In today’s culture and society, dress code is becoming more and more loose. The appearance of professionalism has changed drastically over the past few decades in the marketplace as well as the church. Does your church have a dress code, still? Is it even needed?
Church Dress Code
A good friend of mine, while preparing to be a missionary overseas, shared a humorous story about church dress code. This African village had turned their hearts to Christianity and to Jesus and set up a full-functioning church that offered worship services. The women of the village did not wear tops. To the Western-minded missionaries, this was not acceptable in the house of God. To counter the awkward situation, their solution was to simply give each woman a shirt to wear as she entered the place of worship. As time passed, the elders of the village grew angry and got the nerve to confront their friends who brought them the Gospel. With jaws dropped, the missionaries listened to the pained voices of the elders ask them, “Why are you making our women dress like prostitutes?” You see, in this culture in deep Africa, the women who wore tops signaled a clear message to the less moral men in the area. The women who were married did not cover their breasts.
No clear church dress code will make sense to all cultures at all times. This is why in the Scripture, Paul has things he “suggests” and things he “commands” in his writings. Church dress code is part of the first category. Covering the head of women, if we think is a command, might mean that most of our churches should have hats by the door to keep our women from sinning. Men, you had better cut your hair short like the Romans did in 78 AD. Take your pick. Hats or t-shirts? There is no single solution to solve the dress code dilemma. And, we do have issues with our dress in worship. Right? What we wear sends a message, whether we like it or not. This is what’s important.
In America, the “Sunday best” dress was king up until the Jesus movement of the 1970s. It is not uncommon to see a pastor in jeans and a casual shirt, instead of a coat and tie—let alone a preacher’s robe or pastoral vestment! Choirs, because it really does look cool, still seem to don the robes. The point is that our culture has a do-it-yourself approach to dress. Weddings on the beach without shoes or ties really happen. I officiated one wedding where the couple wore Converse sneakers in addition to the traditional garb. Concerts find us less-than-dressy. Casual Fridays at work and the coming of “dress casual” make our places of work far different than 25 years ago. At church, it seems we are either legalistic or make a point that what we wear is not even an issue. But, the main issue we all are thinking about is modesty.
Modesty is the value in our dress, historically. The Puritans, who wore very plain clothing to church, otherwise wore fancy wigs, stockings, and even face powder. The contrast from their very worldly and colorful lifestyle outside of church demanded the penance of wearing something plain. But, is this real modesty? If how I dress outside of the church is different than inside the church, am I not living two lives? The Puritans wanted to send a message. What message do we want to send in 21st-Century America?
…the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. (1 Timothy 2:9)
The Apostle Paul is not telling women that braided hair is wrong. His cultural suggestion to Christians living in the Roman world is to send the message of modesty. Good works are what we should be known for, not our fashion. This is why it’s important to teach dress code not as a “code” but as a means of communication. If modesty is our value, we must then look to that value, not rules or codes. The inner life matters.
…let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight. (1 Peter 3:3)
Paul argues basically that, in the Roman Empire and the Near East, all the men wore their hair short. Why buck this natural phenomenon and cause strife? Women who shaved their heads were pagan priestesses. Since most in the first century had only one set of clothes, only the powerful and rich were worried about braided hair and pearls. Rich men, by the way, liked to braid their hair with gold threads just as some women did. But, you had to have gold to do this.
Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? (1 Corinthians 11:14)
For us, in the 21st Century, the biblical value of modesty and sending a message of good works is still our goal in how we dress. In our very rich American culture, we can decide what to wear. In fact, we don’t wear the same outfit every day like many still do in the non-Western world. So, here are four principles and questions to discuss so that we can modestly dress and impact our communities with fewer distractions.
Our culture determines our tastes. What about a church dress code then can be transcultural?
In a truly multicultural environment, what is modest to one culture may not be to another. Perhaps, this is why our Sunday hour is still the most segregated hour in America. We would rather keep that awkward conversation amongst ourselves. It’s hard enough with just our own tribe, let alone when we mix.
What we wear sends a message. How do we teach people to send an appropriate message?
Indeed, our clothing and dress send a message. This is about EQ (emotional intelligence) being taught to our members. It takes a safe community to have these conversations. Wouldn’t it be great if we could help each other succeed, even with how we dress? But, this is awkward. The Christian life is awkward.
More rules mean more ways to exclude. How can we live by values versus living by rules?
If the first thing people see is that they have to dress like you to come to your church, then you might be sending a very unchristian message. Jesus never asked people to do this for an audience. Now, to follow Jesus means everything is an open game. Do we really want Ushers to bounce people who aren’t ready for that commitment?
Sexism is a real danger when we talk about how we dress. How do we show respect for women in the discussion?
The ladies get the brunt of this conversation, unfortunately. This is truly not fair. It can be a powder keg in your church community then, if we don’t call men, as well as women, to dress with “modesty” and wear good works. The interesting thing is this, most good works require work clothes, anyway.
Like I said, there is no one single answer to church dress code. This takes humility and heart to make it about values and principles, rather than rules and laws. We should hold ourselves to be righteous Christ followers, not legalistic rule followers.