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The Heart and Outward Appearances

In the Nick of Time

In any political campaign, some politicians would like to reduce policy statements to slogans and soundbites. Soundbites, however, admit no qualifications or nuancing. They resist examination and exclude careful thought. They are bad for statecraft. They are also bad for theology and church order. Take the following as an example, drawn from a real sermon delivered by a real preacher.

What’s God’s Word teach about worship?… My God says, “You look at the heart, not the outward appearance. Is that what you do in your church?”

This statement certainly is not unique. Eruptions of this sort are typically meant as objections to the “suit and tie” culture that has been traditional in much of American Christianity. But once one accepts this line of reasoning, where does one stop? For example, the speaker who delivered these remarks has been known to preach while wearing a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” tee-shirt—and then to draw attention to it, ironically inviting the audience to look at his outward appearance.

So does God say what the above speaker said He says? Does God mean what the speaker takes Him to mean? The above soundbite refers to 1 Samuel 16:7. In this text, the Lord has sent Samuel to Jesse’s house to anoint a king to replace Saul. Something about the oldest son’s height and bearing impressed Samuel, who took Eliab as the Lord’s choice. At that moment, however, the Lord interrupted to say, “Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.”

Perhaps a subsidiary reference is 2 Corinthians 10:7. In this context, many of the Corinthians were dismissing Paul because of his unimpressive appearance (probably squat, homely, with pus gathering in his eyes). Gauging Paul’s true stature by his unimposing bearing, they had decided to discount both his teachings and his threats. So Paul posed the rhetorical question, “Do you look on things after the outward appearance?” He then followed this question with an assertion of his authority and of his determination to employ it when he arrived in Corinth.

So does the above soundbite capture the teaching of these Scriptures? Should we look only to the heart and remain indifferent toward issues of dress, grooming, and adornment? I think the answer to this question is decidedly negative.

In both the Old and New Testaments, God reveals Himself as someone who actually is concerned with external matters such as dress, grooming, and adornment. In some of the longest passages in the Pentateuch, God prescribes in great detail how the priests are supposed to dress. Some of these passages even recognize that certain external, bodily disfigurements will bar a priest from exercising his ministry.

In the New Testament, Paul expressed concern that the women at Corinth cover their heads (and over how both men and women cut their hair). He also wrote to Timothy about the dress, grooming, and adornment of the women at Ephesus. Since Paul included these concerns in Scripture, we must infer that God is not entirely indifferent toward outward matters.

So what was God saying to Samuel? Samuel was not looking at clothing or grooming, but at native stature and bearing. God was saying that such things do not impress Him. God selected David because of his inner stature, not his outer strength.

No outward appearance, whether native or assumed, can impress God by itself. In the same way, no outer observance can please the Lord when the heart is wrong—not even those observances that God Himself has prescribed. That is the point of Isaiah 1 and many other Scriptures. The outer can never take the place of the inner.

It does not follow, however, that God is uninterested in outer observances. Nor does it follow that God is indifferent toward those externals that we voluntarily adopt. We can hardly imagine that God would have responded favorably if His high priest had shown up on Yom Kippur dressed like a priest of Baal.

Different clothing is appropriate to different circumstances and settings—even for worship. I have worshipped God in the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness wearing hiking boots, jeans, and a flannel shirt. I have worshipped God in the small hours of the morning wearing my pajamas. I have even worshipped God in the shower (‘nuff said).

There is something different about the corporate worship of the assembled people of God. Again, different cultures and circumstances will allow for variance. I’ve preached in churches where one simply did not wear shoes to worship—but neckties and long-sleeved shirts were mandatory. I’ve preached in places where semi-formal meant wearing a Buck knife with your blue jeans and cowboy boots. I once preached in a church on the Amazon where the pastor insisted upon a full suit and necktie. In each of these places, God’s people were adopting cultural forms to communicate that something special was happening when they assembled before God.

That is entirely appropriate. The forms will vary, but whatever forms are adopted should reflect the inner attitude of festive reverence that comes with joining a holy convocation in assembly before the Sovereign Ruler of the universe. In one setting it means wearing your best jeans, while in another it means reverently removing your shoes before the Holy One. In both cases, worshippers are giving thought to what they’re doing and taking care that their dress communicates the right things.

Ironically, the people who rail against “suit and tie” culture usually do think that dress is important. They may say that they are looking upon the heart, but their casual appearance is carefully studied. They know exactly what they’re doing. They aim to create an effect that would be ruined if they showed up in a suit and tie. They are not really dismissing the importance of dress; they are deliberately choosing clothing that will make one statement rather than another.

Furthermore, even they have their limits. They are about as likely to appear in the pulpit in sackcloth and ashes as they are to show up wearing only a Speedo. When Prince Harry got caught wearing a Nazi uniform to a costume party, the press was scandalized. Can you imagine what would happen if an evangelical minister showed up similarly accoutered to deliver his Sunday morning message? Dress does matter.

Not for a moment am I defending the absolute necessity of wearing suits and ties to all church services. What I am saying is that we communicate something by the way we dress, groom, and adorn ourselves. We say something about who we think we are, and who we think others are, in the situation and under the circumstances for which we are meeting. We cannot simply say, “Look on the heart,” when this outer message is at odds with what a pious heart should feel. Sometimes our dress reveals our heart.


This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.


Holy, Holy, Holy Lord
James Montgomery (1771–1854)

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord,
God of Hosts! When heaven and earth,
Out of darkness at Thy word,
Issued into glorious birth,
All Thy works before Thee stood,
And Thine eye beheld them good,
While they sang with sweet accord,
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord!

Holy, Holy, Holy! Thee,
One Jehovah evermore,
Father, Son, and Spirit! We,
Dust and ashes, would adore;
Lightly by the world esteem’d,
From that world by Thee redeem’d,
Sing we here with glad accord,
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord!

Holy, Holy, Holy! All
Heaven’s triumphant choirs shall sing,
When the ransom’d nations fall
At the footstool of their King:
Then shall saints and seraphim,
Hearts and voices swell one hymn,
Round the Throne with full accord,
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord!

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.