At church, it’s easy to confuse dressing to impress people, with dressing to please God. Who do you think you’re fooling with those clothes?
In my last article, “Does God Care What I Wear to Church?” I discussed a social media post made by a ministry colleague who believes, “When you enter God’s house, you should dress for the occasion!” In that post, we examined the history of dressing up for church. If, like me, you were raised in a conservative church, dressing up for church might come naturally. But who are we trying to impress? Or, rather, who do you think you’re fooling?
The Stigma of Dressing Down
I grew up in the rural South, during a time when dressing up was just what you did when you went to church. We weren’t poor, but we weren’t rich, either. Even though my family was squarely middle-class, I remember feeling the stigma of dressing beneath some of the wealthier kids in our youth group. Again, we were doing okay—I owned a three-piece suit for gosh sakes—but when I outgrew my dress shoes and had to wear sneakers with my suit, I felt the shame of it. I might have felt better if I’d been allowed to wear jeans to match the sneakers, but wearing jeans to church simply wasn’t done. I distinctly recall feeling “not good enough” until my parents could remedy the situation with a new pair of dress shoes. My experience of stigma was not unique.
Once, a deacon told me about an experience when he was a boy: “My dad was out of work, and we were poor as church mice. For the longest time, we didn’t go to church because we didn’t have any nice clothes. But the family next door bought all us kids dress clothes so we could start going to church. And that’s the reason we attend this church today.”
It was a heartwarming recollection of a neighbor’s generosity. It was an “origin story” of sorts, about how his family decided to start attending the congregation where he eventually became a leader. But the subtext of this story was how inappropriate it would have been for his family to attend without the proper clothing. The whole culture of the day made it so that people of a lower socioeconomic background were excluded from church. Expecting people to dress up for church stigmatizes the poor and favors the rich.
Favoritism of the Rich
The community surrounding Jesus’ brother James struggled with this type of discrimination. In response to this kind of favoritism of the rich, James 2:1-9 says:
My brothers and sisters do not claim the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory while showing partiality. For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here in a good place, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor person. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into the courts? Is it not they who blasphemed the excellent name that was invoked over you? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
Asking people to dress up for church shows favoritism to the wealthy by making their manner of dress normative. We stigmatize the middle class and poor by criticizing what they wear. Telling church members to “wear their best” presumes that one kind of clothing is inherently better than another. This is a cultural expectation more than anything else.
Having been in ministry for two and a half decades, I saw a cultural shift from the perspective of the pulpit. In the beginning, a suit and tie were absolutely necessary. I remember when I preached revival services at a colleague’s church and forgot my tie. It would have been inexcusable for me to preach without one, so my friend took his off and handed it to me. Though it clashed with the suit I was wearing, it was a tie—which, I was told, was necessary for me to speak to his congregation with any kind of respect and credibility.
Eventually, I quit wearing ties in the pulpit—to the chagrin of many of my older church members. I was told it was “disrespectful” not to wear one. I tried to explain to people the history of neckties and observed that it was a cultural expectation and not a “godly” thing to wear a tie. I got in even more trouble when I abandoned the suit coat and preached in slacks and an open-collared dress shirt. Still more people balked when I donned a pair of skinny jeans. In the end, we reached a compromise. I didn’t need to continue to wear suits as long as my jeans didn’t make my sermons too “uplifting.”
Seriously, though—I did challenge my parishioners about what makes wearing a tie more holy than not wearing one. “You should wear your best,” said one church member. “What makes one fabric better than another?” I replied. “What makes one pattern or design or cut dressier than another? It’s all a matter of cultural expectation.”
Now, having moved from America’s East Coast to the West Coast and then from Washington State to British Columbia, I can definitely say it’s a matter of cultural expectation. Here, dressy church clothes are all but abandoned. How much more would cultural expectations change from one continent to another, or between different social or ethnic groups? It’s not a matter of wearing certain clothes for God. God doesn’t care what you wear to church, as long as what you wear is respectful of those around you.
What About Modesty?
But what about modesty? Many in the church will say that part of respecting those around you is dressing modestly. They adjure young people (tween and teenage girls and young women especially) to dress modestly, saying, “Adam and Eve clothed themselves to cover up their nakedness.” As a product of purity culture, I heard this a lot growing up. Later, convinced of the truth of these claims, I taught my children (my daughters, especially) the same thing. “You don’t want to cause the boys and men in church to stumble,” we would say. “You don’t want to be a distraction to them.” Oh, the things I regret…
I recall hearing older women in one of my churches whispering about the short skirts worn by some of the teenage girls. “I just want to give that one a choir robe to wear,” said one judgmental church member. What we didn’t realize was that while we were trying to protect our children’s purity, we were really teaching them shame about their bodies. We were telling our girls that they were sources of temptation, rather than the treasures that they are. On the flip side, we made the dirty thoughts of our church’s boys and men out to be the faults of young seductresses. We told our daughters to cover up, rather than teaching our sons not to think like rapists. If you’re teaching the same thing we taught, who do you think you’re fooling?
When Paul wrote to Timothy about modest dress for believers, he cared more about teaching Christians not to dress up for church than he cared about the length of a woman’s dress. It’s true that we should think about the feelings of others when we get ready for church on Sundays. But that thoughtfulness should be about preventing a poor person from feeling less than, simply because they don’t have nice clothes. Choir robes were originally meant for uniformity and to prevent ostentatious dress from becoming a distraction. It’s only been in the recent few decades that people thought they were for covering up a perceived deficit of female dress.
For people of all genders who are looking for a guide to modest dress at church, here’s a suggestion: Wear what suits you best. Don’t worry about other people’s judgment of you. Keep in mind that you’re not going to a nightclub. Dress reasonably, and don’t let anyone put their expectations on you. If you follow this and someone feels sexually tempted, their thoughts are their responsibility, not yours.
Dressed to Impress: Who Do You Think You’re Fooling?
Many people think that when we go to church on Sundays, we should dress to impress. But this type of superficial thinking forgets that God can see us on the inside, no matter what we wear on the outside. In 1 Samuel 16:7b, God says, “…The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” If you go to church dressed to impress, who do you think you’re fooling with those clothes?