Friday, October 05, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Hmm … What Should I Wear to Church Today?

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: I like track pants and t-shirts myself. It’s what’s most comfortable, frankly. I’ve never liked suits. They’re expensive, and I don’t have any other use for them.

What do you think, IC? Can I sport my sweats in the pews?

Immanuel Can: Ha! You’ll scandalize the little old ladies. And the dour old men will be none too happy either. But I know of no scriptural prohibition on informality. You raise a good question: what is the Christian view of attire, particularly in regard to the meetings of the church?

Rocking the North American Classic

Tom: Well, I know what it was traditionally for the fifty-something male: suit and tie. Hot day, maybe you get to doff the jacket. That’s certainly done and dusted, and I can’t say I’ll miss it. But if I’m honest, the sweats will probably stay at home.

Where did this come from, do you think? It’s pretty clear the Lord did not start the trend, and the apostles are unlikely candidates for clothes horses.

IC: There’s a sort of “common sense” view that if you’re going somewhere important you wear your best, I suppose. But the suit-and-tie stuff can only be a sort of Western idea. Obviously, clothing differs around the world, and according to what a person actually can own. There can be no one rule for appropriate attire for a meeting of the church … except perhaps those verses that mandate we don’t discriminate based on the expensiveness of clothing.

In Consideration of Others

Tom: Okay, I like the sound of that. If the Lord cared what I wore, he would surely have established a dress code and had an apostle write it up. He didn’t.

He did, however, establish a few principles that might govern my choices. So what if, instead of wearing what I think makes me look fashionable, or presentable, or suitably austere, I choose my clothing for church on the basis of how likely it is to make others comfortable?

IC: Spell that out a bit … how does following that principle play out in a particular situation? We’re not going to the universal suit-and-tie, are we? So then what?

Tom: Oh, you mean make the uptight traditionalist or the one-in-a-million visiting businessman comfortable? I was thinking of neighbors and friends: electricians, grocery store cashiers, clerks, technicians, handymen — people who rent a suit for a wedding because they don’t own one. So I figured something like slacks and a golf shirt: decent enough that it doesn’t look like I’m slumming, but not so overdone that a visitor feels massively out of place.

IC: Yeah, I’m not too worried about the visiting businessman myself, I’ve got to admit. So you’re suggesting some sort of middle choice, something likely to be congenial to anyone regardless of his income or familiarity with custom? Something that would be reasonably unobjectionable to both our hypothetical businessman, but also unintimidating to someone whose collars were a bit bluer? Or do you suppose it’s a matter of indifference what either thinks?

Tom: Well, it seems to me that the longer anyone thinks about what you’re wearing in church, the more inappropriate what you’re wearing must be. After all, you don’t go to church to show off, do you? The ideal choice is so neutral it provides no distraction at all.

John the Baptist, fancy dresser that he was, hit on something rather important when he said “He must increase, but I must decrease”.

Dressing Down

IC: So if you are implying that a person could be excessively rich and showy in his/her attire, you are also saying that a person could be equally offensive by deliberately choosing to “slum it”?

Tom: It entirely depends on the motive. The question is why are you putting this or that on? Is it about you or about others — and primarily about what you believe honors the Lord and will best serve his purposes: “Each should be fully convinced in his own mind”. And Paul says “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God”. That goes right down to what you eat and drink, and certainly to what you wear.

So motive is everything. “This will get me looked at” is a bad motive. “This will show them!” is a bad motive. A poor person and a bratty teen could be wearing the same type of beat-up clothes to church for entirely different reasons. The one is not offensive at all (and we had best not discriminate against such an individual). The other needs a good talking to.

IC: Since you mention teens, let’s go there.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game ...

Today, ball caps are highly fashionable, and for young men in particular. The old, Victorian prohibition against the wearing of hats indoors is gone: you can wear a ball cap in a restaurant or other public building without anyone getting offended, just as you don’t have to tip it to a lady. All that is history now. So is there any reason a young man cannot wear a ball cap in the gatherings of the church? If the oldsters are offended, should they just get over it, just like they’ve had to everywhere else?

Tom: Well, I see no problem with wearing a ball cap in the church building, between meetings, in the lobby or while having a coffee and chatting. There’s no magic in a building. Bricks and mortar are not the “house of God”, the people are. But for a man, wearing a hat in a meeting of the church is a different story. The prohibition against that comes from the apostle Paul, and it has a spiritual significance we are wise not to ignore. He says, “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head … since he is the image and glory of God”. Paul’s rationale is not Victorian or cultural at all, nor is it even based on Jewish law. It goes right back to creation and therefore remains valid today, even though Queen Victoria and the Law of Moses are history.

IC: Yes, I see that. The passage in question, 1 Corinthians 11:4, identifies the head as a symbol for the Head of the Church, and tells us not to pray or prophesy with a covered head ... at least in the particular case of males in a congregational context. Some people argue that’s merely cultural and historical, but there’s no warrant from the passage for saying so, and in fact specific warrant for saying it’s not cultural. I would say that even if we are doubtful (and personally, I’m not) we ought to err on the side of behaving in a way that has NO chance of dishonoring the Head ... so hats off, lads.

Absorbing the Zeitgeist

Tom: A little aside here. Dress codes are not in vogue. This is a very individualistic society, and even Christian teenagers may absorb the zeitgeist. I was reading an article this week about a high school student in Ontario fighting her school’s dress code. She said:
“I think giving the administration that kind of freedom to say ‘This is inappropriate’, or ‘This isn’t’ and pick and choose who gets shamed for what they’re wearing and who doesn’t is extremely disrespectful to young girls …”
So you can see how the issue may be reframed.

