World Conformity in Dress

by John Horsch

This is a 1926 study written by a well known Mennonite teacher and leader presents a case for regulated attire. This study presents a view held today only by the conservative area of the Mennonite Church. Those Mennonites not holding to regulated attire have mostly ignored the Biblical teachings on attire and adopted the world patterns. This study was first published by the MENNONITE PUBLISHING HOUSE in Scottdale, Pennsylvania.




'Ye are the salt of the earth. . . . Ye are the light of the world" (Matt. 5:13, 14).

"They are not of the world even as I am not of the world" (John 17:16).

"Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity against God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God" (Jas. 4:4).

"Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man Jove the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but of the world" (I John 2:15, 16).

"In the like manner also that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works" (I Tim. .1:9,10).

"Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of Great price" (I Pet. 3:3,4).

" I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is. your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God" (Rom. 12:1,2).

"For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit which are God's" (I Cor. 6:20).

"I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).


It is perhaps generally known that there is carried on, at the present time, an organized propaganda to persuade our people that certain restrictions, for which we as a church stand, are nothing more than unnecessary customs, commandments of men. In particular is this charge made in reference to the order of the Church as regards restrictions in dress, such as the head dress of our sisters.

The fact deserves to be noticed here that the opponents of the Church have in all ages of her history advanced similar charges. In the earliest history of the Church the leaders of state church Protestantism accused the Mennonite fathers of setting up commandments of men. The leaders of popular Christianity in that period asserted that non-essential things alone were the obstacles in the way of a union of the Mennonites with the state churches. Zwingli wrote repeatedly that the Swiss Brethren (the Mennonites of Switzerland) were of one mind with him in the articles of faith. He expressed the opinion that on account of "mere external things" (which in his view were not warranted by Scripture and were commandments of men) they refused to unite with the state church

Infant Baptism as an Illustration

Take baptism for an example. The theologians of the Protestant state churches held that the Mennonite fathers, by their rejection of infant baptism, had set up a commandment of men. The state church leaders, in the defence of infant baptism, pointed out that there is a general injunction to baptize, and the baptism of infants is not expressly forbidden, that no command against infant baptism is found in Scripture. Therefore they concluded that the rejection of this practice is a commandment of men. The fact is that infant baptism was in that period prescribed and enforced by all governments of western Europe for the reason that they insisted on a union of church and state, and an exclusive state church could not be maintained without this practice. To disobey the civil authorities on this point was extremely unpopular on account of the persecution of those who discarded this practice. Some of the church reformers of that period, as for example Caspar Schwenckfeld, admitted that they consented to infant baptism for the reason that believers' baptism. involved persecution; in other words, it was too unpopular.

The fathers of the Mennonite Church, on the other hand, showed that infant baptism is contrary to certain distinctive principles of Scripture. They pointed out that the Christian Church is a union of persons who have accepted Christ from their own free choice and are willing to follow Him in life. They saw clearly that the right of membership in the Church is not conveyed by Christian parents on their offspring. Not all children whose parents are Christians become followers of Christ. To baptize and receive into church membership the infants on the ground. that their parents are Christians is an unscritural practice. The very fact that infants cannot practice the other ordinances of the house of God is sufficient reason for refusing to make them members of the Church. The fathers of the Mennonite Church were convinced that, to maintain certain Scriptural principles, the practice of believers' baptism was required; They found in Scripture the command to baptize believers. They recognized the baptism of infants to be a commandment of men.

It may, by the way, be worth while noticing that, after infant baptism had become the common practice in the Catholic Church, there were persistent efforts made in the way of practicing infant communion as well. But although the unconscious infants were given only the tiniest particle of the emblems used in the communion, this practice. had to be abandoned as an impossibility, a commandment of men.

Charles G. Finney and James W. Alexander on Worldly Conformity

Concerning the principle and practice of nonconformity to the world Charles G. Finney, for many years (1851-1866) president of Oberlin College (Congregationalist), wrote: "Worldly conformity is directly at war with the spirit of the Gospel, and it is minding earthly things. What is minding earthly things, if it is not to follow the fashions of the world that like a tide are continually. setting to and fro, and fluctuating in their forms and keeping the world continually changing? To conform to the world is contrary to the Christian profession.

    "When people join the church, they profess to give up the spirit that gives rise to the fashions. They profess to renounce the pomp and vanity of the world, to repent of their pride, to follow the meek and lowly Savior to live for God. And what do they now? Nine-tenths of the people seldom look at anything higher than to do as the world does and to follow the fashions. For this they strain every nerve. And this is what their hearts are set on and what they live for. A man deceives himself therefore if he supposes that fashion is a little thing.

    "This conformity is a broad approval of the spirit of the world. What is it that lies at the bottom of all this shifting scenery? What is the cause that produces all this gaudy show, dash, and display? It is the love of applause. And when Christians follow the changes of fashion, they pronounce all this innocent. All this waste of money and time and thought, all this feeding and cherishing of vanity and the love of applause the church sets her seal to when she conforms to the world."

A more recent British writer, Dr. James W. Alexander, says:

    "More than ever do I feel that our families must stand in a kind but determined opposition to the fashions of the world, breasting the waves like the Eddystone lighthouse. And I have found nothing yet which requires more courage and independence than to rise a little, but decidedly, above the par of the religious world around us. "Surely, the way in which we commonly go on is not the way of self-denial and sacrifice arid cross-bearing which the New Testament talks of. Then is the offence of the Cross ceased. By dress, books, and amusements an atmosphere is formed which is not that of Christianity."

Two Distinct Christian Divisions

It may here be observed that on the question of worldly conformity in dress the present-day Christian denominations are naturally divided. into two groups. While practically all denominations hold that the injunction, "Be not conformed to this world," should be heeded (in other words, they all stand in theory for nonconformity and the simple life), the majority of the churches do not recognize any particular restrictions, and consequently do not make worldly conformity in dress a matter for discipline. And again there is a group of denominations which have definite regulations and restrictions as to apparel. Observance of these regulations is obligatory for the members. Transgression is discountenanced and followed by discipline These are the so-called plain churches.

