If you were to join my church on a Sunday morning, you would be met with a strange sight. It is a sight that can be found in many other churches too, but one that can only be described as strange nevertheless.
Some of the people there would be very well dressed. Others would be wearing clothes that could be described as smart casual. And yet another group, including myself, would be dressed in very casual clothes such as jeans and a T-shirt.
I can’t think of any other situation where we would find people dressed in such a wide variety of ways. Everyone would dress down to go shopping, for example, while everyone would dress well to go to a wedding. And we would never find two people who do the same job at the same place of employment turning up to work in a suit and jeans respectively. The sight in my church, then, can only be described as strange.
So, what does God make of how Christians dress at services of my church and at church services generally? Is it right to dress in a certain way? Or is it just preferable to dress in a certain way? Or is this issue even more complicated than that?
Arguments for dressing well
There are certainly some good arguments that can be made for dressing well at church services.
To begin with, we can note that when people go to a wedding or a funeral, they would never dream of going casually dressed, unless they only owned casual clothes. Weddings and funerals are rightly seen as very significant and important occasions, and dressing well is viewed as a way of demonstrating just how significant.
It is surely true that a Christian worship service is even more important than a wedding or funeral. We are meeting for the purpose of worshipping the one, true, almighty God. Given that it is considered appropriate in our culture to dress well on important occasions, there is surely a lot to be said for dressing well at worship services. It allows an outward demonstration of how important the occasion is.
Secondly, there is the matter of atmosphere to consider. When people dress casually for services, this can sometimes help to foster a casual atmosphere. And a casual atmosphere often means that God is not treated with the reverence He deserves. For another reason, then, I think there is a lot to be said for dressing well when Christians gather for worship.
If this was all there was to say on the issue, we could reasonably conclude that everyone should, if possible, dress well for worship services. However, things are not so simple. There are counter arguments that need to be considered too.
The Bible doesn’t instruct us to dress well
First, there is the fact that the Bible never tells Christians to dress well when they meet for worship. For example, there are no passages in the New Testament letters where believers are instructed to wear fine clothes when they gather.
In the absence of such teaching, it seems more natural to think that when the early Christians gathered for worship, they tended to wear the clothes that they would have worn most of the time.
This is admittedly not a conclusive argument. Nevertheless, it does carry some weight.
The letter of James
There is also a passage in James that has some relevance for this topic.
In James 2:2-4 James writes:
‘2 Suppose a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothes comes into your gathering, and a poor man in dirty clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing the fine clothes and say, “Here is a good seat for you”, but you say to the poor man, “Stand over there” or “Sit on the floor at my feet”, 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil motives?’
This passage most naturally seems to suggest that it would have been unusual for people to wear fine clothes (or dirty clothes) in Christian gatherings. It seems likely that James has chosen the wearing of fine clothes and the wearing of dirty clothes as two extremes that would not have been typical of the majority. Instead, the more natural impression is that Christians would normally have worn what they viewed as ordinary clothes.
Again, this isn’t a strong point. These verses certainly don’t amount to compelling biblical proof that Christians should dress casually in worship services.
Besides, the poverty of Christians is a theme in this letter (James 1:9-11; 2:5-6, 15-16; and probably 5:1-6). And it may well be that in 2:2-4 James is envisaging a situation where believers were typically so poor that they had no choice what to wear when their church met.
Nevertheless, what James says here should still be noted. He does most naturally give the impression that Christians would not have made a decision to dress well when they met.
The danger of focusing on external things
One danger of dressing well in worship services is that it can help lead to a wrong sort of focus. If too much effort is put into what is external, sometimes the focus can actually get onto the outward things themselves and away from God.
This was one of the major concerns of the Reformers in the 16th century. The Roman Catholic Church at that time put a lot of effort into making Christian things impressive externally, yet inwardly the professing Christians were mostly spiritually bankrupt. I think dressing well can potentially carry with it some danger of causing this kind of problem, although the danger is probably not that great.
Putting people off coming to services
Another problem with dressing well is that it can put people off coming to the services. For me as I consider this issue, this is the clincher and the reason why I dress casually for Sunday services.
Ever since I have been a Christian, in the churches I have been part of there have been people who have come along to worship services who are in various ways on the margins of society. Some have had severe mental health problems. Others have had bad drug problems. I think in some cases, not only is it unlikely that they owned any smart clothes, but they may well not even have owned any smart casual clothes.
No one would dispute that it is very embarrassing to be in a place where you are dressed differently from everyone else, whether over- or under-dressed. I am sure that if everyone went to worship services dressed in smart or smart casual clothes, some of the poor and marginalised people in society who might otherwise come along would choose not to.
Many of these people only have casual clothes. So when someone in this position sees people going to services dressed in the sort of clothes they don’t own, they steer clear of those services, even if they have some interest in attending. Not only would a church service be an unfamiliar environment, but they would have to look foolish to go to one, so they decide not to go through all that.
Even in the case of poor or marginalised people who do own some smart or smart casual clothes, there could be a similar problem. They may wear these clothes so rarely that the prospect of having to wear them to a church service might put them off going. They might think that dressing well would make the service an even more uncomfortable experience than they expect it to be anyway. They too may therefore decide not to bother.
In 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 Paul explicitly refers to non-Christians coming to church gatherings, and we should certainly expect the same often to happen today. Surely we should do what we reasonably can to make non-believers feel that they are welcome to join us. Besides, Jesus was well known in His ministry for associating with people who were on the margins of society. And as His followers we should take care not to put any barriers in the way of people seeking the truth.
In fact, as I write this I can think of one young man who has had a long history of problems and who has often been to Sunday services in our church. Every time he has come he has been dressed very casually, and if I had to guess, I think he might never have come along if everyone had been dressed even in smart casual clothes. Even if he had come along, I doubt that he would have done so as often as he has.
For me at the present time as I consider this issue, this is the most important argument. If I dress down, then I am welcoming people who only have casual clothes, or who are not used to wearing any other type of clothes, to join us.
I would suggest, then, that the stronger arguments support dressing casually for Christian worship services. Dressing well is likely to put some poor and marginalised people off coming along. And this is too high a price to pay.
Taking care to avoid a casual atmosphere
Although dressing down for services seems to be preferable, churches where people do this need to be careful. I have already said that dressing casually can foster a casual atmosphere. I do think this is a real problem in more than a few churches.
Leaders in churches where Christians dress casually need to make it clear to their flocks that doing this in no way means that services should be approached casually. Believers are still meeting to worship the awesome, infinite God.
Following our consciences
Despite what I have said in this article, I realise that many Christians would be uneasy about wearing casual clothes at a worship service. I do sympathise with those who feel this way. And as long as someone’s conscience is unclear about dressing casually for services, they should certainly not do this.
However, every Christian should be in the habit of putting things to the test. We should be continually evaluating all aspects of our lives, asking the Lord when and where we should modify what we do. I would therefore encourage those who are in the habit of dressing well in church services to reconsider their practice.