Several years ago I was interviewed by a pastor for a job as principal of a Christian school. At the end of the interview, the pastor offered me the position, and said he really hoped I would accept it.
“There’s just one more thing,” he said rather hesitantly. “If you do decide to take the job, I’ll have to ask you to shave your beard.” The pastor was quick to assure me that he himself had nothing personal against beards. It was just that a few parents from some fundamentalist churches had enrolled their children in the school. These parents wanted good role models for their children, and a fuzzy-faced principal in a Christian school did not fit their definition of a good role model.
I assured the pastor that if I decided to accept the position as God’s will, I would accept shaving my beard as a necessary requirement to doing the will of God.
As it turned out, I did not take the job. The reasons I turned it down had nothing to do with shaving. However, this incident, along with the fact that many Christian seminaries forbid students to have beards, got me interested in the subject of Christian misopogons – beard-haters.
I have always been bewildered by the glaring inconsistency of people who literally worship a Man who had a beard, and then say it is wrong (or at least not nice) for a follower of that Man to have a beard. Men of the Amish, old-line Mennonite, and Orthodox Jewish faiths are expected to have a beard, a God-given feature that visibly distinguishes males from females. In contrast, men in some Christian circles are expected to make their faces hair-free and smooth like a woman’s. Who is right? You, the reader, may have guessed from my subtle hints which position I take in this raging controversy.
To better understand the significance of the man’s beard, we should go back to man’s beginning, when God created Adam and Eve. “Male and female created he them,” the Scripture says (Gen 1:27). Distinction of the sexes is a principle upheld throughout the Bible. One of the physical traits that distinguishes men from women is the man’s beard. One glance at a bearded face immediately lets us know that we are looking at a man, not a woman.
Sunday school and storybook illustrations almost always picture Old Testament Patriarchs and Prophets with full beards. Oddly enough, these same artists often portray Adam without a beard. While I cannot prove beyond a five-o’clock-shadow of a doubt that Adam had a beard, I have a difficult time believing that Adam shaved in the Garden of Eden. I cannot picture Adam strolling down to a stream each morning, lathering up his face, and shaving by his refection in the water. Even if I picture him using a clamshell or a flint knife, the idea of Adam shaving in the Garden of Eden seems too unnatural to be real.
The fact that shaving is unnatural is perhaps the strongest argument against it. I remember reading an interview with beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg in Playboy magazine in the mid-1960’s. (I was not a Believer at that time of course. Besides, I bought the magazine “mainly for the stories and articles,” like everyone else did). In the interview, Ginsberg was asked why he had a beard. His reply was that he did not plant it there; it just grew.
Granted, Allen Ginsberg is not a good role model for Christians (or Messianic Jews), but he does have a point. God planted the beard on man’s face; there should be no need to defend its existence. TV critic David Friedman made a similar argument a few years ago in an article expressing the nobility of drowning in unnatural fibers and unnatural acts, having a beard is a completely, utterly and incontrovertibly natural thing to do” (Friedman 318).
Jewish and Christian writers have also appealed to nature when grappling with this subject. The Talmud points out that the beard is one of the physical traits that distinguishes man from woman. To remove it is an offense against nature [Abrabanel to Lev 19:27 (Encyclopedia Judaica, 358)]. The beard is “the adornment of a man’s face,” (BM 84a) and a man without his beard is compared to a eunuch [Yev. 80b; Shabb.152a (Encyclopedia Judaica, 358)]. Some Medieval Jewish commentators considered a man with a shaven face to be tantamount to a man in a woman’s garment, an abomination according to Deut 22:5 (The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, 123).
Among Christians, Clement of Alexandria probably wrote more against the evils of shaving than all other early Christian writers combined. Like the Jews, Clement called the beard man’s “natural adornment” and said it is “never permissible” to remove it (The Fathers of the Church 218). “The hairs of the beard have been numbered,” Clement warns his readers. “To seek beauty in hairlessness is sheer effeminacy, if done by men” (The Fathers of the Church 215).
“God planned that woman be smooth-skinned, taking pride in her natural tresses, the only hair she has, as the horse in its mane,” writes Clement. “But man he adorned like the lion, with a beard…” (The Fathers of the Church 214).
Clement also refers to Psalm 133:2—“It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard.” “By repeating the word,” Clement reasons, “he means to sing of the nobility of a beard…” (The Fathers of the Church 247).
Other early Christian writings similarly oppose shaving. Jerome wrote against the removal of the beard (The Jewish Encyclopedia 612). The “Apostolic Constitutions” (i.3) insisted that men should have beards (The Jewish Encyclopedia 612). In 398, the fourth council of Carthage prohibited clergymen from removing the beard (The Jewish Encyclopedia 614). It did little good to try to force the laity to conform to the prohibition against shaving, but for many centuries after this, clergymen were expected to have beards, according to Bingham’s “Antiquities of the Christian Church” [I.ii.15,16 (The Jewish Encyclopedia 614)].
As the centuries passed, shaving became more and more acceptable among Christians until finally, by about the year 1000, men in Christendom were almost universally clean-shaven (Krumholz 6). It is worth noting that this period of history is now referred to as “the Dark Ages.”
Since the Dark Ages, there have been a few lonely voices crying in the wilderness on behalf of the beard. In 1528, Tindale pointed out that shaving “is borrowed of the heathen” and proclaimed that “the shaven nation hath put Christ out of his room” (Oxford English Dictionary XV, 194f).
In 1838, the English poet Southey lamented the bondage of shaving when he wrote, “Oh pitiable condition of human kind! One colour is born to slavery abroad, and one sex to shavery at home!” [Doctor cliii (OED XV, 195)].
