My Response to the Critics – Should We Still Dress Our Best for Church?

With 20K clicks in just 24 hours my last article, Should We Still Dress Our Best for Church? quickly became AV’s second most read post (second only to this article). It’s still getting thousands of interactions a day, and no one is more stunned than I am about it. Often, the articles I think will be the most interesting are overlooked, and the ones I throw together quickly gain insane levels of interest.

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I’ve received tons of feedback about the article (more personal responses than any other post). To be fair, much of it has been very kind and supportive. Quick thanks to those who visited the French Thread store.

On the other hand, I received a lot of criticism. Some were well thought out, well-intentioned, and interesting. Others were thoughtless and hateful. My little “…latte sipping, skinny jean, cashmere wearing liberals…” jab probably deserved some good counter punches. I don’t mind criticism, it comes with the territory. You shouldn’t write, speak, sing, or preach publicly if you’re thin skinned.

Two things did surprise me though; the very strong emotions that people feel concerning church attire (among other things, I’ve been called legalistic, hateful, egomaniac, haughty, jerk, old-fashioned, and my personal favorite… parasitical), and the knee-jerk reactions of the critics (many responded to the article simply by reading the title and not the content). How can you debate against a proposal that you haven’t considered? It confirms that our culture is highly opinionated yet tremendously under studied. Opinions steeped in feelings rather than reflective thinking provoke strong emotional outbursts.

I usually do not write follow up responses to my own articles, but the lively debates have exposed several key issues that I feel need to be addressed and a few clarifications that need to be made. This post will probably seem a little more disjointed than my usual writings and for that, I apologize. It’s simply easier to respond to the critics in one public setting rather than give the same responses over and over again in private messages.

Clarifications & Response to the Critics: Let me be very clear, I do not believe that wearing a suit and tie will save you. I have known many tremendous Christians who didn’t wear suits or ties to church. They did, however, dress respectfully in what they considered their best.

For those who accused me of “adding” to the Gospel; the article in question was not a theological discourse. It was a thoughtful discussion about what is “best” and most appropriate for corporate worship. Mainly, what is “most” favorable for fostering a respectful and worshipful environment, which should be the goal of every church service. Essentially, I was speaking culturally about spiritual things. I know. I know. Cultural debates are dangerous… just try preaching about Christianity’s ongoing love affair with sports, Hollywood, sex, and immodest fashion trends.

I do acknowledge that there is some room for debate in regards to what respectful attire looks like in American culture. The article was directed towards Western Christians who already have a deep relationship with God. I also affirm that non-believers should “come as they are” but my prayer is that God will transform them with His Spirit (internally and externally). The demoniac ran to Jesus from the tombs naked and tormented, but left clothed and in his right mind (Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20). My experience has been that ultra-casual church attire is accompanied by ultra-casual worship, and ultra-casual worship is a symptom of casual dedication.

Interestingly, when Jacob and his family went back to Bethel (literally translated, the house of God) they did four things: they got rid of their idols, they cleaned up, they changed their clothes, and they buried their earrings (Genesis 35:1-4). Concerning Genesis 35:2 the Adams Clark Commentary says:

“Personal or outward purification, as emblematical of the sanctification of the soul, has been in use among all the true worshippers of God from the beginning of the world. In many cases the law of Moses more solemnly enjoined rites and ceremonies which had been in use from the earliest ages.”

Several people have objected to dressing “up” for church out of concern for how the poor or homeless might feel in the service. That’s a noble sentiment when genuine, although it’s often used as a red herring argument. First, dressing our best doesn’t have to be expensive or trendy. Second, I’ve been to many “hip” churches that dressed very casually but their shoes cost more than my whole outfit. You can make people uncomfortable in hundreds of little ways. Third, if you live your life by this standard you should apply it to the car you drive and the house you live in because all those things could make a poor person feel uncomfortable.

I’ve seen many poor homeless people find salvation who desperately wanted to rise out of their situation, not stay stuck there. In fact, sometimes they feel like people are condescending when they try to be “like” them (think Gucci faux grunge in the soup kitchen). The key is to treat people from every walk of life with true love and compassion. People can tell if you really care whether you’re wearing a tie or a T-Shirt.

Every culture has a type of attire that is culturally deemed respectful or dressy and conversely every culture has attire that is designed to be rebellious and disrespectful (think jeans that intentionally sag down to the knees). You don’t have to be a genius to know that fashion designers intentionally design clothes to make a statement of some kind. T-Shirts are just walking advertisements. There’s even a style of dress commonly referred to as a “cocktail” dress.

