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March 20, 2011 Q & A

What is appropriate attire for worship services?

Question

It has become apparent that people attending church worship services are, in large numbers, dressing down (i.e., wearing T-shirts, blue-jeans, shorts, barefoot sandals, sneakers, baggy pants, etc). This is not a question of financial resources, whereby individuals cannot afford to dress, but a trend.

Has ever been addressed by the OPC? Are Scriptures silent here? Are the clergy to blame?

Answer

This matter does not lend itself to a quick or simple answer. I should reveal that I wear a white Genevan gown when leading worship, and have (at least once) talked about dress in worship in a sermon.

First, we live in a culture which tends toward greater informality in dress for all occasions. This becomes evident when one compares a picture of a ballgame from the 1950s to one today. Regional variations are also important. In Chicago a couple years ago, I was struck by how many more suits I saw on the streets there than in the business districts of Denver. It seems the informality common on the beaches of California a generation ago have now migrated across the country even as far as Boston.

This being the case, many Americans simply have no sense of how formality varies with occasion nor how it might impact dress, and this is reflected by their wardrobes. Given the casual way in which worship services are conducted in many evangelical congregations, I think it would never occur to many American Christians that they should have a "Sunday best."

Are the Scriptures silent on this matter? Well, yes and no. I'd be astonished if anyone could draw a straight line from a Biblical passage to "gentlemen should wear ties on Sunday morning" without violating every hermeneutical and homiletical principle known to the reformed. To the best of my knowledge, the OPC as a body has never spoken to this question. At the same time, the Scriptures spend a great deal of time discussing aesthetic matters, particularly in the Law and Wisdom literature, and this discussion tends to support greater formality in dress. I ground my teaching on this matter in the Fifth Commandment: that is, dress is one way in which one shows honor to others, in this case to our Lord and Creator (Shorter Catechism #63-64).

Given the difficulty of proving to one's teenage son that God expects him to wear a coat and tie to services, I think many pastors and elders are reluctant to make too much of an issue of this. Frankly, I'm more concerned that members attend the evening service than that they wear long pants for it. The Church ought never turn people away solely on the basis of their clothing choices, no matter how inappropriate. A preoccupation with this matter, out of proportion to the Bible's interest in it, runs the risk of adding to the Law of God. I think modeling by the session and mature members of the congregation will have the greatest impact: that is, if they dress in an appropriate manner, others will follow suit (no pun intended).

Are the clergy to blame? To the extent they are still captive to the misguided spirit of the 1960s which revered the hatless President Kennedy and eschewed formality at all costs, yes. More substantively, clergy who have treated the worship service as little more than an occasion to present a sermon are to blame. Sessions should give careful attention to the conduct of the service as a ritual shaped by Scripture in which reverence and awe in the presence of God are evident throughout. Why would people dress formally for the service when pastor's demeanor is informal?

Reverence and awe, honor and duty. I suspect that the more we who shepherd the sheep work to cultivate these attitudes in ourselves and in them, the more we will find everyone's dress being appropriate to the occasion.

 

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