Wearing Your Sunday Best: Does Decorum Make a Difference?

When a sinner goes to God’s house and pretends to pray to Him and praise Him, he displays a brazen-facedness of the worst kind! Sadly, since the day of my new birth I have…worshiped him in a slovenly manner. – Charles Spurgeon, Morning and Evening

My grandfather was of the generation that wore their ‘Sunday Best’ to Lord’s Day worship. For the farmer whose homestead nestled in the Ozark mountains, Sunday Best was a special pair of overalls reserved for that purpose. To that simple but dignified generation, it made no more sense wearing your work clothes to church than wearing your church clothes to work. To be fair, that same generation would put on a suit or dress to go to the grocery store. It was a different time.

How far we’ve come. Church advertisements regularly broadcast the casual attire of their attendees, and everything from blue jeans to pajamas are not only accepted, but celebrated, habiliments and trappings for corporate worship. One church, for example, even named itself Blue Jeans Church and advertises itself as a “church for real people” – implying, I suppose, that more formal attire is inherently less real. Or perhaps consider special Pajama-themed Sundays, like was recently held at the Lonesdale United Methodist Church in my own town of Sidney, Montana.

To be fair, maybe the discussion of church attire is one that can only be had in a broader cultural context. If you look around, you see that people are dressing more sloppily every day. There was a time not long ago when yoga pants were for yoga, sweatpants were for lounging around the house and not for the grocery store, and when athletic shorts were for, well…athletics. Cultures change. America’s hippest billionaire, Mark Zuckerberg, is known for a style that more resembles the garb of Trayvon Martin than the typical suit and tie you would expect from a Fortune 500 CEO. Mega church pastor Rick Warren is known for his dislike of shoes and preference for sandals, and ‘California Casual’ has come to mean a complete abandonment of professional expectations in a workplace dress code. Surely the dressing-down we’ve seen in evangelical churches is just an extension of the increasingly disinterest in the dress code of our culture.

And yet, it seems that the casual take-over of American culture isn’t the only causal factor for the diminishing dress code in America’s churches. Is it possible that churches have purposefully chosen to cater to the ‘customer-is-king’ attitude toward the consumers that sit in their pews (or padded stadium chairs) each Sunday?

First, we see that standards of dress within the Sunday assembly must not accent wealth and poverty, especially to give priority or privilege to those in nicer clothes.

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? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? (James 2:2-6 ESV)

Apparently, God doesn’t think much of people who err in immodesty in regards to wealth and definitely doesn’t appreciate prejudice among the body of Christ on account of displays of wealth in the choice of wardrobe. However, this passage does not serve as a prohibition against standards of dress and neither does it speak to style, manners or customs of dress required in the Lord’s Day assembly.

Let’s be clear – there’s not Biblical dress code found within the pages of the Sacred Text. However, it doesn’t mean that there’s not a theology of clothing that may guide our choices. Biblically, there may very well be some reasons why dressing “up” for corporate worship is not as terrible as seeker-friendly churches have made it out to be.

1. Dressing differently on the Lord’s Day from the other six days of the week reiterates to you and your family that the Lord’s Day is different (set apart, IE holy). So then, if your wardrobe is to reflect your special Sunday priorities, it would seem you have two options. The first is to dress down from the other six days of the week. The second is to dress up. Which do you believe most glorifies God?

2. It is common, in our culture, to ‘dress up’ on special occasions. I’ve officiated weddings in the beautiful redneck culture in which I’m perfectly at home, when even the bride wears cowboy boots. Even in those super-casual settings however, the hayseed groom wears his favorite buckle and licks back his hair. It may not be fancy, but it’s different. And it’s different because the day is special. For that reason, the wedding crowd may not be Connecticut Casual or Black-Tie Only, but they dress at least a little bit ‘better’ (for lack of a better word) than when they’re out on the ranch. One must wonder if we truly view each Lord’s Day as Resurrection Day and view each corporate worship service as a time when God makes his presence as two or three are gathered in His name if we dress no differently whatsoever than we dressed to mow our lawn the day before.

3. It’s common in our culture to see ‘dressing down’ as a sign of disrespect. Let’s be honest – we’ve all been at the funeral when the third cousin comes into the room with his sagging pants, bling-bling belt and hat on sideways. We love the kid, but man…could he not have put on a clean tshirt first? It’s a funeral, for crying out loud (or substitute wedding, graduation, anniversary dinner, etc…). Although we would be happy to see a lost sinner come into the assembly to hear the Gospel proclaimed wearing anything more substantive than dental floss or a loincloth of camel hair, this discussion isn’t about how lost people come into the assembly – but how the saved ought to dress.

There is a very real, natural, and understandable push-back to any discussion of what’s acceptable in terms of church attire. There is no possible way to institute – and no loving way to enforce – a dress code for the Sunday assembly. Clearly, this has to be a matter of common sense and Christian conscience, neither of which can be imposed by force. Also, a broad-brush standard of ‘acceptable’ doesn’t work across cultural dividing lines. Dressing ‘up’ in Montana culture may be switching from the Winter muck boots to the traditional cowboy boots. It may mean taking off the camo hunting jacket and trading it for the Carhart. For other places, it may mean trading the usual wardrobe of khakis for a pinstripe suit. And just as these standards are no doubt different between geographical places or regions, the day-to-day dress standards of individual believers even within the same church may vary greatly. For my grandfather it was Sunday overalls. For the investment banker, it may be the Sunday three-piece suit.There simply is no across-the-board standard that can be applied.

But the greatest resistance to any discussion of dress expectations for the Sunday assembly is because evangelicals are afraid of making worship all about appearances – that church become nothing but a place of pretentious, shallow lost people trying to impress one another by hiding their sinful, guilty consciences behind suits and ties. We also have a natural aversion to high-church snobbery and worthless, pointless and distracting religious traditions that embrace self-righteousness while cleaning the outside of the cup. Regarding this very understandable fear, listen to JC Ryle…

I go on to say that Evangelical Religion does not object to handsome churches, good ecclesiastical architecture, a well-ordered ceremonial, and a well-conducted service. It is not true to say that we do. We like handsome, well-arranged places of worship, when we can get them. We abhor slovenliness and disorder in God’s service, as much as any. We would have all things done ‘decently and in order.’ (1 Cor. xiv. 40.)

Ryle says that evangelicals shouldn’t bristle at a pleasing outward appearance and even says that “we abhor slovenliness.” However, listen to his forthcoming admonishment…

“But we steadily maintain that simplicity should be the grand characteristic of Christian worship. We hold that human nature is so easily led astray, and so thoroughly inclined to idolatry, that ornament in Christian worship should be used with a very sparing hand. We firmly believe that the tendency of excessive ornament, and a theatrical ceremonial, is to defeat the primary end for which worship was established, to draw away men’s minds from Christ, and to make them walk by sight and not by faith. We hold above all that the inward and spiritual character of the congregation is of far more importance than the architecture and adornments of the church. We dare not forget the great principle of Scripture, that ‘man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.’

I understand that even asking Christians to consider whether or not their Sunday dress has any significance whatsoever quickly relegates me to the unfortunate and eternal label of frothing fundamentalist. And yet, I think that Ryle is right-on. Whereas we find value in the outward appearance, we also despise excessive ornamentation and theatrical ceremony and reject such frivolities as vain tradition. Nonetheless, there are ditches on both sides of the road. It’s possible to err on the side of excessive ornamentation. It’s also possible to err on downright slovenliness.

Think about it.

Sincerely, a pastor who preaches in blue jeans and a blazer…

[Contribute by JD Hall]

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