Religious customs assessed


Believers keep quite some customs. It is often assumed that these are all Biblical. But is that always so? It must be clear however that keeping customs will have a profound influence on the experience of one’s believe and spiritual identity. What are the consequences if customs kept aren’t Biblical? Will consequences then always be negative? What if customs kept are forbidden?

A religious custom is an activity or a specific expression, like wearing a symbol, by which believers show their believe or affiliation to a certain denomination. Through the centuries quite a number of customs have been used. Some of which have been abandoned a long time ago or were only practiced for a short while. Others are still used as a tradition, but there meaning has been lost or were given a new meaning.

It is however important to know what the origin of a custom is and above all whether it is based on the Bible. Ultimately, it’s all about having certainty that a custom not goes against a Biblical command. But it is also good to know whether the current use still meets that original purpose, how the use eventually has changed or what the new meaning of it is.

If the meaning is lost then believers make themselves and their faith ridiculous by still practicing it. Such a religion runs the risk of becoming obsolete. Such a way of experiencing faith is per definition not recommended in the Bible. Believers are commanded to experience faith in a meaningful way (Rm 14:5; Heb 11:1).

Some customs
In this article some customs are assessed to get an idea of what that would entail. Since Christianity originated from Judaism, the small number of customs mentioned here also are about that religion.

• Head wear
A special head covering can be used to show that one has a certain office and/or position. The most well-known religious head covering is the kippah.

Many people think that a kippah is a specifically Jewish[1]. However, if priests and leaders in traditional churches are observed closely, one would see that many of them wear special sorts of head coverings, like a miter and/or a kippah[2].

Head coverings can also express a certain status of believers. For example, when women wear a scarf or cloth to cover their hair or even their neck[3]. Within some religions the head cover of women declare that they are married.

• Hairstyle
The Bible gives regulations for hair dress. Therefore, all kinds of customs exist for hairstyle. An example is beards. In Biblical times pious man all had a beard. So, Adam also. It was God Who has given beard growth at the creation. Beard growth is the normal hair growth man have[4].

Amongst pagans shaving the beard however became the way of showing their wealth, since that man could afford himself to take time for it every morning and to pay a barber to have him shaved. In ancient time beardless man also became related with homosexuality[5].

In religious sense men distinguish themselves from women through beard growth (Dt 22:5; 1 Cor 11:8). Similarly, there are Bible regulations which oblige women to distinguish themselves from men with their hair (1 Cor 11:15).

• Clothing
For many believers it is a custom to clothe themselves in public in a dignified manner. In the first place by not wanting to cause any offence to God and the people. Often, they express with it how they see themselves in the sight of God.

It is most common for believers to wear dark, non-exotic colors. Sometimes the color is limited to the colors black and white, but above all not very remarkable, offensive, provocative or eccentric clothing.

In some religious congregations it is custom for those holding an office to wear particular clothing, such as a mantle, chasuble or toga. Partly this is in parallel to the particular garments of the priests which God had commanded Moses to clothe them with[6].

• Signs and symbols
It seems that king David has started using the so-called star of David as signet for the army of Israel[7]. In Christianity something similar is said about emperor Constantine who chose the Labarum[8]. Amongst Christians the sign of a cross has become a most common symbol[9].

• Fringes
God commanded through Moses that all men should make fringes on the four corners of their clothing to remind them daily on the Torah – the covenant conditions – when putting on and taking of their clothing.

• Doorpost blessing
God had commanded through Moses that believers needed to bless the space they entered and everything in it at the doorpost (also at city gates). The living quarters and/or workplaces should be used by them to honor and bless God (Dt 6:9).

Jews interpreted this literally, as they do for so many other covenant conditions, and therefore they connect long small black boxes to almost all doorposts of living. These black boxes contain these commands of God from Deuteronomy. When the believers touch them before entering the room, they pray a particular blessing (Lc 10:5).

• Food/drink
It is known that Jews and Muslims do not eat pork (pig meat), but the Jewish food customs entail much more than that. In the Bible animals are classified in forbidden (unclean) and permitted (clean) animals. This general guideline from the Bible can be used to classify all animals accordingly. Also, the ones not mentioned in the Bible.

An at first glance unclear Bible text on a food condition (Ex 23:19; Dt 14:21) is interpreted in Judaism in such a way that food is even dived into three categories. These are, dairy products, meat products and none of these two, like vegetables, fruit and dried legumes.

Due to periods of fasting some food and/or drink are/is forbidden or obligatory. For example, during Pésach only foods and drinks may be taken which do not contain starch, yeast which make dough rise. For seven days only foodstuffs may be taken which are unleavened, but especially unleavened (without sourdough) bread.

Biblical assessment
Are the previously mentioned customs also directly and convincingly based upon the Bible?

• Head wear – this is Biblically determined
The Bible contains regulation about head covering for both men and women[10]. In Biblical sense men have to distinguish themselves from women, because only men may have an active function in the service to God[11]. Men are commanded to wear a head covering during that service (Ex 29:9)[12]. That head covering reveals that they are ‘under’ His authority.

Likewise, women are commanded in the Bible to always wear a head covering. It also reveals that a ‘power’ is over them. Long hair could in principle be their obligatory head covering (1 Cor 11:15), but because that long hair can be their jewel, that again needs to be covered from the outside (public) world. So, women then need to wear a head covering when they are outside the house to hide their long hair.

