Should We Dress Up For Church?

Where did we get the idea that we have to dress up to “go to church” or, in other words, to gather for group worship? Now, I was taught as a child that we were to our best, and while I don’t condemn anyone who wants to go as casually as they would like, I can’t help but think in the back of my mind that I need to dress up somewhat to gather in the sanctuary with the body of believers. I mean . . . we dress up for lots of celebrations, so why wouldn’t that same idea be applied to worship? Please share your thoughts on this matter and let me re-emphasize – I in no way think poorly of anyone who wants to dress casually. Thanks for your comments. – Beverly

The idea that we should dress up for the church gathering is less than two hundred years old. The reason people didn’t dress up for the first eighteen centuries was simply that they couldn’t afford it! Before the industrial revolution, the vast majority of people were peasants who basically had two sets of clothes:  one for work and one for visiting town. Dressing up was something only the wealthy did. With the invention of mass production, however, clothing prices dropped and people began working for companies. A middle class was born that could buy the clothes that once were reserved only for the rich. It’s hardly surprising that they started showing up at church in their new dress (for a modern example, think about people who buy a brand new car and eagerly drive it to church Sunday morning to show off to their friends).

Some preachers such as John Wesley and Horace Bushnell* actually opposed fine dress in church because what they believed it represented, but the culture was too strong for dissenting voices. Soon, the “Sunday best” became proverbial, and as society became more sophisticated, so did the church service.

In looking for a theological justification, many argued in the last century that dressing up was a matter of respect for God. There is truth to this. Even in the earliest days, Christians wore their nicer set of clothes when possible. Still further, it is commonly pointed out that we dress up for weddings and funerals. Does the worship service deserve any less?

It seems to me this is completely a matter of conscience. Paul talked about Christian liberty in 1 Cor. 8 and 10. Each person should act according to their conscience. If someone thinks they should dress up in honor of God, then they should do so without looking down on those who don’t. Likewise, if someone thinks that they should come as they are to emphasize ideas like openness and honesty, then they should do so without looking down on those who don’t. All should simply agree that our dress should be appropriate, but such a standard applies whether we are gathered together for corporate worship or not.

The bottom line is that there is nothing wrong with dressing up or dressing down for worship. All that matters is the dress of the heart. Those who dress to show off, whether their dress is up or down, are actually focused on other people rather than God.

By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I typically dress a little more up for the Sunday morning service than I do during the week. For me, it is a matter of respect. However, I don’t “go to church” in a full suit and tie, as I know many today dress in jeans and sneakers, and I would not want to make anyone feel out of place. If I am right and this is a matter of Christian liberty, then I am also obliged to be sure my liberty doesn’t cause another to stumble (Rom. 14:21). It seems to me that if we were to all simply adopt that one principle, then much of this issue would resolve itself.

* Frank Viola, in Pagan Christianity, argued that Bushnell was actually a proponent of dressing up for church. I have not been able to read Bushnell’s original essay, “Taste and Fashion,” but the excerpts I did find were highly critical of “fashionable people.” You can read them for yourselves here.

What Is Discipleship?

“Discipleship” is popular in our churches. The English word means “one who learns” and is synonymous with “pupil.” An analysis of the biblical usage of the underlying Greek and Hebrew words, though, offers a much deeper and more nuanced concept.

The most important Hebrew word for this discussion is lamad, which means both “to learn” and “to teach.”* These meanings are set side by side in Deut. 4:10:

Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn [lamad] to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach [lamad] them to their children.”

In other words, the goals, content, and methods of learning and teaching are exactly the same in the Hebrew mind because all learning and teaching is ultimately rooted in the fear of the Lord (see also Deut. 14:23; Prov. 1:7; etc.).

Thus, in the OT there is no distinction between secular and sacred knowledge. To learn truth or teach truth is to honor and know God. This was not the case in the Greek culture anymore than it is in our own, unfortunately. The main Greek word for learning is manthano, while the word for teaching is didasko, both of which are consistently used to translate lamad in the Greek translation of the OT.

Manthano is used in the NT only in Acts 23:27 to mean simply becoming aware of a fact. There, it is used by a Roman when he discovers Paul’s Roman citizenship and is thus consistent with non-biblical use. Beyond that, like lamad, it is always concerned with coming to know God, especially through the witness of Scripture. Thus, when Jesus challenged the Pharisees in Matt. 9:13 saying, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’” He was not simply telling them to come to a proper interpretation of Hos. 6:6 but to take up God’s will as their own as He had. Likewise, in John 6:45, Jesus says that everyone who “hears and learns from the Father comes to Me.” The hearing is to culminate in “learning,” and since what the Father teaches concerns the Son, to learn is to accept Jesus as Christ. As a final example, in Gal. 3:2, Paul wants to “learn” from the Galatians how they received the Holy Spirit. Again, this usage is not merely a matter of fact. It demonstrates that all things point to God Himself, for by examining the Galatians, Paul can “learn” something about the nature of God, the Law, grace, and salvation. That is, he (and they, if they pay attention!) can understand and apply God’s will in this area (as an aside, he may be being sarcastic, in which he would be asking the Galatians to “disciple” him in this area, since they clearly knew more about the Holy Spirit than he did. Either understanding takes a proper view of his use of manthano). In sum, manthano is no mere intellectual exercise.

All this leads us to mathetes, the word for disciple. It comes from manthano and carries the same ideas. A disciple is one who “learns,” but again, learning is living as Jesus does, not just knowing what He says. Finally, it is instructive that Luke, who uses the term frequently, abruptly stops using it in Luke 22:45 once the twelve scatter in Gethsemane. This is probably because he viewed their abandonment as a breach of relationship, which, again, points to the relational nature of the biblical concept of learning/discipleship.

Much more could be said about this, but all we’ve seen here is sufficient to make our basic point: discipleship is not about the impartation of knowledge, but living according to the God’s will. Any church or individual who wishes disciple others must keep the relational aspect in mind and not substitute it for mere orthodoxy (that is, right belief).

How does this fit with or go against your concept of discipleship, or perhaps the discipleship programs you have been through?

* The meaning in the Hebrew text is easily distinguishable by context and grammar. Each meaning is signified by a slightly different spelling, even though the word is the same. Technically, in the Qal stem it means “to learn,” and in the Piel stem it means “to teach.”