I know it's not as much of a hot topic as it used to be in the mainline churches today. But I think it's good to lay down (what I think is) a Biblical analysis of the idea.
How do you dress for church? Where did the idea of dressing up for church come from? Is it wrong to wear jeans to church? Is it wrong to wear a three-piece suit to church?
Here are my explorations....
While I have a guess, I'm not sure exactly where the idea of dressing up for church started. It doesn't appear to be a normal practice in the New Testament. While there were obviously some who had money (Acts 16:14-15; 1 Cor. 11:20-22; 1 Tim. 6:17-19), it was not the upper-class that made up the majority of the first century church. And generally the upper-class were the ones who could afford "dress-up clothes."
I mean...fishermen, out-of-work tax collectors, and an otherwise oppressed Jewish society probably didn't make the most income in the ancient Roman world. Along that same line, Paul wrote to the Corinthians that most of them were not "of noble birth" according to the flesh. While Corinth was an affluent ancient city (and some of the believers were well-to-do - 1 Cor. 11:20-22), many believers in that local congregation did not come from rich families. And it was from this church that Paul was collecting an offering for the even poorer saints in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8-9). Therefore, the majority of early New Testament believers would not have had a significant amount of money to spend on fine clothes.
So where did the idea of dressing up for church come from?
Well, in a certain sense it does come from the Bible. But here is the context.
Think about the Old Testament Levitical priests. What did they wear? It was they who were the fine dressers when approaching God!
"You shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting and wash them with water. Then you shall take the garments, and put on Aaron the coat and the robe of the ephod, and the ephod, and the breastpiece, and gird him with the skillfully woven band of the ephod. And you shall set the turban on his head and put the holy crown on the turban. You shall take the anointing oil and pour it on his head and anoint him. Then you shall bring his sons and put coats on them, and you shall gird Aaron and his sons with sashes and bind caps on them. And the priesthood shall be theirs by a statue forever. Thus you shall ordain Aaron and his sons." (Ex. 29:4-9)
Garments, a robe, an ephod, a breastpiece, a skillfully woven band, sashes and caps, a turban, and a crown? These guys were seriously dressed up!
But why was that?
It's because they were representing an ungodly people to the Almighty God, Jehovah (Yahweh, the LORD).
They were going to appear before God to offer sacrifices for sinners. They were to be dressed up as best they could in order to offer up to God the very best of themselves - just as the animals they offered were to be the very best of the flock - "without blemish" (Lev. 1:1-17, 3:1, 6, 4:1-3ff, etc). It is only fitting that the holy, unstained God be given the very best of everything. This still holds true today; but there is a different context today.
Traditionally, the Bible had an emphasis for the priests to dress up and wear such fine clothes, because they were approaching the great God of Creation who deserved nothing less than the absolute finest in every regard.
This probably carries some significance into the idea of dressing up for church.
But keep something in mind here. It was the priest representing the people who was dressed up. The people themselves only brought the very best sacrifice from their flock.
You see...God does deserve our absolute best. And those under the Old Covenant were to give Him that through dressing up their priests and offering their finest of everything they had through them.
But those on this side of the cross (under the New Covenant) must realize that our absolute best has already been accomplished, once for all, at the very cross of Christ. There the true and everlasting High Priest was offered as the absolute very best of any human offering to God.
Two things are important here:
So now...when we draw near to God, we do not draw near to him through an earthly priest in fine attire offering the finest animal without blemish. Nor is it for us to draw near to Him through our own selves, as if our works or our attire will impress God. Rather, now we draw near to God through the once for all perfect sacrifice of His Son who was without blemish and has secured for us an eternal righteousness (Heb. 10:11-14).
It is through Christ that we approach our Sovereign Lord, not through our outward apparel. For it remains true that while man looks on the outward appearance, "the Lord looks on the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7).
And that is what this is really about - the heart.
So here begins the discussion. What do you wear when you go to church, and what is the motivation behind it?
If you wear jeans and come casual, is it because you don't think God is worth the effort to dress up and impress? Or is it because you are trusting in Christ as the ONE who impressed God in your stead, on your behalf, in your place - and you're simply there to give Him thanks for it?
If you dress up and try to be as formal as you can, is it because you think God will be impressed with what you wear, and you will somehow earn his favor because of your fine clothing? Or is it because you are just so thankful for what Christ has done for you, you can't help but to put on your nicest clothes in gratitude?
The heart here is really the issue. Neither dressing up nor dressing casual is condemned in God's Word. But the motivation behind each one is the real issue.
If you dress casual because you think impressing God is not important, then your heart has not yet understood the demands of a holy God. But if you do it because your faith is in Christ as the ONE who impresses God for your sake, then your worship is pure.
Likewise, if you dress up because you think by your own efforts you are going to earn points with God, then you don't understand the infinite value of Christ's sacrifice. But if you dress up because you're just so thankful to Christ for what He has done for you, then your worship is pure.
Here is my personal stand on the issue (and those of you who know me, know that while I don't come to church as a scrub, I do wear jeans):
If Christ is our sole mode of approaching God (Heb. 7:26, 8:1-2, 9:24-28, 10:19-23), then we need not be dressed up for the occasion. Our confidence and respect toward God would rather best be demonstrated by our faith in our great High Priest who has offered Himself without blemish and stands in our place, ever representing us in the presence of the Almighty.
But this is where I am at in my relationship with Christ.
