"For God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." 1 Samuel 16:7
A few years ago, at a conference, a number of us were standing around in a circle talking after a meeting. The group included people I had never met before. One of them was speaking to the person beside him - loudly enough to be certain that all of us could hear - and complaining about how irreverent men are who don't wear ties to meetings. He angrily suggested that along with a box of headcoverings in the chapel for women who forget theirs at home, assemblies should also have a box of ties for men who don't bring one.
Assuming, even though he was facing the person beside him, that he was talking to me (since I was the only person not wearing a tie), I responded by saying, "That's a great idea! And on the box of headcoverings we can put 1 Corinthians 11 , and on the box of ties we can put ... Oh, what would we put on the box of ties?" Of course no one had any Bible passage and finally someone jokingly suggested "Blest be the Tie that Binds."
This type of experience is common in this debate. Many Christians sincerely believe that it is irreverent not to dress-up for meetings although, when asked, they are unable to prove their opinion from the Bible. And, regrettably, many of these Christians are also quite caustic in their propagation of that belief. Does God require us to dress-up for meetings? Is it irreverent for men not to wear a tie? These questions must be answered, but first we will discuss:
The Burden of Proof
It is not our responsibility to take you through every verse in the Bible to prove that the LORD doesn't require us to dress up for meetings. The burden of proof lies on those who wish to impose this rule. If they expect us to seriously consider their claim they will have to show us its BIBLICAL basis.
Does the Bible Say Anything About This?
This should be the only real question in this (or any other) debate. What does the New Testament have to say on this matter? Are we commanded to dress up for meetings? Is it even hinted at? Let us look and see.
Dressing-Up in the New Testament
As we examine the New Testament to see who dressed-up and who didn't, we find the following. People who didn't dress-up in fine clothes include: Christ (Given his laying aside of material possessions Lk 2:7; 2 Cor 8:9 ; etc. it lies with those who wish to force fine clothes on us to prove that He wore any. As far as we can tell, the nicest clothes He had on earth were given to Him in mockery in Lk 23:11 .), the disciples ( Mt 10:10 ), John the baptizer ( Mt 3:4; Lk 7:25 ), God's two witnesses during the Tribulation ( Rev 11:3 ) and, by implication, Lazarus ( Lk 16:19 f). People who did dress-up include: the Scribes and Pharisees ( Mt 23:5; Mk 12:38 ), the rich man who went to Hades ( Lk 16:19 ) and Herod ( Ac 12:21 ). Which company would you prefer to keep?
A Study in Contrasts
Notice in Lk 7:25 that the LORD Jesus specifically said people shouldn't expect His servants (eg. John) to be dressed-up. He said rather that those who dress-up are the elite of the world.
Laodicea was materially rich and the believers thought themselves (among other things) quite well-dressed, but the LORD Jesus tells us that in His eyes they were naked ( Rev 3:17 ). This is because He isn't impressed with the clothes that money can buy. He expected the Laodicean believers (and us) to adorn themselves in the clothing that comes from Him, not from a shopping mall.
These verses make it clear that the presence of a person wearing fine clothes in the assembly was an exceptional situation, not the standard. It was as uncommon as someone coming into the meeting with dirty clothes.
So if fine clothes and dirty clothes were uncommon in the New Testament assembly meeting, we simply conclude that the norm was for Christians to wear regular clothing that was neat and clean. This, of course, makes perfect sense since the New Testament church met in homes. It wouldn't even cross most people's minds to dress-up to visit their friend's home. And courtesy would dictate that, if possible, you would wear clean clothes to your friend's home.
These verses also condemn the practice of giving the well-dressed person preferential treatment and thinking less of a poor person in dirty clothes.
The Christian life should be a natural life. We should be leery of any teaching which suggests a double standard in our lives. Owning two wardrobes (one for the church meeting and one for our normal lives) certainly conveys the idea that the church is more a show than a natural part of our lives.
People in the New Testament would not even have thought of dressing any differently for the church meeting than they normally did. Only the odd rich person would come to the meetings in fine clothes because that was they way he normally dressed. And only the odd poor person would come to the meetings in dirty clothes since that was the way he normally dressed.
Might we point out that those who truly believe the LORD requires us to dress-up when coming into His presence, had better be consistent. Do they dress up for their private devotions? What about their family devotions? Are we forbidden to pray in the shower or in our work clothes? We come into the LORD's presence every time we pray, not just when the church prays ( Heb 4:16, 10:19-22 ) and our right to be in His presence is based on the person and work of the LORD Jesus, not our clothing.
And why don't these people dress-up for all the church meetings? Does the LORD only require us to be reverent at the breaking of bread? Why is it that dressing casually is irreverent from 9:30 till noon on Sunday mornings, but not irreverent at Sunday evening or mid-week meetings?
Not only are these people insisting upon humanly- devised forms of reverence, but they apply them in the most inconsistent way. We are expected to believe that the LORD requires us to dress-up in His presence, that the church comes into His presence in a different way than individuals do, and that the church comes into His presence in a different way at the breaking of bread than it does in other meetings. And all of this without any Bible verses!
