One of my favorite books of 2020 is Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices. This book has so many references to historic works, writings, and sentiments as to be dizzying, and the only way to deny what is written is to purposefully put ones head in the sand.
One of the interesting topics mid-way through the book is that of Dressing Up for Church, and the Garb of the Clergy. No doubt, anyone who has been involved in Christianity has seen this and experienced it to some degree. Either in the oddly concrete belief that you have to ‘Dress your best for God!”, or the throw-back to Old Testament Priesthood that the Clergy must wear certain robes during liturgy to mark their office.
And in modern decades, the movement has turned to dressing more informally. Ironically, this sentiment of dressing your best is a rather new phenomenon and is a result of western affluence, the invention of the ‘middle class’ and modern industry.
Some Christian groups in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries resisted this cultural trend. John Wesley wrote against wearing expensive or flashy clothing. The early Methodists so resisted the idea of dressing up for church that they turned away anyone who wore expensive clothing to their meetings. The early Baptists also condemned fine clothing, teaching that it separated the rich from the poor.Viola, Frank. Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices (p. 147). Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.. Kindle Edition
The bulk of my religious experience was in a more old-school and fundamental sense where dressing in suit and tie was seen as the minimum and people only showed up in jeans or other clothing if they had to come late to service from work.
For those of us in choir, or any ‘platform’ ministry (the platform is another enlightening topic of this book!) we had to wear our best, and I even remember times the older pastor saying, “If your shoes aren’t polished, don’t bother showing up!”‘
I also remember among the older generation of ministers, it was ‘code’ that preachers only wore white non-patterned dress shirts. The new fad of wearing patterned, striped and colored dress shirts was frowned upon. A strange mix of Puritan thought (Black and White) of not being flashy while still practicing the social-status art of ‘looking your best’.
When Did It Begin?
This truly was a foreign concept to the early church and in fact, Paul alludes to this in 1 Timothy 2:9 where he commands women to “adorn themselves with respectable apparel, not with ‘gold’ or ‘pearls’ or ‘expensive clothing.'”. (1 Tim 2:9)
In truth, this was a part of society throughout history, but what changed in the 17th century was the dispersal of wealth. Prior, especially during the Middle Ages and prior, only the very wealthy and elite class could afford to dress up. The majority of the worlds population was comprised of the peasant class who could not afford any other clothing than what they wore daily, and no doubt it wouldn’t come close to today’s “Sunday Best”.
This changed however with the invention of the mass textile manufacturing methods that developed in budding urban society. Making mass-produced clothing more disposable and affordable, the lower to middle class could now sport a wardrobe. And in truth, it seems that just like today, it was used to keep up with the Jones’.
The newly born middle class could now emulate the aristocratic society, envying the richer lifestyle. To display their new status, they could “Dress Up” for social events.
According to Pagan Christianity? and references, this all came to it’s climax in 1843 when an influential Congregational minister in Connecticut published an essay called, “Taste and Fashion.” The argument was that refinement and sophistication (as seen through dress/habit) were attributes of God and thus, Christians should emulate them. And this gave birth to the still present non-biblical concept that dressing up for Church was honoring to God.
Like the majority of accepted Church practice (even the fringe-edge Fundamentalists who practice rigid dress control) this is a result of being influenced by the culture surrounding the body. Today we “suit up” for church without asking why.
What is wrong with Dressing Up?
If I was speaking to the Fundamentals, I would turn their own arguments on them. Such as “wearing makeup is just pretending to be something you are not.” Dressing up for church tends to be a way to be someone different (sophisticated and refined) on Sunday, that you aren’t Monday-Saturday.
But as the book notes, the real and true argument is that it reflects a false division between the Secular and the Sacred.
To think that God cares one whit if you wear dressy threads on Sunday to “meet Him” is a violation of the New Covenant. We have access to God’s presence at all times and in all circumstances. Does He really expect His people to dress up for a beauty pageant on Sunday morning?Viola, Frank. Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices (p. 148). Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
It seems that dressing up for Sunday Service is an embarrassing act of Image Management. And let’s face it, as humans, this is a sin of pride. Every time my old fellowship put on a conference, EVERY person went out to buy a new outfit. They absolutely had to have the newest and best clothing for the big get togethers.
And in fact, I know some who literally left embarrassed and returned outfits angrily because someone else showed up to the conference wearing the same thing. The root of this is undoubtedly the sin of pride. And I think we are all guilty. When I bought my first BMW, I drove through town with a huge sense of pride. I’m glad to no longer have that vehicle, it displayed in myself something wrong.
Thirdly, dressing up for Sunday fosters an illusion, that we are somehow “good” people because we look better than other people. In fact, one of the last messages I heard preached at a Fundamental church was dedicated to pantomiming and making fun of those ‘fake preachers’ who wear jeans, an un-tucked shirt, who sit on bar stools and give pretty ‘sermonettes’.
The judgment was clear. The litmus test of a valid preacher vs. an invalid preacher was how he dressed, if he stood behind a pulpit and maintained formalism, not the content of his message or the health of the Body.
This is dehumanizing and pretentious. It creates social distinctions that are not supposed to exist in the Body of Christ. So strong was this belief in the early Church, that James rebuked believers who were treating Rich Saints better than Poor Saints. (James 2)
Even Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for the pretense of ‘looking good’ for the sake of being noticed. (Matthew 23) And when Christ sent out the disciples for ministry (Luke 9, Matthew 10) he commanded them not to take extra clothing, such as two tunics. During that age, having multiple tunics was a sign of wealth and social status
And indeed – this was the rebuke of the Pharisees that was leveled at Christ – that He and His Disciples were not honoring the ‘traditions’ of the elders, which included behavioral and dress standards, which smacks of the same fundamentalism taught in some circles today. (Mark 7)
The real and final conclusion about this particular topic is the danger of creating ‘classes’ of Christians based on dress. As my former associations do all the day long, we classify saints based on what they choose to wear and/or can afford to wear, rather than the fruits of the spirit being expressed in their lives.
And this can be reverse legalism! It used to be that if you weren’t dressed well enough, you must not be spiritual enough! And in modern times, we can almost say that if you are dressed nice, you are stuffy and fundamental!
It used to be said that if you drink, smoke, and play cards, you must not be Spirit-Led. And today, we can say, if you don’t drink, or smoke, or play cards, you are bound by legalism and not a truly ‘Free’ Christian.
This was the very reason Jesus broke down religion, why the veil of the temple was torn and destroyed. Because it created a separation of class, the holy, and the unholy.
Thus, there isn’t anything wrong with dressing up for Church, but there could be everything wrong with dressing up for church! Is that really you, or a show? Are you trying to display something/someone you aren’t? Is Sunday really different than Monday? Is who we are different one day to the next?
Only you can answer that.