by David Sisler

Bishop S. E. Johnson was, for many years, a fixture on the radio in Mississippi, and depending on how far the signal carried, a great many other places. A pastor friend who once served in the same area as Bishop Johnson introduced me to his brand of religion, recounted vibrant stories for me, since the program was not carried on KDKA. Through the magic of radio on the World Wide Web, those old programs can be heard again.

Bishop Johnson was a colorful and dogmatic person who accompanied himself on the guitar, singing his introductory song. Then with the help of an assistant, he would answer questions about the Bible, faith, and life which his listeners had sent in. The good bishop always had a quick answer, one that may not have agreed with your philosophy or theology, but one which satisfied him, and he was, after all, the one on the radio.

Had we ever met, Bishop Johnson and I would probably have agreed on very little, and that is all well and good, but I will always relish the short, pointed answer he gave to the question, "How long should a woman's sleeves be?"

The questions, as far as I know, came to the bishop unrehearsed, but without a second of hesitation he said, "Long enough to cover the hair in her armpits. Next question."

The question and the answer immediately struck me as full of great humor, although I am sure neither were intended to arouse mirth (and that may be a flaw in my character). At the time I was serving in a denomination which had a very strict dress code, which someone, somewhere was always trying to skirt. Gatherings of the ruling body of the church frequently produced long discussions laboring over lengths of hair and hems (always hers).

Standards of proper dress are articulated by many organizations who possess not a single hint of religion or a leaning towards religiosity.

"The Clubhouse," a discriminating restaurant overlooking a New York racetrack requires that male patrons wear a suit coat or a sports jacket with a dress shirt and tie. No jeans or shorts are permitted. Ladies are required to wear a dress or skirt and blouse. At the bottom of a publicity folder promoting the restaurant is the warning that guests will not be allowed into "The Clubhouse" for dining unless they are dressed properly.

A nightclub in Albuquerque, New Mexico, called Club Obsession, billed itself as "Albuquerque's newest and most glamorous nightclub."

"Dress to impress," Club Obsession exhorts its customers, but then warns: "no denim tops or bottoms, no T-shirts or jerseys, no flannel shirts, no baseball caps, no combat/hiking boots, no tennis shoes. No exceptions."

Many see a tragedy where racetracks and nightclubs have dress standards which seem more severe than those promoted by some houses of worship.

My current musings about dress codes were prompted by an article in The Wall Street Journal which described the state of dress and undress of tourists attempting to enter St. Peter's Basilica.

The Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica have had a dress code for more than 400 years, but the past decade has seen an increasing number of infringements and would-be infringers. Guards say tourists are demonstrating manners which are as poor or skimpy as their apparel.

The dress code is simple: Men must wear long pants and shirts that cover their shoulders; women must cover shoulders and midriffs, must plunge neither down the front or the back, and must wear skirts no higher than four fingers above the knee. In spite of the fact that the requirements are widely posted, irate tourists physically attack guards who refuse the improperly clad admittance to what is arguably one of the Roman Catholic Church's most holy places.

Mr. Berend jan Ike, a seventeen-year-old from the Netherlands was denied admission to the basilica because he was wearing knee-length shorts. He eventually found a classmate willing to lend him a spare pair of long khakis. "I've studied all the objects inside, and I really want to go in," he said. "But this religion thing goes too deep."

I have never been an advocate of a dress code for church members. I will, in all probability, never be an advocate of such standards. I prefer to let Paul's admonition of all things to be done "decently and in order" be the Church's standard. God's people should be "clad with zeal," "clothed in the garments of praise," and "adorned in modest apparel."

But having said that, there are many segments of the Body of Christ who assert it is necessary and proper to publish and support a standard of dress. What puzzles me, is not the setting of standards, but the labeling of the Church of Jesus Christ as being out of step when it demands standards for its members and at the same time the world is labeled as trendy for doing the same thing.


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 10/25/97

Copyright 1997 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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