Should We Dress For Church Like We’re Meeting With the President?

I’ve often heard the argument that a person should dress for church like they’re meeting with the president. Perhaps you’ve heard a similar argument — that a pastor ought to wear a coat and tie on Sunday because NFL commentators still wear classy suits on Sunday (they wear them on Monday and Thursday night too). This argument is used by well-intentioned people, many of whom are rightfully sensitive to a drastically changing culture. However, as I consider this particular argument I come up short when trying to connect the logical and cultural leaps with theological bridges.

Here are five reasons why the meeting with the president argument fails to persuade:

  1. Frequency: How many meetings can the average person expect to have with the president? Perhaps a single five-minute appearance? Certainly that person does not expect to be granted several hours each week. Normal people would never leave a meeting after an official introduction and handshake and post on social media that they’ve become close friends with the president.
  2. Purpose: Why would a person choose to wear a suit or formal dress to meet with the president? Because (a) it’s an official meeting, (b) with a person who bears the highest human title in the country, (c) who occupies an office of far-reaching influence and power, (d) who meets with guests/strangers in a setting of high-level government, and (e) the visitor desires to make a good impression (something we never need to do with God).
  3. Reality: There is a kernel of truth that surfaces when comparing a meeting with the president to our ‘Sunday’s best’ for God. The disturbing reality of this parallel is what it actually does reflect — a sterile meeting with a stranger and the complete absence of any real relationship and transparency. This illustration exposes the nominal Christian’s relationship to God — distant, infrequent, formal, absent of any true affection, and void of any real relationship apart from an official appointment on Sunday morning. I wonder if those who use this argument wear their ‘Sunday’s best’ when they meet with God through His word on Monday morning or Thursday evening? It leaves me wondering who they are really dressing up for? Perhaps it’s a high view of the corporate gathering, or possibly it’s a disconnect stemming from a false dichotomy.
  4. Myopic Application: This illustration is short-sighted. However, if we take the comparison just a little further it actually provides a wonderful glimpse of grace. What if a person were to become friends with the president? What if they were invited to spend more time with him? What if they were given their own private room at the White House? They would enjoy time with the president in a variety of settings, perhaps seeing him wear his favorite pair of jeans, watching baseball, playing basketball, and eating a hamburger and drinking iced tea. Jesus has called us his friends (John 15:15). Our relationship with God is not a one-off-visit with a stranger who sits in the Oval Office of the West Wing of the White House.
  5. Wrong Picture: Big government and professional sports present the all-too-common misconception of what people have come to look for in a church. Success. Performance. Statistics. Technology. Glitter. Super Bowl rings. Top ten ratings. Executive power. How very far from imitating our Master we have wandered.

Here are three cautions as we reverently worship God (vertical) side-by-side in a loving multi-generational community of faith in Christ (horizontal):

  1. Don’t Dress to Impress. Don’t dress to make a statement either by dressing up or dressing down. The Sunday gathering is not about you. The counter-cultural attitude of deference and humility must guide our choices (1 Pet 5:5). Jesus-followers are never called to imitate the big business of professional sports or the big money of high-power executive positions. Jesus highlighted the danger of using dress code to impress. Matthew 23:5 “They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” As we are careful not to dress to impress, let us also learn to look deeper than the surface story people are telling us by their appearance.
  2. Don’t Dress to Distract. It is our responsibility to guard the glory of God when we are gathered in His name. We should avoid wearing anything that could cause others to be distracted from the main reason we’ve gathered. Dressing obnoxiously trendy can be just as distracting as arriving overtly formal. Reverence for God is a non-negotiable when we gather in His name. “…let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28-29). Yet, reverence is a spirit more than it is an external code. There should be a sense of carefulness as we gather for worship, but this too will play itself out differently. Even if we’ve isolated our context to the local church’s gathering on Sunday morning our choices still contain a high level of subjectivity. Some people don’t like the subjectivity of trusting other people to make decisions as they walk under the influence of God’s Spirit, in part, because this fails to construct visible walls, it doesn’t offer a higher tier of spirituality based on externals, and it refuses to provide a dress code for church gatherings. Obviously, the church is not a beach, but neither is it a corporate complex. The principles of appropriateness and modesty must guide our choices (1 Cor 12:23; 1 Tim 2:9-10), but dress-code should never be used to create a line of division or a platform of judgment.
  3. Don’t Judge Others According to their Dress. I wonder how often we’ve done exactly what James told us not to do as followers of Christ? “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?” (Jam 2:1-4). So often it seems we want a fortress where the overlooked and underprivileged aren’t allowed through the front gate, and where outcasts are denied membership and are silently pushed out of our designer label kingdom.

Jesus didn’t seek professionals when He chose the Twelve. His initial disciples were sunburnt and sweaty; they had calloused hands and they reeked of fish. Peter (one of those men) communicated a general principle about external adorning. Even though he was specifically offering instruction regarding women’s appearance we are given clear principles regarding where the emphasis ought to be placed. “Do not let your adorning be external—… the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart…” (1 Pet 3:3-4). The point is clear — no matter what you wear, be sure you have given priority to “the hidden person of the heart.” Peter wrote, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another” (1 Pet 5:5). What does this look like on Sunday morning?

  • The man in the coat and tie doesn’t cast the accusations of ‘worldly’ and ‘irreverent’ at the young professional wearing jeans.
  • The young university student wearing chinos refrains from casting the silent accusation of ‘legalist’ and ‘hyper-traditionalist’ towards the gentlemen wearing a dark suit and tie.
  • The lady who has only worn ankle-length dresses to church does not treat with suspicion the young lady wearing a more stylish and trendy outfit.
  • The young woman who has no clue what culottes are does not treat with contempt the woman and her daughters who may choose to wear them.

The Scripture does not hand us a New Covenant dress code for worship. But we do have God’s Spirit in us. “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:18, 22-24). Modesty, humility, deference, and appropriateness serve as helpful guides. God is glorified in diversity and unity when people limit their liberties and shape their attitudes according to His word (Rom 14). In light of similar teaching about liberty and conscience Paul exhorts, “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).