A Conversation on Dress

W. J. Hocking.

MARY: A young believer who desires to please the Lord in all things.

JANE: A young believer who sees no harm in following the latest fashions.

MR. GRIM: An elderly Christian who has very, very decided opinions upon dress.

MR. P.: An elderly Christian who is applied to for advice.

Mary: Good evening, Mr. P., we have come in to talk with you on a little matter which I find very puzzling. I hope you will not think it too slight to claim your attention.

Mr. P.: I do not think I shall. Indeed, the little things in a Christian's life are often of great importance. Little foxes, you know, can spoil the vines, for the grapes are tender (Song of Solomon 2:15). Therefore if we, abiding in the Vine (John 15), wish to bring forth fruit, let us beware of anything, however small it may be, which will in any wise mar our testimony for Christ.

Mary: Since the Lord in His mercy brought me to Himself and made me His own, my earnest desire is to live for Him and to do everything to please Him. And now, I just wish to ask you whether you think it makes any difference how I dress. Jane thinks it does not; but Mr. Grim says he is surprised that a child of God should give even a single thought to such a worldly subject as “dress.” For myself, I know not what to think; but I should be very glad if you could help me from Scripture.

Mr. P.: Since the word of God is a light to our path, it certainly is the place to go to, and we will seek its guidance. But what does Jane say?

Jane: I think it is a very trifling matter to talk about. What does it matter about one's dress? God looks at the heart not at the dress. I should like to know whether people will be any safer for heaven because they dress like dowdies.

Mr. P.: Don't be so sure, dear Jane, that it is a mere trifle. That which seems so insignificant and unimportant to you may have very great influence for evil over another. Supposing now your fantastic dress was a means of stumbling to a fellow-believer or a hindrance to an unbeliever's conversion, would it be a trifle then?

Jane: If people did not look at their neighbours so much they would not stumble so often. Besides, it concerns nobody but myself how I dress.

Mr. P.: Softly, dear Jane, that sounds too much like what Cain said after he had killed his brother, “Am I my brother's keeper?” You or I cannot help others looking at us; and whether we wish it or not we have an influence, for good or for evil, over those around us. By the power of God believers have been made one in Christ; not only children of the same family, but in closer bonds even than that members of the same body (1 Cor. 12:25-27). On this account we have that weighty warning in 1 Cor. 8:9-12, “Take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to them that are weak. For if any man see thee, who hast knowledge, sit at meat in the idol's temple, shall not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; and through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish for whom Christ died? But when ye sin so against the brethren and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.” Now this “sin against Christ” was all about a “trivial matter” as to whether a Christian should or should not eat meat that had been offered to idols. To those who saw that the meat was none the worse for being thus offered, and that they themselves were made neither better nor worse by eating it (1 Cor. 8:8), to those, I say, it truly seemed a trifling thing; but to the weak ones, eating such things seemed a very serious matter — a most heinous sin. The apostle's counsel here is of extreme importance. The strong ones were to look at the matter, not from their own standpoint, but from that of the weak ones (Rom. 15:1). That which was so trifling in itself becomes of the utmost importance because of the weak brethren. And if any despised this way of looking at it and spoke, as you have spoken, Jane, the apostle says, “Why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (Rom. 14:10). And from this we learn that we have to give an account to God as to whether, even in trifling things, we have been stumbling blocks to weak ones for whom Christ died. How solemn this is!

Jane: I quite see the truth of what you say in some things, Mr. P. Of course, a Christian going to balls, theatres, and music halls, would no doubt stumble many, and lead them into dreadful sin; but I fail to see that a fine dress will stumble any one.

Mr. P.: But supposing, Jane, a weak-minded Christian were to follow you in your love of dress; and she were surrounded at home by those who were fond of balls and theatres and were trying to lead this weak one astray. Satan would at once tell her there was no more harm in sharing the amusements of the world than in dressing like the world. She, in a feeble moment, yields to the temptation; and then, slipping from little sins to great ones, she at last becomes a moral wreck. But who is to blame for the first step?
Again, even supposing your concern about dress does not come between your own soul and Christ (as it is sure to do), you may easily become instrumental in destroying the communion of a weak believer. For each one who can walk in safety on the verge of a precipitous cliff, there are twenty, or more, who would turn giddy and fall over. Therefore, for the sake of others, let the one with iron nerves keep away from the edge of the cliffs. Christians should be like lighthouses, warning of danger, not like Will-o'-the-Wisps, luring the unwary into marshy and miry places. You see, Jane, we are told “to consider one another.” So we should try to draw one another closer to Christ and not to put so much as a hair between another's soul and Him.

