Worship in American churches continues to change. Decades after Larry Norman sang “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music,” worship music continues to be in flux. Non-charismatic churches are becoming more comfortable with freer expression of emotion. Fundamentalists, rapidly shedding the label of legalism, are shedding their suits and ties even faster.
Let’s think about that last topic, clothing. Does God care what we wear to church? Clearly, there is no dress code for worship. God, as we know, looks on the heart. Duane Litfin, president emeritus of Wheaton College, (no fundamentalist school), argued in an essay earlier this year that precisely because God looks on the heart, it does matter what we wear to church. His full essay is worth careful reading.
Litfin begins by noting that clothing is an important way that we communicate with each other. This is not controversial. Whether seeking a job, seeking a date (or mate), announcing team loyalty, making a sale or communicating social status, we all know that clothing speaks. Young people are especially aware of that. They face intense pressure to conform to cultural norms. Having grown up in the “Whatever Generation,” the message they hear is, “dressing down is cool.”
Consider the implications for what we wear to church on Sunday. Those of us who attend regularly might not fully appreciate that beyond the routine of a typical service, there is vital meaning to what we do in worship on Sunday. Congregational worship is an exalted occasion. We join in community to praise the awesome and infinite creator God. Together we admire the many dazzling qualities of our savior Jesus.
What kind of clothing would fit such an occasion? Most of us would not wear the same clothing to a wedding or graduation that we wear for jogging or a backyard cookout. Doing so would show disrespect for the occasion and the people being honored. If we dress down to sing high praise to God, does our clothing harmonize with our words? Or do our words say one thing, but our clothing another?
Of course, we can praise God even if not dressed up. But we should not ignore that our clothing can both reflect and affect our attitudes about what we are doing, and influence those around us. It’s true: casual dress can betray and encourage a casual attitude toward worship. This is true even when we don’t intend it.
Second, our worship in church on Sunday is unique. In some ways, it is not like any other day of the week. In Scripture, to sanctify is to set apart, not only from sin, but also from the daily, ordinary activities of life. In Sunday worship, we stand together in the nearly 2000 year tradition of Christians, meeting on the first day of the week to celebrate Jesus’ victory over death. Does our clothing reflect that this worship is special, not ordinary?
Let’s keep this subject in perspective. What we wear should never affect the higher priority of loving one another. We must, as Scripture says, “Accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us, to the glory of God. (Rom. 15:7, NASV)
But doing so does not mean that our clothing does not matter. There are reasons for dressing in ways appropriate for worship that are worth teaching and practicing. Wheaton president Litfin’s conclusion bears repeating:
“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.”