Does God Care What We Wear at Church?
I was born and grew up in Australia, saved in my teens, attending a church on university campus, a church planted by a pastor from the States. This last detail is important, because I would marry his daughter one day, explaining why we now live in America. But such details also help frame a cultural faux pas, a fun story, I would love to start with. “Flip flops” are called “thongs” in Australia—an important detail—because when a pastor and his wife visited from America and came for dinner, the question was asked by her: “How casual do college students dress for Sunday Night Church?” Someone fired back: “Casual! The guys wear thongs!” Judging from the look on her face, only one thing was on her mind: men in G-strings! We had some explaining to do.
Fortunately, I have never been part of a church where the dress code was that casual. But I have been in situations, and I have also heard of them too, where one might think a person has turned up in a G-string, given the reaction. What this seems to demonstrate is the importance of this topic. With a new wave of culture wars emerged in the U.S., we can ill afford to be fighting the wrong things as Christians. So what do we say? Is dress code a hill to die on? Here is a question we will now address.
Clearing the Air
First, let me clear the air a little (I hope), by noting one verse used to argue against casual dress: Exodus 19:10, where Israel was about to receive the ten commandments, and where they were told to wash their cloths in preparation. This was a holiness affair. The mountain could not to be touched, lest people die. And in conjunction, people needed to make sure they were physically clean. But what needs to be noted is how Hebrews 12 actually quotes this passage, but by way of contrast: “ “For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest… But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering.” The contrast here is between physical external elements of holiness, key to establish in the early days of God’s revelation of himself, at times when symbols were needed, compared with what the writer concludes of the current era, i.e. that it is an era where ultimate realities are unseen. In light of this, it seems extraordinarily unwise, reckless, to make much of any physical elements in Exodus 19:10, since this is what is being deconstructed in Hebrews 12.
So what Does the Bible say about Clothing in Church?
The bible actually says almost nothing about what we should wear in Church. There are general commandments about modesty (e.g., 1Peter 3:3-5). But these passages do not speak specifically of church gatherings, they are more general. This tells us something important, how even on modesty (though important in general) nothing specific needs to be said about church services. What is also striking is how, at times, the bible could make an issue, but does not. For example, in Nehemiah 8 when the people gathered to hear the law—the preached word—it was not holiness of dress mentioned, but holiness of celebration! And in 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul speaks specifically of men and women’s clothing, i.e. head coverings, he ends up saying nothing more, e.g., about formality of clothing. Then in James 2, where there is finally mention of fine clothing, it is not positive. In fact, this is presented as the gravest danger, threatening division in the church. The commandment ends up being that the poor man in shabby clothing must be treated the same.
People have made mustered all kinds of extra-biblical arguments too, about why we should wear things formal. I remember someone asking: “Would you wear that before the Queen?” The answer would be “Yes”, if I was one of her children and we were gathered as a family—which is who we are before God, his children, the family of the living God.
Should Dress Divide?
Frankly, it seems to me, that if certain older people chose to wear casual clothes, while others wore more formal attire, this would be good. On the flip side, different younger people could dress up and down depending. Likewise, someone of higher income could dress more casual, while others rich person could be more formal. And indeed, why not mix things up—casual one week, formal the next? This is our practice as a family. Some weeks when I preach at our church, I wear a suit. At other times I wear jeans. So it is when I am asked to pray, or indeed when we do nothing formal at the service that week. What we hope as a family to communicate is that dress is not the most important thing. What matters most to the Lord is what’s in our hearts (1 Samuel 16:7).
For this reason I like the nuancing in advice given by Clarrisa Moll in her article in TLG (2021). She instructs her children to ‘dress their best’, such that when her son came down in his favorite jersey, she is happy, because his heart was rightly directed. But equally, someone like me may be motivated to dress differently each week in order to be a help in communicate what matters. Or an older person may be choosing to dress casually to better connect with younger folk. Or a young person may choose to dress more formally to better connect with older folk. Or, again, someone (conscious of non-Christians present at church) may dress accordingly, so nothing offends but the gospel. Might not pastors keep this in mind, since they set the example and since they remain members of Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12)?
In Revelation 19:8, we are told that it is not our physical cloths that Jesus sees, but our righteous deeds. The righteous acts of the saints are the clothes of the Church. So with every motive of love that is exercised in choosing what to wear, whether casual or formal, we are putting on the true clothes of the church. This, remember, is what Jesus sees.
Bruce Lowe (PhD) is Associate Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta.
"Sneaker Seeker Sensitive Churches" by Derek Thomas
"He Clothes the Naked" by William VanDoodewaard
"Worship that Smells" by Aaron Denlinger
What Happens When We Worship? by Jonathan Landry Cruse
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman
 I wish to thank students of my Pauline Class, for impressing upon me the significance of this issue in the church still today.