I’ve been seeing this thing on social media recently; you might have seen it.
I'm not sure what it came from. It looks like it could have been an ad, maybe for a family clothing store. Whatever its original intention, the caption that’s been attached to it leaves no doubt as to what it’s been repurposed for. Now it's become one of those "back-in-the-good-old-days" reminiscences about how people used to dress the "right" way for church.
By the time I was old enough to have an opinion about what I should wear to church, in the mid-70s, things had changed somewhat. Like most of the men at church then, Dad mostly wore a sport coat and tie on Sunday mornings, as I recall. Mom and my sister dressed up to some degree, though by then pants were an option, in addition to dresses and skirts. (There was, I’ve been told, some difference of opinion about this among the women at church, but I guess Mom was kind of a trend-setter in that way.)
On Sunday morning I usually wore a “junior” version of what Dad wore. In my teen years, as things changed a little more, I could get away without a tie and a jacket. (The teen years also included my truly awful “Miami Vice” phase, which we won’t talk about except to say that I now wish someone had found something in the Bible forbidding unconstructed blazers in pastel colors, just in general.) I could wear jeans on Sunday nights and Wednesday nights. No shorts though, ever. In college, I mostly continued the jacket and tie habit.
When I started as a minister 30 years ago, I usually wore a suit and tie, like most of the men at church still did. Over the years I’ve gotten a bit more casual as the rest of the church has. Now suits and ties are for weddings and funerals, and church is a lot more dressed-down.
But that’s true in general, isn’t it? What used to be “office casual” is now just office wear. Our culture is, in general, a lot more casual in dress. That's important to note; dress at church usually reflects larger cultural trends.
Back to the social media post: “dressing for church like you’re going to see Jesus” is a bit problematic, isn’t it? I mean, forget for a moment the fallacy that going to church is about going to “see Jesus” at all. (Jesus doesn’t hang out at the church building all week, waiting for Sunday when he’ll finally have some visitors.) The fact is, we don’t know what people wore to see Jesus, back when they could, literally, see Jesus. A blind beggar shouted out for Jesus to heal him: we’re not told what he wore, but I picture rags. Lepers came to see Jesus; I’m just guessing they didn’t get dressed up first. Peter took his clothes off and dove into the Sea of Galilee to get to shore and see Jesus after his resurrection. Jesus doesn’t seem to have found that at all awkward.
We’re not told much about what Jesus wore when he was on earth, but I doubt he had a big wardrobe to choose from. He told his disciples not to give a second thought about what they would wear. He did, apparently, have one nice garment, woven in one piece. We know this because the soldiers that stripped his clothes off before they crucified him cast lots for it. When he died for us, he was stripped and exposed.
No, I don’t think there’s much in the Bible about how we should dress to “see Jesus.”
When the Bible does talk about ornate clothing, it’s not exactly positive. Jesus mocked religious people who strutted around in flowing robes trying to impress everyone. He said expensive, luxurious clothing was for palaces, not for prophets. James blasted the church for showing favoritism to rich people in nice clothing over poor people in rags.
In one of Jesus’ most famous parables, of course, a lost son comes home filthy and ragged and his overjoyed father gives him a robe and sandals. Which maybe suggests that the important thing to remember about coming to God is that he clothes us. What we wear isn’t relevant. We’re all pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. We all need his grace, whatever designers we’re wearing. If we’re using nice clothes to try to make ourselves more acceptable to God, we should reconsider.
Maybe you don’t realize it, but dressing up for church is a relatively recent trend. For most of human history, most people had few garments, and they were likely handmade, worn, and more functional than stylish. Expensive clothing was a means of distinguishing social classes, worn by royalty and wealthy people. Often, in fact, people were legally banned from wearing the clothing of a higher class.
During the Industrial Revolution, advances in manufacturing made new clothes available to more people. The middle class that was coming into being used the new clothing they could now afford to distinguish themselves from the lower classes. That trend spread to church as well. Eventually, some preachers even began to argue that sophistication and refinement were aspects of God’s character, and so Christians should model those characteristics in their dress, especially when they came to church.
Well, maybe our dress at church should model other values than sophistication and refinement.
Maybe our dress should model authenticity. If we dressed to reflect our spiritual condition, what would we wear? Our righteousness is like “filthy rags,” after all. Let’s not try to cover ourselves with fake piety in the form of a dress code for visiting the Lord.
Maybe our dress should model humility. If our dress draws attention to ourselves, then maybe it’s not really appropriate if we want others, and ourselves, to “see Jesus.” Paul encouraged the church to “adorn themselves” with good deeds that give glory to God, not clothing and fashion that makes us stand out. I think that most of the time when people complain about how other people dress at church, it isn’t at all about seeing Jesus. It’s about the way they want people to see their church. It’s about pride. It’s about class.
Maybe our dress should model acceptance. I worry that posting stuff like this to social media sends the message that the church is for people who are able to put together a good look. What about the retired senior who doesn’t have the disposable income to wear the most stylish clothing? The blue-collar worker whose wardrobe consists mostly of, well, blue collars? The single mom raising kids on minimum-wage jobs? What about the Christian who could afford to upgrade their wardrobe, but instead feels called to use that money to care for those in need? How about the person who wants to dress in ethnic garb? Do they have a place at our church? How about the non-believer who already wonders if the church is sincere in their faith? If we send people the message, even unintentionally, that they have to think about what they wear when they come to “see Jesus,” are we actually showing them Jesus?
Paul wrote that we are to be “clothed” with Christ. Not Armani, Hermés, Dior, or Gucci. Let’s don’t waste a second of time worrying about what clothing to wear to “see Jesus,” and instead worry about being the kind of people in whom Jesus can be seen.
I think that’s what you’ll find in most churches; mostly people who want Jesus to be seen in them. We’ll probably be wearing all kinds of things, but hopefully whatever we wear we’re growing into Jesus.
Come join us, just as you are.