IMPORTANT: My intent here is not at all to criticize anyone who dresses up for church. The people I admire most in this world nearly all wear suits and ties or their equivalents to church. I have no problem with others choosing to dress up for church. Now that that’s out of the way…
The church I was part of in Orlando was a college campus ministry. At the start of a particular semester, we had spent the weekend providing lemonade and water to students and their parents as they moved in to their dorms, and we took the opportunity to tell them about the church that met on campus, just a short walk from their dorm rooms. We had several new students visit as a result of our efforts, and they came dressed very casually, from jean shorts to basketball shorts and a t-shirt. Thankfully, no one from our church, as far as I’m aware, had any issue at all with this (nor should they have). We were excited that these college students had made the decision to come to church their first morning away from home!
It soon became apparent to me that the more casually a person was dressed the less comfortable they seemed to be. At our church, we typically wore things like collared shirts and kakhi pants, with a few men in suits and ties and a few women in dresses. I don’t know for sure why nearly all the very casually dressed visiting students left after our Bible study and didn’t stay for our worship service, but I suspect it was at least in part because our gathering was much more formal than they had anticipated. Who wouldn’t feel a bit awkward wearing basketball shorts being greeted by someone who had chosen a suit and tie for the same event?
There was one particular young man who did stay for our worship service who had on jean shorts and a t-shirt. I sat beside him and started a conversation. The first thing out of his mouth was an apology. He said he hadn’t had time to unpack since he had just moved in, and all he had to wear was what he had on. I am confident that no one said anything to him about what he was wearing, and he wasn’t even close to the most dressed-down visitor we had. I immediately tried to put his mind at ease.
“What you wear to church doesn’t matter to us!”
Then I looked around the room and realized I was lying to him. It DID matter. It WAS important to us. It was obvious from the way we had all dressed up. We didn’t treat people differently based on what they wore perhaps, but we were certainly sending the message that dressing up for church is important. Intentionally or not, we had created an environment which suggested to all people in it that you ought to dress up for church, and it was an environment that made many of our visitors uncomfortable. From that day forward I began wearing jeans or shorts to church, and I definitely never tucked my shirt in for our assemblies there again.
“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?”
Nothing in the Bible indicates that God cares how nicely you are dressed. God looks at the heart. It is we who look at the outward appearance! We dress up because of what other people will see or because of how it makes us feel personally, not because it’s what God actually wants. Not only does the Bible never say God has a preference for fine clothing in our assemblies, it nearly says the opposite. In 1 Timothy 2, Paul cautions women against drawing attention to themselves with “braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments”, and says they should instead be seen by their good works, a principle that certainly applies regardless of gender. James emphasizes that someone wearing fine clothing in our assembly, or not, should not affect how they are treated or regarded at all. Some congregations even require a certain caliber of attire for those attending or more often for those leading public worship. I believe such a rule is contrary to James’ admonition against making distinctions based on clothing.
I’ve often heard people say you ought to dress your best to show respect for God. Why would you give God anything less than your best when you dress up to worship him? In reality, even a suit and tie is probably not your best. Why not a tuxedo? Most people dress nicer to be in a wedding than they do to go to church. What you wear is not really about giving God your best, because in most cases, you probably aren’t. What do you do when you worship outside of a church assembly? Do you dress up to pray at home or to conduct family devotionals, or do you only “give God your best” when it’s a scheduled public worship assembly? Why the distinction? Maybe for some it is more accurate to say they dress up to communicate to others their respect for God. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, as long as such is viewed as a personal decision and not a standard you expect others to apply to themselves. I do think we ought to be primarily thinking about the message we send to others when we decide what to wear.
I put a lot more thought behind what I wear to church than what I wear to work. Work is easy. I wear a suit and tie nearly every day. I do it to convey professionalism to my clients and because many expect it from people in my position. When I dress for church it’s more difficult for me. I’m not attending a professional event or trying to impress anyone. Our assemblies are more like a family gathering. Most Sundays now I still go through an internal dialogue as to whether or not I should tuck in my shirt. I usually wear jeans on Sundays, even though I know I’d probably be less self-conscious in kakhis since the church I am now part of leans more formal overall compared to our church in Orlando. But then I think, what if we have a visitor who comes in jeans, or farm clothes, or even shorts and a t-shirt? Won’t they feel more comfortable being welcomed by someone who is dressed more casually? In general, primarily because of this, I try to dress down as much as I can without feeling like I might actually be a distraction to others in doing so. It’s a tough balance that I’m not sure I ever really get right, but I try.
I don’t mind at all when others dress up for church. In fact, I pretty much always assume they are doing so because it is a way they choose to express their respect for God and for the church and for our assemblies as his people. That is good. Great even. When those preferences and traditions affect how folks regard others, and when people expect others to act in accordance with their own personal preferences and traditions, regardless of whether we’re talking about neckties or circumcision, we risk allowing vanity to hinder the influence of the cross.
[Wednesday nights are a different thought process for me. I work on Wednesdays, often until just before we meet for our mid-week assembly. For a while I actually made sure to make time to drive home and change into something more casual, but I have come to think it’s appropriate for me to just come as I am at the end of my work day. That’s what I want people to see me doing, because that’s generally what I think we should all be doing – coming to the mid-week church assembly after work or whatever else we are involved in during the week. I do always take off my tie, but I usually come to church on Wednesday in a suit because I work in a suit. It’s more convenient for me to just keep it on.]
08/29/2017 EDIT: Added sentence referencing 1 Timothy 2