Beards: The One Way You’re Not Allowed to be Like Jesus

Confused Beards

It sounds odd to say there is a Holiness standard that Holiness ministers will agree has no biblical basis, but there is.  It’s the rule against facial hair. Back when I asked questions as a teenager, I was told that men aren’t allowed to grow facial hair so they won’t be confused with the hippie movement. The hippie movement – wasn’t that something in my history book from nearly 60 years ago? And didn’t the hippie women wear long flowing skirts? I was told such skirts are godly. The oddest thing of all is, biblical basis or not, the tradition is still enforced.  Preaching in the pulpit, singing in the choir, taking up the offering, or even playing an instrument, are all denied only over facial hair. Anyone who “really gets saved” is expected to shave, while growing facial hair out signifies backsliding.  Facial hair is a litmus test of spirituality; a litmus test that Jesus would have failed. Perhaps it’s high time we evaluate this tradition in light of scripture, rather than dividing the Church over opinion.

-Natalie 

The only independent Holiness writers that I [Nathan] have read are intellectually honest enough not to condemn beards outright, though they caution against them and their alleged pitfalls. The seemingly most hip way to say this is “I would never have a beard, but they are not necessarily sin.” This assumes that beards are fraught with special traps, but acknowledges that there isn’t a shred of Biblical evidence to oppose them. I found a popular Apostolic writer named Martyn Ballestero, who expressed the stronger version of the belief this way. In his words:

“If you are not wearing it out of compromise, rebellion, or from a backslidden state, and you are wearing it just because you think it looks good on you, then would you say it is pride issue with you?

Does Your Facial Hair Tell Others That You Have A Flaming Pride Issue?

If you don’t think pride is involved in wearing of facial hair, just try to preach it off of those who have it. Every wearer I’ve met is fiercely defensive.”

Hopefully, you see some issues with those statements. If not, keep reading.

What does the Bible say about beards?

Old Testament Precedent

Beards were common: The Bible specifically mentions that David (1 Samuel 21:14), Aaron (Psalm 133:2), Ezekiel (Ezekiel 5:1), and Ezra (Ezra 9:3) had beards (among others). Interestingly, Joseph followed the custom of the Egyptians of shaving (Genesis 41:14), and is not condemned for it. Joseph participated in the culture of his day in a way that did not disobey God’s commands (Joseph obviously lived in pre-Mosaic times).

Beards were well maintained and trimmed: In Leviticus 19:27 (and again in Lev. 21:5) the Mosaic law forbids certain styles of beards: “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.” Given the context, this was likely a reference to the pagan styles of the day, which were associated with idolatry.

Cannanite

A Canaanite beard style with trimmed corners

Notably, this prohibition on shaping the edges of beards didn’t prevent devout Jews from trimming the length. In 2 Samuel 19:24, the Bible clearly records that trimming beards was normal and considered good hygiene, “And Mephibosheth the son of Saul came down to meet the king, and had neither dressed his feet, nor trimmed his beard, nor washed his clothes, from the day the king departed until the day he came again in peace.”

Removing beards was explicitly allowed under particular circumstances: The Old Testament law didn’t explicitly require having a beard, and sometimes prescribed instances where they were or should be removed. In Leviticus 14:9 shaving a beard is required to prove that you are recovered from leprosy. Jeremiah records that shaven beards were a sign of mourning (Jer. 48:37) and Ezra pulls his out in shock (Ezra 9:3).

Lacking a beard was considered shameful: In 2 Samuel 10:3-5, the Bible tells of messengers who were humiliated by having half of their beards shaven. David’s prescription for their “great shame” was to take them out of action until their beards could regrow.

New Testament Evidence

Did Jesus have a beard? The answer lies somewhere between “almost certainly” to beyond a doubt.

In Isaiah 50:6, Isaiah tells the story of a captive who was slapped and whose beard was plucked out.“I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting.” Many scholars think this prophecy is Messianic, though the passage doesn’t say that explicitly. If the passage is Messianic, then Jesus certainly had a beard. If it isn’t, the Bible doesn’t say.

