“…For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
1 Samuel 16:7b
Maybe it’s because I’m over 40 now, but I have to admit to a new found appreciation for the tailored and comfy dress. But it wasn’t always that way. Even though I usually wore the uniform of pious femininity to church as a girl, I’m sure I horrified my mother by regularly wrestling the boys to the ground while in a dress, or sitting on stage in the front row of the Christmas concert like a cowboy who had been on a horse for a week. All the while, my mother making feverish expressions and hand gestures as if to say, “For the love of all that is decent child, put your legs together!”
My childhood home and our present family home are probably not the only ones who’ve had “discussions” over what a child is to wear to church on Sunday mornings. We don’t often talk formally about it in our churches, but my experience in the many churches we’ve been a part of through our North American travels, is that those with strong opinions will be sure to sprinkle conversations with what they believe to be best and right. Perhaps you’ve encountered similar sentiments to those I have heard. Something to the effect of:
“When children learn to revere God, they will dress up for church.”
I’ve had a problem with that line of thinking for quite some time but have left it alone because I never pursue disagreement if it can be avoided, and I desire to respect my elders and their opinions if I can. But I’m venturing out to take the risk now because I’m increasingly convinced that there is too much at stake to remain silent. Namely, God’s glory and the tender faith of the children in our congregations. Regardless of your personal preference on the matter, my prayer has been that you will consider the potential dangers of this line of thinking in order to, at the very least, guard against them in your own family and church.
It is to that end that I offer for your consideration, my reasons for believing that we shouldn’t mandate dressing up for church services:
- Biblical support of dressing up is sketchy.
I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover and here are the only principles I believe we can safely deduce on the subject of church attire:
- God tells us that an estimation of a person’s character or spiritual suitability shouldn’t be derived from appearances. To do so is a human tendency, not a godly one. (I Sam. 16:7)
- We are not to judge or show partiality to people based on what they show up to church wearing. If we do, we are elevating ourselves to the position of judge and God considers that form of discrimination and preference to be wicked. (James 2:1-4)
- The type of adorning we should be most concerned with is the spiritual and character sort, not clothing. Who we are and what we do – not what we wear. (I Peter 3:3-4, I Timothy 2:9-10)
- The only dress we are encouraged to avoid is attire that is immodest, seductive, distracting or extravagant. (I Timothy 2:9-10, Prov. 7:10)
- And the only other noteworthy passages on clothing are symbolic of attitudes, righteousness, spiritual readiness and the provision of salvation – they should not be taken as regulatory principles. (Matt. 22:1-14, I Peter 5:5, Rev. 19:7-8, Psalm 96:9, Psalm 149:4)
I can’t find any scripture that dictates particular clothing requirements for Sunday mornings. And try as I might, I can’t find the fabled scripture denouncing denim as the devil’s spawn either. We need to be careful not to misapply scripture to support the cultural clothing conventions we find comfortable because of our church tradition.
- We may be elevating our rules above God’s priorities.
Jesus had three years of public teaching ministry during which he could have mandated attire for corporate worship services, but funny – it never came up. Perhaps we need to recognize that we can elevate the social convention of dressing up on Sundays to the status of biblical law. But we need to be careful. Jesus has words for people with these tendencies:
“And he said to them, ’Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”’
I would like to suggest that we may be doing just that when we officially or unofficially impose a church dress code that Jesus didn’t. Let’s be careful that we are not elevating man-made, externally-focused traditions to the position of law and neglecting the weightier matters of our calling, like holiness, obedience, love and grace.
- We may be inadvertently succumbing to the fear of man.
Not all children like to dress up. We have personal style. They have personal style. I’m probably not the only one with daughters who haven’t always enjoyed dresses and skirts – or at least not for a few awkward, pre-teen years. A few years back, when I was battling with a certain athletic child over the logic of her getting into a piece of clothing for Sunday that she would never choose for any other event at that point in her developing life, I was grasping for a good reason to give her. But if I’m honest, while my words mouthed some pathetic and unconvincing reason, my mind was saying, Because Mr. & Mrs. Proper in our congregation wouldn’t approve of what you want to wear and thereby, judge my Christian parenting to be lacking. Surely I’m not the only woman who has ever thought that.
