Does What We Wear to Church Matter?

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.”

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16 Responses to Does What We Wear to Church Matter?

  1. Brokenroad says:

    Clarence, you hope believers begin to think biblically when standing in front of their closets. Exactly what Bible passages are you referring to?

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    • Clarence Buzzell says:

      Hi Brokenroad, that’s a great question and I’ll seek to answer it without rambling too much, hopefully. I would call your attention to two principles (there are many others) that I seek to incorporate into my life every day to guide and govern all that I do.
      They are:
      I Cor. 10: 31. “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”
      I Peter 2: 9 “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
      These two verses say sooooo much, don’t they? And I, personally, feel so inadequate to be commenting on them like I was some kind of biblical expert. Nevertheless, this is how they speak to me.
      These two verses speak to my heart about holiness of life and how I can bring glory to the One who gave his all for me. How does Clarence, in practical, every day life do this? Well, when I stand in front of my clothes rack on Sunday morning, I have a few choices to make in regards to what I’m going to wear to church for the worship service. I know that God will accept me in rags, or the finest article of clothing I may have. I feel I can honor and glorify to Him more by putting on what I believe is my very best. That’s what my heart of gratitude tells me. Beyond that, I have been taught, from the day I was saved at 25, through expository preaching, Sunday School classes, my own Bible reading, etc. that this is the type of walk that honors God and bring glory to his name.

      Now, in 2013, I’m hearing that our culture has changed, we don’t want to be stuck in “dead traditionalism,” we don’t want to offend the unsaved by wearing dresses and a suit and tie. So throw off all these spiritual inhibitions……grab your old dungarees, flip flops, and T-shirt off the hanger and let’s go to worship our Lord of Lords and King of Kings. I’m sorry, I can’t buy into that thinking.

      I worked for years among blue collar men and women. Along with a few other believers, we never did abandon or compromise our standards. And you know what? We earned their respect. To God be the glory.

      Did I answer your question Brokenroad? It’s been a pleasure being involved with you and others, in this very timely discussion of Bible ethics.

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      • Brokenroad says:

        I have not replied for so long because I was left speechless by the last reply. Lexingtonbobby now chimes in, and I am once again looking over the original blog and the comments . . .

        Yes, Clarence Buzzell, 1 Corinthians 10:31 and 1 Peter 2:9 say a whole lot. However, they say absolutely nothing about the topic at hand. You want to glorify God by putting on your very best for Sunday morning? Fine. Go for it. But you still haven’t given, and will never find, a verse saying that is what we should all do. By the way . . . what is your very best? Do you have a tux? Then wear it! Don’t have one? Come on, now, God is worth sacrificing for; cut back anywhere and everywhere possible so that you can wear the very best possible. Remember, you want to give God your very best. $500 tux? Keep saving, because eventually you’ll be able to get a $1000 tux. Don’t forget the shoes. Am I being ridiculous? No. I am just following your own standard to its logical conclusion.

        While we are at it, in your use of 1 Corinthians 10:31, which talks specifically about what you eat and drink, am I correct in assuming you only eat at the finest resturaunts and drink nothing but the highest priced drinks? Or is it totally health food, vegan, maybe? Come to think of it, you tie that verse with the “holy priesthood” of 1 Peter 2:9, so maybe you keep the OT dietary restrictions. Whatever the very best is, in your mind. And I guess I am held to the standard you come up with in those areas too, right?

