This title might have caught your attention. Either you are now angry, curious, in disbelief or filled with a combination of all these feelings. No matter how you feel let me urge you to be patient with me for the next few minutes. One might rightfully, at least in their mind, may ask; how dare you say that there is heresy among the Kerala Brethren [hereafter KB.] My short answer would be, if Galatians after few years of its inception could fall into heresy, the same could happen to KB also. I am addressing an unscriptural practice among the KB in the form of ‘prohibition on Jewelry or ornaments.’
Few of the readers may have seen my expressed disagreement about the Jewelry prohibition among the KB and Pentecostals through some electronic media. Some may even wonder why I strongly oppose this practice, since this a harmless practice and it would even display an appearance of piety [they think.] Some even believe that it is ‘sinful’ to have any gold on a believer at all, to them the scripture truly prohibits such practice. They go to the extent of twisting the scriptural passages to fit their strange interpretations. I acknowledge that such believers are indeed very sincere in their belief, and I prayerfully encourage all of you to read this article and continue studying the scriptures whether this practice has any scriptural basis. If it is found in the scriptures, follow it; if not, discard and stop practicing it.
I compare this practice of ‘prohibition of Jewelry/ ornaments’ to the Galatian heresy that the Apostle Paul addressed in the book of Galatians very strongly. He called them out by saying, “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?” Paul was brutally harsh with the Galatians who had subscribed to the practice of adding circumcision to the saved Jews. After all, the circumcision was instituted by God as a visible sign of His covenant to the Jewish people and was in observance for centuries. So, we would normally think that Paul shouldn’t be this harsh about it and call them out as heretic. Yet Paul did.
Now, when it comes to KB this extra biblical practice is revered by many and practiced religiously by most of the Assemblies in Kerala and their offshoots across the globe. The preachers among the KB refuse to address this heresy due to the fear of losing their stand among the group. They are more committed to stay practicing this heresy than standing up for the scriptural truth of not adding anything to the message of the gospel. The Assembly elders refuse to baptize believers with any form of Jewelry on them or offer the bread and the cup to such people. This is what I call a serious heresy. The latest trend is that the elders would silently allow the folks to wear Jewelry elsewhere except at the meetings or during the baptism. This silent allowance is just hypocrisy and they seemed to be content as hypocrites rather than allowing the God given freedom to believers. Therefore, I had been writing against this practice for the last two decades. Towards the conclusion of this article I will explain further the danger of this heresy and how it is distorting the gospel.
The following lines are from Mahaakavi K V Simon”s song ‘Aadhyemthem illaatha nithyente kaanthya.’ K.V.S composed this song when he was about to officiate the wedding of late K G Thomas [Kottayam] and K.V.S sang it at the conclusion of the wedding ceremony as a benedictory hymn. I quoted it here to emphasize the message it carries and its relevance to us especially while dealing with this subject.
Needaarnnu nalkeedu shreeyeshunaaTha!
Here is the non-verbatim translation of above stanza -
From Your infinite resources, give them [KGT and his new bride] wisdom to discern
The truths of the Scriptures, and words to proclaim them with no fear,
And may the Lord Jesus Christ grant it abundantly!
K.V.S is exhorting us to ‘proclaim the truth of the gospel with no fear.’ I sincerely hope the KB preachers would proclaim the truth and root out this unbiblical practice. The following parts of my writing are a combination of my previous writings as well as the writings of a like-minded brother who happened to have KB roots, just as I also have. I received written permission from this brother to quote as needed for this article without specifically acknowledging the source or revealing more details. So, I claim full authorship and responsibility regarding what is written based on its scriptural relevance.