If we’re having a hard time coming up with satisfactory, logical and biblical answers as to why we are willing to incite Sunday morning conflict to force our kids to don diametrically opposite styles for church than they wear the other 6 ½ days of the week, there’s a chance we may be operating out of the fear of man. If we are, that’s bad parenting. That’s bad for our kids’ hearts. And that is a snare-laden path (Prov. 29:25) that may compromise the ground we could gain on more important fronts in the battle for their hearts.
I will answer to God for the stewardship of my children’s hearts one day. So if I, in good conscience, let this matter go because I believe that there are greater battles to fight for their salvation and holiness than dressing up to suit the preferences of other people, then I am willing to bear the disapproval of others. Their estimation of me, my parenting and my child carries no eternal weight and is a far inferior concern when compared to the effective shepherding of my child’s heart.
- We may miss the heart of our young people.
When she was younger, one of my children drew this type of disapproval because she was probably dressed in a pair of jeans and an Under Armour® sweatshirt that particular morning. (Her life uniform at that stage in her social development.) In assessing my daughters’ attire, a woman unknowingly made a flawed judgement of my child’s relationship with God. Whether she meant to or not, by the comment she made, she inferred that my daughter did not adequately revere God.
Big mistake in this particular case.
The daughter in question is one of the most pure-hearted, Christ-like, young women I’ve ever encountered at her current age and at the time of that incident. For example:
- She would be grieved in her spirit if she uttered even a shade of untruth.
- She honours her parents beautifully, and seeks quick forgiveness if she doesn’t.
- She consistently sets aside her desires to ensure the happiness and delight of her family members.
- She loves, serves, bears with and forgives her sisters.
- She uses her growing influence for the good of others.
- She does everything with all her might as unto the Lord.
- She stands up for the marginalized at her school.
- And she stands for what is right even if no one else does.
Jesus didn’t say “If you love me, you’ll dress-up when you come to my house.” He said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) And through Moses, God showed to the people of Israel the relationship between reverence and obedience when he said: “You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice…” (Deut. 13:4)
Though this child wasn’t dressed for church as some people think she should be, the way she lived (and lives) provides compelling evidence for a love and reverence for the God who has saved her. But this woman didn’t see her heart.
All she could see was her sweatshirt.
- We may become a breeding ground for hypocrites.
If we continue to follow the logic of the supposed dress/reverence relationship, we would be forced to conclude, on any given Sunday morning, that the disrespectful, dishonest and cranky girl in the patent pumps has a greater reverence for God than the kind but casual obeyer in the t-shirt. We’d be dead wrong, but that’s the logical outworking of subscribing to that line of thinking.
When we force children to dress in a manner completely contrary to their current tastes and styles, touting it as reverence when that’s not at all how their brains would equate or choose to show reverence, we are demanding and applauding external conformity void of internal conviction. (Insert warning bells here.)
If we give misplaced commendations for external appearances of righteousness on a Sunday morning and don’t know younger believers well enough to encourage the evidence of true righteousness in other areas of their lives, it’s no wonder we pass hundreds of youth through our church ranks whose faith has never gone deeper than their dress shirt. As proper as they looked as kids, they ironically won’t be the ones bringing glory to God as they walk away in droves from a faith that never changed them.
- We’re with the King every day.
During one of my feeble attempts to persuade my children to acquiesce to the dress-code, I found myself employing the staple, stick-it-to-em answer given by many a Christian mother: “But we’re going to see the King!” (Insert strained smile here.)