A number of years ago a Unitarian preacher in Paris, named Charles Wagner, wrote a book entitled, The Simple Life, which was translated and published in the English language. It is in some respects a remarkable production. The writer took the position of popular Christendom. His book was meant to be a rebuke to an excessively extravagant manner of life. He did not believe in the principle of separation and nonconformity. In other words, he did not write from a distinctly Christian viewpoint. That simplicity is a virtue is admitted, in fact, even by the non-professing world.

In popular Christendom, then, the question of worldly conformity in dress is permitted to take care of itself. The fact that Scripture requires modesty of apparel is indeed not denied but it is left to the individual members to decide what may answer for modest apparel, or to leave this question entirely out of consideration, if they choose. The consequence is that in 'churches taking this attitude worldly conformity has ceased to be an issue. It is not recognized as inconsistent with a Christian profession.

Worldly Conformity no Longer an Issue

In the majority of the Christian denominations the Bible principle of modest apparel is, as intimated, practically ignored. There are no restrictions in regard to apparel. The fact that worldly conformity in dress is a violation of the Word, that it is inconsistent with the true Christian life and is a great obstacle and hindrance to it, is left out of consideration. The results are such that in these churches many voices are heard deploring existing conditions. Indeed there is in regard to apparel no appreciable difference between popular Christianity and the non-professing world which, as concerns this point, takes its orders from the most frivolous city on the globe. The claim to stand for the simple life and for nonconformity to the world has a real meaning only where definite restrictions are observed and transgression is made an occasion for discipline. In the absence of such restrictions it is impossible for a church to handle this question according to Scriptural requirements.

Worldliness Destructive to Christian Piety

It would obviously be a mistake to suppose that an infringement in the way of following the immodest fashions is merely a breach of propriety. It is in fact a transgression of a Biblical command, a violation of 4 Scriptural principle. It is a sin which has regrettable consequences both in a spiritual and moral respect.

It is true that there may be plainness of attire as a mere matter of form without sustaining the true relationship of the soul to God. On the other hand it is equally true that immodesty of clothing is one of the chief enemies of true Christian spirituality. This is the reason why immodest attire is condemned in Scripture. The Church is losing in power and influence to the extent that such apparel is tolerated.

The Scriptural requirements regarding nonconformity to the world and modesty of attire are based on the underlying principle of separation from the world. This principle is taught in many places in the Scriptures. The Bible teaches emphatically that the world, insofar as the human heart has not been renewed by a supernatural, divine work of grace, is evil. "The whole world lieth in wickedness (in the wicked one)." The natural thing for man is to follow the ways of the world. Nonconformity is the fruit of regeneration and consecration and should be in evidence in every Christian professor. Yet worldliness has nevertheless made inroads on professing Christendom. This means, as already said, a vital loss to true Christianity. Worldliness is one of the principal causes of weakness in the Christian Church. Experience teaches that there will be the most regrettable consequences if a church fails to have a clear testimony and maintain a Scriptural position on the point of worldly conformity. A certain religious denomination, for example, which de fends the view that, when the proper emphasis is placed on true spirituality and consecration, restrictions in dress are unnecessary, has found it impossible to keep aloof from serious offence along the line of im modest apparel. The writer not long ago had a conversation with one of their leaders who was formerly a Mennonite. He made the following interesting remark: "My experience has made me realize the value of the regulations and restrictions which are observed in the Mennonite Church."

Immodest Dress a Cause of Moral Degeneration

Furthermore indecent clothing is a destructive agency to common morality. It seems worth while to call attention here to the fact that at the present time there are in evidence many unmistakable indications of a moral breakdown of national proportions. Many prominent writers could be quoted testifying to this if space would permit. The bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church, in their message to the Methodist General Conference of the year 1924, said, "The recent years have brought us such a decline of public morality that no one who loves humanity can remain indifferent to this patent fact." They also call attention to the shameful styles of clothing. The head of the police department of New York, Commissioner Enright, recently pointed out that thirty years ago seventy per cent of the crime was committed by persons more than thirty years old, while today seventy per cent is by persons under thirty, and the greater part of that by persons around twenty-one. He ascribes these shocking conditions partly to the fact that the child "sees examples of laxity in the life and habits of his own parents which soon lead him to self-indulgence and crime." Divorce is increasing at an alarming rate. It would be folly to blame any particular agency for this deplorable condition of things. The popular dance which, according to unanimous reliable testimony, is reeking with filthiness, the "dirty magazines" which in recent years have multiplied like the frogs of Egypt, the moving picture show and other forms of worldliness, are clearly in a large measure responsible. The indecent dress of women and girls also is coming in for its share of evil influences, producing the sad results which we have before our eyes. A decline in the modesty of women shows itself first in the apparel. In popular Christendom it is, of course claimed that if the heart is right, immodest clothing will not matter. This certainly is a deception. Immodest clothing clearly means immodesty. A decline in the modesty of women is one of the most serious indications of moral--let alone spiritual--degeneracy.

To find the non-professing world indulging in the forms of worldliness named, such as the dance, reading the vulgar magazines, frequenting the moving picture show and following the popular fashions is indeed not strange. The surprising thing is that the Church is not giving to the world a better example of unworldliness; that the principle of nonconformity to the world has been reduced to a mere theory, the claim being made that if your heart is right you may indulge in these things. The sad thing is that the Church of Jesus Christ of which He has said that it is not of the world, even as He was not of the world, is lacking the backbone, the consecration, the willingness "to be different" which is needed for the true Christian life.

Necessary Regulations Based on Scripture Authority

As already said Scripture demands nonconformity. Modesty of attire is enjoined on the believer. The Church cannot ignore this principle without being untrue to the Word to that extent. But while the Scriptures teach and require modesty of attire, they do not contain a classification of modern articles of attire or styles of dress. To say that any article or mode of dress that is not expressly mentioned and condemned in the Scriptures may be consistently used is to assert that the styles prescribed by modern fashion are acceptable from a Christian viewpoint Yet the fact is that in the denominations which take the position that anything that is not named and forbidden in Scripture is acceptable, not even the things mentioned and condemned in Scripture, such as the wearing of gold and jewelry, are under the ban.

