Clothing Matters: What We Wear to Church 1
New Testament Worship
That which is special, that which is our best, that which is sacrificial: We may be tempted to think such standards made sense in the context of Israel’s ancient worship but have little to do with us. After all, none of us shows up at church on Sunday morning bearing sacrifices.
Or do we?
In the New Testament, the ancient offerings are replaced by the worshippers themselves. Worship is quite literally the act of offering ourselves to God. This was the Apostle Paul’s point when he urged us ‘to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’ (Rom. 12:1). When we gather with other believers to ‘offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name’ (Heb. 13:15), we are offering ourselves to him anew, body and all. It is precisely the sort of wholehearted offering Jesus had in mind when he said that the Father is seeking those who will worship him ‘in the Spirit and in truth’ (John 4:23–24).
In the Old Testament, the place of worship and everything about it was considered holy. Worshippers were taught to approach that ‘sacred space’ with awe and reverence. Today, God’s people, both individually and corporately, do not visit that sacred space; they constitute that sacred space. Paul instructed the Athenians that God does not live in temples made by human hands (Acts 17:24), but his point was not that God has no earthly dwelling place. God dwells in a temple made with his own hands; he dwells within his people. Their bodies have quite literally become his earthly abode (1 Cor. 3:16–17).
The question for us, then, is this: When we gather for worship, does this sacred event generate within us any similar sense of ‘awe and reverence’? As Richard Foster says, when the early believers in Acts met for worship,
they were keenly aware that the veil had been ripped in two and like Moses and Aaron they were entering the Holy of Holies. No intermediaries were needed. They were coming into the awful, glorious, gracious Presence of the living God. They gathered with anticipation, knowing that Christ was present among them and would teach them and touch them with His living power.2
Is this how we come to worship?
A perceptive observer of our contemporary church scene might be forgiven for scratching her head over such a question, wondering whether we have grown oblivious to the significance of our own gathering. How often, she might ask us, do you prepare for Sunday as if it mattered, guarding, for example, Saturday nights so as to be fresh and focused the next morning? How come our pre-service gathering so often sounds more like a bowling alley than a people meeting to offer themselves anew to their God? How is it we are we so susceptible to the lure of personality and entertainment up front, obscuring the God-centred purpose for which we have met? How prevalent is the notion that we can worship just as well at home, or on the golf course, or before a TV screen — or perhaps forfeit worship altogether due to inconvenient weather, the priority of other things, or who may be preaching that week?
I recall hearing one pastor, for example, exhorting members of his summer congregation to join their ‘no-commitment choir.’ All it requires, he said, is to show up a little early on Sunday morning. This pastor is a good man with a good church, but also with a common blind spot: he saw no problem in appealing to such low motives in his people, much less bringing God such a substandard, it-will-cost-you-nothing musical offering. Is there anything in the Scriptures to suggest that our inferior worship offerings waft toward heaven with a sweet aroma, ‘a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God?’ (Phil. 4:18)? As one contemporary observer put it, ‘Too many of us today have got it backwards: we worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship.’
What’s going on here? Could it be that our delight in the security of our standing before God — that is, that all who have ‘put on’ Christ (Gal. 3:27) stand fully accepted in him — has blinded us to a different issue: the acceptability of our worship offerings? It would be the cheapest of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’ to suppose that because we are secure in Christ, whatever we bring to God in worship, however inferior or mediocre, pleases him (Eph. 5:10).
Not just anything will do when we come before God. He is still honoured by what is holy, what is our best, what is sacrificial. The kingdom to which we have come, says the writer to the Hebrews, requires us to ‘offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe’, because ‘our “God is a consuming fire”‘ (Heb. 12:28–29, emphasis added). A blasé, casual attitude toward worship may indicate that we have failed to grasp this important point, a sign of our being more conformed to this world than so ‘transformed in our minds that by testing we are able to discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Rom. 12:2, emphasis added).
And what of our worship attire? We deceive ourselves when we breezily claim that God does not care what we wear to church. God cares about our hearts, and what we wear is often an expression of our hearts. So what does our relaxed worship attire say about us?
A bride would be insulted if we cared so little as to show up for her lovely wedding in cut-offs and sneakers. Instead, we ‘dress up’ for her wedding to express our regard for her and the significance of the event. What, then, are we saying when we see no need to treat our corporate worship with similar or even greater regard?
‘Give unto the LORD the glory due his name,’ says the psalmist; ‘worship the LORD in the beauty of his holiness’ (Psa. 29:2). Surely the ‘holiness’ of our public worship should influence how we dress for the occasion. There is nothing remotely ‘casual’ about the worship taking place in heaven, where appropriate clothing seems to matter (Rev. 7:9–12). What internal disposition are we revealing when we dress no differently for church than we do for a trip to the mall or hanging out with friends around a barbeque grill? Could it be that our casual dress, chosen merely for our own comfort and convenience (that which ‘cost me nothing’), is a reflection of an equally casual, can’t-be-bothered (‘what a nuisance this is!’) attitude toward worship itself?
