A young lawyer had a dream. He found himself one morning before a judge at court in a T-shirt and crumpled shorts. The judge asked him how he came to be so inappropriately dressed. “But your worship”, the lawyer answered, “I go to church in this manner.” The judge replied, “Young man you might appear before the Judge of judges in this manner, but not in my court.”
Does it really matter how we dress for church? After all, isn’t the important thing that we go to church? Well it is indeed true that the important thing is to go to church and that we appear before the Lord in worship. He calls us there. And therefore we ought to be there when He calls. There is no difficulty with that.
I also think that most of us would agree that there can be circumstances where, what at other times may be considered inappropriate, can be accepted. I think here of someone who has been hurt and cannot wear “normal” clothes. I also think of people new to the gospel who may well wear clothes which at other times would be considered not right for church. We are not going to write about those things. Those are the exceptions.
But what should be the rule? How should brothers and sisters in the faith appear before the Lord?
How they used to dress
In olden days – say, when your grandparents were young – it was considered normal for the women to wear dark clothes, a hat and, in some instances, gloves to church. Men wore a black suit, a hat or cap, which was removed before they entered the church building. Without a doubt this was a tradition, because nowhere in the Bible will you find exactly how we should dress for church.
The question is, does such a tradition have any value? Does it make any difference to how we experience the church service? I could answer these questions with a simple, no. There is indeed little value in tradition for tradition’s sake. And it may well be that those people long ago did not really experience a church service much different to today.
But is that really the questions we should ask? I don’t think so.
Why did they dress this way?
The question that is much more important is, why did our grandparents consider the way they dressed important? The answer to that question lies in how they regarded church and church going. When they went to church they recognized that they were going there to meet with the Lord. They recognized the importance of this event. They wanted to show in their outward appearance that their hearts were reaching out to the God of their salvation.
Someone may, at this point, ask me the question, did they really think about these things? Or was this simply the way they dressed for any important occasion?
Again I would have to agree. People in those days were much more inclined to dress up. That has indeed changed. During hot summer days there are not many who would go to a meeting wearing a coat and tie. If you need to sit in a stuffy room for some hours you want to be comfortable.
We can also note that our grandparents lived – most of them – in a different climate. They lived in Europe, most probably in the Netherlands which has different climatic conditions from those experienced in Canada or Australia.
So all these things need to be taken into account when considering how we should dress.
I also recognize that many today would say that no one can tell someone else what is appropriate. We live in a time that is sometimes called the ME generation. You know, “if it feels good, do it!!” That is what we are told by the various influences which surround us. Also in the church we are being influenced by this attitude through the media, the press, TV and magazines. Whereas once one would only see Christian magazines in our homes, today that has changed somewhat. The world has come into our homes. We need to be aware of these bad influences. We are in the world but not of this world. All of us need to examine ourselves with regard to these matters.
But is there a standard of dress that is acceptable in church? Can we lay down some rules to which everyone should adhere? Yes and no. Let us look at some very general rules.
I recently had an e-mail sent to me by someone who was responding to a comment I had made in an online Reformed forum about the weather in Australia. He wrote to tell me that where his brother lives, somewhere in central Canada, it is always 40 degrees, either plus or minus.
I have for some time held the view that the way we dress in English-speaking countries has largely been determined by the way the people in the cold and clammy English isles dress. Hence we wear a suit for formal occasions and inevitably a tie around our neck.
That may not be the best way to dress when it is extremely hot. I notice that in the state of Israel people attend cabinet meeting without a tie. Just an open necked shirt, either short or long sleeves. It is only sensible to dress for the climate – I do not think it essential to wear a suit with shirt and tie at all times.
That does not eliminate my concern with some of the outfits seen at church. There is such a thing as too informal, or too casual. Therefore I do not consider it right to appear in church with t-shirts, or sports attire and similar clothing
Another interesting observation. When sports stars receive their annual awards it is inevitably done at a formal occasion where dinner suits and bow ties are the order of the day.
While this is an area which should really be addressed by a lady, I guess even men can be dressed in an immodest way. There is little doubt that our ladies need to consider modesty when dressing, and not only for church. It seems to me that some ladies have little idea how their form of dress affects the opposite sex. It is not for nothing that Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2:9 “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” Why did Paul write this? Because he was an old stick in the mud? I don’t think so. Paul wrote this because he recognized the dangers in such immodesty. Let our ladies be aware of it and remember it when they clothe themselves.
I mentioned at the beginning of my article the dream of a young lawyer. Weekly we appear before the LORD of hosts, before Him who is far greater, and much more important than any judge or ruler on earth. He is obviously much more important than any sports star or star of the stage or the big screen.
Each week we may appear before our LORD who owns us, body and soul, but who at the same time is our Father, who has bought us with the blood of His Son, our Lord and Savior. Shall we then, not consider these things when dressing for church on Sundays? Or for that matter, whenever we appear before Him in worship?
I realise, of course, that we are never out of His sight. He sees us wherever we are, He sees us at work, at play, at home and away from home. And at all times He wants to be proud of us. After all we are His children. Maybe each of us should ask ourselves this question: will our Lord, our Savior, our Father in heaven be proud of us in the way we dress, in the way we act, in the way we talk? He is, when all is said and done, far more important and should be far more important to each of us, than any person or group of persons on earth!
Let that be reflected in all we do and say.
Having reached the end of our article let me ask one question again. Is there an appropriate way of dressing for church?
Our way of dress should reflect the importance of the occasion. It should reflect that we come into God’s presence. Worship is a joyful, that indeed, but also a very solemn occasion. Joyful because we meet with our Savior, solemn because this Savior is also far greater than any person on earth. He is after all GOD.
A version of this article first appeared in the March 2000 issue of Reformed Perspective. Rene Vermeulen was a regular columnist for the magazine from 1984 to 2010.