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On Bearded Bishops & Avoiding The “Appearance Of Evil”

Posted by Shawn L on February 26, 2008


The shaving habits of post-McKay Mormon males is well trod ground, so forgive me if this horse has been sufficiently kicked. But it struck me recently that in my 35 years as an active member of the Church, I have never, ever attended a Ward (in the US) where any of the Bishopric wore facial hair. An important note: I lived in Utah only while attending BYU. Mine may be a unique experience, but I suspect not.

The only coherent argument I’ve ever heard justifying the dearth of beards in our ranks is the old saw about “avoiding the appearance of evil.” The argument goes as follows: of course there’s nothing wrong with beards per se, but people might see your bearded face and assume that you are someone you are not. As a bearded dude, I have heard this line of thinking dozens of times over the years. And after all these years, I’m still not buying it.

In a 1971 address to students, then-BYU President Dallin Oaks phrased the argument this way:

“There is nothing inherently wrong about long hair or beards, any more than there is anything inherently wrong with possessing an empty liquor bottle. But a person with a beard or an empty liquor bottle is susceptible of being misunderstood. Either of these articles may reduce a person’s effectiveness and promote misunderstanding because of what people may reasonably conclude when they view them in proximity to what these articles stand for in our society today.”

Let me pause here to say, I simply don’t see the analogy between facial hair and a booze bottle. For there to be an empty bottle, there is a very high likelihood that somebody broke the Word of Wisdom and, hence, it may be reasonable to assume that the person holding said bottle was the culprit. Why else would he/she have the bottle? On the other hand, the mere existence of a beard does not require the commission of a sin.

Elder Oaks went on to state:

“In the minds of most people at this time, the beard and long hair are associated with protest, revolution, and rebellion against authority. They are also symbols of the hippie and drug culture. Persons who wear beards or long hair, whether they desire it or not, may identify themselves with or emulate and honor the drug culture or the extreme practices of those who have made slovenly appearance a badge of protest and dissent. In addition, unkemptness—which is often (though not always) associated with beards and long hair—is a mark of indifference toward the best in life. As Elder Sterling W. Sill has observed: ‘A let-down in personal appearance has far more than physical significance, for when ugliness gets its roots into one part of our lives it may soon spread to every other part.'”

[Lest you think I’m dredging up old quotes in hopes of simplifying the issue, this is the first article that pops up on lds.org when you enter the search term, “beard.” (Go ahead, try it yourself.)] For me, this argument is unpersuasive for a couple of reasons:

First, rhetoric from authority figures (both in and out of the Church) in the 60’s and 70’s regarding “the drug culture” was the equivalent of the “Red Scare” panic of the 50’s. Regardless of its value then, that same rhetoric has no relevance today. The “hippie and drug culture” bemoaned by Oaks has long since disappeared except in TV ads and jam band audiences. I think we are a long ways past the “beard = drugs” analysis. Indeed, Oaks himself made clear that rules regarding facial hair “are responsive to conditions and attitudes in our own society at this particular point in time. Historical precedents are worthless in this area. The rules are subject to change, and I would be surprised if they were not changed at some time in the future.” (emphasis added) Unfortunately, nearly four decades later, neither BYU’s rules nor the attitudes of leaders/members have shifted.

Second, I think the “appearance of evil” argument can be a slippery slope. Certainly this is valuable counsel in many situations. However, we oftentimes trot it out to proscribe behavior that we do not like, but that does not actually violate any policy or doctrine of the Gospel. I have heard YM/YW leaders use this thinking to warn against everything from near beer to playing pool to having too many non-member friends. The problem is, determining what actions reflect an “appearance” of evil is totally subjective. I personally find nothing wrong with a game of pool; at the same time, I could argue that showing up to Church in an $80,000 sports car (I live in the OC, remember) could reasonably give an onlooker reason to believe that the driver has put material gain precedence over charity.

Third, I find something unseemly about the notion of avoiding an activity simply out of fear of how it might be perceived by an outsider. Shouldn’t my one concern be, how would God feel about what I am doing? If I can answer that question with a clear conscience, what do I care if I run afoul of Joe Q. Neighbor’s perception of how a Mormon ought to look, act or talk? Molding our actions around the perceptions of others is always losing battle because, just as there is no singular “Mormon” way life, there is no one “non-Mormon” standard of thought. Put another way, the actions you undertake to please Person #1 may be cause you fall out of favor with Person #2. We are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. Furthermore, this argument assumes the worst about people, that they are full of prejudices and will stereotype you, based on your appearance, without bothering to get any additional information about you or your character. I don’t think that is a healthy attitude for those who have been charged to “love one another.”

So, what do you think? Has my clean-shaven Bishop experience been unique? What are your thoughts Elder Oaks’s “them darn hippies” argument? Am I missing the boat on the “appearance of evil” doctrine? Does commenting on this post lump you in with all of those ne’er-do-wells on other blogs?

First Vision

75 Responses to “On Bearded Bishops & Avoiding The “Appearance Of Evil””

  1. Mike L. said

    I don’t have a beard, but I also never really understood how it is a sign of evil. But perhaps that’s because I wasn’t alive during the hippie generation. I definately don’t look at people who have beards and think that they are more likely to do drugs.

    Long hair by men, though, I think is still viewed in our society as somewhat associated with rebelliousness, though, and I can understand Elder Oak’s view on that in regards to the appearance of evil.. And I say that as someone who had long hair as a teenager. (To be clear, I don’t judge anyone who has long hair. Obviously there are plenty of people who have long hair who do not fit the stereotype).

  2. Mike L. said

    And although I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a bearded bishop, there was a bearded counselor in the bishopric in my ward recently. My impression is that the “rule” (if it is really a rule) is not taken seriously outside of Utah.

  3. Steve M said

    I don’t think your experience is unusual; bearded bishops are extremely rare. My current bishop has a goatee, but I think he’s an anomaly. I’ve seen bishops who won’t even let men serve in auxiliary leadership positions with facial hair.

    I think the no-beards rule at BYU is often seen as an official or quasi-official endorsement of the clean-shaven look. However, the most common rationale I’ve heard for the unwritten rule against facial hair for bishops and other PH leaders is that “the Brethren” don’t wear beards. Of course, that only begs the question: Why do we think we’re required to follow General Authorities’ grooming habits?

    The “appearance of evil” argument is often bankrupt, but I think it is especially unpersuasive when applied to facial hair. Whatever Elder Oaks thought it meant in the 1970s, these days facial hair generally doesn’t represent “evil” or some crazy counterculture, especially if it is neat and well-kept.

    Let’s face it: If BYU students were allowed to grow beards, the university wouldn’t turn into 1960’s-era Berkeley. Likewise, bishops aren’t going to be less effective if they have hair on their faces.

  4. BHodges said

    I have a beard. I like it. I hope this cultural phenomenon (I see it as akin to Paul’s counsel that women not cut their hair) fades away over time.

  5. Andrew said

    I have long wondered why BYU does not censor its artwork of the Savior, Brigham Young, and other Apostles by placing a black censorship bar over their beards. Glorifying people with beards always seemed so inconsistent with the Honor Code’s beard ban.

    I have also wondered whether Jesus will be quickly escorted off campus if he ever shows up at BYU due to his violation of the Honor Code’s Dress and Grooming Standards. Or perhaps they will make an exception for him.

    These are both incredibly silly comments, of course. And that’s precisely my point. How silly it is to look disfavorably on something the Savior and countless prophets and apostles have done: wear a beard. I hope we can one day layoff this foolish notion so one day we can receive Christ (and each other) without thinking ill of someone’s grooming choices.

    “[A]s we layoff our false traditions and foolish notions, we receive more and more light, and thus we grow in grace; and if we continue so to grow we shall be prepared eventually to receive the Son of Man, and that is what we are after.” -Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 2:309-318.

  6. My bishop doesn’t have a beard. When he was made bishop, he selected someone in the ward who did have a beard as his first counselor. The next Sunday, the 1st C. had shaved the beard, but left the mustache.

    The mustache stayed put for about 2 years, but about a month or 2 ago, it was missing. I asked him why, and he told me the stake pres. had asked him to shave it off. Now I happen to be membership clerk, which is technically a member of the bishopric, though I really don’t consider myself in the bishopric. The 1st C. said that the stake pres would be after me next, since I have been sporting a goatee for about 8 years. (It’s kind of like a Sampson thing to me. I grew it when I was single, and the girls didn’t get interested in me until I grew it. I’m afraid I’ll get a divorce if I shave it off now.) 🙂

    I normally try to fly under the radar, and so far, so good, my 8 year old goatee is still in place. (I never let it grow more than about 1/4 inch–it gets too scratchy if I do.) I pretty much never wear a white shirt to church, and note that my bishop never did before he became bishop. My bishop seems to have some relaxed attitudes to personal appearance, but I don’t think the stake president shares those attitudes. However, the stake pres. did allow a mustache for 2 years in the bishopric. Lucky for me, I don’t think he knows who I am….

