly as a means to secure unearned respect from others—which is what Jesus was speaking about.
Sadly, those who turn the words of Jesus into a legal code miss the spirit of what he is saying. Sure, they might never use the words he mentioned to describe themselves, but they do use words like “reverend” or “evangelist” in the same way as a Pharisee. With different words they embody the same self-seeking spirit of the religious elites condemned by Jesus.
And we do this too. We may not seek fancy titles outright. However, I was turned down by a young woman who wanted someone who used “missionary” or “pastor” to flaunt their ambitions and I was uncomfortable describing my calling in those terms. Love of religious importance is not unusual amongst Mennonites even if not as openly stated.
There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to spiritual pitfalls. As my sister would say: Same manure, different piles. Except she doesn’t use the word “manure” when she says it…
3) Dressing distinctly: It blows my mind how far off the mark people can be when it comes to matters of dress. There are some churches where people will frown on those who do not wear a suit and tie (while some conservative Mennonites will frown on those who do) and for some reason carrying a big leather-bound Bible is important too.
It makes me wonder what these proper religious people would do if a man like John the Baptist showed up in camel’s hair. They might be suffering from the same ailment as Saul’s daughter; Michal, when she saw David dancing in a “linen ephod” and called him a “vulgar person” for it (2 Samuel 6:14-23). Apparently God was not impressed with her judgment of propriety according to what I read.
That is not to say we should intentionally draw attention to ourselves and dress in a provocative or ostentatious manner.
Which leads to my next point…
Many conservative Mennonites look to distinctive dress as a means to be a witness. They claim this is an act of “non-conformity” and taking a stand against “worldly” fad and fashion. And I do appreciate the idea of not being jerked around by every whim and fancy of the mainstream culture.
Unfortunately, this non-conformity of outward appearance does not always reflect change at a heart level. We might not look like our “worldly” neighbors in the way we dress and yet many of us are even more obsessed with fashion than they are. The smallest differences (the number of pleats in a dress or the collar of a suit coat) can lead to venomous accusations and division.
Distinctive dress has become a stumbling block for conservative Mennonites. We judge each other based on our differences, we shut people out for not meeting our own dress standards, and forget to love each other as Christ commanded. We have taken Scripture that instructs Christians to be focused on inner change rather than outward adoring (1 Peter 3-4, 1 Timothy 2:9-10) and turned it into a fixation about outward appearance.
Perhaps we forget what Scripture tells us about pride and clothing?
Peter describes the true distinctiveness of being “clothed” with sincere faith:
All of you, clothe yourself with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourself, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:5-6)
We are told to be distinctively dressed. However, that distinction of dress means to “clothe yourself with humility” and to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:27, Romans 13:14) rather than with our own religious works–that is a far deeper distinction than mere outward appearance. Our distinctiveness should be less about what we wear on the outside and more about being a manifestation of this:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34,35)
Distinguished titles and distinctive outward appearance is vanity when it causes strife or leads to a pecking order. We must embody the character of Christ by loving each other as he commanded. It is not about looking different or having a fancy title, it is about being different in heart.
If a person professes faith in Jesus, then accept them as a brother or sister and don’t be a religiously pretentious snob. Jesus, as far as I know, did not dress like a Mennonite, Amish man or Baptist. I’m doubtful he was much concerned about solids or stripes and the size of floral prints.