Do They Know You By Your Suit?
Speaking on the matter of Christian freedom John Calvin said, “This is a slippery place, and there is great danger of falling on either side.”1 Too true! Christians face the duel temptation of excessive rule-making and inappropriate freedom-flaunting when it comes to matters that the Bible doesn’t explicitly address. Of course, neither is a biblical solution. Neither option promotes the freely-rendered, loving obedience for which the cross of Christ aims. For believers to flourish—especially those with differing convictions within the same congregation—there has to be a better way.
Rather than evaluate this matter in the abstract, let’s consider the sometimes “slippery” issue of convictions and practices related to how Christians dress for worship.
Christian A takes this approach: “Our God is a consuming fire whom we must worship with majesty and awe (Heb. 12:28–29). For those who meet with the king of Kings the proper worship attire is formal. After all, if I were going to meet the president I would wear my very best. I don’t want to convey to God or others that this meeting is casual or insignificant.”
Christian B sees it this way: “Our God is a Father to the fatherless (Ps. 68:5) who, in Christ, gathers his children as a hen gathers her chicks (Matt. 23:37). I meet with God saying, “Naked, [I] come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for help,” so formal attire might actually get in the way. I’m thankful that God imposes no dress code upon his children. After all, I never feel obligated to dress up for a family meal.”
Which attitude is right?
Or is that the wrong question?
As you read those two approaches to worship you might have sympathized with one more than the other. At the same time you recognized that both attitudes appeal to Scripture and seem to reflect a complementary rather than contradictory understanding of meeting with God. God is transcendent; he is also close. He is a King; he is also a Father. He is majestic; he is also loving. One of the last things we should want to do as God’s people is to ramrod into a single, uniform approach to God the abundant and diverse motifs God uses to help us understand him. Of course how we dress for worship can be a reflection of our hearts. But it is too simplistic to say that the more formal our dress the more we value worship or, conversely, the more casual our dress the more intimate we are with God.
Instead, what we should desire are houses of worship where people in “fine apparel” and those in “filthy clothes” (James 2:1–4)—and those in between—feel welcome meeting around the table of grace with their Father-King. Should it not be possible, in the same congregation, for some people to worship God with the modern equivalent of sackcloth and ashes while others honor him with their best robes? Each of us choose our Sunday clothes, if even subconsciously, based on how we process biblical metaphors for relating to God. We might be guests at a wedding, or children on Jesus’ knee, or courtiers in a palace, or a bride entering a bridegroom’s chamber. But as these metaphors take on garb, the threads need not be discordant. Instead, they can form a beautiful tapestry of Christian experience externally displayed in our dress.
To get to this point believers will need to learn to distinguish those actions that might have biblical warrant with those that are biblically required. I hope I have briefly demonstrated that a biblical case could be argued for both a more-formal and less-formal dress for worship. Both models might not equally resonate with every believer. But that fact is insufficient for attempting to squeeze others into our mold.
We also will have to learn to be comfortable expressing our faith differently on matters of moral indifference. Writing on Christian liberty Paul says, “Whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). He’s reminding us that in amoral matters we have to respect our consciences without imposing them on others. “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God” (v. 22; NAS). If a woman feels bound by her faith to wear a dress to church, then she ought to do so. If a man feels better able to express his faith in worship wearing jeans, then he should do so. On indifferent matters our personal faith can form guidelines for ourselves but not for others. As Calvin says, “The liberty of the Christian in external matters is not to be tied down to a strict rule” that everyone must follow.2 It would be wrong to say that God demands men to wear ties and jackets or that women must wear blouses, skirts, and dresses, and that shorts and informal clothing are inappropriate for worship. Most churches cannot avoid having a culture where a majority dresses either formally or informally. And, of course, these cultural mores vary between societies. But a culture is different than a code. The simple reality is, God doesn’t provide marks of a well-dressed man or woman.
While facilitating a culture of thoughtfulness, gratitude, simplicity, and modesty in our dress, let’s avoid making rules based on one facet of Scripture while ignoring others. Let’s be candid: Hypocrites can be found in “long robes” (Luke 20:46) and “old garments” (Josh. 9:5); the opposite can also be true. Let’s gladly recognize that the variety of worship attitudes recorded in Scripture are like a mosaic depicting the riches of restored worshiping humanity. Let’s appreciate why Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and their heirs so strongly promoted Christian liberty as a biblical tonic for the enslaving, demoralizing manmade regulations of the medieval church. Let’s pursue the shared quest of worshiping God with love and trust, and reverence and awe, without imposing on others what we should wear while doing so. Let’s learn to look past what others are wearing on the Lord’s Day and gaze instead on the beauty of Christ, rejoicing that he clothes his children with the garments of salvation and with robes of righteousness (Is. 61:10).
1. Institutes 3.10.1
2. Institutes 3.10.4