Wearing Sunday best and forbidden flip flops

poster showing forbidden attire

Enforcing dress codes in church

The arresting subtitle of the Sunday Times article by Elizabeth Soh (Feb 6, 2011) read: “Catholic churches are enforcing dress codes, as more turn up in inappropriate attire”. Such inappropriate attire included shorts and flip flops; attire that exposed the entire shoulder, chest, back or thighs; low rise jeans and T shirts with loud graphics or rude slogans. A church even had a poster showing prohibited forms of dressing for parishioners, except that there was no FINE. It had even recruited “hospitality ministers”, an euphemism for fashion police. Some inappropriately attired parishioners may have been denied entry and barred from taking holy communion.

Church members’ attire often reflect what is popular and acceptable in society. People dress down and love casual nowadays. The preferred university dress is casual tops, shorts and flip flops. We see young people wearing that in church too. Executives want a break from having to be dressed smartly during weekends. Society has also made ‘more skin’ equivalent to more attractive and more fashionable. With the triumphant upliftt of bra design, even petite Chinese women have been emboldened to show more skin. Any priest serving at the communion rails would have to pray, “Lord lead me not into temptation” more often than a decade ago!

The rationale behind churches enforcing dress code

What were the reasons for this push for decent dressing in the Catholic Church?  In recent years the parishioners dressing have “got to a point where people were wearing tube tops with shorts barely covering their bottoms”.  Priestly prudishness?  No. The priests generally feel that parishioners should  “dress with reverence, to show respect”. There is an obligation to revere the Eucharist. The Archbishop’s office told the Straits Times: “Many Catholic churches in Singapore, and throughout the world, post guidelines on the type of dress that is considered ‘proper’. Dressing in one’s ‘Sunday best’ has historically been the protocol for attending Holy Mass.”  Another priest wrote to 10,000 parishioners: “When others look at the church, they learn something about us as Catholics. This would mean to dress appropriately and to be covered sufficiently.” The young ones are the main target and they feel it but are not convinced: “We are taught that God loves us no matter what we are, so why should the church discriminate against our attire?”

The truth about attire

Does the Bible have anything to say about how Christians should dress themselves and why? And if a faith community wants to disciple people in the practical area of dressing how can it be done wisely and graciously? There are two passages that can be cited about dressing in the letters of Paul and Peter. The first is about dressing for women in worship gatherings, the other about the essence of true feminine beauty.

1 Timothy 3:9,10:  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 Peter 3:3,4:   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.

What’s the point?

From the pen of the foremost apostle of grace come the golden guidelines: modesty; decency; and propriety. From Peter’s mouth: clothe yourselves with unfading, instead of temporal beauty. Both emphasized that outward beauty and refinements like “elaborate hairstyles, gold or pearls or expensive clothes” must not detract from the inward beauty and character of the Christian that the Lord of grace had handcrafted. To my mind, the attire is just the frame, the character is the masterpiece portrait. In God’s eyes, our outward adornment must not detract from the showpiece of the brushstrokes of His finished work. The inner beauty must stand out, take the spotlight, so that Christ is exalted and praised by believers and unbelievers, and the grace of God is displayed and magnified. The frame should enhance, direct the eyes of onlookers to the masterpiece, and cause them to praise the Master Artist.

If wearing Sunday best means wearing the best suit of clothing I have, I am not for it. Its too burdensome. Honoring God, respecting others, protecting the brothers in the church from unnecessary temptation may all be good reasons but they gain significance when viewed in the light of the understanding that we Christians are partnering with the Holy Spirit to glorify, magnify Christ in our lives.

How the discipling community does it

We certainly can teach guiding principles just as the ultimate preacher of grace did: modesty, decency and propriety. Imparting an understanding of the whys and imparting the motivation of gratitude is better than having explicit detailed dress code. Guided group discussions about this topic in the cells is good way of learning God’s way- if there are to be community agreement let it come from the community through collaborative learning informed by biblical understanding. Discussing together and teaching people  to prayerfully judge for themselves is much more respectful of how God works to transform individuals. It is a better path to maturity  than legislation and imposition from above. Such imposition only increases anger, frustration, transgressors, hypocrisy, self righteousness, guilt and pride. We want to avoid judging one another, gossiping, and nit picking at whether the skirt should not be allowed one or two or three inches above the knee. We do not want Christianity to be mistaken as another religion with all its detailed rules and regulations to be kept to be accepted by God. When there is strong community life, we can lovingly and tactfully show individuals in need of specific application and instruction, the way of Christ. This may actually be a wonderful learning opportunity for the discipling community: a time of collaborative learning as a body.

