During a mission trip to Jamaica, my brother Benjamin was talking with a young girl who suddenly asked, “Sir, are you a Christian?” Benji said that he was. Obviously troubled, she responded, “But you have an earring.” He smiled and said “Yes, I’m a Christian man with an earring.” At an international Christian conference, J. Vernon McGee and associates from the Deep South were shocked to see the German Christians quaffing beer while staring back at them disapprovingly. What horrified the Germans? The American women were wearing jewelry. Such is the fruit of sin-lists made by man. I was a freshman in college when I realized that “mixed swimming” increases in sinfulness the farther one lives from the ocean. And who can miss the irony of the bumper sticker, ranked favorite at one Christian college, that said: “Don’t dance. Park.”

Zealous but shallow Christians have missed the point from the beginning of Christianity. Paul corrected the misguided Colossians who had put undue emphasis on sin-lists instead of a renewed mind. “Why do you submit to regulations?” he asked, then named some examples: “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (Col. 2:20-21). The official historic church has long had an infatuation with punishment and bodily self-denial. Paul acknowledged as much but pointed out the weakness in such theology. Yes, it has “an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body,” but such external, physical exercises have no value “in checking the indulgences of the flesh” (2:23).

Holiness comes instead through union with and faith in Jesus Christ, who embodied God in his fulness (2:9) and who has brought us to fulness of life (2:10). His physical circumcision was fulfilled in our spiritual one–the excision and cutting off all evil and sin (2:11). In baptism–his and then ours–we joined his death and resurrection. It is the result of God’s working, ours by faith (2:12). Now Jesus is raised and exalted in heaven, and so are we by his representation (3:1). That is the reality and we are to believe it and live accordingly until Jesus appears in glory (3:2-4). The earring is optional.