In Matthew 23, Jesus warns his true spiritual followers about the hypocritical Pharisees, people who Jesus said, “do not practice what they preach” (23:3). The Pharisees and other teachers of the law publicly and with great showiness tithed their income, yet “neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (23:23). Concerning the Pharisees, Jesus told his followers, “Everything they do is done for men to see” (23:5). Jesus said the Pharisees might be clean on the outside, but inside they were “full of greed and self-indulgence” (23:25).
The Pharisees judged everyone else based on their own man-made code of conduct. This penchant for making up their own rules for spiritual behavior was so pronounced, and the Pharisees’ consequent neglect of biblical principle so profound, that Jesus said, “You blind guides! You strain at a gnat but swallow a camel” (23:24).
Straining at gnats and swallowing camels. That’s the general condition of many Christians and churches in this postmodern culture. They’re not operating with a spiritually discerning, Christian worldview. They’ve forgotten about, never understood, or rarely applied Christian liberty. In their effort to be “Not of the World,” they’ve simply become “other-worldly,” focusing on minor matters and therefore exercising very little or no earthly impact.
Insofar as Christians worry about the cultural “gnats” in their environment, they miss some of the much more spiritually threatening “camels.” For example, Christians break fellowship with other believers over the color of carpet in the church (this is not an apocryphal illustration but has really happened in many churches) or whether hymnbooks are used in the service, while local schools, universities, and zoos teach evolutionary theory unchallenged.
Christians argue and split churches over use of drums or guitars in the church, while the philosophic implications of the use of technology of any kind are largely ignored. Christians become emotionally animated to the point of anger over a young person getting a tattoo or wearing a ring in an eyebrow, while Christian moral outrage is limited at best in the face of America’s seduction by legalized commercial gambling.
Christians are good at straining at “gnats,” and like the insect, there are seemingly an unlimited number of “gnat-like issues.” But there are two “gnats” that occupy more of our attention than any others: music styles, and fads and fashions.
Music is perhaps the number one “gnat.” While music clearly offers legitimate grounds for Christian liberty debates and sanctified disagreements, music can nevertheless be another “gnat” causing us to miss more spiritually threatening “camels.”
For example, is the person who makes the following observation a cynic or a realist? Consider these words: “American Christians dispute the type of music appropriate for worship while church members gossip, lie, and generally ignore pre-marital sex and adultery between its members.” These are fairly harsh words, but honesty requires us to admit that they’re an all too accurate description of many churches. We strain at “gnats” and swallow “camels.”
Music is a cultural battleground. No other issue causes more Church division than Christian culture wars fought over music. No other issue demonstrates more clearly that Christian liberty may be the least understood and least practiced doctrine in the Bible. No other issue better illustrates (or more wrenchingly illustrates) Christians’ lack of a fully developed Christian worldview.
A Christian worldview informs us: “The world as created is an unfinished symphony. God called man, his cultural creature and co-worker, to take up the work and bring it to the fullness of that perfection which God had placed in it as promise.” Music is part of that unfinished symphony. Christians need to understand music in terms of the biblical definition of life provided by a Christian worldview.
Christian culture wars are fought over issues of near infinite variety. It seems that our ability to create our own “holy lists” knows no limit. One more of these cultural issues significantly and perennially disrupts Christian unity and therefore demands our attention: clothing fads and fashions.
Clothing styles rank near music as an obstacle in our mission to fulfill the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission. Given the amount of emotional and spiritual energy we pour into this debate, I’d have to say that clothing fads and fashions are another “gnat.”
Let me illustrate. A few years ago a nationally known preacher spoke at Cornerstone University. During that chapel message, he vigorously derided former NBA rebounding star, Dennis Rodman, for the constantly varying unnatural colors of his hairstyle. At the time there were two students attending the university who wore their hair in bright, unnatural, sometimes florescent colors. I saw them in the balcony during that chapel and wondered what was going through their minds. These were two young men who lived dedicated Christian lives, playfully enjoyed their differently colored hair, did not associate this action with unbiblical attitudes and values, and who today wear their hair in their natural colors.
During the next week’s chapels, I took what is a very rare step for our university and commented about this speaker’s diatribe. I noted the focus on Dennis Rodman’s hair. My point with the students was that from a Christian point of view the color of Mr. Rodman’s hair was the least spiritually objectionable thing about the man. His fame came more from his outrageous, degenerate behavior than from his basketball exploits. At the time, Mr. Rodman lived a highly public, in-your-face, immoral, even debauched lifestyle founded upon a worldview antithetical to the Christian faith. The color of his hair, like the blue colored hair of the elderly lady in church, simply does not mean much. It’s a “gnat.”
Fads and fashions are notoriously fickle. During these postmodern times of rapid social change, clothing and personal appearance styles come and go, or more likely are simply layered, with astonishing speed. This fact alone should make Christians proceed with a bit more caution in creating bandwagons of resistance to fads and fashions. More to the point in terms of a Christian worldview, unless fads or fashions are immodest, we need to appreciate the variety and move on to more important concerns.
“Modesty” is the key biblical principle governing clothing choices. When Adam and Eve sinned against God in the Garden of Eden and knew that they were naked, they sewed fig leaves together and covered themselves. Later after God dealt with their sin, He made garments of skin and clothed them (Genesis 3:7,21). How extensive these coverings were we do not know. We do know that regardless of the culture in which we live and whatever the clothing styles of the moment, we are to dress modestly.
Beyond modesty, the Scripture does not give us law; it gives us liberty. We are responsible to spiritually discern how to participate in fads and fashions in a manner that allows us to live in the world while being not of the world.
This text is excerpted from my book, Christian Liberty: Living for God in a Changing Culture (Baker, 2003).
© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2006
*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/rexmrogers.