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.

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2 thoughts on “Should We Dress Up For Church?

  1. Several years ago, I was pianist at a very small church. There was a 90+ year old lady that we picked up on Sunday evenings and Wednesday nights, because she could not drive at night.
    One Sunday evening she got in the front seat with me and noticed I had on a very nice pant suit. She leaned over and said, “Oh, you’re wearing pants to church. I guess it’s OK on a Sunday night, but we are not suppose to wear men’s clothing.” I chuckled and said that when that was written, the men wore robes, so maybe it was the men who should not wear the pants. She continued to ‘comfort me’ by patting my knee as she said that I knew pants were men’s clothing, but she supposed it was alright for me to wear them on a Sunday night, but not on Sundy morning.
    At which point I said, “I am saved by GRACE and not by the seat of my britches. GOD looks at my inward self, and is not impressed by my outward clothes.”
    She agreed, I guess, and continued to wear her long hair in a bun, no make-up and dresses.
    In one’s opinion, dressing up includes dresses, but no make-up. Another would see my pant suit as very dressy, and my make-up a welcomed cover-up of ugly.
    I’ve always heard, “BEAUTY IS IN THE EYES OF THE BEHOLDER.”
    Would you comment on men’s apparrel and pants, pertaining to BIBLICAL teaching? Would you also comment on denominations that insist that the women wear long hair, in buns, no make-up and long dresses, 7 days a week, who look down at me in WalMart if I have on pants?
    The definition of dressing up to a poor person is indeed different from a middle-class or rich person, so wouldn’t the James lesson come into our notice when dealing with the outward appearances of people entering the church?

  2. Thanks for your comments. For me, when I get ready to head for worship, I go into my closet and pick something that is a little nicer than my work clothes. Whether it be a nice pair of pants, or a skirt or dress. I just want it to be a litter dressed up. While I know that God does not care what I wear, it just confounds me that as you said, dressy dress is called on for weddings and funerals, but not for worship. For me, I think it’s like you pointed out . . . a respect thing. Years ago, I was always dressed up on Sunday mornings because I was taught that we were to “wear our best”, but after the casual trend began, I started to feel out of place in my “Sunday best”, even though it was usually a dress or suit that I had actually made or been given. Now days, when I go into a church in my heels, I immediately feel overdressed and uneasy, but I can’t afford to buy new pants and I certainly don’t want to show up in my jeans. How sad is it that I can wear a nice dress and heels to a full service restaurant and feel at home, but at “church” I feel odd. I have even had people say to me more than once (WHEN I WAS VISITING THEIR CHURCH!) that I didn’t need to dress up, or that I was overdressed. At that, not only did I feel out of place, I also felt called out. *sigh . . . What to do; what to do.

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