I became a Christian in 2003. I learned fairly quickly that, outside what’s believed and gleaned from the Bible, being a Christian included taking on lots of unwritten mannerisms, behaviours and cultural markers. Some I’m sure are derived out of an application of Biblical principles, such as saying grace before a meal (giving thanks in all circumstances), praying in Jesus’s name (recognising that we’re heard because Christ intercedes for us), and so on. Then there’s stuff like praying with your eyes closed, saying “Amen” when your pastor makes a good point, and all that new vocabulary you’re having to pick up (“sermons”, “talks”, “Bible studies”, “fellowship”, “accountability”, “Praise the Lord”…)
Then there’s what you wear to church.
There’s no specific Bible verse about it, so it seems like at one church, it’s your “Sunday best”, while at another, it’s “come as you are”. The definition of “church clothing” differs between uni students, South Auckland families, Haitian villagers and Bible Belt Baptists. It’s certainly different between generations.
Over the years I’ve personally dressed across the spectrum: from wearing a suit, to wearing boardshorts and crocs. But it’s only been the last few years that I’ve wondered – should being a Christian change the way I dress for gathered worship? That’s the underlying question that you’ve either never thought of before, or have a strong opinion about.
I’ll state from the outset that what I’m about to write is not a biblical or systematic theology of clothing (though that would be fascinating). And it’s not a how-to manual that goes down to what coloured tie or clothing fabric is best (like I would know…).
Rather, the following thoughts are my own conclusions about why I dress up for a Sunday church gathering, but not on Monday evening at home.
You might be reading this with a “who cares” expression on your face, or you’ve a keen interest in the matter… that’s fine.
But given that choosing our “church clothes” is a weekly ritual — most of us do it more often than we take part in the Lord’s Supper! — I think it’s a topic worth a little bit of thought (just don’t ponder over it to the same degree as justification by faith…)
Even so, on this secondary issue, “let each be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:5)
1. Clothed first in His righteousness.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is quoted preaching this:
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you–you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matt. 6:25-33, ESV)
As a child of God by faith in His Son, the most important thing I’m wearing from day to day is the “garments of salvation”, the “robe of his righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). This is possible not from anything I’ve earned myself, but because “God made [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21, NIV)
Because I’m first and foremost dressed in His righteousness alone, I’m free from worrying that I must dress a certain way, or a certain standard, to find acceptance and joy before my Maker.
2. Clothed not to access His presence.
A common line of reasoning I’ve heard goes something like: “If we dress up to meet someone important (e.g. the Prime Minister, the Queen), shouldn’t we likewise dress up when we’re meeting the King of Kings?”
But to me, it follows that if we’re dressed in his righteousness alone, the idea of dressing to meet the King is a bit odd. He supplied the garments for us to approach him already!
The underlying assumption with the “dress to enter His presence” idea is that we meet God during the hour and a half of gathered worship, we enter His presence for 90 minutes on a Sunday (even worse if God doesn’t show up until the worship leader “leads us into His presence”… what intolerable pressure!), and this is the time to really give him the best of everything.
But before we even considered giving God anything — praise, service, a prim and proper wardrobe — He already gave us grace and mercy in Christ Jesus. Before the foundation of the world, even (Eph 1:4).
When we gather to worship, it’s not that we meet a God who’s been waiting for us in the auditorium, or who’s poised to reveal Himself in a cloud of glory as the Old Testament saints used to experience.
I like how Mike Cosper phrases it in “Rhythms of Grace“:
“…the gathering is unique not as an encounter with God (it is that, though God’s presence is a constantly available comfort and help to the Christian); rather it’s unique because it is an encounter with the people of God, filled with the Spirit of God, spurring one another along in the mission of God. Christ in me meets Christ in you.“
So in light of all this…
What I wear on Sunday need not be pressured by the idea that it’s only when we’re gathered together that we have entered God’s presence.
3. Clothed to anticipate the banquet table.
So based on the previous point, perhaps I can wear anything I like. Surely it’s “just as I am” when it comes to gathered worship right? Or “come as you are”?
