What Should I Wear to Church?
Every Saturday night, right before I go to bed, I ask my wife, “What should I wear tomorrow?” Even though she’s already in bed or close to it, she usually indulges me and give me some much needed fashion advice (apparently purple and blue go together, who knew?). You see, I like looking good on a Sunday morning. Yet, my version of looking good and others’ version might not be the same. Some churches have extremely “high standards” for clothing at a worship service. Some conservative churches have an unwritten expectation that all the men wear suits and the women wear dresses. Is it right to have such expectations for dress? Is it Biblical?
The Bible’s Warnings
It’s interesting that the New Testament is relatively quiet on the subject of clothing. There are certainly texts that tell its readers to dress modestly. Other than that requirement, the only passages that deal with clothing are not ones criticizing “casual” dress, rather they are warnings of pride through dressing up. Paul tells Timothy in I Tim. 2:9, that the women should not be drawing attention to themselves through their dress and jewelry. Paul seems to be attacking the pride attached to that type of dress in an age where the vast majority of Christians were poor. James 2:1-9 warns against treating people dressed nicely differently than others simply because of how they look. Peter writes in I Peter 3:3-4 that God cares far more about dressing up your heart which is precious to Him than putting on “nice” clothes.
The Epistles hold no type of rulebook for dress, nor do the Gospels. Jesus never once praises the appearance of His followers. His followers were the poor and needy, so needy that Jesus had to feed them several times. I don’t think they would be wearing fine clothing. Those that did wear fancy clothing, like the Pharisees, were rebuked for their focus on appearance rather than the heart. The book of Acts continues this theme of the poor and needy coming to Christ. As persecution began to affect the church, these Christians were running for their lives. I don’t think they were running in their nicest garb and keeping it clean for Sunday gatherings. The fact is that we have zero Biblical precedent to say that any type of dress is the standard. Here are three other common statements that are made regarding one’s expectations of dress:
Jesus would want you to look your best.
There are many versions of this type of sentiment, but they all have this idea that Jesus wants your best. He desires that you put your best foot forward. Yet, Jesus never cared what His followers wore in the New Testament. So why would this change? Does Jesus expect more out of you than he did of the Apostles? He is the same God that Samuel wrote “looks not on the outward appearance, but on the heart.” Not once in the Old Testament is the Almighty impressed by the dress of an individual. Just look at David’s brothers, none of them impressed God by their appearance. Jesus isn’t focused on your physical appearance and clothing. Jesus wants your heart, not your wardrobe.
Dressing up shows your respect for God.
An illustration that is often given in this conversation is that of dressing up for a job interview or funeral. “You wear a tie to an interview, why would you give God any less?” The underlying issue is that of respect. For the one asking the question, it seems that the person not dressing up for church is hypocritical and showing a lack of respect for God. Yet, nothing in Scripture demands a certain appearance for showing respect to God. Additionally, job interview attire is dictated by culture. Society has decided that this is the appropriate clothing to wear to an interview. So my question would then be, are we saying that society also gets to dictate what is required dress for worship? Conservative Christians would certainly not be content with letting society dictate what musical style is appropriate, so why dress? This leads me to the last reason.
Dressing up is what Christians do.
“My parents wore formal clothing to church. Their parents’ generation wore the same thing. It’s what Christians do.” This sentiment is often expressed as a last resort. This view is ignorant of both history and location. The fact is that for many centuries, Christians did not focus on dress. It was the Roman Catholic Church that promoted this type of ideology early in their history, leading to the formal dress seen by priests during their ceremonies. This is something Martin Luther fought against during the Reformation, He wrote, “We allow [vestments] to be freely used; only eat pomp and extravagance be absent. For neither do you please God more if you consecrate in vestments, nor do you please Him less if you consecrate without vestments.” He went on to write in another letter, “The fear of God is the worship of God. This worship does not consist in vestments or other external pomp but in the disposition of the heart.” True Christianity has never been known for formal dress at worship gatherings until recent decades.
This ideology of having a standard of clothing for worship services is also ignorant of location. Christians across the globe are unable to wear any type of formal attire for their worship gatherings. Certainly not the same type of formal dress as North American churches. Are they then doing church wrong? Absolutely not. Formal attire, whether suits or certain types of robes in other places of the world, are not necessities for appropriate worship.
I am not saying individuals should not have a standard of dress for themselves, but to insist on that standard for others when the Bible makes no clear requirement is wrong. We must carefully consider Romans 14, just as other grey matters, and then conclude what is best in our own mind. After considering God’s Word, one must think what would be best for their circumstances and context, then wear whatever is appropriate to all of those considerations whether that’s a three piece suit or a shirt and jeans, doing it all to the glory of God.
One Last Warning
A church that requires a certain dress code in order to continue attending will inevitably wind up in hypocrisy and hatred. I don’t say this on any Biblical precedent, but just on personal experience. It’s far easier to maintain holiness when it simply meaning doing a double Windsor or not wearing open toed shoes. Soon those requirements become the only requirements for holiness. Why? Because you can touch them, they’re tangible, and easier to control than our sinful desires. Legalism is the easier path and as John Bunyan wrote in Pilgrim’s Progress, “Mr. Legality is a cheat.” Nothing good will come from legalism.
The fact is only one thing is clear about what we should wear according to God - humility. “...Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5)
What Luther Says, Ewald M. Plass p. 308-309.
Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan p. 40.