As a Jewish man, in light of all the Old Testament evidence he probably would have had a beard, but it depends on the degree to which the Greco-Roman culture (of being clean shaven) had influenced Jewish practice at that point.

Images of a bearded Jesus show up as early as the 300’s to 400’s. The earliest 2 or 3 depictions of Jesus, starting in 235 AD, show him as beardless. However, some of these pictures were of him as a youth and some were showing him attired as was the custom of the time and place of the artist, not necessarily attired as a Jewish man from 200 years prior.

800px Christ Healing the Paralytic Dura Europos circa 232

Christ Healing the Paralytic, Syria, circa 235 A.D.

What did the disciples think about beards?

The earliest depictions of the Apostles do show them with beards, and many others thereafter. Paul is pictured with a  pointed beard in the style of the Turks, which makes sense given his heritage from Tarsus, Turkey. Beards are never mentioned explicitly in the New Testament.

Beards: The One Way You're Not Allowed to be Like Jesus

The earliest depiction of the Apostle Paul

Clearly, New Testament writers did not think facial hair was a problem, because it existed in their day, and they never addressed it. For that matter, they spent almost no time addressing physical appearance and almost all of their time addressing matters of the heart or conduct towards others. 

Pride and Laziness – the contradictory assault on beards

Arguments against beards generally fall into two buckets. These arguments are defended rather half-heartedly in the Holiness blog “Answers in Holiness” by Rev. Jeremy Spurlock. As noted, he acknowledges that one can’t call beards sin, per se, but still makes many of the same remarks about them as the Apostolic writer mentioned in the introduction. He seems to say that beards aren’t the problem, but they are almost certainly the fruit born out of a rebellious heart. In his words:

“There is a trend to cast off the former “traditions” of the holiness church, and to embrace a more relaxed, casual, sloppy attitude in God’s presence.

If the motive of a young man for wearing facial hair stems from an attitude problem, or rebellion – then facial hair is just a little bit of the fruit that is growing on the tree? The root of the problem is a definitely a heart issue!”

It’s actually rather amusing, because opponents of beards call them either “unkempt” or “prideful” to cover all possible versions. If your beard looks bad, it is a sign you are apathetic. If it looks good, it is a sign you are prideful. Rebellion is a related idea to both, with the same responses, so I’ll address that concurrently. Only lacking a beard is considered evidence that you both look respectable, yet are not concerned with your own appearance.

The better question is not, “is a beard prideful,” but rather, “is a beard inherently prideful?” Everything can be prideful if your heart is in the wrong place. I’ve heard people talk about the regularity of their church attendance with evident pride. They have a heart problem, but church attendance is not inherently prideful. On the other hand, publishing a book about why you’re the greatest person in your generation is inherently indicative of pride. While not all actions will fall neatly into one pile or the other, we should be able to make a reasonable determination of where on the spectrum beards fall lie.

Is a beard inherently “unkempt” or “sloppy?”

In Biblical times, the idea that a beard was inherently sloven can be dismissed out of hand. We know from Scriptures cited above that men trimmed their beards and that to be without one was thought a great shame. Throughout most of the past 2,000 years, a large percentage of regular men wore beards. There are exceptional cultures and trends, but beards were normal for most of history. Clearly, beards have not been thought to be inherently sloppy in times past.

Is the beard inherently “sloppy” in the modern era? Perhaps one that isn’t maintained at all smacks of laziness, just like if a man were to never wash, comb, or trim his hair. However, although the hippies of the 60’s did often sport such unkempt beards, that is not the trend with modern facial hair. I did a quick Google image search for “beard” and saw that of the first 50 or so results, all were of trimmed beards, not the ones in the hippie style. Until I got to this one, which I will allow you to judge:

Absurd Beard

You would have to admit that there is a lot of maintenance going on here.

