All of us girls who have grown up in Holiness know the in’s, out’s, do’s and don’t’s of the Holiness standard like the back of our hands.  However, one thing that most of us don’t know is where this standard came from in the first place.  Have you ever wondered about the origin of the Holiness style?  What did it look like in the Early Church, the Medieval Church, the Reformation, or in Early America?  Let’s dive into history and see for ourselves, starting with the Early Church in this article.

First things first, what are we looking for in church history?   To make it simple, let’s look primarily for 2 tell-tale characteristics of the holiness standard; no makeup, and no jewelry.

After reading through a good deal of Holiness and Oneness sources on the historicity of their standards, I have found 2 primary sources quoted again and again from the Early Church: Tertullian (c. 160-c. 240) and Clement of Alexandria (c. 155-c. 220) (these are the only historic sources used in the Holiness-Handbook).  I was able to find and read the original texts that quotations are taken from, and was impressed by the scope of their teachings on outward appearance, as well as their reasoning for them.  I will begin with the excerpted quotes that you will often see in Holiness literature, and then, provide a portion of the context for better understanding.  Let us start with Tertullian.

Examining Tertullian


For they who rub their skin with medicaments, stain their cheeks with rouge, make their eyes prominent with antimony, sin against Him . To them, I suppose, the plastic skill of God is displeasing!..But, in the next place, what am I to interpret those jewels to be which vie with gold in haughtiness, except little pebbles and stones and paltry particles of the self-same earth; but yet not necessary either for laying down foundations, or rearing party-walls, or supporting pediments, or giving density to roofs? The only edifice which they know how to rear is this silly pride of women:

-Tertullian [1]

Now let us read more of the context in order to grasp the big-picture of what Tertullian is teaching. It will soon be apparent that even though he does have some overlap with Holiness Standards, the bulk of his teachings are very different, even contradictory.  Take special care to notice the amount of scripture he is using to ground his teachings and at the way in which he uses it.

Female habit carries with it a twofold idea — dress and ornament. By dress we mean what they call womanly gracing; by ornament, what it is suitable should be called womanly disgracing. The former is accounted (to consist) in gold, and silver, and gems, and garments; the latter in care of the hair, and of the skin, and of those parts of the body which attract the eye. Against the one we lay the charge of ambition, against the other of prostitution; 

Note the things which Tertullian puts in the category of prostitution, not clothing or jewelry, but “care of the hair, and of the skin”.  Hmm… Okay, moving on.

What service, again, does all the labour spent in arranging the hair render to salvation? Why is no rest allowed to your hair, which must now be bound, now loosed, now cultivated, now thinned out? Some are anxious to force their hair into curls, some to let it hang loose and flying;…God bids you be veiled. I believe (He does so) for fear the heads of some should be seen! And oh that in that day of Christian exultation, I, most miserable (as I am), may elevate my head, even though below (the level of) your heels! I shall (then) see whether you will rise…

Purple with them is more paltry than red ochre; (and justly,) for what legitimate honour can garments derive from adulteration with illegitimate colors? That which He Himself has not produced is not pleasing to God, unless He was unable to order sheep to be born with purple and sky-blue fleeces! If He was able, then plainly He was unwilling: what God willed not, of course ought not to be fashioned. Those things, then, are not the best by nature which are not from God, the Author of nature. Thus they are understood to be from the devil, from the corrupter of nature: for there is no other whose they can be, if they are not God’s; because what are not God’s must necessarily be His rival’s. But, beside the devil and his angels, other rival of God there is none.

Now, let’s look at some of Tertullian’s reasoning behind his teaching;

Are there not some who prohibit to themselves (the use of) the very creature of God, abstaining from wine and animal food, the enjoyments of which border upon no peril or solicitude; but they sacrifice to God the humility of their soul even in the chastened use of food? Sufficiently, therefore, have you, too, used your riches and your delicacies; sufficiently have you cut down the fruits of your dowries, before (receiving) the knowledge of saving disciplines.

