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formal or casual clothing for church services

The debate between casual wear and formal wear is a sensitive topic in some regions and a non-issue in others. I will be upfront with you about my agenda: I’d like to see the clothing issue taken off the table so we can focus on shepherding hearts.

I believe there’s more heat than light being created around this issue. My goal today is to come alongside other overseers who see both perspectives and just sift through some arguments being put forward to help reduce the heat and increase the amount of light being shed on this matter.

Clothing Is A Distraction

Since Adam and Eve scrambled to cover themselves with leaves at the time of the fall, clothing has been a distraction from the human condition. We humans have a natural inclination toward trying to use the external accoutrements of style to compensate for what we feel is missing or wrong on the inside. It should not surprise us that this struggle creeps into our assembly gatherings in our day.

It is consoling that God has taken care of our clothing dilemma in eternity. Revelation 7:9 points out that God will clothe the great multitude who come out of the tribulation in white robes. One small but appreciated release from the consequences of sin will be that we no longer need to wake up each morning and decide what to wear!

In the meantime, it is likely that clothing will continue to be a distraction. However, one of my hopes would be that it becomes much less of a distraction in our gatherings.

We have more important spiritual responsibilities to attend to than clothing: ideally, we should allocate as much energy to the issue of clothing as our New Testament does. It gives very occasional attention to the subject. Much more of our New Testament is devoted to Christian growth, the function of the local church, and our relationship to our Father. In other words, what to wear to meeting ought to be a minor consideration given that there is little Biblical emphasis on the matter.

A good part of the clothing problem and debate we face today is because we have taught too much about clothing without legitimate Biblical support. We’re guilty of majoring on a minor and that has made this issue even more of a distraction than it should be.

I know that from a few quarters there are some very strong voices about what is acceptable and what is not. Those voices have intimidated many into a religious standard of practice contrary to Christian liberty. I believe the Apostle Paul modelled the appropriate response to this kind of behaviour in the epistle to the Galatians.

I hope that one change we see among assemblies over the next decade is that we minor on this minor and return to majoring on the majors. Issues like this are a distraction from the real work that God is doing in this world.

Why Is Dress Even An Issue?

To a great degree, the formal versus casual debate is largely a generational issue. Many over the age of 40 (say, born in the 1970s or earlier) were part of a generation that dressed up to go out. The older saints will remember a day when men wore jackets to work (even in blue-collar occupations) and women donned gloves and hats to go to the store. For them, formal wear was normal wear. The clothing styles of the first half of the 20th century called for formal clothing even for the most casual occasions.

That kind of formal dress became the norm in assembly circles and in wider evangelical practice. Over time, conservative assembly believers formed a sense of identity around formal clothing while culture shifted towards casual wear even for occasions previously considered to be formal.

And Then Wider Culture Shifted

When the wider culture shifted towards more casual wear at work, public events and church gatherings, elements of youth culture that appeared rebellious largely drove this change in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. It was easy for older assembly believers to distinguish the dignity of assembly gatherings from other kinds of groups and events by promoting formal wear. Soon, we automatically assumed that casual dress involved an irreverent attitude towards divine things. As far as I can tell, formal wear became a statement of protest against a world that was becoming increasingly profane. That’s not a bad thing.

When you see it that way, it is easy to understand why an older generation thinks so highly of formal wear and looks so disparagingly on casual wear. It’s not just about the clothing: there is a visceral belief about the attitude that (allegedly) goes with casual clothing.

So to be fair, it is very hard for some older believers to disconnect the gut reaction of disappointment to a younger believer’s casual clothes. There is a real worry that the shift in clothing automatically infers a shift towards lower standards of godliness and less reverence for the things of God. It is hard to step away from that perspective when you experienced the prevailing rebellious attitude of youth in the ‘70s and ’80s.

