Does how we dress matter? Dress obviously mattered to the recently elected executive chairman of Barclays Bank. On assuming control, he banished flip-flops and T-shirts from their Canary Wharf head office because, ‘It’s important that we present the right image’. Apparently flip-flops and high powered banking just do not mix!
Dress also mattered to the missionary who was evangelising in an African village (and I have the story from an eyewitness). He insisted that the ladies be decently dressed for worship, so had some gourds cut in half, emptied and placed at the door of the church, so that all the ladies could ‘veil’ their heads during the service (despite the fact that they all went to church nude from the waist up).
Dress also matters to the pastor of the Danish Lutheran Church here in Tandil (Argentina), who feels it necessary to keep the tradition of his denomination by dressing in the robes of a nineteenth century Danish lawyer for every service. This may be acceptable in a nation near to the Arctic circle, but is, as he told me, hardly bearable in places where, for four months of the year, we expect temperatures over 30degrees Celsius.
Dress also matters to the youth who dresses in rent jeans and tatty T-shirt, because he or she is not only following a fashion but also expressing a philosophy of life.
If the ‘tatty jeans’ comes into our Sunday meeting, we would accept him or her for what he or she is, but it is, I feel, a different matter if a professed Christian young man appears in football shirt, shorts and gym shoes, even if it is a blazing hot day. In that case, most of us, I suspect, would be more ready to criticise.
A few years ago, while attending a conference that attracts more than 1000 people, I was chatting to a pastor who expressed his unease — which I shared — at the sartorial elegance (or lack of it) of some of those who led the meetings or read the Scriptures. We felt casual shirt and gym shoes were hardly appropriate wear.
The casual look extends even to some preachers on ‘Reformed’ platforms. One preacher I heard recently, wore white shoes, tight trousers, casual shirt, hands-in-pockets (this used to be taboo) and wandered up and down the platform as if the ground covered was an important statistic, like footballers whose performance details include how many miles they cover in a match. Personally I found that the man and his manners distracted from his message.
So surely dress does matter? The fact is that in the last 50 years there has been a continual drift to a more casual lifestyle, not only in dress but also in every area of social relationship.
The same process is noticed in the arts, where, once upon a time, the musician was convinced that there was an order in the universe, and therefore displayed it in his music. People like John Cage and the Rolling Stones have questioned that, so the music they write expresses disorder.
Art has followed the same path with the impressionist movement. I remember seeing a stained glass window in the chapel of a south Irish monastery that at first sight seemed a jumble of colours, but which, according to our guide, represented the Holy Spirit.
What was important was the impression, the emotion it generated, not any attempt to display objective truth. An artist given the same theme 200 years ago would have probably begun with a dove or a cruse of oil.
There is nothing wrong in recognising this artistic trend and most of us, I assume, have enjoyed many of the artistic expressions it has produced (though I personally draw a line at John Cage).
Two things, though, we must consider as believers. First, the One whom we worship.
How we dress for public worship, then, merits careful thought. Sloppy dress is forgivable in a young, immature believer. But it is hardly acceptable in mature Christians. It is certainly not to be recommended for those who lead the meeting or preach.We worship God, who is the supreme and sovereign ruler of the universe, who is glorious in holiness, who we know as a God of order, and who in the Old Testament laid down precise rules about how he should be worshipped.
The question is not if we should ban flip-flops or insist on veils in church. The question is, are we right to follow the trend to casualness when the way people dress expresses a philosophy opposed to our Christian beliefs.
If our worship services are more like a rock concert than ‘admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God’ (Colossians 3:16), then perhaps flip-flops and casual shirts — or short skirts and tank tops — may be more appropriate than shirt and tie (for men). But surely the reasoning is flawed if we dress down to people’s level to try and make them feel at home among us?
Years ago, a recently converted girl I knew, was deeply upset when taken to a ‘Christian’ rock concert. With tears in her eyes, she said, ‘I thought Christians were different’.
We are different, and the world expects us to be different. Unbelievers will be won by authentic Christianity, not by dressing down to their standards. If the Sunday suit covers a stuffy, critical pessimist, they will run a mile. If it covers a warm heart and Christ-like loving friendliness, they will want to be like us.
Obviously there is no room for legalism, and obviously I cannot impose my way of dress on others, but, when I am leading worship, I take care over how I dress.
I have a flashy tie or two in my wardrobe, but I was taught not to draw attention to myself when I preach, so they stay where they belong. So when I see a person dressed casually in the pulpit, it bothers me; and not least because that attitude often seeps into the way things are done in the whole service.
Secondly, not only is the One we worship special, but also the occasion is special. For Old Testament Israel, keeping one day in seven holy was a covenant sign as important as circumcision. We are bound to the new covenant, saved through the blood of Christ. Sunday is the resurrection day, symbolic of new birth and new life. Our dress should mark that conviction.
I am tired of hearing pragmatic reasoning to justify falling standards in church worship. To some people these issues are peripheral, nevertheless I believe they are important. We need to think through these matters biblically.
We need to set ourselves standards, soundly based on spiritual principles that reflect a biblical world view, instead of uncritically accepting society’s standards.
Trevor Routley was sent as a missionary to Argentina by Welwyn Evangelical Church, and is now retired and still working there.