I couldn’t say it with conviction because that one just didn’t sit well with me. It took me a while to figure out why I didn’t like that line of reasoning and here it is: The truth is that any Christian, because of the indwelling Holy Spirit, is in the King’s presence every day. As a matter of fact, if we really want to go there: The King sees us in our sweats, in the shower and in that comfy, threadbare pair of underwear that we really should throw away. If we preach God’s omnipresence to our children, we have to recognize that this reasoning falls short. Besides, He knows us, He loves us and He receives us by his grace in our lost, sinful and broken condition. Let’s stop wheedling our kids into dressing up by making them think they could impress God by dressing up for two hours a week.
There are many parts of scripture that provide clear measures of our spiritual condition, but the formality of our church clothing is never listed among them. So we need to ask ourselves some questions:
- Why on earth did we turn our Sunday wardrobe into a measure of reverence and holiness?
- How does that standard benefit the children and visitors of our church?
- If we do care what people dress like on Sunday, why do we care so much?
Considering that the Pharisees were the only people recorded as questioning Jesus about appearances and adherence to extra-biblical rules, it should cause us at least a little concern if this is really important to us.
Now don’t get me wrong. I enjoy dressing up and do almost every Sunday. And though it’s not necessarily out of reverence for God that I do so, I firmly believe that if anyone dresses up out of a desire to show reverence to God, then that is a holy and pleasing act. But please, for the sake of more important matters of faith, keep this personal conviction to yourself and let children grow into it if they feel God calling them to it.
Pastor Sunder Krishnan defines legalism as “drawing the line harder than scripture and demanding that others do as well.” So go ahead and draw that line for yourself if you want to, as a means of displaying your own reverence for God. But let’s not take the unnecessary step further from God-honouring conviction to legalism by holding that personal conviction up to our growing young people as a standard of reverence when it’s a purely external, easily falsified and far inferior measure than their character, as displayed in their attitudes and actions.
Yes, let’s teach our children to revere God – it is the very beginning of wisdom, after all. (Prov. 1:7) But let’s not use the formality of their church clothes, or lack thereof as a human, inaccurate and unbiblical measure of their reverence and relationship with Him. That will gain us about zero influence with the next generation of believers.
“It was the lady who disapproved of my jeans that made me want to get to know God better.”
Said no young person ever.
Instead, let’s take the time to get to know and nurture the hearts of the younger ones in our church family. And in the already tumultuous and uncertain years of youth, let’s stop peering down at them over our ties and blouses and instead, get our slacks and skirts dirty as we bend low to extend the compelling grace of Christ to them.
Even in their sweatshirts.
Well written Jan. So well laid out and true to the scripture. If you read this and find it a little edgy, you should have seen the unedited version 😉
What would I do without you?!
Blue Jeans all the way!!
Funny. 🙂 It’s all about the heart, eh?
Exactly! Needed to be said. Needs to be said over and over again.
Thanks for the encouragement Todd. I guess some in the church can tend that way because it’s so much easier to evaluate by externals – but how stifling. Glad to hear you’re tackling legalism! It’s a worthy fight. 🙂
Modestly..”with downcast eyes”
Discreetly “sound mind”
Sounds like it’s pretty personal isn’the it?
Indeed. As for you on a Sunday morning – “Two minutes for lookin’ so good!”
I am with you all the way Janet! As old as I am, I started wearing jeans all the time five or six years ago and have not had on a dress or skirt since. I am amazed at how I can dress my jeans outfit up for a wedding, a memorial service, church,… and feel comfortable and yet completely honoring to my savior. But oh the effort of keeping my heart where it is honoring to my savior, that is the challenge!
You nailed it about the heart! That’s the challenge and I think we are tempted to evaluate by externals because it’s cleaner & easier to do. I trust you’re continuing to spread that trademark love down in Texas! It’s neat to see my girls at the ages now, that I was when I was in the youth group. Sweet memories. 🙂
Thank you!!! We will read this as a family. We have struggled with this of late. Duncan detests the words “church clothes” – what does that mean? I am guilty of the fear of man. Thank you for your timely words.
