The War on Clothes

"People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." 1 Samuel 16:7

When an AT&T representative suggested to one of Steve Job's deputies that the Apple CEO wear a suit to meet with AT&T’s board of directors, the AT&T representative was told, "We’re Apple. We don’t wear suits. We don’t even own suits." On the other hand, 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."

One of the most common complaints by church attendees concerns other congregants apparel.

The Scriptures give us some mixed messages on apparel. In 1 Timothy 2:9-10, Paul tells Timothy, “…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.

Despite the above scripture, we are not inclined to take someone aside at church and ask them to please step outside and un-braid their hair, or please go home and change into something less expensive, or please leave your gold or pearls in the car. But what stands out from this scripture is the emphasis on "respectable."

American culture has grown increasing casual over the last several decades. But it is important to point out, that there are still places and events where people almost unanimously, dress up. So the issue is not that people refuse to ever dress up, the question is, why is church no longer on the list of places or events for which people dress up? 

In American culture, most people will dress up to attend a wedding. This might be the only occasion all year that an 18 year old wears a suit. We acknowledge weddings, funerals and job interviews as occasions that require us to appear "respectable" as an outward show of respect for the participants. Our attire is an external expression of our caring for our loved ones or a nod toward the potential job that we would like to get. So the common theme when we do dress up is respect. The reason many people give for the casual attire at church is that the younger generation doesn't dress up. But they do dress up: for prom, for high school graduation, for college graduation, for a date, they just don't dress up for church. 

The regularity of the event of church happens on an entirely different cycle than weddings, graduations, job interviews and hopefully, funerals. The weekly occurrence of church is frequent and indeed, regular. Culturally, we seem capable of rallying behind the infrequent, special events in our lives, but we have lost the taste for including the weekly, regularity of church in the category of special occasions requiring unique respect. We slog into church dressed in our golf, hiking or ski clothes ready to transition to whatever comes next. Church may be the appetizer or even the dessert, but church is not always our main course.

Scriptural theme: Rich vs. Poor

Ironically, although the common complaint in church is about people dressing too casual, the scriptures seem to place more focus on dressing up too much. James 2:1-9 tells us:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.

The message from scripture seems to be concerned with the judgement of the wealthy against the poor who are not similarly adorned. The message seems to be that church is not the place to emphasize class distinction. The complaints heard in church are usually one directional. Rarely is the casual millennial complaining about the $700 purse or the $8,000 gold ring of another church member.

An article on entitled, "What's The Hidden Meaning Behind Mark Zuckerberg's T-shirts?" states:

Silicon Valley is known for its casual dress code, and its disregard for adhering to established societal norms -- sticking it's cotton poly blend finger up to the suit and tie brigade that populates Wall Street. Mark Zuckerberg's style is perhaps the most famous of all tech CEO's, seeing that he consistently wears the same wardrobe, and outfit of gray t-shirt, jeans, and sweatshirts.

The article goes on to say, "Entrepreneur and engineer Cameron Preston, has a different take on this. "Dressing down is a form of egotism that is highly prevalent in the developer community. I don't care about what other people think because it's about my skills not what I wear."

In a sense, the casual style that pervades our culture currently is an extended expression of the "internet of things". Most likely, anyone reading this blog is using a device designed by a college drop out, counter-culture, jeans and hoodie wearing, generation X-er. They are CEO's and entrepreneurs and are rich enough to wear whatever they want. The message is, "I am about substance, not appearances."

Generation matters

Casual attire is usually viewed as a problem that is going on now. But every generation, for over a century has taken offense at the evolving fashion choices of the younger generation. The last century witnessed a continuous transition from floor length dresses, tight corsets and massive bonnets to jeans and flip flops. The leg revealing, wool bathing suits of our great-grandmothers were seen as scandalous and a sign of the decline of western civilization in their day.

The future grandchildren of the jeans and flip flop generation will push the boundaries of what their parents (who are 17 years old now) deem appropriate. And like every generation before them, our grandparents now will measure us against the lens of what is and is not appropriate in their generation. 1 Timothy 4:12 tells us, "Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity." 

How does this stack up next to other religions? 

At the Golden Temple (Sri Harmandir Sahib, The abode of God) in Amritsar, Punjab India, there’s no “Come As You Are” policy with this temple. Anyone who visits this site must remove their shoes and socks, and wear a handkerchief on their head as a sign of respect. Visitors also wash their hands, and traverse a small pool of water before stepping inside — barefoot. Likewise, if you want to visit the the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, or any mosque, you will take off your shoes, and, if you are a woman, you will cover your head. For entrance into some mosques, hand- and foot-washing is required. At the Grand Palace in Bangkok, visitors must “rent” appropriate clothes to get inside. The dress restrictions there include: no tank tops, no short sleeves that show shoulders, no midriff on display, no backless clothing, no low-cut clothing on females, no pants or skirts that show ankles, and no flip-flops!

The message conveyed is reverence, respect and humility toward a superior deity. America is not fond of humility. Yet, American atheists are very willing to conform to these requirements and even rent the required apparel to cross over from the realm of the ordinary into the realm of the sacred. Meanwhile, American churches have gravitated away from the realm of the sacred into the realm of the ordinary hoping to appeal more to everyone. In Blaine County, Idaho, a significant percentage of the population is very comfortable spinning the prayer wheel, flying prayer flags and dropping to the ground prostrate before a monk, but not comfortable wearing jeans (or anything else) to church. If we were a fortune 500 company, we would very much re-tool our marketing plan. 

Why is church different?

People who have quit coming to our church have stated privately that they quit attending because they had been approached by someone at church and told they needed to dress differently. They either find another church, or they quit going to church altogether. Unlike weddings, graduations and job interviews, we go to church hoping to find one place on planet earth where we can go and not be judged. The odds are against us. We are judgmental creatures and when we go to church there are other humans just like us, struggling with their own insecurities and biases.

How do we get to a place where we delegate judgement to God? How do we get to a place where we do not need other people to look, think and dress like we do?

"I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God." Romans 12:1-2

How do we make church a judgement-free, mercy filled "safe zone" for the human soul? We can start by asking a bearded, sandal-wearing, blue-collar, carpenter God to help us. We could also use some input from his illiterate, fisherman friends.