Dressing Down or dumbing down?

Yesterday the same idea was put to me from two different directions.  First, a local minister said he was not going to wear a tie in the pulpit from now on.  Fair enough, at first glance that is no big deal, and to some extent it depends what country you are in, what culture you are part of.  Secondly, I heard of someone from another town remarking that their church was encouraging dressing down “to make visitors feel more comfortable.”  In this latter case I happen to know that this move has gone along with “dumbing down” of the teaching.  This trend in some churches, in the UK at least, is to many ministers a matter of concern.  It is not simply a matter of “tie or no tie” but of the whole reasoning behind the concept of “dressing down.”  In the newspapers this week it is reported that one supermarket (at least) is concerned about the number of people who are beginning to come shopping for groceries in their pyjamas and dressing gowns.  They intend to ban the practice.  Are they, too, concerned about “dressing down”?

Now it may be argued that reverence is a heart matter, and that surely is true.  Peter warns women about caring for outward appearance only (1 Peter 3:3, 4).  But although reverence and respect is largely an inner attitude, it does usually manifest itself outwardly.  This is true even in human affairs.  For example, it would not do to be outwardly flippant, impolite or discourteous to the Queen of Great Britain or the President of the United States on the excuse that we were courteous inwardly!  Even in ordinary circumstances we have to acknowledge that often inner feelings and outward expression are related.  Few people would deny that they enjoy wearing something new.  Most of us feel better inside when we have taken a bath.  Women will say that having their hair done influences how they feel.  There does also seem to be a link between slovenliness and laziness.  At Bible College we were exhorted to dress properly for study when in the ministry, and not to lounge around in dressing gown and slippers.  Soldiers and policemen seem to engender more respect when in uniform than when they are in mufti.  It is quite likely that someone, somewhere has done a study on the relationship between clothes and mental attitude, between dress and demeanour.

However, I am not primarily concerned about the psychological relationship between feelings and dress.  I am more concerned about our approach to Almighty God, our attitude in worship.  I would like to approach this matter from three directions.

First, is it necessarily true that visitors feel more comfortable if church members dress casually?  I cannot help but notice that news readers and sports commentators on the television channels are, more often than not, smartly dressed.  Steve Davis and John Parrott who discuss the Snooker matches, are often impeccably dressed, especially in the evening broadcasts.  Does that make the snooker fans “uncomfortable”?  Do they even consider it?  There are many functions and occasions “in the world” when participants dress smartly.  We may blink at some of the ways the so-called ‘stars’ are dressed, but when ‘Oscars’ and such like awards are presented the recipients are usually dressed smartly.  Does that make the attendees feel uncomfortable?  I think the very suggestion is, well, daft.  Is not the worship of God much more important?  Rather than making people feel uncomfortable, neat, tidy, even formal dress can often create expectancy, and usually causes people to realise the importance of the event they are attending.

Secondly, why do people dress smartly for weddings, funerals or tea parties at Buckingham Palace?  Is it not to show respect for the persons at the centre of attention?  Is it not generally true that the more significant the occasion, the more important the person(s) we are honouring, the more likely we are to dress smartly, neatly and even formally?  Is it not also true that the less important the occasion the more causally we dress?  Who is central (or supposed to be) in a worship service?  Even in law courts people dress up.  We are not, of course, to “show off” or parade the latest fashions in church, but we ought to show respect and honour for the One we worship.  I just cannot imagine that “dressing down” impresses the importance of worship or the greatness and glory of God upon visitors.  Dressing down seems to me to suggests that worship, and hearing the Word of God, are after all, not very important.  Reverence and respect, I repeat, is not only a heart matter.  It reveals itself in our outward demeanour (see Exodus 3:5; 28:2 ff.; 2 Samuel 12:20; Psalm 29:2; 96:9; Zech 3:4, 5).

Thirdly, I am convinced that “dressing down” can sometimes reveal a defective theology, not just in terms of reverence towards God, important as that is, but also in our understanding of what it is that will bring people to Christ.  Do we really think that merely dressing informally is more likely to win people to Christ?  Do we imagine that informal attire is more likely tom cause people to listen to the gospel?  I remember the testimony of an evangelist.  He was unsaved, working more or less as a con man when he was approached by a well-dressed, well-spoken man who witnessed to him.  He said that if this Christian had been dressed as he was he would havetaken no notice, but, because he was dressed smartly he listened and eventually came to Christ.  What other kinds of manipulation will we try if we do not believe in the power of the gospel preached in dependence on the Spirit of God to save people, but must “dress down” to make our message acceptable?  We are ambassadors for Christ, not con men trying to trap people into a decision.  Can you imagine the apostle Paul writing to Timothy and saying, “You must dress more casually if you want to reach more people for Christ.”  Please remember I am discussing worship services not everyday living.  Is it possible to conceive of Moses saying to Aaron, “Don’t wear all that fancy stuff when you lead worship.  You need to make the worshippers feel comfortable.”  As a matter of fact, the true gospel preached in the power of the Holy Spirit is likely to make sinners distinctly uncomfortable! (cf. Acts 2: 37).

This leads to my final point.  I do not believe that God is totally indifferent to how we present ourselves for worship.  The priests under the old covenant had to dress in a certain way which expressed “holiness to the Lord”, and while we are no longer under those God-ordained regulations for worship, the same spirit of reverence which is manifested outwardly should characterise New Covenant believers.  The references already given above indicate that.

To summarise, I believe that heart reverence should manifest itself outwardly.  I do not believe that we should show less respect for our great and holy God than people do for their deceased relatives, a newly wed couple, or her Majesty the Queen.  I do not believe that the worship of Almighty God is less important than a sports event, an ‘Oscar’ ceremony, or a tea party.   Nor should we show less respect for the Lord than Hindus, Moslems, or sports commentators do for their gods.  “For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28, 29; cf. Josh. 5:14, 15; Psalm 95:6; Ezek. 1:28; Matt. 28:17; Rev. 1:17.

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One Response to “Dressing Down or dumbing down?”

  1. John White Says:

    Excellent. I am in the process of writing an article on the subject and google gave me your comments. They will be helpful.

    I have been in the gospel ministry for some fifty years. I recently “retired” from a pastorate and have had an opportunity since to see first hand the application of the “dressing down” philosophy and how it has really negatively effected the purity of the presentation of the gospel in churches that I once knew to be sound and solid. I am saddened by it all.

    God Bless

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