Let’s face it: many Christians teach that you have to “dress up” for church. Sadly, a lot of people are looked down upon if they aren’t wearing what others consider to be their “best” clothes, and usually visitors in churches feel unwelcome if they do not conform to the expectation of the members. I have been personally acquainted with Christians who-possibly in complete sincerity-believe that you should dress up for church services.
As I was beginning to type up this article, I was blessed to talk with a young lady here at Huddle House. I asked her, “Have you ever been to a church where you felt looked down upon because you weren’t dressed up?” She laughed and told me yes, with the indication that it was a commonplace experience. I asked her what she thought of that, and she told me she had not felt welcomed and that it wasn’t right. She was quick to tell me that she didn’t believe it was good to wear (shall we say) immodest clothing to worship services, but that she felt God was more interested in what was in her heart than with how expensive her clothes were.
I gave a hearty, “AMEN!”
Furthermore,some will try to instill a man-made standard for preachers and elders that supposedly only apply to them. On the one hand, some will claim that the Bible’s teachings and commandments are to apply equally to each Christian; yet in the next breath will attempt to lay down special laws and regulations for preachers and others. The result? The creation of man-made laws and doctrines which confuse, confound, and commandeer the church. Some in the congregation are humiliated, some are puffed up, visitors are hesitant to step foot in the assembly, and God is dishonored.
Let’s take a careful look at what the Scriptures teach regarding this matter. Must we “dress up” for church?”
First, let’s think about what Jesus said regarding the subject of clothing in worship. He spoke of it often when discussing the scribes and the Pharisees and the other religious “elite” of His day:
Mark 12:38-Then He said to them in His teaching, “Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces,
Mark 12:38 (Easy To Read Version)-Jesus continued teaching. He said, “Be careful of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around wearing clothes that look important. And they love for people to show respect to them in the marketplaces.
Again, in one of His most powerful denunciations of the Pharisees, Christ taught:
Matthew 23:5-But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.
The Hebrews had been commanded to add tassels on their clothes (Numbers 15:38), which were to be a reminder to them of the Law of God and of how He had rescued them from captivity (Numbers 15:39-41). They were traditionally arranged in such a way that the tassels represented the 613 commands of the Law (the numbers of laws the Hebrews thought were found in the Law of Moses). However, the Pharisees had added more laws and adjusted their tassels accordingly. They made sure when they went to their worship services at the Temple and the synagogues that they wore their special church clothes.
Judging from what Jesus teaches us about the Pharisees in Matthew 23, I think it is pretty clear that He was not too thrilled with the idea of telling people that they needed to be “dressing up” for worship services!
Second, the Apostle Paul certainly has a great deal to say about this as well. When writing to Timothy, he reminded the young preacher regarding conduct in the church of the living God (1 Timothy 3:14-15). While writing about the subject of conduct in worship services, he said this:
1 Timothy 2:8-9- 8 I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting; 9 in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing,
Let’s notice that Timothy here is being clearly instructed regarding conduct in worship services. We see that from Paul’s admonition mentioned earlier (1 Timothy 3:14-15), but also from the specific phrase used here in verse 8. When Paul mentions his desire for the “men” (Greek, males) to pray “everywhere,” he uses a specific phrase that was used in the early church to denote public worship assemblies. Everett Ferguson clarifies:
“Although it is often taken to mean “everywhere,” there is another Greek word that means “everywhere” ( pantachou ), and this phrase “in every place” often appears in Jewish and Christian usage with an almost technical meaning of “in every place of meeting” (1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 2:14; 1 Thessalonians 1:8). 20 This phrase would be equivalent to the phrase “in church,” or “in assembly” in 1 Corinthians 14.” (Everett Ferguson, Women In The Church: Biblical And Historical Perspectives, 491 (Kindle Edition); Abilene, TX; Desert Willow Publishing)
Notice what Paul therefore teaches Timothy about women (and by implication men) regarding “dressing up” for church. Are they to wear their Sunday best? Are they to wear the most expensive clothing which they have available? Look carefully at the phrase “not with…costly clothing.”
