I’m a leader of a church. Last Sunday I wore a suit and tie. The Sunday before that I wore cords and cardigan. I often change what I wear, because I think the Bible teaches that Christians should dress a bit for God, but mainly out of concern for people. And having a range of people in meetings calls for a range of clothing from the leaders.
Here’s how I reach that conclusion. First, when it comes to worship, the condition of a person’s heart before God is of greatest importance. Christians worship God in the Spirit of God, through Jesus (Ephesians 2:18), and can do so in a suit in church or (at any time of the week) in shorts in the garden.
Second, God does care about what people wear in public and in church, and people should dress for his glory. At no time should clothing be immodest or attention-seeking (1 Timothy 2:9-10), so it’s sinful to be sexually (or otherwise) provocative in clothing, or eccentric to the point of being distracting.
It’s a sin to deliberately make people think more about your clothes than about God (Matthew 6:31-33), and God wants both spirit and body to be acceptable to him (Romans 12:1-2).
Third, if every Sunday I have a choice of clothes to wear, none of which are, as far as I know, immodest or attention-seeking, which should I choose? Here’s why I think Christians should dress for people — I can only justify this point using biblical principles, rather than specific Bible verses.
It’s said by some that Christians should wear their very best for God (which is probably a suit if you’re male in the UK today) because, after all, we’d wear our best to meet HM The Queen, and God is very much higher than the Queen.
Also, it’s said that, if even non-Christians respect God with their best clothes when they come to church at weddings and funerals, then Christian leaders certainly should. So shirt and tie honours God the most.
I think there are two errors in this line of reasoning. The first is to forget that what a person wears for the Queen will partly depend on the environment in which she is met. A suit might be correct dress at her dinner parties, but presumably not for a game of croquet in her garden.
The second is to think that non-Christians are dressing to respect God. They’re not! They hate God; they dress their best because it’s what’s expected for the occasion. For them, it’s about environment not holiness.
Back to my Sunday choice. I choose whatever suits the people and the environment. Where I’m ministering officially as pastor, there’s a range of ages, traditions and expectations of what a church-goer should look like and I want to show everyone that they are welcome in our church.
Our church’s usual Sunday environment is a different one from when it is used for funerals. On Sundays we accommodate old and new traditions and, at this present time and place, it would be unwise for this leader to always wear one type of clothing for risk of making one group feel they need to wear certain clothes to ‘join the club’.
However, I hear of other places where wearing anything but a suit to church would be considered cultish by surrounding villagers, who then wouldn’t go inside. So we can’t make a rule about this, due to differing cultural norms in the UK.
What matters is that people are biblical. Clothing should never be sinful or so different from the norm that it’s distracting. Everyone should ‘wear the gospel’ (Colossians 3:12-13), be willing to correct sweetly those who dress sinfully, and bear in mind that the tie-wearer might not be a legalist, nor the t-shirt wearer lacking in the fear of God!
And when we gather at conferences, let’s welcome the collision of church cultures.
Owen Batstone is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Ogmore Vale, Wales