Clothing Matters: What We Wear to Church
- Much of the social meaning of our clothing is contextual. The appropriateness of our dress is often dictated by the situation. Dress that would send a given message in one setting might send a very different message in another. Picture, for example, a young woman dressed in hiking boots, sweatshirt, and shorts. Around a campfire the message might be, merely, "I'm ready for the trail." Choosing that same outfit for her aunt's funeral would say something rather different. Regional variations and issues of local dress loom large. Times change, values change, situations change; what was proper ten years ago may not be proper today, or vice versa.
All of the above is why we should not conclude too quickly that because God looks on the heart, what we wear to church doesn't matter. Our internal and external states cannot be so easily disentangled. The fact is, when it comes to how we clothe ourselves, our external appearance is often an expression of our internal state. Thus our worship attire may matter more than we think.
The Meaning of Worship
What is worship, after all? It's the act of acknowledging and praising God as God; indeed, as our God. It is the adoring response of grateful creatures to their Maker. In worship we come before God with awe and reverence, focusing on him in loving contemplation, celebrating him for who he is and what he has done. We willingly bow before him in surrender, delighting in the privilege of extolling his worthiness. In worship we join our small voices with the celestial choirs in a grand chorus magnifying the Creator and declaring his excellencies: his purity, his power, his beauty, his grace, his mercy, his love.
From the beginning, God has called his people to public worship. It's everywhere in the Bible, and with good reason: our corporate worship pleases God. What's more, we need it as well. Everyone who has ever built a campfire knows how quickly lone embers cool and die. But gather those embers and they create a furnace effect that burns hot. Corporate worship is designed to generate that furnace effect in God's people. Those around us warm our spirits, encourage our faith, and hold us up when we're faltering. As Martin Luther famously put it, "At home, in my own house, there is no warmth or vigor in me, but in the church when the multitude is gathered together, a fire is kindled in my heart and it breaks its way through."
"Do not neglect the gathering of yourselves together," says the writer to the Hebrews (10:25). We come to faith as individuals, but Christ places us instantly into his body, and we require that body for the purposes of worship. There are aspects of worship we cannot fulfill alone. The Lord's Table, for example, belongs to the community; celebrate it when you "come together," says the apostle (1 Cor. 11:18, 33). So also baptism, corporate prayer, the public reading of Scripture, the teaching of Scripture, the corporate confession of sin: all these and more are designed for corporate worship.
So what sort of clothing might befit such an exalted occasion? Observers in the gallery of the United States Supreme Court are forbidden to wear hats. Out of respect for the importance of what's taking place there, the Court's firm rule for visitors is, "Inappropriate clothing may not be worn." If this is so for a merely human institution, what might be suitable attire for God-honoring worship?