Please don't misunderstand. We are not saying that reverence is unimportant. But we are saying that we must be reverent in the ways the LORD requests, not in the ways man devises.
In Mark 7:1-13 the Pharisees accused the disciples of the LORD Jesus of being irreverent because they didn't follow the tradition of the elders. The LORD didn't commend the Pharisees for inventing new ways to show their reverence, but rather He said, "This people honours Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men."
Adding to the word of God isn't acceptable regardless of your motives ( Dt 4:2 ; Pr 30:6; Rev 22:18 ). Insisting upon unbiblical rules isn't reverence; it is presumption; it is "teaching as doctrines the precepts of men."
Some Objections Answered
In lieu of supporting the dressing-up idea from the New Testament, the idea is rationalized. Whereas some of these arguments sound good at first, we believe a close examination of them shows them to be wanting. Here are some examples:
"The priests had special clothes in the Old Testament and all believers today are priests." The only commendable thing about this argument is that it at least attempts to use the Bible. But to model the physical aspects of our worship after the Old Testament practice is surely to confuse Israel and the church! Along with special clothing for the priests, the Jews were to have special buildings, altars, sacrifices, anointings, etc. On what basis do we insist upon special clothing being retained while discarding all of the other physical aspects of their worship? This is a purely arbitrary. To retain the physical aspects of Jewish worship is to miss the point of the New Covenant as clearly taught by the Lord Jesus in John 4:20-24 . Today our worship is not based on physical forms, but it is to be "in spirit and in truth."
"If you were going to meet the Queen, you would certainly dress up." Of course we would! But that is because "man looks on the outside." But "the LORD looks on the heart!" The monarchy has clearly established protocol requiring such attire. But has the LORD indicated that He expects us to dress-up? Or are we simply assuming that the LORD must be like the Queen? Furthermore, even the people who use this rationalization wouldn't dare wear the suits they wear to meetings to see the Queen. Finally let us point out that we are incapable of wearing clothes that are good enough for the LORD. He is infinitely greater than the Queen and so if he requires us to dress-up, we will have to dress in something infinitely better than what we would meet the Queen in.
"You dress up for your wife, don't you?" Of course I do! But let us again refer to 1 Samuel 16:7 . Are you suggesting that the LORD has a physical attraction to us or to our clothing?
"Our society expects it. We will stumble people if we don't dress-up." We cannot find where the Bible teaches we are to pander to the world's standards under the pretence of "outreach." The world generally expects to see a "pastor" or "minister" running the meeting. Do we hire one since some claim it would be a better outreach? And since when is the church meeting primarily an outreach? Changing the church of God to make it more palatable to unbelievers and the world that crucified her Head is hardly a noble goal. Lastly, this objection works both ways. We are aware of several people who say that they can't meet with a church because they don't have the "right" clothes for "those kinds of people."
How Should I Dress?
The Bible clearly tells us, "Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discretely, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments; but rather by means of good works" ( 1 Tim 2:9 f). Although addressed to women, certainly these verses may be applied to men as well. These verses tell us at least three things about our clothing.
Our dress should be modest and moral. This is particularly appropriate in our "liberated" society. Decency in dress is expected (eg. Lk 8:35 ), but that is for the people around us, not for God.
Our dress should be humble, simple and unpretentious. These verses certainly teach that our clothing should not be expensive, ostentatious or flashy. We are at a church meeting, not a fashion show. The goal is not to draw attention to ourselves. Dressing-up for meetings frequently ensures that the attention and eyes of others are on us rather than on the LORD.
Our real adornment should be Christ-like character. Rather than giving us a lot of commands for what physical clothing to wear, the New Testament instead instructs us to "put on the new man" ( Eph 4:24; Col 3:10 ), "put on the whole armour of God" ( Eph 6:11 ), "put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience ... and beyond all these things, put on love" ( Col 3:12,14 ). See also Rom 13:12; Gal 3:27; 1 Th 5:8; 1 Pe 5:5; Rev 3:4-5 . Even in glory, our adornment will not be fancy material clothing, but "the righteous acts of the saints" ( Rev 19:8 ).
So 1 Tim 2:9-10 (and 1 Pe 3:3-5 ) teaches that we should adorn ourselves with our character, not our clothing. Are we to believe that God commands us not to try to impress each other with our clothing, but expects us to try to impress Him with it? Are we to believe that we are to be concerned with the inward, but God is concerned with the outward? Isn't this the opposite of 1 Samuel 16:7 ?
Regrettably there are those who are causing contention, bitterness and division among God's people by pushing a belief that has no biblical support. Insisting that we dress-up for meetings may be how they were raised; it may appeal to some human reason; it may be what the world expects; it is not the word of God. The Bible does not teach that we should dress-up for meetings. It teaches that our clothing should be humble and modest. Beyond that, the Lord desires us to adorn ourselves with Christ-likeness. Being dressed in the righteousness He gives is how we are saved, and being dressed in His character is how we daily bring honour to Him.
Written by James Martin
Actual quotations are from the New American Standard Version. The Lockman Foundation.