Mary: I am very much afraid dress will be a snare to me in the way you speak of; for when I am about to have anything new, I get quite excited. I lie awake hours at night, thinking what colour it shall be, how it shall be made, and so on. I forget to read my chapter, hurry over my prayers, lose my temper and everything seems to go wrong. I know it ought not to be so. I remember when I was converted, my father, who is not a Christian, said very sneeringly he was glad I had turned “pious,” for he should not have to buy so many new dresses for me.

Mr. Grim: That just shows that even the world does not expect to see Christians dressed up like dolls. It is only consistent if we have given up the world to let it be seen in our dress. We shouldn't be going about with Christ in our hearts and the world on our backs.

Mr. P.: Quite true: but the question is how we shall let the world see that we are delivered from it.

Mr. Grim: That is simple enough: wear things different from the world.

Mr. P.: But I am afraid, Mr. Grim, that the person who is occupied in dressing differently from the world is thinking as much about dress as the person who is engrossed with following its fashions. Christ has to take a secondary place in both hearts; whereas we are all agreed, I am sure, He should have the first place.
There can be no doubt whatever that gay and gaudy apparel indicates pride of heart and a desire to attract looks of admiration from people around. We have an instance in Isaiah 3:16, etc. There Jehovah speaks very severely to the daughters of Zion, who were walking with stretched-forth necks and wanton eyes, mincing as they went, and making a tinkling with their feet. They desired others to take notice of their chains and bracelets, rings and nose-jewels, their bonnets and mantles, hoods and veils. All this showed plainly enough that their hearts were as empty of the fear of the Lord as their heads were of a due sense of womanly propriety; and therefore the Lord warns them that He will assuredly judge them for their worldly ways. This is one side. And, wrong as this side is, those that rush into the other extreme are none the less wrong. The Pharisees, when they fasted, put ashes on their head, dirtied and disfigured their faces, looking unutterably sad; but only that they might appear to men to fast (Matt. 6.) They made broad their phylacteries and enlarged the fringes of their garments for a similar reason (Matt. 23:5). Hypocrites as they were, they dressed only for human eyes; and, in spite of the apparent humility of their garb, their hearts were full of pride. Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who continually wore filthy sackcloth upon his flesh, is well known to have been the proudest and most overbearing man of his time. So also the “Friend” in his suit of sober grey, and the “Salvation” lassie in her poke-bonnet, may, after all, be as proud as a West-end belle in her diamonds and lace. Dress, we must remember, is only the external thing; and unless the heart is right, all else is wrong.

Jane: I am glad to see, my dear Mr. P., you agree with me that dress is a matter of very little importance.

Mr. P: Nay, nay, Jane, I said not that; indeed I think otherwise. My desire is that we may look at the subject from the proper point of view.
To every Christian there is an inside as well as an outside; and an outside as well as an inside. And we should strive to make our outside (that is, our words, actions and appearance) agree with our inside (that is, our hearts and motives), and both to be according to the will of God. We can never deceive God; but we may our fellow-man, since he judges what we are inside from what he sees outside. Now the believer that has Christ inside and the world outside, is certainly false and unfaithful; while the one that puts on a Christian appearance outwardly and has unholy motives within is nothing less than a canting hypocrite.

Mary: Oh! Mr. P., I am afraid I often appear very different from what I really am. I hope I am not what you say.