The Scriptures, to repeat for emphasis, do not name the articles of modern attire and modes of dress which are consistent with the requirements of Christian modesty, and which are not. The hat for women in particular (that is to say the fashionable, ever-changing modern headgear for women which was unknown in Bible times) is of course not mentioned in Scripture. It is clearly necessary, in order to maintain a Scriptural position on the point of modesty of attire, that the Church draw the line against certain modes of dress and define the practical meaning of modesty of attire for our time. To assert that the Church has no right to make such definitions means nothing less than that the principle of nonconformity to the world should in' practice be discarded.

Nonconformity to the World becomes a meaningless theory if every member of the Church is permitted to make his own definitions and follow his own inclinations in regard to this point. In short, the demand of the Church that the principle of nonconformity to the world should be heeded and obeyed is founded on the Word of God. The Church, in giving the needed definitions regarding the practical meaning of Christian modesty of attire, is acting on the authority of the Word. In this connection the testimony of John S. Coffman, as given in the Herald of Truth of February 13, .1882, is worth quoting. He wrote: "Unless the Church, like zealous Menno Simons, pious John Wesley and his colaborers, and many others, takes the responsibility to say what is plain and becoming apparel for disciples of Jesus, she will soon be led by the gaudy votaries of fashion to her shame and the dishonor of her humble Master."

Various Objections Answered

As intimated above, it is true regarding simplicity of attire, as it is true of any other precept and injunction of Scripture, that as a mere matter of form it falls far short of the Christian standard. The danger of formalism is real. But this is no reason for disregarding what God's Word enjoins upon the believer as a duty. While profession without possession must be discountenanced, it goes without saying that the Christian professor who may find that he is not a Christian at heart is under duty to repent and surrender to God rather than to abandon his profession. It is always the right thing for those who make a profession of Christianity to obey the Scriptures on this point as well as in all other Christian duties.

It is also said, and rightfully, that we as a people are in various respects not as plain and modest as we should be. This again is no reason for throwing to the winds our position on the point in question. It cannot be denied that worldly conformity in dress is especially mentioned and condemned in Scripture. It is right and necessary that the Church should give it special attention and maintain particular requirements to avoid it.

Furthermore it is worth noticing that the injunctions of Scripture regarding adornment of the body are addressed to the sisters. This cannot be taken to mean that men are less subject to the temptation of pride. Usually it manifests itself among them in other ways. And a proud man will as a rule be more concerned about the bodily adornment of his wife or daughter than about his own. Yet it is certainly true that such adornment is to be condemned in men as much as in women.

Undeniably the goddess of fashion is more severe in her demands on women than on men. The dress which fashion ordains for women is often decidedly indecent; it is in many instances the apparel of the fallen "women of the street." For those who are making a Christian profession it is the extreme of inconsistency to wear such clothing. Worldly fashions are an effective tool in the enemy's hand to hinder the cause of the Lord.

The supposition that any way of wearing the hair or beard is acceptable from a Christian viewpoint is not well taken. "Bobbing the hair" is strictly in line with other immodest fashions. The inspired New Testament writer expresses himself clearly against women cutting their hair short. As concerns the beard it is worth noticing that even in the Protestant state churches of Europe in which the subject of nonconformity to the world is never mentioned ministers were until a comparatively recent date permitted to shave only if they shaved the mustache also The same was true of "soldiers" of the Salvation Army.

Those who have made use of ridicule in the struggle against the position held by the Church seem to, have forgotten that this is a cheap weapon by which nothing can be proved. Some have even derided baptism and communion, taking the view that such ceremonies are of no real importance since they do not effect a change of heart. In all ages of the Church's history ridicule has been a favorite weapon of the opponents. The Apostle Paul says pertinently: "We are fools for Christ's sake." From the viewpoint of the world and the flesh, true Christianity will always appear foolish.

The Case of the Secret Orders

As concerns the question of the right of the Church to adopt restrictions concerning points that are not specifically mentioned in Scripture, the case of the secret orders is an illustration to the point. The question has been raised, Has the Church a right to condemn such lodges as do not require an oath? Is secrecy so weighty a violation of Christian principle that lodge members cannot be tolerated in the Church? It is readily seen that if the lodges discarded both the oath and secrecy, this would not vitally change their worldly character. The position of the Church as regards the lodge is based on the fact that this institution, in consequence of its general character and its evil worldly influences, is a mighty agency of evil, a great obstacle to the Christian cause. This is recognized by many earnest Christian leaders who have no objection against the oath. The Church has the right and duty to maintain the restriction in regard to secret orders, though they are not mentioned in Scripture. She has the same right and duty to insist on necessary restrictions in regard to attire.

Taking the Popular View of the Matter

We now come more directly to the assertion that some of the restrictions in regard to worldly conformity which are observed among us are mere unnecessary customs, commandments of men. In particular is this charge made concerning the restrictions referring to things that are not specially mentioned in Scripture, such as the head dress of the sisters. To make clear the position taken by those who make such charges, demanding greater liberties, we shall quote from a letter written by a college student who until recently was a member of our communion. The writer of the letter states that she was enlightened on the points in question by attending meetings in a church of another Mennonite branch. The meetings were in charge of an educator who, so rumor has it, still claims membership with us. One of the sermons preached on that occasion was later published under the title, The Faith of Our Fathers. The letter is in part as follows:

"God insisted on simplicity and nonconformity and left the rest to our judgment. Too long have the clergy done all the thinking for the people. I believe in churches but I also believe in personal rights and liberties. The ruling to wear a bonnet is a man-made and not a God-made ordinance. If I were the only one in our Church who took this stand, I surely would get out or conform to their wishes, but as there are many others, we will all act together. The minority and not the majority brings in new things. If more charity were practiced we would have less trouble in the Church."

The arguments given in this letter are familiar to most of us, since they are generally advanced by those desiring greater liberties.

