A Baptist church tried to get a man to attend its services, but he never would show up. “Why don’t you come?” the preacher asked, and the man finally admitted it was because he didn’t have the proper clothes to wear. So a member of the congregation took him to a clothing store to get a nice suit, good shirt, fine tie, and new shoes. But on the following Sunday, he still didn’t attend. So the pastor visited him again and asked him why he didn’t come. “Because when I got dressed up in my new outfit,” the fellow explained, “I looked so good I decided to go to the Presbyterian church.”
For the past 25 years there’s been what is known as “a worship war” going on in congregations. All across the land, the predominance of old hymns has been challenged by the rise of new choruses. And one of the offshoots of this battle has been a change in church attire – with fewer shirts-and-ties seen on men and less skirts-and-dresses observed on women. The new worship mantra on fashion is “just come as you are”. This in turn has led to the question of whether the Bible has anything to say about what should be worn to church – those who like to dress more formally for worship hope it does and those who like to dress less formally for worship hope it doesn’t. Here is my understanding.
I begin with a little history. For the first 1,800 years of the church, socially you were in either of two economic groups: lower class or upper class. And one of the most noticeable markers of each was their clothing. The rich could afford to pay the expensive price for soft, colorful, hand-woven cloth and spent many hours preparing to be seen in public. The poor had only enough money for coarse, plain fabric, made into two outfits: a dirty one for home and a clean one for town.
But when it comes to church attire, the Bible was written in the days when there were just the poor or the rich. And God’s fashion instructions at that time was not directed to those in the plain outfits, but to those in the fancy ones – particularly about these individuals putting too much emphasis on the outward appearance and not enough emphasis on the inward heart.
I Timothy 2:9-10 – In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.
I Peter 3:3 – Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.
Interestingly, in the 18th century, as more people began to be able to dress up for church, it became of growing concern to gospel preachers. For instance, John Wesley spoke out against the practice as being sinful, proclaiming “Let your dress be plain and cheap.” He even advised that once a year all Methodists read his manual on attire in which he spelled out in detail what types and colours of fabric were acceptable, as well as shapes and sizes of hats, coats, sleeves, hairstyles, etc. And Charles Wesley told dramatic stories of converted sinners who came under conviction and soon discarded their jewelry and ruffles for the plain and ordinary.
The bottom line? I like getting dressed up for the Lord’s Day (and I ask those who regularly minister with me at the front to do the same). However, I don’t make wearing my Sunday best the requirement for all the rest. Why? Because the few times the Bible does speak about church attire, its comments are always directed towards those more formally attired, not to those less formally so. In the end, this is another one of those freedom areas in the local church where Romans 14:5 is the best guide, Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.