3 Reasons Not to Dress Up for Church, and Why I Still Do

It is interesting the things you notice when you jump into a different culture. We live in a small village next to a small town. On most days people are dressed in tattered clothing that is filthy from the field. Diapers are uncommon, so most toddlers just wander around without pants. The majority of houses in our village have dirt floors, and even with our cement floor it is impossible to keep our kids clean. But Sunday, that is a different story. On Sunday families wear matching outfits, clothes bleached to an incomprehensible white (seriously, I have no idea how they get their clothes that white). And cufflinks! I naturally assumed moving to Africa that I would never see cufflinks again. I think the shock is what started me thinking about the “why?”. Why do we dress up when we go to church? This is a particularly pertinent question when we find that something that we do is causing a problem. And there is definitely a problem.
A rather common response that I receive when I ask people in our neighborhood if they will be going to church is that they do not have nice clothes, or their clothes are not clean enough. My pastor told me, just the other day, he had been talking to our neighbor and friend Simon who had not been at church the previous Sunday. Simon said that he had not cleaned his nice clothes in time to be ready for church. The idea that cleanliness and godliness are tied is a common theme here. Stacey has been to women’s meetings where the application of the devotion was that “the devil is in the dirt” and that they need to keep their homes, clothes and children clean. And spending any time in a church here, you notice that people almost always wear their nicest clothes, which are always as clean as possible.
If the Bible says that we should dress up for church, we should, regardless of our life situation. However, I have searched the Scriptures and I have yet to find a single passage to indicate such a command. In fact, when the Bible addresses clothing, it is usually warning against wearing nice clothes. We should heed these warnings, so I have listed some of them here:
1. Partiality
James identified a problem in the church in his day:

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 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? (James 2:2-6)

The problem James saw in the church was that they were showing partiality, prioritizing the rich. He mentions that the rich man is “wearing a gold ring and fine clothing,” identifying him through his clothing. I believe that this is a trap that we can fall into in wearing “church clothes.” In our village, because of their limitations, you will see people in church without their kids and other times, like with Simon, they just do not come at all. However, this is not a problem with the wealthier members of our congregation. They have more clothing and more nice clothing. Therefore wearing special clothes for church is easier for the rich, and at times, impossible for the poor. If we expect it, I believe we are falling into the same sin as the church in James’ day and showing partiality to the rich.
2. Impropriety
Another danger of church clothes is that in wearing them, we begin to think that they are proper. Speaking to the women of his day, Paul wrote:

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 (I Timothy 2:9).

Paul implies here that wearing “costly attire” is actually improper for women. What is “proper” for these women is not about what they are wearing, but good works. Most of the people in our neighborhood work their fields for food, sell some of it in the market, and use what they make to buy other necessities that they cannot grow. This means that they rarely ever have much actual money. Clothes are one of the things that you do need money to buy. The average manual worker, when they can find work in a field or construction site, makes around $3 per day. A nice “Sunday dress” for a little girl could cost as much as  $16. That means that buying such a dress is a week’s salary investment. $16 does not seem like a lot to an American, but there is no doubt that this would be considered “costly attire” here. Paul tells women to not put their energies into braiding their hair or “looking the part” for church, but instead encourages them to spend their time working on their hearts. A Sunday dress code ignores Paul’s warnings causing women to adorn themselves with clothes and not with godliness.
3. Misplaced Priority
 When we require dress clothes I believe that we are thinking like Samuel. When he was called to find a new king to replace Saul from the sons of Jesse, Samuel immediately thought about the eldest.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7).

God revealed to Samuel that outward appearance can be misleading and to place it in priority is to think like a man and not like God. Saul, the previous king, had a more royal appearance and was a desperate failure. What makes a good king is not one’s height or his fashion sense, it is a heart that loves God. The conversation between our pastor and Simon ended with Boris telling him that in the future he should try to do his laundry sooner. What a missed opportunity! It would have been a perfect time to remind him that man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. I do not believe that God cares if we are wearing nice/clean clothes on Sunday. I certainly cannot find a verse that says so. So, for us to require it directs people’s attention to appearances rather than heart issues. I have heard of pastors here that wear a nice suit complete with cufflinks to church every Sunday, but are living in sexual immorality. This is backwards! And if we continue to require expensive clothing for church, we are affirming this backwards truth. Instead, we can use these conversations to teach about God. God is not like us: we look for beauty in people’s faces and clothes, but God looks at the heart.
Why I Usually Dress Up
With all of this said, the truth is that I usually dress up when I go to church (well, I put on my clean jeans). Is it because we ought to give our best to the Lord on Sunday? No, I believe we ought to give our best to the Lord everyday. And the “best” that God is looking for has nothing to do with my clothes. I dress up for Sundays because I believe that one of the principles in these passages above is that our lives are not supposed to draw attention to ourselves, but to God. In our church, the people are used to seeing people dressed up and I think if I dressed in my everyday clothes people would focus on me, instead of the Lord. When I preached in certain churches in the States I wore a full suit because I wanted people to listen to what I was saying and not be distracted by what I was (or wasn’t) wearing. This is how I work out Romans 14,

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God (5-6).

Rather than “quarreling over opinions,” as Paul says earlier in this chapter, I try to defer to the convictions of others when at church.
But please do not leave this blog believing my current clothing choices negate the warnings in Scripture. The truth is, Africa has fallen into these traps in part because of us. Cameroonians did not wear ties before they were colonized by “Christian” nations. With their faith, my missionary predecessors brought part of their culture: church clothes. This focus on appearance coincided with a culture that at times cares more about what others think than reality, and the result is a lot of churches that are nothing more than whitewashed sepulchers. Our actions have consequences and when we blindly accept our own cultural values, assuming they are biblical, we communicate that God expects something that he does not. These warnings might not change what we wear to church (although they certainly could), but they ought make us question our hearts. Do you find yourself judging others because of what they wear? When you think of how prepared you are to worship God, are your examinations only skin deep? Have we become judges with evil thoughts? Let this be a warning to us. Let us seek to look to the heart and not the outward appearance. And let us make sure that we are only expecting of others what God is expecting of us.

Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.