I am sure this is a topic most of us will have considered at some point or other. It’s one for which there are almost as many opinions as there are Christians, but whether you think everybody should dress in three-piece suits, Adidas trackies or reckon that the whole thing is a red herring, it’s important for each one of us to take a step back and think about this matter in the light of God’s word and what directions the Holy Spirit has given us.

Are those who dress smartly in their ‘Sunday best’ for church just holding onto silly traditions? Does it matter what you wear when you worship God? What follows are, I hope, some scriptural primers to help us think these questions through, whatever our cultural context.

Think of God

In the West, our society as a whole is increasingly casual and informal. We’ve largely done away with formalities and honorifics (Mr, Mrs, Sir, Madam etc). We call everyone by their first names. And when it comes to dress, an untucked shirt and jeans might well be considered smart!

Likewise, I think, increasingly Christians can be casual in how we approach God and His law. Compared with Christians in past years, we’re definitely much more informal. These days, we don’t usually kneel to pray, and many Christians barely think twice about shopping on the Lord’s Day.

But God is the Almighty (Revelation 1:8), Lord of lords and King of kings (Revelation 17:14), Lord of the universe (Psalm 19:1), infinite (Psalm 147:5) and thrice-holy God (Isaiah 6:3). We are to ‘serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling’ (Psalm 2:11). Elsewhere in scripture it says:

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil.

Ecclesiastes 5:1

We cannot and should not be casual with God, otherwise He would not be God to us. In Hebrews it says, ‘let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 12:28-29). Nadab and Abihu died when they offered ‘strange fire before the Lord’ (Leviticus 10:1-2 KJV). Worshipping God is literally a matter of life and death! Therefore, a vital question to ask ourselves in this and in every other aspect of our lives is ‘Does my approach to this honour God? Does what I wear honour the One who made me?’

1 Corinthians 11:1-16 on head coverings in worship is a good example of logically thinking this through – though I’m not going to tackle head coverings here, so you’ll have to ‘judge for yourselves’ (1 Corinthians 11:13)!

To honour God we must understand who He really is; He is the ‘high and lofty One…whose name is Holy’ (Isaiah 57:15 KJV), and yet, especially in the person of Jesus Christ to those washed in His blood, God is the most humble, personable friend that anyone could imagine. ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit’ (Isaiah 57:15, also see Proverbs 18:24 and John 15:15). Ultimately, He doesn’t care what people look like or what others might think of them; He looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). More than any other error in the church of first-century Israel, Jesus tackled the stuffy, outward, hypocritical formalism of the scribes and Pharisees with their ‘flowing robes’ (Luke 20:46 NIV), ‘wide’ phylacteries and ‘long’ tassels (Matthew 23:5 NIV). We come just as we are to Jesus, bringing only our sinful hearts to be clothed in His (spiritual) robe of righteousness. We worship God ‘in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:23 KJV), and so we must guard against an outward religiosity:

This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.

Matthew 15:8-9, quoting Isaiah 29:13

We worship God with the whole of us: in our bodies what we do and wear, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), in our minds what we think, ‘we have the mind of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 2:16b); but these all flow from our hearts (Proverbs 4:23). The word we translate as ‘heart’ in Hebrew is lêbâb (לֵבָב), which the ancient Israelites understood to represent the inner person, the seat of all a person’s emotions and thoughts. So the key question, whatever we choose to wear, is do we truly honour God from our hearts?

Think of your brothers and sisters

In Romans 14, the apostle Paul reminds us to bear with our brothers and sisters in matters of conscience where we may differ:

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

Romans 14:4

It’s down to God to judge, not us; only He sees the heart and the motivations. And God has given us freedom in this regard (1 Corinthians 6:12, Galatians 5:13, 1 Peter 2:16). Don’t look down on Cecil for looking scruffy or laugh behind Cynthia’s back because she’s left her curlers in again. We should repent of any such thoughts. You don’t know what kind of week someone has had or what his or her motivations might be. If we’re honest, sometimes these thoughts come as a result of our own pride. Instead, we should ‘serve one another humbly in love’ (Galatians 5:13b NIV).

‘Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind’ (Romans 14:5), writes Paul, but this must be tempered with a resolve ‘never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother’ (Romans 14:13), for then we would be ‘no longer walking in love’ (Romans 14:15). This walking in love with each other applies to what we wear – both in terms of dressing ourselves modestly and not in setting such high expectations on what others wear to church (see 1 Peter 3:3-4, and men need to hear this too!). The purpose of church is to worship God; it’s not a fashion parade. At church, the talk should not be about what colour trousers Cuthbert will wear this week, but about the Lord Jesus, ‘the king in his beauty’ (Isaiah 33:17)!

People express their character with what they wear, but we must be careful that we do not cause others to stumble, whether by dressing immodestly or by causing others to feel peer pressure or be distracted from worship. ‘Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do’ (Philippians 4:5 NLT). As humans, we’re sensitive, anxious creatures; it’s natural for us to want to fit in. Some churches almost seem to have a uniform – whether it’s the grey-suit brigade or the groovy gang with their ripped jeans and concert t-shirts. Instead, we should be content to be ourselves and not feel pressure to conform to the expectations of others. Follow your own conscience, not the conscience of anyone else, but remember it’s not about keeping up with the Joneses or rebelliously trying to stand out.

One of the beauties of church is that it is (or ought to be) a melting pot and cross-section of people, across classes and cultural divides, a true snapshot of heaven (Revelation 7:9), a place where perhaps some wear ties and perhaps some wear joggers, but all join together as one to worship God, for we ‘are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28).

Think of visitors

We must also consider visitors, especially those who aren’t Christians yet.

Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in.

James 2:2 NIV

What kind of impression does it give if everyone is sombrely dressed like they’re at a funeral when we come to worship God? Is it right to purposefully put the attractive young ‘worship leaders’ at the front? 

For a lot of people, going to church for the first time is a big deal. Having to worry about what to wear just increases this anxiety. It can be so easy for us to become puffed up with pride in ourselves, in what we wear, in putting on a show, whether we wear our smart shoes or our favourite hoodie. Everyone should be encouraged to come to the house of God just as they are. You shouldn’t have to be dolled up to the nines to fit in; there shouldn’t be a dress code for meeting with God and His people.

Almost the last words of the Bible say:

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.

Revelation 22:17

Who are we to put a little asterisk (*) on the free offer of the Gospel?! ‘*Come, but only if you look like one of us…’

But don’t overthink it!

What we wear to church does matter, but, ultimately, I believe the answer to the question of what exactly we wear is down to the individual, thinking conscience. Notice that I said ‘thinking’ – this is a matter that we should consider for ourselves. We ought to consider this humbly and lovingly before the Lord, remembering that we ought to honour Him in all that we do (1 Corinthians 10:31). Ultimately, our identity ought to be found in Christ alone, not in the clothes we wear. ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes’ (Mark 12:38). We shouldn’t force a style, but encourage people to come as they are, and above all, to be faithful to the One who clothes His people with the ‘garments of salvation’ (Isaiah 61:10), fitting us for works of service:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 

Colossians 3:12 NIV, emphasis mine

It is important that we don’t overthink it and so end up worrying about ‘what [we] will wear’ (Matthew 6:25 NIV) or wind up lost in ‘foolish, ignorant controversies’ (2 Timothy 2:23). Paul writes:

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

Romans 14:17-19

We might likewise say the kingdom of God is not a matter of whether we dress smartly to church or not, but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.