In 1859, another Englishman, James Ward, wrote Defense of the Beard, a pamphlet which listed eighteen reasons why a man was “bound to grow a beard, unless he was indifferent as to offending the Creator and good taste” (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics 442). One year later, a longer work was published, entitled Shaving a breach of the Sabbath and a hindrance to the spread of the Gospel. In this book, the author defended the beard on the grounds that it was “a Divinely provided chest-protector.” “Were it in any other position,” the writer reasoned, “its benefit and purpose might be doubted” (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics 442).
One cannot help but wonder what the Apostle Paul would have written if he had been dealing with beards and shaving, rather than with head coverings and hair, when he wrote to the saints at Corinth. “Doth not nature itself teach you,” he might have reasoned, “that if a man have a shaven face, it is a shame unto him?”
Beard-haters might object at this point by saying, “Women shaving their legs and armpits is also unnatural. Do you want your wife to have hairy legs and armpits?” This is a fair question, and one that deserves an answer: No, I don’t.
There is a difference between men shaving their faces and women shaving their legs, however. A woman shaving, through unnatural, does not blur the distinction of the sexes. As Clemet pointed out, “God planned that the woman be smooth-skinned,” so shaving only adds to her femininity. When a man shaves, however, he strips away one of the most obvious marks of his masculinity.
The presence or absence of a beard can also have very real psychological effects on men. A recent study shows that beards cause men to experience an “increase in self-perceived masculinity” (Bozzi 20).
People in earlier times recognized other psychological benefits of the beard. To the ancient Egyptians, the beard was a symbol of royalty (Friedman 319). Among Greek philosophers, it represented wisdom (Friedman 319). Of course having a beard is not proof of wisdom, as Jewish poet Solomon del Medigo cleverly pointed out: “If men be judged wise by their beards and their girth, then goats were the wisest of creatures on earth.” (The Jewish Encyclopedia 613).
In spite of the many benefits the beard provides, it has had its enemies throughout history. The Tartars made war on the Persians because the Persians refused to shave. During the Norman Conquest of England, Englishmen were forced to choose between shaving and exile. Some chose exile in order to keep their beards. Later in England, men’s beards were taxed according to the age and social status of the bearding (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics 442f).
Peter the Great also levied a tax to discourage beards in Russia. Those who refused to comply were punished by having their beards shaved with a dull razor or plucked out with tweezers, and it is reported that “Peter gleefully did some of the shaving himself” (Krumholz 8). Nicolas I of Russia, as well as other rulers in history, ordered Jews to shave their beards (Encyclopedia Judaica 358).
Americans have also suffered persecution for their beards. In 1830, Joseph Palmer of Massachusetts was sentenced to one year of solitary confinement for resisting attempts by his fellow citizens to shave him (World of Knowledge 197).
Unfortunately, beard-haters are not confined to the past. Some bearded men in America are forced to lose their jobs or take their employers to court. In 1990, firefighters in Atlanta had to fight to keep their beards (“Atlanta Firefighters” 12). That same year, a police officer who had lost his job at the University of Maryland in 1983 went to court, was reinstated, and awarded back pay (“Black Wins Right” 6).
Even among Moslems, who wear their beards in imitation of Mohammed and swear “by the beard of the prophet,” there has been persecution by their own countrymen. In 1987, when Syrian troops entered Beirut, bearded Moslems were ordered to shave. Though most complied with the order, some refused, such as one man who told reporters, “I won’t obey the orders of a mortal and reject the instructions of the prophet” (Dickey and Issa 47).
And in America, there are still some Bible-believing Christians who would like to see all bewhiskered believers shave, in spite of the Biblical commandment in Lev 19:27 that prohibits shaving the edges of the beard. Of course if this verse is shown to these beard-hating Christians, they usually respond by quickly pointing out that they are “not under the law,” and thereby, according to modern Christian theology, exempt from this commandment. It is interesting that many Christians so easily dismiss commandments in Lev 19, but use Lev 18 to condemn homosexual behavior.
Granted, Christians are not “under the law”—salvation is not earned by obeying Old Testament law. But is that a reason to insist that students and principals of Christian schools disobey Old Testament law to prove their Christian commitment? To compel disciples of the Messiah to disobey Lev 19:27 makes no more sense than compelling them to disobey Lev 19:28, and get tattoos.
It is ironic how many of Christendom’s heroes would, because of their beards, be ineligible to study in many of today’s Christian schools—Charles Finney, General William Booth, D.L. Moody, the Old Testament Patriarchs and Prophets, and, of course, the Messiah Himself.
If I am ever again offered a job that requires the removal of my beard, I know what I will say in response to such an offer: “No thanks. Not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.”
“Atlanta Firefighters Wage Battle to Keep Beards.” Jet 77 (Feb 26, 1990): 12.
“Black Wins Right to Wear Beard At Word.” Jet 78 (July 23, 1990) :6.
Bozzi, Vincent. “The Macho Man Behind the Beard.” Psychology Today 21 (May 1987) :20.
Dickey, C. and Issa, S. “The Battle for Beirut: A Close Shave.” Newsweek 109:7 (March 16, 1987): 47.
Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 4. Jerusalem: Keter Publ. House Ltd., 1971.
Encyclopdia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. II. Ed. James Hastings. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 23. Trans. Simon P. Wood. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1954.
Friedman, David. “Hirsute It Is.” Gentleman’s Quarterly 58 (March 1988): 318-21.
The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. II. Ed. Isidore Singer. New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls, 1903.
Krumholz, Phillip L. A History of Shaving and Razors. Bartonville, IL: Ad Libs Publ., 1987.
Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. II and XV. 2nd Ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 2. Ed. Isaac Landman. New York: KTAV Publ. House, 1969.
World of Knowledge. Compiled by Susan Lurie. New York: Waldman Publ. Corp., 1985.