by Loren Seibold | 4 January 2022 |
I have a vivid memory, from when I was about five, of going with my father to the auto parts store in Jamestown. While I waited I looked down (I was close to the floor in those days) and saw rolling around near my shoe a little gold cardboard sleeve that was slipped over the porcelain part of new spark plugs to protect them in shipping.
(Irrelevant factoid for you youngsters: back then spark plugs had to be replaced frequently, so they were a major stock item in stores. Nowadays they last 100,000 miles.)
Without even thinking about it, I picked it up and slipped the little ring on my finger. It was just gold-covered cardboard, but it looked so pretty, and I remember admiring my little hand and feeling happy!
But then, disappointment! The cardboard band fell off and rolled under the display unit. I got down on the floor and tried to reach it. About then my father finished his purchase. “Why are you lying on that filthy floor?” he said. “You’re ruining your clothes. Come on, we have to go.”
Back in the car I felt sad—which may be why I still remember the event so clearly. I didn’t tell my father what I was looking for under the shelves, because I felt guilty about how happy that gold cardboard ring had made me.
Jewelry was a sin—and I had enjoyed it.
It’s still with us
People in my community of progressive and recovering Adventists sometimes are surprised when I tell them that jewelry is still an issue in parts of Adventist culture. It doesn’t cause the anxiety that it did when I was young, but some of my Adventist friends who wouldn’t openly berate another about it still don’t wear jewelry under the “weaker brother/sister” justification. Few employed by the church or their spouses wear a wedding band, though there is an Ellen White quote that would absolve them. In some conferences wedding bands are prohibited to employees and their families, and earrings or a necklace could get you fired.
And there is a larger group than you might suppose who believe that jewelry is a serious transgression that angers God. In these corners of Adventism jewelry is not just something the pious choose not to wear: it merits open criticism and even downright rejection of those who do.
The anti-jewelry brigade justifies all of this with some of the dumbest but most durable arguments we Adventists have crafted.
Both of these texts contrast an obsession with appearance with good character. But in both cases, only disapproval of jewelry has survived. Braiding one’s hair, which is also mentioned, I have never heard addressed in an Adventist sermon. Nor the part about expensive clothing. Nor will you hear these passages used to address good character without most of the sermon devoted to the proposition that wearing jewelry is de facto the sign of bad character.
One could easily make the case that the texts are about character, and the mention of jewelry is an obiter dictum. Adventists have interpreted it the other way: that the part about jewelry is binding instruction, and character is a passing remark.
Yet this makes sense, given our history: among us, outward appearance has always been more important than character. I understand why. Taking off your jewelry is a lot easier than being a good person!
But anyone who has been around our church at all knows that being jewelry-less doesn’t transform anyone into a person of lovely character, or vice versa.
Now, you and I might look at someone’s appearance and wonder about what’s in their heart; sometimes outward appearance seems the only clue we have to the inner person.
But two things to remember when that thought pops into your brain.
First, that’s not for you to judge, because only God knows a person’s heart and history. It’s better to give them the benefit of the doubt, and instead find out what they’re like by getting acquainted.
And second, to the extent these texts are about jewelry they offer, at most, advice for how you yourself can best show the world that you are a person of spiritual depth, not a qualification that you can demand of others in order for them to be allowed fellowship with Jesus.
The antitypical day of atonement
This is an Old Testament metaphor that has somehow become transmuted into a lifestyle command. Since 1844, say some of our theologians, we’ve been living in the “antitypical day of atonement.” The purpose of that day originally was to “afflict your souls” (Leviticus 16:29), which male church leaders have said means women should stop wearing jewelry. This silliness goes back to the founding of the church, though P. Gerard Damsteegt remains a modern exponent.
Please understand that the antitypical day of atonement is merely allegorical theology—it doesn’t even rise to the level of metaphor—based on an obsolescent practice of the old Jewish religion. Furthermore, the interpretation lacks biblical consistency: the text also says that people should “do no work at all” on the day of atonement, and the rabbis said the “afflict your souls” passage meant that we are to fast and have no sex either.
Damseegt and others who hold this view have held down jobs and had children, and apparently also ate from time to time. As far as I can tell, the church’s only application of this antitypical day of atonement teaching has been to afflict women who wear jewelry, and nothing else.
