Dress Standards in the Early Christian Church

A careful study of early church history reveals that the Church Fathers in the first and second centuries advocated the strictest adherence to high standards of conduct, dress, morality, recreation, and temperance.

Rosalie Haffner Lee is pastoral assistant, Battle Creek Michigan

Surprising but True—Hair Dyeing, Face Painting, Immodest Dresses, Jewelry Wear­ing, Are as Ancient as Christianity.

Before the final visitation of God's judg­ments upon this earth, according to The Great Controversy, there will be among His people such a "revival of primitive godliness as has not been witnessed since apostolic times" (page 464). What is meant by "primitive godliness"? Webster says that the word primitive pertains to "the beginning or origin; earliest in time." If this statement has reference to the godli­ness of early Christianity, which we may understand it to do by the reference to "apostolic times," then we may assume that the pure faith and practices of the early church form a part of primitive god­liness.

A careful study of early church history reveals that the Church Fathers in the first and second centuries advocated the strictest adherence to high standards of conduct, dress, morality, recreation, and temperance. Several of them were rather explicit in defining how these standards were to be carried out in the lives of their followers. A closer look at the writings of these men should give us a clearer insight into what is meant by primitive godliness. For the sake of brevity we shall confine this discussion to the matters of dress and "out­ward adorning."

Disapproval to Open Hostility

Christianity in apostolic times was no more popular than had been its Founder, either to the leading Jewish religionists of the day or to the pagan populace. The church in its first two hundred years found itself faced with attitudes fluctuating from mild disapproval to open hostility, often in the form of persecution. The martyr's death became a thing to be coveted by many Christians more than feared. The concept of being separate from the world was a reflection of the apostles' teachings. Peter had called Christians a "peculiar people," "strangers and pilgrims" (I Peter 2:9, 11). Paul, writing to the Corinthians, urged them to "Come out . . . and be ye separate" (2 Cor. 6:17). John reminded his flock that the love of the Father and the love of the world cannot exist together, that the "lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, . . . is of the world" (I John 2:15, 16).

The Inner Personality

They were specific in applying these basic principles to the daily life. For ex­ample, Peter, speaking to wives with unbelieving husbands, admonished them that their husbands might be won "simply by seeing the pure and reverent behavior of you, their wives. Your beauty should not be dependent on an elaborate coiffure, or on the wearing of jewelry or fine clothes, but on the inner personality—the unfad­ing loveliness of a calm and gentle spirit, a thing very precious in the eyes of God" (1 Peter 3:3, 4, Phillips).* Paul writes: "Women again must dress in becoming manner, modestly and soberly, not with elaborate hair-styles, not decked out with gold or pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, as befits women who claim to be religious" (1 Tim. 2:9).

Two main main themes stand out in the apos­tles' teaching on this subject: The first is that the true beauty that God values must come from the "inmost centre of your be­ing, with its imperishable ornament, a gen­tle, quiet spirit" (1 Peter 3:4, N.E.B.).t The other is that in the Christian's ap­pearance there will be a significant ab­sence of the artificial and superfluous, which appeal to pride and vanity—the gold, the jewels, the elaborate hairstyles and expensive clothes.

Beauty or Deformity

Clement of Alexandria, writing near the close of the second century, emphasized the first principle when he stated that women were to be well-clothed, "without by raiment, within by modesty" (Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2, p. 252). He pointed out that "in the soul alone are beauty and deformity shown" (ibid., p. 268). He ad­vised women to adopt simplicity, wearing the collars and necklaces of modesty and chastity as the chains which God forges (ibid., p. 270).

Spiritual Adornment

Tertullian, writing about A.D. 202, re­minded Christians, who possibly would pass their days in iron rather than in gold, that since the "stole of martyrdom" was being prepared for them, they should seek the cosmetics and adornments of the apos­tles and prophets: whiteness from simplic­ity, rosy hues from chastity, the paint of modesty for the eyes, and of silence for the lips, for the ears the Word of God, and for the neck the yoke of Christ. Their clothing was to be the silk of honesty and the fine linen of righteousness (see ANN FREMAN­TLE, in Treasury of Christianity, p. 65).

