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.