My pleasure! Ah, “church clothes”. Avery has dubbed her grey and black, flannel, hooded, lumberjack shirt as her “church shirt”. Goes to show you the span of her style portfolio! Glad to know other families are sorting through this. If we can love and lead our kids to be vibrant, grace-filled, lights in a dark world, I’m not too concerned about what they wear on the journey. 🙂
So glad you said it. I do not feel this particular issue anymore, but it is perfect picture of the slope of dissension that befalls the church when our eyes fall off the central point of Christ. Well written.
Thank you Heather. Good point – how little all this matters if we can keep Christ central!
Yes, yes, and yes. Wonderful, True stuff, friend.
Thanks Mrs. Hall. Wasn’t sure how many subscribers I’d have left when it was all said and posted, but I’ll lay it out there to see Christ’s church love and shine the way it should!
Well written Jan. Think this has made me look at and question an number of other areas of external appearance vs heart appearance as I continue to raise the kids.
I’m with you all the way, friend! I keep reminding myself of who I will answer to and it sure makes parenting decisions more clear. I can almost feel the freedom my girls experience knowing that we only expect of them the things that matter in God’s opinion.
Hi Janet, I’ve been wanting to give my two cents worth on this subject since I’m of the much older generation who appreciates the depth of heart for Jesus but also giving our “best” to the master, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. If your child was invited to go to tea at Buckingham Palace, wouldn’t you suggest buying something lovely for her to wear rather than sweats? Why should the King of Kings be shorted on this? Isn’t he much higher in rank than the Queen? Love your spiritual depth Janet and miss you. Tell me what you think.
Hi Lucy! Sorry for the delayed reply. My e-mail notifications changed and I didn’t see a few comments until today. I do see your point and here is what I’d say to that. Borrowing from a sweet friend who had a couple semi-pro hockey players amongst her children: One of the lads didn’t like dressing up for Sunday and they didn’t force that external factor and instead, focused on his character. But as he got older, he began to see a discrepancy in his own life. He would dress in a suit to go to the hockey arena for games and then not dress up as much for church. He, of his own accord, felt convicted that he could begin to show God honour in his dress by dressing up for church as he did for hockey. That was an outward display of an true inner conviction – beautiful. That’s the way it should be done in my opinion. Be concerned first with the growth of a child’s heart toward God and then allow those positions and convictions to develop as they mature. I have no problem with dressing up as a means of showing honour – I just don’t want us to applaud and elevate the external displays of “honour” when the heart attitude isn’t present beneath the clothes.
Thanks for your two cents and I would say that we don’t differ as much as it might seem. I just encourage the outward display to be based on an inward attitude which might take some time to develop and during which time we would serve the next generations well to extend grace in the process. 🙂 All my love to you and your West-coast crew! (I was thinking about your cabbage soup the other day…!)
Excellent article…and one that I had to deal with for both myself (when younger) and also, on occassion, with my children. The one thing that kept coming to my mind as reading it was that: the people met together daily in their homes, broke bread, and gave thanks to the Lord. I doubt that any dressed up every morning unless they were June Cleaver from “Leave It to Beaver”. Also, pictoral depictions from Jesus and first century life never showed anyone being dressed up (they wore sandals year around, lol). So clearly, there was no thought in that direction, at that time. Anyway, thanks again, Janet, for those wonderfully pithy words.
Hey Janet. I sure do love your writing. As a kid, I had an entire drawer devoted to church pantyhose (accompanied by a bottle of clear nail polish since my legs were magnets for pew nails and splinters) and I couldn’t wait to change out of my ‘church clothes’. I have two little girls of my own now. A 4 year old who would wear an evening gown to the dentist and a 1 year old who happily wears whatever I put on her but I can anticipate a day when the subject of ‘church clothes’ will enter our household. I’m so glad I read this before that time comes. God sees hearts – not jeans or dresses. I’m inclined to believe that he is thrilled to see people in His church (as should we be) and that the beauty of a heart after His trumps wardrobe every single time.
Thanks friend Anne. Amen and amen, but I’d love to see your 4 year old at the dentist… that would be a sight to behold! Glad to forge the muddy waters of church attire a few years ahead of you. 🙂