However, the younger generation (born in the ’80s and later) come to the clothing issue from an entirely different place. They grew up in a context where casual clothes were and are normative to environments that used to require formal clothing. When younger saints dress casually they are not looking to break away from assembly principles or to pursue more worldly lives. Nor are they motivated by a spirit of rebellion. No, when I spend time across North America with our young people I am increasingly impressed with their passion for the Gospel, their desire to know God and to pursue truth.

But the culture has shifted and the Scriptures have nothing to say on the matter of formal wear versus casual wear. While dear older believers may equate casual dress with rebellious spirits that spirit of rebellion is not present any longer. Some may assume it: but talk to those who wear more casual clothing and you will find sincere spirits devoid of rebellion.

We must acknowledge that the different generations see the same issue through two different cultural lenses. That makes it a little more complicated to untangle the cultural shift.

What Can We Learn From the Early Church?

Does clothing matter to God? In the first few decades following the ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Christians were largely taken up with surviving persecution and learning to live for the resurrected Christ. In our New Testament, there really is no development of the idea of “church clothing”. Below, we’ll look at what the Scripture teaches about dress, but for now, I only wanted to note the absence of any instruction as to what we should wear to an assembly gathering (other than what Paul specifies about head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11).

The lesson from persecution is worthwhile. If significant persecution came to North America and assemblies had to go underground, I think we all realize that the prevailing standards of dress would disappear quickly. A bunch of people in suits and skirts converging in one place would cause the abrupt termination of assembly testimony in that place. We might as well be wearing bull’s eye’s painted on our backs.

That we even have these clothing debates points to how far detached we are from persecution here in North America. The fact that our clothing standards would likely shift underscores the reality that the formal versus casual debate is not really a Biblical matter but one of preference.

It is worth reminding ourselves that if our gathering principles do not work in and out of persecution, and if they do not work equally well in Seattle or London or a slum in Mumbai or village in Zambia, then they are likely not Biblical principles at all.

Clarifying Various Arguments In the Casual vs. Formal Wear Debate

My purpose in going through these five common arguments is not to stack the debate in favour of either but to point out the flaws in reasoning. My experience with young people is that if you give them a flawed argument, you will not have their respect on the issue. That’s fair enough. When I have asked young people to respect that dress has been a long-standing traditional value that is best shifted slowly they have been very gracious to make room for this change and move on to other priorities.

1. Priesthood Requires Special Garb

One argument put forward is that we are a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9) and that God has always associated specialized clothing with the function of the priesthood in the Old Testament. Both points are true.

However, this is a sloppy syllogistic argument. The disconnect lies in the fact that our priesthood is spiritual and so the person challenging the argument only has to ask about what other aspects of Old Testament priesthood you plan to (arbitrarily) bring forward.

Even if you restricted your OT carryover to priestly garments, how would you advocate for the more formal priestly garb versus the simple linen breaches?

2. Dressing Up is More Reverent; Dressing Down is More Real

Possibly the most common argument for dressing up is that it is more reverent to attend an assembly gathering in formal clothing. The counterpoint from the casual side is that dressing down is more authentic or real.

It is possible that one could associate reverence with formal wear. However, we cannot make the claim that all formally dressed persons in an assembly are reverent because of their clothing. The formal clothing does not automatically bestow a genuine attitude of reverence upon its wearer. It may convey the appearance of reverence to others but then you are into the dangerous territory of maintaining appearances with no real interest in what is beneath in the heart.

By the same token, the argument that dressing down (or more casually) is more authentic or real faces the same challenge. It is also possible that one could associate authenticity with casual wear. Equally, we cannot make the claim that all casually dressed persons in an assembly are authentic because of their clothing. Casual clothing does not bestow the attitude of genuineness or sincerity to its wearer. The same concern for mere appearances exists here as well.

Both arguments founder on the same line of faulty reasoning.

Apples to Apples

Another challenge in tracking this debate is that both sides frequently confabulate their terms. For example, I might say, “But isn’t reverence better than casual dress?” Or, “Isn’t authenticity more important than formal dress?” In those cases, I’ve crossed the external appearance (formal/casual) with the internal attitude (reverent/authentic). While it is probably not intentional, it is a deceptive argument because you are comparing apples to oranges.

