Dress Codes

by Jeffrey W. Hamilton

Why do we pull out our best clothing each Sunday in preparation for attending services? Many of us have our "Sunday Best" – those outfits reserved for Sundays and other special occasions. The thought of attending services in anything but our best clothing is so repulsive that many people would rather miss service than to show up in anything less than suitable.

To be sure, the peer pressure is great. In my younger days, women were expected to wear a modest cut dress to Sunday services. I remember the dismay that pervaded a congregation in my youth when a woman who wore only pants suits began attending services. It didn't seem to matter that pants suits had been in style for quite a while. In fact, I'm sure that every woman in the congregation had at least one pants suit in her closet. It also didn't matter that the woman didn't even own a dress at that time. Nor did the fact that no man would be caught in one of these outfits. People were upset that she wasn't wearing a dress to services.

Men also had a dress code. They were expected to wear at least a tie on Sunday, though a full suit was considered more proper when serving at the Lord's table or when preaching from the pulpit. You could get by without a tie at mid-week services, but never on Sunday. I knew of two congregations where a man would not be called upon to serve at the Lord's table if he was not wearing a suit.

We started asking why do we have such traditions? Frequently, I'm told that we ought to "give our best to the Master." I tried to find this phrase in the Scripture, but it doesn't exist. It seems to be based on some of the principles in the Old Law which regulated sacrifices. In Deuteronomy 17:1, the Israelites were told not to sacrifice flawed animals. God expected a Jew to offer up the best of his flock. Even in criminal justice, a robber repaid his victims with the best that he had (Exodus 22:5). Giving up something that won't be missed is not much of a sacrifice. A true sacrifice involves giving up something that we care about. It shows God that we care for Him more than any material possession.

Can this principle be applied to dressing up on Sunday? What sacrifice is being made when we try to look our best before men? Except for the poor, owning and wearing a nice outfit does not cause any hardship. Except for little boys, most of the people seem to enjoy putting on their finery. Therefore, dressing up on Sunday can't be compared to the sacrifices that the Jews made under the Old Law.

Another common argument is that Sunday is a special day and as such deserves special attire. Please think about this carefully: when we dress up on Sunday, are we striving to please God or are we trying to please the people who will see us? Jesus taught us to quietly serve God and not to call attention to ourselves (Matthew 6:1-5). We are not to show off our piety before men.

There is one passage that discusses attire at the worship service – James 2:1-13. James very plainly states that no one is to discriminate on the basis of what another is wearing. If we do so:

  1. We show partiality, and so are judges with evil thought;
  2. We dishonor the poor;
  3. We break the law to love our neighbor as ourselves; and
  4. We are showing no mercy.

Some believe this passage only applies to strangers in our midst. Regular members should dress appropriately. However, James makes no such distinction in this passage.

God is impartial between rich and the poor. Being rich does not give a person any special privileges (Job 34:19). Rather, God accepts all who fear him and do his will (Acts 10:34).

Being poor is not shameful. We can be short on funds, but rich in spirit (Revelation 2:9). Yet, people insult the poor when they require a minimum standard for attire in the worship service. Don't they realize that the poor will find their way to God before the rich? God has chosen the poor, so that no one can find cause to boast (I Corinthians 1:26-31). God promised to treat us as we have treated others (Luke 6:37-38). What awaits those who exclude Christians from participation in the worship because they think their attire is not satisfactory?

God has not set a standard for the quality of our attire. Some don't mind that a few cannot afford good clothes, but ... "at least wear the best that you have" or "at least wear clean clothes to church " However, take a look at James again. The poor man in the example came in "dirty clothes" (NASB), "shabby clothes" (NIV), or "filthy clothes" (NKJV). In John 7:24, Jesus said that judging by appearances was wrong. It is wrong to judge a man by just what we see and it is wrong to judge a man by just what he wears.

Does this mean that a Christian may wear whatever he desires? No, God does set guidelines that we must follow, not just in worship but in all aspects of our lives. In I Timothy 2:9-10 Paul instructs women select clothing that exemplifies three qualities: modest, propriety, and moderation. The word “modest” comes from the Greek word komios, and it refers to things that are orderly, showing good behavior, or respectable. “Propriety” is from the word aidos, and means to have a sense of shame, bashfulness, or reverence. “Moderation” is from the word sophrosune; it means having good sense, a soundness of mind, and a display of self-restraint. Sensual or lewd attire is ruled out by these guidelines. It doesn’t demonstrate the Christian’s way of life (Ephesians 4:17-24). Nor should Christians select outfits that puts their wealth on display (I Peter 3:3-4). Nor should we chose clothes that demonstrate rebellion against the standards of society (I Thessalonians 5:14). Society does have informal rules of conduct governing correct behavior, including respectfulness demonstrated in the selection of clothing.

God sets the guidelines, but we run into problems when fashion changes. There was a time that you would never see a salesman without a tie. Today, the wearing of ties is becoming increasingly rare. At one time, women always wore dresses – especially in public. Now dresses are reserved for formal occasions. Yet, some brethren, remembering the old standards, insist that anything different is disrespectful. We must be very careful not to enforce our opinions as if they were God’s commandments (Matthew 15:9). If a congregation insists that its members wear ties or dresses, what will they do when ties and dress go out of fashion? And they will go out of fashion – they certainly weren’t around in Jesus’ day. When Christians set specific standards not found in the Scriptures, is it any different from the Pharisees establishing detailed rules concerning what precisely constituted work on the Sabbath or how to avoid becoming unclean?

If we take a look at the song, "Give of Your Best to the Master," we can find excellent instruction on what true sacrifice involves. We need to dedicate the best time of our lives to God instead of time that is convenient for us. Solomon instructs us to serve God while we are still young and have the energy to serve well (Ecclesiastes 12:1). If we wait until we are older, we won't be able to do as much as when we were young. We have so little time on the earth. We need to spend that time wisely (Ephesians 5:16, Psalm 90:12).

We also need to give God the best place in our lives. Jesus instructs us to put the kingdom of God first in our lives (Matthew 6:33). The church is more important than food, clothing or other things that we may deem as necessities. Paul instructed Timothy to give himself wholly to reading, exhortation, and to doctrine (I Timothy 4:14). If we have our priorities straight, all of our day-to-day cares will take care of themselves. However, if things like work become more important to us than serving God, we will lose the most important thing of all -- our souls.

God is not asking for anything more than what He has already given us. He gave the best that He had, his Son, so that we might be brought back to His fold. God gave us such an incredible gift, not because we were something special, but because we were so undeserving of His love. Even when we return the best that we have to God, it is too small a gift to repay God for his rich blessings. Can we give back to God anything less than the best that we have? We must give God our true best, not fancy clothing at worship, but whole-hearted service to our Master.