This last week in Sunday school we entertained an interesting question: what did a corporate worship service look like in the New Testament? As we discussed this question there were notable differences from what many are probably accustomed to today. For instance, the biblical picture we get is that it was likely very simple. As they met in homes or upper rooms they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. They sang the Psalms and there isn’t any indication that they used a praise band much less any musical instruments. Additionally, their gatherings may have lasted quite a bit longer than ours, and they sat where they could find a seat—even in a window! But, did they have a church dress code?
Many of us are familiar with the well-known phrase: “Sunday best,” referring to the kinds of clothes that would make appropriate church clothes. We’ve also heard the tired and worn comparisons: “If you were going to meet the President wouldn’t you wear the nicest clothes in your closet?” I even had someone tell me that if I hope, as a pastor, to influence people I need to learn how to wear a necktie. I suppose one man’s influence is another man’s alienation (ahem…welcome to rural America).
Whether we like it or not a church’s “dress code” is a significant issue. There are those who have felt burdened by imposed expectations. It’s caused tensions and even divisions in congregations. It has reinforced people’s stereotypes of the church as stodgy and stuffy. It’s given as an excuse for people who feel uncomfortable or want to avoid a worship service. It’s also often explicitly mentioned on church websites helping direct visitors to what is or isn’t appropriate. To put it simply, quite unfortunately it’s an issue that has caused a lot of unnecessary offense.
To be clear there is, to express it this way, a certain theology to clothing. This first articles of clothing (garments of skin given by God himself) were intended to cover the shameful effects of sin (Genesis 3:10, 21). Biblically, one’s outward dress sometimes expressed a condition of the heart. For instance, Jacob wore sackcloth as he mourned for Joseph (Genesis 37:34), and whatever it was and however it’s understood the head covering in the Corinthian church was a “symbol of authority” (1 Corinthians 11:10). Further, clothes sometimes designated an individual in their place or purpose. You can think of the High Priest who, according to the ceremonial law of the Old Testament, wore the ephod and turban on his head as “holy garments” (Exodus 28:4). The Pharisees — drunk on self-glorification—were rebuked for wearing long robes as a display of their piety (Mark 12:38). John the Baptist was clothed in camel’s hair as a sign, at least in part, of his prophetic office (Matthew 3:4, see also 2 Kings 1:8 and Zechariah 13:4). Even Jesus’ coat was without seam which pointed to his priestly role (John 19:23). Additionally, clothing is a prominent mark of beauty and even glory. The Groom delights in the beauty of his Bride’s sandaled feet (Song of Solomon 7:1), and wisdom personified dresses herself in fine linen and purple (Proverbs 31:22). The glory of Jesus and what will one day be the glory of the saints in light is set forth in the brightness of their clothes (see Revelation 1:13 and 19:8).
The Bible also indicates that people have moral responsibility in the things we wear. Part of the Old Testament law required that the Israelites not wear a garment “made of two kinds of material” (Leviticus 19:19)—a duty no longer required. Because of the natural distinction between the sexes it’s an abomination to the Lord for men to wear women’s clothes and women to wear men’s (see Deuteronomy 22:5). The wayward woman of Proverbs is described, and not in an exemplary manner, as one who is “dressed as a prostitute” (Proverbs 7:10). Clothing is associated with the unnecessary anxiety of life (see Matthew 6:25 and Luke 12:23), and is to be a part of the Christian’s contentment (see 1 Timothy 6:7).
Paul instructed that “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, and not with braided hair and gold pearls or costly attire” (1 Timothy 2:9-10). Peter also wrote: “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and 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” (1 Peter 3:3-4). I think John Calvin offers some pastoral insight here. He calls dress an “indifferent matter.” As such, he notes that it’s “difficult to assign a fixed limit, how far we ought to go.” And concludes: “This at least will be settled beyond all controversy, that every thing in dress which is not in accordance with modesty and sobriety must be disapproved.” Elsewhere he observes: “It would be an immoderate strictness to wholly forbid neatness and elegance in clothing […] Peter did not intend to condemn every sort of ornament, but the evil of vanity.” He goes on to write: “Two things are to be regarded in clothing, usefulness and decency; and what decency requires is moderation and modesty.” And who will deny that a necktie is one of the most useless articles of clothing? See, I told you Calvin wouldn’t wear a necktie!
The point of this is to simply conclude: when you collect the biblical evidence there isn’t, in my estimation, a hint of what we call the “Sunday best” or church dress code. Of course, someone could abandon biblical rationalizations for enforcing such a dress code and appeal to culture. It’s not always wrong for the church to appropriate customs and courtesies from society. Culturally speaking, in some corners of society there is a correlation between dress and circumstance. You see this, for example, in the military and their service dress—we called them “blues” in the Air Force. There’s some professions that require formal apparel; and academies and institutions, political arenas, and even ceremonies or services do the same. A cultural argument could be made, and while I’m personally unconvinced it would require wisdom and necessitates considerable care and caution so as not to hinder in any unnecessary way the ministry of the gospel.
There’s a theology and even a morality to the clothes we wear. But there isn’t a biblical indication that Sundays demand we dust off our suits, button the collar, put on a tie, and shine the shoes. The dress code of the church is ordered by the same things that order all of our clothing—usefulness and decency. So, this Sunday go to church in flip flops or cowboy boots, with a suit or a t-shirt, skirt or pants, and by the gospel of grace come to God as he desires with clean hands and a pure heart (Psalm 24:4). Now excuse me, I need to go pick out my necktie for Sunday.
This article originally appeared here.