One argument that is occasionally bandied about is that the US military regulations exemplify that being clean-shaven is more refined and professional in modern times. As someone who spent nine years in the Army, I can say that while that belief is held by some in uniform, it is hardly universal among those who serve. In fact, growing a beard for some period of time after leaving the military is considered something of a rite of passage. Furthermore, well-groomed facial hair is allowed by many other militaries around the world and mustaches are allowed in the US military. The primary reason why the US military forbade facial hair in the first place was so that gas masks can seal to the face properly – this is hardly a broadly applicable cultural principle.

Outside of the military, it is increasingly difficult to make the argument that a well-maintained beard is unacceptable in the professional world. Beards have risen and fallen in popularity many times over the last 200 years, but currently, they seem to be re-surging. Many top corporate executives have adopted the beard, such as the late Steve Jobs of Apple and Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin. While I only counted seven of the world’s top 100 CEO’s with facial hair, by comparison, how many top CEO’s have face tattoos or nose rings?  None, because those things are actually considered unprofessional.

I don’t see any compelling reasons to believe that a beard makes one inherently “sloppy” looking.

Is a beard inherently “prideful?”

I should point out that trimming the edges of a beard into a clean shape is the opposite of being “sloppy.” Trimming beards was the norm in the Old Testament, though they would have trimmed the length and not shaped the corners. For many men who don’t grow facial hair evenly in a perfect beard range, shaping the edges is essential if you want to have a beard and not look unkempt.

Do men express pride through their beards? Some do, certainly. And the exact same men no doubt express pride through their hair. Does it follow that all men should shave their heads? No. It does not. The inference by Ballestero is that if you like the look of something, it must be prideful to wear it. The logical deduction is that we ought not wear anything we like the look of. Which leads you to this little brain teaser. For most of my life, I have been clean shaven, with the exception of one short period in which I experimented with growing a beard. I wasn’t a big fan of the look, and I think I look better without it. If I think I look better without a beard, does that mean that shaving is an act of pride? Perhaps I should grow a beard in humility.

There may be many valid reasons to grow a beard, just as there may be many reasons to wear shiny shoes or try a military “high and tight” hair cut for a little while. Curiosity, personal preference, the preference of a wife, or the desire to look more masculine, are all fine reasons to change your haircut or grow a beard. There are even practical benefits for men working in certain climates, as beards keep your face warmer and help filter dust and allergens. Additionally, some men, particularly black men, are prone to painful inflamed bumps and ingrown hairs if they do not allow their beard to grow (a condition known as pseudofolliculitis barbae or PFB). This reflects a way in which tacking on an extra-biblical rule has an unintentionally inequitable effect among different races.

Why are we even talking about this?

Spurlock finishes his advice this way:

“I know many good Christian men who have beards and facial hair. So I am not saying facial hair is a sin. But you must be careful to ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing? Or, why you want to do what you have been told not to do by your authority.”

It is valid that we should always evaluate our motives. You should have good motives for everything you do, including growing your eyebrows out. However, there is another question left standing. Why do “the authorities” try to prevent facial hair at all? Given the case I have laid out, why was this ever brought up in the first place?

It can’t be because our culture and churches are so moral, loving, unified, sexually pure, and wholesome that we only have small details of extra-biblical opinion left to discuss. For some, it may be honest ignorance, and the unchallenged assumption that Grandpa was as close to God as possible, so everything should be done his way. However, I suspect that the reason that some authorities oppose beards is, ironically, pride.

Pride, in the sense that they think their spirituality is so refined, that even their preferences carry moral weight for other people.

Pride, in the sense that they feel their personal grasp of other people’s motives and hearts is so insightful that they can, like God, see motives deep in the soul.

It is simply human to want people to do things your way. I am guilty of it myself.  But we certainly shouldn’t be turning beards into a moral issue if God didn’t see fit to.

In the apt words of one critic of this belief, “Why would God put hair on my face, and then send me to Hell for it?”

Church is not a place that should be defined by man’s opinion. If you want opinions, look to the media. Only the Church has the living word of an unchanging God to share. And our opinions will not add any value.

 

Nathan Mayo

 

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