Philip P. Eapen
“Is it right to wear jewellery?” This question – about a century-old-ban on jewellery in Pentecostal churches of Kerala origin – has been flogged to death. Discussions in Pentecostal newspapers, magazines, websites, youth camps, and conferences have never been complete without a heated debate on jewellery. These discussions have yielded precious little in terms of tangible results. These discussions neither reformed Kerala’s Pentecostal churches nor resulted in a mass exodus of dissidents to the so-called “new generation” churches. (What a pejorative way to describe the worldwide Pentecostal movement!)
Why doesn’t a discussion on the ban on jewellery yield any positive result? The answer is simple: Ask the wrong questions, and you will get the wrong answers! You will go around in circles forever.
We should for a while refrain from raising the question: “Is it right to wear jewellery?” Instead, we should ask the following questions:
It’s a recognized fact that most Pentecostal Churches of Kerala deny water baptism and the eucharist to fellow Christians who wear jewellery. There are even extremists who keep church members or visitors away from the Lord’s Table unless they are dressed in white and are clean-shaven!
After answering the above questions, we shall examine, with utmost care, biblical passages that deal with the use of jewellery.
First things first. Do Pentecostal churches of Kerala origin have a biblically sound justification for denying water baptism to a believer who wears jewellery?
Baptism and Holy Communion are ordinances in the Church that were established by the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, these are the only two ordinances recognized by Pentecostal Churches. Therefore, it is all the more important that we pay great attention to the way we administer these ordinances. An error in matters related to these ordinances is an affront to the Lord Jesus Christ and a threat to the very essence of the gospel. It can invite the wrath of God.
Water baptism is the ordinance that officially admits a repentant believer into the Body of Christ, the Church. It is the occasion of spiritual “new birth” or regeneration effected by the Holy Spirit (see John 3:5; Titus 3:5). No wonder the Jews referred to the flowing or “living” waters of baptism as the “womb of the world.”
Baptism inaugurates a Christian’s walk with Christ in the newness of life. The old sinful self is considered to be buried with Christ. The baptismal candidate rises from the water to live a new life in Christ just as Christ rose from the dead. The only set of conditions that Scripture lays down for candidates desiring baptism are genuine repentance and confession of faith in the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
A person who expresses a desire to become a Christian should be baptized at the earliest. Unless someone in the Church offers baptism, how can such a person be baptized?
The Essenes among ancient Jews used to baptize themselves every day. Jewish women baptize themselves every month. However, the apostles of Christ were commanded to baptize new believers. Even if self-immersion may be technically right, Christian baptism demands the presence of a baptizer.
If repentant sinners understand the importance of water baptism, and if a Christian refuses to baptize them, their anguish at the denial of baptism is quite understandable. Therefore, first, just by considering the pain caused, it may be said that the denial of water baptism without a valid biblical reason is an abuse of a privilege. I believe God takes notice of such abuses.
Christians who deny water baptism to new converts are like watchmen who prevent refugees from entering a city of refuge. And yet, Kerala’s Pentecostal churches have been like such wicked watchmen. For several decades, Pentecostal and Brethren churches in Kerala denied water baptism to repentant sinners just because the candidates insisted on retaining their habit of wearing jewellery or a wedding ring!
Are these churches justified in imposing such conditions?
The New Testament is exceptionally kind to those who seek membership in the Church. In the first century, hard-line Jewish Christians had insisted that Gentile converts first embrace Judaism through circumcision before they could be admitted into the church.
In his landmark verdict at the first Jerusalem Council, apostle Peter made this principle abundantly clear to everyone: no restrictions may be imposed on new converts (Gentiles) who seek entrance to the Church except the few restrictions mentioned in Acts 15: 28-29.
“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these requirements: You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or eating the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.”
New converts were asked to abstain from:
If the Holy Spirit and the early apostles felt that no greater “burden” be laid on new converts, how dare we impose another burden?
Kerala’s Pentecostal Christians are like the Judaizers of the first century who told Gentile converts: “Unless you get circumcised, you cannot be a Christian.” In other words, the Judaizers insisted that Gentiles had to become Jews before they could follow the Messiah!
