Let me start this post by saying that this subject has been on my heart for a while. I have to admit that, largely because it’s a subject so close to my heart and also because it’s so easy to hurt people unintentionally in this area, I have been putting it off. Our appearance is such an important thing, and something that we can so easily be hurt by comments about, that I really don’t want to screw this one up. I got my hair done again about a week ago, and this, plus the fact that for the first time there are now before and after pics on Facebook, has finally got me thinking that now is the time to say what God has been impressing on me about our appearance.
As man with long, colored hair living in the conservative South, I’ve gotten more than a few funny looks and comments about how I look. About a month back, when I was using the restroom in Hardee’s with clips in my hair to hold my bangs back (believe it or not, they are actually incredibly practical things), there was this gentleman who took one look at me and promptly asked if he was in the right restroom. I was also told, by well-meaning Christians who I have the utmost respect for, that if I wanted to grow my hair out I could never be a pastor. I’ve seen a lot of news stories on this subject, too. My personal favorites are the ones that surface every now and then about some Christian organization or another (schools seem to pop up the most), expelling a student, usually female, for having her hair cut far too short so that she looks like a boy. Aside from seeing these experiences as instances of royally missing the point, they got me to reflecting. Why do we get so uptight about how other people look? Taking that a step further, do we get to pick and choose how we look, or does God have some standard He expects of us in this area? These questions also come up in areas other than hair. Church dress codes is another one that we, as believers in particular, can get really uptight about. What is the acceptable standard, dress or suit and tie, or come as you are and who really cares? With these questions in mind, let’s have a look at what the Bible says about our appearance, and also at what it does not say.
The place to start when looking at what God has to say about our appearance is in 1 Samuel 16. In this chapter, the prophet Samuel has been sent to the village of Bethlehem to anoint a successor to Saul, the King of Israel whom God has now rejected. Samuel has been sent to the house of Jesse, a man with eight sons. When the eldest is brought before Samuel, he turns out to be a good looking, strong young man, and Samuel makes the understandable assumption that this is the man God has chosen as Saul’s replacement. However, in verse 7 we are told, “But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” In short, God values your heart more than how you look. Indeed, later on in this same chapter, when Samuel finally chooses Saul’s replacement, David’s outward appearance makes him the last person Samuel expected God to chose.
So if God truly values our heart more than how we look, what does that mean for us, and why do so many Christians get so uptight about how others look? The second question is perhaps the easier one to answer, and it honestly has more to do with control than with anything. As a good friend of mine once pointed out to me, sometimes it’s easier to control others than it is to let them be themselves. Take church dress codes. There are those of us who approach the issue from the perspective that we’re going into God’s house, and as He’s the creator of heaven and earth, King of kings and Lord of lords, we need to respect that. This respect translates into a suit and tie if you’re a man (or maybe a polo shirt and nice pants), or a dress if you’re a woman. There are also those of us who approach the issue on the grounds that God already knows everything about us anyways, so why bother trying to impress Him by dressing up? The important thing is that you’re in church, not what you’re wearing while you’re there. Truth be told, taken by themselves there is little to fault in either of these perspectives. The issue comes up when we don’t agree with someone of the opposite perspective and so therefore we try to impose our perspective on them. And why is that wrong? When we try to control others in how they portray themselves, we make it less about their heart and more about conforming to a system of rules. This is the very thing the Apostle Paul speaks so strongly against in the Book of Galatians.
If the conforming approach is wrong when it comes to our clothes, what about when it comes to hairstyle or hair length or hair color? The passage most Christians work from in this area (or at least where they think they’re working from, as we’ll see in a moment), is in 1 Corinthians 11. Here the Apostle Paul writes, “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.”
It’s a lengthy passage of Scripture, but it’s worth looking at in full. Taken to its extreme, this passage is often interpreted to say that women should have their hair as long as possible while men should have theirs as short as possible. Anything else, depending on who you ask, is either a) not generally accepted according to tradition, or b) living in sin. That being said, the reality is not so clear cut. This passage also surfaces frequently in discussions of the different roles of men and women in the church, and for that reason I encountered it a lot in my seminary studies. Two things about this passage were typically disputed in the scholarly literature. First of all, scholars have taken Paul’s instructions in this passage to refer either to hair length or to a hat or some other kind of head piece (i.e. something that “covers” the head). I have seen scholarly arguments for both interpretations, and neither appears to be strong enough on its own to completely write off the other view.
Secondly, scholars also differ about whether or not this passage of Scripture is culturally specific. The issue of cultural relevance is a finicky one, and I don’t want to over-complicate things here more than we need to. Suffice it to say, while all Scripture is the inerrant and infallible word of God, deeper themes of Scripture are portrayed differently in certain cultures than in others. In the Old Testament, for example, Israel’s being set apart for God was illustrated by their not wearing clothes made from more than one fabric (see Leviticus 19:19). As Paul tells us in Philippians 3:3, in the New Testament this same deeper reality is revealed by an inward reality which shows the change brought about by the Holy Spirit (the “circumcised heart,” as Paul calls it). Same biblical truth, it just comes out differently in different periods. That’s also why we can wear polyester clothes with a clean conscience, at least as far as Scripture is concerned. Throughout my seminary studies, I’ve seen scholarly arguments that this passage specifically addresses a cultural issue faced by the Corinthian Christians (primarily that long hair was a symbol of homosexuality in the city, and thus not appropriate for Christian men; this is not so today), and is therefore not something directly applicable to contemporary Christians. I’ve also seen arguments to the contrary. Again, neither argument on its own appears to carry enough weight to directly refute the other side. (For any serious student of Scripture reading this, I’ll grant you that this is only a surface-level exegesis of this passage. If you’re looking for something more in-depth, just let me know.)
What exactly does all this mean for us, and the appearances we chose to portray to the world? There’s a lot of detail in what we’ve looked at so far, and that’s a good thing. As I said at the beginning, our appearance, and the self-esteem which comes from it, is an area of our lives where it’s so easy to be hurt by what others say and think. If, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m going to throw out the “you must conform” attitude that we get from much of the contemporary church regarding how we as individuals look, I want to be absolutely certain of the ground I’m standing on before I do so. I also want you to have that certainty, as well. When we get right down to it, if as Christians the passage that we use to force either ourselves or others to conform has such a questionable basis to the interpretation we get from it, then we have no business forcing anyone to conform to the standard put forward by that interpretation.
How you choose to portray yourself to the world is a part of who you are as a person. Your style choices, be they in hair color, length, etc., or in the clothes you wear, come out of your personality. When Jesus died for you, He died for all of you, your personality included, which means you get to be yourself. Bottom line, you don’t have to conform to a standard of appearance. If you want to grow your hair out, go for it. If you want to dye it some crazy color, go for that, too. I’m a Christian, and this is me in the before and after photo below. This is the appearance which best suits who I am. What’s yours?