The Sunday Morning Costume
One of the older but more recent facets of Churchianity is the idea of going to the church dressed up in the “Sunday best” or finding the best clothes money can buy to wear when going to church. The idea of this comes up occasionally, as it did here. The post illustrates how deeply ingrained the traditions of men are to the point that very few will think about why they are doing something, and how hard it can be to get away from them. I left a comment there, but with things going on as they have, I left what is basically the skeleton of this post as my comment with the intention to elaborate later as a post.
The History of “The Sunday Best”
Dress used to be an indicator of social and economic class. Fine clothes were expensive because they were custom-made, but the Industrial Revolution changed things. These clothes became more affordable to purchase. Therefore the middle class could dress up and show off its wealth just as the rich people, demonstrating status. Church was a natural destination to show others how well off they were, since this was a common gathering place.
Preachers of the time happened to see the issues of such things. John Wesley and others saw the danger of pride through “gay and costly apparel” in the 18th and 19th century. But as people tend to do, they will turn from those who speak truth and gather those who feed their Personal Jesus.
Dress turned from an inconsequential thing to a thing that reflected one’s honor and respect for God and the church building. As Leigh Eric Schmidt writes of William Henry Foote, a Presbyterian preacher in 1846:
As they readied themselves for worship, Foote elaborated, the faithful “put on their best and carefully preserved dress” in preparation for “their approach to the King of Kings.”
“A church-going people are a dress-loving people. [easily recalling Luke 20:46] The sanctity and decorum of the house of God are inseparably associated with a decent exterior; and the spiritual, heavenly exercises of the inner man are incompatible with a defiled and tattered, or slovenly mein. All regular Christian assemblies cultivate a taste for dress . . .”
In other words, the tastes and lusts of the world have entered the Church. “Your Sunday Best” was foreign to people before 1840.
How Does the Lord Want Us To Dress?
I left a list of Scriptures for consideration against mandating the practice of “dressing up in your Sunday best” in that comment and they point out the issues of this traditional practice.
1. Mandating dressing up places a false message forth about what matters to the Lord.
But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: 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)
Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: (1 Peter 3:3-5) [Wesley's chosen preaching verse]
These things speak well to the issue. The Lord doesn’t care about the buildings we build or the stuff we have or even the things we sacrifice or give to him. What He does care about is that we bring ourselves as a holy and living sacrifice to Him.
2. Mandating dressing up encourages wickedness.
And the Lord said unto him, Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness. (Luke 11:39)
Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:6-8)
Missing the message in point #1 even one bit encourages wickedness. Given the writing of Micah, it seems the people of Israel missed this message in favor of sacrifices. Is the Lord pleased with all the nice clothes in the world or is He pleased with one who is just, merciful, and walks humbly with Him? One can go through the week and sin to their hearts content and offend God, yet put on the Sunday Morning “Christian” Costume on the Lord’s day, and visit the house of the Lord and maybe even confess it all and he is just fine to go on sinning and do it all over again the next Sunday. I have known many “Christians” just like this, who walk in the path of the Pharisees and have a different Father. Dressed up in your Sunday best or not, forsaking the message of dressing YOU up in holiness and righteousness by submission to the Spirit is wickedness. Again this is what matters to the Lord, not how we dress.
3. Mandating dressing up creates class differences and favoritism.
My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. 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; 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: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? 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? (James 2:1-5)
The passage almost speaks for itself in bringing up clothes, given the background covered above. I related my story of my initial church going days, where I faced just this, even when I showed up in my Sunday best. When one can’t afford the absolute best, one is just not welcome in a place where dressing up in your Sunday best is mandated. Perhaps this is the main reason modern Churchianity has chosen to eliminate the practice – an interest and drive to reach the world’s poor and huddled masses where they are.
So How Are We Actually Supposed To Dress?
It should be clear that we shouldn’t go out and buy the absolute “best” clothes out there that money can buy, and that the Lord cares about other things. But what does Scripture say positively about dress? There are a number of references about the dress of women which refer to “respectful” dress, which could be extrapolated to men. As a Christian woman shouldn’t be dressed like a whore in public, so should a man not be dressed indecently.
In other words, people should dress their bodies in a respectable way that genuinely honors God. If this means you feel the need to dress up in a suit and tie, go for it. If not and it’s still God-honoring, that’s fine too. But the problem comes in mandating things upon others where God is plainly silent. In fact, God is anything but silent on the exact issue of what happens when the costume one puts on makes the identity before God.
See also: Should We Dress Up For Church?
(*) Hints for the History section taken from Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna p 146-148.