Reverence is better than casual dress. And authenticity is better than formal dress. We know that what is in the heart is most important.

But I dismiss the questions as misleading. What we should ask is: “Is formal dress better than casual dress?” and “Is reverence better than authenticity?”

Is Formal Better Than Casual?

Only if God says so (and preferably in the New Testament). I think the real question here is: how does God wish for us to relate to him?

In the entire New Testament Scripture there is only one passage that explicitly calls for reverence in worship: Hebrews 12:28-29 “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (ESV).

On the other hand, we have three clear references inviting us to approach God as our loving Father. The words, “Abba, Father” are used by Christ (Mark 14:36) and two times Paul tells us that as adopted sons we are to call on our “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). The Lord taught His disciples to begin their prayer with “Our Father.” Beyond this, there are scores of references identifying us as children of God.

How does God wish for us to relate to Him? I believe the Biblical evidence does not point towards formality. Nor does it point towards casualness. No, it points towards familial intimacy: we approach God as His respectful children, trusting and knowing He is a loving, good, and gracious Father. This manner of approach cares not a whit for how we dress. It is a relationship based on regeneration, not reformation.

This question is flawed: “Is formal better than casual?” It contrasts two values that exist on a different plane than what we are called to. We are called to approach God as our Father in a relationship and attitude of familial intimacy.

Is Reverence Better Than Authenticity?

Again, I feel the question is invalid. We should not be forced to choose between reverence and authenticity. Both are necessary.

There is no Biblical basis for the claim that dressing up is more reverent. Nowhere does God assert that formal clothing creates or implies reverence. Even Aaron’s holy garments were designed “for glory and for beauty” (Exodus 28:2, KJV) rather than reverence or any other attitude.

By the same token, there is no Biblical basis for the claim that casual dress is more authentic. Nor does God assert in His Word that casual clothing creates or even implies genuine authenticity.

Bottom line: while there may be subjective attributions we tie to dress, there are no objective Biblical links. A brother in a suit is not necessarily more reverent or less authentic. A brother who is both authentic and reverent is not necessarily in a suit nor is he necessarily in casual clothes. Both reverence and authenticity ought to be present: God calls us to worship Him in the attitude of “reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28).

We need to step away from the idea that what I wear is a marker of what is going on in my heart. That may be the case sometimes: but it is an unreliable indicator and it is one that is irrelevant to God. We must note the words of the Lord to Samuel: “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7, ESV).

3. You Would Dress Up For The Queen, Wouldn’t You?

Yes, I would. Approaching the Queen of England is an engagement that follows an established and well-defined protocol.

There are two flaws with the “dressing up for dignitaries” argument. The more severe flaw is that God has never asked us to approach Him or treat Him as we would an earthly monarch. I should dismiss the argument on this flaw alone: the anthropomorphism of God is a carnal error. “You thought that the I am was one like yourself” (Psalm 50:21, ESV, footnote rendition) is the Scriptural reproof of this notion that we should treat God like an earthly monarch.

The second flaw is that the Queen’s protocol extends beyond dress. Should we require our brothers to bow as they enter the circle on a Lord’s day morning? And our sisters to curtsy? And for that matter, why the Queen of England? Why not go the indigenous route and approach God like a chieftain? Perhaps we could smoke the peace pipe together!

What about an appearance in court? Let’s say my earthly father was a Supreme Court judge. At home, he would just be my father. In the courtroom, I would change my appearance and manner of addressing him due to the shift in context. But again, this illustration begs us to identify where in Scripture God has asked us to approach Him as if we were in court.

