Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How to Dress for Church

Dress in church is a hot topic for some Christians. I have heard reports of churches that have clothes closets for visitors who come in “inappropriately dressed,” which means all kinds of things. I don’t know if that’s true, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

There are those who think that you should “give God your best” (who never seem to show up in a tuxedo or a formal dress). There are others who think it doesn’t matter (who are pretty easy to spot).

The Bible, so far as I can recall, says two things about dress in church. In 1 Timothy 2, women are told to dress modestly, with a list of what that means. Interestingly, the list does not include plunging necklines or rising hemlines, both of which I oppose in church (and most other places). It actually includes jewelry and personal adornment.

What’s the principle? Do not call attention to yourself.

In James 2, the church is warned about treating people based on the clothes that they wear.

What’s the principle? Do not let clothes be the issue that includes one in the church or excludes one from church.

So how should we dress for church?

I think there are a lot of people who, IMO, try to hard to “dress up” and “look sharp” for church. They make a bigger issue out of it than they should. I think the are others who, IMO, try to hard to “dress down.”

First a disclaimer. I grew up in a suit and tie culture. I learned to tie a tie as a very young child because my dad tied his ties and I wanted to be like my dad. My mom would cut the tie to a length that would work for me but she couldn’t do anything about the width, so think the wide ties of the seventies on a five or six year old … the knot was as big as my head (insert your own joke here). I wore a tie almost everyday from the time I was in 9th grade in 1983 until the day I left my job in retail sales for the last time in June of 1993. I actually did wear a tie two days into my first ministry position until I figured out I didn’t have to. I like ties. I like suits. In church, that is my comfort zone.

Having said that, I don’t wear a suit or tie very often these days. I will wear one to marry you and bury you (in neither occasion will you be thinking about me), and on rare other occasions. Why? Because of my community. I get the sense that the last time most people wore a tie and coat somewhere was their senior prom. And they probably rented that one. 

Do you know the only time I see someone in my community in a tie? Here’s a hint: It is the same guy I see many mornings in the diner. He usually sits about three or four tables away and getting ready to go to his job at City Hall. He’s the judge. I am not sure that is a good model to follow for the people I want to reach.

You see, I think this is a wisdom issue. The Bible gives no directives on the matter, and therefore Christians, in whatever time and place God has providentially placed them, should use their wisdom.

I am persuaded that we should dress in a way that does not stick out in the community among the people we are trying to minister to. Remember the principle of modesty in 1 Timothy 2? Do not call attention to yourself.

In order to do this, you need to understand your culture. You need to know what people in your community are like, what they wear to work and to leisure.

Someone recently asked me what I thought about how SS teachers, ushers, deacons, etc., should dress in church. My response was this:

Since the Bible gives us no directives, it is a wisdom issue for the church, and I really can’t answer that question for a community I don’t live in and don’t know anything about.

I would ask the business owners what kind of dress they require for their public employees (receptionists, salespeople, etc.). I would look at the salesmen, who make a living convincing people to buy something from them. I would look at school teachers who teach everyday for a living. Why? Because these are the kind of people who regularly communicate with others in the community, and they probably dress in a way that makes sense in their community.

These days, I preach on Sunday morning in a pair of dress pants and an open collar during the summer and a sweater during the winter. I could very easily wear a suit and tie. I did for years. But that’s not my community.

As with many things, I think we probably just need to open our eyes, be sensitive to the people God has called us to reach, and be sensible in our thinking


Kent McCune said...


Good article. Thanks.

One thought that I always struggle with in re: to church dress is the OT example. Just about the only place where we ever see God say in detail what He wants the worship place to look like and what the priests/spiritual leaders should wear is in theocratic Israel and the temple. Do you think God's elaborate dress and building/interior decoration proscriptions in the OT have any bearing on our church dress today? I.e., do you think these commands give us a glimpse into what personal dress standards for public worship are most consistent with God's character?

Charles E. Whisnant said...

These days, I preach on Sunday morning in a pair of dress pants and an open collar during the summer and a sweater during the winter. I could very easily wear a suit and tie. I did for years. But that’s not my community. you say.

