"Dressing for church" is a trivial subject.
Or is it?
A man teaching a group of' young preachers advises them to wear coats and ties when speaking or risk losing the confidence of their listeners. A woman describes to her friends how the "Crossroads influence" is in evidence in a particular church because so many people attend services in blue jeans. A young family on a tight budget buys expensive dress clothes for the toddlers -- that the children will soon outgrow -- so they will have something to wear to church. A poor man is given a coat by a brother so he will have something to wear on Sunday mornings. A young woman explains how, if circumstances prevented her from changing clothes, she would miss an assembly rather than attend one wearing pants. A family with small children takes longer preparing to attend a service than it does in it. Men remind song leaders and table assistants to "dress appropriately" when performing their duties. When a meeting is dismissed, conversations open with compliments on dress...and so it goes. Time, expense, effort, and debate are universally given to maintain our custom of "dressing for church." Far from being trivial, the subject is obviously of enormous importance to us.
Our society tells us that clothing matters -- greatly.
In the first place, clothing talks. In any culture, there are clothes that say "authoritative," "honest," "artistic,'' or "affluent" as well as clothes that say "amateur," "dishonest," "dull," or "poor." People learn to dress in a way that conveys an attribute important for the product they are selling: "Anti-establishment" to sing rock music; "responsible" for a job interview; "sexy" for a date, and "wealthy" for a meeting of the executive board... and we are conditioned to know, to varying degrees, which kind of clothing communicates which quality.
This conditioning affects how we treat people and, in turn, how we are treated. John T. Malloy, in his mid-seventies best-seller Dress for Success, describes the predominant role our clothing has in determining our treatment of each other: we are more likely to open a door for a man in a beige raincoat than a black one, to hire a man wearing a blue suit than a brown one, and to believe a witness in court wearing a long tie instead of a bow tie. Malloy's research convinced him that, among other things, "the tie is probably the single most important denominator of social status in the United States today" and that "poverty does not sell." His research clearly shows that "affluence" is considered to be such a positive attribute in our society that it is essential for men in business to convey upper-class tastes in their clothing in order to succeed.
Our clothing also affects our group behavior. Malloy found that offices adopting dress codes experienced more punctuality, productivity, and initiative from employees. In everyday group activities, we notice the same thing. There is a type of clothing that equalizes all people and lends itself to an atmosphere of relaxation, interaction, and spontaneity; we wear it to basketball games, family get-togethers, and pop concerts. There is another type of clothing that emphasizes social status and lends itself to an atmosphere of restraint, exclusiveness, and propriety; we wear this type of clothing to job interviews, traditional weddings, and symphony concerts. Anyone planning a party knows to decide early which type of clothing to request because dress will affect the guests' behavior and will profoundly determine just what kind of party it will be.
In our society, then, there is no question about it: Clothing is of crucial importance.
The subject of a Christian's dress in an assembly for worship is mentioned specifically in two Bible passages:
My brother, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thought?" (James 2:1-4).
I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God (I Timothy 2:9-10).
Similar instructions about clothing are given in another passage:
(Wives,) Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight (I Peter 3:3-4).
Beyond these instructions, we are told nothing more about dress in first century assemblies, except for the celebrated passage on head coverings when "praying or prophesying" (1 Cor. 11:3-16).
The few glimpses we get of the clothing worn by the disciples reveal nothing remarkable. Jesus was not known for being attractive in appearance in any material sense (Isa. 53:2), and he spoke disapprovingly of the special religious items worn by the Pharisees as being for show (Matt. 23:5). Only the clothing worn by John the Baptizer is described in any detail (Matt. 3:4), but beyond its similarity to the rustic clothing of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8; Matt. 12:13-14), it is insignificant -- as Jesus himself noted (Luke 7:25).
From the Scriptures we can draw the following conclusions:
1. Dress should be modest. Specifically, dress is not to be overly showy or ostentatious. 2. Dress is otherwise irrelevant. The Lord is pleased with the inner qualities of a fine character and is unconcerned with outward appearance. 3. Discrimination based on dress is wrong. The Lord expects Christians to be equally concerned with inner qualities and heedless of outward appearance.