        You worked among blue collar and never abandoned or compromised your standards? Do you realize how high, mighty, pompous, and downright self-righteous that sounds? You managed to work among the dirty, filthy masses without becoming soiled yourself? No, not your wording, but that sure is how it comes across. But you got part of it right — these are your standards, not God’s. The American society, for a while, had a Sunday morning attire standard of suit and tie. They did the same for flying on an airplane, or going to any important event. You and Stephen want to still wear suit and tie to church Sunday morning? Great. Think that somehow reflects your commitment and devotion to God? Maybe it does. For you. Because of who you are, your background, your temperment, and who-knows-what-else, you prefer to go to church in a suit and tie. Great. Go for it. More power to you. I never have, and hopefully never will look down on someone for dressing up. That is your choice; your preference. The problem with this blog and the supporting comments is that they . . . you . . . presume to impose on the rest of us your (not God’s) standard for Sunday morning attire. Yes, you put together a bunch of wonderful arguments for dressing up. They sound great. They really do. The problem is — YOU put them together. God did not. The verses you use? No where close. But if you want to dress up, go for it. Wear whatever you want to wear, and leave the rest of us alone. And by “leave us alone,” I mean “stop judging our hearts” because we do not keep your dress code.

        Stephen, I have no problem with you stating your preferences and concerns; they include some thoughts that should be considered. But when it gets to some of the comments, and to the point of trying to twist Scripture to support your positions and trying to impose those positons on others . . . Lexingtonbobby has it right. Trying to impose extra-biblical standards on others and judging their relationship with God by those standards is indeed legalism, fancy arguments and fancy clothes not withstanding.

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        • Brokenroad,

          I’m disappointed that the focus has digressed from the original points, which no one has responded to, so please look at my last reply to Lexingtonbobby. There are the ideas that I hope everyone will think about. When considering what Scripture says, I don’t find that the “whatever” approach, (the current trend), to be any more Biblically faithful than the “dress code” approach. We can do better, but it will require more careful thinking than advocates of the current trend have done.

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    • I attend a southern conservative church but frankly after reading this article I understand why young people (statistics show) are leaving denominations and attending nondenominational churches. It is a legalistic (and almost beyond belief) that this would be pushed, regarding appropriate attire. I would never become a member of any group that would make a homeless person unwelcome. Also, in SC here it is accepted by both people and God that shorts are fine in the summer. Whew, honestly get off the clothes thing. If it’s not lewd we should be happy people join us in worshipping God!

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      • Lexingtonbobby,

        Thanks for taking the time to express your view. I’m with you about homeless people in our churches. In fact, I have brought multiple homeless individuals to our church, and welcomed others as well. Their responses indicated that they felt welcomed and accepted, not because of how I or others dressed, but because of how I treated them.

        You seemed to overlook that I expressly stated that our clothing does not affect our obligation to accept one another (and outsiders). So I’m wondering how you concluded that I’m being legalistic.

        Just so there’s no misunderstanding, here are my main points. Can you tell me which ones you disagree with and why?

        Clothing is an important way that we communicate with each other.

        Clothing can both reflect and affect our attitudes about what we are doing, and influence those around us.

        In some ways, our corporate Sunday worship is not like any other day of the week. Does our clothing reflect that this worship is special, not ordinary?

        What we wear should never affect the higher priority of loving one another.

        Our clothing is one way we express to God and those around us what Sunday worship means to us.

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  2. Clarence Buzzell says:

    Steve, have you ever gotten into a deep and passion-filled discussion with someone, and after making your best “argument,” you go on to say, “And furthermore!”? Well, I stayed up until 2:45 in the morning writing a……”And furthermore.” piece. However, when I opened up your blog site late this morning, to see if what I had written still made sense (at least to me), there was nothing there!!! (Grumble, grumble, grumble) Soooo here I go again, hoping to keep the conversation going, on what has become another “hot” issue in our believing churches.

    Oh! “By the way.” Another favorite expression we use. Has anyone given thought to the idea that Satan just might be using the contemporary music and dress issues as a diversionary tactic? Have we not been commissioned to make our main focus on reaching the lost? Just a thought.

    I appreciate the comments that Heartspeak and Brokenroad have written in response to your article, Steve. Many of the things they have said are worthy of our consideration. Heartspeak seemed to focus on “legalism,” while Brokenroad focused on spiritual “schizophrenia.”

