Cold winter days cause me to go to the closet and look through the sweaters, sweat shirts, coats and other clothes that only get worn a few times a year. I don’t like being cold. I do so little work out doors that it is hard to choose what would be best to put on. I had to buy a new pair of rubber boots last winter, not because I had worn the old pair out, but because the old pair had been in the closet so long they dry rotted. Choosing what clothes to wear is as challenging as choosing what restaurant to eat at.
Choosing the right clothing for the occasion reminds me of how important clothing is. Cold weather calls on us to choose warm and protective wear. Hot weather calls on us to wear as little as we can without becoming immodest or what will best protect us from the sun’s heat. To the immodest it is a call to wear virtually nothing. There are professions that mandate dress attire, while others have uniforms. When you stop and notice, most businesses and employers have requirements concerning the dress of their employees. You rarely see politicians conducting business without dress attire on. All of this is for practical reasons. The purposes of clothing are; protection from the elements, identification, modesty and appropriateness for an occasion. The use of clothing will fall under one or more of these purposes. When someone’s dress is out of the ordinary for an event or environment, it causes quite a stir.
I want to focus on the modern church and dress. During my lifetime I have observed a dramatic change in the dress attire for church attendance. I am a conservative pastor and still preach in dress attire, but it is becoming obvious that I belong to an increasing minority. The arguments for having more casual attire for church services have prevailed in most evangelical circles. Those in favor of casual dress argue that it departs from the formal and stuffy church of the past. It creates an environment that is more welcoming to the poor, who have little dress attire, or the sinner that may be intimidated by a church full of people who appear formal and unwelcoming. Casual attire is consistent with the message to “come as you are”. The Bible doesn’t specify or command a particular dress for assembly. These arguments can be hard to refute. At face value, they seem reasonable enough. I remember hearing as a young boy people complain about how churches were nothing more than members trying to see who could dress the best or that they were a bunch of do-gooders that thought they were better than everyone else. There’s the old complaint that church members are nothing more than hypocrites who dress up on Sunday and then live it up on Monday. Churches wanted to appear more engaging and down to earth. With these things in mind, you may think that it makes sense to offer a more casual and laid back environment for church services. I started my career as an evangelical and as a young preacher I would have agreed with the more casual approach to church services, but my thinking has changed about this matter over the years.
I think it is wise to investigate why traditions existed before discarding them. There is the possibility that some great principles could be the reason that the tradition existed. There were commonly held principles that influenced church dress in the past that were covered up by formality, ritual and vanity. Often, bad behavior causes people to lose sight of great principles. So why did the church traditionally practice “dressing up” for worship services?
The first reason was the importance of what was going to take place. If the carnal world recognized that dress attire should reflect the importance and seriousness of an event, then the church ought to do likewise. When the church comes together there are going to be the most important issues about life discussed. Life changing instructions are going to be given. Although the Lord abides in each of us and we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, there is something especially powerful about the church assembling.
A second reason was the principle of giving God your best. Your best may not be a suit or expensive dress, but it would be the best you have. This reflected a desire to present yourself before the Lord and the brethren in an appropriate way. Children were taught that the church was a special place and the environment should be kept different than any other place they could go.
A third reason was the difference between the sacred and secular. The music, preaching and other aspects of the worship service were elements you could only get in the church. Today’s church is focused on praise and worship. In reality it appears that the focus is much more about praise than worship. There is a difference between the two. Praise is when we celebrate and rejoice in what the Lord has done and is doing. Worship is when we fall silent and stand in awe because of who he is. It is hard to make joyful noise and have a celebration AND have silent, awe-struck reverence at the same time. The environment created in today’s church services is conducive to praise but falls short of worship. Everything from music to dress is designed for praise. The pulpit was designed to reflect majesty and serious concourse. It has been replaced with podiums, theater lights and a stage that is prepared for performance.
Fourthly, the church service was designed for inspiration, instruction and participation. You must listen attentively to learn from a speaker or teacher. Instruction through preaching and teaching gives the Holy Spirit an opportunity to inspire and convict the conscience of the believer. In past generations people were moved by great thought, now people are moved by strong emotions. The song service ministered to the listener through special music and congregational singing was designed for all to sing together and participate. Parishioners learned great truths by singing hymns. This also gave them an opportunity to participate in the service. Often, today’s church services are about watching musicians perform more than the congregation participating. Congregational singing is more celebratory through praise songs with few words and much emotion.
Western culture has changed dramatically concerning social issues like dress attire. Changing attitudes about modesty and gender identity have impacted the church. People used to wear dress attire to go to town for social functions. Suits were worn to ball games. Society has become much more casual than in the past. Modern technology has offered an explosion of options for dress and entertainment. It is difficult to keep contemporary tastes out of the church environment. Christians have been commanded to occupy until the Lord returns and this requires that the believer be visible, busy and have a mission among others around them. We must participate in society to have the opportunity to witness to unbelievers. The church used to have a profound influence on social norms. It was much easier for the church to teach stricter moral codes of conduct when social institutions reinforced them. The same educational, governmental and private institutions that reflected the moral values taught in the church now attack Biblical teaching as an enemy of enlightenment and modern science.
Biblical truth is timeless and can be practiced in any culture or era. The challenge for the present church is teaching and practicing Biblical Christianity in an increasingly hostile environment. The church of the past fell to the temptation to become formal, judgmental and ritualistic. The present church appears to be succumbing to the temptation to be shallow and carnal in its presentation. Both generations lost their mission to challenge the believers with true Biblical teaching about love, compassion, mercy, judgment, separation from sin and personal testimony. Can a more casual approach to Church ministries sustain the practice of Biblical principles? This is the question that is before the church today. The Bible does not specify what type or style of clothing to wear. Nor does the Bible specify what style of music to use or what methods to employ during a church service. With this in mind, it is difficult to be dogmatic about a subject when the scriptures are not. We need to be careful when judging others to be in sin when we only have our own preferences to judge them by. Sometimes an issue is about what is good, better or best. I think much of the debate concerns this issue rather than sin and wrong doing.
I have come to my own conclusion about the contemporary movement in the church today. I believe that the modern church struggles to discern the difference between the sacred and carnal. We would be better served to maintain some timeless Biblical principles that have been discussed in this article. I do not believe we should fix what isn’t broken. Our doctrines and methods can become sinful if they cause us to lose the ability to win our society to Christ. We cannot win a sinner to Christ if the truths about judgment and sin are not preached. These issues cannot be properly dealt with in an environment that is always casual and celebratory. There must be balance between a relaxed environment and a serious one. There should be a place for challenge, tears and repentance in the church. God has given us only the power of influence to evangelize a lost and desperate world. If the world hears and sees no great truths from the church and sees nothing sacred to draw them, then we will lose our influence. There should be a noticeable difference between the believer and non-believer. I strive not to be judgmental with fellow believers, but I think we can do better and in some cases the contemporary movement has led to sin.
“Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God’ 1Cor. 10:13