Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sunday Morning Costumes

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Man made doctrines like "give your best to God" are often cloaks for clerical control that compartmentalize rich and poor and sustain ethnic and class divisions, but what else should we expect from a dualistic Christianity?

With dualism, we expect to look and act differently when "religious" than while we are "in the world."

When a foundational part of western Christianity's hermeneutic is to be "called out" of the world (which is NOT what ekklesia means--it was a political assembly called together), and when we view worship as "separate from the rest of life," then there are bound to be manifestations like dressing up for church to show that you are giving your best to God.

Here is yet another inherited "doctrine" that in many places in the institutional churches is a cause of division (Rom. 16:17), perhaps because people fear an established hierarchy, and/or they have been taught that this human tradition is another factor of "faithfulness." If not in word, then certainly by example.

When and where did our modern practice originate? As we will see from James 2:1-13, it was not first century Christianity.

In Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices,

Frank Viola writes:

"Admittedly the dress has become more casual in a number of churches over the past few decades. A person dressed in denim can walk into the sanctuaries of many churches today without getting dirty looks. Yet dressing up for church is still a common practice in many churches. The practice of dressing up for church is a relatively recent phenomenon."

"It began in the late-eighteenth century with the Industrial Revolution, and it became widespread in the mid-nineteenth century. Before this time, "dressing up" for social events was known only among the very wealthy."

"With the invention of mass textile manufacturing and the development of urban society. Fine clothes became more affordable to the common people. The middle class was born, and those within it were able to emulate the envied aristocracy. For the first time, the middle class could distinguish themselves from the peasants. To demonstrate their newly improved status, they could now "dress up" for social events just like the well-to-do."

"Some groups in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries resisted this cultural trend. John Wesley wrote against wearing expensive or flashy clothing. The early Methodists so resisted the idea of dressing up for church that they turned away anyone who wore expensive clothing to their meetings. The early Baptists also condemned fine clothing, teaching that it separated the rich from the poor."

"Despite these protests, mainstream Christians began wearing fine clothes whenever they could. The growing middle class prospered, desiring bigger homes, larger church buildings, and fancier clothing. As the Victorian enculturation of the middle class grew, fancier church buildings began to draw more influential people in society."

"This all came to a head when in 1843, Horace Bushnell, an influential Congregational minister in Connecticut, published an essay called "Taste and Fashion." In it, Bushnell argued that sophistication and refinement were attributes of God and that Christians should emulate them. Thus was born the idea of dressing up for church to honor God. Church members now worshiped in elaborately decorated buildings sporting their formal clothes to honor God."

"In 1846, a Virginia Presbyterian named William Henry Foote wrote that "a church-going people are a dress loving people." This statement simply expressed the formal dress ritual that mainstream Christians had adopted when going to church. The trend was so powerful that by the 1850s, even the "formal-dress-resistant" Methodists got absorbed by it. And they, too, began wearing their Sunday best to church."

"Accordingly, as with virtually every other accepted church practice, dressing up for church is the result of Christians being influenced by their surrounding culture. Today, many Christians "suit up" for Sunday morning church without ever asking why. But now you know the story behind this mindless custom. It is purely the result of nineteenth-century middle-class efforts to become like their wealthy aristocrat contemporaries, showing off their improved status by their clothing. This effort was also helped along by Victorian notions of respectability. It has nothing to do with the Bible, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit."

James writes,
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, "You shall not murder." If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Someone may answer that we do not discriminate against the poor. They may sit anywhere in our auditorium just like the rest of us, but this misses my point.

In James' day, they met for a banquet meal and those with lesser status were expected to "stand" or "sit on the floor"--not at the table. Our modern equivalent is "dressing up for church" during the "worship hour." Those who do not are treated differently than those who do on the basis of a man-made doctrine.

So rather than "giving our best to God" by dressing up for church, it seems we have, in reality, institutionalized the division that God condemns between rich and poor. And James says that God sides with the poor. Not necessarily a good thing to be dressed up for church in that case, is it?

My hope is that we will continue to recognize more and more why we "do church" the way we do today, and speak up.

Frank Viola; George Barna. Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. Kindle Edition.

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