    Anyway, I’m with you. If the Lord looks upon the heart, why does the stake president look at the white shirt and/or facial hair? The whole grooming thing seems pretty silly to me. I did express some concern about my sister getting a tattoo to my bishop. His response was, “ya know, some people get concerned about really silly things.” She married in the temple about a year later, and that was much more important to my bishop than the tattoo. I think there is a lesson there….

  7. Shawn L said

    MH: Stay strong, brother! Just make sure you sit in the back row during Stake Conference.

    Andrew: In that same talk, Oaks explicitly rejects your argument, claiming that what folks did in the past has no bearing on what happens now. In a nutshell, times are different now, requiring different standards. On the one hand, I can see how that point makes sense in the context of, for example, Pres. McKay’s decidedly different approach to dress and grooming. In choosing to forego the long beard and dark suits, he signaled an obvious (and, I believe, deliberate) break from 19th Century Mormonism (read: polygamy).

    On the hand, I think accepting Oaks’s argument at face value undercuts any argument regarding the current policy against beards. There is no more counterculture analogous to the “hippie scene.” The model simply doesn’t apply here. So, since times have changes, shouldn’t the rules follow suit?

    Beyond the question of whether or not our current attitude towards beards is on sound footing, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the larger issue of, when and how should we invoke the “appearance of evil” rule to prohibit behavior? As mentioned in the post, this seems to be a shaky, and potentially dangerous, argument.

  8. Andrew said

    Shawn L, it is true that Elder Oaks specifically rejected my argument. However, I take comfort in the fact that he rejected it in 1971 in a New Era magazine article (i.e., 37 years ago in a non-authoritative source of doctrine). So I stand by my position. In fact, when I get crap for showing up at church with a Saturday’s worth of stubble on my face, I respond that “I’m trying to be like Jesus.”

  9. Chris H. said

    A couple of thoughts. Actually, the first is a question. Do we have any authoritative evidence that Jesus had a beard?

    Second, I agree that superficial appearance is largely disconnected from personal righteousness. Some of the most beautiful, most perfectly groomed men and women in the world inhabit a moral universe that is relativistic at best and often completely devoid of discernable rules.

    I have just about finished reading a book called Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of Saint Benedict. Saint Benedict was a sixth century Catholic monk whose Rule forms the foundation for a number of Catholic monastic orders, including the Benedictines, the Trappists (of which Thomas Merton was one), and the most austere of the Catholic orders, the Cistercians. In the book, several Buddhist monastics offer commentary about the similarities and differences between their monastic traditions and those of the communities that follow the Rule of Saint Benedict. Their conclusion is that, theological differences aside, they are more alike than different.

    I have been struck by the insistence, in both kinds of monastic communities, on obedience to rule as one of the principal mechanisms for the overcoming of the egoistic self. I more and more believe that that is one of the principal objectives of this life: to overcome the false, egoistic, carnal self in our search for the true, eternal, divine Self. Anything I think, say or do that points to the carnal me is necessarily obstructing my path to toward rediscovering and nurturing the eternal Me.

    So, I guess it comes down to an honest evaluation of one’s motives or intents. Whether it’s a beard, or a loud tie, or a public proclamation that one feels oneself exempt from the strictures on the entertainment we consume, if we can honestly examine our motives and feel a sense of peace that our words or actions are not driven by ego, then we need not worry.

    I think, though, regardless of whether or not some of these things are objectively wrong, if we spend any time worrying about them, it is time spent worrying about things that distract us from our greater purpose. I, for many years, was a kicker against the pricks about the white shirt and tie rule. And I still think it’s a silly rule, as I do the informal rule about facial hair. But I will say that when I finally threw in the towel and decided to just do it, I felt a sense of liberation. A sense that a tiny part of the selfish, egoistic, self-absorbed, carnal me was being released. Whatever small part of my heart that was attached to this worldly concern could now re-focus on things of eternal import.

  10. I have a friend from the Greek Orthodox faith. The priests in that religion purposely do not shave, because they are trying to avoid vanity–the vanity of “looking good” that obsesses so much of society.

    They also feel that Jesus had a beard, and are trying to abide by his tradition. So, while the answer is that no, there is nothing definitive as to whether Jesus had a beard, there is literally 2000 years of tradition which says he did. (The history of painting Jesus’ image has some interesting points about his beard, and some of this may point to the Shroud of Turin, which shows a bearded Savior.)

    I also remember that when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, that they would jail men if they did not have a beard, because it was a sign of apostasy. These men would stay in jail, until “a fistful” of beard could be grabbed.

    It is funny to me that in some cultures, beards are a sign of spirituality, while in others it is a sign of apostasy and drug culture (using Elder Oak’s argument). Is God a really a respecter of beards? I think not. Frankly, I think he looks upon the heart, and couldn’t care less about these outward signs.

  11. Andrew said

    Chris, I think the reason everyone seems to believe Jesus had a beard is that when the Pharisees were abusing him, they plucked hair off his cheeks: “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting.” (Isa. 50:6.)

    The concept of releasing one’s ego is a good one, and I see how rules, even silly rules, can help us overcome our ego. I am trying to reconcile that idea with the fact that Jesus did not adopt the Pharisees’ rules that, arguably, could likewise have served to release one’s ego. But rather than endorse the Pharisees’ many rules, Jesus berated the Pharisees for missing the whole point of spirituality, telling they they were straining at a gnat, and laying burdens on the people that were heavy to be borne, which I interpret to mean weighing people down with unnecessary rules.

    I appreciate the goal of releasing one’s ego and I believe the commandments do a wonderful job of helping us do that. However, it seems to me if we are to learn anything from the Pharisees and Jesus’ rebuke of their approach to religion, it is that you can certainly “go too far” in requiring more of people than God requires of them.

    As with so many Gospel questions, it seems the answer lies in reconciling two seemingly contradictory yet equally true principles. Chris, I’m interesting to hear how you reconcile Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees with what you have said, which to be perfectly clear, I completely agree with in principle. I just think rules go too far when they require more of us than God has.

    By analogy, if your stake president required every male to start wearing purple socks, and only purple socks, to church, do you think members should feel bound to do so? Even though succumbing to such a rule could be an ego-releasing experience?

    I imagine the answer is “no,” and that the rationale would be that the Brethren haven’t commanded it. And to be clear, that is exactly my rationale for not believing in beard or blue-shirt avoidance. It has not been commanded by the Brethren, although it is observed by them, but I believe the latter does not equate to the former. I invite anyone to correct me. I researched the white shirt thing a while ago just out of curiosity and the only General Conference address I could find was encouraging those who administer the sacrament to wear a white shirt if they can, but the Bishop’s Handbook says wearing a white shirt is NOT a requirement for passing the sacrament.

    So I guess maybe the first question is: do we have any authoritative commandment to not wear a beard or to wear only a white shirt to Church? If not, I see no need to comply with a cultural, but not doctrinal, expectation to do so. It just smacks too much of Phariseeism to me.

  12. Steve M said

    I have long wondered why BYU does not censor its artwork of the Savior, Brigham Young, and other Apostles by placing a black censorship bar over their beards. Glorifying people with beards always seemed so inconsistent with the Honor Code’s beard ban.

    This is only tangentially related (if at all), but this comment brought something to mind. Interestingly, the Brigham Young statue in front of the administration building at BYU is of a clean-shaven Brigham.

    When I was at BYU, someone in my Wymount Terrace ward told me that the statue had originally been of a bearded Brigham, but that the university had later removed the bearded head and replaced it with a shaven one. Of course I was skeptical, but I did try to look up an old photo of the statue just to be sure I wasn’t too hasty in my judgment. (I never found one.)

  13. Brent said

    A number of years ago my uncle was shooting a video with Pres. Hinckley for the sesquicentennial celebration to be shown in general conference. During the taping Pres. Hinckley complemented my uncle on his Indiana Jones style hat that he had on. My uncle said thanks and offered to give his hat to him. Pres. Hinckley declined his offer and said, “I don’t think they will let me wear it.” Given that my uncle and Pres. Hinckley were alone my uncle looked around and said tongue and cheek, “who is ‘they’, God?” Pres. Hinckley responded that he referred to the public relations people in the church. I find it interesting that Pres. Hinckley would allow his dress to be dictated by advice from church PR people. Couldn’t he make the same arguments about how God doesn’t really care if he wears an Indiana Jones style hat or how pharisaic it is to have such a silly rule? Our church leaders are obviously very concerned with the image of our church and how we are perceived by non-members. They have asked the members to follow some dress and grooming standards to help portray this image. Some of those requests have an underlying spiritual reason like their request to wear modest clothing. Some requests, in my opinion, aren’t of spiritual consequence in and of themselves, such as wearing beards, goatees, men not piercing their ears, women not having multiple ear piercings, wearing white shirts to church…etc. However, I think they do become spiritually relevant when we allow them to hinder our church service. For example, all the men in my stake were asked to shave off their facial hair in order to work at the Newport Beach temple open house. Some men opted not to shave and thus opted not to serve at the open house.