Getting circumcised was just one of the first steps towards becoming a Jew. Converts to Judaism had to observe the Sabbath and all the Law of Moses. Therefore, the debate of those days wasn’t restricted to the act of circumcision. In all of Paul’s letters and in the Judaizers’ teachings, the mention of circumcision was a quick way of referring to everything associated with one’s conversion to Judaism.
The horror of it! Those Judaizers believed that Gentiles could be saved only if they first became Jews! What would be our reaction if someone said that to us today? We would vehemently oppose such a teaching.
The apostle Paul, in his epistles to the Roman and Galatian churches, responded with urgency against the Judaizers’ error. He believed that Gentiles could be a part of the Church without first becoming Jews. To prove that point, he wrote at length about the importance of faith in receiving God’s salvation. He even said that anyone who imposes Judaism on new converts is preaching a different gospel – a heretic act that deserved a curse!
“I marvel that you are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ to another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-8)
And yet, Kerala’s Pentecostal Christians commit a sin similar to that the Judaizers of the first century Church had committed! They say, “Unless you become like us and stop wearing jewellery, you cannot gain entrance into the Body of Christ; we will not baptize you.” How outrageous!
Remember, Peter’s list of restrictions to be imposed on new converts did not include a ban on jewellery or any other things that we commonly talk about. I know Pentecostal pastors who refuse to baptize new converts who sport a mustache or a beard! Are we greater than the Holy Spirit or the apostle Peter to impose new restrictions on new converts and to deny them water baptism?
I’ve heard all the excuses that Malayali Pentecostals put forward to defend their position. The most ludicrous argument goes like this: “We are following a good tradition established by our fathers.”
Tradition? Since when did tradition become a source of authority for Pentecostal Christians? Didn’t they make fun of Roman Catholics and members of other Episcopal churches for taking refuge in ‘traditions’ or in the ‘church canon?’
And there are others who say that jewellery falls under the category of idol worship which is mentioned in Peter’s list. According to them, all jewellery is rooted in idolatry. It is true that certain items of jewellery are linked to idols. We know that people wear images of their gods or goddesses on their necklaces or rings. Some jewellery is worn after the performance of idolatrous rituals. However, it is foolish to say that all jewellery is rooted in idol worship.
Finally, returning to our first question, is it right for Pentecostal Christians of Kerala origin to deny baptism to believers who wear jewellery? By all means, no! This is not only a mistake but also a sin. This denial has no biblical precedent. It distorts the simplicity of the gospel and challenges the authority of Jesus Christ. The practice of forcing on old tradition – a mere tradition – on new converts is a classic case of spiritual abuse and misuse of privilege.
Now, to the second question: Are Malayali Pentecostal Churches justified in denying baptized believers their right to fellowship at the Lord’s Table just because they wear jewellery or a wedding ring?
Consider this situation. A Pentecostal family – members of an international Pentecostal denomination in Bangalore – is visiting with you and are in your “Kerala” church. Your pastor lets the man partake in the Lord’s Table but asks the woman to stay away from it. What might be the reason for this discrimination? The woman was denied access to the Lord’s Table just because she wore jewellery! If the woman should later question the pastor about this exclusion, he might say, “This is our age-old practice, a valued tradition.”
The situation I described is not a rarity in Kerala’s Pentecostal churches. Week after week, month after month, such instances are repeated.
Preachers from overseas are loved and respected for their excellent teaching. They are also seen as birds that lay golden eggs! But when it comes to the Lord’s Table, even they are excluded. Born-again Christians who regularly partake of the Lord’s Table in their own churches abroad are denied such fellowship in Malayali Pentecostal churches. This is very similar to what happened in the early church. Let me explain.
The Apostle Paul and Peter were dining with a group of Gentile Christians in Antioch. Just then, some “staunch” Jewish Christians arrived there. In order to avoid offending these Judaizers, Peter quickly rose from the table and walked away. When he saw the Jews, he wanted them to know that he too was a strict Jew who wouldn’t eat with Gentiles. The dining table was a place that brought out the most visible and stark difference between Gentiles and Jews.