Need it be said that this is precisely the position of the churches which in theory leave the question of modest apparel to the individual judgment but in practice ignore the question entirely, and whose members follow the frivolcus fashions of the world? Can anyone be in doubt about the result if the Mennonite Church would adopt the view that the order of the Church on this point is inconsistent with the demands of Christian charity and that on the question of nonconformity and simplicity every member should have the right to decide and act independently? It is unbelievable that those who advocate such views, if they have given the question any serious thought, can be in doubt about the results if such concessions were granted by the Church.

The Uniform Head Dress

As concerns the headgear of the sisters it should be observed in the first place that the prescribed head dress is eminently becoming to those making a profession of godliness. Probably no one would say that fashionable headgear is more becoming considered from the Christian viewpoint. Such an assertion would be absurd.

Secondly, it should be noted that as far back as we have any record concerning this point the Mennonite Church has insisted on the uniform. head dress of the sisters. Until the year 1847 when a division took place in eastern Pennsylvania this was true of all Mennonites of America. In Switzerland, South Germany, and France a prescribed head dress was in use in the Mennonite churches until well into the last century; in the churches of Baden, Wurttemberg and Bavaria till toward the end of the century. Some of our older members will remember that among the Russian Mennonites who came to America in the seventies of the last century the sisters wore a uniform head dress.

Since our present-day critics assert that prescribing a particular headgear is out of place, the question is in order, What may have led the Church to take a definite position in this matter? The reason is that the uniform plain headgear of the sisters is of particular and vital importance in the struggle against the encroachments of the world on the point of worldly conformity, as may be more fully shown directly.

The Question of Peculiarity

An objection to the uniform plain head dress is raised on account of its peculiarity. The expression "a peculiar people" in I Pet. 2:9, it is pointed out, is incorrectly translated, therefore, it is argued, peculiarity is uncalled for. Those who raise this objection have failed to tell us how there could be nonconformity in dress without peculiarity. Charles G. Finney has well said on this point:

    "To maintain that we are not to be singular or peculiar is the same as to maintain that we are to be conformed to the world. 'Be not singular' means 'be like the world;' in other words, 'be conformed to the world.' It is your duty to dress so plainly as to show to the world that you place no sort of reliance on the things of fashion and set no value at all upon them, but despise and neglect them altogether. There is no way by which you can bear a proper testimony by your lives against the fashions of the world, but by dressing plainly."

It is generally known that the plain hat has been advocated by those who object to peculiarity. But would not a plain hat be necessarily singular and out of fashion? It would really not answer for those who object to peculiarity. And it has been rightfully said that as a rule those who lay aside the bonnet do not wear plain hats, at least they do not keep them plain. Any one who may be inclined to doubt this statement should investigate conditions in the churches which a few decades ago were quite plain and have given liberty to substitute a plain hat for the bonnet. A prominent member of one of these churches writes: "Our Church has been only partially successful in keeping herself rid of worldliness, such as superfluities in dress, jewelry, etc. Observation proves to me that the only way for a denomination to remain absolutely plain is to adopt rules and maintain them.

Some of those desiring greater liberties have said that the sisters' head dress is too little a thing for the Church to have regulations about. Obviously this is an indication that, if the plain hat were permitted, they would not for any length of time recognize restrictions as to the sort of hat to be worn. It is admitted that in itself the particular point is a little thing. Again it must be admitted that much in the way of Christian duty consists in giving attention to little things. Some of the express commands of our Lord have to do with little things. This is no argument against their importance.

Why Restrictions Against Worldly Conformity are Necessary

As already said, no particular precepts are found in Scripture as to head dress and cut of clothing. The Bible could not give instruction in the way of attire that would be suitable for every condition and climate. And it need not be said that the cut of clothing in itself has nothing to do with the salvation of the soul and the Christian life. The question before us concerns the Church for the reason that the environment in which the Church on earth finds herself is such as it is. The Church is surrounded by the world. The world is following the wrong leadership in this matter, hence the injunction, not to be conformed to the world. The temptation to worldly conformity is real. If the world in its nature and influence were the opposite of what it is in fact; if the Christian principles of modesty, simplicity, and humility were popular in the world and there were a general tendency to heed and exemplify these principles, there would in that case be no occasion for the Church to adopt regulations concerning dress.

While it is true that no particular precepts are found in Scripture as to head dress and cut of clothing, it is on the other hand just as true that it is impossible for a church to fulfill the Scriptural' requirements in regard to modest apparel and nonconformity, if this question is permitted to take care of itself, as is the case among the more prominent churches. The idea that the Church has no right to give attention to this matter and to adopt rulings which are necessary to maintain a Scriptural position on the point of worldly conformity cannot be entertained by people who are accustomed to doing their own thinking. The contrary is true. The Church, as already said, would be disloyal to the principle of the binding authority of Scripture, if she accepted the popular view and ignored the teachings of Scripture regarding modesty of attire. There are but a few rules as concerns this matter on which the Church insists. To abandon these regulations, principal among which is that in regard to the sisters' head dress, would mean to discard a vital Scriptural principle.

Unpopular Restrictions Abandoned by Fashionable Churches

Moreover a close inquiry into our question will reveal the fact that the loss incurred by surrendering these points would in its consequences be one of such magnitude as to cause changes in the general character of the Church. This question is so vitally connected with the principle of separation that this principle would lose its force if the Church surrendered her position on the point of worldly conformity. If the view were accepted that the few restrictions which are in force on this point are merely unnecessary customs and commandments of men, it would mean not only that the Church would lose her simplicity and take the fashionable popular attitude as concerns attire, but within a short time her other Scriptural principles and practices which are unpopular would be considered also as commandments of men.