“Saving disciplines”…is this what it sounds like?  From the context, it seems that Tertullian has the idea that the more self-denial, the more holy the person, even if the thing he denies himself (like the example of meat) is not actually wrong at all.

Let a holy woman, if naturally beautiful, give none so great occasion (for carnal appetite). Certainly, if even she be so, she ought not to set off (her beauty), but even to obscure it.

It was God who chose to create women as the crowning beauty of His creation; is it truly biblical then, for Tertullian to teach that women ought to obscure their natural beauty?  Taking his whole writing in to consideration, he seems to be referring to beauty of the hair, skin, and face of a women,  more than her body figure.  What is Tertullian’s biblical grounds for this idea?  It is his view of the woman; his following description is the most revealing content of all.  Read carefully;

If there dwelt upon earth a faith as great as is the reward of faith which is expected in the heavens, no one of you at all, best beloved sisters, from the time that she had first known the Lord, and learned (the truth) concerning her own (that is, woman’s) condition, would have desired too gladsome (not to say too ostentatious) a style of dress; so as not rather to go about in humble garb, and rather to affect meanness of appearance, walking about as Eve mourning and repentant, in order that by every garb of penitence she might the more fully expiate that which she derives from Eve, — the ignominy, I mean, of the first sin, and the odium (attaching to her as the cause) of human perdition. In pains and in anxieties do you bear (children), woman; and toward your husband (is) your inclination, and he lords it over you. And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die. And do you think about adorning yourself over and above your tunics of skins? Come, now; if from the beginning of the world the Milesians sheared sheep, and the Serians spun trees, and the Tyrians dyed, and the Phrygians embroidered with the needle, and the Babylonians with the loom, and pearls gleamed, and onyx-stones flashed; if gold itself also had already issued, with the cupidity (which accompanies it), from the ground; if the mirror, too, already had licence to lie so largely, Eve, expelled from paradise, (Eve) already dead, would also have coveted these things, I imagine! No more, then, ought she now to crave, or be acquainted with (if she desires to live again), what, when she was living, she had neither had nor known. Accordingly these things are all the baggage of woman in her condemned and dead state, instituted as if to swell the pomp of her funeral.

Wow, think about those statements.  The reason that Tertullian taught women should dress without color in their garments, the reason women should abstain from makeup and jewelry, the reason women should not fix their hair or even reveal it, the reason women should obscure their natural beauty, is because Tertullian sees women as unworthy of beauty.  In his own words, “The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway…And do you think about adorning yourself over and above your tunics of skins? Come, now.”  Instead, he teaches that Christian women ought to walk about “mourning and repentant, in order that by every garb of penitence she might the more fully expiate that which she derives from Eve.”  Is this the biblical message?  Are women really supposed dress and look as blandly as possible in order to live in a constant state of shame and guilt over our sex?  Is this the gospel message?  Thanks be to Christ, it is not!  Whether or not his teachings are true, Tertullian’s justifications for them are not grounded in scripture.

Tertullian is correct in assuming that there can be too much emphasis on beauty, and that spending an excessive amount of money on appearances is wasteful, drawing an unhealthy amount of attention to ourselves and distracting from Christ.  It is also possible to dress too scantily or flamboyantly in a provocative way and draw an unhealthy attention from men.  However, with all things there are more than two sides of the spectrum, there is also a solid, middle ground, a healthy balance.  A balance which both affirms the beauty and value God created women to have, while simultaneously avoiding an impression of arrogance, self-glorification, or seduction.

What came of Tertullian’s teachings that women should abstain from appearing beautiful?  Did this reflect or become the Early Church’s mainstream teaching?  Or at the least, can links between Tertullian’s teaching and the Holiness lineage be traced?   To answer these questions, we’ll need to do a bit of background research.