THE PROBLEM AND THE QUESTION OF VALIDATING DOCTRINE
Many have written about the Kerala Brethren and Pentecostal ban concerning the wearing of jewelry, or adornments of any kind. It has been criticized (and defended) at least in booklet form, and on multiple forums on various electronic bulletin board, and discussed at conferences to some level for many years. At such conferences, the only “discussion” was to attempt to defend the traditional stand. Listening to such a defense was a painful experience for me, although it came from well-intentioned brothers that I respected. The pain arose from what was done to and with Scripture. But lately there are no such open discussions but kept on with this erroneous practice.
DEFINING THE ISSUE
The primary matter I like to state is the exact nature of the issue I wish to address. It is not whether there is spiritual discernment needed in regard to how believers dress. That is not the question. The issue is not whether one can sin by focusing on external adornment. The answer to that is plain. One can. The question, rather, is whether believers individually, or groups of them, or assemblies have a biblical mandate to insist that all believers must strip themselves of all jewelry, or even non-precious metal adornment of the form of ear ring, ear studs, nose-ring, necklace, bangles, anklets, or (God forbid!) waist chains, and refuse to have fellowship with them otherwise. This is the question.
THE METHOD OF PROVING
And how would we go about proving the matter one way or the other? That is the challenge.. What would be adequate proof for establishing something as a required standard or as a forbidden practice for the life of the believer? A few things need to be pointed out in this regard.
INVALID ARGUMENTS: First of all, there is a kind of proof that is not at all good: “This is how we always taught/did” or “This is what our (spiritual) forefathers taught.” This answer is no good. If this answer can be good, Brethrenism would not exist. It was not satisfactory that the Mar Thoma church (and its parent church) always baptized infants. That was not good enough for KVS, P.E Mammen and several others who pioneered the Brethren movement in Kerala. They wanted to be bound by the Bible. It was not satisfactory that the Church of England all along had a clergy-laity distinction. That was not satisfactory for JN Darby. So, in the true spirit of ‘Brethrenism’, it shall not suffice for us if KB from the beginning did this. Our natural/spiritual forefathers could have been wrong. If you are not willing to accept this, you have no right to preach the gospel and ask anyone to place their trust in Christ as only Savior, if that is not what their forefathers also believed. If we say with Paul, “Let God be true, and every man a liar (Rom 3:4),” let us have the humility to admit that perhaps our own forefathers did not get everything right, even though they were zealous for Scripture and Christ.
A STRICT CRITERION: On the positive side, what are acceptable criteria? I recall a discussion on fasting. Two eminent participants from the KB group concluded that there was not enough mandate for the church for fasting other than as an individual (secret) thing. That was interesting. The Old Testament (OT) has plenty of instances of individual and collective fasting, inside and outside Israel, and often declared and mandated. The instances certainly are not lacking. But this was considered quite inadequate to form the basis of a ‘rule’ for the church. I do not disagree with that conclusion, but merely wish to point out the need they found for more compelling evidence or prescription to recommend something as the practice for the church. In addition, the New Testament (NT) has clear examples of fasting, in the example of the Lord’s life, in the life of the early church, in the practice of the church in Antioch, in the individual life of the apostles. Still, it was felt that this constitutes an inadequate basis for us to form a rule mandated on the church. So, our evidence for any mandate concerning ornaments must also meet a stricter standard.
On the positive side, furthermore, I would like to follow in the footsteps of the Brethren (who knowingly or unknowingly followed the ideology of the Swiss Reformation led by Zwingli 300 years earlier). This was a strong feeling to return to NT simplicity in practices. So, the Brethren did not care about the architecture of the meeting places (or even to have a special building reserved for worship). They did away with the clergy and went (with some inconsistency) to a church government practice of having multiple elders in each congregation. This was from a basic desire to imitate the NT. Their meetings had a primary focus of breaking bread because they felt this was what the early church did. They broke bread every week, on Sunday, because this is what the early church ended up practicing, after starting out to do so every day.
One is surprised, therefore, considering this earnest desire of the early Brethren worldwide to follow in apostolic footsteps, the Malayalam Bible does not read as follows in the places shown below.