The fact cannot be ignored that the restriction against "going to law" has been eliminated in the churches which have lost the principle of separation to the extent that they take the popular position on the question of worldly conformity. This means that they no longer stand for the principle of nonresistance. The doctrine of nonresistance is necessarily unacceptable to a fashionable church. Among the Mennonite churches of America which take the popular attitude concerning worldly conformity the cause of pacifism is generally upheld, that is to say, efforts are put forth for the prevention of war. Yet these churches are by no means a unit in defending and insisting on the position of the Conscientious Objector. The same is true of the other denominations which formerly recognized definite restrictions against worldly conformity but with their former position on the question of separation have also lost their definite testimony on the point of nonresistance. The Church of the Brethren, e. g., in a recent Annual Meeting, refused to take a definite stand in favor of the C. O. position in case of war. Such is also the official attitude of the Friends (Quakers) who were very much divided on this point during the war. The fact will bear repetition that the principle of nonresistance with its practical demands is too unpopular for fashionable congregations.

What was said here of nonresistance is also true regarding the non-swearing of oaths. This command is disregarded to about the same extent.

Further Consequences of Discarding Pertinent Restrictions

Experience shows further that one of the first things coming with worldly conformity in dress is extravagant church houses. The bishop of a Mennonite church, which formerly adhered strictly to nonconformity and had a plain church building, in an address favoring the erection of a church which was to be the finest and most extravagant in a town that had various large churches of the more prominent denominations, expressed the opinion that the luxurious dwelling houses of the members called for another style of building than that which the congregation was using at the time. Again a church built after the extravagant popular style would be incomplete without a musical instrument.* In short, the principle of simplicity in worship would be permitted to drop out of sight.

*A Mennonite theological professor wrote recently that the early Mennonites had no objection to instrumental music in the churches, but in course of time they became accustomed to the absence of musical instruments and finally concluded that there was a principle involved in this question. The fact is that in Switzerland as well as in Holland even the Reformed state church condemned instrumental music in the churches. In the Roman Catholic church buildings which were turned over to the Reformed Church all organs were removed and destroyed. There was no disagreement between the Mennonites and the Reformed Church on this point. This is only one among various instances in which, through incorrect statements, the views of the modern critics of the Church have been ascribed to the early Mennonites.

With a salaried ministry, which would be inevitable, would come a laxity in discipline. The evangelical way of confessing offensive transgression and asking the forgiveness of the church is impracticable in fashionable churches. Another consequence is that the evangelical position against worldly amusements would be gradually lost. Again it is sad to observe that in many Mennonite congregations of America members of secret orders are tolerated and recognized as in good standing. In other words, the opposition to the lodge is considered a commandment of men. The same is true in regard to the prayer headcovering and other unpopular ordinances.

It is worth noticing, in passing, that notwithstanding these facts it is continually asserted by those who desire that the Church should take a more popular general attitude that the points on which the Mennonites of America are divided are nothing more than unimportant customs and other non-essentials. The Church is severely criticized because she is not ready to admit that all the points which divide American Mennonites are unessential.

Is Morality Our Principal Aim?

Indeed among a small number of American Mennonites modernistic tendencies are in evidence. There is disagreement among the Mennonites of America even in regard to the cardinal point of Scripture authority and other fundamentals. Of this there is convincing proof. The author of a recent book on Education Among the Mennonites of America, a Mennonite theological educator, accuses the early Mennonite Church of "idolizing the book" (the Bible). This is the common charge of the modernists against those who stand for the fundamentals of the faith. One of the leaders in the propaganda against the position taken by the Church, the dean of a Mennonite college, wrote recently in a Mennonite paper (in an exposition of the Sunday School lesson for August 2, 1925): "Our problem is to get a proper conception of the right relation between religion and morals. The Christian religion is superior to all others in that it is essentially ethical." (Ethical means ''of or belonging to, morals; containing moral precepts; moral"). To dispel all possible doubt as to the intended meaning of these words, he adds: "Our whole aim is morality." The same writer has expressed himself similarly in other places.

This is plain language. It is the language of those who advocate the ethical or moral interpretation of Christianity. In other words; it is the language of the radical modernism. The Christian Church is interested above all in the soul's salvation through a divine work of grace in the heart by faith in Christ and the Atonement. According to Scripture teaching the superiority of Christianity is to be ascribed primarily to its doctrinal, religious truths. In point of morality there are other religions which compare not unfavorably with Christianity. As concerns the salvation of the soul Christianity stands in a class by itself. No other religion can be compared with it on this point. Salvation is through Christ alone. Modernists hold an unreal view of salvation. When they speak, as they often do, of the salvation of society, they mean that society is to be saved by accepting certain moral reforms, and their opinion is that the individual is to be saved in the same way.

Modernism, then, denies man's need of Salvation in the sense that both Scripture and experience teach. "The higher criticism," says a Scotch theologian, K. C. Anderson, "has in effect reduced Christianity from the religion of redemption to an ethical system." And Walter Rauschenbusch, the noted exponent of the social gospel, says: "The new gospel plainly concentrates religious interest on the great ethical problems of social life." The fundamental doctrines of the faith (such as the supernatural birth, the resurrection and true deity of Christ) are considered strictly secondary, unessential matters. For those whose whole aim is morality the question regarding the nature of Christ and of His work of redemption is of no vital consequence. Therefore doctrine and creed are minimized and made light of. In short, the whole aim is morality. Needless to say that, considered from this viewpoint, the Scriptural injunction against the unequal yoke with unbelievers would be obsolete. Also the principle of separation from and nonconformity to the world would be unacceptable. It is obvious that between this position and the Christian faith "there is a great gulf fixed." "How can two walk together except they be agreed?" What right has a movement whose whole aim is morality to the Christian or Mennonite name?

The Question of Commandments of Men

The fact is that all the distinctive doctrines and practices of the Mennonite Church are by the vast majority of Christian professors regarded as human inventions, commandments of men. Of the five hundred sixty-six million of the Christian population of the globe all but a small minority (less than twenty million) reject the exclusive baptism of believers, asserting that is is a commandment of men. On the doctrine of nonresistance the minority of the Christian professors who are of one mind with us is very small; it is less than one-tenth of one percent of the Christian population of the globe.

It is important, in passing, to keep in mind the difference between opposition to war and the principle of nonresistance. While the movement which has for its object the prevention of war, has of late been gaining in strength, only a small fraction of those who are identified with this movement would refuse to do military service in case of war. The doctrine of nonresistance, including necessarily the rejection of all military service and the repudiation of "going to law," is today as unpopular as it always was.

