I grew in a fairly conservative family, fashion-wise. We wore dress clothes on Sunday mornings.
Every Sunday morning.
The only Sunday morning that I can remember not wearing dress clothes during my childhood was when we had a “founders’ day” party and all the men wore overalls, and the women wore olde-fashioned dresses.
That was the one time.
Dress in Your Sunday Best
When I grew up, however, I rebelled against that and wore jeans every Sunday for years, until I became a pastor. Since then, I’ve primarily worn khakis and dress shirts, though I keep them untucked because I’m cool like that.
Now, why am I going through all of this? Because I keep hearing more and more from some well-meaning but poorly informed Christians about how important it is to dress “properly” for church.
So, let’s take a brief look at how terrible this idea of “dressing up for Jesus” really is.
Moralism and Materialism in Genesis 3
To examine this idea of what clothes we ought to wear to church, let’s look at the origin of clothes.
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves….The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.
Genesis 3:6-7, 21
So the first pair of clothes made was made by the first man and woman after their sin brought shame. (It’s interesting that shame, though a spiritual condition, was immediately expressed physically, but that’s a discussion for another time. For now, let’s focus on the fashion…or lack thereof.) The first pair of clothes were made from leaves, and while I have no personal experience, I can’t imagine that clothes made from such would provide much covering or comfort. Furthermore, this moment of fashion frenzy shows us two aspects of theology/philosophy that we should touch on. First of all, we see “moralism” as Adam and Eve, the prototypes of all successive humans, trying to fix, cover up, even undo their sin. This kind of behavior is still alive today.
Every time we think we need to “clean ourselves up” before we come to God. It’s even worse when we apply this to others, wanting them to clean up their act before coming to church or coming to Jesus. This is insane, of course, because only Jesus can clean us up. That’s the first reason why God rejected Adam and Eve’s foliage-based fashion and made the clothes from animal skins: only God can cover our sin and remove our shame, and both require the shedding of blood. In this case, some animals sufferd. Eventually, Jesus would suffer.
Next, Adam and Eve’s actions demonstrate a second, related philosophy: materialism. What was the first couple’s issue? Nudity? No. It was shame due to sin; it was sin that tainted what had been the perfectly natural state of nudity. Their problem was spiritual-sin; their solution was physical-clothes. Materialism denies the the existence of the spirit and the spiritual realm. Everything is physical, according to them. While neither Adam nor Eve would have ever agreed with how a materialist, they behaved in a very materialistic way by trying to solve a spiritual problem with a physical solution, something that so many of us do to this day. We treat our physical needs of hunger, rest, and so on by supplying our body with what it requires; however, we often ignore our spiritual deficiencies and try to silence them with food, sleep, or worse. Just like Adam and Eve.
God Makes the Man
But God saw through all of this and made them better clothes, a theme that is oft repeated in the Bible:
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”
Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.”
Then I said, “Put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the Lord stood by.
But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
God supplied the covering for their shame by making a blood sacrifice for their sins, and He’s done the same for us through Jesus. Adam and Eve’s covering wasn’t sufficient. Clothes alone couldn’t cover their true spiritual shame.
Similarly, a man’s wardrobe does not make him more or less of a Christian. If Adam and Eve couldn’t undo their sin by covering their nudity, what makes us think that we can increase our holiness by covering ourselves with fine fabric and high fashion? My three critiques about the Adam and Eve’s “fig leaf fashion” were that it likely didn’t fully cover their bodies, that it was their attempt to undo their sin—something only God can do—and that it was a physical solution applied to a spiritual problem.
So to all those who are up in arms about the increasing informality of Christian dress, let me say that I agree with the need for decorum, propriety, and proper covering of all our “physical shame.” I also understand and agree with the intent to “offer God our best,” but here I’d like to remind you of those two other criticisms I had. First of all, dressing to impress Jesus is moralistic. Jesus cannot be impressed by our good behavior because our best behavior cannot, in anyway, ever compete with Jesus’ incomparable righteousness. Furthermore, the idea that a physical thing like clothes can in anyway be used as a measure or addition to our holiness is an example of materialist thinking which is non-biblical in the truest sense of the word, since materialism denies the reality of all spiritual things.
Clothes don’t make the man: God did. Furthermore, clothes can’t make us holy; only God can. Our clothes don’t reflect our spiritual state, though they can create barriers. Too many people try too hard to look their best, unintentionally (mostly) making others look worse by comparison. If that’s too harsh for you, then let’s ask this question: what is being done when one Christian questions the salvation of another Christian because they’re clothes aren’t fancy enough? When did fashion become a criteria for life everlasting? Whether we create social barriers of haves and have-nots or we create spiritual obstacles on the road to Christ, clothes can be a huge problem for the Church.
Clothes were validated by God when He made some for Adam Eve. God approved of and provided clothing, but man took it further by creating fashion. God gave Adam and Eve clothing to cover their physical bodies as the end result of a sacrifice designed to cover their souls. Humanity took a utilitarian gift of God and jazzed it up. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We ought to be creative and expressive, like God. (Of course, that creativity out not to violate the first job of clothing—covering the body.) But creativity, in general, and fashion, in specific, is part of our culture. Clothes are biblical; suits, ties, and dresses are cultural.
When we take a cultural element and make it part of the Gospel, we corrupt the simplicity of Jesus’ message of forgiveness and a changed life. Heaven isn’t a country club, nor a five-star restaurant—it’s far better—and there is no dress code. If blue jeans on Sunday’s shock you, God help you when you realize that Jesus is wearing a robe in Heaven and not a three-piece suit with a double Windsor.