After disputes over worship music, possibly one of the most debated issues in conservative church culture is what should be worn to church. Are only suits for men and dresses for women acceptable? Are shorts too casual? In Part 1, I walked through the Bible’s storyline with special concern for its theology of clothing. Clothing testifies to the innocence lost through sin, the covering of Christ’s sacrifice for sin, and the future of God’s people who will wear gleaming white garments.
Where is the line, then? The question of “the line” actually can cut both ways. Some Christians question, How casual is too casual? If a church stops expecting men to show up in suits, then where will it end up? But “the line” can also be raised: why not tuxedos? They are even more formal than suits. Who determines that suits are what’s best to wear to Sunday? In fact, the modern suit has not been around that long!
There is no direct command about what kinds of clothes we should wear today. But the Bible does give general principles about clothing.
First, God gives a certain amount of leeway for cultures to determine dress
Scripture does not give regulations for everything. In fact, the Bible actually allows each culture to determine what is “right” for itself in a lot of areas: food and shelter come quickly to mind. Since the old covenant is terminated with the coming of Christ, the food laws no longer apply. Thus, some culture value eating shellfish, while others don’t. Neither is more right than the other, it is merely a matter of preference. In addition, one type of house is not more godly than the other.
Similarly, clothing is largely a cultural preference. Many Arab countries have a stricter view of women’s modesty than most Western countries. It doesn’t mean that women showing their calves is sinful, it is merely a preference option. So then, we should not be quick to judge other cultures for their standards of dress. What is tacky, or ugly, to us might be beautiful to another culture.
I’m pretty sure that when the apostle Paul taught in churches, he didn’t wear a suit. In fact, knowing Paul from Scripture, he probably only had one robe. It was probably ripped and torn from being beaten and pelted with stones. It probably smelled horribly from absorbing Paul’s sweat while walking along the desert roads in Palestine. That should at least give us pause when we try to mandate certain dress in our church services.
Second, God commands that men must dress like men, and women dress like women, according to Scriptural standard and cultural expectations
God forbids cross-dressing under the old covenant because God has created both “male and female” in His image (Gen. 1:27; cf. Deut. 22:5). But we must be careful not to over-interpret the verses, because in the Ancient Near East, both men and women wore very similar clothes: long robes which looked like dresses! So yes, in our American culture which is trending away from the differentiation of the sexes, men must dress like men and women must dress like women. But this does not necessarily mean that women cannot wear pants just because men wear pants. Women can wear the same kinds of clothing as men (t-shirts, pants, shorts), but they must be worn in a feminine way.
Third, God commands modesty in dress
Yet, everything is not relative in terms of dress. God commands modesty (1 Tim. 2:9). I would say that two senses of the term modesty are in play. The first sense means that we keep all the primarily sexually stimulating areas of the body covered. Second, modesty has the sense of “well-ordered, discreet, not drawing attention to oneself.” Both Paul and Peter exhort women to stay away from flashy outward appearances:
“I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as it proper for women making a claim to godliness” (1 Tim. 2:9-10)
“Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart” (1 Pet. 3:2).
The same principle applies to men as well. Men must not dress in a way which draws attention to themselves. Therefore, a man could be too flashy when wearing a suit, if he wears it in a way in which to draw attention to himself! The issue is modesty, not necessarily the types of clothes someone wears.
Fourth, God ALWAYS values heart worship over external appearances
A person in a suit who comes to church but doesn’t really worship God is an abomination. God hates that kind of worship. Jesus criticized the religious leaders of His day of having everything together on the outside, presuming the proper clothing too (cf. Matt. 23:5), and yet not having a true heart of worship:
You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me.” (Matt. 15:7)
Remember, Israel selected her first king based upon outward appearances (1 Sam. 9:2, 10:23-24). Saul did not work out too well. It was David, the one with the unassuming outward appearance but who was a man after God’s own heart, who was God’s true selection as king over Israel (1 Sam. 13:14).
Clothing does matter a little bit, for how you dress does say a little something about you. Just a little. Better to be like the tax collector who cried out to God “have mercy on me, a sinner!” than a well-dressed Pharisee.
So, what should you wear to church?
- It should be culturally appropriate—both to your wider culture and church culture
- It should be appropriate dress for your gender
- It should be modest—keeping your “private areas” private, as well as not drawing attention to yourself
- Most importantly, show up with a heart prepared for worship
Can someone in short, a t-shirt, and flip-flops meet all those requirements? I would say, yes.