Clothing Matters: What We Wear to Church 
What we put on may be more important than we think. The so-called ‘worship wars’ of recent years may have produced a winner. Many congregations remain divided between traditional and contemporary styles, but in most places the contemporary appears to have gained the upper hand.
What’s more, our worship services have become increasingly relaxed and informal affairs. You can see it in what we wear. Church for today’s worshippers is not a dress-up event. Whatever is clean and comfortable seems sufficient. Christian students in particular have been taught by their seniors – or has it been the reverse? – that when it comes to church, attire doesn’t much matter. They understand there is nothing particularly spiritual about a dress or a coat and tie. God is scarcely impressed by such things. ‘People look at the outward appearance,’ we are reminded, ‘but the LORD looks at the heart’ (1 Sam. 16:7).
I do not intend to wade into the broader debate over worship styles; that’s a different discussion . . . But I do wish to raise a question about this last notion: namely, that when it comes to public worship, our clothing doesn’t matter. This common assumption, it seems to me, deserves more scrutiny than it typically receives.
Over the last several generations, American attire in general has lurched dramatically toward the informal. A feature that quickly dates an old photograph, for instance, is the men wearing fedoras; most today wouldn’t know where to find one. Those who are old enough can remember when travellers got spiffed up to board an airplane. Today’s travellers think nothing of flying in duds they might wear to the gym. Or consider the rise of the term ‘business casual.’ In most parts of the country, though not all, even the corporate setting has grown less formal.
These changes are part of a broad shift toward the convenient and comfortable. It’s a shift we see on display every week in our worship services. In many churches casual wear is de rigueur. It’s easy to imagine how one might look over-dressed there, but less easy, short of immodesty, to imagine being under-dressed. Jeans or shorts, tee-shirts or tank tops, flip-flops or sandals: these draw scarcely any attention, while full dresses or a suit and tie appear strangely out of place. Relaxed, even rumpled informality is in; suiting up in our ‘Sunday best’ is out. The question I want to raise here is, What should we make of this shift in worship attire?
Many seem convinced it’s a good thing, because, again, it’s the heart that counts. Yet precisely for this reason – because it’s the heart that counts – I want to suggest that what we wear in our public worship may matter more than we think. To grasp this connection, let us draw on some helpful insights from the field of communication.
Verbal and Nonverbal
Verbal behaviour refers to all those ways we use language to communicate: speaking, writing, sign language, etc. Nonverbal behaviour focuses on all those ways we communicate without words: facial expression, gesture, posture, eye behaviour, vocal inflection (‘paralanguage’), our use of space (‘proxemics’), or touch behaviour. Some experts estimate that in our everyday relationships only a small percentage of what we communicate is conveyed via verbal channels. The rest is conveyed nonverbally.
Of special interest here is that avenue of nonverbal communication we will call physical appearance and dress. Here are seven observations drawn from the literature on this aspect of our human interaction:
1. The wearing of clothing is exclusively a human characteristic. We share many attributes with other creatures, but the inclination to clothe ourselves is not one of them. Those who know the account of Adam and Eve will understand why this is so. There is a moral and even spiritual dimension to human clothing.
2. Our clothes serve a variety of practical, social, and cultural functions. Protection and modesty spring first to mind, but our clothes do far more. We sometimes dress to conceal or deceive. More often our clothes serve to reveal. We use clothing for decoration, for sexual attraction, for self-expression and self-assertion. By our attire we display our gender, our religion, our occupation, our social position, or causes with which we identify (e.g., sports jerseys). Our apparel may express our group membership or our role in society (e.g., company or police uniforms). Many dress to impress, while others choose the reverse: they express their rejection by intentionally flouting accepted clothing norms.
3. Our clothing is one of our most elemental forms of communication. Long before our voice is heard, our clothes are transmitting multiple messages. From our attire, others immediately read not only such things as our sex, age, national identity, socio-economic status, and social position, but also our mood, our attitudes, our personality, our interests, and our values.
4. We constantly make judgments about one another on the basis of clothing. Common wisdom has it that you can’t judge a book by its cover. But this is only partly true; we regularly read one another’s covering. What’s more, we’re better at it than we think. Research suggests that if you stand someone before an audience of strangers and ask them to draw inferences merely on the basis of what they see, the audience’s inferences will tend toward consensus, and those inferences will tend to be more or less accurate. Why should this be? We spend our lives making judgments based on appearance and then testing those judgments in our subsequent relationships. In this way, we become rather adept at the process. Judgments based on appearance are scarcely infallible, of course, and we are wise to hold them tentatively. But it’s almost impossible to avoid making them in the first place.
5. Because our clothing is one of the fundamental ways we communicate with others, what we wear is never a purely personal matter. Our attire exerts a social influence on those around us. One famous study, for example, discovered that unwitting subjects were significantly more willing to jaywalk when following individuals wearing ‘high status’ clothing than when following individuals wearing ‘low status’ clothing. What we wear can shape patterns of communication around us, depending on what messages people are picking up. Consider, for example, the varied cues we send by the way we dress: ‘I want people to notice me.’ ‘I’m very confident.’ ‘I want to hide.’ ‘I care only about comfort.’ ‘I want to look seductive.’ ‘I repudiate you and your expectations.’
6. How we dress not only affects others; it also affects us. This dynamic is often circular: how we feel influences the clothes we put on, and the clothes we put on in turn shape how we feel. Changes of clothes can generate a change of mood; the soldier feels different in his uniform than he does in street clothes. In some settings our choice of attire can make or break us. If we like the way we look for a job interview, for instance, it will tend to strengthen our confidence. We feel better about our chances, as reflected in improved posture, more fluent speech, more dynamic gestures. On the other hand, inappropriate dress can sap our confidence. We have all experienced the uncomfortable effects of feeling under-dressed in a particular social setting.