Tertullian was known to be, “An extremist by nature, he had gone through a period of licentiousness during his early years, but later advocated a severe asceticism and discipline that his followers found hard to emulate.” [2].  “Asceticism” is defined in the Oxford dictionaries is “severe self-discipline and avoidance of all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons.”   Tertullian’s extreme lifestyle and teachings of self-denial (which would include the ones on women’s appearance) caused tension between himself and the rest of Christianity, and he actually broke with the Church in 207 (and, no, this was not the Roman Catholic Church-this is still back in the 200’s).  He then joined himself to the very strict, ascetic sect of Montanism, which was later to be declared heretical for several reasons.  Interestingly enough, Montanists “believed that they were the only true Christians” [3].   Tertullian later broke from this sect to form his own sect, the “Tertullianists”.   However, the lineage of Tertullian’s followers cannot be traced in history any farther than the early 400’s when Augustine writes that the last of them converted to the Catholic Church [4].

The above facts seem to point to the conclusion that Tertullian’s writings cannot be used as evidence of the Early Church teaching a “Holiness Standard.”  In contrast, his writings show evidence of one man who had an extreme view on self-denial, and who ended up excommunicated from mainstream Christianity and mixed up with a heretical sect.  He certainly should not be claimed as a predecessor to the Holiness Movement, because not only did Christendom never accept his ideas on women’s appearance, but furthermore, his followers went extinct 1600 years ago. Why, then, would the Holiness-Handbook or the Apostolic site on Holiness history, Old Land Mark [10], cite Tertullian as proof that their Holiness Standard was practiced in the Early Church?  You tell me.

Examining Clement of Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria was born in around 150 AD and lived until around 215 AD.  His greatest achievements were in his effective response to Gnosticism and his direct impact on the life of Origin.  A lesser known impact Clement had, but very significant in this context, was that of his impact on John Wesley when he was developing his doctrine on Christian perfection [5, 6].  Like Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria also had a strained relationship with the rest of Christendom and was similarly viewed teaching heresy in his time. His most serious offenses were, “That he posited the existence of many worlds before the creation of the present one (3) That he did not believe the incarnate Word to be the true Word of the Father (4) That he made the Son of God a creature [7].”  So, how does Clement of Alexandria show up in the Holiness Handbook?  Below is the exact quote that appears in the publication;

Those women who wear gold imitate the Egyptians. They occupy themselves with curling their locks. They are busy anointing their
cheeks, painting their eyes, dyeing their hair, and practicing the other pernicious arts of luxury. The truth is that they deck the covering
of their flesh in order to attract their infatuated lovers

-Clement of Alexandria (circa 195 AD), 2.272

An interesting excerpt for sure, and it can certainly be agreed that any type of self-preparation for promiscuous reasons is wrong due to its motivation.  To more fully understand Clement’s perspective, as well as to understand whether or not he was a predecessor to the modern, holiness movement, let’s take a deeper look into his writings.

Like the Old Testament authors, Clement seems to be taking his hardest blow against extravagance and self-absorption.  For, in the same context that he makes fun of makeup he also picks at many other things which are very hard to consider wrong, but could become part of a self-consumed mentality.  For example, here is his description of women cleaning themselves which is also included in the passage mentioning makeup, “She has come, she is here, she washes herself, she advances, She is soaped, she is combed, she goes out, is rubbed, She washes herself, looks in the glass, robes herself [8].”

What other standards of holiness did Clement teach? Here are a few more, all taken from the same writing as the excerpts against makeup and jewelry.

Bathing for pleasure is to be omitted. For unblushing pleasure must be cut out by the roots; and the bath is to be taken by women for cleanliness and health, by men for health alone. To bathe for the sake of heat is a superfluity, since one may restore what is frozen by the cold in other ways. Constant use of the bath, too, impairs strength and relaxes the physical energies, and often induces debility and fainting… Nor must we bathe always; but if one is a little exhausted, or, on the other hand, filled to repletion, the bath is to be forbidden, regard being had to the age of the body and the season of the year. For the bath is not beneficial to all, or always, as those who are skilled in these things own. But due proportion, which on all occasions we call as our helper in life, suffices for us. For we must not so use the bath as to require an assistant, nor are we to bathe constantly….