Other Jewish Christians, including Barnabas, imitated Peter and quickly distanced themselves from the Gentile brethren at the table. The Gentile Christians were suddenly lowered to the level of “untouchables” – as if they did not belong to the Body of Christ.
When Paul saw Peter’s double standards, he quickly confronted him in order to protect the “truth of the gospel” (See Galatians 2:11f).
The heart of the matter was that those Jewish Christians believed that only Jews were the “people of God.” Until and unless Gentiles had become a part of this “people of God” they couldn’t be a part of the Church. And until then, the Judaizers wouldn’t even eat with those Gentiles!
The dining table exposed their definition of the “Church.” It was made visible. Those whom they considered to be a part of the “Church” or “people of God” were allowed to eat with them and those whom they considered as aliens to the “Church” were excluded from the table fellowship.
This was nothing short of a heresy. It went against the grain of the gospel which said that God was saving Jewish sinners and Gentile sinners to create a new body called “the Church.”
This heresy also proclaimed that salvation was only for Jews. “First become a Jew and then become a member of the Church,” said those Jewish Christians to Gentiles. Don’t Pentecostal Christians of Kerala origin say something similar?
“First adopt our tradition, and then we’ll baptize you and welcome you into the Church.”
When one chooses to be a Jew (that is, to be circumcised in the case of males) he or she has to obey all the Law of Moses (See Galatians 5:3). And by choosing to be under the Law, such Gentiles reject God’s free offer of grace. They reject Jesus Christ and His work on the cross (See Galatians 5:2, 4). This was what Paul described as a “fall from grace.”
When a person falls into sin, he doesn’t fall from grace. He continues to receive God’s grace (Rom 5:20b). However, if he relies on his Jewish religious identity to find acceptance before God (instead of coming to God as a needy sinner who has nothing to boast about), he ends up rejecting God’s free grace for helpless sinners. Thus, he “falls from grace.” To reject God’s grace is to reject the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The wonderful thing about the gospel is that it creates a new body of “God’s people” called the “Church”. Ethnic identity, family history, traditions, gender and race do not determine whether one is a member of this “Body” of Christ. Anyone who believes in Jesus Christ and is baptized in water gains an official, public entry into this Body. The Holy Communion or the Lord’s Table is one definitive way in which this group of “God’s people” celebrate their relationship with Jesus and with one another.
A person who is not a member of the Church (including someone who was excommunicated) is not permitted to partake of this sacred meal. Therefore, to know who all are considered to be “in” or “out” of the Church, just watch who all are allowed to partake of the Lord’s Table!
If a person who is a genuine member of the Church is denied fellowship at the Lord’s Table, the pastors or leaders who enforce this denial are guilty of making a false judgement. It is the Lord’s Table, not their table. It is the Lord who should decide whether someone is “in” or “out” of his Church.
The Church can excommunicate a member on valid grounds. Wearing jewellery is not a valid ground for excommunication.
Do you now realize what it means to exclude someone from the Lord’s Table? It is equivalent to excommunicating a person from the Church, which is the “Body of Christ.”
Pentecostal churches of Kerala origin have virtually excommunicated almost the whole global Church from their fellowship! Any Christian who wears jewellery is considered a stranger to the Body of Christ. They have created a fenced territory within God’s larger territory and have called this small area “the Church.” They have excluded people whom God has included in His fold. How strange! How dangerous!
The passage that they read during the Communion clearly says that anyone who eats or drinks at the Lord’s Table in an unworthy manner – without discerning the Lord’s body – is eating and drinking condemnation.
What does it mean to discern the Lord’s body? It is to recognize that the bread used in the Communion is not just another piece of bread. It is to recognize that it symbolizes the body of Christ that was broken for us; it symbolizes the Body of Christ, which is the Church. When we eat it, we declare that we have fellowship with Christ and are members of His Church.
Discerning the Lord’s body also requires us to recognize a brother or sister in the Lord as part of the Church. If we misjudge a genuine member of the Lord’s Church and deny him or her communion at the Lord’s Table, we are failing to discern the extent of the Lord’s body. We fail to recognize the Lord’s body.