    Having been raised Roman Catholic, I have a pretty good understanding of what a system of spiritual legalism looks like. When it appears in our local believing church, like Paul, we need to deal with it. And, NO, those of us who believe there are principles in Scripture to guide us in our desire to,” walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing,” as Paul said to the church at Colosse, are not advocating a “dress door-check” when we enter the front door of our churches.
    We are all broken people. Some of us are broken people who are saved; and some are broken people who are unsaved. With that said, I would not think it strange or out of place for an unsaved person to come into a worship service in a T-shirt, sandals, and cut-offs. I would expect more from a professing Christian who has had a reasonable chance to grow in the area of sanctification. Wouldn’t you? Does this expectation make me a legalist, or fill me with pride to the extent that I feel superior to my fellow believer? It shouldn’t. But if it does, should we throw out the baby with the bath water? Should we ignore those principles that the Holy Spirit seeks to incorporate into our lives that guide us on the path of Holy living, which should include and influence the way we dress.
    As Christians we need to be aware of what’s going on around us. It is wise to try to be as informed as we can in what’s going on in our world. We also need to keep reminding ourselves that, although we are in the world, we are not of the world. With that thought in mind, we should never consider condescending to the world’s standards. If our secular society looks at us as putting on airs and having a holier-than-thou attitude by the way we dress when we gather for corporate worship, so be it. Our focus and our desire is and should always be, God-ward not man-ward.
    Concerning schizophrenia in wearing different types of clothes for different occasions is more than interesting. It’s done all the time with no thought of abnormality. While in the military, we had more than one type of uniform. If we were told to wear our “dress” uniform for an inspection review and we wore something else, we would be put on report. That was not schizophrenic, that was obeying orders. We should desire to be showroom quality, not for our glory or praise, but for His. Therefore, I choose dress up.

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  3. Anne Marie Lehn says:

    I absolutely agree with this post. Thanks.

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  4. Brokenroad says:

    I have cringed when seeing pastors as well as people in the congregation dress down from what they wear every other day of the week just so they can (seemingly) look cool/hip/relevant on a Sunday morning. At the same time, I can remember my Dad leading a fellow factory worker to the Lord in the late 60’s. He refused to go to church until he could afford to buy a suit. He did not want to look out of place. My Dad encouraged him to come anyway, but he adamantly refused. This was not just an excuse. Once he bought a suit, he attended regularly and became a leader in the church. “Sunday morning best” and “giving God your best” were common themes of the day. On the up side, and in its purest form, this was a way to honor the Lord. On the down side, dressing your best dramatically showed your financial standing, and what you wore often became a matter of one-upmanship.

    Your points in favor of “dressing up” include 1) our clothing can both reflect and affect our attitudes about what we are doing, and influence those around us; and 2) Our worship in church on Sunday is unique, and therefore, our clothing should reflect that this worship is special, not ordinary

    Yes, I cringe at people dressing down in church. I also cringe at people dressing up in church. Your first point can be used to reveal as many negatives as positives about dressing up. . . . or dressing down. Our clothing influences those around us? Sure it does. Dressing down can come across as fake and condescending. At the same time, in our culture, people dress up only for weddings and funerals, and very few other occasions. Dressing up for church is often seen by our secular society as putting on airs and holier-than-thou. Why go out of your way to turn them off? Come to think of it, if our clothing at church is, according to your position, to show our attitude for God, how does that same argument wrap around and end up talking about (basically) making a statement to people around us?

    Our Sunday morning corporate worship is unique, but it should also be a public declaration of our heart attitude throughout the week. Dressing in a way that you never dress any other time of the week . . . while going to a place you go only when wearing that clothing, can enforce the concept of a schizophrenic walk with the Lord; i.e. I dress/act/talk one way Sunday morning, which is entirely different from how I dress/act/talk the rest of the week. Wearing “every day clothes” can emphasize the need for me to act and talk the same way every day and in every situation.

