Thursday, September 8, 2011

Church Dress Code?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about dress codes for church:

Q:  Does the Bible give any requirements about how to dress for church?  What is the reason it has been common for people to dress up to attend services?

On a few occasions, the New Testament does address the issue of clothing, but in a general way rather than specifically in reference to attending a church service.  On those occasions, it encourages modesty in the style of dress and discourages Christians from relying on their clothing, jewelry, or other merely outward qualities as a source of pride or value.

There is one occasion in 1 Corinthians 11 on which the Apostle Paul addresses appearance and particularly mentions the way a person dresses for prayer.  At first glance, this appears to be a set of instructions on hair length and whether it is appropriate for men and women to pray with or without their heads covered. 

Many have interpreted this chapter over the years as a command that men may not have long hair and must not wear hats in church, while women must wear their hair long and must wear either a hat to church or pin a symbolic covering on some portion of their head during services.  However, such a reading is out of harmony with the character of the rest of the New Testament and ignores what is really at issue in the Church at Corinth. 

This is because beyond a few basic commands on church discipline and the institution of the Pastoral office, the New Testament does not make a practice of pronouncing commands on the appearance, diet, or other areas of Christian life, except for those which flow from the Ten Commandments. 

The issue at Corinth was that the way a woman wore her hair and whether she covered her head were an indication of her sexual availability, and it had become a trend in the city for even married women to give indication by their appearance that they were available, either for free or for pay, then to follow through on that indication when their appearance provoked interest from men. 

In this chapter, Paul is not making a divine pronouncement about the morality of hair length or the wearing of hats in church, but rather he is saying that Christians in general should be careful about the witness that their appearance gives, and in particular that women ought not attend church dressed as if they are prostitutes. 

The American tradition of dressing well for church, with men in suits and women in dresses, is a reflection of our culture’s expectation that people dress nicely for important occasions, especially when those occasions involve an encounter with someone in a superior position, such as the president, or a judge in court, or in this case, God Himself.  American Christians have typically dressed up for church as a sign of respect for God.  This is especially true in traditions, such as Lutheran and Roman Catholic, which believe that Jesus is really (not just symbolically) present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.

Likewise, the American expectation that men not wear hats in church is in keeping with the etiquette that it is appropriate for men to remove their hats indoors, especially in formal situations.  As in many other instances, even when a social expectation has begun to decline in society, it often holds on longer in the church.

Ultimately, the question of how one dresses for church is not a matter of right and wrong or whether it is a sin if one fails to dress well enough.  Instead, it is a question of what is wise and what best reflects to those around us what we believe about God and about what is happening when we attend the services of the Church.

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