What is to be our understanding about how one should dress when we worship? It is without a doubt that our dress should be modest and clean, so as to not be a distraction to others or to unnecessarily draw attention to ourselves, but are we to make it a matter of how we worship?
I have a lot of experience as a Christian regarding this issue. As an usher at one church I was corrected for not wearing a proper white t-shirt under my white dress shirt, though I had a suit and tie!
There is no express instruction in the Scriptures to dress a certain way when it comes to doing worship. Those who wish to give command on the subject must use certain passages to argue that it is implied that we should dress a certain way. All sorts of rules may apply, from conforming to local custom to holy robes. Those who do argue that we should dress a certain way for worship argue that it is a matter of reverence. That is, that our clothing should communicate a reverence toward God.
We must stop and ask the following questions:
- Why Do We Have Clothing at All?
- What Did God Intend to Communicate Regarding Clothing?
- What is the Impact of Changing the Meaning of Clothing for the People of God?
Why Do We Have Clothing at All?
Regarding the subject of clothing, if we are going to base our understanding on the Word of God, we must start at the beginning.
Genesis 3:6,7 When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.
Clothing came to be because of the shame of our sinfulness. Upon our first parents rebellion, in which they died spiritually, they suddenly became profoundly aware that they were no longer clothed with the presence of God. Their sin had separated them from Him and the result was the profound awareness of being exposed, which is the sense of nakedness. The act of covering themselves was for the express purpose of covering or hiding their shame.
God Himself acknowledges that the shame of their nakedness was an important need and He then addressed it.
Genesis 3:21 The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.
The reason we have clothes at all is because we are guilty sinners and we are separated from God’s glorious presence because of our sin. Clothes exist because the reality of our sinfulness exists. Clothes were given to us to cover our shame.
What Did God Intend to Communicate Regarding Clothing?
When God gave us clothes it was to communicate that He was going to cover over our shame. It was a beautiful portrayal of what God would do for us in His Son the Lord Jesus Christ.
Galatians 3:27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
Clothing, according to the Scriptures, is to communicate only one thing: God’s gracious provision of covering our shame, because of our sin.
There is no other Scriptural message regarding clothing, as an authoritative message from God about clothing. Those who argue that we should dress up for our worship say that clothing communicates either reverence or irreverence. While it is true that our clothing can communicate all sorts of things, even things that we should not wish to communicate, dressing up can just as easily communicate a self-righteousness.
The point is what God intended clothing to communicate. We get into all sorts of problems when we fail to understand what the Scriptures emphasize. If we say that the Scriptures teach that clothing communicates reverence when we dress up we are setting up a false authority that will fail us. It is important to acknowledge that dressing up does not ensure a message of reverence. Consequently, each worshipper is to take into account their inward motive of the heart, under the general requirement of modesty, cleanliness, and of being inoffensive.
Having said that, are we to understand that God wants the men to wear a tie, put on a suit, and wear professional slacks and that the women should wear a dress in order to properly worship God reverently?
Again, are we communicating what God intended regarding our clothing or are we seeking to communicate something else?
It has been argued that just as God instructed the people of Israel to wash their clothing at Mount Sinai, before they were to appear before God, so we must understand that in order to worship God our clothes matter [Exodus 19:10-15]. Again, this fails to understand the original meaning of our clothes. They were to clean their clothes because it was to communicate that the Lord was cleaning them, not that they were offering a communication of reverence. Why were they not told to clean their bodies as well? The clothing had a symbolic meaning. Consider the following example from the minor prophet Zechariah, showing the symbolic nature of filthy clothing.
Zechariah 3:1-5 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. The LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments and standing before the angel. He spoke and said to those who were standing before him, saying, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” Again he said to him, “See, I have taken your iniquity away from you and will clothe you with festal robes.” Then I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments, while the angel of the LORD was standing by.
Imagine being Joshua for a moment. As God removed your filthy clothes He tells you that He has taken away your iniquity and then He clothes you in beautiful festal robes. Would you think that this was in order that you might then show reverence toward God? Is it about you doing something that is required of you in order to worship God correctly? Would it not simply be a matter of communicating that God had wonderfully cleansed you from your sin? Should we think any differently when it comes to what our clothes communicate?