Nothing New About Immodesty

While at least one writer of the second century observed that "all our women [Christians] were chaste," the early Chris­tian sisters must have been faced with many of the same temptations to pride and vanity that face Christian women of our day. Decking the body with jewels, paint­ing the face, dyeing the hair, wearing im­modest styles of dress, are not new practices to our modern age, and against these evils the Church Fathers sounded their warnings.

Clement, speaking of women who wear gold, occupy themselves in curling their locks, paint their eyes, dye their hair, and in general practice the "arts of luxury," said that in truth they were imitating the Egyptians. Furthermore, he quoted heathen poets to show that if even some of them were disgusted with such fashions, how much more should such things be rejected by those who know the truth (ibid., vol. 2, p. 272). He also spoke about ornamented sandals to which had been added "nails driven into the soles in winding rows." To these "mischievous devices" the Christian must bid "farewell" (ibid., p. 267). After quoting Jesus' statement in Luke 12:22-28 about raiment—"consider the lilies," and "if God so clothe the grass," Clement enumerated some of the decep­tions he felt might be likened to the grass which today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven: love of ornament, gems, gold, artificial hair and wreathed curls, staining the eyes, plucking out hairs, painting with rouge and white lead, and dyeing of the hair (ibid., p. 264).

By way of a positive suggestion he rec­ommended that instead of wearing pre­cious stones and pearls, things to which "silly people" are attracted for show, Chris­tians should adorn themselves with the "Word of God," Jesus the Pearl of great price (ibid., p. 267). Interestingly enough, he advised that in the place of smearing their faces with devices of wily cunning, they try the adornment of health, namely temperance in drinks, moderation in arti­cles of food, which "are effectual in producing beauty according to nature" (ibid., p. 287).

Sighing After Youth

Tertullian also seemed to be concerned with the health angle when he spoke about the danger of tormenting the skin with potions, staining the cheeks with rouge, and extending the line of the eyes with black coloring. He seemed to think people who followed such practices must be dis­satisfied with God's plastic skill. He ex­plained at great length the harmful effect of saffron dye to the hair, but what was still worse in his opinion was the fact that those who change the color of their hair are proving the Lord wrong, who says, "Who of you can make a white hair black or a black hair white?" Furthermore, those who would shun old age and sigh after youth, by changing the color of their hair, are to be shamed. "The more old age strives to conceal itself, the more it will be detected."—Treasury of Christianity, pp. 61, 62.

Tertullian was very careful to note that he was not approving slovenliness, squalor, or roughness in appearance. "We merely set forth the limit and bounds and just measure of bodily adornment," he said.

Advertisement - Ministry in Motion 300x250

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

Rosalie Haffner Lee is pastoral assistant, Battle Creek Michigan

February 1968

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Climbing Higher: Or the Value of Spiritual Barbs

Has our vision become so stymied and myopic that we fail to see the much more the Lord wants to give us?

Personal Ministry in Sermon and Service

Let us give study to the worship hour and to its program on Sabbath mornings.

The Leaping Frogs of the Revelation

Understanding Revelation 16

How to Secure and Hold Attention

If you want anyone to do something he is not now doing, you must enlist the will on the side of right as you see it.

The Last Spiritual Crisis of God's Remnant

Our world has now come to crisis.

Genesis and Science

This article is reproduced from the book by the same name by Harold G. Coffin.

Djakarta: An Interview with Evangelism

Spotlighting a recent evangelistic series in Djakarta.

Medicine and Religion

An unbeatable combination

A Million Prayers a Day

Evil is multiplying with such rapidity that the minister often wonders how the youth of the church can withstand present-day temptations.

Christ-Centered Three-fold Message Preaching

Jesus Christ--the embodiment of all Christian truth.

Another Comforter

Early and Latter Rain--part II

Preacher's Progress

Religious Side Shows


Pointer's from the Ministerial staff

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - Southern Adv Univ 180x150 - Animated


Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - NAD Stewardship (160x600)