This argument does not tolerate much scrutiny before it crumbles. I should mention that a similar argument on the casual side is also equally invalid (though less common). God is not your bro-dude nor your homey from the ‘hood. The only valid anthropomorphisms of God are the ones He provides, the most prominent of which is His fatherhood. Even at that, God defines human fatherhood by His own nature and not the other way around. Like Paul, we must say, “For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family or, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and earth is named” (Ephesians 3:14-15, ESV).

4. What You Wear On the Outside Reflects What is Inside

This is never consistently true in any person’s experience. We all know we have sat in assembly meetings in holy apparel and thinking unholy thoughts or nurturing sinful feelings in our hearts. Likely all of us will know there are times we have been before the Lord at home in our study or beside our beds in our pyjamas and acutely aware of His presence. Again, we need to step away from the inaccurate idea that what people wear is a reliable indicator of what is happening in their hearts.

5. We Must Resist Culture

All of it? I understand we must refuse to be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2) but the world and culture are not all the same thing. Culture is not inherently sinful. Parts of it are sinful and other parts are not. For example, in Canadian culture, we greet people with a handshake. There is nothing wrong with that.

While we must be discerning, it is not sinful to embrace the parts of our culture that are not unbiblical or ungodly.

In the realm of clothing, the level of formality in our dress is a non-biblical and amoral issue. On the other hand, modesty is both a Biblical and a moral issue. We have clear instructions to be modest. Even at that, it is difficult sometimes to determine where the line is crossed into immodesty. Just ask any father of daughters about that dilemma! We make that decision in the balance between conscience and culture: what is modest in one generation may not be in the next.

To wrap up this section: there are no solid arguments around supporting one style of dress versus the other. This should not surprise us: if God is not concerned, why should we expect to find strong arguments in one direction or the other. But, more importantly, if God is not concerned: why are we so concerned?

What Does The Bible Teach About Dress?

Regarding assembly gatherings, the Scriptures are silent on the topic of formal versus casual dress as we have noted. However, we do have instructions regarding clothing which we should consider.

Paul gives the lengthiest instructions in 1 Timothy 2:9-10:

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. (ESV)

The “also” at the start of this passage implies Paul requires the same standard of dress from men.

1 Peter 3:3-4 also gives a brief instruction:

Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewellery, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. (ESV)

Worry About What is Inside, Not Outside

What becomes immediately apparent from these Scriptures is that we are to concern ourselves the most with how we clothe our hearts, not our bodies. Even the exhortation to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14, ESV) uses a verb that conveys the idea of putting on a piece of clothing.

It is so much easier to monitor the externals. It is easier to make a snap evaluation based on what we can see with our eyes. As an overseer, it feels like a lot more work to think about keeping track of each person’s spiritual wellbeing without being able to rely on physical, external markers of spirituality. But God calls us to shepherd hearts, not police bodies.

The Scriptures Do Teach Reverence and Authenticity

We should not minimize the importance of reverence. As I have mentioned, there is a clear exhortation to worship God in “reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28).

But authenticity is also a Biblical value. It is taught most often via the words, “sincerity” (KJV) or “integrity” (ESV). One good example is in the chapter on assembly discipline:

Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:8, ESV)

This underscores the need for every believer to maintain consistent moral and spiritual values in both their public-facing and private lives. This is the essence of authenticity: outside behaviours and words ought to match the reality of the resurrected life within us.

One of the valid challenges against the pro-formal position is that the two standards of dress can more easily set the stage for having one version of myself that I present to the assembly and another that my family and co-workers see. If I have one version of my clothing for the assembly and another for the rest of my life, it would be easy to adopt one persona for the assembly to see and another for my coworkers to see.

Of course, it does not necessarily mean this is automatically the case just because a brother wears a suit to meeting. But the concern is that it makes it easier for a discrepancy to creep in. I think we all recognize that we’re more likely to inquire about the spiritual wellbeing of someone who looks more casual or dishevelled than someone who dresses formally. That reaction reflects this duality. Were we to dispense with two standards of dress, this could be less of an issue.

What About the Old Testament?

