“…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.