The same is true of non-swearing of oaths and other restrictions and unpopular ordinances. As for the oath, it is difficult to see what language our Lord might have used that would be plainer and more forceful than the words, "But I say unto you, Swear not at all." Yet we are told that "swear not at all" is a commandment of men.

Inherent Antagonism between Christianity and the World

And it is especially remarkable that those who reject some of the distinctive teachings and practices for which the apostolic church as well as the early Mennonite Church stood and for which the Mennonite Church desires to stand today are not only a vast majority in point of nun, hers but in this majority are included the leading D D.'s, the men who are considered the great doctors of Christendom. We are but a handful. In the eyes of the world we scarcely deserve notice. In the various published works containing the creeds of Christendom, for example, the Mennonite creed is scarcely mentioned. In the Protestant almanacs which do not exclude the names of. prominent Roman Catholics, you will look in vain for the names of Conrad Grebel and Menno Simons. The reason is that these men took a position which those who have decided for popular Christianity did not and could not approve.

The world, then, including the great majority of professing Christians, disapproves of some of the vital doctrines and practices of primitive Christianity. The reason given for such an attitude is that the points in question are commandments of men. The real reason is found in the fact that the way of life as pointed out in Scripture conflicts with the ways of the world. There is an inherent antagonism between true Christianity and the world. Scripture teaches the need of renouncing the world. While salvation is offered as a free gift, the thought is not that the true Christian life can be lived by taking the way of least resistance, the easy and popular way of the multitude. On the contrary, a life in accordance with New Testament principles and requirements involves a cost (Luke 14:33). The cost is such that true Christianity is destined to be unpopular in the world. Yet it need not be said that the cost of popularity is by far the greater, involving a loss in eternal values.

The Mennonite Church was organized to be a full expression of New Testament Christianity regardless of the cost. The aim was not great numbers, not popularity, not to make the way broad enough for the worldly-minded, but the aim was entire conformity to the Word of God.

Two Opposite Attitudes

The objection has been raised that the restrictions maintained by the Church in respect to worldly conformity are a hindrance in the general work of the Church. There are those who consider the elimination of these restrictions as a reformatory measure. Some of them have asserted that their efforts toward discarding these things are in principle similar to the efforts of the men who, a generation ago, led the Church into avenues of more aggressive Christian work. No one will question that aggressiveness in Christian work is a vital characteristic of a true New Testament church and was recognized as such by the early Mennonite leaders. And between the church leaders of a generation ago and the men who now insist on the elimination of the said restrictions, there is a very great difference and contrast as to their attitude toward the Church. The first mentioned men worked in submission to and in unison with the Church. They did a wonderful work for the strengthening and upbuilding of the body with which they were identified. The thought of becoming leaders in a revolt against the Church, as represented by our conferences, would have been abhorrent to them. And it is obvious that only thoughtlessness can accept the said comparison between the issues of aggressiveness in Christian work and the abandonment of the restrictions against worldly conformity. The two issues have nothing in common.

Some Noteworthy Historical Facts

The charge that the restrictions against worldly conformity, and in particular the one in regard to the head dress of the sisters, are standing as an obstacle in the way of extending the borders of the Church deserves careful investigation. It is true that you may find those who, but for these restrictions, would unite with the Church. Again it is a fact that can scarcely be overemphasized that their number is small as compared with the number of those who give the Mennonite Church the preference for the very reason that it maintains the restrictions against worldly conformity.

The recent history of other denominations,* for example that of the Church of the Brethren (Dunkards), furnishes noteworthy illustrations to the point. The Progressive Dunkards, who formed a separate organization in 1882, repudiate the right of any congregation or conference "to bind the conduct of any believer in Christ." In their view no church or denomination may lay down binding regulations and restrictions. They throw the gate wide open on the matter of attire. Their sanguine expectations of numerical growth were not realized, however. One of their evangelists said that in this he was keenly disappointed. He had supposed that the restrictions in dress kept hundreds out of that church but learned to his own sorrow by experience that this was not the case.

*It should be definitely understood that, in making mention of these denominations there is no thought of meddling in matters which do not concern us, or of offering criticism We simply give a statement of facts that are of interest in connection with our subject It is perhaps generally known that in these churches there are minorities taking a consistent position regarding the principle of nonconformity to the world. In more recent years the Conservative Dunkards have, in consequence of liberal leadership, accepted in principle the same position as that which is held by the new branch. While in certain sections the congregations of the Conservatives have retained their former position, the denomination as such gives. liberty as concerns the observance of the unpopular restrictions. Moreover many of their prominent leaders, like some of the liberalistic Mennonites, advocate the liberal "social gospel."

The recent history of this denomination presents an experiment which is of such importance that it behooves us as Mennonites, in view of the present agitation against the restrictions, to sit up and take notice. Has the elimination of the unpopular features brought them the hoped for greater numerical prosperity? We let the official statistics answer. In the decade from 1906 to 1916 their membership increased from 76,547 to 105,102, or 3.7 per cent per year. In the six years from 1916 to 1922 (the most recent year for which the figures are obtainable) the number has grown to 112,563, or 0.8 per cent per annum. And yet they have in recent years made great strides in the way of education and better organization. They have today a far larger number of highly educated, trained workers than a decade or two ago. While some of the Mennonite branches have increased in numbers, principally by reason of certain conservative circles yielding to liberal influences and uniting with them, such has not been the case among the Dunkards.

The experience of the Quakers also illustrates our point. As concerns the process of popularization they are about forty years ahead of the Dunkards. At the present time there are very few of them observing any pertinent restrictions. In recent years the main body of this denomination is showing a marked decrease in numbers. In the decade from 1906 to 1916 they had a slight increase (less than two tenths of one percent per annum). From 1906 to 1922 their number has decreased from 92,379 to 85,612. Needless to say that these figures speak volumes on the point in question.

