Joseph Wore Designer Robes, Too!

Amos Yong 02 Nov 2009

A Response to Asamoah-Gyadu’s “Did Jesus Wear Designer Robes?

In Africa, where neo-Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement are exploding, the Old Testament is central to the church’s spirituality precisely because of its narrative aspects. The first thing that came to my mind, then, in response to Asamoah-Gyadu’s essay, is the story of Joseph and his robe of many colors. Of course, Joseph’s wardrobe reflected his father’s favoritism and made his brothers jealous, which resulted in his being sold into Egypt. However, it might also be said that Joseph’s designer robe of his growing-up years foreshadowed his prosperity and the blessings of his later life in Egypt, to the point where he could bless his brothers and their families in return. How then does the Joseph story help us respond to the question in the title of Asamoah-Gyadu’s essay? There are at least seven levels of response.

First, prosperity advocates might simply say that Joseph’s wearing designer robes justifies our wearing them, period. Such an uncritical response is risky precisely because it results in the kind of haughtiness that got Joseph sold into Egypt. Any naïve and absolutistic embrace of the prosperity gospel leaves many other aspects of the biblical revelation unaccounted for, as Asamoah-Gyadu rightly notes.

Second, some might say that Joseph’s example is precisely one we should not follow, and therefore, we should always say “NO!” to designer robes. This kind of reverse absolutism reflects an equally one-sided response to the broad scope of the biblical revelation. As many African Christians have observed, it is usually made by those (white, Western) Christians who already have experienced a measure of prosperity.

Third, the moral of the Joseph story could be interpreted simply as: “Don’t flaunt your designer robes!” But what does that mean? Hide your prosperity so you can avoid getting mugged? Don’t wear your designer robes before those who may be envious of God’s blessings in your life? Live modestly or in simplicity regardless of the level of affluence you have been blessed with? No doubt there is a measure of truth in each of these interpretations of the moral.

From here, however—and fourth—we might justify our designer clothes as being important for “contextual” purposes. Why shouldn’t African Christians be able to bring the prosperity and blessings enjoyed by Western Christians into their own context? Or, why is it implausible that God should call us as individuals or as churches to minister to the affluent, and if so, shouldn’t we don designer robes to reach those who have such wardrobes? Of course, such “contextual,” even “missiological,” rationales could be no more than self-serving theological rationalizations. Still, those of us who might tend to see things this way should carefully check our own hearts to ensure we are not envious as were Joseph’s brothers.

Building on the preceding line of thought regarding the contextual nature of designer wardrobes—and fifth—we might suggest that we should be wary of being overly focused on only certain “name brands.” Such a caution would lead us to be careful about adopting “Western” brands in African contexts and to discern the diversity of global options as well as our own local resources. In an increasingly globalized context it is more and more difficult to discern local productions amidst global influences. Yet the key is not to adopt a wardrobe merely because it is in style elsewhere, but to carefully adapt its fashions to local contexts in light of the “good news” of the Christian message. Joseph’s problem, in this view, is at least in part that he was insensitive to how embracing his father’s fashions was not well received by his brothers.

Hence, sixth, the moral of the Joseph story could also be interpreted along the lines of Asamoah-Gyadu’s response about having a balanced understanding of the gospel. Thus, in Joseph’s case, we should be thankful for our designer robes but not wear them exclusively. To do the latter would be to get caught up in our designer fashions and overlook the bigger, more important themes central to the gospel.

But finally and perhaps most importantly, Joseph eventually learned—in the latter half of his life, especially—that having the designer robe wasn’t important; what was important was dispersing the blessings symbolized by the robe to as many people as possible. As Asamoah-Gyadu insists, the problem is not with having designer robes, but that there are others who do not have access to such robes. Thus, the “haves” should find ways to share with the “have nots,” and maybe in the process even transform the world so that the issue of designer robes is less of an issue tomorrow than it is today.

Amos Yong is the J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology at Regent University School of Divinity and a licensed minister of the General Council of the Assemblies of God. His books include The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh: Pentecostalism and the Possibility of Global Theology (author) and The Spirit Renews the Face of the Earth: Pentecostal Forays in Science and Theology of Creation (editor).

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)