Archive for December, 2005

Historical Holiness: Ancient Texts and Modern Meanings

10 December, 2005

Apostolics are easily identified by their observance of holiness standards. Amidst accusations of Pharisee-like legalism, many Pentecostals continue to make a clear stand for biblical principles of separation and holy living. Liberal Christians who argue that the Bible does not impose lifestyle restrictions for the believer have decontextualized scriptural passages that regulate modest dress, adornment, and conduct. In addition, they ignore the historicity of such regulation. Traditions of holiness existed in the New Testament and primitive Christian Church, and the textual evidence supports their strong presence in the early, post-Apostolic era.In their appeal to apostolic authority, the patristic writers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries demonstrate an unquestionable congruence with their ecclesiastical progenitors, Christ’s apostles. Also, the identifiableness of common themes forbiddances of such practices as the wearing of jewelry, cosmetics and other finery, and the cutting of women’s hair make it clear that these were not merely isolated or regional strictures but universally-accepted codes of living for all Christians.

Clement of Alexandria (c. 215), Tertullian (c. 215), Tertullian (c. 160-220), and St. Cyprian (190-258) offer very detailed directives concerning dress and adornment for Christians. In his treatise, “The Instructor”, Clement of Alexandria compares women decked in make-up and ostentatious clothing to the heathen temples of the Egyptians and warns men against the effeminacy of fine and foppish clothing. While hd oes allow a signet ring for sealing documents, he expressly forbids piercing: “The Word prohibits us from doing violence to nature by boring the lobes of the ears” (Clement 285). In keeping with Paul’s teaching to the Corinthian Church concerning hair, Clement instructs men: “Let not twisted locks hang down from the head, gliding into womanish ringlets.” He also admonishes the women to “protect their locks and bind up their hair simply along the neck with a plain hair-pin, nourishing chase locks with simple care to true beauty,” adding, “Neither is the hair to be dyed, nor grey hair to have its colour changed” (Clement 285).

Similarly, Tertullian warns women against the extreme damage they cause to their hair through dyeing and asks: “Shall a Christian woman heap saffron on her head, as upon an altar? . . . . God saith ‘Which of you can make a white hair black, or out of a black a white?’ And so they refute the Lord!” (Tertullian, “On the Apparel of Women”).

Cyprian, bishop of Carthage from 249 to 258, also wrote extensively about the pitfalls of vanity and false adornment: “The characteristics of ornaments, and of garments, and the allurements of beauty, are not fitting for any but prostitutes and immodest women; and the dress of none is more precious than of those whose modesty is lowly” (Cyprian “On the Apparel of Women” V). Clearly, for these writers dress and adornment were inextricably related to morality and Christian witness.

Interestingly, Tertullian and Cyprian both attribute the introduction of cosmetics to Satan and the fallen angels. The former writes: “For they who rub their skin with medicaments, stain their cheeks with rouge, make their eyes prominent with atimony, sin against HIM . . . Whatever, then , is plastered on, that is the devil’s work” (Tertullian, “On the Apparel of Women” V).

In agreement, Cyprian declares of jewelry and cosmetics:

All which things sinning and apostate angels put forth by their arts, when, lowered to the contagious of earth, they forsook their heavenly vigour. They taught them also to paint th e eyes with blackness drawn round them in a circle, and to stain the fcheeks with a deceitful red, and to change the hair with false colours, and to drive out all truth, both of face and head, by the assault of their own corruption. (“The Dress of Virgins”)

Ancient tradition clearly roots cosmetic alteration of the visage in the outright satanic, equating the wearing of make-up with witchcraft and rebellion against God.

While the brevity of this article makes it impossible to fully discuss the entire survey of early Christian invective against worldly attire and carnal conduct, it is sufficient to provide conclusive evidence that, even 150 years after the death of the last apostles, the Christian life was regulated by strict codes of holiness that set them apart from their culture. In reality, these early practitioners were much more rigid than most modern Pentecostals disallowing dyed cloth, braided hair, ornamented shoes, and even wigs. But the essential agreement of their texts with the teachings of the Apostles solidifies our conviction that standards of holiness originated in the New Testament, were practiced by the Early Church, and remain a valid expression of Christian faith and dedication to God. So to our detractors, who argue that Pentecostals practice salvation through works and sectarian snobbery, we rebut that the precepts of holiness are both biblical and historical, and we continue to preserve them as primitive but essential artifacts of the ancient Apostolic Church.


Clement of Alexandria. “The Instructor.” Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria. Vol. 2. Trans. Rev. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. Ed. A Cleveland Coxe. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI: 1965.

Cyprian. “The Dress of Virgins.” The Fathers of the Church. Vol. 36. Trans. & Ed. Roy J Deferrari. New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1958.

Tertullian. “On the Apparel of Women.” Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian. Vol. 3. Trans. Rev. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. Ed. A. Cleveland Coxe. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, MI: 1965.