Mark 16:15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He that believeth, REMOVETH ALL HIS JEWELRY, and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
Clearly, observing the KB practice one would think this is how the verse read. But what I added in capitals in not part of the Bible.
Acts 2:38-41 38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, REMOVE YOUR ORNAMENTS, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. …. 41 Then they that gladly received his word, AND TOOK OFF ALL THEIR ORNAMENTS, were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.
Again, if you observe KB practice, you would think that this is what the Scriptures said, but the portions in capitals are not simply there. Acts 8:36-38 36 And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? 37 And Philip said, If you believe with all your heart, you may. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. 38 And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; BUT THEN PHILIP HESITATED. WHAT IS THE MATTER? ASKED THE EUNUCH. THOSE RINGS, WHAT ARE THEY STILL DOING ON YOUR EARS? ASKED PHILIP. THE EUNUCH REMOVED THEM PROMPTLY, and he baptized him. 39 And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing.
We may imagine the material I added in capital letters, but they are not part of the Bible.
In fact, we could go to all the NT places where baptism is mentioned, and observe that something such as the KB requirement is NEVER indicated in any place in the NT. There is NO apostolic precedent for the KB practice. Do not protest that I am mocking anyone or anything (in what I did above). It is the KB tradition that makes a mockery of apostolic teaching and practice.
In fact, consider the one place where some behavioral change is indicated in connection with baptism. It is in the gospels, in connection with John the baptizer. Luke 3:7-14 “Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, … 10 And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? 11 He answered and said unto them, He that has two coats, let him impart to him that has none; and he that has meat, let him do likewise. 12 Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? 13 And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. 14 And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.”
So, if the Brethren refuse to baptize (or later excommunicate) those who will not give to the poor, I can understand. If they will not baptize government employees who continue to take bribes, I will understand. If those who are violent (beaters and strikers), those who spread falsehoods, and complainers, if such are rejected for baptism and fellowship, I can understand. There is some biblical basis for it. But the statute concerning baptism which the KB have created, which applies to external appearance (i.e., to wear no ornaments at all) does not arise from anything we find clearly practiced in the NT.
The NT evidences no linkage between baptism and a requirement to strip off all jewelry. This practice was not taught by the Lord or His apostles. Either all first century men and women, both Jewish and pagan, had already attained to the KB standard of spirituality of eschewing all jewelry before they were even converted (this is less likely), or there was no such stipulation as the Brethren make in connection with baptism in the apostolic period (this is more likely). In fact, if the KB practice were standard for the 1st century Christians, Peter had no reason to write 1Peter 3:3, where he told them, “Your adornment must not be ... wearing gold jewelry,” because, since he is writing to believers (1:9,23) who would have been baptized (based on all the evidence in the NT, the two went together), they would not have been wearing any gold jewelry at all. The admonition would be irrelevant if the KB standard in this regard were also 1st century standard. What is more, (here I am getting ahead of myself) when he asks the Christians to LAY ASIDE or remove something, it is not external things, but “malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings” (2:1). Does it seem to you that the KB believe in this (beyond words, I mean)? Aren’t such people entirely comfortable in KB assemblies, causing discomfort to those who do not conform in externals?
The long and the short of it is this. Apostolic practice has been a major guide for the practices the early Brethren adopted. But for this particular KB rule, there is no apostolic precedent.
