Clothed for church

April 6, 2016

Ellen and I were married on February 15, 1975.  I was in the military and came home three days before the wedding.  As you can imagine there was much to do in those few days.  Because I had been 5000 miles away I played a very small part in preparing for the festivities.  One of the responsibilities Ellen and I took on was to go pick her sister Nancy up from college in Wooster, OH a couple of days before the wedding.  I recall two events from that trip.  First, I was not very experienced at driving so looking occasionally at the gas gauge was not a discipline I had mastered yet.  Yep… right outside of Wooster we drifted to the side of the road.  I have no recollection of how we got gas, but eventually we got going again.  When we finally got to Nancy’s dorm we asked where we could go to get something to eat.  She only knew two places.  One was McDonalds and the second was a place called “The Wooster Inn.”  None of us were up for (or shall I say “down” for) McDonalds, so we decided to give the Inn a go.  I was dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt.  I don’t think Ellen or Nancy were much fancier.  We should have had some sort of a clue when we drove up to the large stone edifice and saw women wrapped in dead animals being dropped off at the front door from Mercedes and Cadillacs.  It took only a moment’s observation once inside (and a few stares) to realize we were woefully underdressed.  But being young I would have been too embarrassed to walk out.  One might wonder why I wasn’t too embarrassed to stay there!  I know.  I don’t get it either.

This raises the issue of “dress.”  Can we agree that dress in any circumstance is 100% cultural?  I mean whatever standard you use for whatever situation you are in regarding dress is totally dictated by the current culture.  Right?  I had a conversation with someone recently who works in Wooster.  I mentioned the story above.  Know what she said?  “Oh, well, the Wooster Inn isn’t like that anymore.  You can wear most anything.”  No doubt some will respond with a “what a shame.”  Yeah, maybe so, but it is what it has become so wishing and pining for yesteryear doesn’t change reality.

This conversation makes me think of one of THE most shallow issues in The Church, i.e., what people wear.  Seriously?!  You know what I mean don’t you.  There are some who would argue that we ought to be dressed to go to the Wooster Inn in 1975 when we go to church.  “We ought to wear our very best for God.”  Um… show me that in the Bible.  I have a tux in my closet.  Why are we not advocating for that, along with ball gowns?  Aren’t they our “very best?”  I suspect what we really mean is this, “Everybody ought to wear what I deem to be appropriate on Sunday mornings.”  And what I deem to be appropriate has something to do with the culture in which I grew up.  And even that doesn’t apply much any longer.  I don’t recall one woman with a hat (bonnet) this past Easter… not to mentioned white gloves or corsages.  Know what I mean?

Listen… I’m not saying that we ought to dig up the sewer in our front yard early Sunday morning and then take a break to attend church in the same clothes.  However, the N.T. is filled with examples of people coming to Jesus with less than stellar resumes and all He did was love them.  Blind people, “crippled” people, lepers, prostitutes, misguided religious leaders… Jesus welcomed them all into his presence.  I don’t recall one example of him fussing about what they were wearing.

Honestly… this clothing debacle comes across as simply arrogant rich people, i.e., “dress up to my standard or get the heck out of here.”  I know, I know… YOU are not rich.  Let me dispel that.  If you live in the USA, you/we are RICH.  As a matter of fact you/we are likely in the top 2% of wealth in the world.

Let’s remember something… the church is not your house (or mine).  You can have any standards you want in the place you live.  The Church is God’s house.  He sets the rules.  He sets the standards.  It seems pretty clear that God is much more concerned with what is inside of you than what is outside of you.  And that’s really the point of all of this.  Frankly the “clothing” issue is not what it once was but our focus on outward things still runs hot and heavy.

Read and meditate on these words of Jesus found in Matthew 15.

You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

“‘These people honor me with their lips (clothing?),     but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain;     their teachings are merely human rules.

Our Faith is not about our outward behavior or our human rules… it’s about our hearts.  If our hearts are critical and hateful, then it seems to matter little to God what kind of clothes we wear or what we claim about our beliefs.  Let us pray that God radically changes our hearts, not our clothes or the clothes of those around us.



6 thoughts on “Clothed for church

  1. Interesting, Bill. I assume you are writing about a predominantly white congregation; or am I wrong? There is a tradition in many black churches of dressing to the nines, but I think it stems from a very different cultural understanding than that found in many, if not all, white churches; it comes from a tradition of trying to live up to the best in themselves, of being the “talented tenth” after generations of being oppressed and denigrated. A whole other paper, or book could be written about that. It is still a cultural phenomenon in many places, especially in the Deep South, where segregation and oppression were the most entrenched. It was brought to the North by black families escaping the Deep South during the Great Migration.

    I had an interesting experience along the lines of your message. For years, at Broadway Presbyterian Church in NYC, I insisted of dressing “down”, or quite casually – sleeveless tee shirt under a sports jacket, jeans, work boots. Because I worked for the church as their sexton and had to carry vats of coffee and take out the trash and sweep the steps, etc., I thought it unfair to make me dress up. And nobody did make me dress up. But a few of the old ladies took offense; they never said anything mean, but they clearly didn’t like it. One day in Bible Study I went through the verses where Paul talks about food, and the idea of eating foods such as to not offend the “weaker” in the faith. I understood that the highest calling of all was to sublimate my desire to express myself in order to lead others to worship without distraction. After that I put on a tie.

    Christopher Fay
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    Homestretch has earned many honors including the Governor’s Best Housing Program in Virginia Award, the Blue Diamond Award from the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce for Outstanding NonProfit, and awards from Leadership Fairfax, Volunteer Fairfax, and the Washington Post; and Homestretch has been selected three times for inclusion in the Catalogue for Philanthropy. Homestretch is a member of the United Way and Combined Federal Campaign.

  2. Yes, I believe that God does not care what kind of clothes we wear to church but, that the clothes we do wear cover the body parts that should be covered at all times in public places. 🙂

  3. Most people say that we should dress up out of respect for Christ. But how do you define dressing up. Is a tie enough? Or do you need a suit as well? Do nice jeans count? Or do you have to have slacks? Flat front or pleated? Cuffed or not? Shirt tucked in or out? What about sweater vests? Just kidding about that last one. But I think you may get my point because I could go on and on. What one person considers dressing up may not be consistent with what other people think. Very quickly you start down a road that leads to legalism and pride. You also start down a road that causes division between generations. What most 20 year olds consider nice, most 50 year olds would not even consider wearing, and the reverse is true as well. What I would wear to a job interview is very different from what an older person would wear. Why, because we grew up in different eras.

    1 Samuel 16:7 ESV

    But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

  4. Mr. Bill….for the past few years, Linda and I have been attending a Cowboy Church here in Celeste. The question of “how to dress” would really be put to bed if some of the stuffier parishoners would spend a Sunday with us. It’s Texas, some of the attendees are actual ranch hands, others small farm owners who spend time working with their animals before church (the animals get hungry on Sunday morning too). Not everyone has the time to get “spiffied up” before church. True, I’ve seen nobody with “barn mud” on their boots, but there’s always a few that look like they changed boots, combed hair, washed hands and face and came to church. And Yep…our preacher wears a cowboy hat during the service (most men do too) and you always know when it’s time for prayin’ when the preacher takes off his hat!….

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