I’m always surprised by how contentious Christians can be when it comes to the issue of how we dress for worship. This tells me that BOTH sides, those in favor of dressing casually and those insisting on formal dress, have a few things they probably need to consider.
The History of Dressing Formally
You may be surprised to learn that dressing formally for worship does not come from the New Testament. In fact, it is a fairly recent practice.
“Dressing up for church became a popular practice in the first half of the nineteenth century, first in England, then northern Europe and America, as a consequence of the industrial revolution and the emergence of the middle class…Medieval Christians had no common practice of dressing up for church because nice clothes were only afforded by the wealthy” (source).
When Christians first began to dress formally for worship, many preached strongly against it. Alexander Campbell said,
“Kings and Prophets, the saints and martyrs of other times, were oftener seen in sackcloth and ashes than in the gaudy fashions of a flippant and irreverent age. Their sense of propriety forbade that soul and body should disagree — that the outward man should betray the inward, and falsify the state of the mind. The Jews’ religion taught men congruity, and especially that the exterior attire should always correspond with the inward plainness and simplicity of the heart” (source).
Campbell believed Christians should dress “in the plainest and most unassuming garb,” especially when they come before a righteous and holy God in worship.
Special Clothes to Meet God
I frequently hear well-meaning Christians argue for formal dress with questions like this, “If you met a king, wouldn’t you dress in your finest clothes?”Although we say things like this I don’t know anyone who actually makes this a practice.
You see, when my family gathers for our evening devotional, my children are wearing pajamas. Sometimes while mowing the lawn, I will be praying in my grungy work clothes. When I’m driving down the road, I often sing songs of praise. And quite I often I will stop in the middle of my day to pray with someone who is hurting.
I’ve never once said during any of those times, “Oops, I can’t do that right now. I’m not wearing the right clothes to approach God.” And I don’t know any Christian who does.
Special Clothes for the Church Building
Furthermore, we understand that God does not live in a church building. To insist Christians must dress differently to pray in the church building than they do when they pray elsewhere is to imply the church building is similar to a pagan temple. But Paul declared, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man” (Acts 17:24).
We do not go to the church building just to meet God. We go to meet our church family and worship God with them; the same God we have been worshiping all week individually and with our families.
Good theology teaches us that God can – and should be – approached all week long no matter where we are or what we are wearing (see John 4:21-24; 2 Thessalonians 5:17). It is NOT good theology to tell people we can’t approach God unless we’re wearing the right clothes.
Special Clothes to Meet Our Church Family
I would like to suggest that how we dress for the Sunday assembly has more to do with respect for our church family than it does respect for God. But make no mistake, God cares very much for how we respect our church family!
1. Respect for the Poor
The primary principle in the New Testament concerning clothing is that we should not flaunt our wealth. Paul said women in particular should NOT “adorn themselves…with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” (1 Timothy 2:9). Ironically this principle can easily be disobeyed by the cliché, “We should wear our very best to worship.” That idea may sound biblical, but it is not.
Imagine if a congregation of billionaires said, “We must wear our very best to worship.” The men would wear tuxedos and the women would wear formal dresses and jewelry worth thousands of dollars. They would be wearing their very best, but how would you feel if you walked into that assembly? How would a person poorer than you feel? Wouldn’t people say, “I don’t belong here”?
We need to recognize that – without meaning to – we may sometimes make people feel like they don’t belong in our worship assembly. So perhaps we should respect our poorer brethren enough to only wear styles which everyone can afford to wear.
2. Respect for More Traditional Members
There are Christians who wear clothes knowing it will offend their more traditional brothers and sisters in Christ. They wear jeans with holes or sandals or shorts, with an attitude of, “I don’t care what they think.” There may not be anything specifically wrong with these articles of clothing, but there is certainly something wrong with a rebellious attitude.
We could apply Paul’s words concerning food to this situation, “For if your brother is grieved by what you
eat [wear], you are no longer walking in love” (Romans 14:15). And, “All things are lawful, but not all things build up” (1 Corinthians 10:23).
We may have the “right” to wear shorts and sandals to worship, but that doesn’t mean we should. We must respect our church family enough not to knowingly or intentionally offend them.
3. Respect for the Opposite Sex
It is true that men are responsible for where they look and how they think (Matthew 5:28; Job 31:31). But if women only knew the struggle men have in this area, perhaps they would think twice before wearing anything that might be even a little bit revealing (anytime, not just during worship). It shows a great deal of respect to wear long dresses and high necklines.
We should respect our church family enough to work hard at not being stumbling blocks to them.
4. Respect for the Significance of the Assembly
With all of that being said, I think we ought also to say there is something wrong with treating the worship assembly “casually.” Casual implies we are being flippant about something. If a young man showed up to a job interview wearing “casual” clothes, the manager would likely assume that young man didn’t take their meeting very seriously. The same could be said of a date, a wedding, a funeral, etc. The more momentous an occasion, the less we want to communicate a flippancy about it.
I don’t want to communicate to my brothers and sisters that I am flippant about the worship assembly. In fact, I want them to know it is one of the most important times of my week (see Hebrews 10:24-31)? We should respect the importance of the worship assembly enough not to treat it casually.
God knows our hearts. Our brothers and sisters can’t see our hearts, but they can see what we choose to wear. We need to be aware of the fact that our clothing choices send a message to others. Be careful what message you’re sending, but at the same time be diligent not to judge the hearts of others.
I love you and God loves you,