1 Timothy 2:9 (CEV)-I would like for women to wear modest and sensible clothes. They should not have fancy hairdos, or wear expensive clothes, or put on jewelry made of gold or pearls.
Over a dozen Bible translations I have consulted bear out this idea that the women should not wear “expensive clothing” in the church assembly. The idea of “braided” hair (in that day and age) also carried with it the idea of a rich woman who wore her hair in glamorous and extravagant ways. The whole passage is absolutely clear that in worship assemblies, we are not to be wearing expensive clothing.
Now, please notice: not wearing expensive clothing does not mean we should not wear respectful clothing. In fact, Paul makes it clear that our clothing needs to be “modest” or “decent.” The Bible certainly teaches that we need to approach God with a spirit of godly fear and reverence (Hebrews 12:28-29). Please notice the clear difference between “expensive clothing” and “modest clothing.” You do not have to be wearing expensive clothing (your “Sunday best”) in order to show your reverence for God.
Isn’t it ironic how we often turn things around? I have often heard it said, “We show God our respect by wearing our best.” Yet the inspired Apostle did not see things that way, did he? Perhaps he understood that which we often forget: that things which may be highly esteemed in man’s sight may be an abomination in God’s (Luke 16:15). Could he perhaps have been remembering that man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7)?
So, where did the idea that we must “dress up” for church come from? In one sense (as we have seen) it was an idea present in the first century (and soundly rebuked by Jesus and by Paul). Regarding the modern era, it is interesting to notice that the “dressing up” for church mentality came as a result of chaotic social reform in our era:
“The practice of dressing up for church is a relatively recent phenomenon.717 It began in the late-eighteenth century with the Industrial Revolution, and it became widespread in the mid-nineteenth century. Before this time, “dressing up” for social events was known only among the very wealthy. The reason was simple. Only the well-to-do aristocrats of society could afford nice clothing! Common folks had only two sets of clothes: work clothes for laboring in the field and less tattered clothing for going into town.718 Dressing up for any occasion was only an option for the wealthiest nobility.719 From medieval times until the eighteenth century, dress was a clear marker of one’s social class. In places like England, poor people were actually forbidden to wear the clothing of the “better” people.720 This changed with the invention of mass textile manufacturing and the development of urban society.721 Fine clothes became more affordable to the common people. The middle class was born, and those within it were able to emulate the envied aristocracy. For the first time, the middle class could distinguish themselves from the peasants.722 To demonstrate their newly improved status, they could now “dress up” for social events just like the well-to-do.723 Some Christian groups in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries resisted this cultural trend. John Wesley wrote against wearing expensive or flashy clothing.724 The early Methodists so resisted the idea of dressing up for church that they turned away anyone who wore expensive clothing to their meetings.725 The early Baptists also condemned fine clothing, teaching that it separated the rich from the poor.726 Despite these protests, mainstream Christians began wearing fine clothes whenever they could. The growing middle class prospered, desiring bigger homes, larger church buildings, and fancier clothing.727 As the Victorian enculturation of the middle class grew, fancier church buildings began to draw more influential people in society.728 This all came to a head when in 1843, Horace Bushnell, an influential Congregational minister in Connecticut, published an essay called “Taste and Fashion.” In it, Bushnell argued that sophistication and refinement were attributes of God and that Christians should emulate them.729 Thus was born the idea of dressing up for church to honor God. Church members now worshipped in elaborately decorated buildings sporting their formal clothes to honor God.730 In 1846, a Virginia Presbyterian named William Henry Foote wrote that “a church-going people are a dress loving people.”731 This statement simply expressed the formal dress ritual that mainstream Christians had adopted when going to church. The trend was so powerful that by the 1850s, even the “formal-dress-resistant” Methodists got absorbed by it. And they, too, began wearing their Sunday best to church.732 Accordingly, as with virtually every other accepted church practice, dressing up for church is the result of Christians being influenced by their surrounding culture. Today, many Christians “suit up” for Sunday morning church without ever asking why. But now you know the story behind this mindless custom. It is purely the result of nineteenth-century middle-class efforts to become like their wealthy aristocrat contemporaries, showing off their improved status by their clothing. (This effort was also helped along by Victorian notions of respectability.) It has nothing to do with the Bible, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit.” (Frank Viola & George Barna, Pagan Christianity: Exploring The Roots Of Our Church Practices, 146-148 (Kindle Edition); Tyndale House Publishers)
I think we are pretty safe to say that we do not have to “dress up” for church. We do not need to wear the most expensive clothing we have to church services for God to be pleased with us. What we need to have is a heart that seeks to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24). We need to have a disposition that welcomes our friends and neighbors in a spirit of lovingkindness (Colossians 4:5-6). Let’s be careful not to make laws and regulations of man. The Lord’s church should strive in every way to be free from such creeds and concepts (Mark 15:9; Mark 7:7).