Different levels of understanding and personal growth

Grace would make room for different levels of understanding and different contexts. We shouldn’t bar anyone who dresses otherwise, for we are all walking with the Lord at different pace, and are at different milestones on this faith journey.  A church that often receives beach tourists would be mad to ban flip flops. Of course there will be some different specifics in different context. In Myanmar the pastors wear flip flops – if you wear something else, you’re not following the unwritten rule!

Spiritual offering of our life

When Christians know how much God loves them and what he has done for them they will be grateful enough to want to glorify Christ,  whether at church, at work or at play or at school. Attire is a part of the total spiritual sacrifice we offer to the Lord as priests. The motivation has to be a grateful heart.

Here is a list from the article of three different dress codes of three Singapore Catholic churches just for information and discussion:

Church of our Lady Star of the Sea: inappropriate dressing includes camisoles, halter tops or translucent tank tops, miniskirts or shorts, bermudas worn with flip fops, men’s tank-top sports wear, low-rise jeans, T shirts with loud graphics or rude slogans.

Church of St Anthony: No attire made of spandex or translucent material; no attire exposing the entire shoulder, chest, back or thights; no attire promoting violence or vices such as drugs and alcohol; no sportswear or flip-flops.

Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour: For women, please wear: blouses or dresses with sleeves, trousers and skirts of a decent length; spaghetti-strap tops or tank-tops should be worn with a cardigan, a shawl or a jacket. For men, please wear: Shirts with sleeves, T-shirts paired with trousers and shoes.

Thomas G. Long on preaching

Every year I read at least one book on preaching to hone my craft and to deepen my convictions. This year I picked up from the Trinity library a book by Thomas G. Long titled Preaching from Memory to Hope, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. It was so helpful for me I excerpted passages for you to read and reflect on as well, especially those of you interested in preaching. Here’s what Thomas Long had to say in his book:

On tweaking narrative preaching for today’s listeners

“Some megachurch preachers have seemingly noticed, or perhaps intuited, an increased presence of episodic listeners and have, in response, begun fashioning “antinarrative” sermons (my term, not theirs), sermons that are built as a series of stand-alone “bullet points.” (We have perhaps returned in a digital age to the old “three-points-and-a-poem” style, except it’s now “eight bullet points and a video clip.” As one critic quipped, “when all you have are bullet-points, your ammunition is pretty quickly spent.) Hearers are invited to browse these sermons as they would a Web page, skipping here and there as interest would allow. Such preaching is immediately engaging to many people, but it tends to reinforce the fragmented, non-narrated character of contemporary life, and it works at a deep level, against the gospel. Narrative preachers, however, can learn something important from this approach. We may now be in a communicational moment when narrative preaching as it has often been practised is not viable. If we tell stories in sermons- biblical and otherwise- we will need also to step away from those stories and think them through in non-narrative ways, drawing out explicitly the ideas and ethical implications of the stories. In short, preachers today may need to model in the sermon itself the internal processing of narratives that a previous generation of preachers could entrust fully to the hearers.” (Preaching from Memory to Hope, pg 14,15,Thomas G. Long)

Note: An episodic is someone who “lives in a series of present tense moments. The past is alive, for him, only in the sense that it has shaped his present, much as a concert pianist’s practice last Thursday afternoon is present in the movement of the fingers in the performance on Saturday night.” He has no sense of his life as an ongoing  narrative.

On preaching less than the Gospel

“Much preaching in our day has taken on the posture of Wisdom literature. Take a romp through the thousands of church web sites on the Internet and sample a sermon here and a sermon there, and what one finds is actually going on in pulpits across the land-at least in pulpits in churches with means enough to maintain web sites- is an abundance of sage advice. There is sermon wisdom about parenting and wisdom about managing g one’s money and wisdom about finding purpose in one’s work and relationships and wisdom about engaging in the struggle for justice and wisdom about being more caring toward others and wisdom about accepting differences and being more inclusive and wisdom about the doctrinal truths of the faith and wisdom about the biblical texts for the day and wisdom about nurturing one’s spiritual life.

We need wisdom, of course; wisdom is Christian, I suppose. But true biblical wisdom is less about life skills and the management of problems than it is a seeking of the shape of faithful living that results from an encounter with the living God. Biblical wisdom is grounded not merely in common sense or in the brilliance of some sage, but in holy encounter. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”(Prov 1:7).