    I understand that it is terribly superficial that the world judges people based on appearance. We can have fantastic bishops that have beards, or earrings, or even sag their pants like the deacons. Instead of trying to convince the world of their folly, the church leaders just ask us to play along and do our part to portray a clean cut image.

    By the way, I hope I didn’t just start a Mormon myth that Indian Jones style hats are evil.

  14. Andrew said

    I like Brent’s rule: Dress and grooming standards that have nothing to do with larger spiritual principles (e.g., chastity and modesty) are irrelevant except when our non-compliance with them precludes us from receiving greater blessings (e.g., serving as a tour guide at a temple open house).

    P.S., I had heard about the supposed inspiration behind Yoda, but I never knew that’s where Spielberg got the idea for Indiana Jones’ hat. Cool!

  15. RB said

    On my mission (2000) I had a bishop with a beard in Arkansas and again in Missouri. I have known moustached bishopric members. I had a goatee as an EQ councilor, but when I became president my good bishop recommended a shave.

    I think this is a tradition like a hedge built around the law (like the broader pharasaic practices beyond Mosaic Law requirements). While intended to keep us safely away from crossing a line, I don’t think anybody remembers what law we’re trying to observe with this practice anymore. Even Elder Oaks’ talk was his interpretive explanation (read: rationalization) of policy. He wasn’t an apostle for 13 more years.

    I’m interested in how this relates to the social history of facial hair in the US. We seem to think BYU was distancing itself from symbols of 1960s and 1970s counter-culture. in the 60’s Hippies and beats could have used this to rebel against clean-shaven business values of the 50’s and 60’s. Where did those values come from? WWII? I have heard the military required shaving for a good gas-mask seal during WWI. Standards were certainly different during the Civil War.

    American Presidents follow a similar trend. You have to go back 100 years to find a president with just a moustache. The only ones with beards were during 1861 to 1893 (the same time when Mormon leaders got beards). By that measure beards seem like a fad. Maybe history has offen associated sophistication with the clean shaven (who have razors, water, mirrors and time to shave and don’t need the natural warmth). Clean faces can also symbolize purity as in celibate clergy and unmarried Amish men.

    Are there modern social shifts that give beards new meaning today?

  16. Shawn L said

    Chris — interesting thoughts. I don’t know whether it is ego, vanity or (a very miled form of) rebelliousness, but I love having a beard. It gives me a kick to attend Stake and Ward meetings where I am the only one in need of a shave. It warms my heart every time.

    Andrew — to answer your question, there is no official “word from the top” requiring clean-shaven faces and white shirts for all Mormon men. As I have heard it told, the justification for white shirts goes as follows: just like the white clothes we wear to the temple, young men involved in the Sacrament should wear white shirts to remind them of the sacred nature of the ordinance. Russell M. Nelson echoed this line of thinking at the 2004 worldwide training broadcast. The Bishop, as the head of the AP, should wear a white shirt to set the example. And so it goes down through the congregation.

    Personally, for the same reasons you mention, I don’t find this logic so persuasive as to justify an across-the-board white shirt requirement. And even if the AP kids have to wear white shirts, why should I have to? The youth and adults in the ward are not required to adhere the standards on every issue, all the way down the line (for example, my wife and I . . . well, you get the picture).

    However, your last comment (#14) illustrates why this is a sticky issue. Who gets to decide whether a particular dress/gromming norm “has nothing to do with larger spiritual principles.” I tend to agree with you, but I’m sure our congregations are filled with well-meaning Saints who see a direct connection between the way we adorn or own personal temples and our obedience to God. Who’s right?

  17. Shawn L said

    RB — interestingly, I had a beard the whole time (3.5 years) I was the EQ President. I never hear a peep about it from anyone in ward leadership.

  18. Andrew said

    Brent (#13) stated: “I find it interesting that Pres. Hinckley would allow his dress to be dictated by advice from church PR people. Couldn’t he make the same arguments about how God doesn’t really care if he wears an Indiana Jones style hat or how pharisaic it is to have such a silly rule?”

    Pres. Hinckley couldn’t have responded in such a way to the PR folks because they were giving him PR dress and grooming advice, which anyone representing an organization receives before going on camera. They were not trying to impose a “no hat” religious rule on him. There’s a big difference between what a person representing an organization appearing on camera voluntarily decides to wear or not wear, and a religious prohibition. If the PR people were trying to impose such a “no hat” rule on Pres. Hinckley as a religious rule, I feel confident he would have told them to lighten up and stop acting like a bunch of Pharisees.

  19. Andrew said

    Shawn, doesn’t the fact that the over-the-pulpit encouragement (not commandment) to wear a white shirt has been given only to those administering the sacrament, coupled with the Bishop’s Handbook statement that a white shirt is NOT required to pass the sacrament, settle the matter that there IS NO WHITE-SHIRT ONLY RULE for members of the congregation not officiating in the Sacrament?

    My only beef is that it drives me nuts when members at a local level incorrectly believe the Brethren have handed down a rule that they have never handed down (at least that I can find), and then make judgmental comments to and about other people who aren’t complying with that non-existent rule.

  20. Chris H. said

    It’s interesting to me that, of all the issues we have touched upon in this blog, this is the one that has generated the most commentary. I wonder why that is.

  21. Shawn L said

    Nothing gets Mormons more riled up than discussion about (i) dress code issues, and (ii) personal interpretations of the Word of Wisdom. Hence, my next post will be entitled, “Why The Lord Hates Tab Drinkers.”

  22. Andrew said

    Chris, I was wondering the same thing at lunch today. Here’s my conclusion. Imagine a series of concentric circles. The core circle represents the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount: love your enemies, walk the walk don’t just talk the talk, go the extra mile, look for the mote in your own eye, etc. Nobody can argue with those principles; their truth is self-evident. We can all agree 100%

    Now imagine a dozen or more circles extending out farther and farther from that core. For me, the outer-most circle is where we find cultural (again, not doctrinal) dress code norms. And it’s a 50-50 split of opinion among church members on those issues at the outer-most circle. Why? Because I think the farther away we get from the essence of the Gospel, the less agreement, unanimity, and unity there is amongst church members. Nobody can argue with the core; the Sermon on the Mount. But the farther you get away from the core, out at the fringes, that’s where the debate is.

  23. Kerry said

    This is a super interesting discussion, fellas.

    I think the critical point of understanding (which I don’t think I have, but would like to hear comments on) is this:

    1. Assuming that there is no official “commandment” from the general authorities regarding ‘beards on local leaders’ / ‘white shirts for AP passing sacrament’; and

    2. Assuming that a local leader doesn’t necessarily act like it is a commandment from on high or a commandment from the general authorities, but acts like it is a suggestion from the general authorities (which it is, at least in the case of white shirt[1]; not sure about beards).

    Even if we assume the 2 items above…if a local leader asks me to wear a white shirt or shave my beard or wear purple socks, what am I really saying if I tell him “NO”? In other words, once a local leader asks me to do something, even if he does it with limited understanding and I have had a private, humble discussion to express my disagreement, should I not now consider his request a “commandment”? Haven’t I raised my right hand in sustainment of this local leader? This should obviously be considered in the context of the real commandments, or in other words, if a local leader asks me to kill his counselor, the answer is obviously “no”. Hence, the critical point of understanding is: what should our level of obedience be to our local / presiding priesthood leaders, considering “intelligent obedience” vs “blind obedience”?

    I don’t really know the answer here, but it does remind me of Elder H. Ross Workman’s conference talk in 2001:

    “Would those who murmured against Moses and Nephi not also murmur today? The same questions can be asked in reverse. Those who murmur today would also have murmured as did Laman and Lemuel or the children of Israel against the prophet of their day with the same disastrous consequences.

    The simplest of instructions may reveal the tendency to murmur. I attended a meeting once when the presiding authority invited members of the congregation to come forward in the meeting room. A few stirred. Most did not. Why not?

    I feel sure there were those who questioned why they should leave their comfortable position. “Why should I?” That question was, no doubt, followed promptly by an excuse or rationalization as to why it should not matter whether the seat was changed or not. I believe there followed some irritation that the presiding authority should make such a request. The last step, obvious to all who observed, was slothfulness in responding. Few moved. Was that a small thing? Yes. But it reflected a deeper, more profound lack of willingness to obey. It reflected a spirit of disobedience. That is not a small thing.”


    Thanks Shawn for the engaging topic.

    [1] “May I suggest that wherever possible a white shirt be worn by the deacons, teachers, and priests who handle the sacrament. For sacred ordinances in the Church we often use ceremonial clothing, and a white shirt could be seen as a gentle reminder of the white clothing you wore in the baptismal font and an anticipation of the white shirt you will soon wear into the temple and onto your missions. That simple suggestion is not intended to be pharisaic or formalistic. We do not want deacons or priests in uniforms or unduly concerned about anything but the purity of their lives. But how our young people dress can teach a holy principle to us all, and it certainly can convey sanctity.”

