Church Dress Codes by Jack Kettler
“Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths.” (Psalm 25:4)
This study will look at dress codes for worship services. Is there a biblical basis for instituting a dress code for a worship service? The word definition in this study is about legalism. Normally legalism is used when talking about salvific issues. However, the term is broader than that.
A church could be legalistic by requiring members, for example, not to go to movies or watch television. Drinking or not drinking wine is another where a church could over step its bounds. There are biblical concerns about how you come to church worship. This area of a dress code is one which false piety can enter in, and needless offenses can occur.
The tendency to rely on self-effort—doing good deeds or following certain rules and regulations—as a way to gain God’s favor; the belief that a sinner can do some work to obtain salvation or fellowship with God; the inclination to regard things that Scripture has not commanded or prohibited as moral precepts. *
The sense that we want to gain form the above definition is one of, if the Scriptures has not prohibited something, neither should the church.
What can we learn from Scripture?
“The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.” (Deuteronomy 22:5)
The promoters of transgenderism will probably not like this passage.
“He shall put on the holy linen coat, and he shall have the linen breeches upon his flesh, and shall be girded with a linen girdle, and with the linen mitre shall he be attired: these are holy garments; therefore shall he wash his flesh in water, and so put them on.” (Leviticus 16:4)
This was a dress code for priest, not for the common Israelite.
“Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.” (Romans 14:10)
Have mercy, gentleness and humility towards your fellow believers.
“For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's.” (1 Corinthians 6:20)
This passage has an application for the type of clothing one wears. Wearing clothing that had a satanic pentagram would not be appropriate.
“In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array.” (1 Timothy 2:9)
Modest clothing and clothing that does not draw attention to oneself surely can be deduced from this passage.
“My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.” (James 2:1)
In humility, do not be a respecter of persons.
“Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel.” (1 Peter 3:3
Again, modest clothing that does not draw attention to oneself.
“For the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
This passage from 1 Samuel perhaps gives the clearest standard that should govern our thinking on dress codes in the church.
Let’s consider Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible on this passage:
But the Lord said to Samuel, by a secret impulse upon his mind, as if he had spoken with an articulate voice to him: look not on his countenance; which was comely and majestic:
or on the height of his stature; which was like that of Saul's; and because the Lord had chosen him, who was superior to the people in this respect, Samuel thought he meant to have such an one now anointed king:
because I have refused him; or it is not my pleasure that he should be king; though Ben Gersom thinks this refers to Saul, that the Lord had rejected him, though of an high stature, and therefore Samuel should not look out for such a person to be king; and Abarbinel refers it to the height of stature itself, that God had rejected that, and laid it aside as a qualification of a king, or as a rule to judge of a proper person to be a king; but no doubt it respected Eliab:
for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; man only sees what is without, but the Lord sees what is within; only the outward visible form of the body is seen by man, but the inward qualifications and endowments of the mind are seen by the Lord:
for man looketh on the outward appearance; the comeliness of a man's person, the majesty of his countenance, the height of his stature, and size of his body, things which recommended men to be kings among the nations of the world; See Gill on 1 Samuel 9:2, or "to the eyes" (a); the liveliness, and briskness, and sharpness of them, thereby to judge of the sagacity and penetration of the mind, as physiognomists do; who guess at the disposition of men by them, when they are small or great, watery or dry, of this or the other colour (b):
but the Lord looketh on the heart; and knows what is in that, what wisdom and prudence, justice and integrity, mercy and goodness, and other princely qualifications are in that. The Jewish writers conclude from hence that the heart of Eliab was not right; it may be, full of wrath, pride, envy, &c. which disqualified him for government.
(a) “ad oculos”, Montanus. (b) Vid. Schotti Thaumaturg. Physic. par. 4. l. 7. c. 8. (1)
Modesty of dress
Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words:
(Strong's #2887 — Adjective — kosmios — kos'-mee-os)
“orderly, well-arranged, decent, modest” (akin to kosmos, in its primary sense as “harmonious arrangement, adornment;” cp. kosmikos, of the world, which is related to kosmos in its secondary sense as the world), is used in 1 Timothy 2:9 of the apparel with which Christian women are to adorn themselves; in 1 Timothy 3:2 (RV, “orderly;” AV, "of good behavior"), of one of the qualifications essential for a bishop or overseer. “The well-ordering is not of dress and demeanor only, but of the inner life, uttering indeed and expressing itself in the outward conversation” (Trench, Syn., xcii). In the Sept., Ecclesiastes 12:9. (2)
Suits and ties and “Sunday’s Best.” Where did the term “Sunday Best” come from?
