Decorum, Dignity & the Divine
There’s something of a battle going on in many churches, albeit perhaps an unspoken one. Lined up on one side are the “legalists.” They’re often well-dressed—ties and jackets for the men, modest and unostentatious dresses or skirts for the women. They’ve combed or styled their hair. Often times they’re older. On the other side are the “freedom” folks. They’re in blue jeans, shorts, shorter skirts with more colorful blouses. Their hair is often unattended or plopped into some sort of updo. Some of them even wear hats. They’re younger.
The legalists tend to look down on the more casual crowd. They find it appalling that they show up to church looking as if they just rolled out of bed. Torn jeans and shorts are seen as too disrespectful for worship. Wearing of hats is downright rude. “You wouldn’t show up to a wedding or dinner with the president dressed like that,” they claim, “so why do you come to worship God dressed like that?”
The freedom folks find the stuffed shirts to be, well, stuffy. They’re too focused on outward appearance, and remind them that “the Lord looks at the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7) Ties and jackets were a cultural fad that went out with adult Sunday school and overhead transparencies. They claim they can worship God just as well in a T-shirt and a pair of denims as in a suit or dress.
So who’s right? Either? Neither? Both? How important is what we wear to church? Should we “dress our best” to go to the house of the Lord? Or should we “come as we are” and worship with authenticity? Is it a cultural issue? Does it matter what others are wearing? Most importantly, what does the Bible have to say?
Unfortunately, even that last question doesn’t have an easy answer. In the Old Testament, we see a number of very specific commands as to how the Tabernacle and the temple (the equivalent of modern-day churches) should be built, right on down to the tapestries and the garments the priests were to wear. That might suggest how we dress and how we treat our sanctuaries is important. But those commands also fell under the old covenant, which has since been replaced (with the tearing of the temple curtain, no less). In the New Testament, we don’t read a whole lot about such matters, and what we do find would seem to indicate we should stray from focusing on the external over the internal (Mark 7:1-23) or being too focused on rules and rituals (Colossians 2:16-20). Even Paul’s admonitions in I Corinthians 11 and 14 address specific issues in the church in Corinth, so it’s hard to make direct applications from them. So where does that leave us?
I’ve heard it said that style of dress is largely a cultural issue. After all, the apostles didn’t wear silk ties or sensible heels to worship. They came in dirty sandals and cloaks that smelled like fish. I generally hesitate to go with culture anywhere, but there are some norms that we would do well to follow. It wouldn’t be terribly prudent to attend a black tie dinner in blue jeans and a T-shirt. If you show up in court dressed like, well, me on a Saturday, you’ll likely be admonished for it. A certain level of “nice” dress applies in those cases, so why not a worship service? Teenagers spend hours primping for a prom on Saturday night, then come to church in their pajama pants on Sunday morning. Why is that? Why has culture deemed anything and everything to be fair game to wear to church when we don’t hold that standard—casual as we are—at other events or locales? Should we then go along with this cultural revolution? Should we go to the other end of the scale and employ a dress code? How do we balance putting our best foot forward with putting on airs? And what of the outsider, the visitor who isn’t aware of it or chooses not to conform? Do we hire bouncers to bar their entry? Of course not.
You may have figured out by this point that I’m not going to answer a lot of the questions I posed. Didn’t really intend to. More or less wanted to challenge you to think through them. But I do come back to something I’ve often heard, that if the heart of the worshipper is correct, then what difference does it make what they’re wearing? I’d largely agree. But that puts the onus on the worshipper to make sure his or her heart is right. So I encourage all of us, including this blogger, to do just that. I’d also say be wary that you’re not a stumbling block to others. If you’re the last guy in church to still wear a tie and jacket and it’s making people uncomfortable, maybe lose the tie. If your baseball cap and torn jeans are offending others, take them off (preferably replacing the jeans with other pants). Or, as Paul put it, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.” (Romans 14:13)
- Nathan Birr is the author of The Douglas Files series and God, Girls, Golf & the Gridiron (Not Always in That Order) . . . A Love Story. (It’s as crazy as it sounds.) He can be seen at his local church wearing anything from a plaid shirt and untorn blue jeans to a colorful dress shirt, tie, and non-pleated pants.
(Unless otherwise noted, Scripture taken from New International Version, © 2011.)