I am a member of a religious body that has a reputation for approaching the scriptures unbiasedly and honestly with consideration for context and history, and with a discernment between tradition and truth.
I deeply appreciate and respect those who read the scriptures in light of all those things, humbly putting aside their personal attachments and opinions in order to find out what is good and acceptable to God. It’s the only way I think we have a chance of any unity and more importantly, the only way we’ll be able to see God’s truth in the simple way He’s presented it.
Unfortunately, even after training myself to come to the scriptures or consider beliefs in this way, one (at least) tradition still managed to remain unsuspected: dressing up for Sunday worship (and Wednesday Bible class, and gospel meetings and singings and lectureships).
“In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” – Matthew 15:9
If you’ve read the gospels, you’ll remember that Jesus had much condemnation for the traditions of the Pharisees, which they bound as law. God’s word is sufficient and we should treat it as such, which is why I’ve decided to finally write this.
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” – Colossians 2:8
So, where did this tradition (of dressing up for services) come from?
“The practice of dressing up for church is a relatively recent phenomenon. 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…
…From medieval times until the eighteenth century, dress was a clear marker of one’s social class….
This changed with the invention of the mass textile manufacturing and the development of urban society. 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. To demonstrate their newly improved status, they could now “dress up” for social events just like the well-to-do.
Some Christian groups in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries resisted this cultural trend. John Wesley wrote against wearing expensive clothing to their meetings. The early Baptists also condemned fine clothing, teaching that it separated the rich from the poor.
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…
This all came to a head when in 1843, Horace Bushnell, and 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. Thus was born the idea of dressing up for church to honor God. Church members now worshiped in elaborately decorated buildings sporting their formal clothes to honor God.
In 1846, a Virginia Presbyterian named William Henry Foote wrote that “a church-going people are a dress loving people.” 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.
Accordingly, as with virtually every other accepted church practice, dressing up for church is the result of Christians being influenced by their surrounding culture…
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. It has nothing to do with the Bible, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit….
…The first-century Christians did not “dress up ” to attend church meetings. They met in the simplicity of living rooms. They did not dress to exhibit their social class. In fact, the early Christians made concrete efforts to show their absolute disdain for social class distinctions.
…In the church, all social and racial distinctions are erased…
And yet, many Christians are under the false delusion that it is “irreverent” to dress in informal clothing when attending a Sunday morning church service. This is not dissimilar to how the Scribes and the Pharisees accused the Lord and His disciples of being irreverent for not following the tradition of the elders (Mark 7:1-13).
In short, to say that the Lord expects His people to dress in fine clothing when the church gathers is to add to the Scriptures and speak where God has not spoken. Such a practice is human tradition at its best.” – Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity
I almost wanted to end it right here, because this alone is so convincing to me. But, I imagine there could still be further objections, so I want to delve a little deeper.
“But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7
You can dress nicely for services and yet not be right with God, you can dress nicely for services and be right with God, you can dress like you usually do for services and not be right with God, and you can dress like you usually do for services and be right with God. Why? Because, aside from following the only admonition we have for apparel (to be modest), what you wear has no bearing on your salvation.
“Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” – John 7:24
Especially considering that our hearts and relationships with God are so entirely removed from our dress, it cannot be said that judging by the way a person dresses for worship is of righteous judgment. Again, to dress modestly is all the New Testament requires of a person.
“Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” – 1 Peter 3:3,4
“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.” – 1 Timothy 2:9, 10
In context, this is instruction to women but the concept of becoming a new man, putting on these godly characteristics and imitating Christ with the circumcision of the heart is applicable to all who are baptized into His body. Likewise, it heavily reflects the importance of the inward man and while the world may be concerned with outward appearances, we are now called to be set apart from the world, in our thinking, in our priorities and in our anxieties and in our judgments. We no longer will judge nor be judged by appearances.
“…Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” – 1 Peter 5:5
I just like this because it has the instruction “clothe yourselves”, yet not in reference to actual attire.
To be clear, I used to hold the opinion that we should dress up for services, admittedly with no Biblical basis. So, I’d like to answer the objections some might have, as I remember once having:
My main argument was “If the president invited you to dinner, you would undoubtedly dress up. How much more should we show our respect for God when assembling to worship?”
