I did not grow up in Michigan but it is where I pastor. Michigan is known for its radical weather patterns to which the native Michigander replies, “There is no such thing as bad weather only bad clothing choices.” That attitude seems to be shared by many in church circles as well, as many believe church goers are making bad clothing choices. The disappointment of some that casual dress has taken the place of dress up within church services has led a few Christ-followers to the conclusion that casual dress leads to casual worship. This would imply that the clothes we choose to wear dictates the genuineness of our worship. This has reached such a state that some even believe it is unbiblical not to dress up for church. Sadly though to prove such a statement one must take many passages out of context and reject many others. There is a very interesting history to this topic and one that sheds some fascinating light on this debate. George Barna writes the following:
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. While care was historically given to cleanliness and solemnity on Sabbath days, dressing up for worship resulted, not from a theological teaching, but from the influence of Victorian culture on worshiping communities.
Contrary to popular opinion, medieval Christians had no common practice of dressing up for church because nice clothes were only afforded by the wealthy. Prior to the industrial revolution, society was polarized into the “haves” (the landed aristocracy) and the “have-nots” (plebes, serfs, peasants), with a minimal merchant class in between. Fine clothing was hand-made and far too expensive for common folk who maintained their living through subsistence farming. Common folks had only one or two sets of clothes, made of coarse, drab fabric. One set of clothes was for working in the field, thus getting dirty and tattered; the other was for going into town, and therefore was kept cleaner to avoid public revulsion. In other words, “dressing up” for anything was never an option for anyone but the wealthiest nobility. In fact, social codes enforced by fines mandated that this class distinction be honored by individuals of every rank. Distinctions of dress have functioned to maintain social hierarchy since the beginning of civilization.
All of this changed with the invention of mass manufacturing and the development of urban society. James Hargreaves invented the “spinning jenny” in 1764. As this and similar machines were reproduced, finer and more colorful clothing, created with more versatile fabrics, made a variety of clothes affordable for the masses. Industrialization and urbanization gave rise to the middle class socio-economic group, so that a new layer of society received an opportunity to emulate the envied aristocracy and distinguish themselves from the peasants. Common people began “dressing up” to social events of every kind to demonstrate their newly improved social status.
Various Christian groups of the 18th and 19th century resisted this cultural momentum among the middle class for the same reasons that many of the patristic writers did among the wealthy in the third and fourth centuries. Decorative clothing and demonstrative accessories (jewelry, etc) were seen as worldly and prideful, interfering with a simple and austere mood of worship. In the eighteenth century, John Wesley frequently wrote and spoke out against fine adornment, saying that gold and costly apparel were sinful. “Let your dress be cheap, as well as plain,” Wesley taught, peddling what Leigh Eric Schmidt entitled a “gospel of plainness.” Preachers like Charles Finney and Peter Cartwright lauded plain dress.
But the growing prosperity of the middle class cultivated a craving for bigger and better houses, church buildings, and clothes. Denominations with a greater proportion of wealthy members (e.g. Episcopal, Unitarian) began selling pews to wealthy families to fund elaborate church building improvements. As the Victorian enculturation of the middle class progressed, fancier and more formal worship houses began to draw the influential people of society, so that the more populist congregations (e.g. Baptist, Methodist) had to work hard to try to keep up with improvements to their own facilities.
Children’s religious periodicals like the American Sunday School Union’s Youth’s Friend in the 1840’s began introducing articles on manners and dress together with moral instruction. In 1843, Horace Bushnell, an influential Congregational minister in Connecticut, published an essay entitled “Taste and Fashion,” in which he argued that sophistication and refinement were integral attributes of God that mature Christians should naturally emulate. Thus was born the environment for “dressing up for church,” in which members worshiping in an elaborately formal, decorated building naturally began wearing formal clothes out of a sense of propriety of morals, as well as pride of status.
So what does the Bible say?
- Matthew 23:27-28 – Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
- 1 Timothy 2:8-10 – I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting; 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 (emphasis mine), but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works.
- James 2:1-4 – My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
So from the Bible we learn that our choice in attire should be modest (orderly); specifically, our choice in clothing should not be overly showy or ostentatious. And we learn that the Lord is pleased with the inner qualities of a fine character and is not nearly concerned with outward appearance. And most importantly we learn that our choice in clothing can lead to an attitude of discrimination which is condemned by the Lord. So the next question that must be asked is “Does dressing up show reverence and respect?” If that were truly the case and our dress was indicative of our respect of God then it does not make any sense that the women of 1 Timothy 2 would be instructed not to adorn themselves with braided hair, gold, pearls and costly clothing.
Like most issues there are two extremes that need to be avoided, and on this issue both those extremes have to do with ME. When I prepare for public worship I should not be thinking about MY very best, because MY very best is really about ME. But I also don’t want to go to the other extreme and think about how comfortable I can be either, because once again it is all about ME. Worship is not about me, it is about the Lord.
So these are the choices I choose to make…
(1) I wear clothes that are appropriate for the occasion (I do not wear my pajamas to church – pajamas are for sleeping not public worship).
(2) I wear clothes that do not make my congregants feel inferior or self-conscious about their own clothing options (this will change based upon where you serve and the financial norm of the area)
(3) I address my heart before going to public worship because no matter what I wear, suit and tie, khakis and sweater, or jeans and t-shirt, if my heart is not right I will not be really worshiping at all.
When the heart of God’s people is focused completely on Christ, and when we are choosing to love him with all our mind, soul, and strength; and when we truly are seeking those things that are above where Christ is, and when we are completely yielded to the Spirit of God, the issue of clothing choices will take care of itself and will be a small matter compared to recognizing the majesty, holiness, and amazing grace of our Savior and King.