Mr. P.: I speak more particularly of those whose general manner of life is such. The Christian whose deep desire is to please Christ cannot be said to be a hypocrite, even though he should fail at times. Very few of us, alas! walk worthy of the vocation wherewith we are called. However, let each strive to be more pure and consistent in future.
Now, in turning to the word of God, we shall not find it to be a mere fashion book, laying down rules as to the cut of our garments; but, better than that, it gives us broad and general principles, which, if we are willing to learn and to obey, will guide us plainly enough in the matter before us. Take that very comprehensive verse (1 Cor. 10:31), “Whether, therefore, ye eat or drink or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God”; and again, “Whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17). Here, in the first of these passages, we have what should be the object of each action, viz., “the glory of God; and, in the second, what should be the character of each action, viz., “done in the name of the Lord Jesus.”

Mary: What does “in the name of the Lord Jesus” mean?

Mr. P.: It means that we should ever bear in mind that here on earth we are acting for the Lord Jesus; and all that we do is to be done just as He would do it if He were here Himself. When the disciples cast out devils in the name of Jesus, the effect was as if He had done it Himself. So a Christian should perform everything, even in the matter of dress, as He would Himself.

Mary: Do we know what sort of garments the Lord Jesus wore when on earth?

Mr. Grim: We know He was not clad in purple and scarlet, except when the soldiers did so in mockery.

Jane: But we know He was not in rags, else the four soldiers at the crucifixion would not have troubled to have divided His raiment among them.

Mr. P.: There is little doubt that our blessed Lord wore the ordinary garb of the time. We cannot suppose He dressed to render Himself conspicuous by any oddity in His attire. Still we are nowhere told the manner of His dress. If it were known it would probably become the ruling fashion of the so-called religious world, and people would be flocking to their tailors to be converted into disciples of the Lord Jesus.
To return, however: before we can act “in the name of the Lord Jesus” and to “the glory of God,” we must understand the place God has given us in Christ. Else we may mistake God's will like Saul of Tarsus, who thought to do God service by persecuting His church.

Mr. Grim: If Mary only understood that, according to Scripture, she is dead, there would be an end to all this chatter. You do not deck out a corpse.

Mr. P.: Will Mr. Grim show to us from the word that Christians are said to be dead?

Mr. Grim: There are a number of passages: “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Rom. 6:2). “Buried with Him by baptism into death” (Rom. 6:4). “Our old man is crucified with Him (Rom. 6:6). “Dead with Christ (Rom. 6:8). “Dead indeed to sin” (Rom. 6:11). “Dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world” (Col. 2:20). “Ye are dead” (Col. 3:3). “Dead to sins” (1 Peter 2:24). “Being made conformable to His death (Phil. 3:10). “I am crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20).

Mary: Do these passages really teach that I am a dead person?

Mr. P.: They teach a most blessed fact and it is this, viz., that whereas you, a sinner in your sins, were living under the just judgment of God, Christ Jesus in wondrous grace at the cross took your place and bore the sentence of death, curse and condemnation in Himself. Now God reckons you to have died with Christ and to have been buried with Him: so that there is no longer such a one as Mary the sinner. She is dead; and in her stead is Mary the saint “a new creature in Christ Jesus.” Thus the truth of God's word is that the “old man” that used to enjoy the things of sin and the world is now dead in God's sight. Therefore Mr. Grim is quite right in saying that you are dead, as far as the world and sin are concerned; but he has not stated all the truth. We are to yield ourselves to God as those that are alive from the dead (Rom. 6:13). We are to reckon ourselves to be indeed dead to sin but alive also to God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:11). We, being dead to sins, should live to righteousness (1 Peter 2:24). Therefore I should not only know that I am dead, but that I am also alive from the dead to walk “in newness of life.” So our question should be not so much what sort of dress suits a dead body but what suits one that is alive to God. As it also says in Col. 3:1-2, “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above where Christ sits on the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.” Thus, belonging now to an entirely new state of things, I must make everything to be consistent with the resurrection-place I occupy in Christ. I shall then be governed by heavenly motives which will be altogether different from those which govern the world. For instance, every child of God should certainly be dead to such vain thoughts as the poet has ascribed to the worldling:
“Long long the fair one labours at the glass,
And having tired, calls in auxiliar skill
To have her sails, before she goes abroad,
Full spread and nicely set to catch the gale of praise.”

Mary: Then it is because I am “risen with Christ” that I am to do all “in the name of the Lord Jesus” and to “the glory of God.”

