One of the sticky questions often tangled up with the “worship wars” is “How should a believer dress for a church service?” People seem to have strong opinions about the subject, yet often give flimsy arguments for their beliefs.
A Matter of Opinion?
Firm believers in dressing up for church say, “If you were to receive an invitation to visit the President, you would wear your very best. Should you not, then, dress up to come before the Lord in church?” Others point to corporate dress codes and say, “You should dress in a similar fashion as a representative of Christ.” They can’t point to scriptural examples because most people in Bible times had only one set of clothes (Luke 3:11).
Come-as-you-are churches, on the other hand, place the emphasis of a church service on making people feel accepted and comfortable in church. They encourage their members to dress down and splash slogans like, “It’s ok to dress down for church, Jesus did” on billboards in their neighborhoods. What they really mean is, “You’ll like us; we’re cool!”
The Heart of the Matter
Some might say, “It doesn’t really matter what you wear to church – God is interested in the heart, not in the outward appearance.” At first thought, that statement seems plausible, but it leaves out two important considerations.
- What is in our hearts is reflected in everything we do and say (Luke 6:45). Our dress is certainly a form of communication, and God is very concerned about how and what we are communicating.
- Each of these approaches stems from assumptions about the nature and purpose of church and worship. God is passionate about correct worship (Leviticus 10:1-2), so we must pay attention to what He says about these areas.
So really, the how-to-dress-for-church dilemma is less of a culturally complicated issue and more of a theological issue. Before we tackle the question of what to wear for church, we must have a biblical understanding of church and worship.
The Purpose of Church
According to Acts 2:42 the apostolic church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” From this passage we glean three basic purposes of church gatherings.
Exposition and application of God’s word is an important purpose of a church gathering (1 Timothy 4:13). Preaching serves as a vehicle for spiritual growth (2 Peter 3:18), a protection from error (Ephesians 4:14) and a catalyst for personal study of God’s Word.
The church today has sadly lost an understanding of this term. The original term did not refer to “socializing before church” or “potluck dinner after church,” but carried the idea of “participation”. It is closely linked with the New Testament term “discipleship.” The concept is that of close relationships involving building up one another spiritually. One of the key purposes of church, according to Hebrews 10:25, is “encouraging one another.” Every believer should be forging transparent, spiritually encouraging relationships with other church members.
Worship is not a program or a performance. It is not a solemn mood with accompanying organ music, incense, and rituals. Worship is the response of the heart to truth about God, lifting Him up in our estimation (John 4:23). Worship takes place as in response to the Word, in song (Ephesians 5:19), and in prayer. Christ designed the Lord’s Supper to focus our minds and hearts on worship through remembrance of the person and work of Christ. Worship is not exclusive to a church service, however, for the Christian is the temple of the Lord (1 Cor. 3:16). Private worship is exemplified and encouraged throughout the New Testament.
Based on these truths about church and worship, we may conclude that church is not primarily about outward appearances. Carefully constructing a worship service or decorating the church building is helpful in directing worshippers’ hearts toward the Lord and communicating the purpose of the church. The emphasis, however, must never be on form or style, but on the Person of Christ and the Word of God.
Worshippers, in turn, must have the same focus as they come to church. They should come with their hearts prepared to learn and respond to God’s Word. Sin should be confessed and mental distractions eliminated. Dress is less important, but it too has something to do with the worshipper. Not only does it communicate one’s assumptions about the purpose of church, but it can affect one’s attitude to church. The way you dress is often a display of your mindset toward what are doing.
It is important to have right thinking behind clothing choices for a worship service. Obviously, since the church is not the temple, it is not correct to dress up to “come before the Lord.” One should be ready for worship at any time. Nor is it appropriate to come to church like you are getting ready for a party. Here are some suggestions on what your dress should communicate in church.
- Seriousness. A worship service is not the place to relax and have a good time. It is a time to focus your heart and mind on the Word and worship. Your clothing shouldn’t say, “I’m at church but I really want to be kicking back beside the pool.”
- Modesty. Modesty refers to much more than the cut of women’s clothing. Some churches seem to be running a fashion show. Some preachers feel the need to be on the cutting edge of style. Appropriate dress for church minimizes attention to self and distraction from the purpose of coming together.
- Appropriateness. Obviously dress for worship will vary between cultures. Each culture has its own norms of what is appropriate for various occasions. Churches, too, have their own unique cultures. Culture is like a social language; those who share it understand the nuances that fashion and manners communicate. Pay attention to the culture you are a part of, and use it appropriately to communicate to the glory of God.
Obviously, we cannot make up rules to answer the question “How should I dress for church?” The answer to that question will differ based on culture and perhaps income level. What matters most is the heart attitude and theology behind clothing choices.