‘We are poorly dressed …’—Part 1

“We are poorly dressed … Be imitators of me.” (1 Cor 4:11, 16)

“All her household are clothed in scarlet… her clothing is fine linen and purple.” (Prov 31:21-22)

A few weeks ago in Bible study, we studied 1 Corinthians 4. I was struck by the way I look so much more like the Corinthians than Paul, as he describes himself in verses 8-16:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.

I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me.

I came home and was thinking through what to do with these verses. For example, should I be more “poorly dressed”? Should I be less comfortably housed? Should I be bolder in evangelism so that I am “reviled” more?

Later that day, coincidentally, I found myself reading Proverbs 31, and was struck by the contrast between the apostles’ lifestyle and the lifestyle of the woman described there. In Proverbs 31, the woman who fears the Lord has an extensive household, her husband is respected at the city gate and her whole household are “clothed in scarlet”.

Both passages are Scripture, and the Bible tells us that all Scripture is inspired by God and useful for us (2 Tim 3:16). Both passages describe figures who are, in some sense, exemplary, and hold their life out to be imitated. So what should I be doing? Should I be standing at the school gate as someone people look down on, or should I be there as a woman people respect? Should I be dressed with (modest, understated) style and class, or in the threadbare fashions of a decade or two ago?

I want to go with the first option; I feel a little intimidated by the Proverbs 31 woman, but I have no reservations about whether I want to be like her! The apostles in 1 Corinthians 4, however … I don’t just wonder whether I could be like that, I wonder if I could want to be like that.

So what do I do with these two examples in Scripture, and how do I work out how to apply them in my situation? Does the shape of the Bible’s big picture give me any guidance in this? What about the differences between the types of literature that the two examples are found in? Is it a matter of choosing between the two, or is it possible somehow to live a life shaped by both examples?

I have a few thoughts coming together, which I will share in a subsequent post, but first I’d like to hear your ideas. Comments please!

15 thoughts on “‘We are poorly dressed …’—Part 1

  1. Is it just me or is comparing the two passages a bit like comparing apples to oranges?

    1 Cor 4 is Paul talking about the those who are working toward positions of power in the church, rather than living as servants for Christ. In verse 17 he says that he sent them Timothy “to remind you of my ways in Christ… But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power.”

    Paul and the apostles do not use the gospel as a way to seek positions of power, because they have given up everything for the sake of the gospel. I think the the quote “We are poorly dressed… Be imitators of me” accurately reflects the big idea of the passage; maybe “We are fools for Christ… Be imitators of me” would be a better reflection of Paul’s argument.

    Proverbs 31, on the other hand, is talking about a woman’s service to her household. It is calling for the “excellent wife” to put in all of her efforts for the sake of her family. Once again the argument doesn’t appear to be that they should be dressed in any fancy sense… indeed the alternate translation for “dressed in scarlet” (see the footnote) is dressed “in double thickness” to stave away the “snow” mentioned in the first half of the verse. Indeed, in verse 25 “Strength and dignity are her clothing”.

    Now should we seek to be respected or looked down upon? Maybe a bit of both. For those who hate the gospel will always look down on those who live for the gospel, but I think there is always respect for those who give their lives for the sake of their family and the gospel. I believe it’s possible that people can dislike your belief while at the same time respecting the strength of your convictions.

  2. <i>Is it just me or is comparing the two passages a bit like comparing apples to oranges?</i>

    I’m not sure I like this idea! I think there is a certain degree of legitimacy in the notion that we can compare what God says in one place to what he says in another. The situation may vary by a thousand years or so, but it is the same God doing the speaking.

    Anyway, I wonder if the unifying principle here is ‘other person centredness’. The woman in Proverbs 31 dresses her family for their benefit, and at the heart of her activity is sacrifice of self. She does it very well.

    Paul ‘dresses down’ for the sake of others. That is, the reason he looks like he does is because he keeps wanting to see people saved, preaches the gospel and gets thumped for it. It’s not a good look.

    But it’s not deliberate, and I am thinking that Paul did not wake up in the morning determined to muddy his Sunday best suit in order to project an image of humility. He looks humble because he’s been humiliated by others in order to serve them with the gospel of salvation.

  3. Welcome to the Sola Panel Nicole.

    A couple of thoughts:

    1) Since we are going for interpreting Scripture according to Scripture, can I encourage us to consider that the Proverbs 31 woman is saved by grace? as a result, I imagine she would be discouraged if she heard that women the world over turned her into ‘law’!

    2) Is the apostle saying that he deliberately chose cheap clothes? Or is it rather one of the consequences of his ministry?

  4. Aren’t the two passages comparing two different situations – one where the gospel has born fruit in a community (Proverbs) and one where the gospel is still despised and rejected (Corinthians).  If we think we have been so successful in our evangelism that our community is a reflection of the kingdom (the christendom model) we will live one way, if we think our community is still far from the kingdom we wil live another.

  5. “I’m not sure I like this idea! I think there is a certain degree of legitimacy in the notion that we can compare what God says in one place to what he says in another. The situation may vary by a thousand years or so, but it is the same God doing the speaking. “

    Gordon: I don’t deny that we can compare passages (the unity of scripture is a wonderful thing!), but I was pointing out that the context of the two passages seems to be different (as David Juniper says in his comment).

