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Does it matter what we wear to church?

It is funny (in a sad way) that such a seemingly minor issue has generated so much controversy in the Christian church, but it has.  So potentially divisive has this issue been, that Jerry Bridges warns about it directly, mentioning it in his well known book Respectable sins in the chapter on “Judgementalism.”[1] Other big name evangelical Christian leaders and publications have also had to weigh in on this issue in the last decade, including Desiring God ministries, Christianity today, and the Christian Post.

There are two major positions in this ongoing exchange. On the one hand, there are those who believe that people should “dress up” to go to church as a sign of respect for God and maintaining reverence in worship. Bridges, for example, writes that he grew up in an environment where it was expected that men wore jackets and women wore dresses to church. When he began to see people who dressed more casually, his immediate thought was “didn’t they have any reverence for God?  Would they dress so casually if there were going to an audience with the president?”[2] On the other hand, there are those who believe that the clothing we wear doesn’t matter to God, God calls as we are, wants us to come authentically as we are, and what matters is sincerity of heart. Thus the debate: those who desire more formality in dress believe that casual clothes are disrespectful and display an irreverent attitude towards God. Those who don’t care believe that God calls us to come as who we are, which is a more authentic way of approaching God than dressing up in a way you never would otherwise. 

The first question to ask is what does the Bible say about it? If the Bible speaks to this issue, then of course it is our authority and we submit to it.  But when we search the Scriptures, we find that there is absolutely nothing that speaks directly to this issue.[3] Bridges is certainly right when he concludes “There is nothing in the Bible that tells us what we ought to wear to church.” Next, we consider any broader biblical considerations about worship that might inform our answer to this question. On this point the advocates of both approaches make appeals to certain biblical themes and texts. Those who favor a more formal dress approach ask questions such as “Doesn’t the Bible teach that we must approach God with “reverence and awe (Hebrews 12:28)? And does not the entirety of Scripture seem to suggest that approaching the Holy, Triune God is not something to be done casually, but is in fact one of the highest privileges of the Christian life? And are we not called to present our bodies as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1)? And does this not all suggest that we should dress in a way that indicates that the worship of God is an incredibly important and significant event?” Therefore, should we not avoid dressing in a way that would suggest that the worship of God is an event with no more significance then going to a baseball game, or the beach?

Advocates of a more casual dress approach appeal to text such as 1 Samuel 16:7, “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." Or John 4, when Jesus says that true worship is done “in Spirit and in Truth.” The main point being that God cares much more about our inner attitude and heart when we come to worship then what we wear. And in fact, an excessive concern about “dressing up” may convey a hypocritical and pharisaical attitude which certainly does not please God.

Is there a way to move beyond the impasse? I think so, but that will be the subject of the next post...


[1] Bridges, Jerry.  Respectable Sins

[2] Ibid.

[3] The only specific reference to clothing in a worship service in the N.T. occurs in James 2:1-4. There the apostle rebukes the church for making distinctions between visitors who come in wearing nice clothing  and those who come in wearing poor/shabby clothing.  Apparently the church was giving special treatment to visitors who had the appearance of wealth (gold ring and fine clothing) and neglecting those who had the appearance of poverty (shabby clothing).  While this passage doesn’t directly address what one should wear to worship, it does indicate that (1) the church should hopefully be a place where people of very different socio-economic status and class gather together  to worship God (and thus we should expect some difference in clothing) and (2) showing partiality and making distinctions between people based on what they wear is (at best) not a healthy practice for a church, and could be outright sin.