By Robert Hampshire, Crosswalk.com
"You're wearing that to church?"
Children and teenagers across the country have heard that question asked of them countless times. That is because one of the most common stereotypes about the church is that you are supposed to dress nicely or at least dress a certain way. We even have a phrase for it: wear your "Sunday best."
But does the Bible say anything about our church clothing? And if not, where did this idea come from?
Probably the most common reason why churchgoers dress a certain way is because of tradition. Their parents did it, and their grandparents did it, and so on.
In this case, it is common for no one to really know why they wear certain clothes (such as a suit and tie for men and dresses or skirts for women); they just do it because that is what they have always done.
The problem with this approach is that it is shallow and superficial, and anyone that breaks the tradition is seen as a rebel — even if their heart is in the right place, they are new and have never been taught about the tradition, or they do not own the “right” clothes.
In many churches, the tradition of wearing certain types of clothes to worship services is an unspoken expectation — or it is at least unspoken until someone breaks the tradition and others call them out or talk about them.
Another reason for a certain dress code for a church service is because of culture. For example, the cultural rules of a church might be a three-piece suit, "business-casual" with slacks and an oxford shirt, a robe with certain colors and patterns, biker garb, a floor-length dress with a bonnet, or another specific style.
Cultural standards of dress for church services are found all across the world, and they often coincide with the normal standards of dress and appearance in specific cultures, which makes complete sense.
For example, if women in a certain culture always wear dresses when they are out in public, then it makes complete sense that they would continue that same trend when attending a church service (because it is out in public).
However, the confusion and even frustration for someone (especially someone younger) comes when a church has a much different set of cultural expectations when “at church” than during the rest of life.
Also, if a church is not careful, though, this cultural reason can easily turn into pride as one attendee tries to out-dress, out-style, or out-accessorize another attendee.
Another reason why some people think that Christians should “dress up" for a church service is because of their understanding of Scripture.
It has been a common approach for many years to look at the ornate dress code of priests in the Old Testament, especially when they entered the tabernacle (such as in passages like Exodus 28), and then come up with a doctrine for their church that requires everyone or at least the up-front leaders to wear extra nice or unique clothing.
Because of this, some churches might spend a lot of money on buying their pastor designer suits, expensive shoes, and unique robes.
The problem with this reason, however, is that making a modern application of an Old Testament law like this is out-of-context and eisegetical (meaning we are applying our own meaning to a text) because we no longer worship in a tabernacle or temple, because of what Jesus did for us we are all priests before God (1 Peter 2:9), and there was no precedent set by Jesus or the apostles to dress in any certain kind of way.
In fact, it seems like Jesus normally dressed down to the point that he never stood out in a crowd because of what he was wearing.
A final reason why people dress up or dress a certain way for church services is respect. Depending on who you ask, it may be respect for the church building (in the same way that someone might be quiet in a library or take their shoes off when entering a home) or respect for God.
However, while this reasoning of respect might be noble and come from a heart wanting to obey, the church building is just a building since the actual church is the people that gather within it.
Of course, someone might say that, for example, they respect what the building stands for, which probably takes us back to the aforementioned reasons of Scripture, culture, or tradition.
Furthermore, if our desire is to respect God, then we must respect what he has clearly stated in his Word that his focus is on the heart of men and women, not the exterior or physical dress. God told the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:7 that "the LORD sees not as man sees... the LORD looks on the heart" (ESV).
Instead, many times someone dresses a certain way to a church service is because of what others think, which can either be a very bad reason or a good reason. Let me explain.
In the same passage where God told Samuel that he looked at the heart, he also explained that "man looks on the outward appearance." This is no surprise, and it is why this whole issue of dress leads to the tensions between pride versus humility, standing out versus blending in, and tradition versus rebellion that we just looked at.
And the point here is not to just dress how other people want or expect you to dress but to develop an environment in our churches where everyone respects each other to the point that no one dresses to offend or distract others.
We get a great picture of this mentality from Paul's letter to the Corinthians. He told the Christians in Corinth (referring to a separate issue) to take great care that our "rights" or freedoms do not "somehow become a stumbling block to the weak."
Because if we are not careful with this, we will sin not just against our brother or sister but "against Christ" (1 Corinthians 8:1-12).
This idea of respect is also why Paul tells his understudy, Timothy, to instruct the women in his church to dress not with "braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire" and instead wear "respectable apparel" and dress with "modesty and self-control" and put the emphasis on "good works" instead of good clothes (1 Timothy 2:9–10).
Respecting others might mean that in some settings, men wear jeans and a t-shirt, and in other settings, they wear dress pants and a sport coat. Or it might mean that women wear a dress with their hair up or normal pants and a blouse with their hair down.
Respecting others also means that we begin to care less about the style, color, and fabric of what we wear and instead care more about not being a distraction to others, not showing off our wealth, and not making others uncomfortable by dressing immodestly or sloppily.
So, does God care about what we wear to church? Yes — not because it affects him but because it affects his other children.
Practically speaking, if we are showing off too much skin or wear overly-tight clothing to catch others' attention, if we wear expensive clothing to get people to think more of us, if we wear dirty clothing that others can smell, if we wear overly loose or sloppy clothing that catches on things, or if we wear hats with slogans intended to offend others or tall hats that block peoples' view, then we might be guilty of disrespecting and not caring for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Respecting others in this way means that we think deeply about why we wear what we wear as well as why we care about what others wear.
And this is not just about what we wear when we gather for a worship service or a small group study, but about what we do every day of our lives. As Paul wrote to the Church in 1 Corinthians 10:31, "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (ESV).
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Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, church planter, and now Pastor of Worship and Discipleship at Cheraw First Baptist Church in South Carolina. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking, and his YouTube channel. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.