Good morning, class. Today I’m going to test your knowledge of the Bible.
The teacher, only about 30 years old, was leading a class of 50- and 60-year old members.
Who can think of a passage that talks about what God says about clothing?
The class was filled with men and women who’d been Christians many years, and the answers came quickly.
“‘Consider the lilies of the field …'”
“James said not to judge someone by his clothes …”
One wag in the back said, “Adam and Eve were created naked. Does that count?”
The teacher writes each of these on the board, with the scriptural references. He’d obviously anticipated just these answers.
Let’s take a look at these passages —
(Mat 6:28-32) “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”
(James 2:1-4) My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3 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,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
What do these passages teach us?
One student answers, “We shouldn’t judge people by the clothes they wear. And we shouldn’t worry about clothes.” Several others nod their heads. The students are on familiar ground and comfortable that they know the answers.
“Yes. Of course. I mean, that’s just a summary, but James said, ‘Don’t discriminate about clothes,’ and Jesus said, ‘Don’t worry about clothes.’ Means what it says and says what it means.”
I agree. I think you nailed it.
And so, if that’s what the Bible teaches, why do we dress up in suits for church? I don’t wear a suit for work. I don’t wear a suit when I eat out. The only place I go where I need to wear a suit is church. Why is that?
“Because we’re supposed to give our best to God!” one woman in the back proclaims. “I wouldn’t want to come into God’s presence with less than my best!”
Ah, you’re thinking of Leviticus 22, I think.
(Lev 22:18-21) “Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the Israelites and say to them: ‘If any of you–either an Israelite or an alien living in Israel–presents a gift for a burnt offering to the LORD, either to fulfill a vow or as a freewill offering, 19 you must present a male without defect from the cattle, sheep or goats in order that it may be accepted on your behalf. 20 Do not bring anything with a defect, because it will not be accepted on your behalf. 21 When anyone brings from the herd or flock a fellowship offering to the LORD to fulfill a special vow or as a freewill offering, it must be without defect or blemish to be acceptable.”
Is that right?
The student nods her head. “I know it’s not talking about clothing, but it’s the principle. God wants our best!”
The teacher scans the students, and then points to a man on the front row. Didn’t I see you at the hospital fundraiser a few months ago?
And weren’t you wearing a tuxedo. And your wife was wearing a really pretty evening dress. So why are you wearing a suit and not your tux? Why not “your best”?
“Well, a tuxedo would hardly be appropriate …” The man was anxious to talk about his tux, not his wife’s dress, because he and the teacher both knew the dress would be very inappropriate at church!
I guess we’re not really talking about wearing our best, are we? We’re really just trying to meet an unwritten code for what’s considered appropriate.
What happened when an Israelite brought an offering to God? What happened to the offering?
“It was sacrificed.”
Burned to crisp, or else part was given to support the priests, right? No one brought the sacrifice home whole and intact, ready for use on the next Sabbath, right?
And so, if we brought our finest clothes to the church, placed them on the stage as an offering to God or for the poor, and left them, that would be a sacrifice. But dressing up and going home with our same clothes, where’s the sacrifice?
“It’s a sign of respect!” another student interjected. “When I was a little girl, we all dressed up to go out … to a movie or a restaurant. That’s how it was.”
Okay. I agree that some of us consider this a sign of respect. We do. But how many of you went to a movie during, say, the last six months? Raise your hands.
More than half the class lift a hand, all somewhat sheepishly, because they know what the next question will be.
Now, how many of you wore a coat and tie or your “Sunday best” at the movies?
Not a single hand is raised. The teacher pauses for effect.
It once was the custom in this part of the country to wear a suit or formal dress to go out of the house to some public place. It’s not anymore. Even lawyers and accountants are starting to wear business casual at the office. Today, lots of people don’t even own a suit!
You know, customs change. I thought you’d find this interesting. I have here a book from our library called The Pioneers on Worship. It’s essays by several Restoration Movement leaders, written in the 19th Century, talking about worship. One is an article by Alexander Campbell. And in this one, he’s angry. You’ll never guess why! He was angry because the young people aren’t willing to dress the way the older generation was accustomed to.
He’s upset because it used to be that homespun and buckskin clothes used to be considered good enough for church. Now church members are insisting on wearing store-bought clothes. [“Worshipping Assemblies — No. I,” Millennial Harbinger (1839), reprinted in John Allen Hudson, editor, The Pioneers on Worship (The Old Paths Book Club, 1947).]