It seems that Clement followed the same thought-process as Tertullian did, as far as putting a hefty emphasis on self-denial.  Moving right along, let’s look at how Clement practically applied scripture on personal Holiness; it’s hard to follow his train of logic here:

But in the spirit of your mind; and put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.”  But for one who is a man to comb himself and shave himself with a razor, for the sake of fine effect, to arrange his hair at the looking-glass, to shave his cheeks, pluck hairs out of them, and smooth them, how womanly! 

Pay close attention to the way in which Clement of Alexandria attempts to use scripture to validate his ideas…is he reading meaning out of the text or is he reading his own meaning into it?

But the embellishment of smoothing (for I am warned by the Word), if it is to attract men, is the act of an effeminate person,–if to attract women, is the act of an adulterer; and both must be driven as far as possible from our society. “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered,” says the Lord; those on the chin, too, are numbered, and those on the whole body. There must be therefore no plucking out, contrary to God’s appointment, which has counted them in according to His will. “Know ye not yourselves,” says the apostle, “that Christ Jesus is in you?” Whom, had we known as dwelling in us, I know not how we could have dared to dishonour. But the using of pitch to pluck out hair (I shrink from even mentioning the shamelessness connected with this process), and in the act of bending back and bending down, the violence done to nature’s modesty by stepping out and bending backwards in shameful postures…For he who in the light of day denies his manhood, will prove himself manifestly a woman by night…

For it is not lawful to pluck out the beard, man’s natural and noble ornament. “A youth with his first beard: for with this, youth is most graceful.”

By and by he is anointed, delighting in the beard “on which descended” the prophetic, “ointment” with which Aaron was honoured. And it becomes him who is rightly trained, on whom peace has pitched its tent, to preserve peace also with his hair.

In the psalmist’s comparison of unity being like ointment in a beard, or in Christ’s teachings on how God pays so much attention to us that even knows the number of our hairs, is the scripture teaching that it is sinful and shameful for a man to shave?  Absolutely not.  Despite any good intentions, Clement is by no means teaching the scriptures; he is manipulating them to validate his own ideas.

Wherefore the wearing of gold and the use of softer clothing is not to be entirely prohibited. But irrational impulses must be curbed, lest, carrying us away through excessive relaxation, they impel us to voluptuousness…use simple clothing, and of a white colour, as we said before. So that, accommodating ourselves not to variegated art, but to nature as it is produced, and pushing away whatever is deceptive and belies the truth, we may embrace the uniformity and simplicity of the truth.

…Whence also in the law, the law enacted by Moses about leprousy rejects what has many colours and spots, like the various scales of the snake. He therefore wishes man, no longer decking himself gaudily in a variety of colours, but white all over from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot, to be clean; so that, by a transition from the body, we may lay aside the varied and versatile passions of the man, land love the unvaried, and unambiguous, and simple colour of truth. And he who also in this emulates Moses–Plato best of all–approves of that texture on which not more than a chaste woman’s work has been employed. And white colours well become gravity. And elsewhere he says, “Nor apply dyes or weaving, except for warlike decorations.”

Hold up. Is this forbidding of colored clothes actually taught in the Old Testament?  No way!  Just because Moses rejected leprous dark-spots growing in the skin does not mean he was commanding that we all wear white colors.  Did it not cross Clement’s thoughts that perhaps Moses rejected the dark-spots because they were literally growths of an infectious disease?  There are over 600 laws in the Old Testament, if Moses meant to teach us to wear white, why didn’t he just say so?  But even if one of those laws did command the Israelites to wear white, that wouldn’t apply to us any more than the command for Israelites to wear clothes made from only one type of fiber.  Let’s move on to another example of how Clement interprets scripture.