It would be intellectually dishonest to ignore the reality that there are types of clothing that are culturally speaking, inherently disrespectful and vice versa. For example, most American citizens still put on a suit and tie to meet the president of the United States at the White House. Why? As a symbol of respect and honor for the position (even if they don’t like the man).

Nevertheless, there’s an astonishing theme that I’ve noticed trending from the most vehement objectors; many people do not believe that a church service is special or worthy of respect or any kind of special consideration. Most of these objectors acknowledge that certain clothing is more respectful than others, but maintain that it is irrelevant because a Sunday service is no more important than getting coffee (or a beer) with friends who happen to be Christians.

Their arguments stem from the assumption that the early Church was incredibly informal and that the whole Sabbath thing is so “Old Testament” and therefore, completely immaterial. Any other view is considered by them to be pharisaical and legalistic (by the way, that whole “legalism” thing gets taken out of context way too often, but that’s another subject for another day).

So, what about the early Church? What about the Lord’s Day? Is Sunday special or not? These are incredibly important questions with far-reaching ramifications. Early Christians considered resurrection Sunday to be a spiritual embodiment of the Sabbath (here’s a great article that delves deeper into that subject). John the Revelator called it the “Lord’s Day (Revelations 1:10).” Literally translated, the “Lord’s Day” means “the day belonging to the Lord.” Markedly, the Holy Ghost was first poured out on a Sunday (Acts 2:1-36). Early Christians viewed the Lord’s Day with the same pious reverence with which they had previously observed the Old Testament Sabbath.

Consider how the writer of Hebrews speaks of the Church:

“Wherefore we having received a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear (Hebrews 12:28).”

Clearly, we are to view the things of God and his Church with veneration and admiration.

Furthermore, Jesus did not say, “The gates of Hell shall not prevail against you or me.” He said, “…I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).”

Consider another important Scripture that gives us a glimpse into the way the apostles viewed the Church:

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:14-15).”

The apostle Paul was emphasizing certain parameters that should be observed within the house of God. Early church services were not unplanned gatherings without leadership or organization. It wasn’t just a coffee break or an informal get-together. It was the sacred assembly of God’s holy people (here’s an easy to read article on the biblical distinctions between private and public worship).

Private worship is important but not to the exclusion of public worship. They serve different purposes and they are both imperative to the Christian life. This is a topic that deserves a lot more attention but for the sake of time let’s move on.

The most common objections came from people who don’t think God cares how we dress under any circumstances. Modesty to them is pure legalism. Any kind of outward holiness is loathsome. Their favorite verse in the Bible just happens to be an Old Testament verse, which I find interesting because this same crowd typically preaches to me about how we are no longer bound by anything in the Old Testament. They usually misquote a fragment of the verse as saying, “God doesn’t look at the outward appearance; He “only” looks at the heart.”

Does God only look at the heart? This is an important question that every Christian can and should settle once and for all. Let’s look at the actual verse in question in the original context:

“But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).”

This is the scene where God was about to anoint young David through the prophet Samuel to be the next king of Israel. All Samuel knew is that one of Jesse’s sons had been chosen by God (1 Samuel 16:1). When he saw the older stronger brothers he naturally assumed one of them was God’s chosen. Especially because king Saul was a tall man with a kingly countenance (1 Samuel 9:2). But God didn’t want Samuel to make the mistake of choosing the wrong son just because of his appearance. God knew that David was a man after his own heart despite his youthful appearance and inexperience (1 Samuel 16:11-12).

1 Samuel 16:7 is among the most mishandled Scriptures in the Bible. The text does not indicate that God doesn’t care at all about the outward appearance. That would contradict dozens of Old Testament (Deuteronomy 22:5, 12, Exodus 28:42-43, Ezekiel 44:17, Proverbs 7:10, Hosea 2:13, Leviticus 19:28, Genesis 17:14) and New Testament passages (1 Timothy 2:9-10, 1 Peter 3:2-5, 1 Corinthians 11:1-15, Ephesians 4:19, Galatians 5:19, Romans 12:1-2).

The spiritual principle at work in 1 Samuel 16:7 is that God is not fooled or swayed by outward appearances alone. God is not impressed by the superficial. God has the supernatural ability to see beyond our exterior into our innermost being. He sees our true intentions, our deepest desires, and our secret longings. While man may see physical strength, God sees spiritual weakness. Where man may only see outward sincerity, God sees inward corruption. This is refreshing and sobering at the same time.