IC: A typical child’s reaction: she’s obviously thinking only of herself, and not imagining herself as part of a community that sets appropriate standards for its own situation to which she might have some duty, obviously. But surely the church is not to model its decision-making on the petulant backlash of a teenage girl, right?

A Mixed Multitude

Tom: On any given day, a local church is a mix of visitors, immature Christians, unsaved kids from Christian homes who attend because their families do … in other words, any number of people who might overreact to having an inappropriate hat or other piece of clothing called to their attention.

How do you handle the situation of the guy in the row in front of you that you don’t know who’s still wearing his headgear when the meeting starts? Or do you handle it at all?

IC: Point taken. But the normal congregant needs to learn that they are part of a community, and that community has standards … not merely its own, but standards given in scripture by revelation of the Head of the Church. That is the responsibility of the elders, of course, and not a mandate for ordinary congregants to police things.

Tom: Yes, a word out of season can do quite a bit of damage if it’s delivered in the wrong spirit.

IC: Essentially, the biblical principles need to be established clearly to everyone before any controversy takes place, then insisted upon without prejudice afterward. That way there can be no reasonable objection. (Of course, unreasonable ones are still possible: but then, they are always possible.)

The Inevitable Awkward Situation Hypothetical

Tom: Okay, then, suppose you’re the father of a teenage girl who has not yet committed her life to the Lord, but is still (perhaps grudgingly) willing to attend church with the family because she’s always done it. And as happens these days with teenage girls, she’s pushing the envelope: the skirts are getting shorter and shorter, to the point where it’s both inappropriate and a potential distraction. This is not really a hypothetical by the way: I’ve seen it many times. How, as a dad, do you handle it? I’m pretty sure you’re not keen on waiting for the elders to step in ...

IC: I suggest the father (or mother) should handle this one. After all, he’s the parent, the one who has a mature sense of what is appropriate in a given context. And if he’s choosing not to handle it, then the problem is really his more than hers. He’s the adult. She’s a child — his child.

Now, if he doesn’t, and if it becomes a problem to the point that the elders are concerned her preening and self-promotion is becoming tasteless, then I think they should discuss it with the father, express any concerns, and find out what is motivating his choices in not dealing with it. They may agree or not, but there’s no reason discussion cannot remain reasonable, even if the elders do need to say something. Everybody needs tact. What’s your solution?

Motivation and Influence

Tom: Oh, I agree about the tact. So much depends on motive, again. It could be a child with permissive parents. This is what she wears to school all week. All her friends dress the same way, and she's never really thought too much about it. On the other hand, she could be sending the message that she's no longer interested in playing church and is looking to provoke conflict so she has an excuse to stop going. And I suppose there are other possibilities. I don’t think you can address the question of the clothes without at least attempting to get her to talk about what she thinks of Jesus Christ. Well, you can, but simply getting her to conform is not addressing the real need.

IC: No. The problem, though, as always, is that what she does is not a private matter. If she’s acting out in public, then she’s conditioning the situation of others — her peers, the adults and children who are watching her example. That she may have no consciousness of her duty to anyone but herself would suggest egocentricity, immaturity or rebellion. And certainly the antics of a child cannot be allowed to dictate the conditions of congregational life, no matter how passionate she is in proclaiming her “right” to do as she pleases.

I teach ethics. The first thing anyone has to learn about ethics is that they are not actually private matters. Ethics are not about what we would do if we were the only person alive, and thus were completely free to make our own choices: they’re about how we treat others … about how we take our place in community.

Who Wrote the Dress Code?

Tom: You’re right, the situation must certainly be dealt with, and not simply because old ladies might complain. Allowing her to continue dressing inappropriately gives her the wrong impression that she’s the center of the universe, but it also, as you say, may incline others who are naturally more reticent to follow her example. The church belongs to Christ and exists for his glory, not for the pleasure of those who are its members and certainly not for the pleasure of those extended family members who attend without any real commitment or knowledge of what they’re there for.

So while I would prefer that the situation be handled with a sensitivity to the greater spiritual issues at stake in the girl’s life, it must ultimately be handled. If she — or anyone — thinks asserting wardrobe independence trumps obedience to the Head of the Church (“women should adorn themselves ... with modesty and self-control”, says the apostle Paul), then their issue is with him.

IC: Well, and men should too, of course. It may be true that males tend to be at a disadvantage aesthetically … but there are other ways to show off, and nobody should be doing any of them. The meetings of the church are not about “me” — not about my rights, my self-expression, my style, my looks, my clothes or my preferences. Our gatherings are firstly for the honor of the Head of the Church, and secondarily for the edification, fellowship and blessing of his people as a whole.

Only as a distant third do my wishes and inclinations figure at all, really.

1 comment :

  1. A couple thoughts.

    I oppose dressing down, if it is done in an attempt to prove a point. Likewise dressing up if done to put ourselves on display.

    I do dress up with a tie and sometimes a jacket, when preaching. I want to be sure that I am not giving offense to the listeners. If they are scandalized by the sermon, so be it; but I don't want them scandalized by a Mark Driscoll wannabe.

    In general, dress pants, collared short and maybe a tie, seems the best path for me on a average Sunday morning, so as to not give offense and be comfortable.

    I don't wear track pants outside the house (ever) so I wouldn't wear them to a meeting.

    I do visit a church sometimes where the majority of people dress in regular street clothes. I've found that people are not offended by a tie, if you just take time to get to know people and chat with them.

    In general, I walk the middle path so as to not give offense.