THE “SUNDAY BEST” - The Origin of the Custom
There is a tendency among town people to dress quite simply for church. The woman of moderate circumstances in the small village saves her finery for church. To ber “best hat” is synonymous with "Sunday hat," and by "Sunday" hat or frock tr shoes or wrap she means the things she wears to church.
“But the greatest contrast between Sunday and week-day clothes,” says an English wirier on dress, “is to be looked for in the country among agricultural laborers, as the cessation of labor gives an opportunity for discarding the rough and heavy garments oí the field in favor of something better.”
The whole question of Sunday clothes is an interesting one. Way back in the early history of the Christian Church we find that two venerable saints – St. Jerome and St. Clement-extorted the faithful to have, a special dress for worship. And the Jews put on a special vestment called a talith for their religious ceremonies. The idea of this special dress and the special dress of the Christians was to wear something that would detract from thoughts of every-day activities. Women wore veils that they might not show their charms too plainly lest others should be distracted.
Perhaps now the tendency not to wear elaborate or special dress in church is with the effort to gain lust the result that was once sought by having special clothes for worship.
Certainly it is not in good form to regard church as a place to display new and expensive clothes. Humble folk may be frightened from going to church if you are too gorgeously arrayed. Bright colors or striking fashions take the eye of the other worshippers and keep their thoughts from the service.
Sometimes you hear a man or woman say: “I cannot go to church. I have nothing fit to wear.” They should be reminded that the best form now a days requires that people should wear what ls simple, urobtrusive and quiet in church. (3)
A Dress code can be Legalistic:
Romans 14:5 says “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” This passage speaks about the observance of days and a man’s faith. It also has relevance to other issues in a church, like eating and drinking and church attire. There are weaker brethren and stronger brethren. The stronger may exercise more liberty than the weaker. Both should be careful not to falsely judge your brethren. Do not exhibit pride over a weaker brother.
James rebukes the church for giving seating priority to the rich, stylish and expensively-dressed:
1 “My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. 2 For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; 3 And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: 4 Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? 5 Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him? 6 But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats? 7 Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called? 8 If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: 9 But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. 10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. 11 For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.” (James 2:1-13)
Commenting on James 2:2-4, Simon J. Kistemaker explains:
2. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4. have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
The term religion (1:26–27) immediately brings to mind anything that pertains to the church. Perhaps this was the reason that James resorts to an example taken from the setting of a Christian church. Actually, the Greek for “meeting” (v. 2) is the word synagogue. Even though James employs the expression church when he mentions “the elders of the church” (5:14), the term synagogue reveals something about the writer and the readers of his letter: they are of Jewish descent.
a. “Suppose a man comes into your meeting.” The author chooses the general term meeting that can mean either the worship service or a special gathering for official purposes. James does not specify the purpose of the meeting in question. Some scholars think that James portrays an assembly that meets for official, that is, judicial matters. Common opinion, however, favors the concept of a worship service. The point of the example is to show that in a gathering of believers snobbery prevailed.
b. “A man … wearing a gold ring and fine clothes.” Was the rich man a member of the church? Was he a visitor? Was he a government official or dignitary? We do not know. Perhaps he was a person with authority, and not a member of the local church. For instance, the centurion who built the synagogue in Capernaum presumably was a proselyte (Luke 7:2–5). The meetings of the church were open to the public, so that people of the community were given the opportunity to meet with Christians for worship and instruction (1 Cor. 14:23–24).
c. “And a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in.” The contrast is deliberate, for the rich man wears bright, shiny clothes; the poor man’s clothes are dirty, shabby, and unsightly. He is poverty-stricken; the only clothes he has are the clothes he wears. Again, we do not know whether the man is a member of the church. Probably not. He also seems to be a visitor.
d. “If you show special attention.” The emphasis in this particular section is on the external appearance of these two visitors. Only the apparel of the two men is significant. Of course, dress also reflects the status of these two individuals: the one is rich and has influence; the other is poor and has nothing.
The immediate reaction of the church members is to pay deference to the rich man by showing him to a good seat. In the local synagogue of that day, scribes and Pharisees occupied the most important seats (Matt. 23:6; Mark 12:39; Luke 11:43; 20:46). In the setting of the church that James depicts, the rich man receives a warm welcome and is ushered to a good seat, perhaps somewhat elevated. The poor man can either stand in the back section of the building or sit cross-legged on the floor. In fact, the text says, “Sit down by my footstool.”
e. “Have you not discriminated among yourselves?” To ask the question is to answer it. Certainly, they discriminate and have “become judges with evil thoughts.” Instead of looking at the incomparable glory of the Lord, they are staring at the splendor of a gold ring and fine clothes. Instead of honoring Jesus Christ, they are paying respect to a rich man and despising a poor man. And instead of accepting persons on the basis of faith in Christ, they are showing favoritism based on appearance and status.
