My first thought upon hearing the Update was that my on-again, off-again Bible study with Santa Claus might once more be on-again. He was doing so well until he saw that magazine equating a shortening beard to spiritual progress. Now, maybe, just maybe, he will resume his study. Of course, I’ll still have to help him with the holiday thing, but at least the beard thing is no more.
If an entire Update dedicated to beards now being okay seems like overkill, one might recall that the Governing Body tried underkill and it didn’t work. From the September 2016 Watchtower: “Does Your Style of Dress Glorify God?”
What about the propriety of brothers wearing a beard? The Mosaic Law required men to wear a beard. However, Christians are not under the Mosaic Law, nor are they obliged to observe it. (Lev. 19:27; 21:5; Gal. 3:24, 25) In some cultures, a neatly trimmed beard may be acceptable and respectable, and it may not detract at all from the Kingdom message. In fact, some appointed brothers have beards. Even so, some brothers might decide not to wear a beard. (1 Cor. 8:9, 13; 10:32) In other cultures or localities, beards are not the custom and are not considered acceptable for Christian ministers. In fact, having one may hinder a brother from bringing glory to God by his dress and grooming and his being irreprehensible.—Rom. 15:1-3; 1 Tim. 3:2, 7.
This paragraph was a big deal at the time, at least in my area. Brothers were talking about it seemingly the day after it was written. When that Watchtower Study finally came, that paragraph was like the elephant in the room that everyone was awaiting, and then Yessss! paragraph 17 finally arrived and you could talk about it. Some congregations spent extra time to ‘explain’ it.
I thought that would be the end of it. I thought at long last the issue had been laid to rest. I thought beards would soon be showing up—at first in publishers and then in MS and elders. Instead, it seemed like congregations doubled-down, as if with the attitude: ‘Well, okay, 'weak' publishers can wear beards if they insist, but no way will they ever be appointed.’ A few publishers grew beards, but beyond that--nothing.
’Look, we don’t have an issue with it,’ is what the GB finally said in this latest Update. It’s not new. It’s what they said 7 years ago only it didn’t take. This time, to make sure it wasn’t another misfire that didn’t take, they made it a big production, brought in bells and whistles, the chariot, and disclaimers for guys who say, ‘It’s about time!’ and for the more rigid guys who drew a line in the sand and are now aghast to see it erased. Old habits die hard. This one certainly did.
For me, it is like when the man who invented autocorrect died. ‘Restaurant in peace’ the obits read, though there were a few harsher ones that said, ‘May he rot in hello.’
On the one hand, it all seems pretty silly. The greater world solved this beard issue decades ago:
And the sign said, "Long-haired freaky people, need not apply" So I tucked my hair up under my hat, and I went in to ask him why. He said, "You look like a fine upstandin' young man, I think you'll do" So I took off my hat and said, "Imagine that, Huh, me workin' for you."
There. Done. Settled. Back in 1990. Whereas, we don’t settle it till 2023. But, in fairness, it ought be remembered that the overall world is going down the toilet and Jehovah’s organization is not.
More than once the Bible says that those drawn to the Lord must become like young children. And indeed, they have proved to be that way, not just in the good ways but also the not-so-good. Paul said: “Brothers, do not become young children in your understanding, but be young children as to badness.” (1 Cor 14:20) Why did he say this—because they never became young children in their understanding?
So it has proved today, with issues taking longer to resolve than you might think would be the case. Those the Lord can work with are like ‘young children.’ Those whom he cannot are ones too insistent upon their rights to be molded. They are left to the reward of whatever their discord can produce. In short, “they are having their reward in full.”
It was not in the Bible. It never appeared in Watchtower print. (other than many examples of ‘shaving one’s beard’ listed in the changes made on the road to baptism) The reasons for it, association with beatniks and hippies, disappeared decades ago. We’ve had articles to the effect that we don’t do rules, but primarily principles. And yet, no rule was more firmly enforced than the unwritten no-beard rule.
If you want to blame someone, blame God. He’s the one who created the paradigm of ‘We have this treasure in earthen vessels.’ (2 Corinthians 4:7) The treasure is the ministry and the earthen vessels is us, with all of our petty flaws, mild hypocrisies, stubbornnesses, obtusenesses, insensitivities, and idiosyncrasies. Blame Jehovah for arranging it that way and not handing the whole assignment over to angels.
Believe me, I am sensitive to this issue. Years ago, I went to bat for a youngster being drummed out solely for not shaving a beard. I learned later he had a very atypical reason, unknown to me at the time, but all the brothers could see was obstinacy and standing upon ‘his rights.’ ‘Before this is all done, I’m going to grow a beard!’ I told certain elders. ‘It’s one thing to shove around a youngster. Try doing it with an adult.’ Trouble is, I didn’t want one. It’s too easy to get food caught there.
It is fixed now. It’s about time, but it is done. If Jehovah is going to permit earthen vessels to have the treasure, you cannot be shocked if they behave earthenly. It’s his doing. Earthen is as earthen does.