We can see that the society of the first century was much like ours in its attitudes about clothing. We can also see that these attitudes are in direct conflict with the teachings of the Holy Spirit.
Can there be any doubt? On the subject of dress, the church today clearly sides with the values of society over the values of the scriptures.
The tradition of the church is that a Sunday morning "worship service" is a semi-formal, dress-up event. Coats and ties for men. Dresses or skirts for ladies, with appropriate make-up and hosiery. The expense and effort involved has already been mentioned, but members accept the tradition and its importance. It is so universal that it is taken for granted.
How can we justify it? We can't.
But we do try...
"We want to impress our visitors so they will want to come back." Which visitors are we trying to impress? Would a "poor man in shabby clothes" be impressed? Would he desire to come back? Would he feel welcome to do anything with high visibility -- lead singing, help with the communion, or preach? What would James have said? Is it possible that the Christians he wrote to merely wanted to impress their visitors, too? This rationalization has been used to justify expensive church buildings and leads to another consideration: is the church supposed to be noteworthy for its affluence?
"Dressing up shows reverence. If we wear our best for our business associates, then we should wear our best for God." This rationalization is heard frequently, and invites a host of questions. Does the Bible teach that reverence is shown by dressing up? Doesn't "best," as we use it, mean "expensive"? Is this how the Holy Spirit defines "best?" Weren't the women who wore the elaborate hairstyles and gold jewelry in the first century wearing their "best?" Why weren't they applauded for their reverence? Do our business associates and God use the same values in judging us? If my "best" suit is black tie and tails, wouldn't I be showing great reverence by wearing it? Was the "poor man in shabby clothes" irreverent? And finally --if reverence is really shown by wearing our best, why are we not wearing our "best" on Wednesday nights? Or for home Bible studies? Is reverence only for Sunday morning?
Dressing up is part of doing things in a "fitting and orderly way" (1 Cor. 14:40). Again, why weren't the women who wore elaborate hair styles and gold jewelry commended for their propriety? Wouldn't a tuxedo be fitting and orderly? Is a "poor man in shabby clothes" violating this instruction? Are we then doing things "chaotically" on Wednesday nights or in home studies? Finally -- is this passage really discussing clothing? Is it discussing physical appearances at all?
"Any clothing that attracts attention is immodest. If I don't dress up like everybody else, I would be dressing immodestly." Does the Bible really teach this definition of immodesty? Would a "poor man in shabby clothes" be immodest? Was John the Baptizer an immodest dresser? Would a Pharisee who refused to wear phylacteries like his colleagues be immodest?
All these rationalizations fail to hold up under even the least scrutiny. The only reason they have lasted this long is because we are comfortable with our tradition and therefore we fail to scrutinize them. In our classes, how often have we read the passages that deplore overdressing and then quickly changed the subject to under -dressing -- as if the original subject had no application to us? We've been rubbing the specks from our eyes and leaving the two-by-fours in place.
The real reason we dress up for "church" is because the world has taught us to... Our society has told us this is the respectable, commendable, responsible thing to do: look good outwardly... "good" meaning "affluent.''
And we believe it.
The Renaissance in the Lord's church will be characterized by a return to Biblical principles. In the matter of dress, this means that we will wear clothing that is not showy or ostentatious, that is modest, and that is considerate of the financially less fortunate.
Dress for a gathering of saints as you would for an informal gathering of family or friends -- because believers are brothers, and sisters, and friends. Dress in casual clothing that tends to equalize social classes -- because the Lord is pleased with consideration of the poor. Dress for "worship" in clothing that invites people of all classes and backgrounds to join in and make themselves comfortable -- because the good news is for everybody.
If the world calls this "sloppy," "cheap," or "disrespectful," we can simply rejoice that our values are not those of the world around us. We can be glad of the fact that a gathering of our brothers and sisters is one time when we don't have to "impress" or "sell ourselves." We are free!
Just come as you are...and praise God!
The Holy Bible: New International Version, Zondervan Bible Publishers, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Malloy, John T. Dress for Success. Warner Books, New York, NY, 1975.