My parents have some of those photos from the 1970s where my brother and I are dressed up in super-fly J.C.Penney leisure suits for Easter Sunday. It’s one of those pictures where you thought your outfit was really dope … But 40 years later you look like a dope from Awkward Family Photos. Here’s a sample:
Before you laugh too hard, I bet you have some of these awesome photos back in the dark recesses of your parent’s closet too. And I’m not above calling your parents to get my hands on them.
I grew up believing that what you wore to church matters. For me, it really didn’t come from my parents … It came from my church culture where the motto about clothing was “give God your best” or “wear your Sunday best.” And that meant occasionally rocking out a baby blue leisure suit. While the church where I grew up wasn’t the most conservative one of the block, there was still a dominant perception that what you wore to church mattered. The church choir wore those hot unisex choir robes … The pastor wore the really itchy looking wool suit (even in the summertime) … Even the musicians on stage wore jackets and ties. It was a far cry from the modern hipster landscape of contemporary worship leaders wearing graphic t-shirts, Rob Bell glasses, well-worn jeans, flip-flops and white belts.
If you look at photos from the 1950s, you realize that it wasn’t too long ago that the philosophy of “Sunday best” dominated our churches. Most states had “Blue Laws” that prohibited stores from opening on Sundays, so that entire families could go worship in their local churches together. Mothers would spend their Saturdays preparing elaborate meals for both Saturday and Sunday. Men and boys wore heavy suit jackets and stylish hats and sweat profusely through long worship services without air conditioning. Ladies were decked out in their finest dresses, high heels, hats and gloves. Sunday worship was the center of attention … Not Sunday football.
Today, the only place closed on Sunday is Chic-Fil-A, and I’ll admit that I’ve absentmindedly driven to a Chic-Fil-A after Sunday worship and then felt like a complete idiot. And I wouldn’t even have the foggiest idea where to buy a fedora for church.
In the 1990s, the combination of “worship wars” and the increasing acceptance of the “business casual” dress code in most workplaces effectively killed the 1950s “Sunday best” approach to church attire. Some churches made this effort an intentional move to appear culturally relevant. Other churches unintentionally changed their dress code when their membership shifted to a younger population. The suits simply died out when the population that revered them did. Middle aged pastors are now wearing untucked graphic t-shirts, jeans and horn rimmed glasses to blend in with the casual church trend. Even at funerals and weddings, I’ve noticed that the younger generation is wearing more “business casual” and dramatically fewer suits and ties.
Despite the cultural shift away from “Sunday best,” there are still lingering hints of this approach in most church-going households. Don’t believe me? Just look in your closet. Think about all of the different categories of clothes in your closet. There’s the “bum-around” clothes: The sweatpants and comfortable t-shirt that you wear on a lazy Saturday morning while lounging on the couch while catching up on Shark Week. There’s your pajamas: The comfortable outfit that you wear to bed and the occasional late night trip to Wal-Mart to pick up a prescription. And then there’s the “church” clothes: The one suit hanging in the back of our closets that we singularly reserve for church on Sundays. Not to mention work clothes/uniforms, school clothes/uniforms or the million other occasions that our wives consider. The “bum-around” clothes are not for church and vice versa. Our segregation of clothing betrays our lingering belief that you can’t just wear any old thing to church.
And there are other inklings of our lingering belief that what you wear to church matters:
- Have you ever told your child or grandchild: “That’s not appropriate to wear in church?”
- Have you ever had to explain the difference between “good” jeans and play jeans?
- Or have you ever had to explain to a teenager why a tank top might be appropriate to wear to church on Wednesday night but not on Sunday morning?
- Have you ever worn a jacket or sweater to cover-up an outfit that you would normally wear outside of church without said cover-up?
- What about the afore-mentioned “special” outfit for Easter or Christmas?
In these cases, our actions seem to indicate that we DO still hold on to a lingering conviction that what we wear to church really does matter. In this manner, we all seem to be guilty of holding tighter to the traditions of man over the commands of God (Mark 7:8). If we were to truly admit it, most Christians remain confused about whether church clothes really matter or not.