With whom, then, are we to associate? With the righteous, He says again, speaking figuratively; for everything “which parts the hoof and chews the cud is clean.” For the parting of the hoof indicates the equilibrium of righteousness, and ruminating points to the proper food of righteousness, the word, which enters from without, like food, by instruction, but is recalled from the mind, as from the stomach, to rational recollection. And the spiritual man, having the word in his mouth, ruminates the spiritual food; and righteousness parts the hoof rightly, because it sanctifies us in this life, and sends us on our way to the world to come.

Wait, Moses said what?  Parting the hoof represents what…?  No, no, no.  Dear Clement, please stop, this is not teaching the scriptures, this is cherry-picking the Old Testament and creating your own meaning for whatever verse you’d like.  Please stop.  Realize, dear reader, that this does not mean that Clement’s ideas were wrong per say, this only goes to show that the way he was defending them was not actually using scripture at all, but rather misusing it and reading in to it.

I’m afraid to say that Clement of Alexandria defends his views against makeup and jewelry (although, he did not forbid all jewelry) with as bad a method of scriptural interpretation as the above passages.  Most of the sections against such are merely him stating his opinion, for example the original excerpt in the Holiness-Handbook where he assumes that women who curl their hair and put on mascara do so only to be promiscuous or arrogant; he allows them no middle ground between flamboyance and bareness.  Here’s another example of his argument against jewelry, “For, in a word, if one thinks himself made beautiful by gold, he is inferior to gold; and he that is inferior to gold is not lord of it.”  Following this logic, if I think a particular dress will make me appear more beautiful, does that mean I am inferior to that dress and ought not wear it?  His logic is hard to follow.  Other passages include Clement making assertions that scripture says this or that without any evidence or reference.  For example, “The Word prohibits us from doing violence to nature by boring the lobes of the ears.” This makes little sense in light of Exodus 21:6, where this very act is part of the Old Testament law;  where in all of scripture does it teach that this is doing violence to nature?

The most interesting quote I noticed while reading Clement, was his interpretation of, “Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel.”  I had always heard that plaiting the hair referred to putting jewelry in the hair and not to fixing it, but when Clement teaches on hair (this verse being referenced) he says, “It is enough for women to protect their locks, and bind up their hair simply along the neck with a plain hair-pin, nourishing chaste locks with simple care to true beauty. For meretricious plaiting of the hair, and putting it up in tresses, contribute to make them look ugly…”  It seems that Clement, who lived far closer to the time of scripture, understood the plaiting of hair to be referring to elaborate hairstyles (and not jewelry), the opposite of which is a simple bun.


Whether or not the Early Church taught the “Holiness Standard” doesn’t actually affect it’s truth (one way or the other), but the above research is not in vain; several points have been established.  First, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria do not prove that the Early Church taught a Holiness Standard.  In contrast, when it comes to their strict asceticism, and heavy-emphasis on self-denial, both men were oddities to the rest of the Church, to the degree that they were both charged with heresy (granted, these charges did not directly relate to their teaching on outward appearance, but to their skewed views on the Deity of Christ).  Second, the Holiness Church of today would have great disagreements even with the teachings these men gave on outward appearance: from beards, to baths, to veils, to colorless garments.  Third, even if these men taught the modern Holiness standard to a T, if they could not back it up with sound scriptural arguments, what use are they to us?  The above examples of how Tertullian and Clement read their own meanings into scripture should cause red-flags to raise on their trustworthiness in interpretation.  Fourth, not only were the ideas of these men not reflections of the Early Church, but the Early Church actually threw out their ideas.  There is no lineage of Christians which followed their teachings on abstinence from shaving, jewelry, makeup and colored clothing and passed them down to us.  Clement never began his own sect, and Tertullian’s died out over a millennium and a half ago.  Were there Christian groups which emphasized simple, modest living after that time?  Absolutely!  But Tertullian and Clement’s type of appearance regulations seem to have fallen off the bandwagon of Christianity for a good 1300 years, until John Wesley, influenced by Clement, revived their ideas.

-Natalie Mayo


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