Pentecostal churches of Kerala origin that regularly misjudge genuine Christians and deny them access to the Lord’s Table are guilty of misjudging the Lord’s body. And therefore, these leaders and pastors are eating and drinking condemnation.
Almost all the things that Paul talks about Judaizers are applicable to these leaders and to their followers who live to please them! Look at the strong words that Paul uses to describe Judaizers:
Let me take the liberty to adapt Paul’s words to this debate (Gal 6:14-15):
As for me, God forbid that I should boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of that cross, my interest in this world died long ago, and the world’s interest in me is also long dead. It doesn’t make any difference now whether we have renounced jewellery or not. What counts is whether we really have been changed into new and different people.
By focusing on their great “sacrifice” of renouncing jewellery, these Pentecostals have shifted their attention from “boasting in the cross.” How can we boast in the “cross” if we have other things to boast about in the presence of God? Only those who do not have anything to boast about will take refuge in what Christ did for them on the cross.
Now that we have seen how serious an offence it is to deny water baptism or the Holy Communion to people just because they wear jewellery, we shall now examine whether the Bible prohibits the wearing of jewellery. Even if there is no blanket prohibition, does the Bible at least suggest that Christians should not wear jewellery?
Those who engage in lengthy debates quote several verses from the Bible. Many of these passages are not relevant at all to this discussion. Such misuse or abuse of scriptures is an indication of how shallow their commitment to the Bible is. For example, Acts 3:6 does not have anything to do with jewellery. Peter and John were just saying that they did not have any money (coins) to offer to the beggar. “Silver and gold I do not have …” Instead, they had something that would help the beggar stand on his own feet (literally!).
Similarly, the “gold or silver” mentioned in 1 Peter 1:18 refers to money. God did not redeem us by paying money as ransom as was done in those days (and even today, to secure the release of hostages).
A verse from the Parable of the Prodigal Son is widely misused for defending the use of jewellery (See Luke 15:22). It’s a parable. The mention of a father asking for a ring for his son has no instructional value for Christians today. Jesus did not say: “Go and get yourself a ring because the prodigal son was given one.” Psalm 45:9 is another example. That too is a description of Solomon’s bride and her wedding attire; it is neither an instruction nor an exhortation.
Jacob instructed his family to get rid of all idols (Genesis 35:2). One of his wives had stolen her father’s idols. Jacob wanted his entire family to get ready to worship the One true God. As a part of the preparation, he wanted them to bathe and change their clothes. His family handed over to him all their idols and earrings. Why earrings? Obviously, these too were contaminated by idolatry in some way or the other. This passage does not suggest that Jacob’s family got rid of all their jewellery. Therefore it may not be wise to use this passage to advocate renunciation of jewellery.
When Israel sinned against God at Horeb, God refused to accompany them to the Promised Land.
“And when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned: and no man did put on him his ornaments. For the LORD had said unto Moses, Say unto the children of Israel, Ye are a stiff-necked people: I will come up into the midst of thee in a moment, and consume thee: therefore now put off thy ornaments from thee, that I may know what to do unto thee. And the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments by the mount Horeb.” - Exodus 33:4-6
The dominant themes in this passage are God’s wrath and Israel’s sorrow. Israel expressed their sorrow in a certain way—and no man did put on him his ornaments. God had commanded them to put off their ornaments so that He “may know what to do” with them. This was a temporary renunciation of ornaments. Israel wasn’t reluctant to put away their ornaments . Their outward obedience was matched their state of mind. Israel mourned. Putting away their ornaments was the proper thing to do at such a time as that. That’s the key to understanding God’s command to them. God’s fury was met with Israel’s penitence. God command was not about a mere outward observance. It was a mandate to repent, to be sorrowful, to be heart-broken about their sins. Their period of mourning must last a long while. They wanted God to forgive their idolatry and to go ahead of them in their journey to Canaan.
Let me turn to the verses that have some bearing on the church today. The first of these is 1 Timothy 2:8ff which demands a certain kind of behavior from men and women.
Men are supposed to avoid all anger and quarreling in order to be able to pray in a way acceptable to God. Women should not strive to draw attention to themselves through outward decorations such as exotic hair arrangements (braids), gold jewellery, pearls or expensive clothes.
