Worship Dress Code

Dr. Tim first wrote up the following for the congregation of Seventh Reformed Church on behalf of the Consistory. It is modestly editing for the sake of a broader readership: 

Over recent months the Consistory has passed a number of measures relating to dress code in worship. Here, an explanation is given of our change of practice, in the belief that this development affords a learning opportunity for us all.

Theologically, the change may be explained in terms of the biblical teaching of Christian liberty. As the Bible nowhere mandates the specific style of clothing to be worn in worship (other than for the priesthood in the Tabernacle—an old covenant order now obsolete), neither should we. Nowhere do we read, for instance, that worship attendees wore special Sabbath/Lord’s day robes to enter the synagogue or first-century church. At no point in the qualifications of leadership is the example of the elders and deacons attached to their dress in worship. When worshipers in biblical times, and elders and deacons in particular, gave their best to the Lord, they did so in terms of the matters of the heart. That was their concentration. God, we recall but tend to forget, looks on the heart and not on the outward appearance (1 Sam. 16:7).

Now, what is in the heart inevitably impacts how we approach worship. Whereas one heart in poor shape may, through indiscipline, dress slovenly and uncleanly, another more religious than Christian may dress up to impress. We have tended to frown on the former, but not on the latter. Yet, Scripture likely expresses more disapproval of the person well-dressed in worship than the person dressed poorly (Matt. 23:5; James 2:1–7). This, however, is not to press the issue either way. The Consistory motion merely affords individual liberty to decide the matter according to one’s own personal conviction. An usher, elder, or deacon may go without a coat and tie, but they are not instructed to. Let each person decide the matter in accordance with his own understanding and preference. This freedom expresses the balance of Scripture, and is more manageable the further we develop maturity in Christ (Rom. 14:1–23). We recall that a biblical and not a cultural conservatism lies at the heart of Seventh’s mission and vision. Changes to the dress code, being built on a biblical understanding of Christian liberty, are merely one application of biblical conservatism.

Practically, the change may be explained in terms of the advancement of the ministry of the church. God affords us liberty in Scripture not ultimately for our personal comfort, but for the service of others. Whereas some fairly conclude from a heart right with God that giving of our best in worship includes dressing our smartest, others will conclude that dressing casually (but always presentably) is the best way we can serve visitors to worship—both Christian visitors unaccustomed to our more traditional standards of worship, and those new to church life altogether. While Lord’s Day worship is not first and foremost for the person on the street, but for the person in the pew—public worship entailing the assembly of God’s called out ones—nevertheless it is evident that the early church was conscious of how Christians came across to unconverted visitors to worship (1 Cor. 14:16–17, 22–25). If our hearts are right in worship, which is the factor mattering to God, he will not be troubled by a lack of coat and tie, if our motivation is to “try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:33 [our current motto text!]).

Doubtless, there will be different responses to this. Our prayer must be that responses will be guided by Scripture and influenced by grace, resulting in an enhanced understanding and acceptance of the biblical teaching of Christian liberty. We ought also to pray that the outworking of the change will prioritize both a high view of worship and the high importance of embracing those joining us for it. Whatever style of clothing we choose to wear for public worship, let each of us come dressed clean, modestly, and presentable, esteeming our neighbor better than ourselves and thinking the best of their motivation. At the end of the day, our worship to God and our service to our neighbor are worthless if our hearts are not right before God, no matter our conviction or preference. In this regard, more casual dress does not guarantee a better welcome for our visitors, nor does a coat and tie guarantee they will be put off. Our welcome is determined by our walk with God and the reflection in our demeanors of his gospel.

We close, then, applying to ourselves as also to you, the words of Paul: “Brothers do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Cor. 14:20).