The principle behind the practice

22 May

Today during the High Priest class we had an interesting discussion about dress standards and other peripheral issues at Church. I find it a bit sad that the most senior members of our ward find it more interesting to talk about white shirts, ties and moustaches than about the nature of God, the purpose of commandments, or faith. There are many members who feel that, if they see that other members are starting to dress “inappropriately” when they come to Church, the best thing we can do is give them a talk on how they should dress for Church.

White shirt and tie

Yep, that's me wearing the white shirt and tie... 12 years ago!

I told them what my opinion was: if you’re worried about the level of reverence shown by members in how they talk, dress or behave, don’t talk to them about their speech, dress or behaviour! First try to understand why you expect them to talk, dress or behave differently. Is it because you were brought up that way? Is it because you have a very strong opinion that the way you do these things is the best and most appropriate way, and that anything less or different should be corrected? If your reasons are of that type, then you are not justified in asking them to change. You have ritualised a behaviour and adopted a standard which you now expect everyone else to follow, even though you don’t have valid reasons for doing so.

After more thought (hopefully!), you may realise that we generally expect church-goers to wear and behave their best out of respect and love for God, not because there’s a strict standard set in stone somewhere by the hand of deity. Once you realise this, you can ask yourself this question: “What does it really mean when I ask someone to behave or dress differently for Church?”. Here is my answer: you are telling that person that they don’t have enough respect for God.

You’re not telling them why God is worthy of respect, and that is why you are completely missing the point.

Does God smile more favourably on the wearer of an immaculate white shirt than on the wearer of a hoody? Does He find pleasure in the ritualistic adoption of strict dress and grooming standards? If you asked a member of our congregation whether or not God is clean-shaven, they would probably say that all paintings representing God show Him as bearded, and that is also how He is portrayed in our temples. Then why would God require His saints to be clean-shaven? Why was this not a requirement 100 years ago, when all prophets and apostles wore beards? Isn’t God bound by the same eternal laws by which we are bound? Is God bound by the dress standards He imposes on us?

Conclusion: dress standards are not an eternal law, and are not imposed nor expected by God. Neither are hair grooming standards. What are they about then? Do they make any sense? What is the origin of this very widely-held stereotype that a male LDS who doesn’t wear a white shirt and tie, or who has a beard/moustache/long hair is somehow rebellious and lacks respect for God?

My experience tells me that every religion contains aspects of doctrine and aspects of culture, both of which lead to certain behaviours and practices that tend to blend together in a way that makes their origin difficult to identify. Many people believe that some cultural aspects (the product of folklore and traditions held by members) of their religion are actually doctrinal (dictated by God). As result, they view any deviance from these practices as an act of rebellion against God, something that should be punished or at least curbed. Something could be said in favour of maintaining some sort of cultural cohesion in a group that meets for 3 hours each week, and that is one possible point in favour of keeping rigid dress standards. However, it must be made absolutely clear that there is nothing inherently sinful in wearing blue instead of white or in having a full beard instead of being clean shaven.

One of the main dangers of focusing on trivialities such as beards and ties is that it distracts from the doctrine behind the behaviours (if there is one!). As Elder Boyd K. Packer taught many times:

“True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior.”

So, study and teach why God is worthy of respect, worship and adoration. Teach why you love God and feel that only your best is good enough for Him. Accept that God cares more about your direction in life than about your current situation, more about your overall progression than about your daily mistakes. Then stop comparing your clothes with you neighbour’s and try to see him/her the way God does. With compassion, with patience, with hope.

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Posted by on May 22, 2011 in 750words, Musings, Religion


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