Likewise, also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works (1 Tim 2:9, 10 ESV. Emphasis mine)
This passage is about how a godly woman should adorn herself. A godly woman’s focus is on doing good works that benefit her family and society. She does not find it worthwhile to spend her resources on costly external adornments. The key question here is, "Where should I invest my resources? The most expensive jewellery or clothes? Or, on philanthropy? The choice is easy for godly Christian men and women. Christian women (and men) ought to decorate themselves with good works. Strange enough, we do not hear much about this aspect in Kerala. Women do not receive much encouragement to do anything let alone good works. The negative is emphasized and stretched beyond its dimensions while the positive is left out!
The apostle’s prohibition of “gold,” “pearls” and “expensive clothes” is noteworthy. There is no reason why this should apply only to women! Moreover, this list of prohibited external adornments is certainly not an exhaustive one. At the time this passage was written, that is, in the first century, people wore jewellery made of several materials – gold, silver, wood, animal bones including ivory, precious stones, pearls, etc. Of these, the costliest must have been jewellery made of gold or pearls. What do we tell a Christian, who after reading this verse, asks, “Can I then buy diamonds or platinum jewellery?” Clearly, such a person has missed Paul’s point.
Paul’s command to Christian women to “make themselves attractive by the good things they do” does not mean that godly women should remain outwardly unattractive. All godly people must bring glory to God by their personal cleanliness and tasteful appearance. Dressing “up” for the glory of God is a sacred duty. Dressing “down” is certainly not a mark of godliness. In India, the land of many religions that glorify asceticism, it is easy to be caught up by teachings that glorify the practice of religious “dressing down.”
The above passage (1 Tim 2:9-10) does not mean that a woman (or a man) should leave her hair in a disheveled state. They have to fix their hair in a way that is suited to them. Paul does not prescribe a particular style or hairdo for Christian women. Except for the fact that he forbids braids, he gives Christian women the freedom to decide the details! Indeed, the apostle forbade braids! It’s interesting to note how many Christian women ignore this plain and simple instruction.
Similarly, the restriction on “gold or pearls” is not a ban on jewellery just as the restriction on “costly attire” is not a ban on clothes! Unfortunately, most Pentecostal Christians of Kerala origin are unable to differentiate between gold and jewellery. They are unable to think of jewellery other than what is made of gold. Christians in Kerala can be counter-cultural by avoiding expensive jewellery. At the same time, for the best interest of the Gthey can integrate better in their society if they will choose to wear at least some inexpensive jewellery.
It should be noted that what is considered “expensive clothes” may be a matter of subjective evaluation. An item of clothing that is expensive and luxurious for an ordinary person may be a necessity for another. Besides, the cost of clothing is not the initial amount we spend. The actual cost of clothes we wear is the amount spent on it divided by the number of times we wear it. Thus, a cheap shirt that lasted just for three months is more expensive than a costlier shirt that lasts for five years. Similarly, an expensive wedding outfit that’s worn just once works out to be very expensive.
The Bible does not prohibit the use of jewellery. The use of jewellery is not a valid ground for the denial of baptism or for the exclusion of Christians from the Lord’s Table. People who, on account of jewellery, deny water baptism to repentant believers or exclude genuine believers from the Lord’s Table are guilty of desecrating the Church’s ordinances. They abuse their authority.
The Bible exhorts godly men to shun arguments and fights. At the same time, the Bible exhorts godly women to be modest – in clothing, jewellery and hair arrangement. They should not strive to get undue attention from others by going for the most expensive clothes or expensive jewellery. Godly women must focus on decorating themselves with good works of charity and in cultivating a gentle and quite spirit.
Philip Eapen, an environmental scientist by training, devoted his life to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ ever since he realized that the world needs Jesus Christ more than anyone or anything else. Apart from sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, Philip teaches Christians in order to equip them for service. He is supported by donations from readers; he also runs a small ‘tent-making’ business. Philip is married to Dr. Jessimol and they are blessed with three sons and a daughter.
Date: April 1, 2010
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