Mr. P.: Certainly; God has given us a heavenly position in Christ (Eph. 1, 2), associating us with Christ where He now is (for “as He is, so are we in this world.” 1 John 4:17), and teaching us to hope for future heavenly glory and to expect a path of persecution and ill-favour from the world down here. And unless we live according to this position, we cannot be living to the “glory of God.” If our ways are not heavenly they cannot be “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” If you saw a young man of twenty years or more continually nursing and playing with a doll, have you not a right to suppose him to be lacking in wisdom proper to his age? And if you see Christians, who have been made partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), of the heavenly calling (Heb. 3:1) and of an inheritance incorruptible (1 Peter 1:4), all agog after the follies and fashions of the day, you have a right to suppose them guilty of the gravest inconsistency. They are leaving the fatted calf for the husks that the swine do eat. When we see children gathered round a confectioner's window we naturally suppose that sweets have an extraordinary interest for them And when we see children of God spending their time and their money in looking after and obtaining laces, ribbons and jewellery, we at once conclude, not without reason, that these things occupy a great place in their hearts.

Jane: But we are bound to think of dress and such things a little.

Mr. P.: Just so; but the point is — what is your object in dress? Is it to please yourself? Is it to please others? Is it to please Christ?

Mary: I can see now that our motive should be to please the Lord and to live according to the peculiar character of the position we occupy as being no longer of the world. And I certainly must learn to ask myself the question — Am I dressing to please myself or my Lord? Is my heart set on the vanities, of life like the world, or am I testifying to my heavenly position in Christ? But are there no Scriptures which give us plain direction on this subject?

Mr. Grim: Oh, yes; only many Christians contrive to overlook them. They speak too plainly for most people. In 1 Tim. 2:9-10, it says, “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broidered hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becomes women professing godliness) with good works.” And in 1 Peter 3:3-4, “Whose adorning, let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit which is in the sight of God of great price.”

Mr. P.: The principle taught in these verses is very beautiful as well as helpful. Women are to be seen in modest apparel. This is certainly opposed to tawdriness and finery. The believer's dress should never bring into prominence either by its oddity or by its gaiety. As to gold and pearls, they are but seldom necessary articles of wear, and are mostly worn to attract attention or to set off the person. Costly array supposes that the same end is in view. Therefore these things should never characterise a Christian. In short, dress should ever be reckoned a necessity not an object of life. And just as gluttony and drunkenness are sinful abuses of eating and drinking, so vanity of dress is a sinful abuse of that which is necessary for decency and propriety.

Mary: Do these Scriptures teach us that it is wrong to plait the hair?

Mr. Grim: You see what it says “not with broidered hair” “not plaiting the hair.”

Mr. P.: If we read the whole verse we see it says that women are not to adorn themselves with broidered hair but with good works. They are to be known to others, not by their ornaments, but by their deeds of loving service; not by beauty of hair or dress but by beauty of moral character. In short, the verse strongly condemns the fantastic cutting and curling and twisting and plaiting for ornament's sake. Of course there is a plaiting for convenience as well as for ornament. You will remember it is specially recorded that Absalom had long and beautiful hair, of which he was so proud as to have it cut and weighed once every year. But the Spirit of God also records that this young man's hair proved his ruin; for by it he was hung in the branches of an oak. But while long hair was a shame to Absalom, we are told it is a glory to women (1 Cor. 11:15). Surely this passage is overlooked by those who mutilate their hair after the fashion of the day, thus changing their glory into their shame.

Mr. Grim: I can't say much for their self-respect much less for their consistency.

Mr. P.: We will not judge young people too harshly, Mr. Grim. The old ones, who ought to know better, deserve severe speech. But let us remember that the young are young. They have had but little experience, and often they fall into these ways quite innocently. So we can forgive them a great deal. Let us therefore be patient and gentle in endeavouring to show them their folly; for you and I may have made these, or worse, mistakes ourselves.
However, I would just like to say to Jane and Mary — speaking as a father would to his children — do seek to cultivate a real, true, womanly spirit. The Scriptures have given us some of its characteristics — modesty, shamefacedness, sobriety, and the meek and quiet spirit. These are ornaments beyond all price. Alas! these beautiful flowers are very rare to-day. The hot, dusty, foetid atmosphere of busy life in the twentieth century has a most blighting, withering influence upon them. They flourish best in the pure, balmy breezes of God's presence. But you may be sure they suit a Christian a deal better than anything the milliner can produce. Depend upon it the words in Timothy and Peter are not given by the Holy Ghost in connection with dress and appearance unless it is for our careful consideration; so that we may, in the liberty of God's dear children and in the light of His own word, serve Him and adorn His doctrine in all things.