It’s a noble thought, and humanly logical if we didn’t have the Bible to explain things more accurately. Once Christ made that sacrifice for each of us, the Law, the shadow of things to come, became written on our hearts; our service to Him became deeper than outward obedience. Though it seems logical to dress up because that is what the world has deemed important, our Father is not of this world and He sees the truth: our hearts. We can see this point stressed in James, where the Holy Spirit saw fit to declare inappropriate, the judgment of dress in the assembly. And here is where I see our tradition of dressing up as a dangerous obstacle: I know more than one person (and I’ve been this person as well), who, because of their belief in this man-made tradition, have bitterly judged those who would not dress up. That is simply sin, and should clearly be addressed as such. Likewise, I’ve heard of members who have confronted those who dress normally, asking them to change their habits, which seems sadly close to “teaching as doctrine the commandments of men” and should be taken seriously.
I have come to worship finely dressed, yet distracted and uninterested and even probably in sin at some points. I have come to worship dressed normally, yet with my mind set on things above and humble before God. We should not judge by appearances.
2. All Things To All Men
This argument seems to condemn itself, and I’d like to explain why. Some people may agree that you don’t have to dress up, but they will in order to make others comfortable, especially if they live in an affluent area (also the reason for not dressing up when, say, worshiping in the Philippines).
I can list several people (myself included), who have been/are put off by the “class” distinction. When I was a weak member, I actually would only attend on Wednesdays (when I felt comfortable dressing normally) and occasionally on Sundays because I didn’t have an appropriate or abundant wardrobe and I was embarrassed to wear the same thing too many times. Eventually, I spent the money to build up “church attire” and also received gifts from others, but I still know other people with that same mindset. And sadly, I can remember times where we (me and many other members of the church, young and old, preachers and teachers) would sit around and make fun of the “come-as-you-are” churches with their indifference to clothing. It’s difficult for me to publish that. It’s shameful. It’s ungodly. And condemning. And it certainly doesn’t embrace the heart of the “being all things to all men…so that I may win more of them!” Truly, if we could humble ourselves and be content to dress in normal attire, a barrier would be crushed between us and those who are either simply poor or who are simply not blind to the truth of the gospel like we apparently have become. We ultimately may bind this dress unspokenly, which is a sad consequence. Furthermore, a lot of us aren’t even rich! Yet we spend the money to keep up with this silly, unbiblical tradition (I recognize not everyone spends a lot- we came to love Goodwill and hand-me-downs ;)). To put it in perspective though, consider the mindset of the early church:
“According to these letters [from the Christians before Constantine], they typically dropped their general family name, which indicated their social status. They also called one another “brother” and “sister.” – Graydon Snyder
There is the biblical mindset. There is the grace and humility and love and the oneness of the body of Christ. Surely, if they set aside their names that represented their earthly distinctions, we can cast off our attachment to fine apparel out of love, wisdom, understanding, humility and fellowship.
3. We Are The Priesthood
…so, we should dress accordingly? All I have to say is that we are the spiritual priesthood, and to interpret this as something that demands a suit and a tie or a button-up or a skirt or dress shoes or anything physical and outward, is to interpret it through Pharisaical eyes.
“…you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” – 1 Peter 2:5
“For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.” – Romans 2:28
*Edit: I meant to make more plain that the very fact that specific garments were required of the priesthood in the Old Testament does not mean that we must abide by the same law, but rather shows that under the new law, it is our hearts that need to be specially adorned for Christ. Baptism, repentance and a changed heart are the special attire of today’s priesthood. Oftentimes, the spiritual requirements of today are shown through an outward and physical representation in the Old Testament. There undoubtedly needs to be preparation when we come before God – purposeful preparation of our hearts and minds.
So, am I judging unrighteously those who do dress up? No, please don’t misunderstand.
I think many of us do it mindlessly and harmlessly and I know godly people who are in the practice of dressing up.What does need to be taught and understood, however, is that it is no requirement to do it and that it can be damaging, even unintentionally. I try to dress like I would dress any other day (which sometimes means a skirt or dress), because my discipleship is not a superficial, twice-a-week event, but it is a continuous condition of my heart. But when we collectively dress up, we’re in danger of developing an unspoken code or even encouraging some false beliefs that it is wrong not to dress up. Therefore, I think it ought to be taught on, and we ought not be afraid of caring less about our appearances (especially us ladies!). Also, consider a large basis for my desire to speak against the topic:
“Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews that were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.” – Acts 16:3
“But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in – who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus so that they might bring us into slavery-to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.” – Galatians 2:3-5
This reflects the reason I want to speak up: when it would help the furtherance of the gospel, Paul had Timothy circumcised, no problem (though circumcision was/is not required for Christians). However, with Titus we see an issue developing: Judaizers, “the circumcision party”, were teaching that Christians were required to circumcise. Because of this, note: they did not yield in submission, even for a moment, and to circumcise Titus would have been detrimental. It was important that the truth of the gospel prevail, and this required a deliberate avoidance of the practice in question.