The Old Testament provides a variety of laws regarding clothing. The challenge here is that we cannot arbitrarily cherry-pick which laws we want to bring forward to the dispensation of grace.

It seems the best approach is to look for the principles of OT dress and to teach those; especially those that relate to creation and are not exclusive to the Jewish nation. Examples include principles like modesty and distinction of the genders. We should keep in mind that even these principles are interpreted culturally. This means we need to emphasize the principles in our teaching rather than legalistically prescribing standards and rules that extend beyond these principles.

The clearest reference in the Old Testament to changing one’s clothes for the purpose of worship is Jacob’s family’s change of garments in Genesis 35:2, “…put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments” (KJV). Nothing said as to the type of garments his family changed into but it seems to imply they put on clean clothes for the occasion.

Teaching About Dress Requires Balance And Moderation

It has been my experience, and I believe the experience of many, that some Bible teachers couch an over-emphasis on formality in the language of fear and intimidation. There is a natural progression in this teaching towards the managing of externals over the shepherding of hearts. Further, emphasizing formality in our approach to God often comes at the expense of nurturing an intimate relationship with God as our loving Father (1 John 3:1).

This follows from the “dress up for the Queen” argument: one would be out of place to presume upon intimacy with the Queen. But this is in contrast to the nature of the relationship that God pursues with us through Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, too much emphasis on liberty and a cavalier attitude toward reverence will lead to a diminishing sense of awe towards God. A diminished view of God can only lead to a lesser devotion and decreased consecration towards Him.

We need balance in our approach to God.

Father or Fear?

But how do we balance our approach to God as a loving Father versus a God to we fear? And what about the Lord telling His disciples that He considered them to be friends? The psalmist highlights the tension between these two in a remarkable verse in Psalm 25 (v.14): “The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant (ESV).”

We know that the New Testament brings forward the concepts of friendship and the fear of the Lord. As I noted, the Lord was clear with His disciples that He considered them to be his friends (John 15:14) and, at the same time, He calls us to perfect holiness in the fear of Himself (2 Corinthians 7:1).

So while we see a dichotomy between formality and casualness, this is a distraction from what really matters: the friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him. God calls us both to fear and intimacy, to awe and familial intimacy. We are to conduct our lives and express our worship and meet in our gatherings in the tension of these two principles.

Ironically, in the light of this truth, the discussion about dress becomes somewhat trivial. What matters most is the condition of our hearts. Intimacy and awe are matters of the heart. Even in practical application, the command to examine ourselves before we eat the Lord’s supper (1 Corinthians 11:27) is not meant to be an inspection in front of an actual mirror. Rather, it involves introspection in front of the mirror of God’s Word.

What Does Balanced Dress Look Like?

First, we must obey what the Scriptures do teach about clothing: modest and inexpensive. I identified the passages relating to this previously. I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough. I had the privilege of spending a little time with an assembly that prided itself in having no dress code at all. What surprised me was how immodest some clothing was. It was as if in their eagerness to dispense with legalism they also dispensed with asserting the truth of Scripture. In their defence, it is very difficult for overseers (or their wives) to know how to best address immodest dress.

Second, we must accurately teach believers the character of God and the nature of our relationship to Him. This includes the fear of God and the fatherhood of God. The more that we help our young people (and older believers) come to grips with the reality of the presence of God and the transcendent nature of Jesus Christ, and the more that God becomes real in their lives and ours: the better.

Third, we must follow the pattern of the New Testament in emphasizing the clothing of the heart over and above the clothing of the body:

Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5, ESV)

Put on as clothing then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on as clothing love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14, ESV)

But put on as clothing the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:14, ESV)

If we stick to the teaching of Scripture, we cannot go wrong. This is a moderated approach to teaching about dress. As soon as we go beyond, we are at risk of legalism or antinomianism. The balanced perspective that lies between these two extremes is called grace.

Cautionary Notes About Dress

A few cautionary notes before wrapping up this article.

