Dressing Up for Church
by Jim Wibberding | 21 January 2022 |
I hate church. For one reason.
I served as a pastor for seventeen years. I now serve as a professor at an Adventist college.
I still hate church.
All right, I am overstating the point, but the exaggeration tells the truth about my experience getting ready for church Sabbath after Sabbath after Sabbath.
You see, there’s this one thing. When I tell you what it is, I already know the responses. I have heard them before—throughout my four decades of church life.
I hate dressing up for church. That’s it. That’s the one thing, the fly in the ointment, the drain on my joy, the thing that tells me I am not enough and makes me want to stay home. I’m not good at it, and the formal version of me is not me.
As I write, I am sitting on my couch waiting to leave for church, with shoes that are too boxy, a belt that stiffens my waist, a collar that immobilizes my neck, pants that feel wrong against my skin, and a jacket that just isn’t me. But, they told me I should bring my best to God . . . and then they told me what the best version of me is.
Okay, okay, I hear the responses. As I told you, I have heard them all before—my whole life. It isn’t that I haven’t thought about them or that I am not committed to God. I am a people pleaser by nature—a middle-child diplomat—so I have thought about these concerns all too much.
As for commitment, I have given my life to serving God through the church. You can bet I have tried to conform so that I won’t be the problem. But… I think that’s the problem.
The voices I try to appease by conforming—by “dressing appropriately for church”—say too many things that ought not to be said. Those of us who have let those voices teach us to hate church need to speak up. I, for one, need to shed the fear those voices inspire that I am just not good enough, so I have the courage to share a different view.
I am not the only one whom the dress code police have taught to hate church. The straitjacket pinches different people in different ways. Church dress codes arise from cultural intolerance, generational alienation, gender inequity, narrow views of God, spiritual pretense, the perfectionistic impulse, and authoritarian control. As such, they hurt different groups in different ways, but the underlying message is always, “You’re not enough.”
I get that some of my readers don’t immediately see truth in this list of seven objections to church dress codes but please hear me out. I will keep it brief, and try to keep myself to one concept for each objection.
Our clothes come from our culture, expressing who we are—whether that culture is national, regional, economic, ethnic, or from some other dimension of who we are. The moment we define the specifics of what to wear, we define as unacceptable the norms of groups very different from the one in charge. We imply that there is only one form of cultural expression permissible here, and everything else is spiritually inferior.
I can hear someone saying, “Yes, but kids these days need to learn how to dress!” Sadly, this is so often spoken by someone who asks—with pain—why their kids have left the church.
Every generation of humans develops their identity, and it will always be different from their parents’ generation. We all take our turn. And, if you have a closet that hasn’t been emptied for a decade or two, you’ll find there a miniature museum of how this shows up in the wardrobe. Yes, your parents thought your clothes were just as bad as you might think the newest fashions are.
“I get that,” some will say, “but we need to draw the line at morality.” Sure, so, those young men show up in their sexy clothes and the women of the congregation just can’t keep their minds on God. Did something sound wrong in that last sentence? Yeah, so that brings us to the next problem with dress codes.
Women get targeted disproportionately when it comes to concerns about “morality in dress” There is a lot here that I wish I could unpack. In the end, I suspect there are boundaries that individuals need to sort out privately but I also suspect that our Christian community is not capable of setting universal standards that don’t simply put the burden of managing male lust on women. Heterosexual men can and must exercise self-control regardless of what women are wearing—or not wearing.
Narrow Views of God:
Someone will offer: “What about bringing our best to God? Spaghetti straps and jeans are just so casual. How can dressing like that honor God?”
The God we gather to worship is both king and friend. He is both the God with ways beyond finding out and the God who became human flesh and lived among us. God is both in the thunder on the mountain and in the man on the street. He is both transcendent and immanent. You might dress differently to meet with the President than you would to meet up with your best friend. We must make space for both experiences in our corporate worship, because each of us needs to encounter different aspects of God at different twists in our journey.
Again, I hear the concern: “But, what will people think if we all look like slobs on Sabbath morning? We need to represent the great God we serve. What will visitors think?”
First, you probably don’t dress that well. More to the point, I see a concern more pressing than PR—and, when we do what is right, PR can take care of itself.
Authenticity is a central concern in the New Testament. The kind and gentle Jesus persistently and bluntly called out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and others. The harshest moment in the New Testament Church came when Ananias and Sapphira pretended to give more than they did; their sin was introducing spiritual pretense to the brand-new Church. To dictate a dress code—whether implied or explicit—is to require a costume. It says, don’t come as the person you are; act the part.
A few might answer that we are called to be a perfect generation to vindicate God’s character, so it shouldn’t have to be pretense.
Even if you don’t subscribe to Last Generation Theology—and I hope you don’t—the perfectionistic impulse underlies so much from Adventist tradition, because many traditions were born in perfectionistic times. We often accept the habits of perfectionism, even if we have rejected its explicit theology. At a gut level, you might feel that it dishonors God to see others dressing down for church, but you need to reject that perfectionistic impulse.
When it comes right down to it, dress codes for church are about some people demanding that others comply with their convictions or preferences. Within each church family, there are power differentials. Some speak from greater position or influence than others, and it will always be the convictions and preferences of the more powerful that get imposed on others. Jesus told his disciples not to use authority that way but, instead, serve the weaker person. It would be more appropriate for the person of power to adapt to the wardrobe of the weaker person—just as Jesus clothed himself with sinful human flesh.
Oh, and, it won’t do to make allowances for the average attendee but insist on a rigid dress code for leaders. First, whatever we do in God’s name paints a picture of God. As leaders, we endorse what we accommodate. Second, requiring these things only of leaders moves the boundary of exclusion but does not remove the toxicity outlined above.
I realize that there is more to be said on all sides of the conversation but I hope that I have made a dent in someone’s thinking and that, with time, I and others can stop feeling the expressed or implied condemnation that teaches us to “hate church.”
James Wibberding, D.Min., is Professor of Applied Theology and Biblical Studies at Pacific Union College in California.