Pastor John, hello. We’re recording this episode from our homes amid a pandemic shutdown of our cities and states. Neither of us has gathered with our local churches for weeks now, and this episode is scheduled to launch in early May. We have a question about church dress code. And neither of us knows if, by the time this episode launches, we will still be quarantined or meeting in person on Sundays. In any case, churches in this country will eventually reunite. And to prep for that meeting, we have a question from John, a listener in South Carolina.
“Pastor John, hello! When we join in corporate worship and gather in God’s house, should we dress in our best clothes? I tend to say yes. The world seems to dominate our choices in too many ways in our worship — music, building styles, flippancy, etc. Under the old covenant, Moses was clear that priests should wear ‘holy garments’ that were elaborate (Exodus 28:4). In entering the presence of God through Christ, it seems to me the modern church has settled for ‘casual Friday’ — a dress code from the corporate world. Do you know of any Scriptures in the New Testament that address appropriate attire for church?”
Yes, but maybe not in the way you think. But let me set it up: whether you dress to kill on Sunday morning (or dress to kill those who dress to kill); or whether you close your eyes earnestly while singing the doxology or casually sip your latte while singing “Holy, Holy, Holy”; or whether you sit with respectful posture or slouch with indifference; or whether you keep your hands to yourself or rub the back of your boyfriend’s neck while the pastor pours out his heart; or whether you disdain a shabby visitor or rejoice that they are welcome — all these things (and many more) are shaped and guided by your vision of what God is like in this service and what is at stake here, what you believe should be happening here.
So, let me lift up some biblical descriptions of God and his ways. I think, if they came to us with appropriate weight and wonder and joy and awe, we would discern more clearly how to dress and act in worship services, corporate worship. In other words, I think tinkering externally with how we dress does not come close to the heart of the matter that plagues the church today. The problems are far deeper than that. Certain kinds of behaviors and clothing are simply symptomatic of views of God and worship and ourselves that are, at best, lopsided, or worse, unbiblical. Here they are.
1. Understand God as transcendent and immanent.
Let our demeanor and dress reflect the transcendence and immanence of God — the majesty and the intimacy of God.
Thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit.” (Isaiah 57:15)
So I would ask, Has the swing — say, in the last forty years — from formality in church to casualness in church captured a mature balance between transcendence and immanence? I think the answer to that is no, by the way. And that’s not fair because I don’t mean to paint with a big brush. For many churches I would say no, and I would just ask everyone who’s listening to consider for themselves and their church, especially pastors, What about my church? Don’t point your finger at others.
2. Reflect the kindness and the severity of God.
Let our demeanor and dress reflect the severity and kindness of God: “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off” (Romans 11:22).
Now, God is not to be trifled with. He is not mocked. He is more severe and more kind than we can imagine. And there is a demeanor that flows from a sober experience of the mingling of these two realities, especially as we come in to worship face to face corporately with this God.
3. Express both gratefulness and reverence.
Let our demeanor and dress be shaped by the glad gratefulness and serious reverence that come from the firmness of the kingdom and the fire of God’s holiness. “Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28–29).
Acceptable worship will have a strong taste of reverence and awe. This is missing in many churches, and it affects not only the kind of clothing we wear, but the kind of souls we become.
4. Pursue humility, not self-exaltation.
Let our demeanor and dress reflect the biblical call to self-humbling rather than self-exaltation. “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
Now, that’s of course to be true of all Christians all the time, everywhere, but I’m arguing especially in corporate worship. Let every man and every woman think, as he or she dresses Sunday morning, something like this: “I want to be totally non-distracting in my presence in worship today. I will not, as a man or a woman, try to stand out — not by style, not by expense, not by cleverness, not by offensiveness, not by sexiness, not by what I reveal or how tight my clothing is, not by how elegant or trendy my hair is, not by how perfectly coordinated my colors are, not by how free from taboos I am, not by how solemn I am. My aim will be to dress and act in a way that simply does not attract or distract from what should be happening here.” That’s my interpretation of “humble yourself”: get out of the way and dress to be undistracting.
5. Prepare your heart to embrace all people.
Let our demeanor and dress reflect the joyful readiness to embrace all comers who may not be able to dress the way we would like to or the way we would like them to. James 2:1–4 hits this pretty head on.
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Now, the alternative to this judgmental partiality is not something as superficial as everybody dressing in shabby clothes. That’s ridiculous. This is a matter of the heart. It may be that the richest woman in the church, who dresses in very nice clothing, will be the quickest to embrace the poor person in shabby clothes who walks in on Sunday morning. Her heart may be totally right, while the cool, dressed-down clique doesn’t pay any attention at all. It’s not a matter of the clothing at that point; it’s a matter of the heart.
6. Aim for what is most fitting before God.
Let our demeanor and dress reflect the biblical truth that many things in life, including worship life, are decided not by what is commanded or forbidden biblically, but by what is fitting and proper biblically.
When the father in the parable of the prodigal son tried to entreat his elder son to join the feast, he didn’t say, “Get in here. It’s my command, for goodness’ sake. I’m your dad.” He said, “Son . . . it was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:31–32). If the only criterion you are using right now in deciding how you act and dress in corporate worship is that you believe God is gracious and accepts us just as we are, then you have a hold of something wonderful — you do. And it’s lopsided and needs supplementing with more truth.
Let me illustrate, and I’ll close with this illustration. If you’re married to the most wonderful woman — the most patient, most kind, most forgiving, most gracious woman in the world — who loves you as you are and accepts you as you are, and you show up on your twenty-fifth wedding anniversary celebration at a nice restaurant, where she has gone ahead of you because you’ve been at work and she has made some nice plans for you, and you show up at this restaurant in a T-shirt and tennis shorts because you’ve just come straight from the tennis court, she will accept you and she will love you. That’s the kind of woman she is. And you will have not done well because that was unfitting.
So, I end where I began. All these things and many more are shaped and guided by your vision — our vision — of what God is like and what you believe should be happening in this service. What is fitting before this God?