8 Things the Bible Says About How We Should Dress in Church
If you search your Bible for phrases like “skinny jeans” or “three-piece-suits,” you are not going to find very much. But, believe it or not, the Bible actually has a lot to say about what we wear in corporate worship. Now, clothing is not a major doctrine. What you believe about hats, or capris, or sandals is not as important as what you believe about the Trinity, the resurrection, or the hypostatic union. And yet, if all of the Bible is equally inspired, it is important to consider how the Bible addresses what we wear in worship.
Now, this blog is not going to address everything the Bible says about clothing. That would take forever! We would have to talk about the invention of clothes being a result of trying to cover up our shame from the fall. We would have to talk about the importance of the priest’s clothes in the Old Testament as he represented the nation of Israel before God. We would have to talk about the Mosaic Law and why Israel was not allowed to wear clothing made from two different fabrics, etc. Instead, this blog will focus on what the New Testament commands (and what it does not command) regarding what we wear to church.
Growing up I basically thought that if you didn’t wear slacks and a tie in church you were going to hell. I was told that church is a time to “put your best foot forward for God” and to show him how reverent you were (which equated to how uncomfortable you were during the service). When I started attending a church where the pastor wore jeans, I thought that I must have fallen into scientology or something heretical; surely a man of God wouldn’t preach in normal clothes!
But, the more I studied the Bible, the more I realized that my assumptions were based on tradition rather than scripture.
Below, I have included some important passages that tell us what we should think about how we dress in church—as well as eight lessons we can learn from these verses:
The New Testament on Clothing
Matthew 6:25 - “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
1. The clothing we wear is not what is most important – trusting God is. I stood in church for years with nice clothes and a hard heart. In fact, my heart was as hard as my starched khakis.Respect, love, trust, and reverence are conditions of the heart—not an issue of clothing.Biblically, “reverence” is internal, not external. We have to avoid the assumption that buttoned-up clothing equals respect and casual clothing equals disrespect. Remember, the Pharisees were dressed nice, but Jesus wasn’t because he was homeless (Luke 9:58).
1 Corinthians 11:4-5 - Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…
2. Men are to dress like men and women are to dress like women. Now, I’m not going to get into the whole “head-covering” issue here. Suffice it to say that, whatever the text means, it means that a woman should be respectful to her husband, and that men should look like men and women should look like women. God loves that he made mankind in two genders! He hates androgyny. You glorify God the most as a man by being a man and as a woman by being a woman. Now, the cultural expression of what it looks like to dress like a man and dress like a woman will change from culture to culture (in Scotland men can wear kilts, in our culture it is totally fine for a woman to wear pants, etc.), but the command to have some way of distinguishing genders stands for today.
1 Timothy 2:9-10 - likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.
3. Our clothing should be modest. Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t wear shorts. It does mean that you can’t wear shorts that are barely shorts at all. It doesn’t mean that you cannot wear something sleeveless. It does mean that you should wear more than just sleeves. You can be stylish, but your style shouldn’t come at the price of possibly causing your brother or sister to lust. Of course, in one sense lust is the problem of the person lusting (someone can lust after someone who is being very modest). But in another sense, a skirt that is too short may not be the best way to help your brothers in Christ focus on the Lord. Conversely, a man can wear a “V-neck” T-shirt but the “V” should be more of a valley and less of a canyon.
4. We are not to dress in expensive, showy, or flashy ways for worship. Every time the Bible tells us how to dress for worship it encourages NOT to dress up. Think about that for a second. That is the exact opposite of what many of us were told growing up. This text is not saying that you cannot literally wear jewelry or do your hair that morning. But it is saying that church is not a place where you dress so as to draw attention to yourself. We are not to be flashy. Now, there are ways one could be dressed-down and still draw attention to himself. But Christ is the focus in church, never us. And we should dress accordingly.
1 Peter 3:3-4 - Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious.
5. Your heart, not your clothes, is how you honor God in worship. Notice, at the end of this verse, that clothes are not what God is after; he is after a humble spirit. This is saying that your effort should be rightly prioritized; the effort you put into picking out an outfit, fixing your hair, or doing your makeup should pale in comparison to the effort you pour into submitting your heart to the rule and reign of Christ. The Bible over and over again wants to point us away from the idea that reverence is external. 1 Samuel 16:7 – “…For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
James 2:2-5 - For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?
6. The Bible allows people to dress down for worship. Notice that there are people in this text who go to worship wearing “shabby” clothes. The Bible says that dressing down, even to the point of having “shabby” clothes, is totally fine. In fact, if your church has people who are all wearing what the text calls “fine clothing,” then it may mean that you need to consider how a poor person would feel if they came into your service.
7. We are not to give deference to those who wear nicer clothes. We are to care and love people who come to worship equally and not based upon their status or how they are dressed. This means that we should never be dismissive of someone who comes in without traditional church attire. A stripper who is visiting church is probably going to dress like a stripper. A drug dealer who is visiting church is probably going to dress like a drug dealer. A lost person, who has no regard for how his or her outfit might cause others to lust, is going to dress accordingly. But, we want these people here! They are not an inconvenience; they are the mission. We can deal with immodest clothing later. Initially we need them to hear the gospel.
1 Corinthians 9:20-22 - To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.
8. Your clothing should be missional. Don’t dress like “church people;” dress like those you are trying to reach. If you want to reach the lost you should dress like the lost (with the exception being immodest, etc.). This means you need to know what non-Christians wear in your area. In Manhattan the “normal” clothing of everyday people may be slacks and a jacket. In the Northwest it may be boots and flannel. In a suburb it may be jeans and a t-shirt. You should wear whatever is contextually appropriate for your area. Questions like, “What would those in my context wear on a Saturday when headed out to the mall?” can be a helpful way to find out how you should dress. Lost people are looking for authenticity in a world that is plastic, and political, and corporate. They want a place where they can come as they are.
How do you think they dressed for church in the New Testament? They wore “normal” clothes. They met in house churches at night after work and the congregation was made up of those who were social outcasts (sinners, slaves, women, Gentiles, etc.). This means that they didn’t dress up. They dressed down. What would Jesus have worn while he was ministering? Well, considering that he was homeless and poor he wouldn’t have been dressed in “fine clothing.”
Here at Parkway we believe in the sufficiency of scripture, so we don’t forbid anything the Bible doesn’t forbid. We have people who wear slacks, people who wear shorts, people who wear hats, people who don’t wear hats, people who have tattoos, people who don’t have tattoos, people who grew up in church, and people who didn’t. But our people know that what we do when we gather for worship is lift high the name of Jesus. Our diversity in appearance with our unity in mission creates a beautiful mosaic of the family of God.
The clothing you wear is important because it says something about what you value. The gospel is not that we “put our best foot forward for God” but that “God put his best foot forward for us in Christ.” You see, how we dress tells us something about how we understand the gospel. And often, we have gotten the gospel message backwards by how we dress. Church is not a place where we clean ourselves up and show how we have it all together. It is a place where we are honest and where we expose our flaws and failures. You don’t clean yourself up before coming to God. You come as you are.