Thus your community of professional people do not were a suit and tie in other words.

God does not love people the way they are. God is a war with people as they are? Romans 1:18.

So to try to look like the community seems to me the opposite of what God would have us to do.

Larry said...


I wonder if you have any Bible to help us see your point. The point of Romans 1:18 is not about dress in any way, but about man's total depravity before God.

So far as I can recall, nowhere does the Bible suggest what you are saying here, and that makes me hesitant to put much stock in it.

I am willing to entertain your suggestion, but I would like to see some argumentation based on the Bible for it.

Furthermore, I balk at the idea that I am suggesting we look like the community in some inordinate way. Even if I wear a suit and tie, I look like the community somewhere. But the Bible never makes that point. I think I have listed the only two places where the NT talks about how we dress in church. What do you think these passages mean and why?


I am hesitant to use the OT Law to inform this for a variety of reasons, but primarily, in this case, because the NT does inform us directly about this issue in 1 Tim 2 and James 2. Furthermore, I think it would be hard to determine what the equivalent would be in 21st century world, be it Africa or America, or China or Chile ... I am on a roll there ...

Anonymous said...

No more than I would go before the President of the US at a formal meeting in casual dress, would I stand in a pulpit as a pastor or preacher before the Lord in casual dress. I see all the time more and more disrespect of God in choices of dress, music, etc. I have found that wearing dress clothes in public places such as traveling on the airlines gets one more respect.

Larry said...

If I met with the president once in my life, I would dress up. Or if it were a formal occasion I would dress up. If I met with the president two or three times a week, I wouldn't. Besides, meeting the president usually involves black tie affairs. Again, context is everything.

Church is something we do every week, often two or three times or more. It is not a formal occasion. I think this is where we have to know the culture of our ministry locales.

On top of that, God isn't the president and our relationship with God isn't remotely like the president. I don't like the analogy that says because we should do something for the president, we should do it for God.

Interesting though, as I mentioned, that people who think we should dress up usually don't wear tuxes and formals. So they have limits to what it means to "give God your best."

IMO, we need to look more seriously at what the Bible teaches about dress. I pointed out the two passages I know, and no one has offered anything different (aside from a question about the OT Law), or told me why I am wrong about what the Bible teaches.

And when I fly, I don't care about respect. I care about comfort.

It's all about context and what we want to accomplish.

Peter Jones said...

Larry, your comments on this regard are a breath of fresh air, and presented with the authority of the underlying scripture.

Can I ask you about the "don't draw attention to yourself" (which I agree with). Does you see that as meaning that if you are in a community where people do dress up, including in immodest ways for the women, that christians should copy this in order not to draw attention to themselves?

Regarding meeting the president - it's worth remembering that the president himself does not dress up all the time. I'm seen him dressed in "business casual" when meeting the troops in Iraq or visiting hurricane-damaged communities. And the soldiers in Iraq don't feel they have to change out of their battle dress into a formal uniform to meet him. So it's nothing like as straightforward as the anon commenter suggested.

Anonymous said...

Great article. I will be sharing!

Jacob Paul said...

I find it amusing when the Bible gives very explicit, very specific, highly applicable language and we resort to looking for the "principle" rather than just applying what it says.

It is true that there is a principle behind Paul's words in I Timothy 2, and that modesty and sobriety in dress are important; yet we should also take the Word at face value when it tells us not to wear gold, pearls (representative of jewelry), or extremely costly clothing. This was the standard teaching of Christianity for the first millennia or more of its existence. I am not saying to ignore the principle; I am saying to embrace the principle and the specifics God gave us to illustrate the principle. Both are important.

Turning specifics into "principles" is now being used to justify homosexuality, fornication, and many other acts of immorality. Be careful as to where that road leads...

Another major point that you are overlooking is that these scriptures do not simply teach God's people how to dress in church, but rather how to dress everywhere. Maybe that is only because of the article's scope, but it is important enough to point out.

Very well written article and God bless you in your work for Him.