James points not to officially appointed judges but to the members of the church. The congregation ought to realize the full extent of its sin of discrimination. It is not a sin that can be labeled insignificant. What is at stake, says James, is that justice is not being served because the believers’ hearts are filled with evil thoughts. A judge whose thoughts are evil can never be impartial; the justice that he administers is a farce. Since time immemorial, justice has been depicted as a blindfolded lady who holds scales in her hand. The blindfold prevents her from seeing anyone so that she is able to serve impartially the cause of justice. Within the context of the Christian faith, practicing discrimination is the exact opposite of loving one’s neighbor as oneself.
Whether James cites an actual incident that occurred in the church of his day or constructs an example of something that may happen is immaterial. Of importance is that believers in Christ ought to shun the sin of discrimination. In short, “don’t show favoritism.”
Practical Considerations in 2:1–4
God loves the poor, watches over them, and provides for them. When the church of Jesus Christ proclaims the gospel and welcomes the poor into the communion of the believers, does it show love and concern for them? When the poor hear the gospel of Jesus’ love, the message of salvation, and the promise of God’s constant care, and then experience a cold indifference, a lack of interest and concern from the members of the church, they feel slighted.
Today many church sanctuaries are partially filled during the worship services. The pews in these sanctuaries are padded, the worshipers sit in comfort, but the poor are absent.
The gospel must be proclaimed in word and deed to the poor. The loving heart of the believer is shown when he extends a helping hand. The love of the Lord Jesus, when it is genuinely extended to those who hear the gospel, effectively builds the body of Christ. (4)
The Bible is silent about any dress code. There is no indication that Jesus and the disciples were required to use dress code before going to the synagogue. If the Bible is silent, we should not presume to add our own code or infer one.
Be on guard against false piety which may manifest itself as:
Tokenism, deceit, dishonesty, hypocrisy, insincerity, pomposity, pretense, pretentiousness, sanctimoniousness, sanctimony, show, hypocriticalness, lip service, pharisaicalness, pious platitudes, and sham holiness
What about the dress requirement for the priest in the Old Testament?
The clothing and decorations of the high priest can teach us about Christ’s perfection. The sacrificial law was of this nature. Blemished sacrifices were rejected. The high priest was to wash before priestly activities. Perfect law keeping was required. But to use the perfection required of the High Priest in Israel to require a “Victorian” dress code is completely unwarranted.
Clean and modest clothing that does not draw attention to yourself is all that can be required. It should be noted that men can wear lewd clothing in addition to women. The command of modesty applies to both sexes. And certainly, if a stranger comes into the church with old worn out dirty clothes they should never be driven away. Many conversions happen after a person reached rock bottom or the bottom of the barrel. In the First Century, many believers were slaves. They did not have “Sunday’s Best” to wear.
When talking about clothing in the church, there is a cultural aspect that may change and a biblical binding aspect. First, today, blue jeans are a cultural norm. Two hundred years ago it was different. Cultural dress codes within modesty may change. Second, the binding aspect is modesty and a prohibition of offensive wording on clothing. For example, consider a shirt with wording that endorsed John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” The song “Imagine” promoted atheism and communism. Under Christian liberty, it may okay to listen to the song, but in church worship where an offense may happen, promoting or endorsing the song is a different story.
I’ve been in churches where there is an unspoken dress code that is expected. The reader of this article probably has too. Does God respect a suit and tie more than a casual shirt and blue jeans? If so, why? Defend this code from Scripture and not just by appealing to “Sunday’s Best.” I am not arguing for dressing up or dressing down. I am asking, what do the Scriptures require.
“Everyone the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will never drive away.” (John 6:37 Berean Study Bible)
“Blessed art thou, O LORD: teach me thy statutes.” (Psalm 119:12)
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
1. John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, 1 Samuel, 9 Volumes, (Grace Works, Multi-Media Labs), 2011, pp. 232-233.
2. W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, (Iowa Falls, Iowa, Riverside Book and Bible House), p. 751.
3. Sunday Times (Perth, WA, Australia: Sun 15 Feb 19310, Page 19.
4. Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary, James, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House, 1973), pp. 72-75.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more study:
* For a great source of theological definitions go to Rebecca writes at Rebecca Writes: http://www.rebecca-writes.com/theological-terms-in-ao/
What Should We Wear to Church? https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-should-we-wear-to-church
Sunday Best (Does God Care What I Wear to Church?) http://www.travisagnew.org/2011/08/25/sunday-best-does-god-care-what-i-wear-to-church/