Now, who is closer to the scriptures we just read? Campbell, in wanting us to come to church in simple, inexpensive clothes? Or us, coming to church in formal wear?
Let me tell you a couple of stories, both from my childhood at another church.
When I was in college, my parents moved from their home of 30 years, leaving the congregation where my dad had been elder. We went to church at our home congregation that morning, and then we had to spend the afternoon packing. Sunday night church was scheduled for 6:00, but my mother and sisters let the hour slip up on them. There wasn’t time to dig a fresh set of clothes out of the suitcases to go to church.
I asked them why they didn’t just go to church wearing what they’d worn that morning. They explained that if they wore the same thing, their friends at church would think they didn’t have anything else to wear and they’d be embarrassed.
I was astounded. “These are your friends. They know your wardrobe as well as you do! They know that we can afford clothes, for crying out loud.” But they refused to go to church — the last chance to be with their friends before the move, because the local dress code was plain. Women simply had to change clothes for Sunday night church.
Have any of ever been part of a congregation like that?
Several women nodded.
I don’t get it, but I’m not a girl. Anyway, here’s the next story.
When I was a teenager, we had a summer youth minister who had us go doorknocking for a gospel meeting we were about to have. And so this girl and I went from door to door in the “projects” inviting people to church.
One woman opened the door, and was very polite to us and seemed willing to come. She asked us which church this was, and we told her. She said, “I’m church of Christ, too. I’d love to go, but I can’t.” We asked why not?
She said, “That’s the church where everyone dresses nice. I can’t go to a church like that.”
All right, class, why did she feel that way?
One man offered, “Likely for the same reason your sisters and mother didn’t want to go without a change of clothes! She knew she’d be looked down on.”
Is that right? Did she know about the Sunday night rule?
No, but she knew this was the kind of church where clothes are important.
I agree, but how did she know?
Because she saw how everyone dressed!
When nearly everyone at church dresses a certain way, what does that communicate to visitors?
That they need to dress that way, too.
What if we dress nicely but don’t really judge people. Would that work?
No, because people will figure that you dress the way you do for a reason. Most people don’t like to stand out. People want to fit in, to be like everyone else.
There you go! If we uniformly dress in suits and formal, expensive clothes, people who can’t afford that will feel discriminated against — even if we really just don’t care. Their perception will be that clothes are important to us because we act like clothes are important to us.
And what does the Bible say about clothes? The teacher gestures to the board.
A man says, “Don’t discriminate. Don’t worry about clothes.”
But whether we mean to or not, isn’t that exactly what we do?
A woman on front row, visibly aggitated says, “Are you saying that the preacher shouldn’t wear a suit when he speaks? That the men passing out communion should be in shorts? That people can come to church — God’s house — dirty?!”
Hmm. Let’s consider how Jesus would dress to preach.
First, Jesus owned exactly one outfit. And soap wasn’t invented until much later. I’m sure he was clean by First Century standards, but he dressed as simply as possible. When he delivered the Sermon on the Mount, he wore the same clothes that he wore when he was in the desert praying and the same clothes he wore on the boat in the Sea of Galilee. And that’s what he wore when he blessed the Last Supper and distributed bread and “fruit of the vine” to the apostles.
So, yes, if it’s okay for Jesus to wear everyday clothes when preaching or presiding over communion, it’s okay for us.
But what he wore was appropriate in First Century Palestine. He didn’t “dress up.” He dressed like common people dressed — but not as the wealthy dressed.
All right. We’re about out of time. Let me share a few thoughts, and we can talk more about this next week.
First, God clearly does not want us to be a middle class or upper class church. He wants all kinds of people to be here and to feel loved and welcomed. If nearly everyone dresses in expensive clothes, there’s no way a poor person will ever feel comfortable here. It would be wrong to have churches for rich people and churches for poor people. Therefore, we have to make an effort so that we’ll be perceived as welcoming to the poor. We may not really care about clothes, but if people see us dressed up, they’ll never believe it.
Second, society has changed. There’s not a single restaurant left in town that requires you to wear a coat and tie. Even the country clubs have repealed that rule — because their young members won’t eat there if they have to dress up. And most of our converts and most of those moving into town that we’d like to join us are young people. Businesses have nearly all gone to business casual. Dressing up is only for parties and for court. And who wants church to feel like a cocktail party or a trial?
Third, Jesus said not to worry about clothes, and I figure that means we need to not worry about clothes.
See you next week.