When we meet together for worship is it about communicating something of ourselves toward God or it is about communicating something that God has done for us?
It is also argued that the priests of the Lord were given special details about their robes and therefore we ought to take care to dress accordingly, but this fails to understand that this has been exclusively fulfilled by our High Priest the Lord Jesus Christ. All that was given to the Aaron and the priests of Israel was a symbol fulfilled by Jesus!
The most prevalent argument that we should dress up, in order to properly worship God, is because of norms in our culture. It is argued that if our culture says that we should wear certain clothes at certain events, like weddings and funerals, then we should also dress that way when we meet to worship. It is a logical argument, but it is not a biblical argument. The problem with thinking this way is that it fails to understand that there is a fundamental difference between meeting at a secular meeting and meeting at worship. One is done one way, the other another way entirely.
There is only one way to worship, and that is according to the Spirit. When we go to a wedding or a funeral we do not do so according to the Spirit. Even if it is a Christian wedding or funeral this is not the same as a time of corporate worship. As Christians we recognize that we cannot worship God according to the flesh and that the cultural practices of our land cannot be of equal basis with what we have as Christians.
What is the Impact of Changing the Meaning of Clothing for the People of God?
What God intended as a message of redemption, the covering of our shame, men have made into an idol. The idolatry of clothing is seen in many ways, and ironically, it is practiced very readily by many professing Christians as an instrument of worship.
Instead of our clothing communicating how God provides for us an answer for our sin, clothing has become a thing in which men boast. It has become a thing that was not intended by God. God never intended us to then think, as we wore our clothes, that we were doing something that pleased Him in our worship!
This is why God rejected Cain’s offering and why He accepted Abel’s offering [Gen. 4:3-5]. Cain offered as an act of reverence toward God what he produced. Abel offered something that seemed very odd and would be taken as irreverent by any earthly lord. Let me explain. It was not until after the flood that mankind ate animals. Cain was a farmer, producing crops to eat and Abel kept flocks for the purpose of using their skins for clothing. Cain offered his work, the best of his crops as an offering, while Abel offered what symbolized the loss of life, the fatty portions of the animals he slaughtered. The first animals to die had been sacrificed for the purpose of clothing Adam and Eve, which was of God’s provision. Abel then took up this “priestly” occupation of keeping flocks for the urgent need for clothing. He did not offer to the Lord the very best of his materials for clothing, but he offered what symbolized what was necessary for God to provide, a sacrifice, in order to cover their nakedness.
The reason why God rejected Cain’s offering was that it communicated man’s work. The reason why God accepted Abel’s offering was that it communicated God’s work.
We must not forget the intended meaning of clothing that God gave to us. If we change the meaning of our clothing from God covering our shame to something that conveys what we bring to our worship, are we not following the example of Cain? If we adopt the view that when we wear certain clothes we are then doing something that God requires in order to worship Him, have we not made our clothes into a holy vestment?
Many well intentioned Evangelicals have unwittingly done what Cain did, ironically, with Abel’s clothing materials! They have taken what Abel made, clothing, and made it into something to offer to God! Why then should we think that God would be pleased with an offering of “reverence” through the medium of our clothing?
If we wear a tie and a suit how is that any different from wearing a holy vestment, if we are making it to communicate something toward God about us?
The impact of making clothing an instrument of worship is that it makes our worship something merely according to the flesh. It conveys the wrong message to the world.
John 4: 23,24 “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Imagine if Jesus had also said to the Samaritan woman, “…and be sure to wear only clothes that show reverence as well.”
The impact of making clothing a communication of whether or not we are showing reverence to God in our worship is that the people of God will become servants of men.
- “Look at that man over there, he is not dressed reverently!”
- “I am afraid what the pastor will say to me if I don’t wear a tie.”
The business world does place an emphasis on how professional one looks and for certain jobs one does have to wear a tie and dress appropriately, but do we want to communicate to the world that we are like them? Do we want to adopt ‘the principles for success’ that the corporate world adopts?
I would like to see our Christian churches revived in the sort of revival that occurred away from the established churches, that took place in barns, and in homes, where people met together under such a blessing of the Holy Spirit. I tell you the truth, when such real outpourings of the Spirit were found among the people they were not noticing how they were dressed! It is only when the people are dead spiritually that they revert to such outward measures of spirituality.