In view of the assertion that the bonnet is a hindrance in city mission work, it is timely to point to a recent pertinent experience. The superintendent of one of our city missions, finding himself out of harmony with the practice of the Church, withdrew in order to unite with another Mennonite branch, which also took over the mission station with which he was connected. He was of the opinion that the restriction pertaining to the head dress of the sisters (which the said Mennonite branch does not have) stood in the way of effective mission work. After about two years of earnest effort it is evident that the expectation of greater success proved disappointing.

Consequences of Popularization

Such facts indicate that, even if numbers were our first object, to follow the way of popularity for the sake of gaining numbers would in the long run prove a mistaken policy. A little further consideration may make this more clear. In popular Christendom the opinion prevails more and more that the differences between the various denominations are of very little importance. As concerns the more prominent churches this is doubtless true. There are few real differences. A number of Mennonite writers favor therefore a general union of the Protestant denominations. The same writers hold that the existing differences between the various Mennonite branches are of no consequence.

This is evidently correct as concerns the more liberal branches. There is no reason why they could not unite. A well-known writer makes the incorrect statement that a certain insignificant regulation regarding attire is all that hinders a union of two groups of the Old Order Amish Brethren. The fact which this writer overlooks is, however, that nothing whatever, neither in the way of doctrine or practice--not even "suspenders"--stand in the way of a union between some of the more liberal branches. He seems to be unaware that his harsh words against the conservatives fall back with increased weight upon the liberals who fail to effect a union among themselves although nothing can be mentioned that would stand in the way of such a union. Recently a noteworthy article was published in the "Bundesbote" touching upon the question of Mennonite unity. The article, which treats of the recent session of the All Mennonite Convention, was written by the minister of the Swiss Mennonite Church at Berne, Indiana (General Conference Mennonites). The writer intimates that it is useless to ignore the fact that the conservative branches hold certain things to be necessary and essential to which the more liberal Mennonites are indifferent.

Modern unionism is based on the supposition that the various denominations are becoming more and more alike. The opinion was expressed by a few recent writers that some of the more prominent denominations are to some extent accepting the viewpoint of Mennonitism. The incorrect statement has been made that those of the larger denominations which have within recent years declared themselves as opposed to war, have "come across" to accept the Mennonite position. The fact is that the viewpoint which these denominations have adopted is that which is held by those churches that, for the principle of nonresistance, have substituted the approval of efforts to prevent war. Yet it should be remembered that even certain officers in the United States army have admitted that war is "the greatest manifestation of evil in the world;" therefore they, in time of peace, work for the prevention of war.

If we as Mennonites decided to yield to the popular demands and to drop the restrictions in question the consequences of this concession would be such that there would be no good reason why our children and others coming under our influence should not prefer the more prominent churches to a small body such as the Mennonite Church. Indeed there would in that case be scarcely anything worth while standing in the way of a union between us and the said churches.

John Wesley's Experience

Again, practical nonconformity to the world and modesty of apparel is a characteristic which cannot l)e regained by a church after it has once been surrendered. On this point the experience of John Wesley is pertinent. He wrote sometime in a later period of his life:

    "I am distressed. I know not what to do. I see what I might have done once. I might have said peremptorily and expressly, 'Here I am; I and my Bible. I will not, I dare not vary from this book, either in great or small. I have no power to dispense with one jot or tittle of what is contained therein. I am determined to be a Bible Christian, not almost but altogether. Who will meet me on this ground? Join me on this, or not at all.' With regard to dress in particular, I might have been as firm (and I now see it would have been far better) as either the people called Quakers or the Moravian Brethren ; I might have said, 'This is our manner of dress, which we know is both Scriptural and rational. If you join us, you are to dress as we do; but you need not join us unless you please.' But, alas the time is now past; and what I can do now, I cannot tell."

John Wesley, having gone too far in granting popular liberties in the way of worldly conformity, found it impossible to lead his people back to Scriptural modesty of attire. He realized at a later period that they as a church would refuse to follow him on the point in question if he insisted on a Scriptural position, which he could have taken at the time of the founding of the Methodist Church.

A Striking Testimony from Holland

A noteworthy testimony as to the practical value of the restrictions in question is found in a pamphlet on the Mennonites of America written by a Mennonite minister in Holland, J. M. Leendertz, who a few years ago made an extensive tour through America. Having mentioned various regulations maintained by the Church in America, he says:

    "But these Mennonite peculiarities are not without spiritual value. The young people, who are brought up under these strict rules, have a very real feeling that the Christian life imposes special obligations.

    "I doubt that it was to the benefit of the spiritual life of the Mennonites of Holland that during the last century they were spared these difficulties (arising from the observance and enforcement of such strict regulations), and that the dividing line between them and the worldly life has been well-nigh obliterated. I found among the American Mennonites a deep-rooted feeling of obligation toward God, a great moral and religious fervor, which is continually nourished and kept alive by their attitude of separation from the world."

The above testimony is of especial value coming from one who personally does not take the conservative position. Our American liberals, on the contrary, seem to be unable to see the value of the said restrictions.

"A Creed for Heroes"

The principle of separation from the world unto Christ is rooted, as intimated, in the truth that the world is antagonistic to the spirit of Christ. The world is to be overcome, not to be befriended and absorbed. We hear in our day much of Christianizing (instead of evangelizing) the world. Yet it is obvious that the powers of darkness which are centered in the prince of darkness and are in evidence in the world and which find too ready a response in the human heart, can be neither Christianized nor otherwise eliminated. As for fashion, this popular goddess, instead of showing signs of Christianization (in agreement with the supposed world-betterment) is becoming rather more anti-Christian and frivolous in her demands. Never was the need of separation, the willingness to be different, the effective testimony against this monster evil so great as it is today. And never did the maintenance of the Scriptural position on this point require such self-denial and heroism. To yield to the popular demands would be sheer disloyalty to Scripture and the Church. Dean Inge is right when he says: "We are losing our Christianity mainly because Christianity is a creed for heroes and we are good natured little people who want everybody to have a good time." Renouncing and defying the world means a life of unworldliness and singularity, of self-denial and cross-bearing. It is far easier to follow the course of least resistance and give ear to those who come in sheep's clothing asserting that the unpopular restrictions are not necessary from a Scriptural viewpoint.