Based on this confusion, let’s take a look at what the Bible actually says about clothing:
- Be Modest: In 1 Timothy 2:9-10, the apostle Paul essentially tells ladies to keep their junk inside the trunk. The actual passage states: “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.” More or less, he’s telling the ladies not to dress like a prostitute, which is something I’ve repeatedly overheard shotgun-wielding fathers tell their teenage girls when I worked in youth ministry. In terms of clothing, we should consider whether that outfit (or lack of one) will draw eyes and attention away from Christ. The first thing that you should notice about a woman is the size of her good works for the sake of Gospel. Of course, the guiding principle would apply to men as well: Don’t dress like a stripper from Magic Mike. Here’s the key question: Are you boasting in Christ alone or in how good you (think you) look?
- Don’t Be Vain: You’re so vain … You probably think this verse is about you: “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:3-4). In similar force to 1 Timothy 2:9-10, the apostle Peter urges restraint in dress to avoid vanity. God places more value in our inner beauty than our external adornment. Dressing purely to impress others should be eschewed. Here’s the key question: Are you dressing to make yourself the center of attention? Or are you allowing Christ to be the center of worship and adoration?
- Don’t Show Partiality: James 2:1-4 conveys a horrific church situation where the well-dressed wealthy were given prized front row seats in worship and the poor were hidden from sight. Imagine a church that was utterly embarrassed by how their poor worshippers dressed … Or a church that was starstruck the caliber of jewelry and golden rings being worn by the rich. Sadly, I’ve attended that type of church. I’ve seen many churches grumble and complain that a non-believer wore a ragged beer t-shirt and hole-filled jeans to church instead of welcome and share the Gospel with that non-believer. We must remember that there is no favoritism in “love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8). Even if someone wears dingy, decrepit clothing unworthy of even Goodwill, that person is still loved and valued by our Savior (1 Timothy 2:4). Thus, we must love and value them as Christ does instead of treating them as an embarrassment or a burden.
Of course, we can’t do a blog on clothing without addressing the bizarre legalistic quagmire of Deuteronomy 22:5: “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.” While the passage deems cross-dressing to be a sin (sorry Monty Python fans), legalistic Christians take the passage one step further by arguing that women cannot wear pants because – you know – pants are a dude thing. The problem with this legalistic interpretation is that the definition of menswear is extraordinarily culturally constrained. Case in point: Women have been wearing pants in the United States ever since actresses like Marlene Deitrich and Katherine Hepburn scandalously wore them in movies in the 1930s. In 2013, no one sees a woman in khakis walking down the street and says: “Hey! She’s a cross-dresser!” The main point is that God created gender, God deemed gender good and gender should be celebrated. But gender appropriate clothing varies based on time, location and culture. Good luck telling the ginormous Scotsman wearing the kilt that he’s a cross-dresser.
Above all things, believers must remember that the heart truly matters to God. Consider God’s words to the prophet Samuel as he was sent out to anoint a king: “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). The biggest problem with the “Sunday best” philosophy of clothing is the belief that God is somehow pleased with our sacrifices of clothing. This is not true. We cannot please God with any of our works – including how we dress. What good is wearing the finest suit possible if it merely covers up a corrupt heart that refuses to bow down to the true and living God? God values our broken and repentant hearts – not the finery of our clothing and jewelry (Joel 2:13).
Unfortunately, I’ve frequently heard this counter-argument in favor of “Sunday best”: If you’re going to dress well to visit the President of the United States, then certainly you would dress well for the Creator of the Universe. Well, the President hasn’t seen you naked … But God has. That’s right: God has seen you naked. The President doesn’t know the character of your heart … But God does. God knows our inner most thoughts … He knows ever action before we even take a step. He knows the number of hairs on our heads … He knows our name. God knows us: Baggage, hang-ups, problems, issues and everything. He’s seen us at our darkest and our worst and still loves us so. He witnesses our every bitter and angry tantrum and still wraps His arms of love around us. There is no article of clothing that we could wear to make Him love us more than He already does. He knows our hearts. You can’t fool God.
God has already seen you naked: Physically, spiritually and emotionally. And all of the finest clothing in the world isn’t going to alter His love for you.