This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #133, on the subject of Your Sunday Best.
I recently heard a radio announcer talking about dressing up for church. I think he was parodying the idea, because he said he didn’t want to wear a tie but wanted to wear one of those Elizabethan collars in which William Shakespeare is sometimes depicted. It brought back to my mind a question I had often considered over the years, ever since a friend raised it back in college: why do we, or many of us, dress for church?
I had always thought that people dressed for church to show respect to God. I had also thought that a bit silly, because to my very Baptist mind God was not more present in the church than He was in the bathroom, and if it was disrespectful to God to enter His presence in less than our Sunday finest, we should never pray in our pajamas before bed–something I was always taught to do. When the issue arose, I made that point–and was surprised that not everyone thought that was the reason.
Of particular interest, my friend Walter Bjorck had what I would have said was the exact opposite view. He said that he thought people dressed for church because they could. After all, well into the twentieth century most people worked farm or factory or labor jobs, jobs that required them to get dirty and sweaty and so to wear clothes that could take the dirt and the wear. Sunday was for many the only day of the week on which they were not working, and thus the only day on which they did not have to wear those work clothes. People, he maintained, like to get cleaned up and dressed up once in a while, just to make themselves feel better.
I agreed that if that was the reason, there was in essence no harm in it. I was never one who liked to dress up in that way–I always wanted clothes to be comfortable, and never cared how they looked. Thus if this is the reason, it is good reason for anyone who wants to dress in fancy clothes for church, but not good reason to make me do so. Make yourself comfortable, and I will do the same.
In considering the matter since, though, I have recognized that there are other reasons for people to dress for church, and not all of them are good.
Some people consider dressing for church to be a sign of respect for others who are in church. They consider it rude if you don’t wear a tie, as if you don’t care about the people with whom you share the sanctuary. I can almost see that, but frankly I think their perceptions are skewed. I don’t think it rude for you to visit me in your normal clothes. You’re welcome to visit in whatever you wear to work, or whatever you wear around the house if it meets public decency standards, or whatever you’re comfortable wearing. I would not expect anything different if we went to the same restaurant, or the same public meeting, or the same concert. Why should I be impressed that you dressed up for church? Don’t do it on my account; I won’t do it on yours.
And that raises the slightly different reason people dress up, and the reason I dress up on those rare times when I do. Some people dress to impress. I do it when I have to appear in court. To a lesser degree, I do it when I am on stage, paying attention to what I wear. I do it in essence to manipulate your opinion of me.
That, it strikes me, is not a good reason to dress for church. My opinion of you, and your opinion of me, should not be based on what we wear, particularly in church, but anywhere else as well. I promise not to dress to impress you when we’re in church; I will wear my ordinary clothes, although to please my wife I will try to make sure the T-shirt isn’t ripped or stained. I don’t mind if you want to dress for church, but I do mind if you do so to manipulate my opinion, or anyone else’s opinion, of you. If you’re dressing to impress people in church, stop it now. Better that you should come to church in rags and suffer the ire of people who think it rude (such shallow people need to come to grips with recognizing the value of people rather than the price of clothing) than that you should be attempting to manipulate others by your appearance. That’s fine in court, and it’s fine on stage, and its fine if you’re running for public office or campaigning for support for an important issue or leading others in a business or other organization that requires they respect you. It is not fine when you are gathering with people who are supposed to be family, who are supposed to love you as you really are and not as you pretend to be.
If it makes you feel better to dress up for church, that’s fine. Don’t judge those who do not share that. They might specifically be dressing down to avoid the sin of dressing to impress; they might be avoiding tempting you to the sin of showing them favoritism. There’s no requirement in the New Testament that says we have to dress for our gatherings. There is one that says we have to love each other as we are, and not show favoritism to those who dress well or snub those who dress poorly. You’ll find it in James, if you missed it.
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