    Jeffrey R. Holland, “‘This Do in Remembrance of Me’,” Ensign, Nov 1995, 67

  24. Andrew said

    Kerry, that’s the quote I referred to in one of my comments above.

    Doesn’t Elder Holland’s statement that his SUGGESTION is NOT intended to be pharisaic or FORMALISTIC essentially mean that we are NOT to interpret this SUGGESTION to YM passing the sacrament to be a FORMAL RULE that establishes the white shirt as a “uniform of the priesthood” that applies to all male members of the Church?

    SUGGESTING that YM wear white shirts to pass sacrament: Not pharisaic and formalistic.

    Treating the white shirt as a “priesthood uniform” that all men must wear: Now you’ve just taken a SUGGESTION and FORMALIZED it into a RULE.

    About murmuring. The difference between murmuring and encouraging people to focus on the essence of the Gospel is whether the thing you’re lobbying against is an authoritative rule or not. I submit that the white shirt as the priesthood uniform is not an authoritative rule. Hence, not feeling bound by it or speaking against the idea that it is a rule does not constitute murmuring.

    The pharisees could likewise have easily accused Jesus of murmuring. But he wasn’t murmuring when he rejected their silly rules, because those silly rules were not authoritative. They were a cultural addition; an outward observance, the adherence to which made people feel like they were righteous simply because of their manner of dress, and that others were sinners or at least less valiant for theirs.

    Again, I cannot stress enough: my position is that wearing a white shirt has only been REQUIRED of full-time missionaries, and has been SUGGESTED to those passing the sacrament. But it has NEVER been laid down as a dress code rule for all males to observe. THAT is what I am disputing.

    It is interesting to me that the scriptures are devoid of a dress code, and that the only scripture I can find about peoples’ appearance is as follows:

    “For the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7.)

  25. Kerry said

    Andrew, I am not sure we are saying anything different.

    My fundamental question is this:

    Even if a local leader simply repeats Holland’s suggestion to me, not implying it as a commandment nor formalizing it into a rule, but merely suggesting it to me – how is my rejection of his suggestion any different than the example that H. Ross Workman gave? The presiding leader in that example asked that the brethren move forward, and they didn’t. It’s not like they were risking their eternal salvation by not moving forward, but Workman seems concerned that their lack of obedience to a suggestion reflected an underlying spirit of disobedience.

  26. Andrew said

    Kerry, I’m not sure I understand why a local leader repeating Elder Holland’s suggestion should not be obeyed. If the suggestion is that you wear a white shirt when administering the Sacrament, I wouldn’t dream of doing anything different. But if he does anything more than that, then he’s not merely repeating Elder Holland’s suggestion.

  27. Shawn L said

    Hey, someone hijacked my original photo! Let’s see what I can do about that . . .

    I tend to side with Andrew on this one. I have no problem with missionaries and Aaronic Priesthood brethren wearing white shirts (so long as the rule is not so rigidly enforced as to deny the privilege of serving to an otherwise worthy young man). Heck, I can even buy the “Bishop as role model” argument. I just don’t see how any of that translates into a mandate on my behavior.

    I think we tend to focus on, and get all riled up about, these sorts of “lower law” issues because they are so much more tangible than “higher law” questions such as, how can I be more like Chirst? How can I be a better person? Those questions don’t boil down to easy checklist-type answers. Dress codes and facial hair, however, do.

    That said, I think Kerry makes a good point. It’s easy to say in the abstract, “well, my local leader is acting beyond his spiritual jurisdiction in asking me to do X.” To be clear, Andrew, I think you’re right — in this instance, requiring male members to wear white shirts and be clean shaven goes beyond the mark. But that’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? At what point does my free agency end and my obedience to local leadership begin? And before you unloose both barrels on me, I’m a strong believer in individual members exercising their own independent judgment. But I can imgaine situations where we might take this too far.

  28. Andrew said

    Shawn, you and Kerry raise a good question. I propose the following hypotheticals to answer it, which I have actually heard of happening:

    (1) Following Elder Holland’s talk about not wearing flip-flops or other beach-appropriate apparel to Church, my old mission companion’s stake president had all the bishops inform their wards that open-toed shoes of any kind were inappropriate at church. When my mission comp’s wife continues to wear nice, formal, yet open-toed shoes to church, she now gets stink-eye from faithful women in her ward who, thanks to this new dress code, can now demonstrate their obedience and spirituality by simply covering up their toes.

    (2) An over-zealous stake president goes out of his way to counsel couples to abstain from certain sex acts that he considers “unholy and impure acts” (which includes French kissing) when he interviews them.

    (3) A stake president tells people he interviews for the temple to always wear you-know-what, even during you-know-what.

    (4) Elder Holland suggests to Aaronic priesthood holders that they wear a white shirt while passing the sacrament. A stake president gets up the next week and gives priesthood leaders a discourse on the “uniform of the priesthood” which consists of a white shirt and suit coat, which should be worn by all adult male priesthood holders at Church meetings.

    Let me finish with this question: If the argument is that we should obey seemingly silly rules from local leaders because they aren’t that big of an inconvenience and also to avoid developing a rebellious spirit, why did Jesus have any problem with the Pharisees’ silly rules? What greater spiritual dangers were the Pharisees leading their people to? Could not the Pharisees’ silly rules been a great way to develop and demonstrate obedience and selflessness?

    “For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (2 Cor. 3:6.)

  29. Kerry said

    Shawn, I think the 3 of us are actually in agreement(see me at #25). I don’t believe we are saying anything different (or maybe I didn’t write my thoughts clearly enough). I am not suggesting at ALL that there should be a local mandate or pharisaic-type of push for white shirts. Like Andrew mentioned a long time ago (comment #11), Bishop’s Handbook makes this point clear.

    The words I am pondering are “suggestion” or “ask”, meaning if a local leader simply asks or suggests (difficult to imagine a local leader ever using the phrase “I COMMAND you to…”) that I wear a white shirt or shave a beard, then it ends there: its a suggestion. That’s all. It’s not a commandment, and I don’t think any GA would define the suggestion as a commandment.

    However, in not following the suggestion, my concern for myself is Workman’s reference to a “spirit of disobedience”, which I guess I am not really sure what that means or the implications of that. I guess for that reason, I agree with Andrew (and I imagine you [Shawn] would agree too) in that if it is suggested to me, I will probably comply. But if I don’t, I am not breaking a commandment. I am simply disagreeing with a suggestion.

    Lucky for some of us in certain geographical areas, these types of things are not suggested. And I suppose that’s why some see bearded bishops, blue shirts in sacrament, etc.

  30. Kerry said

    With Andrew #28 and Shawn 27, I guess the point is that there still obviously has to be some personal judgment applied to suggestions from local leaders. Disagreement with a suggestion is not breaking a commandment, although Elder Workman might say we are demonstrating a spirit of disobedience.

    I guess I will take the title of “spirit of disobedience” over wearing you-know-what when doing you-know-what. 🙂

  31. Andrew said

    When I was at BYU learning about logical validity and soundness, and logical fallacies, our professor handed out a list of the most common logical fallacies. Guess what one of them was: the “Slippery Slope.” The idea that you have to wear purple socks when your local leaders says wear purple socks because if you don’t, you’re developing a rebellious spirit that will lead to coffee-drinking, then Sabbath breaking, then tithing non-paying, then adultery. Anarchy in the streets! Dogs and cats living together! 🙂

    The slippery slope argument is used to draw a line where a line need not be drawn based on the argument that we need to prohibit people from doing things that aren’t a big deal to prevent them from doing something that are a big deal. So wearing purple socks protects me from adultery.

    Of course, the argument just isn’t true. We don’t need to shun cars and electricity to avoid idolotry and being part of the world. We don’t need to strap phylacteries to our foreheads to always remember God’s word. And we don’t need to wear a white shirt or go beardless to keep ourselves free from sin.

  32. Ah, someone finally mentioned anarchy! (Andrew in post #31.) I was considering commenting on this post, but as I read through the previous comments to Andrew’s #31 mention of anarchy…well, that settled it. I guess I have to comment now! 😉

    Personally, as a proponent of scriptural anarchy, I find this post somewhat refreshing. It is good to at least see discussions among LDS concerning this cultural issue instead of the weekly conform-no-matter-what-is-asked-of-you doctrine that oozes from most LDS.

    I was thinking about taking up this topic on my own blog, but this post and these comments are sufficient to address the topic. I’ll just point people here, instead.

    “Cultural righteousness” is already in the church. That is apparent. We have in large part become like the Pharisees, already. We have also largely given up the anarchic and scriptural principle of common consent or that the voice of the people decides all issues. We have substituted common consent with conformity at all costs. Where there is no conformity, a label is attached: rebellion. Rebellion, though, is against “cultural righteousness,” not actual commandments of God. Thus, such rebellion is not sin.