Much pulpit wisdom, however, seems to owe less to the paths of life that are trod in breathless wonder on our way back from worship and more to the well-trod lanes of conventional wisdom. Where is the present-tense announcement of God’s action in our midst?……….Sermons on “Five Ways to Keep Your Marriage Alive” or “Keys to a Successful Prayer Life” or even “Standing Up for Peace in a Warring World” may possess some ethical wisdom and some utilitarian helpfulness, but they often have the sickly sweet aroma of smouldering incense in a temple from which the deity has long since departed. They can easily have the sound of the lonely wisdom of Job’s friends, who can quote the Psalms and the Proverbs but who have ceased to expect the whirlwind. They are what is left when the possibility of holy encounter has been eliminated and all that remains is how to use religion to manage and cope with our lives and to construct a good life out of the rubble at hand. As for being the good news, many of these sermons are “good,” but there’s no news, northern is happening, no event of God erupts, and when it comes to the gospel, no news is bad news.

In an oft-quoted remark, Annie Dillard once observed that if we truly understood what was going on in worship, we would wear crash helmets and ushers would lash us to the pews “for the sleeping God may someday awake and take offense.” But these wisdom sermons are preached by men and women who have lost the sense of worship’s perilous heights and who have been lulled into forgetting that lightning might strike behind them at any moment. Here are sermons, ironically, which God, as Frederick Buechner once observed, “is the most missed of all persons.”(Preaching from Memory to Hope, p37,38, Thomas G. Long)

Scripture as spectacles to see how God is acting in the present

So how can preaching bring us closer to the eventfulness of God? In his fascinating book Preaching Paul, New Testament scholar Daniel Patte explored, not how to preach the Pauline Epistles, but what we can learn about preaching in our day by examining Paul’s own preaching methodology. Paul, argued Patte, was in a cultural situation much like our own. He had a gospel to preach that was couched in a vocabulary his hearers did not know – Jewish apocalyptic. He was preaching to people whose language and thought forms were shaped by culture other than the gospel, namely, Hellenism. So what should he do? Should he ask the Hellenists to learn the Jewish apocalyptic concepts, risking befuddlement? Or should he attempt to translate Jewish apocalyptic thought into their categories, into Hellenistic philosophical terms, risking losing something essential about the gospel in translation? Paul, claims Patte, chose a third option. Paul instead held the Jewish apocalyptic gospel like a lens to the eye of his imagination and looked through the cross-resurrection refraction of the gospel, and by doing so, he saw something he could not have seen without the gospel lens: the trajectory of God in their world. He saw God at work in cross-resurrection ways in their present-tense circumstances, and he told them what he saw. God is present; God is at work in your world. Can you see it? “Preaching Paul’s gospel,” claimed Patte, “is essentially the proclamation that the power of God for salvation is at work in our present……The power of the Gospel is manifested for us NOT when we learn a general principle, but when we are confronted by Christ-like manifestations of God in our midst.”

What Patte is doing here offers a hermeneutical option to the preacher that is both more complex and more powerful than the customary attempt to find simple analogies between the text and our context, a sermon technique that tells a story about Jesus or reprises the situation at Corinth, and then announces to the congregation, “Aren’t we today just like those Pharisees!” or “Isn’t it true that the church in our time is just like the Corinthian congregation?” Well, no, as a matter of fact, we aren’t just like those Pharisees, and, as a matter of strict historical analogy, the circumstances at ancient Corinth are quite distant from any twenty first century setting. Some form of analogical thinking is involved in all hermeneutics, but the connection between text and sermon needs to move beyond the illusion of a tight analogy between the text and our context and toward a more imaginative way to see connections.

Patte goes a long way toward helping us to reclaim the impact of news in our preaching by saying that preaching involves looking through the lenses of biblical texts to discover and then to announce present-tense manifestations of God in the experience of hearers. Patte’s view of exegesis is in key ways an elaboration of Calvin’s metaphor of the scripture as “spectacles.” Commenting on that metaphor, Gareth Green observes, “The scriptures are not something we look at, but rather look through, lenses that refocus what we see into an intelligible pattern.” But we should not, I think, be fully satisfied with Patte’s description of that intelligible pattern. His rather strict structuralism, with its mathematical ensemble of either-or binary oppositions, tends, I think, to restrict the range of patterns found in scripture. For Patte, everything is squeezed through the master binary opposition he finds in Paul: cross-resurrection. Raising the crucified to new life may work as a macro statement for God’s action in the world, but when we get closer to the grain we need more images, more metaphors, more plot structures to describe the full range of God’s action in the world. God is blessing and judging, healing and guiding, lifting up the weak and bringing down the oppressor. To view life through scriptures, we need a more complex set of lenses than just the one master lens, cross-resurrection. (Preaching from Memory to Hope, pg 43-45, Thomas G. Long)

