To Beard or not to Beard?

A recently retired Christian college president and his wife were exploring the area surrounding their new home when they noticed a sign for a community church. Since they were looking for a church to connect to, they followed the sign and turned down a country road.

            As they drove slowly by the church, they saw the pastor walking across the lawn from the parsonage, and immediately decided to give the church a try. The reason (according to the college president): the pastor wore a beard.

            I was that pastor and the retired college president, Dr. William Shoemaker, has since become a close friend. The idea that a beard would influence a decision about which church to attend seemed odd, but it turns out that the history of beards and the history of the church are closely linked.

            Ted Olsen, the managing editor for news and online journalism at Christianity Today, has written a brief history of beards in the church. Olsen – who, it should be said, has an excellent beard himself – notes that beards have been a source of contention in the church since the second century. Apparently, the hypostatic union did not provide enough material for Christians to argue about; they also had to argue about the nature of men’s facial hair.

            According to Olsen, the second century Church Father Clement of Alexandria (routinely represented as having a long, pointed and curling beard) called facial hair “the mark of a man.” Other Church Fathers agreed, and some early monasteries refused admittance to beardless men, whom the Abbot Euthymius called “boys with female faces.”

            In the fifth century a rule was adopted stating “no cleric should grow long hair or shave his beard.” But the tide turned in 816 when the Council of Aachen required monks to shave every 15 days. Clergy in the East, though, ignored the ruling and continued to sport facial hair.

            As the years past, the Church in the East and in the West grew apart, and beards became a symbol of which side a particular cleric was on. The Eastern Church looked askance at Western leaders because they regularly shaved. One leader in the West argued that St. Paul’s injunction against long hair applied to beards as well, and pointed out that the prophet Ezekiel shaved.

            The battles continued over the next centuries. When, in 1054, the Patriarch of Constantinople was excommunicated, the list of Eastern heresies recited in the papal bull included the growing of beards. Things were different in the West, where clergy could be distinguished from laymen by their clean-shaven faces.

            In 1547 Thomas Crammer, the great Anglican archbishop, grew a beard as evidence of his break with Catholicism. But there was a price to pay. To increase national revenues, King Henry VIII had imposed a tax on beards. (Let’s hope Congress doesn’t find out about that!)

By the time of the 19th century, Protestant beards were in full bloom. Many of the century’s most famous preachers wore beards: C. H. Spurgeon, William Booth, C. G. Finney, D.L. Moody, Andrew Murray and A. B. Simpson, to name a few. But beards became less popular in the pulpit as the 20th century advanced.

During the turbulent 60’s, some Christian schools banned the wearing of facial hair, deeming the beard to be a symbol of rebellion. On my very first day at college, I met a professor who deeply lamented the fact that the administration had rescinded the ban, and he feared the college was headed for hell in a hand-basket – carried no doubt by a student wearing a goatee.

            To beard or not to beard, that is the question – or is it? “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7) Perhaps we should worry more about having a clean heart than a clean face.

For more on beards in Christian history, check out Ted’s Olsen’s article, Wars Over Christian Beards at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/september/wars-over-christian-beards.html

Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/31/2013

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