    Strangely enough, the solution to this Pharisaic trend is to do nothing. In 30 days or less the entire church can rid itself of this insidious obstacle to the gospel of Jesus Christ by all the men in the church simply doing nothing. By not picking up the razor or electric shaver, and allowing their God-given facial hair to grow, in 30 days the entire church would be revolutionized and the Pharisaic plant would begin to be uprooted, replaced by men who, like God, look upon the heart and not the appearance.

    My own opinion concerning this trend, besides all the PR excuses, is that we LDS have largely abandoned the more spiritual aspects of sainthood, namely, the best gifts, and this spiritual vacuum must be filled in some other way. The best gifts (angels ministering, the gift of tongues, interpretation, prophecy, etc.) were the abundances of the Spirit that both made the gospel worthwhile, even in persecution, and also were evidences of our own sanctity (sanctification or sainthood.) As they are largely absent, due to our temporal inequalities, we need some other measure of our own “righteousness.” That measure is a white shirt, ties, short haircut and no facial hair.

    It is essentially a return to the law of Moses, in that outer forms are used to judge inner forms, instead of the more excellent way of Christ, that concerns itself chiefly with the inner man and the heart. Such “cultural righteousness” poses a problem to the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ because an investigator must not only repent of his or her sins, but must also change other, non-sinful aspects of his or her life to conform to “cultural Mormonism.” We, as LDS, ought to be making it easier for people to come to Christ, not harder.

    Cultural issues are only bad if they conflict with the gospel itself. This is why the Nephite missionaries had the two-fold mission of preaching the gospel to the Lamanites and convincing them that the traditions of their fathers were erroneous. The Lamanite traditions conflicted with the gospel. We modern LDS ought to be as zealous as the Nephites, so that when cultural Mormonism conflicts with the preaching or teaching of the gospel, we remove it outright. Unfortunately, the present attitude of conform-at-all-cost, prohibits members from using their free agency to clean the church of this stuff. It looks like the Lord will, in fact, have to do it himself, as he prophesied he would.

  33. Andrew said

    “Such “cultural righteousness” poses a problem to the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ because an investigator must not only repent of his or her sins, but must also change other, non-sinful aspects of his or her life to conform to “cultural Mormonism.” We, as LDS, ought to be making it easier for people to come to Christ, not harder.”

    I could not agree more. The whole white-shirt-and-no-beard thing seems innocuous and harmless if you’re looking at it from within Mormon culture. But if you’re an outsider looking in, like an investigator, I think it probably comes off as weird, kooky, excessive, and too controlling. I think it makes some people probably think twice about joining a church that not only wants 10%+ of your income and to abstain from tea, but also to tell you what shirt color you wear and how many whiskers you have on your face. I mean, really.

  34. Andrew said

    Here’s what Elder Faust said:

    Over the centuries dogmatism, coercion, and intolerance have too often polluted the living water of the gospel, which quenches our spiritual thirst eternally. The Savior observed this in His day: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.

    “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”

    Similarly, Paul said, “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”

    We are not only to avoid evil, not only to do good but, most importantly, to do the things of greatest worth. We are to focus on the inward things of the heart, which we know and value intuitively but often neglect for that which is trivial, superficial, or prideful.

    The saving principles and doctrines of the Church are established, fixed, and unchangeable. Obedience to these absolutes is necessary to enjoy “peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.” However, the manner in which the Church administers complex and varied worldwide challenges changes from time to time. Under guidance from living prophets, new guidelines and procedures are put in place. I welcome these inspired changes. They are proof of the truthfulness of the restored gospel.

    I have some fear, however, that some members consider guidelines and procedures to be as important as the timeless, immutable laws of the gospel, such as “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” 14 Rather than some legalistic definition of adultery, the Savior’s more enlightened direction is that the thought is father to the deed: he that “looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” 15

    Who decides what is right and wrong in given circumstances? Where does the responsibility for the making of moral judgments rest? With mature individuals, of course, it rests with each individual.

    (James E. Faust, “The Weightier Matters of the Law: Judgment, Mercy, and Faith,” Ensign, Nov 1997, 53.)

  35. ditchu said

    Eugene ,Oregon in 1994 the bishop of the eugene 5th ward had facial hair and it never struck me as strange.

    facial hair is restricted to misionaries due to the fact that they are representing our church and some people are easily offended and their are some who relate facial hair to the hippy movement and as unclean, this I beleive has mostly passed as to the point that there are cleaner ways to keep ones apperiance even with facial hair.

  36. Andrew said

    I was thinking about this topic tonight and had a change of heart, sort of. I will reveal it in an upcoming post. I have decided to become a 100% conformist on all dress and grooming issues (which is funny because I’m already 99% of the way there–just a rogue blue shirt once in a while). But I am going to be 100% from now on, though not for the reasons you may suspect.

  37. Shawn L said

    Lest we think this sort of thing either doesn’t happen anymore or happens only in Utah . . . I had this same discussion with a buddy of mine just last night. He was recently called into the High Council. Sure enough, at the end of his interview with the Stake President, the President said to him, “and I’m going to need you to shave your goatee.” He was dumbfounded. So, what is a person to do at that point? Reject the calling? Try to bring the SP around to your way of thinking? (good luck on that front, by the way).

    #36 — welcome to the Machine, Andrew.

  38. Shawn L said

    Andrew (#28/31) — Trust me, I understand the problems with the “slippery slope” argument. All I’m saying is I can imgaine a scenario where disregard for a local leader’s counsel out of a wholly righteous exercise of free agency could be problematic. In the specific examples you cite above, the local leader has gone too far. For example, in #2 and 3, the leader is stepping in where the Church explicitly refuses to tread (or, better said, has once gone, but has since retreated).* The next question is, how do we go about remedying these issues?

    #32 — I agree with your thoughts on our seemingly relenetless pursuit for “cultural righteousness.” This is what I was trying to say (rather inartfully, I’m sure) in my comment about lower v. higher law thinking.

    *To avoid a total threadjack, I’ll say only this: I don’t think Church leaders have anything to say about what happens in a couple’s bedroom beyond ensuring that (i) the couple is faithfult to each other, and (ii) no one is abusing the other in any way. And by the way, since when is french kissing a sexual act, much less an “impure” one.

  39. Allen said

    This is an interesting discussion. I wasn’t aware that some Priesthood leaders want all Priesthood holders to wear white shirts. I very seldom wear a white shirt. And, I almost never wear a suit coat. I’m not a rebel in this regard. I just like color. I wear a blue Norwegian sweater instead of a suit. I’ve been the membership clerk for five years. I’ve substituted many times as a HP teacher, Gospel Doctrine teacher, and music conductor for Sacrament Meeting, and I’ve spoken in Sacrament Meeting and done my home teaching, all in my blue sweater. But, if my Priesthood leader told me to wear white shirts and a suit, I would comply. I’m a firm believer in individual freedom, and that includes the freedom of organizational leaders to set policy for their organization.

    There are people who will criticize about anything. Many years ago I was a counselor in a Bishopric in Phoenix. I kept my hair short enough that it would lie down on my head and I wouldn’t have to comb it (I still keep my hair, what is left of it, that way). Nothing idealistic about my attitude towards my hair; I just liked the convenience of not having to keep combing it. However, I heard through the grape vine that a certain family was critical of my hair “style”. So, I can understand why some PH leaders want their leaders to conform to a particular grooming standard to avoid being a distraction to the members.

  40. #37 – Yeah, I know a man who sported a beard the whole twenty some odd years I’d known him. As soon as he was called into the high council, suddenly he cut it. It was quite the shocker to see him without the beard. I cornered him one day and asked him why he shaved. The reason? The stake prez asked him to.

    My own bishop will not allow anyone to confirm or perform any ordinance in a church meeting in which he is presiding unless they are wearing a white shirt and tie. He himself will not perform an ordinance, even in a private setting, without first putting on a white shirt and tie. Even in the middle of the night, if his wife needed an emergency blessing, or someone else, he’d still take the time to “dress appropriately.” These are his words, as I asked him this question. In fact, he goes so far as to disallow anyone to baptize their children if they have long hair. He sees long hair, beards, non-white shirts and no ties as “rebellion.” He is a young bishop who believes that we are to follow the brethren, even in grooming habits.

    And it doesn’t stop there. I’ve actually had a conversation with an area authority seventy and decided to ask him what his opinion on this issue was. Almost verbatim, it was what the bishop said. He said that there is an “unwritten law” that we are to follow, and the example of the GA’s is as much a law unto priesthood holders as anything written in the scriptures.

    So, the stake prez, the bishop, and an area authority seventy (at least in my area) all see this code of dress as a priesthood uniform and the lack of dressing or grooming in this way as manifesting a spirit of rebellion. They do not recognize the right of a person to exercise free agency when the local or general leaders have spoken on an issue. All issues, whether dealing with sin or culture or whatever, if coming from a local or general leader, are to be obeyed without question. Concerns can be voiced, but priesthood holders are to conform and obey. This is the doctrine that is the church.