The Present Propaganda Against the Position of the Church

It is perhaps generally known that in those of the so called plain denominations which, like our own, have only a few rules and regulations as regards worldly conformity, men have risen who decry these regulations and advocate a broader, easier, more popular way. They do their destructive work under a Christian cloak and assert that the restrictions against worldly conformity are to be ascribed to the caprice of leaders who have assumed the role of "lords over God's heritage." They claim that to take an attitude of revolt against the position of the Church is doing God a service. In fact at the present time the greatest opposition in point of nonconformity to the world is not coming from the non-professing world but from men who seem to have forgotten that at the time when they united with the Church all restrictions in question were already in force and they recognized the position of the Church as Scriptural and solemnly vowed to uphold it. They fail to respect their own former position sufficiently to withdraw when, finding themselves out of harmony with the Church, they believe that they can no longer work with her. They evidently hope to be able to force the Church to accept their views. At the same time they have much to say about tolerance. They claim to be guided by this principle. But instead of making the non-professing world their field of labor they bend their energies principally upon proselyting. Now proselyting and disturbing existing Christian churches is generally considered an indication of fanaticism and narrowness, an evidence of the lack of true courtesy and Christian liberality. Proselytism. and propaganda against the position of the Church are in this instance so much more out of place since these men emphatically assert that the points on which the Mennonites of America disagree are not worth while, and that those who will not admit this are offending against Christian charity. Unless all indications fail they have succeeded in persuading some people that our conferences are to be blamed as disturbers of the peace. It should be said however that there are at least a few of their own number who object to the agitation and proselytism that is carried on at the present time.

It has been said that these men have permitted themselves to be carried too far by their zeal. We have in another place quoted a leading writer among them as saying that their whole aim is morality. The same writer would probably not claim that his zeal is of a religious nature, or that the Church, as regards her interest in mission work or in general Christian work, is lagging behind the movement which he represents. He is preeminently interested in carrying out his definite plans for building up certain educational institutions which on the whole take the same attitude toward the Christian faith as he does. The realization of his plans necessarily includes the cooperation of our brotherhood. The fact is that all indications point in the direction that the organized agitation against the position of the Church' would cease if the Church consented to support the said institutions.

The Principle of Religious Anarchy

And not only on the point of regulations and restrictions is the Church criticized by these men. Some of them also object to her position as concerns the very fundamentals of the faith. They have often asserted that the Church has departed from the faith of the fathers on the point of toleration, and that the early fathers were of the opinion that doctrinal teaching of any kind should be tolerated and permitted within the Church. The insinuation has been repeatedly made that the early leaders of the Mennonite Church entertained substantially the same views on toleration as are today advocated by the modernists. We have been seriously told by various writers that the early Mennonites did not stand for anything particular in the way of doctrine. The curious assertion has been made that they gave every minister and member freedom to interpret the Scriptures as he might choose. This means that a minister of the Church had the right to interpret the Scriptures as teaching the popular doctrines of that day, such as predestination, infant baptism, the approval of war and the oath and the union of church and state, or any other doctrine. Now Adam Pastor, an elder, was excommunicated by the Mennonite Church for the reason that he interpreted the Scriptures as denying the deity of Christ. Others were excluded for other errors. If the opinion were correct that the early Mennonites did not take a definite position on doctrinal points, it would follow that a certain Dutch writer who speaks of them as the religious Bolshevists of their day, is right. To deny to a church the right to take a definite stand on doctrinal and practical points is to advocate religious lawlessnes--anarchy.

The fact is that the position of the early Mennonites on the point of toleration and liberty of conscience was the same as is held by us today. They were quite definite in their doctrinal position. It goes without saying it that they assumed no responsibility as to the doctrinal standing of outsiders. They held that the state (the civil government) should not assume the role of an authority in matters of faith and religious practice. The state should, in their opinion, not espouse the cause of a particular creed but should follow the principle of toleration and grant general religious liberty. It has been supposed, on the other hand, by certain liberalistic writers, that in the opinion of the early Mennonites the Church should take the same indifferent attitude on questions of doctrine and creed as the state rightfully takes. This supposition shows a surprising lack of a knowledge of the pertinent historical facts.


To sum up in conclusion: In the propaganda which is carried on at the present time against restrictions on points of worldly conformity in dress (principally concerning the head dress of the sisters) the claim is made that these restrictions are commandments of men, mere customs that are not worth the self-denial they involve. It is to be admitted that in themselves these restrictions have to do with little things. In its real meaning the question involved is one of great importance. To yield to the popular demands on this point would in its consequences mean vital changes in the general character of the Church; it would mean the abandonment of other essential principles and practices, in fact it would involve the elimination of all that is too unpopular for fashionable churches. The case is similar to that of the restriction against infant baptism. In neither instance does the Bible give an express command. In fact neither infant baptism nor fashionable attire is as much as mentioned in the Scriptures. Nevertheless a church aiming to be a full expression of New Testament Christianity will find it impossible to give liberty on these points.

Scripture teaches and requires nonconformity to the world in dress. It is impossible for the Church to maintain a Scriptural position on this point without defining and classifying certain modern modes of dress as inconsistent with the principle of modesty of attire. Such necessary definitions and regulations are made by the Church on Scripture authority. The opinion that the Church should draw the line only against such articles of dress as are specifically mentioned and forbidden in the Bible, but not against the inconsistent modern modes of dress that are not mentioned in Scripture, is unreasonable. Such a demand means in the last analysis that the Church should take the popular attitude on this question and that modesty of attire should not be considered an issue.

To maintain the Scriptural position of the Church two things are necessary: (1) a realization that there is a vital principle at stake; (2) a state of spirituality and consecration that does not find it a burden but a privilege to go the whole way in accepting the principles and requirements of the Word.

This page is from the booklet, Worldy Conformity in Dress, by John Horsch. This was from the second edition booklet was printed in 1926.



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June 22, 2000