7. Much of the social meaning of our clothing is contextual. The appropriateness of our dress is often dictated by the situation. Dress that would send a given message in one setting might send a very different message in another. Picture, for example, a young woman dressed in hiking boots, sweatshirt, and shorts. Around a campfire the message might be, merely, ‘I’m ready for the trail.’ Choosing that same outfit for her aunt’s funeral would say something rather different. Regional variations and issues of local dress loom large. Times change, values change, situations change; what was proper ten years ago may not be proper today, or vice versa.
All of the above is why we should not conclude too quickly that because God looks on the heart, what we wear to church doesn’t matter. Our internal and external states cannot be so easily disentangled. The fact is, when it comes to how we clothe ourselves, our external appearance is often an expression of our internal state. Thus our worship attire may matter more than we think.
The Meaning of Worship
What is worship, after all? It’s the act of acknowledging and praising God as God; indeed, as our God. It is the adoring response of grateful creatures to their Maker. In worship we come before God with awe and reverence, focusing on him in loving contemplation, celebrating him for who he is and what he has done. We willingly bow before him in surrender, delighting in the privilege of extolling his worthiness. In worship we join our small voices with the celestial choirs in a grand chorus magnifying the Creator and declaring his excellencies: his purity, his power, his beauty, his grace, his mercy, his love.
From the beginning, God has called his people to public worship. It’s everywhere in the Bible, and with good reason: our corporate worship pleases God. What’s more, we need it as well. Everyone who has ever built a campfire knows how quickly lone embers cool and die. But gather those embers and they create a furnace effect that burns hot. Corporate worship is designed to generate that furnace effect in God’s people. Those around us warm our spirits, encourage our faith, and hold us up when we’re faltering. As Martin Luther famously put it, ‘At home, in my own house, there is no warmth or vigour in me, but in the church when the multitude is gathered together, a fire is kindled in my heart and it breaks its way through.’
‘Do not neglect the gathering of yourselves together,’ says the writer to the Hebrews (10:25). We come to faith as individuals, but Christ places us instantly into his body, and we require that body for the purposes of worship. There are aspects of worship we cannot fulfil alone. The Lord’s table, for example, belongs to the community; celebrate it when you ‘come together,’ says the apostle (1 Cor. 11:18, 33). So also baptism, corporate prayer, the public reading of Scripture, the teaching of Scripture, the corporate confession of sin: all these and more are designed for corporate worship.
So what sort of clothing might befit such an exalted occasion? Observers in the gallery of the United States Supreme Court are forbidden to wear [certain kinds of] hats. Out of respect for the importance of what’s taking place there, the Court’s firm rule for visitors is, ‘Inappropriate clothing may not be worn.’ If this is so for a merely human institution, what might be suitable attire for God-honouring worship? Readers will be relieved that I have no dress code to propose. Yet the Scriptures do suggest a few pointers. And each of them is concerned, ultimately, with the heart.
The first is derived from God’s instructions regarding holiness. The core idea of holiness in both the Old and New Testaments is ‘set-apartness.’ Whether it be food, days, vestments, utensils, places, offerings, or God’s people themselves, to be holy is to be peculiar, dedicated to the Lord. To sanctify something is to set it apart as special for God. The ‘unholy’ is thus not only what is profane but also what is ordinary or ‘common.’ God is holy and he desires his people to be holy. Everything we offer him is to be marked by its holiness. He expects us to demonstrate in every aspect of our relationship to him the special regard he deserves.
A second consideration is the biblical idea of ‘the firstfruits.’ As Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke says, this ‘does not refer to any specific type of thing placed on the altar; rather it is a description of the quality of the offering: the choicest of the fruits, the firstborn’.1 God demands that we give him our best. The people of Malachi’s day dishonoured the Lord by bringing him inferior worship offerings. They sniffed at God’s expectations and said, ‘What a nuisance this is’ (Mal. 1:13). Not surprisingly, God was incensed by their contemptuous, ‘anything will do’ attitude toward worship. ‘Cursed is the cheat,’ he warned them, who has a suitable sacrifice but offers up something less. God requires our best in everything we bring him.
A third consideration is costliness. This has nothing to do with dollar amounts. The impoverished widow offered the Lord a tiny sum, but in Christ’s estimation it amounted to ‘more . . . than all the others’ (Mark 12:41—44). The point here, rather, is our willingness to expend ourselves sacrificially for the Lord’s sake. This spirit of sacrifice was famously modelled by King David when he approached Araunah about purchasing his threshing floor as a place of worship (the future site of Solomon’s temple, as it turned out). Araunah offered to donate not only the land but also his sledges and yokes for the wood and his oxen for sacrifices. But the king refused his gift. David would not offer to the Lord, he said, that which ‘cost me nothing’ (2 Sam. 24:24). Instead, he bought the land at full price and then dedicated it to the Lord. It was a costly gift, one that proved acceptable to God.
- Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, p. 466.
Editor’s Note: This article was first printed in Christianity Today and posted on the web in January 2012. The article bears the copyright © 2012 Christianity Today, but the author, Dr. Duane Litfin, has given permission to reprint it. Dr. Litfin has taught at a number of universities and served for 17 years as president of Wheaton College until 2010, when he was succeeded by Dr. Philip Ryken, formerly senior pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA.
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