    My own assessment is that they are receiving this instruction from somewhere and not just coming to their own conclusions. I suspect this is taught them in priesthood leadership meetings, but I don’t know. What I do know is that such doctrine is unscriptural, as there are no unwritten laws by which we will be judged. We are only judged “out of the books which are written.” (3 Nephi 27: 25-26.) If there is an unwritten law, the person giving the “unwritten law” becomes a law unto himself, with no checks and balances. So, this smacks of unrighteous dominion (tyranny) and reminds me of the king-men of the Book of Mormon, who desired to rule over the people. The Lord has said that tares would be sown among his people, and this appears to be one of those tares.

    Nevertheless, this particular tare can be taken care of rapidly, but I don’t believe the people will do anything about it. Conformity has been inculcated into the LDS. I’ve spoken to people who actually believe that if their bishop says to jump off a bridge, they are to jump off a bridge, otherwise they risk their eternal salvation, for “obedience is better than sacrifice.”

  41. Kerry said

    LDS Anarchist #40: I personally think it is a leap to conclude:

    “…They (local leaders) are receiving this instruction from somewhere and not just coming to their own conclusions. I suspect this is taught them in priesthood leadership meetings, but I don’t know.”

    Obviously that is your opinion, and you may have your own reasons for believing it. It would just seem odd to hear the Brethren completely contradict that conclusion with statements like this (sorry, I know this has been quoted probably 10 times in this string alone):

    “May I suggest that wherever possible a white shirt be worn by the deacons, teachers, and priests who handle the sacrament. For sacred ordinances in the Church we often use ceremonial clothing, and a white shirt could be seen as a gentle reminder of the white clothing you wore in the baptismal font and an anticipation of the white shirt you will soon wear into the temple and onto your missions. That simple suggestion is not intended to be pharisaic or formalistic.” Jeffrey R. Holland, “‘This Do in Remembrance of Me’,” Ensign, Nov 1995, 67

    Elder Holland’s language is pretty soft, using words like “suggestion”, “wherever possible”, “non-phaisaic”, and “non-formalistic”. Seems odd that the Brethren would use language like this publicly, and then use harder, stricter language privately.

  42. Kerry, you are intelligent enough to discern between a suggestion and a commandment. A bishop, a stake president and an area authority seventy ought to be intelligent enough to do the same. That my local leaders (all three tiers) are interpreting these “suggestions” as commandments does not appear to be a local matter. It appears to be a pattern. Just this week, one of the visitors to my blog decided he was through with the church for a variety of reasons. The first on his list? Conflicts between him and his ecclesiastical authorities over his church attire and grooming habits. Cultural norms that don’t conflict with the gospel are not even issues. When they are made issues by an ecclesiastical authority, it puts up a red flag in the minds of those who (correctly) recognize that it is a cultural thing within the framework of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That red flag allows the seed of doubt to be planted, which may grow into disaffection. This appears to have happened with that particular visitor. It is unfortunate, because a beard and white shirt should not be made an issue.

    I concede that those who hold the keys are allowed to wield them as they see fit. A bishop is entirely within his right to deny the active father who I see every Sunday at church the privilege of baptizing his daughter for any reason whatsoever, including the fact that he has long hair. He cannot stop him from exercising his priesthood and giving her a blessing in his pajamas, but for all ordinances of record, he holds the keys and can stop it at mere whims. But doing so for such cultural reasons makes it that much easier for that father to go inactive and for that daughter to say, “screw the church.” As that elder doesn’t cut his hair and will not allow anyone else to baptize his daughter, they are still at an impasse. I hope to God that they stay active and that that child gets baptized, by her father.

    My own opinion is that if the converted, LDS, American Indians are not required to cut their hair to baptize their children, why should this non-Native American father have to? Why are we afraid to offend the culture of the Native Americans by giving them the cultural standard of white, corporate, conservative America? Why make an exception for one group? We shouldn’t be forcing any cultural standard upon anyone. We should just stick to the gospel. Period.

    Yet cultural Mormonism is thrust upon us as if it were a commandment. Why? Who knows. Maybe it is a societal phenomena of the mantra of “follow the brethren” and “follow the prophet.” Maybe this is the fruit of prophet and GA worship. In other words, maybe it is just an unspoken tradition that, like other traditions, just become the “unspoken law.” Or maybe these leaders are really receiving instruction on this topic from GA’s, in private priesthood leadership meetings. Who knows? Who cares? I wouldn’t be surprised, either way. If cultural Mormonism is, in fact, a stumbling block to people converting to the Lord via baptism, because they look upon us as automatons, giving lip service to the importance of free agency but in actuality living a Borg-like existence of conformity to every word spoken by any leader who wears the garb of the priesthood, than I wouldn’t be surprised if this was inspired by the devil himself. Tares are, after all, supposed to be sown in this church by the enemy. The only important thing is that we recognize a tare as a tare, and remove it asap, before it chokes the wheat and stalks perish.

  43. JB said

    Ok, I tried to read everyone’s thoughts and thought I’d add my own. Part of my response stems from what Kerry said and then Andrew and Shawn commented on about a member of the bishopric or someone else asking you to wear one.

    After my wife and I got married, our first bishop was very gung-ho about all the elders wearing white shirts. So much so that we had several EQ meetings completely dedicated to how we should attire ourselves each Sunday–and spent the 45 minutes discussing the appropriateness of white shirts. Yes, without one you could not pass the sacrament. During the first meeting about white shirts that I had the pleasure of sitting through, I happened to be the only one in the room in a blue shirt. Partly because after marriage my wife mentioned that I looked better in colored shirts since white seemed to wash me out (I blame my British heritage).

    I disagreed the “spirit of the law” (which I believe both the beard issue and the white shirt to be) becoming a “letter of the law.” Particularly because during my mission some of the best LDS members I met wore jeans and sweaters to church each Sunday. Anyway, I raised my hand to address the issue, making a joke about me being the black sheep in the group based on my appearance. I can’t remember the outcome of the discussion, but it did lead to me becoming a “pet project” for our high counselor.

    In hopes that I’m not degrading the conversation, he called me one Sunday after church and invited me to wear white shirts to church since he believed I would work with the young men and would need to be an example to them. I was completely taken aback since it now became like a calling to wear white shirts. However, out of respect for the man that asked me, and his calling I respected his wishes. Granted, I don’t always wear white shirts (it depends on my mood), but that discussion stuck with me and Kerry reminded me of it with his comments.

    My reason for wearing them now, I don’t wear them during the week so it helps me set Sunday aside in my heart and mind.

    On a side note, Elder Packer gave a talk at BYU back in 1996 about the “Unwritten Order of Things.” I’m not sure it’s meant to be quoted since it’s not available on any LDS Web site, or BYUs speeches data base (although it can be found on all sorts of anti-LDS Web sites.

    Regardless, here are a few excerpts that could add to the discussion about beards and white shirts, and whatever else falls into the same category. Keep in mind, he doesn’t directly talk about white shirts and beards, but in directly there may be a few interesting points made:

    “…A principle is an enduring truth, a law, a rule you can adopt to help you in making decisions. Generally principles are not spelled out in detail. That leaves you free to adapt and to find your way with an enduring truth, a principle, as an anchor. The things I am going to tell you are not explained in our handbooks or manuals either. Even if they were, most of you don’t have handbooks–not the Melchizedek Priesthood or Relief Society handbooks and the others–because they are given only to the leaders…”

    “…The fundamental doctrine and instructions on the organization of the Church are likewise found in the scriptures. In addition, there is another source of knowledge relating to what makes the Church work: We learn from experience and observation. If you learn about these things that are not written down, the unwritten order of things, you will be better qualified to be a leader–and you are going to be a leader. The most important positions of leadership are in the home–the father, mother, wife, husband, older brother and sister…”

    “…There are many things I could say about such matters as wearing Sunday best. Do you know what “Sunday best” means? It used to be the case. Now we see ever more informal, even slouchy, clothing in our meetings, even in sacrament meeting, that leads to informal and slouchy conduct…”

    Great post Shawn.

  44. ditchu said

    I did some research on this matter when I thought i would be asked to follow these guidlines.
    I found the reference people are using was directed to missionaries at the MTC about how to keep respectable on their mission.

  45. Andrew said

    JB, thanks for quoting Elder Packer’s talk. It provides yet another example of how we are to focus on PRINCIPLES (wear respectful clothing) and resist the temptation to turn all principles into a set of specific clothing mandates (wear a white shirt). As Elder Packer stated: “A principle is an enduring truth, a law, a rule you can adopt to help you in making decisions. Generally principles are not spelled out in detail. That leaves you free to adapt and to find your way” Sounds to me like he’s saying to wear respectful clothing, and leaves it up to us to decide what that is.

    By the way, a man got up in testimony meeting today and talked about how men are not allowed to officiate in temple ordinances with a beard, so he had to get special permission to have a beard for a church musical performance he’s involved in, which, ironically, requires him to have a beard to look like a scriptural character. It’s odd for me that there is a rule that would exclude a bearded Savior from officiating in temple ordinances.