WHAT WE DO WITH EXPLICIT COMMANDS:
The KB teaching with regard to jewelry can also be better assessed against the context of what is done with clear and explicit (sounding) commands in the NT. For instance, John 13:14 “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet.” This reads and sounds like a command. It has to do with doing something, a practice. What the practice is, is not left uncertain. The gospel clearly says what Christ did. Still we do not practice it. This is to say, when it suits our convenience, we are able to summon highly sophisticated modes of dealing with the biblical text. We ask questions like, “Was this intended as a literal and regular practice?” “Isn’t the Lord teaching us a spiritual lesson of humility, and isn’t that more important than the mere outward action of washing one another’s feet?” See, if we are able not to find a command for the practice of the church in what clearly sounds like one, how much more careful ought we to be to make commands out of what do not sound at all like stipulations of any kind, but general exhortation to godliness? This is not all. “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers.” “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” In fact, there are 5 places where hospitality is commanded in the NT, twice as a requirement for elders (1Tim 3:2; Tit 1:8), and three times directed to all believers (Rom 12:13; Heb 13:2; 1 Pet 4:9). This is a very practicable instruction. It is commanded. Should we make a rule and requirement out of it? Why is this considered instruction for us to follow voluntarily, but when it comes to adornment, two less absolute sounding instructions (1Tim 2:9; 1Pet 3:3) are turned into an inviolable law for fellowship? What is the basis and procedure for such transformations of biblical instructions?
Or even consider the following one: 1 Timothy 2:8 “I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands.” Do the KB or any Brethren teach that men must only pray with lifted hands? Why not? It is not relevant whether I think that this is the intent of the verse. But it is highly relevant that the very next statement, linked to this one, is a proof text for requiring the removal of jewelry: v. 9 “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array …” How is part of the statement in v. 9 a rule for a literal adoption and practice (“no gold”) when its obedience is to be in “LIKE MANNER” as men having to lift up holy hands in prayer? In any case, what is its connection to baptism, or permission to remember the Lord?
Since this is supposed to be a brief article, I cannot deal with the typical ‘anti-jewelry’ verses that are commonly quoted. Passages such as, Gen. 35:1-4; Exodus 33:3-6; Isa 3:16-21; 1 Peter 3:3-4 & 1 Tim 2:8-10. If any of the readers would like the scriptural exhortations contained in these passages you may email me at the email ID I provided elsewhere.
AFFINITY WITH THE GALATIAN HERESY
To conclude this anlysis, I would like to point out what a fundamental biblical issue is with the KB addition of legal requirements for fellowship. It is against the spirit of the Brethren movement elsewhere, and it is against the spirit of the gospel.
The Brethren movement in UK had an ideal of believers coming together based on the truth of the one body of Christ. All who are Christ’s are part of that body. True, in course of time, some deviated from that ideal. But that is what they recognized at the outset as true. They were going to be one, not by signing on to a creedal statement, or identifying with a denomination, or human leader such as one of the reformers, but simply as Christians. The KB outlook is that you can be Christ’s by receiving Him as Savior, but to be one of us, you have to also obey these rules. The trouble with the distinctive rule of non-ornamentation is that it is neither derived from Sinai, nor added by Christ, nor something imposed by the apostles. It was a law promulgated by the “fathers” of the KB movement, on rather dubious scriptural support. The Bible contains teaching on modest apparel, humility in conduct etc., but not in the form of a legal precondition of outward holiness for baptism and fellowship (= participation at the Lord’s Supper). The KB practice is a distortion of the pure gospel.
I would like to point out that it has points of contact with the Galatian heresy.
The Galatian heresy was simply this: certain people who professed faith in Jesus as the Messiah maintained that it is not enough to believe. One must also keep the Law.
The KB are not participants in the Galatian heresy in as much as they do not believe it is necessary to keep the Law of Moses or their own law to be saved. Quite the contrary. They do maintain the doctrine of justification by faith alone. But it is worth asking the same question that Paul asked the Galatian Christians: Gal 3:2-3 This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? The “flesh” Paul is referring to is “works of the Law.” What the KB have going for them are works even unknown to the Law.
To practice a holiness consisting in externals, or strictly tied to externals, is not what the Lord taught. To similar pharisaic teaching of holiness, the Lord gave a very clear answer. Mark 7:18-23 And He said to them, "Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, 19 because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?" (Thus He declared all foods clean.) 20 And He was saying, "That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21 "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23 "All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man." Think about it. The things that the KB proscribe with unflinching absoluteness does not even go into a man. They stay entirely external. How much more should we ignore them?