    Think of it as taking the creation account, where God says his creation is good, and comparing it with Ecclesiastes 1, “everything is meaningless.” Taking these two quotes out of context, I could ask whether this is saying that God’s Creation is meaningless. Of course, it isn’t, because I have completely missed the context of the quotes and what point they are making.

    In the same way, the context of the 1 Cor passage seems to be Paul giving up all for the sake of the Gospel, whereas the Proverbs passage is the woman serving her family.

  6. Hi Nicole.  This is good stuff; and it is actually a part of a bigger question about how we live.

    I’m wondering about the greek word behind ‘poorly dressed’.  It is literally ‘to be naked’.  (Husbands settle down – this is Paul remember) 

    I checked out one of my dictionaries on Accordance.  See below. Perhaps poorly dressed metaphorically means – without armour.  Paul is doing battle without being dressed for battle.

    (So in Dio Chrysostom 25, 3 and other later writings; to be a light-armed soldier, Plutarch, Aem. 16; Dio Cassius, 47, 34, 2.)*

  7. … I forgot to say … I’m in the arena and I’ve got no armour on.

    Nicole, if my interpretation is right, it still doesn’t deny the question and the tension you raise.  I’m looking forward to part deux.

  8. Total tangent, but after your comment Andrew for some reason I’m thinking of the Battle of Agincourt where the French knights and their horsies were so dressed up in their battle armour that they all sank down into the boggy field, and were completely at the mercy of the English bowmen.

    Hmm, yes, I think there’s something in that for everyone…or not.

  9. I’m reminded of a great passage of Augustine’s confessions:
    <i>Such is the case with those who cannot endure to hear that something was lawful for righteous men in former times that is not so now; or that God, for certain temporal reasons, commanded then one thing to them and another now to these: yet both would be serving the same righteous will… Is justice, then, variable and changeable? No, but the times over which she presides are not all alike because they are different times.</i>

    Just to throw up another hypothesis, could this be a temporal difference?
    The one is commanded to dress in a manner which shows God’s providence for his chosen people, the other commanded to live as in a war (a la the ‘wartime lifestyle’ advocated by John Piper, Ralph Winters, Randy Alcorn etc)

  10. In practical terms, why not dress from the op shop? You may not be wearing the latest fashions, but we live in such a throw-away society that you will always be adequately dressed, and you will have more money to put towards gospel ministry. Occasionally, someone will say to you “That’s a great … where did you get it?” and you will be able to explain not only where you got it, but why you’d rather spend your money on other things than new clothes. (Don’t know that I’ve actually managed to do that last bit so well, but the theory’s there!)

    There’s a great quote from the Perspectives course (which I can’t locate to quote accurately at the moment) about living with a wartime mentality; we are involved in spiritual war (preaching the gospel) and so just as allied citizens made many sacrifices during WWII “for the war effort” we should be sacrificing the comforts of our lifestyle so that we can give more generously to support the spread of the gospel to the nations. Seeing how our brothers and sisters live in the majority world is a great spur (Heb 11:25) to doing this.

  11. The excellent wife of Proverbs 31 also “opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy” (v20 ESV). Her generosity is on view as much as her clothing.

  12. I often wonder if there is a life of faith parallel with the twins of general and special revelation. 

    That is, I know a lot of Christians who seem to want to live their lives in a general revelation kind of way.  Honouring God, but mostly just getting on with their lives, enjoying creation and living godly but generally untroubled lives. This seems a bit ‘general revelation’ to me.

    Others seem to be aware that the urgency of the gospel requires some action and that that action may entail sacrifice or cost.  These people seem to be living more ‘special revelation’ lives.

    My dilema is the same as this articles (I think), how do you reconcile the two?  Shouldn’t every Christian be captured by the urgency of the gospel?  Shouldn’t everyone deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Christ, being sent into all the world to make disciples?

    I look forward to your second installment.

  13. Juliette, the quote about a wartime mentality is mentioned by John Piper in his book “Don’t Waste Your Life”.

    He emphasizes, not so much “sacrificing the comforts of our lifestyle so that we can give more generously” but “using our money to show that God, not possessions, is our treasure” which is, of course, very similar but not the same.

    Great tip about the op shop.

  14. More importantly than “what” we actually wear is the attitude we have towards how we clothe ourselves.  I think what Paul says in Philippians 4 can be applied in that whether we can afford great, brand-name fashionable clothes, or our budget only allows for second hand clothes we ought to be content. 
    Either way, we can become proud and legalistic about our nice clothes or our thriftiness.
    Honestly the issue (as usual:D)is more one of the heart, then “what” you wear.  Our identity and standing before God is in Christ alone, not in how we dress and one day we will have glorious white robes to wear that will make the most lavish clothes we could own here pale in comparison.

  15. My initial thoughts are that we don’t need to polarise them (which I suspect you won’t do Nicole!).

    I think that the part of salvation history that we live in (ie. after the resurrection of Jesus and awaiting his return), there is a priority of the principles behind the Pauline example. I wouldn’t want it exclude the principles behind the the Proverbs 31 example though.

    The impact that the gospel has on our lives will be pretty obvious in the ordinary life decisions that we make (which will one way or another impact on what we wear!)

Comments are closed.