    Is “no beards” really a “principle”? Or is it the imposition of a particular person or group of persons’ particular interpretation of a principle?

  46. John B said

    As a former long-haired hippie freak I find this topic interesting. I’m much older now and the long hair is now short and gray. But the beard remains. I live in Utah and am presently serving in a leadership position in my High Priests Group.
    Our ward also has several bearded elders and one in his late 40’s who sports a rather impressive ponytail.
    The hair issue has never been mentioned here. I like to think that as long a man’s hair (including facial) is not unkempt there should be no problem.

  47. Kerry said

    Andrew 45 and Anarchist 42:

    I really do NOT think that “no beards” and “white shirts only” are institutionalized, systematic mandates across the church. Plain and simple, (a) that is not what the 3, 12, and 70 are saying in public general conferences, in fact they say the opposite (“That simple suggestion is not intended to be pharisaic or formalistic”), and (b) we hear inconsistent statements on this among geographically-diverse local leaders, meaning, we hear Anarchist say his bishop/SP are pretty hard-lined on the matter, whereas other people in other areas say that their Bishop actually has a beard.

    In fact, anecdotally it seems like the hard-lined Bishops and SPs are by far the exception, and not the rule. It might be “suggested” by the exception group + x, but the enforcing group really seems to be the rare exception. I am not disagreeing with the impact of said small exceptions, I just do not see evidence of a systematic mandate.

    Anarchist, regarding your statement: “…giving lip service to the importance of free agency but in actuality living a Borg-like existence of conformity to every word spoken by any leader who wears the garb of the priesthood, than I wouldn’t be surprised if this was inspired by the devil himself.” We should also remember that just because a person chooses to adhere to a local leader’s counsel or suggestion doesn’t qualify them as a borg-like being. Many intelligent, rational, and “free-thinking” LDS members DO exercise their free agency BY choosing to follow said counsel (and potentially gaining an understanding of why leader counseled in such a way), although it may not appear that way on the outside, because the casual observer only sees the “borg” doing what the leader asked.

    Following the counsel of a local leader does not automatically qualify a member as a borg. Often it seems that only the “intelligent” members who emphatically and publicly disagree with the local leader’s counsel garner respect from thee anti-borg beings.

    Confession: I wore a blue shirt and gray sweater vest to a baptism service yesterday. The stake president’s counselor complimented me on my “outfit”. 🙂

    I have probably gone way overboard in the time spent on this topic, and should probably refocus my efforts on the “weightier matters” of the gospel, But all in all, it has been a fun and enlightening discussion.

  48. Kerry, I would like to think that none of this is systemic and that my neck of the woods is an anomaly, but because most male members conform to the standard church attire, it really isn’t possible to know whether b’s and sp’s would take a hard line approach to dress and grooming. If every non-leadership priesthood holder in your ward came to church one Sunday wearing a blue shirt, so that the bishopric was surrounded in a sea of blue, I’d say that the chances would be high that the bishop would stand up in sacrament meeting and address the shirt color. This would probably be the same for Sundays in which no ties were worn, or in which facial hair was seen on all the men. I think bishops just have different thresholds of allowance. Perhaps most allow one or two brethren to have long hair and beards, and colored shirts with no ties, thinking it is best not to make an issue out of it since it is a minority, whereas other bishops have no tolerance whatsoever for it, even for one man, as they feel allowing it may “infect the masses.” But get a good portion of the men adopting a different dress style or grooming habit than the one given to missionaries, and I think we’d suddenly see just how “hard-line” most leaders are in this area.

    Again, none of us have the hard data to show one way or another how the leaders would react to mass dress and grooming style changes among the men, so we must base our assessment of how systemic this is upon what data we do have, according to our experience. What I do know is that in my neck of the woods (not just my stake but the whole region round about, as I have talked to saints in other stakes and wards about this) non-conformity on this point is seen as rebellion against the established norms of the church.

    Also, I agree with you that following counsel or suggestion does not immediately equate with being one of the Borg, however, there is a mile of difference between following counsel after having it confirmed by the Holy Ghost, and following counsel simply because “the bishop told me to do it.” I have talked to lots of saints who, when I asked them why they did such and such a thing, give me the same response: “because the bishop asked me, because the bishop told me,” etc. I am not alone in this assessment. Another LDS elder in another stake, a personal friend of mine, has told me he, also, has noted these same “Borg-like” responses. I know we LDS like to always give the benefit of the doubt, but when patterns start to emerge, the wisest course of action is to recognize them as patterns, and not to make excuses.

  49. hawkgrrrl said

    I’m totally developing a non-sexual blog-crush on Andrew and Anarchist. IMHO, this is a very important issue for the church, and equating cultural norms with righteousness is deeply troubling and no superficial matter.

    I am aware of a bishop in PA who wore a neatly trimmed beard. He also was asked by his leader if he read the scriptures daily to which he answered: 1) that’s a private matter, and 2) if you insist on asking me that, then I read them once a year all in one day (he was obviously being a smart aleck to make his point).

    I also had a stake president in Utah who talked about this issue of cultural-based moral superiority in a stake conference. He said he was concerned that some members had made comments about less actives and visitors to the church who smelled like cigarette smoke (people wrinkled their noses or made comments behind their backs). He said he would put ashtrays outside of every door of the stake center if that’s what it took to bring people to Christ, and that the bigger sin was in those who were judging others uncharitably rather than welcoming them.

    Probably the worst instance of this I saw was in Tennessee where the bishopric was adding questions to the temple recommend interview about things they also had strong opinions about (e.g. drinking Coke, playing face cards). My mom addressed it by answering the question directly and also stating that it was not appropriate to imply she wasn’t worthy of a temple recommend by asking questions not in the official interview.

    I don’t think this is an attitude confined to Utah, just to some small minded but well-intentioned people (paving the way to hell as it were).

  50. Shawn L said

    “Following the counsel of a local leader does not automatically qualify a member as a borg.” — Agreed

    At the same time, I tend to agree with MA on this — I think that, at least in Western US, no beard and white shirts is the de facto law of the land. Right or wrong, sanctioned by SLC or not, that’s the way it is.

    Hawkgrrl’s post makes clear why this topic, while seemingly frivolous, riles people (like me) up. The idea of adding a superstructure of non-doctrinal, culturally-based beliefs onto our doctine/qualifications for worthiness is a very real and dangerous possibility. (Incidentally, this is exactly the reason why I am so opposed to BYU’s rigid insistence on forcing its students — the next generation of Mormonism — to adhere to dress and grooming standards) Stories of “extra” temple quesitons always chill me to the bone. Thankfully, I’ve never had that experience. On the other hand, your anecdote about the SP warms my heart. Thanks.

  51. Marc L said

    I’m a bit late to this party but I’ll throw my hat in.

    I think the real danger with these informal-but-still-enforced grooming “standards” is that they begin to distance us (in an unfortunate way) from “real” people. It almost becomes a cliche that all Mormons are these automatons who wear white shirts and put forth these vacant smiles while spouting pre-rehearsed phrases. I think it may be off-putting in many ways. Shouldn’t we be a little more, “of the people” if we expect to reach them?

    It becomes this cultural thing that regenerates itself and gets stronger with each permutation. In a few decades someone will say, “why is it we HAVE to wear white shirts and be clean shaven?” and everyone will stare blankly and say, “geee, we don’t really know…”

    Finally, that whole “appearance of evil” is fatally flawed. In my years in the church I have personally know of a few clean-shaven, white shirt-wearing brothers who were operating, shall we say, “under the law” and went up-river for those actions. At the same time, I have known many bearded and/or mustachioed men in the church who were truly shining examples of kindness, charity, humility and service. Facial hair has no bearing on an individual’s spirituality or morality. Obviously. So lets dump the “appearance of evil” angle.

    I have an earring (which is far worse in everybody’s eyes) and I hear it alllllll the time. I finally got tired of it and I just don’t wear it anymore. It was just personal ornamentation to me. Nothing more than a watch, a bracelet, a lapel pin like the old guys wear or a ring. But it freaked out the Bretheren so off it came. Silly when you really think about it. There are SO much bigger fish to fry out there.

    In the end, “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

  52. RB said

    I’m amazed anyone has continued to follow this thread. Marc L in #51 reminded me of an old thread on BCC on The Reality of the Appearance of Evil. Very interesting read.

    From that thread and elsewhere, it’s clear the phrase “appearance of evil” is a poor translation of what actually means “manifestations of evil”. We are not commanded to look like we’re righteous; we are to avoid sin and evil.

    Eagerness to make every suggestion into a personal commandment may wear us out. We need willing and obedient hearts, but that doesn’t mean straining to obey every historical suggestion and nice idea. Wearing white shirts is not an act of righteousness or obedience because neither require following suggestions.

    There are too many important commandments for us to fret over unimportant pharisaism. I don’t know I’d vote for him, but I like Obama’s comment that little flag pins are only lip-service patriotism, and white shirts can be lip-service righteousness.