Ellen White, too, spoke strongly against jewelry:
Have not our sisters sufficient zeal and moral courage to place themselves without excuse upon the Bible platform? The apostle has given most explicit directions on this point: “I will therefore . . . that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.” Here the Lord, through His apostle, speaks expressly against the wearing of gold. Let those who have had experience see to it that they do not lead others astray on this point by their example. That ring encircling your finger may be very plain, but it is useless, and the wearing of it has a wrong influence upon others. (4T 630.1)
Her other big argument against jewelry is a financial one:
Do not expend one dollar of God’s money in purchasing needless articles. Your money means the salvation of souls. Then let it not be spent for gems, for gold, or precious stones. . . . (Welfare Ministry, 267.1)
There are pictures of Ellen White and her female family members wearing brooch and necklace, and though these baubles don’t appear to be “costly array,” they were concerning enough to church leaders that the printers airbrushed them out—which is, at the very least, deceptive.
Those wicked women!
Conservative Christianity is patriarchal in nature. It blamed a woman for the original sin, and continues to project onto women male sexual desire.
And jewelry is apparently seen by Adventist men as intentionally provocative.
Years ago there was a strutting peacock of a pastor in our conference who always wore exquisite suits and ties and starched white shirts with cufflinks and a tie pin, and a beautiful wrist watch. (His wife, I recall, was a plain little peahen with no makeup or hair coloring, and little to make her attractive.) He was once confronted by a matriarch who asked him why it was OK for him to wear jewelry, but she couldn’t. He pointed out that his necktie was made of cloth, not gold; that the cufflinks and tie pin were utilitarian—to hold his cuffs shut and keep his tie from flopping into his soup. And that, furthermore, the biblical prohibitions about jewelry and costly array were all directed toward women, not men. Because, you know, women are just too irresistible if we let them get dolled up, but it’s OK for men to do.
These, I needn’t tell you, are stupid arguments. But they won’t surprise most women: they’ve seen double standards before. Women have long realized that they can be blamed for men’s temptations, and this is true even in the church.
None of this is biblical!
Let’s be clear that in neither the Old Testament nor the New are most references to jewelry derogatory.
Ezekiel 16:13-14 [God says] “And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck. And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head.”
Isaiah 61:10: I will greatly rejoice in the Lord…he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
Proverbs 1:8-9: Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck.
Genesis 24:47: “Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose and the bracelets on her arms.”
James 2:2-3: For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing… have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Proverbs 25:12: Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.
Luke 15:22: “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.’”
You can find passages that talk about giving your jewelry as an offering, or removing it for periods of mourning or fasting. And as I’ve shown above, the epistles mention adornment to put the spotlight on good character.
But you cannot find a Bible passage that says jewelry is in itself a sin.
The biblical case against jewelry is purely tendentious: it is based on biased reading of the text. It is anti-woman, it is inconsistent, and to the extent that it is presented as a way of giving more money to the church, it is self-serving.
Yet the lives of those who have promoted this silly idea aren’t particularly humble. If you have ever been to Elmshaven, you will realize that Ellen White lived in what many would still consider a small mansion. Today you will see luxury cars in the parking lots of the church’s multi-million dollar office buildings. Some of these leaders live in gorgeous homes. They travel the world. Ted Wilson is known for traveling in style, and there is at least one confirmed story of his hiring his own chef so he didn’t have to eat with the rabble. There are many pictures of him enjoying extravagant welcoming ceremonies in many parts of the world.
I am not criticizing them for this. I am merely pointing out the hypocrisy of these men saying that women who wear jewelry are profligate and vain, while they themselves are growing humble characters for the coming of Jesus.
If this denomination really wants to promote simple living, then you church leaders start it. Either become plain people, like the Amish and Mennonites—or abandon this hypocrisy about jewelry.
Having undecorated wives and daughters riding in your BMW doesn’t equate to simple living.
Jewelry is simply not a valid spiritual concern. The bigger spiritual concern is the people who make minor issues divisive.
Let us consider some of the things that, biblically, fall in the realm of Christians’ spiritual responsibility. There are right now billions who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Millions more in war zones. (In Iraq alone the violent civilian deaths caused by allied warmaking number about 200,000.) Adults and children are dying of diseases, some preventable or treatable by medicines that they can’t get. As for injustice and abuse and drugs and all the rest—where to start?
And we’re still expostulating against jewelry?
We Adventists have long emphasized small compliances with rules of purely imaginary importance, above living out the fruits of the Spirit. When I was young, someone’s relative who wore earrings visited our little church in Cleveland, North Dakota. If the members’ eyes had been equipped with laser beams, her head would have exploded in the first minute and a half. That wouldn’t happen anymore, but it’s a great illustration of how much easier it is to “other” someone for their appearance than to master “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”!
Human beings enjoy looking nice, and we like pretty things—even a cardboard ring on a five-year-old’s finger. Such things are generally harmless and inconsequential, except when made an issue by the Adventist Pharisees.
When will we quit making up rules, and start being like Jesus?