I whole heartedly believe in outward holiness, but without inward holiness, the outward is in vain. Genuine inward holiness will produce outward expressions of holiness as well. For example, I love my wife with all my heart and because of that it affects my outward actions towards her and for her. If I abused my wife that would be an outward display of inward problems. If I cheat on my wife that would be an outward display of inward problems. If I wear something she genuinely hates that would be an outward display of inward disregard. If I blatantly and publicly disrespect her that would be an outward manifestation of an inward problem. Avoiding those things is not legalism. It’s love.

This whole discussion has brought the issue of modesty into play several times. The hermeneutical law of first mention makes the issue of modest clothing incredibly important. Remember, after Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden they lost their innocence and realized they were naked. In response, they inadequately covered themselves with fig leaves (Genesis 3:7). God saw that they were still immodest so he personally made a coat of skins and clothed them sufficiently (Genesis 3:21). Modesty is a common theme that runs throughout the Old and New Testament.

One furious individual wrote to me and said, “I wanted to speak at my church and they told me I had to wear a collared shirt… talk about controlling.” Now I realize the Bible doesn’t condone collared shirts as sacred. And I realize collars aren’t necessarily evidence of sanctification, but doesn’t a church have the right to maintain a dress code of some kind? Most jobs have a dress code. Shouldn’t the church have some influence?

My daughter just had her first piano recital and she was given a very specific list of what-not-to-wear. We had no problem with that because we respect the institution’s stated goals of artistry and excellence. I’m not even going to bother with theological examples of authority and respect. Doesn’t common cultural decency inform us that we should have some deference to spiritual and secular authority? Apparently, it no longer does and that’s sad.

You’d be surprised how many people think that Jesus dressed like a bum! Yep. I’m getting tons of emails claiming that Jesus was the son of a carpenter and probably dressed like a poor country boy. The implication being that since Jesus was poor and likely dressed poorly we should too. One individual even claimed that carpentry should be a prerequisite for the ministry.

While I think, a good argument could be made that carpentry wasn’t necessarily poverty level, it is obvious in Scripture that Jesus came from humble beginnings. However, it has no bearing on the discussion at hand. Nowhere am I indicating that poverty stricken people should be financially irresponsible and buy fancy clothing before they attend church. Dressing “our” best may vary from person to person and from paradigm to paradigm.

Just to keep things interesting, let me throw out a little tidbit of information that many people overlook. As you probably know, the Bible doesn’t really say much about Jesus’ appearance or wardrobe. We can extrapolate some things based on the cultural norms of his time but that’s about it.

However, the Bible does make one mention of the Lord’s “seamless” garment (John 19:23). This is the garment that the soldiers gambled for amongst themselves. Why? Because a seamless garment was valuable. In fact, the consensus seems to be that this was the kind of garment usually owned by wealthy royalty (check out this short little article). I don’t think this means we should all go out and buy royal garments, I’m just saying Jesus apparently wasn’t running around in rags as many suggest.

The final objection that I’d like to address generally goes something like this, “Christians who wear suits and ties to church seem haughty, arrogant, and condescending.” Sometimes they follow up with a statement like, “It seems to me like a suit and tie fosters a spirit of vanity and showiness that would be unpleasing to God.” I know that this is often just a misperception, but I still think this is the one objection that has some real merit.

So, this is where I preach to my like-minded friends for just a moment. All our dressing up out of respect for the house of God is valueless if we don’t love and respect others (1 Corinthians 13:1). If we’re condescending, unkind, derisive, or prideful we have missed the point. My friends, I’m am imploring us all to speak the truth in love and demonstrate that holiness is inward as well as outward. If we respect God we will respect others (Matthew 7:12, Romans 12:10, Philippians 2:3, 1 Peter 2:17, John 13:34-35). Don’t let inward filth defile the beauty of outward consecration. Vanity is always wrong no matter what we’re wearing or not wearing.

Related Articles: The Difference Between Praise & Worship, 6 Descriptors of Genuine Worship, Don’t Play Past the Bike (Common Sense Theology), 9 Signs of a Prideful Heart, You Might Be a Carnal Christian If…, Right, Righteous & Self-Righteous Judgements (Knowing the Difference), If We Are What We Post (What Are We Saying)?, Is Technology Killing Theology?, A Pattern of Persecution (What Does Hollywood Have In Common With ISIS)?

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