Similarly, a bold move may be required today. If there weren’t those teaching and thinking that we need to dress up, it would be silly for me to write this. But I feel like we are emulating the situation of Titus: there are some who actively teach that it is appropriate and more reverent to dress up and therefore we cannot enable this false and dangerous tradition(again, as with all of my articles: if this doesn’t apply to you, it isn’t meant for you: I am not saying that this is the mindset or motive or belief or condition of everyone dressed nicely for services).
By speaking on this, I don’t hope to judge those who dress up, yet do have a mind of love and understanding. By speaking on this, I hope to address a false teaching and pierce the hearts of those who are grasping tradition. Ultimately, I don’t judge your heart, God does. I simply seek to make known a portion of the Word that seems to be neglected, but this should not result in a judgment of those who do dress up! The point is that, there needs to be no judging by appearances, and then also, there needs to be wisdom and understanding and perhaps yielding on the part of some so that weaker members and outsiders are not led astray.
Finally, I want to make an appeal. Like I stated in the beginning, I worship with individuals that approach the Word of God in an admirable way, often to the ridicule of mainstream “Christians”. Nevertheless, it is this body that I’m mainly speaking to and this section is particularly for them:
Because of your wisdom I’ve been able to see through the scriptures, through the practice of the early church and through the history of tradition that musical instruments in worship are not authorized by God.
It is this same way of thinking that has convicted me so about our attire. Some of us would not be here if it weren’t for bold souls that stood out and attempted to bring “Christianity” back to the Bible. With that same mind, we often try to stand out and open the eyes of others to the truth of these traditions and add-ons in worship. I’ve admired the sound teaching against musical instruments, infant baptism, sprinkling, faith only, once-saved-always-saved, fancy church buildings, fellowship halls, ordination of ministers and more. What do each of these things have in common? 1. They aren’t taught by scripture, 2. The early church had no part in any of these, 3. We can look in history and see the years that each of these things surfaced.
As we’ve seen today, the practice of dressing up for services neatly falls into this category as well, yet we have been content to sidestep it. How can we know the “true” church? Because it’s the one we read about in the Bible? Maybe in many ways we’ve succeeded in discerning truth and tradition, but not in this area (mostly- I’m not saying there are none who have this understanding or there aren’t congregations that don’t practice this) and I don’t think we should be content to let it slide while calling others to abandon their own traditions that may be very difficult for them to accept as false.
Sometimes, even after seeing the truth of something, there is still an overbearing hesitancy. But how do we approach others when we see this hesitancy in them to accept the truth? Do feelings or habits or upbringing suddenly excuse them? No.
So, all I’m calling for is consistency and honesty and a devotion to truth. And the truth of the gospel is that God does not care what we wear to worship, and therefore we should not teach that He does or that one is more reverent wearing either attire, and we should also be careful not to compel anyone to believe this by our conduct.
“Those who glory in their looks, not in their hearts, dress to please others.” – Clement
“Instead of embellishing the outward man with adornments, we should embellish the soul with the ornament of goodness.” – Clement
“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” – John 4:24
(Personal note: this is a sensitive topic, and I know some will disagree. I hope I haven’t spoken rudely and I hope I haven’t misrepresented myself: I want to make it abundantly clear that speaking on a truth that may condemn those who are guilty, doesn’t equate to my judgment of those people. Also, I am in no way saying that just because I found myself with a sinful attitude toward others when I believed in dressing up, that everyone who dresses up must feel that same way. I know this isn’t the case, which is why I try to stress to those who truly imitate Christ in their hearts and attitudes that I am not speaking to them. On the other hand, I do know others besides myself that are guilty of the things I’ve spoken on, and that’s really all I’m trying to expose. So, in short: dress does not matter, so no judging and no teaching that it does unless you’re speaking on modesty, and don’t be afraid to “come as you are” out of consideration for those who may not feel comfortable. :) I guess that could have made a much simpler post ;))