On preaching eschatologically

“First, to preach eschatologically is to participate in the promise that the fullness of God’s shalom flows into the present, drawing it toward consummation. Eschatological preaching brings the finished work of God to bear on an unfinished world, summoning it to completion. Progress preaching tells people to gird up their loins and to use the resources at hand to make the world into a better place, and such preaching necessarily condemns people to failure and despair. Eschatological preaching promises a “new heaven and a new earth” and invites people to participate in a coming future that, while it is not dependent upon their success, its open to the labours of their hands.”(p 125)

Second, eschatological preaching affirms that life under the providence of God has a shape, and that this shape is end-stressed; what happens in th e middle is finally defined by the end. What is true about all narratives in the small sense is true of the gospel story in the largest sense: they reverse the flow of time. Everything is read from the end backwards, and events in the middle of things take their significance not just in themselves but in how they are related to the end. One of the best Christian expressions of this is the old African American spiritual, “Nobody knows who I am until Judgment Day.” In the middle of things, the forces of history may render a verdict on people. It may deem them to be chattel slaves, cannon fodder, or stubble for gas ovens. But history in the middle of things does not get to have the last word. God’s eschatological fullness is the only truthfulness about who people really are. “Nobody knows who I am until Judgment Day.” (pg 126-127)

“Third, preaching eschatologically today means helping our people know that the eschatological and apocalyptic language of the Bible is not about predicting the future; it is primarily a way of seeing the present in the light of hope.”(pg 129)

Thomas G Long-Renowned preacher Thomas G. Long is Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He is author of numerous best-selling books including The Witness of Preaching, Hebrews, and Testimony: Talking ourselves into Being Christian.

The righteousness of God imputed

the reformersThis doctrine that we hear as part of the “grace message” of Joseph Prince has roots that go back to the Reformation. The early Reformation creeds give evidence of this. Creeds are succinct summaries of the teachings and faith of groups of Christians. The ones quoted below are from the Calvinist reformers of the Protestant movement. They express the crux of the message that generated  the great revivals of the Protestant Reformation. Study them and you will see that these reformers believed that justification…

…..is an undeserved gift of God’s grace;

…..is not just the forgiveness of sins but also the imputation of the perfect obedience and righteousness of Christ to the believer;

…..is received by faith alone apart from works of law, yet this faith is never alone but works through love;

…..cannot be separated from regeneration.

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) was written by Zacharias Ursinus, professor at the University of Heidelberg, and Caspar Olevianus the court preacher.

“Question 60: How are you right with God?

Answer:  Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments and of never having kept any of them, and even though I am still inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without my deserving it at all, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me. All I need to do is to accept this gift of God with a believing heart.”

The Belgic Confession(1561) was written by Guido de Bre`s, a Reformed Belgian preacher. Article 22 contains these statements:

“And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified “by faith alone” or by faith “apart from works” (Romans 3:28). However, we do not mean, properly speaking, that it is faith itself that justifies us – for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness. But Jesus Christ is our righteousness in making available to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place. And faith is the instrument that keeps us together with him in communion with all his benefits. When those benefits are made ours they are more than enough to absolve us of our sins.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) was written by 131 pastors and 30 laymen at Wesminster Abbey in London. It is a Puritan Calvinist creed.

XI.1 :“Those whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; ….by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.”

“Faith thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the [only instrument] of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”

This message of justification, especially the positive imputation of Christ’s righteousness and its manifold applications, have not been preached much from most Protestant pulpits. The  Pentecostals and charismatics and other evangelicals have preached being regenerated and sanctified and anointed, but not much on being justified. Even traditional denominations like the Presbyterians, Methodists,Anglicans, Lutherans have jettisoned justification, deemed as risky and with an antinomian aftertaste, in favor of a more popular taste: the “char kway teow” of user-friendly, practical sermons. My plea is for a more Reformation flavor in our pulpits, especially, the one that is at the heart of the gospel: the message of justification. This is something all churches must do if they want to have healthy disciples. We lose a great source of assurance if we do not. This is my firm conviction.

(Source:  Hoekema, Anthony A. “Saved by Grace”, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1989, p 170-172)