Jane: I wish my brother Sam had been here to-night. I know he thinks quite as much about dress as I do. But you seem to have the idea that it is only the “poor sisters” who fail in this. Why, he often asks me, even in the meeting, if his tie is straight.

Mr. P.: If vanity is unseemly in a woman, it is exceedingly more so in a man; for, being of stronger mind, it is the less expected that he should be taken up with foppery. Of course all we have said tonight applies as much to your brother Sam as to you. And I hope you will faithfully repeat to him what has been said. I must, however, say also that he seems to have a very poor sense of the Lord's presence in the meeting.

Mary: I should like to ask another question, Mr. P. Is it wrong to wear nosegays? I was told once we must not; since they are things of nature?

Mr. Grim: Of course not: are we not dead to nature?

Mr. P.: I do not think it says so in the word anywhere. We are dead to sin, dead to law, and dead (crucified) to the world, but I do not recollect the expression “dead to nature.” We can enjoy the works of God around us, and admire the display of His Almighty handiwork without having our hearts set upon such things. Can we not enjoy our dinner without thinking about it all day previously? It certainly is wrong to have our minds centred on the creation around us to the exclusion of Christ and those spiritual and eternal things that are not seen; but still there is no need to close up our eyes and to refuse to see the beauties of creation.

Jane: Then you don't think it wrong to wear buttonholes, Mr. P.?

Mr. P.: I do not think it is a question of harm; but, like the subject of dress we have been considering, it is a question of motive and consistency. To be always raising the question — “Is it right or is it wrong?” though it may be useful occasionally, is to be like the Jews of old who were ever quarrelling as to how much of their hands and arms they should wash before meals.
We have to serve Christ, not in letter but in spirit. Now you are asking about wearing flowers. Let me ask you what difference there is between wearing a cabbage rose, a massive gold chain, or a dress with all the colours of the rainbow? Christ should be seen in the Christian; but these things lead people to look at the person himself or herself. If you put a peony in your buttonhole you surely cannot see it and admire it yourself, so it must be there, “asking alms of public gaze.”

Jane: Well, if it is wrong to wear flowers it must be wrong to cultivate flowers, and we ought to be able to know Christians by their weedy gardens.

Mr. P.: A Christian, who spends all his spare time in his garden cultivating flowers, is certainly not doing God's will. For whether we desire it or no we are Christ's bond-slaves (1 Cor. 7:22); and in this hobby he is pleasing himself and not serving Christ. What would you think of a servant who sits down in the middle of her work, reading novels, and when her mistress asks her why the floor is not swept and the dishes washed, she says she has had no time; she has been busy reading, which she likes best. Her mistress would scarcely recommend her as the best of servants. Yet many Christians are fonder of serving themselves than of serving God. They give all their time to their hobbies and none to the service of Christ.

Mary: Then shouldn't we grow flowers?

Mr. P.: We cannot lay down rules for one another. It depends whether you have to neglect the things of God by so doing. There are plenty of cases where work in the garden is a pleasant and healthful recreation, and perhaps even necessary for the body.
Still, Jane, I think you can see for yourself, without any more words of mine, that there is a great difference between flowers in a garden, or on a table, and flowers on the person. And before you wear one again, just ask yourself not “Is there any harm in this?” — but, “Will this be for the Lord's glory?”

Mary: I have to thank you, Mr. P., very much for your kind help. I see the subject in quite a different light now.

Mr. P.: Before we separate I will read one passage of God's word which will speak for itself.
“Be not anxious … for your body what ye shall put on… Is not the body more than raiment Why are ye anxious concerning raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say to you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God doth so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall He not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Be not therefore anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek); for your Heavenly Father knows that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you” (Matt. 6:25-33, R.V.).