And I'd like to clarify my position. Am I saying it's wrong or sinful to dress up for church? No. There really are those who are just so thankful for what Christ has done for them that they can't help but put on their nicest clothes in gratitude! Praise God for them!
However, there are still some things to consider when contemplating how to dress for church. So let me explain some of my concerns:
Why I would approach the concept of dressing up for church with caution.
Well, to be frank, the Bible never commands for those in Christ to dress up when coming to church. As I already stated, the New Testament believers were probably not the ones who started the tradition. Furthermore, there are some interesting passages in the New Testament to keep in mind.
(1) 1 Tim. 2:9: "Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire."
Now it seems obvious that the command here is for the women not to dress up in their finest clothes when coming to church. Their wardrobe for church should reflect modesty and not costly attire. From the context in the verse above, it implies that this is to reduce or eliminate "anger or quarreling" (v. 8).
While guys are not immune to this either, let's be realistic here and realize that it's pretty easy to imagine women getting into fights over who looks the best.
But to further show the point, neither are men exempt from this instruction. Let us consider another passage concerning wardrobes in church attendance.
(2) Jam. 2:1-5: "My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 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?"
Notice that the emphasis here is on faith. "Show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ." We approach God through Jesus Christ; and each one of us who has approached Him thus has received Christ's righteousness in the exact same amount as any other believer. Our attire will not add to, or detract from, our righteousness in God's eyes; therefore we need not make any spiritual distinction in this regard.
Now let me stress to you that it does not condemn the rich man for wearing fine clothes, nor the poor man for wearing shabby clothes; but it condemns the one who makes judgement regarding the two, specifically the one giving precedence to the nicely dressed believer.
(This is something I'm convinced still goes on in many churches. Non-believers, or "seekers" are accepted if not dressed up; but once they become converted, it becomes the unspoken rule that they should start dressing up in reverence to God. But this seems to foster a mindset of seeking God through attire and outward appearance rather than seeking Him through faith in Christ.)
Again the emphasis is on faith: "Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith...?"
And this brings me to the next part of the study.
Why I cannot condemn the concept of dressing up for church.
As you previously read, the man in fine clothing was not condemned. So I probably cannot say that it's wrong to dress up for church (although it seems clear that women really might want to be cautious about exactly how extravagant your attire becomes - 1 Tim. 2:9).
But I will say, as I've been saying all along - it is a matter of faith.
Consider this: "One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he give thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God" (Rom. 14:5-6)
This whole passage has to do with how much one has embraced the truth of Christ's righteousness given as a gift - and not necessarily for salvation, but also for sanctification.
But both people are to be in fellowship with each other.
"Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgement on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him." (Rom. 14:3)
If you will, allow me to paraphrase this in context of apparel in church:
Let not the one who dresses casually despise the one who dresses up, and let not the one who dresses up pass judgement on the one who dresses casually, for God has welcomed him.
And again let me paraphrase v. 5-6 in context of apparel in church:
One person esteems one outfit better than another, while another esteems all attire alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who dresses up, dresses up in honor of the Lord. The one who dresses casual, dresses casual in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who dresses up, dresses up in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.
Paul continues his admonition and brings out the important issue in the church: living with faith in Christ, and love toward our brothers and sisters in Christ.
So here is my final conclusion.
If you're convinced from Scripture and the Holy Spirit's work within you that you are absolutely accepted, justified, declared infinitely righteous by God because of what Christ has done for you in His death and resurrection, and your desire is simply to approach God in the confidence of this faith in Christ - then by all means, wear appropriate casual dress and bless those around you by having this mindset emanate from your being.
Just as well - If you're convinced from Scripture and the Holy Spirit's work within you that you are absolutely accepted, justified, declared infinitely righteous by God because of what Christ has done for you in His death and resurrection, and you simply want to praise God for this glorious and gracious act by putting on some nice clothes, then do it with the gratitude that springs forth from your re-created heart!
If you can't get your head around it, that you are infinitely perfected in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone, and you still struggle with wanting to impress God by your own deeds - then do not cease to dress up. "For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23). Yet look up to those whose confidence in Christ is greater than yours and learn from them what you can.
Yet....be aware of your brothers and sisters in Christ.
If you are confident in the power of approaching God through the acceptance of Christ, yet by your consistent casual dress you are only putting a stumbling block before your brother - if you can at all afford it, make the extra effort in your wardrobe selection in coming to church - for the sake of your brother.
At the same time, if you are not yet confident in the power of approaching God through the acceptance of Christ, see to it that you are not carried away by matters of the flesh, and so quarrel with others about who looks the best, or make distinctions among yourselves about who is a better lover of God simply by outward appearances (2 Cor. 5:12, 16-17).
Likewise, if you are confident in the power of approaching God through the acceptance of Christ, and you simply dress up out of a grateful heart because of what He's done for you, make sure you also are not putting a stumbling block in the way of your brother or sister or causing these fleshly thoughts and quarrels to come about.
The conclusion, then, is "Therefore let us not pass judgement on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother" (Rom. 14:13).
This is the Word of God we are talking about - and both the weaker and the stronger brothers and sisters have their own roles.
"So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding" (Rom. 14:19).
I myself dress casually to church. That is where I am in my relationship with Christ. But if I find that it offends a fellow brother, by God's work in me I will accommodate to that brother.
The whole point in all of this is to promote one another's faith in Christ alone. If that is attained, then we are dressing properly.
And so let me leave you with this last passage of Scripture. For this is our hope!
Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brothers...stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. (Phil. 3:20-4:1)
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