The sum up, head covering and head wear are Biblical in the mentioned situations. But men wearing a kippah continuously, also when they are not fulfilling a duty in the worship service, is not commanded in the Bible. They however wear them to satisfy women who need to wear a head covering during almost all of the time.

• Hear style – this is Biblically determined
There are no direct commands about growing a beard in the Bible, but that men have them is seen as a logical given since in the Bible no regulations are given about shaving the whole beard. There is also the fact that an elder in Hebrew is called zaqen – beard. All this makes it clear that implicitly it is expected that a man wears a beard. So, growing and having a beard is in accord with the Bible.

• Clothing – this is Biblically determined
Believers are called to honor and serve God, but not to distinguish them negatively in that sense from the ungodly as if they, by being believers, would be better than them. However, not wearing provocative clothing is Biblical and also that men clearly distinguish themselves from women by their clothing. Also, women clearly need to distinguish themselves from men with their clothing.

• Signs and symbols – this is not Biblically determined
In the Bible no command is given to wear a specific visible sign[13]. Still, men are commanded to wear the physical sign of God’s covenant[14] – the physical circumcision –, but that sign is not visible.

• Fringes – this is Biblically determined
This is not a custom invented by humans, but commanded by God. Wearing fringes is also something people would not make up. Still, it is very practical. It reminds daily to keep God’s Torah. In the Bible it is not specified that they need to be visible or invisible to others. But it is however not Biblical to show off to others that one is pious (Mt 23:5). However, fringes are often used like that.

• Doorpost blessing – this is Biblically determined
The command from God to bless a house while entering it is again literally interpreted in Judaism. With which custom this command to Moses has to be kept is not specified in the Bible. The rabbis however have created from it the human custom to use the so-called mezuzah.

• Food/drink – this is Biblically determined
This is not a custom invented by humans, but commanded by God. The creation is currently corrupt, but even at the origin of it, God made a distinction between clean and unclean and regular and consecrated.

God is outside creation, which makes creation thus from origin on being non-divine. From early on there exists a progressive corruption of creation. Believers need to reckon with the mentioned original distinctions and the current corruption[15].

The Jewish consideration of separating dairy from meat products is remarkable interpreted with human customs.

It is however not always so evident what is and what is not Biblical. For example, about honey, which on the one hand is forbidden for Temple offerings, but on the other eating it is modestly encouraged. What is important is the focus on the main rule which prohibits consuming everything (plants and animals) in creation that sustains itself by preying or bait[16].

Customs of believers prove to undergo proliferation and loss of a sharp distinction between what is Biblical and what is invented by humans. Also, the distinction between main and side issues is no longer clear. Under such conditions the choice is often quickly made to simple keep all customs or to reject them altogether[17].

They that earnestly want to serve God[18] are wise to determine the Biblical basis whether to keep a certain custom. If that cannot be determined, then it is the question whether keeping that custom adds something to the worship service to God. It is obvious for religious life to only keep customs that have a firm Biblical basis.

[1] In Judaism only religious men are required to wear a kippah. It is used to express their awareness that God’s power is above them. In Judaism also other head coverings (of them which hold an office) are in use, such as hats and turbans.
[2] Despite the fact that men in these churches are not allowed to wear head coverings inside the church building and especially not during a service. This rule is based on an interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:4. From the context of that letter of Paul however it is clear that it isn’t about the issue of head covering, but about having long hair (1 Cor 11:14-15).
[3] The same way the head cover of a kippah represents awareness of a power being above the man wearing it, a head covering for a woman is used (1 Cor 11:10). However, because logically humans do not understand the spiritual dimension, specifically this head cover for women is seen as discriminatory. But a kippah worn by men is not seen as discriminatory. This is inconsistent.
[4] Unless when someone genetically has minor or no beard growth or in case of (skin) diseases.
[5] Some beardless men have a female like face, which some homosexuals find attractive.
[6] However, the special clothing of Christian priests more often stems from paganism. The unspiritual human expects that those who hold a spiritual office should wear distinguishing clothes. Sometimes people believe that this clothing represents the spiritual world. That is, that the clothing itself is holy. In Biblical sense clothing can only become ‘holy’ once it has been dedicated to God (Ex 28:2) or when it made contact with something dedicated to God (Lv 6:18, 27).
[7] The origin of this symbol is rather obscure and probable originated in paganism.
[8] This symbol originates from paganism. Just like the related Staurogram.
[9] The sign of the cross is however a very old symbol used in paganism, but in Christianity it is the identifying sign that refers to the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus. But some also use it (unintentionally) as white magic.
[10] In Biblical sense the first priority is hairstyle. For example, it is regarded religiously shameful when women are bald (1 Cor 11:5). Likewise, when men are bold or have too long hair.
[11] This clear (visible) distinction is above all meant for the spiritual world.
[12] Men active in the worship service cannot/may not be equated with Israelite priests.
[13] Externally, so on the body or on the clothing.
[14] This is the religious sign not on but at the body.
[15] This immediately becomes clear in the religious slaughter of animals and the preparation of food.
[16] Most important is that in all allowed food (as far as possible) blood is thoroughly bled dry/subtracted.
[17] In this way it is evident that religious life doesn’t meet the covenantal conditions.
[18] If that level of earnest religious life still exists.