    Bottom line: I hear what you are saying. I cringe along with you at those (very few, in my experience) who are casual to the point of being sloppy/slovenly. But I see the negatives of dressing counter-culturally (Sunday morning best) outweighing the positives. Dressing up easily results in alienation of the uninitiated. Among the regular attenders, dressing up often results in pride or humiliation (based on financial abilities) and a spiritual schizophrenia. I vote for casual attire.

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    • Brokenroad,

      Please see my reply to Heartspeak which covers some of the points you raised.

      To your point about dressing down causing a schizophrenic spiritual walk, I disagree. Regardless of what we wear, our worship in community on Sunday is still unique. That our worship takes a different form the rest of the week does not make it schizophrenic, does it?

      You said that dressing up often results in pride. Of course. Does that mean dressing up caused the pride? Surely not. Pride is a result of misdirected worship, not clothing. Dressing down will not cure that. Being filled with the Holy Spirit will. Dressing up can still be a legitimate way of expressing worship.

      You said that dressing up can cause the uninitiated to be alienated. But that reasoning cuts both ways. I know a number of non-Christians who would be alienated by church-goers who dress down. Once again, I think the problem is a confusion of evangelism and church worship.

      Thanks for reading, and for expressing alternate opinions, which help bring more clarity.

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  5. Heartspeak says:

    The same logic was what got the Pharisees into trouble with Jesus. It was the same ‘man-thinking’ where frontlets and clothing were subtly used to attempt to convey seriousness, sincerity and holiness. Oh, it all sounds perfectly logical from a cradle to grave ‘insiders’ perspective. However, it is utter foolishness to those whom you wish to reach. Ever moreso in our culture today which is far removed from what it was 50 to 100 years ago or more.

    Surely, you would not ‘require’ best clothing on a seeker? would you require it of a new-believer? When then, is it appropriate to ‘give ’em the word’ about their sloppy dress? You know, to just ‘let them know’ that, what? It would be more spiritual? more ‘reflective of their heart’? That they could just ‘tighten up a little of their sloppiness’? (in your viewpoint, of course).

    No, this road leads to trouble, to legalism of the worst order, to judgement, to Pride and is not one to journey on. Jesus called out this kind of thinking because it is exactly a judgement upon one’s sincerity. Oh yes, we see this all the time in the world– it IS of course the world’s way– to look on the outside. This IS why clothing matters to our culture, to the Senate and House of Representatives and Supreme Court. ( I did read the referenced article).

    What then, is the implication to you, regarding those who would deign to only wear a T-shirt and sandals and cut-off shorts to worship? Somehow, they are lesser, they have taken something holy and ‘reduced’ it. There’s no way around it. Now you have judged, now you have taken the ‘outside’, what your eyes have observed and drawn a conclusion that somehow they ‘should’ (in your eyes and those of others who would agree with you) do better.

    Precisely because God does look at the heart, He knows what you or I or any other are thinking. It is not required to ‘prove’ our hearts by our clothing. He accepts our heart’s Yay and let’s it be Yes. We need not ‘swear by any other thing’ (even our clothing)!

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    • Heartspeak,

      You have raised some legitimate objections and I appreciate that. I will attempt to reply briefly here and more fully in a follow-up post.

      You mentioned that those we wish to reach would view as foolish the practice dressing up as an expression of worship. Here you seem to implicitly agree that our clothing indeed communicates attitudes, real or perceived. I don’t know about those whom you are trying to reach, but in my experience they tend to care much more about how I treat them than how I dress. Perhaps you are confusing the act of congregational worship and the purpose of individual evangelism, which are not the same.

      The purpose of my post was to prompt each of us to reflect on how we value worship in community and how the posture of our hearts might be revealed in our clothing. While I could have made it clearer, I was not writing to lay down criteria for judging the spiritual quality of others’ worship. Nothing I wrote requires that we make such judgments. And let’s not pretend that those who dress down for Sunday worship aren’t as prone to make judgments against those who dress up (“they’re legalistic or proud”). What will prevent any of us from making judgments like these? Scriptures such as Romans 15:7, which I quoted, that commands us to receive one another, as Christ received us.