In most culture, one of the ways we anticipate a special occasion is by dressing differently to our normal daily clothes. We wear nice dresses and suits to celebrate at friend’s wedding, or to share in a relative’s funeral, or to take part in the annual school ball. That wedding anniversary dinner at the nice Italian restaurant is surely not the time to pull out your crocs and boardshorts.
Amid a 24-7, helter-skelter culture, meeting together on the Lord’s day is the high point of my week, and one I anticipate. I’m looking forward to it as one would look forward to a wedding banquet. I’m coming in hungry, looking forward to feasting from the Bread of Life, and looking to share this time with one another. And so yes, I do dress for the occasion.
What’s it like for you? Is meeting together on the Lord’s day something you eagerly anticipate? You know, the Lord’s Day, the day of the week we celebrate that Jesus is risen, and that our faith is not in vain (1 Cor 15:14)?
Broader than the service itself, am you excited about setting aside a day of the week to rest from your normal duties, to focus on serving God and loving God’s people, stirring each other up to love and good works?
For me, I’m dressed for the banquet hall, excited about what God will be doing in our midst, looking forward to a day of serving my brothers and sisters in Jesus.
What I choose to wear is aimed at telling myself, my family and the watching world that I anticipate gathering with God’s people on the Lord’s day as the high point of my week.
4. Clothed to serve the interests of others / not to flaunt my preferences.
Great. So let me get out that white tuxedo(!) so I can really show everyone that Sunday meetings are really important. In fact, I hope that as I wear my Versace shirt and expensive shoes, I’ll be hinting to others that they need to scrub up too.
Seems to me that would fall under immodest behaviour. One thing I learned recently is that modesty isn’t just about hemlines and brand names.
In the book “Worldliness“, CJ Mahaney phrases it this way, “Modesty is humility expressed in dress.”
He goes on to say:
“Any conversation about modesty “starts in the intent of the heart.” So consider for a moment, what is the intent of your heart in purchasing clothes to wear? Does a humble heart and a servant’s heart dictate your wardrobe and appearance? Is your shopping informed and governed by modesty and restraint? Or is your dress motivated by a desire for attention and approval from others? Does your style reflect a lack of self-control?”
There’s plenty of resources out there to help in thinking about modesty (we recently went through it in our weeknight bible study). But in general, I don’t want to dress on Sundays with the intent of deliberately drawing attention to myself, or parts of me.
Practically, it does mean that a heart check is often in order, and retuning required if I’m thinking of wearing something I know will seen as excessive for where I’m going to be. Conversely, if I feel like I must dress casual to prove a point to someone at church… then my heart needs retuning too.
What I choose to wear should not be primarily motivated by a desire to draw attention to myself (immodesty), but by what I believe would serve others in my church family, and consistent with being clothed in humility.
So, collar or no collar?
If you’re still reading, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t mentioned any specific garments I would wear on Sundays. That’s because with everything being said, I think there’s still much freedom to work the answer out, depending on our individual contexts.
It could well be that dressing up in a dress shirt/ business attire would work in an urban church, but then look extravagant in a church full of farmers and blue-collar workers.
Or maybe if you’re a pastor in a non-Western demographic, it’s the opposite and that your church community expect you to be sharply dressed.
Or you have a large proportion of senior saints in your church who view your graphic T-shirt and shorts as a bit “irreverent”. Even if they’re wrong, deferring to them out of love may look like putting on more formal attire the next week. Some would even call it contextualisation!
At the end of the day, what I wear to church is guided by sanctified intuition, freed by being clothed in Christ’s righteousness, shaped by my anticipation for worshipping together, and informed by humility and a desire to serve one another.
OK, enough from me — what about you? How do you dress for Sunday meetings and why?
“Clothes are not meant to make people think about what is under the clothes. Clothes are meant to direct attention to what is not under them: merciful hands that serve others in the name of Christ, beautiful feet that carry the gospel where it is needed, and the brightness of a face that has beheld the glory of Jesus.”
– John Piper, “This Momentary Marriage”
Clothing Matters – Duane Litfin
Why I Still Dress Up For Church – Sarah Stockton Howell
Don’t Throw Out Your Nice Suit Just Yet – Vermon Pierre
A Theology of Clothing by Alastair Roberts
Private Facebook conversation started by Joe Fleener