More can be said about the practical implications of how Paul deals with the Galatian heresy. It deserves more time, but I would like to bring this to a conclusion. I would point out from the Galatian epistle two things. One is Paul’s recounting of the situation in Antioch (Gal 2:11-19). Certain Jewish believers refused to have fellowship with gentile Christians because they had not been circumcised according to the Law. Even Peter who had disregarded this difference (rightly), under pressure went back and refused to have fellowship with them. For this Paul rebuked and publicly corrected Peter.
What the KB do is a version of this, except that here the ground for refusal in “table fellowship” is adherence to a law they themselves promulgated. This is deplorable. If you will acknowledge that the people you refuse to have fellowship with truly belong to Christ, and are not living in sin such a way as to repudiate faith in Christ (as in the gross sins mentioned in 1Cor 5), to refuse to have fellowship with them is to engage in the same kind of heretical conduct as the Galatian legalists.
Secondly, the response to this heresy ought to be as inferred by Paul from the Scriptures. People mention the weak brother etc., but in the case of the KB heresy, the “weak” brothers are in the same role as the Judaizers. They are not weak but strong, and intimidating. The proper response to them is what Abraham did in regard to Ishmael (Gal 4:30—This is not a verse to use against people you dislike, but against the heresy of legalism and works of the flesh). All legalistic error is to be strongly opposed and rejected. There is no room for compromise in this area.
I would like to suggest that historical KB Practice against jewelry was not guided by Scripture but that Scripture was used improperly to justify preconceived notions. The Brethren sought to “separate” and to show outward signs of separation as marks of holiness. This has resulted in the rise of a new legalistic error along the lines of the Galatian heresy.
As the best evidence of resisting Scripture on this matter, I quote to you the following lines from KVS’s “Amba Yerushalem.” I write this with great deal of trepidation since I fully recognize my inadequacy in criticizing one of the greatest Reformers of Kerala. Yet to point out the potential dangers of overzealousness that could lead to misinterpretations even to the very best, let me point out this.
kanakavum muththu rathanam ivayaniyillenkilum
sumukhiyaamival kanTam bahuramaniiyamaam.
(The neck of this fair woman is exceedingly beautiful
although she will not wear gold, pearl, or precious stone)
He is describing “Jerusalem the Mother,” alias, New Jerusalem. It is very clear from all the other verses in the song that he is in the last chapters of the book of Revelation. It is really a description of the sight of New Jerusalem descending from heaven as a bride adorned for her husband (pallavi [refrain], and charanangal [verses] 1, 4-6—see Rev 21:9-10, 16, 23). KVS says she will not wear gold, pearl, or precious stones, but that is not what John sees or the angel shows him. Read for yourself Rev 21:10-11, 18-21. Sometimes well-intentioned people take unbiblical positions and become so entrenched in propagating the wishful teachings, rather than the intended meanings.
A MONASTIC GROUP?
“Can’t the Brethren make their own rules for fellowship?” someone might wonder. If the Brethren want to present themselves as representative of biblical Christianity, wherein members are those who belong to Christ, then, “No!” But certain Christians might band together, and like the Rechabites of Jer. 35, to be bound to a stricter life than Christian liberty allows. That would be a position that states, “What we do is not the general rule for all believers, but this is the additional rigor we place upon ourselves out of our burden for and commitment to certain good things.” It could be separation to particular missions, ministries and lifestyles, and then we would not be interested in talking about what is wrong about the group except by invitation. Is that what Brethrenism is, like one of the monastic orders of the Catholic church, but operating instead within the sphere of gospel preaching Christianity?
It is time that the KB teachers start teaching the biblical truth about this subject without the fear of repercussions from the traditionalists and stand up for the purity of the gospel. If the introduction of circumcision to the new converts remained as a heresy in Paul’s estimation, this Jewelry prohibition is equal or more of a heresy. How many of God’s children are we alienating with the KB tradition?