      You seem to be most bothered by the suggestion that casual clothing can possibly be connected to a casual attitude toward worship in community. This baffles me a bit, because it seems self evident that casual clothing is intended to be worn by people when they want to feel casual, as the name implies. This obvious fact seems to suddenly become controversial when it’s mentioned in a worship context. It was also a little disappointing that you seemed to gloss over the questions I posed. I would ask you to go back and reconsider them.

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      • Heartspeak says:

        It’s always good when a blog post elicits a string of comments (I think). I’ve got a bunch of thoughts running around but I’ll start with your (Stephen’s) reply.

        Yes. Absolutely, I believe that clothing ‘can’ communicate attitudes. My particular point was that this communication style was more ‘human’ than God-like. The issue for us, in part, is that God does not look at the outside (His words). When we do, we are not thinking like God thinks. It’s easy for us to mix viewpoints in the church and the results usually aren’t pretty. Also, in our culture today, many, many people don’t think about these things directly and consequently we tend to place far more value on them than those around us.

        An area that I chose not to go, was the whole subject of corporate worship. I’m not sure that I’m ready to ‘go there’ but it is pretty entwined in the context of this post. In part, this makes me a bit more exercised on the topic but….

        I think we often get pretty ingrown in our churchianity and frequently fail to see the net effect on the world at large. The Gospel is simple. Love is simple. Yes, there are some non-negotiables but we as church folk too often get lost in the minutia of our own ‘unwritten’ rules–of which clothing and dress should be categorized and begin to look foolish. Remember, keep it ‘child-like’ simple.

        I’m not certain which questions you posed that I glossed over. As I prepared my response, I got stuck in Mark 7 and Matt 15. In particular the concepts Jesus addressed in Mark 7:1-9. i.e. Traditions of men! The Pharisees had used much the same kinds of logic as this blog post uses and had arrived at a variety of similar rules although much more involved than whether we should ‘dress up’. The whole direction was what Jesus objected to, and quite vehemently I would add. The focus for our corporate worship opinions, likewise was primarily justified by our 2000 years of ‘traditions of men’ rather than scripture and as such deserves a whole ‘nuther response which I’ll spare you from.

        Finally, I would reference Clarence’s comments as well regarding how our own viewpoints might change as we are ‘sanctified’. In principle, I don’t disagree. In our own heart conversations with God, we may well come to some of these conclusions. This is all well and good and indeed, we must respond on a personal level. Sort of a ‘to him for whom it is sin, it’s sin’ type thing. What we should recognize is that these issues such as clothing are personal issues between us and God. But when we put them out there for discussion we are implying that others must feel as we do (or would if they were ‘more spiritual’ perhaps). This crosses the line and is best left alone.

        I’ve spent a lifetime of trying to pick up the pieces so to speak, with men and women who are totally turned off by such minutia and who have consequently wanted nothing to do with church and with God. It’s particularly hard when I agree with their issues. Are they overlooking the bigger things? Yup. But these discussions too often create unnecessary obstacles between the lost and the redeemed as well as between the redeemed. Why must we ‘go there’?

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  6. Clarence Buzzell says:

    Steve, thanks again for a very thoughtful piece that should, hopefully, challenge our church leaders and concerned believers to think “Biblically,” as we stand in our closets on Sunday morning wondering if we should “dress up,” or “dress down?”
    I wonder if it ever crossed Billy Sunday or Billy Graham’s mind that wearing a suit and tie would be a detriment in winning people to Christ? I think we would be wise to remember that the philosophy, “We have to be like them to win them,” went out with high button shoes. After all, “It’s the Spirit that quickens, the flesh profits nothing.”

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  7. Pete Hansen says:

    Very well stated, Stephen. This was edifying to me.

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