Dress Gone Too Far Is Anathema

For too long, we have gone too far (i.e., beyond Scripture) in telling people what to wear. We have prescribed, and sometimes even codified in written or verbal form, standards of dress. This needs to stop: it is legalism.

But more than that, it is an offence against the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Anything we teach others to do, beyond the Word of God, in order to gain divine approval is anathema to the gospel. It is the works of the law. Nothing is more obvious a violation than the written or verbal codification of a standard of dress imposed upon the Lord’s people.

Thus, the issue of dress — taken too far — is not just the expression of a preference of an overly ambitious preacher or a micromanaging overseer. It is far more serious than that. It is a fundamental offence to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This is precisely the issue that Paul was confronting in his letter to the Galatians. We all have a part of our hearts that wants to adopt a law-based standard of spiritual superiority. But to do so is to preach another gospel and when faced with the most extreme forms of this, Paul was ready to curse the men who were promoting this ideology. In its milder forms, he withstood Peter (Galatians 2:11ff) and called on the believers to stand firm in their liberty (Galatians 5:1).

So in the situation where this is a standard posited as something required for divine approval we are no longer in a Romans 14 context. It is not about personal preference any more: it is anathema to the Gospel because it is a return to achieving righteousness via the law.

Now, on the other hand, if you or I as a believer do sincerely feel that we want to dress more formally out of conviction, and we do not impose that standard on others, then we are likely safe in the territory of the weaker brother of Romans 14. This we do have Biblical sanction for.

Let us also note that those who insist on casual dress could also be guilty of legalism. If you want to force everyone to dress casually and teach that they must do so to be approved by God or to gain the approval of overseers, this also is legalism and an offence to the truth of the Gospel.

Beware The Seeker-Friendly Approach

What about dressing down to make it easier for people to visit our assembly?

At first glance, a “seeker friendly” approach sounds like a good idea. If you’re not familiar with the term, American evangelical culture popularized it as a way of making churches very approachable and easy to engage with for non-churched people.

There’s a helpful evangelical critique of the seeker-friendly movement(https://ca.thegospelcoalition.org/columns/ad-fontes/abandoned-seeker-church/) provided by an evangelical pastor who went through that movement so I need not replicate that critique here. Suffice to say he concluded it was unhelpful and unbiblical. I also found it fascinating that he used a phrase that I thought was exclusive to Gospel Halls: “what you win them with, you’ll have to keep them with.”

At the same time in many parts, I see believers dressing down for gospel outreaches. Is this being seeker-friendly? Should we be cautious?

I think what is happening here is a collective realization that formal dress represents a disconnect with our surrounding culture. Suits and fancy women’s outfits are a barrier to entry in gospel work: if you’ve invited a neighbour to Gospel meeting you will know what I mean.

I should insert the caveat that I’m talking from the perspective of western Canadian culture. I assume it’s largely the same around most of North America. If the culture in your region embraces formal wear as normative for outdoor events (like gospel tents) or for attending church then this may not be an issue.

But in our part of the world, formal dress is a barrier to the gospel. It would be easy to dismiss casual dress as a ploy of the failed and unbiblical “seeker-friendly” approach, but I think there’s more to it.

Since there is no Biblical standard for formal dress, the shift to casual dress cannot be described as unbiblical or seeker-friendly. Rather, dismissing a standard of dress is merely the recognition that we are letting go of something that is not important to God and is no longer relevant or helpful to assemblies today.

Can We Say Anything About Dress?

You might ask, “What’s preventing someone from coming to the Lord’s supper in flip-flops and shorts and an old t-shirt?” Fair question. To be candid, I would find that shocking as well.

Let me ask you a question first: on what basis would you object to this?

One possible objection is that this clothing reflects a lack of respect for the character of God. It is true there should be a dignity about gathering to the Lord’s name. But until you have a conversation with the person, how will you know what is going on in their heart? A conversation needs to happen.

Let’s imagine that the person is a believer in your assembly and this is an act of rebellion. What are you going to do? What Biblical authority do you have to enforce a standard of dress?