Concern for Others
What about those around us? What message is my choice of clothing sending them as we gather for worship?
A few years back a championship team of women’s lacrosse players was invited to the White House for a private meeting with the President. When a group photo of the meeting went public, it created quite a stir: Several of the women in the front row were seen to be wearing flip-flops. Their defenders argued that the women should be able to wear whatever they like, that offending grown-ups is a rite of passage for the young, or that the flip-flops were less a statement of rebellion than a desire for comfort. Critics argued that wearing such informal footwear was insulting to the office of the President. Said one, ‘You would hope that when you were going to meet the commander-in-chief, it was special enough to get dressed up for.’ This debate went on for days in the blogosphere. But whatever one may think of flip-flops in the Oval Office, the greater significance of this dust-up was that it took place at all. Like it or not, those around us are constantly reading our appearance. Our clothing choices bear inevitable social implications.
Can Christians who gather for worship afford to ignore what their church attire may be saying to those around them? ‘Let each of you look not only to his own interests,’ says the apostle, ‘but also to the interests of others’ (Phil. 2:3–4, ESV). We are to ‘love one another with brotherly affection,’ outdoing one another ‘in showing honour’ (Rom. 12:10). Does our choice of clothing communicate to others that this gathering is an important occasion, thereby encouraging them to see it as important as well? Or does it send them in the opposite direction?
We all understand that the wrong clothes can distract our fellow worshippers. Elaborate, showy attire may reflect a prideful, elitist, egocentric display of wealth, status, and power (Mark 12:38; Luke 16:19; James 2:3). Or it may serve as a mask, a facade behind which lurks a very different reality (Matt. 23:27). In this way and others our choice of clothing can be sinful. But this does not render our everyday (‘common’), come-as-you-are attire ‘spiritual’ or ‘honest.’ If we care for our fellow-worshippers as we ought, we will take them into consideration as we dress for worship. We will clothe ourselves in ways that edify them and strengthen their own worship. We will attempt to avoid the nonchalant attitude that says this event is entirely routine; that it merits nothing special from me; that my only consideration in what I choose to wear is what is easiest and most convenient. Such a self-centred attitude is corrosive to a true spirit of worship. Instead, the goal in our choice of clothing should be to express to the Lord and those around us that this event matters, that I view it as a holy occasion, one which deserves our highest regard. If the first audience for our non-verbal messages is God himself, and secondarily, our fellow-worshippers, dress that best suits these first two audiences may also serve a third: outsiders who join our public worship.
Evangelistic gatherings can in many ways be designed to fit the unbelievers we are trying to reach. But this is harder to do with our corporate worship. The church must first shape its worship to honour God, a goal to which all else must be subordinate. But thankfully, watching believers do what they do can have its own evangelistic effect. When Christians are worshipping as they should, says the apostle, and ‘and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you’ (1 Cor. 14:24–25). Attire that genuinely reflects a God-honouring attitude toward worship may well contribute to a similar result.
Now We See In a Mirror
None of the above leaves us with a dress code for public worship. It certainly does not translate automatically into coats and ties for men and fancy dresses for women. Idealizing bygone eras won’t work here; the meaning of human clothing is too contextual for that. It varies too widely from place to place and time to time, and there are too many other variables to consider. We are left having to judge for ourselves what is appropriate for worship and what is not.
But all of the above should at least warn us away from the glib assumption that God does not care about what we wear to church; or that what I choose to wear for worship doesn’t matter; or that how I dress for church is a purely personal affair; or that my own convenience and comfort are all that need concern me. The truth is, one of the ways we express ourselves as human beings is by the way we dress. Wittingly or unwittingly, our clothing gives us away. God certainly does not need this expression to know our hearts. But as for the rest of us, we do indeed look on the outward appearance, even when peering into our own mirrors. In this way the clothes we choose for church may have things to tell us about our hearts that God already knows, but that we need to hear.
Perhaps the best way to think of our church attire is to place it in the context of the spiritual disciplines. As Dallas Willard says, ‘One of the greatest deceptions in the practice of the Christian religion is the idea that all that really matters is our internal feelings, ideas, beliefs, and intentions’.3 The classical spiritual disciplines — for example, prayer, fasting, service, and worship — are about bringing the internal and external together. Says Willard, we must ‘guard against the view of spirituality as something “wholly inward” or something to be kept just between the individual and God.’ The inward and the outward are not ‘two separate things, but one unified process in which those who are alive in God are caught up in their embodied, socialized totality’.4
We express this embodied totality in corporate worship through our shared symbols, rites, and rituals; through our posture and gestures as we bow, kneel, or lift our hands; through our actions when we stand or sit in unison or pour out our hearts musically in congregational song. And our clothing belongs on this list. By it we express to God and those around us what this occasion means to us. This is why, when we come to church, our clothing matters.
- Part 1 of this article can be found here.
- Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, p. 141.
- Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 152.
- Ibid., pp. 77–78.
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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