Are the brothers conservative? Things don’t have to conform to my taste. It is absolutely shocking to look around the world and see how people misuse their ‘freedom.’ I’m not a fan of authoritarian countries, but I can see how they might look at what happens in the West when all restraints are removed and say, ‘Whoa! We don’t want any part of that!”
The reason for the change came out in the update itself:
“A number of branch offices around the world have written to us, indicating that there continues to be question about whether or not it is proper for a brother in an appointed position to wear a beard. . . . The Governing Body has concluded that there is a need for clarification.”
Translation: “There continues to be a question.” There should not be by now. We keep getting letters. We’re tired of it. “There is a need for clarification. Nothing new, here. Just restatement of the old.
“The Governing Body does not have an issue with brothers wearing beards.” Got it? We don’t. To prove it, we’re now pulling out all the stops, employing all the bells and whistles, even hauling out the chariot, because when we first indicated it was a non-issue, no one took us up on it. So now, let us repeat…..(drum roll, please)….. We. Don’t. Care.
“We thought sending a message 7 years ago was enough:
“What about the propriety of brothers wearing a beard? The Mosaic Law required men to wear a beard. However, Christians are not under the Mosaic Law, nor are they obliged to observe it. (Lev. 19:27; 21:5; Gal. 3:24, 25) In some cultures, a neatly trimmed beard may be acceptable and respectable, and it may not detract at all from the Kingdom message. In fact, some appointed brothers have beards. Even so, some brothers might decide not to wear a beard. (1 Cor. 8:9, 13; 10:32) In other cultures or localities, beards are not the custom and are not considered acceptable for Christian ministers. In fact, having one may hinder a brother from bringing glory to God by his dress and grooming and his being irreprehensible. —Rom. 15:1-3; 1 Tim. 3:2, 7.” (Watchtower, Sept 2016)
“We thought that would do the trick. “In some cultures, a neatly trimmed beard may be acceptable and respectable,” we said. “Near as we can tell, we live in one of those cultures,” we figured elder bodies would say. They didn’t. So now we’re saying it so emphatically that nobody could possibly misunderstand it.”
It may well be that Witnesses back in the day disliked beards but so did everyone else of their time and well after. Look at television shows of that time. Count up the beards. Maynard G Krebs the beatnik had one. Beyond that, nearly zilch. I barely recall seeing any beards at all during by non-Witness youth, certainly not among my parents’ generation.
Witnesses were just the last (by far) to notice the world had moved on from no-beards. They missed it because they were ‘insular,’ a problem more difficult to remedy than one might think because it is the flipside of the ‘no part of the world’ coin. If you are no part of the world, you are almost by definition ‘insular’ to a certain extent. That’s what insulation is—something that keeps two things that should not mix separate.
After that 2016 Watchtower, bodies of elders considered its local applicability. Some began to not fuss over beards for appointed servants, but most continued to. Some of those that did fretted that beards among servants would stumble congregation members, completely missing the point that Paul’s counsel about stumbling (over eating meat) was out of concern for new ones or nonbelievers. In the case of beards, these ones had no issue with it, but only some ‘veterans’ who had made it a virtue in itself to be beardless and who you’d think would have moved on by now. Old habits die hard, especially when you are insular.
At long last, the mess is resolved. It looks a little silly the way it happens, but it is resolved. It comes close on the heels of another irritant being resolved—the matter of ‘counting time’—applicable at one time, but less so with passing years, as it introduces curious and crippling notions of being ‘on duty’ and ‘off duty.’ It was a relic of guys raised from the factory era in which, even when there was nothing to do, you’d better look busy to avoid the boss’s displeasure. Times change. God is not like that. It has been discarded. Two nettlesome things resolved in fairly short order.
It makes for unity to do things like #8. It also looks a little silly to those who have acquiesced to a disunited world, who consider that normal, and who grumble when anyone actually seeks unity not done their way, unity not achieved by waiting for all “the brokenhearted people living in the world [to] agree”—the way that history has demonstrated they never have or will.
JWs in the United States are almost exactly 1/3 white, 1/3 black, and 1/3 Hispanic, says Pew Research, also with about 5% Asian. Meaning? They have solved racism, an issue that tears the greater world apart. Though, at first glance, it seems not the same thing, if you want unity, you have to oil the cogs every once it a while, maybe even give it a good whack with a hammer. and Update 8 is an example of that on a lesser issue that unexpectedly became large.
Any criticism or ridicule of such ‘oiling’ is only valid if it comes from ones who themselves enjoy unity. Otherwise, it is little more than sour grapes. Some have simply acquiesced to a world without unity as ‘normal.’ Their criticisms don’t count. If you have long ago become part of the world, you can’t criticize the travails of those who haven’t.
***Xero is “not privy to the GB's private thoughts, but “I can imagine them being frustrated at) some who have the desire to worship the organization,” he says.
He cites a scripture: "...But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they ripped their outer garments and leaped out into the crowd, crying out and saying: 'Men, why are you doing these things? We too are humans having the same infirmities as you have. " Acts 14:8-18
He cites another: "On hearing this, they began to glorify God, but they said to him: 'You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the Law.'" (Acts 21:20)