Unless you believe in a heavy-handed approach to leadership (e.g., asking them not to come or even physically refusing entry to the Hall) all you can do is ask them to change and hope they do. But here is my point: the only real court of appeal is culture. You could legitimately say, “People don’t dress like this for going to a meeting in any other gathering in this area. Nor do they dress like this for secular meetings or public gatherings where serious issues are being addressed” That’s a legitimate argument. But it is an appeal to culture. And you cannot appeal to those contexts of culture and simultaneously deny that culture by requiring a counter-cultural standard of dress like a suit and tie.

Let’s go a little more extreme. How would you know that it is inappropriate to wear a swimsuit to an assembly gathering at the Hall? Only by appealing to culture. Is it Biblical to appeal to culture? I think so. Acts 15 — the Jerusalem council — is one example. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul appeals (in part) to culture to highlight the extreme nature of the immoral behaviour. Timothy was circumcised in order to reach into the Jewish culture with the Gospel.

It is not unbiblical to appeal to culture. I believe sometimes, in extreme cases, we may need to speak with someone about their presentation at the assembly. But we cannot simultaneously decry cultural dress standards and then turn around and appeal to them. And if you don’t appeal to culture for dress, and you cannot appeal to Scripture for your standard of dress, then your only remaining court of appeal is legalism. Are you sure you want to go there? We need to be consistent.

A Way Forward for Overseers

Where do we go from here?

I told you I don’t have a strong position either way. I wear suits to conferences. I’m still wearing a jacket and tie on Sundays. But I wonder, occasionally, if I am sinning when I do so. The Scriptures teach that whatever is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23).

That is actually quite a disturbing verse. Every time I knot my tie to comply with the standards of others I sin. Why do I do it? Because there’s a little Pharisee in my heart that loves the praise of men more than the praise of God.

And yet, there is an aspect of faith at work. Assemblies are (mostly) in a process of change. Most are seeking divine truth rather than upholding the maxims of a respected past generation. In that transition, there is a need to show grace towards those who feel strongly about formal clothing as a personal conviction.

One way we can show grace is by maintaining an outmoded standard of dress while teaching about grace and our acceptance in Christ. But at some point, we will have to practice the grace we preach and live by the gospel through which we are saved and sanctified.

My Own Convictions—For Now

For now, my exercise is to temper my convictions about liberty against the culture of the assembly I’m with. In an assembly that prefers more formal dress, I am happy to go along with that with no need to assume they are legalistic or that they focus on externals. And, in an assembly where the dress is more casual, I am happy to go along with that with no need to assume that they are letting go of assembly principles.

I believe that dressing up to speak is still somewhat of a useful, relevant practice in our culture. People lend more authority, credence, and attention to a well-dressed speaker. When it is only youth present: their cultural norm is to give a person authority, credence and their attention when that person is being authentic and vulnerable. They establish the authority of a speaker differently than their parents’ generation. In that context, I would place more emphasis on the manner of the communication than the appearance of the communicator.

As you can see, these issues are nuanced. And even inside one geographical region like North America, we have assemblies bearing testimony in a wide variety of subcultures and even conducting themselves in different languages (e.g., French, Spanish, Mandarin, Punjab). As we travel, it is not unreasonable to inquire about the norms of the places we will visit in order to show respect to the values of that assembly.

I hope this has given us all some food for thought. But more than that, I hope it has renewed a desire in our own hearts to shepherd the hearts—not appearances—of God’s people. And also renewed a desire to live in the uncomfortable fullness of God’s grace rather than the comfortable predictability of legalism. Most of all, where our actions have become an affront to the truth of the Gospel, I pray that repentance and restoration to divine grace follows.

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About the author

Caleb Simonyi-Gindele

An overseer himself, Caleb's mission is to help other elders lead their local assembly through some of the unique challenges of the 21st century: both doctrinal and shepherding. More about Caleb.