    Christ rebuked the Pharisees who put on righteous outward appearances. “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” (Matt 23:23)

  53. Shawn L said

    Now that’s a twofer of a comment I can agree with: Pro-Obama & pro-beards 🙂

    “Eagerness to make every suggestion into a personal commandment may wear us out.”

    This is an interesting take I had not thought of. One thing we often overlook is the burden Church activity can be for some folks, especially those who are earnestly trying to do their best. Just this weekend at the Ward auction, I spoke to a very faithful, active guy, whose wife is the head of the Activities Committee. At the end of the night, he said, “the 80/20 rule really sucks. I just get worn out sometimes.” Translation: piling additional non-essential rules onto the already-overfilled plates of members can cause resentment. That’s far too high a price to pay for having uniformity of dress on Sunday morning, in my book.

  54. What is the 80/20 rule?

  55. Shawn L said

    Sorry: as used in this context, it means 20% of the people doing 80% of the work.

    For a much more high-falutin’ definition, see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle

  56. Mephistopheles said

    Appearance has become an easy yardstick with which a person’s righteousness may be easily (and often incorrectly) assessed. The Hippies and their time is long past, but the church still holds outdated ideas that facial hair is equated with drugs and rebellion. In the Detroit temple, we have a rule that all temple worker most be clean-shaven. Of course, that applies only to the men. Several of the women have abundant facial hair. One day in the high priest’s group, one man told how he was working at the temple when a woman arrived “inappropriately dressed.” She had a current temple recommend, but the consensus of the men working at the desk of the temple was that she would not be allowed admittance into the “Lord’s House” until she was dressed appropriately. The woman was shocked, embarrassed, and outraged. I doubt if she ever returned to the temple. Who would in such a situation? The sad thing for me was that the brother who told this personal account felt that he and the other men at the temple had acted properly. The result, I felt, was that one fewer dead person had her temple work done, and one more person was offended. I can’t see any positive thing coming from that kind of experience. Too many Mormons act like whitened sepulchers–all attractive in appearance and full of corruption inside.

    I wish that appearance was seen to be as superficial as it is. Instead Babylon’s business suit has become the uniform of Zion. The attempt made by many Mormons to somehow serve both God and Mammon is doomed, but few can see that. Moroni warns us in Mormon 8 about what will happen when members of our day focus on the wrong things.

  57. Hmmmmmm said

    As far as I know, the calling for male temple workers is the only calling in the Church which officially requires no beard. That’s according to one of my leaders. Anywhere else that has that “rule,” ie: wards/stakes, is under the direction of a stake president, who is given authority to conduct the affairs of the congregations in his jurisdiction. I must say I don’t really understand why this is such a big deal. I certainly hope no one is so attached to the idea of facial hair that he (or she) would become embittered and jaded by a standard his or her leader has chosen to adopt. If it’s not a big deal to have it, it’s not a big deal to shave it off. Right?

  58. ditchu said

    In many cultures facial hair and how it is shaved/unshaved ect. is a status symbol and in some cases is like a badge displaying the peoson’s affiliation or even duties. In the Celtic culture prior to the angel invasion a beard representes a station of Cheif of King, the one who is responicible for the safty of his community, and shaven cheeks only signified celtic nobility, those who are issued the protection of their people.
    As one who has assumed these kinds of responcibility it would be almost offensive to ask for their facial hair to be removed. It is like saying their culture is not valued and that they need to drop that status they have held.

    This is not wise to do just because some few think it is an apperance of evil. Understanding goes a long way when dealing with people of mixed culture.


  59. Anoah said

    The goal is to follow the MODERN prophet. Keep your eyes on the MODERN prophet. We honor those who came before, and revere their teachings, but we FOLLOW the MODERN prophet. That will make all the difference in your commitment.

  60. ditchu said


    I think you have it wrong. We need to follow the Prophets, not just johney come lately. We need to foolow to our best ability the teachings of our Prophets (all of ’em). Now, I know that the latest Prophet is set in his position for us, now. He has the best view of our current situation and has the most pertiantant information for our day, but he will not conflect with the message from God found in the Gospel. So if our Prophet is MODERN, POST-MODERN, or even PRE-FUTURISTIC, it is little consiquence as to his authority.

    When posed with something that I am unsure of (like beards/no-beards) in the church, I first ask for reasoning. Some may think this is questioning those in leadership, but it is not. I do not question their authority but their reasons, for I wish to follow not in word only, but in spirit… The reasoning is what tells me why something is requested/suggested and thus I am able to deturmine how best to follow the leaders of my church.

    Also the only referance from a Prophet about being clean shaven was specifically to missionaries goint to full time missions and to temple workers. Again it is due to social attitudes to facial hair and how it is kept, that this message was given to these people. Our conversation here is mainly about Bishops not Prophets. Or am I mistaken about this?


  61. someguy said

    If Jesus didn’t have a beard, then he was the only Rabi that I’ve ever known without a beard.

    Frankly, I think the whole thing is just silly. I haven’t been to church in 4 years and have no intention of going back. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t joined another faith, I just believe like Joseph Smith that all the churches are cracked out and have no idea what is going on anymore.

    I choose to follow my own philosophy. Jesus knows me and my intentions, my actions, and how I operate my life… I don’t need some old men to give me divination to tell me how to live… common sense, a good heart, and a clear connection with the “holy spirit” is all you really need. If Jesus were concerned about it, he would’ve said something at some point in all our books.

    I’ve worn a beard since I was 16 years old, full beard (without the length). Church leaders expressed concern about it, and some of my other habits. I decided before they decided to take any disciplinary actions, I would break it off. I did at 18 and have never looked back. So I guess that makes it 7 years I haven’t been to church. Anyway, I’ve been happy and bearded ever since.

  62. Ahenobarbus said

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. I’ve been in the bishopric (St Louis, MO) for nearly a year, the whole time with a well-groomed beard. Last Sunday I was asked to shave (asked by my bishop who was asked by the stake pres, who was asked by the area authority.) I am complying, since I wish to be obedient – even if it is only a petty and idiosyncratic version of an Abrahamic Test.

    Nevertheless, I intend to ask my entire current line of authority the reason behind the request. If it is only because of a desire to look like someone I’m not (e.g., a general authority, an ordained full-time missionary), then I will continue to shave resentfully. If, however, it IS church policy coming from the prophet, then I obviously need to repent of my attitude.

  63. Anoah said

    There are bigger things to get upset about. So, repenting of your attitude right now might just save you the hassle of wasting your time. The Prophet would likely just tell you to follow your local leaders without resenting faith.
    Peace to you…
    From one who has a beard,

  64. Javy Lopez said

    I had a Stake Patriarch in a Pennsylvania Stake who had a goatee for years. He looked EXACTLY like Colonel Sanders. He later was excommunicated for infidelity. It was most likely the beard that lead him astray.

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  74. anoah said

    I’ll be short, but could say MUCH more. I’ve read about 1/3 of the responses here, and the original posting.
    1. I grew up a hippie, absolutely know that the hippie culture mentioned by E. Oaks is alive and well, more so than is ever was even in the 60s and 70s. It just doesn’t have the same center-stage focus from the media and politics. I had long hair then, tie dies, and ALL the other activities and substances that go along with it.
    2. The church as a whole does NOT teach that it is against “the rules” to have long hair and a beard. If you walk onto a reservation you will find church leaders with long hair (Traditionals, as they are known; and I was raised up spiritually under the steward of tradition Native teachings). The guidance given is about being unkempt; read Oaks’ words more carefully; and don’t take your go at opposing church culture from one talk only. I have a beard, and do so regularly as I please. I was baptized at the age of 23 with long hair (though no longer a mid-back pony tail as it had been). This is simple and not worth the fight characters here seem to want to have. Just keep yourself from looking like a bum–and I’ve hung out with bums too; and serve with homeless people regularly, whether they have beards or not.
    3. Culture is very important to any people. And dress and appearance are part of culture. Take a few anthropology classes and sociology classes and you’ll learn that–yes I’ve taken many with my undergrad and master’s work in counseling and more. It seems that most the people who post here present more of a cultural-anarchy view on existence. You can’t have a great level of cohesion that way.
    4. Speaking of culture; the expectations for many things is different depending on where you go and what culture you live in. For instance, when I attend church in Samoa (where I have lived) it is normal and accepted for me to wear a nice pair of flip-flop type sandals and a lava-lava (yes, like unto a skirt =) ), and I loved it. However, if I wear that gear when I attend church in Orem, UT or Edinburgh, Scotland, or Santa Barbara, CA (just to name a few others), it would not be accepted. However, no matter where I attend I will wear a white shirt and tie whenever possible (and I haven’t found it to be impossible yet).

    As a convert to the church, and having lived the OPPOSITE in almost every way to the principles I now strive to live, I present that appearance makes a huge difference to creating a sustainable culture; that how others see you DOES matter (hence, by our fruits they may know us; you’re appearance IS a fruit–the most obvious one as a matter of fact).

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