I was recently talking with some good friends at a Young Adults retreat about this. I told them that when I had made the decision to stop wearing my most expensive clothing to church services, it was accepted by some and considered horrible by others. I have no doubt that many consider me irreverent towards God, and unpreacherlike (if that is not a word, it should be) by others. When we follow The Lord and His Word, we will be criticized and scorned (1 Peter 4:16; Matthew 5:10-13). But in the long run, should we care about the self-righteous judgments of others? Do we seek to please men or God (Galatians 1:10)?
But let me share one more thought with you. I think a lot of people who “dress up” for church are trying to convince people that they have everything in their lives in order and have no problems to speak of. It is almost as if some people are playing “dress up” for the world by wearing their nice clothes and hoping that people will buy into the lie that everything is great. Could be unintentionally propagating this stereotype? I know that with myself, I came to the point where I almost felt that I would be lying to others by wearing my best and most expensive clothing to worship services. You know why? Because I don’t have everything together! I have struggles, and difficulties, and trials; and by “dressing up” for worship services, I feel that I would almost be lying to those who saw me. Let me tell you friends: preachers have struggles too, more than most people know about. Usually very few know about these, but they are there none the less. Maybe we need to let others see that we don’t have everything together: that we have “troubles” and are sometimes “burdened beyond measure” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).
So let me ask you to think about this before you pick out your “Sunday best.” Considering what Jesus and Paul have taught regarding this matter, should you actually be wearing your most expensive clothing to church services? Could you unintentionally be making some of your brethren feel badly for their lack of expensive clothing? Might you be encouraging an unhealthy stereotype in the minds of Christians and non-Christians that “we” have everything together? Could you be encouraging people to stay away from church services who feel that they are not welcomed because they don’t have “clothes” (i.e., expensive clothes) to wear to worship? Would it be better instead to wear your everyday clothes (assuming that they are decent and modest-and if not that would be a good place to focus some changes on too) to the worship assembly?
In conclusion, let me tell you a story that I heard from a preacher friend of mine in the area. There was a gentleman who went to church services in a new church and was surprised by the number of people who wore such expensive clothing. He was wearing a pair of blue jeans and a golf shirt, and from the looks that he got from others in the congregation, that just wasn’t “good enough.” After church, the minister-who was dressed up in his best preacher duds-encouraged the gentleman to talk to The Lord about his clothes and about what he should wear to church there. He was confident that the gentleman would be told by The Lord that he should dress like everyone else in that congregation (with his most expensive clothing), and that Jesus would tell him what to wear.
The man came back the next week, dressed again in blue jeans and a golf shirt, and the minister approached him with a frown. He asked what The Lord had told him about what to wear to that church. The gentleman spoke up and said, “Oh, I did talk to The Lord about it. He told me He didn’t know what to wear to this church because He has never been here.”
Dear reader, please know that you are welcomed at the Couchtown church of Christ and in the Flatwoods church of Christ in Corbin. We are not interested in the price of your clothing or in the bulk of your pocketbook. We care about your soul and want you to be saved. Please come and worship with us when you are able!
The grace of The Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
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