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Church Clothes

by Aaron

What is the proper attire for worship? That question has caused a great deal of strife among the Lord’s people. Some brethren believe that Christians should wear formal clothing to the assembly, and that casual dress is inappropriate and disrespectful. Other brethren, however, argue that God is not concerned with outer adornment. They don’t see anything particularly spiritual about wearing a dress or suit to services. Plus, they say, casual clothes are more relatable to the community. So, which is it?


There is no particular "style of clothing" mandated in Scripture. It just says to dress modestly, and according to our gender. Therefore, this issue falls into the realm of personal judgment and should be approached with a Romans 14 mindset. In matters pertaining to opinion, Paul wrote, "Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls" (Romans 14:4).


We should not chide or divide over this issue. Let each person be persuaded in his own mind, without passing judgment on others. This is an area where there can be "unity in diversity."


For the first 15 years of my ministry, I sided strongly with the first group. I believed that Christians should wear formal clothing to the assembly. I applauded women who wore dresses and men who wore suits, and I looked down on brethren who were not in their finest attire. To me, dressing up proved that the person took worship seriously and was giving God their best. However, my attitude on this issue has changed. Here's why.




I was surprised to learn that dressing formally for worship is a fairly recent practice. As urban society advanced, it became trendy for common people to wear fine clothing to social events of every kind. This naturally included church services.


“Dressing up for church became a popular practice in the first half of the nineteenth century, first in England, then in northern Europe and America, as a consequence of the industrial revolution and the emergence of the middle class… dressing up for worship resulted, not from a theological teaching, but from the influence of Victorian culture on worshiping communities” (The Origin of Dressing Up for Church, article).


Many religious leaders in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries railed against wearing fancy clothing to church services. They believed that Christians should wear plain and humble attire, including John Wesley.


“John Wesley frequently wrote and spoke out against fine adornment, saying that gold and costly apparel were sinful. ‘Let your dress be cheap, as well as plain,’ Wesley taught… In the early days of Methodist class meetings, people who showed up dressed in fine or expensive apparel would be turned away, denied admittance” (ibid).


Alexander Campbell also spoke against dressing up for church services in an 1839 article.


“We frequent the houses of prayer and the places of worship with all our ‘finery’ upon us, as though our synagogues were theatres of fashion — and the ‘Ladies’ Book,’ rather than the New Testament, was the guide of our devotions… Kings and Prophets, the saints and martyrs of other times, were oftener seen in sackcloth and ashes than in the gaudy fashions of a flippant and irreverent age. Their sense of propriety forbade that soul and body should disagree — that the outward man should betray the inward, and falsify the state of mind. The Jews’ religion taught men congruity, and especially that the exterior attire should always correspond with the inward plainness and simplicity of the heart” (Worshipping Assemblies, No. 1: The Appearance of Things, article).


Campbell encouraged his reader to “dress himself according to the Christian mirror, in the plainest and most unassuming garb.” That is the very opposite admonition of many brethren today!


This issue is a perfect example of being a “product of our environment.” If we lived several centuries ago, those who insist that brethren wear fine clothing would probably be adamantly opposed to it. Like the preachers of that time, they would extol the virtues of plain and humble attire.




Another reason my attitude has changed is more personal. I realized that I was putting far too much emphasis on outer adornment. While this is certainly not true everywhere, it became competitive among some brethren where I worshipped. We tried to outdo one another in our dress. Whether it was vests, bowties, cufflinks, belt buckles, pocket squares, alligator boots, or flamboyant-colored suit coats, we developed an unspoken fashion competition. Our motivation was no different than the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. Jesus rebuked them saying, "They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long" (Matthew 23:5).


Again, this is not the case with most brethren. They dress up to give God the honor and respect He deserves. However, it did evolve into a fashion competition with us. We were doing it "to be seen by others."




I looked for passages in the New Testament that specifically address attire for worship. The only two I could think of were 1 Timothy 2:9-10 and James 2:1-7. The first passage says that women are not to overdress in the assembly, and the second says not to judge people based on what they wear in the assembly. I also remembered that Jesus mocked the Pharisees for their elegant attire. He said, “They like to walk around wearing fancy clothes” (Mark 12:38, NCV).


Early churches were quite casual. They met on riversides and in private residences. They sat around dinner tables or reclined in windowsills. They referred to God as their “Abba,” which is an informal Aramaic word for “father.” The English equivalent is “daddy” or “papa.” Moreover, many of the first Christians were slaves who had a hard time even getting to services. Hence, you do not get the vibe they were really concerned with clothing.




Whether we like it or not, this generation has moved away from many things held dear by traditionalists — wooden pews, stained glass windows, wearing suits to services, etc. In fact, dressing down extends beyond the religious realm. “Business casual” is now the norm in most parts of the country, even in corporate settings. Tech tycoons like Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, often wear T-shirts and blue jeans during important presentations. Rather than trying to swim against this cultural current, perhaps churches would be wise to focus their energy on more important issues.


The majority of young people are "turned off" by preachers in stiff-looking suits. They want a person they can relate to and feel comfortable around. Rather than resist that fact, I have tried to accommodate it. As Paul wrote, "I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some" (1 Corinthians 9:22, NCV).  


This is not to say that we should approach worship flippantly. God is to be revered in holiness. Whether we are in formal attire or casual clothing, our hearts must come ready to adore, honor, magnify, and praise Him. I hope this helps.

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