If Jesus came to your church next Sunday, what would He wear?  What would He wear if He was your pastor?  (Take a minute and answer this question before reading on.) Recently the English Ministry core leaders at my church have been discussing possible changes to our Sunday service in order to make our outreach more effective.  One of the topics discussed was the “dress code” for the pastors and worship team.  I want to share some of my thoughts on this question and get your feedback.

The Arguments

If you think that the answer to these questions is obvious then perhaps you need to think more deeply.  Either that, or perhaps you live in a very homogeneous community.  It seems that the reasoning runs in two main directions:

We should wear our best in order to honor God

Neck tieWhile I was in seminary I attended a weekend OMF missions conference.  I wore my usual retreat attire: jeans and a tee shirt, with  a sweatshirt for cool weather.  The other attendees were also casually dressed.  But when we went to breakfast on Sunday morning, I was stunned to see the retired missionary men decked out in three piece suits and the women in nice dresses!  I suddenly felt very under dressed.  They wanted to honor God by wearing their best on the Lord’s Day, even at a retreat.  That experience had a big impact on me.  For years afterward I would often bring a dress shirt and tie (but not a suit) to retreats to wear on the Lord’s Day.  We should honor God by giving Him our best.  What does it say about our view of God  if we get dressed up for weddings but not for Sunday worship?

We should dress in a casual, up to date style in order to attract more people

Most people today prefer a casual style of dress.  Even in some large companies managers are no longer expected to wear suits (or equivalent formal attire for women), at least here in California.  The only time that many men wear a suit is to attend weddings or funerals, or perhaps for a job interview or a date at a fancy restaurant.  For them, seeing people in suits marks the event as a formal occasion.  If only the pastor or leaders are wearing suits, it can create a sense of distance between them and the rest of the people.  If our churches desire to be friendly, loving communities then our dress should reflect that.

Some Observations

The two positions above are in tension with each other.  How can we resolve this issue?  Here are some observations:

Culture changes

In the past it was normal for people to get dressed up to go to social events.  For rural families, even going into town to do the weekly shopping was an occasion that required them to wear something nice.  Look at a picture of college students pre-1900 and you will find them wearing suits. I think that it was the norm for them to wear suits to class.  In this context, it was normal for all the men to wear a suit to church as well. But now all that has changed.  People dress very casually most of the time.  Most men now wear suits only for a few very special occasions.

Pastors are not priests

If most men no longer wear suits to church, what about the pastor?  Should the pastor wear a suit because of his role as a “man of God”?  In the OT the priests had special clothing to wear that marked them as priests.  But in the NT we have the priesthood of all believers, so I’m not sure that the pastor should wear special “holy” clothing.  Jesus and Paul probably dressed pretty much like other men of their time.  The missionary principle (1 Cor. 9:19-23) requires that we adapt our outward customs to become more like those we are trying to reach.  I think that this should influence our clothing choices (within limits).

We still need to honor God

We honor God by applying the missionary principle and adapting our behavior to those we are trying to reach.  But we also honor God by demonstrating our respect for Him.  For our clothing, I think that this means that whatever we wear should be clean, in good repair and modest.  Sloppiness is not next to godliness.  But we have to be careful about what we mean by “sloppy.”  Some hair styles that appear sloppy to the older generation are carefully and deliberately crafted using lots of hair gel.  They are not the result of carelessness, although some may not like the style.

We should seek to honor God in all that we do.  What does it say about our view of God if we are more careful about our appearance the rest of the week, but decide that any old thing is good enough for church?  That could indicate that we really do not attach much importance to church.  Or it could indicate that the church is like our family, where we can let down our guard and be ourselves.  It’s not easy to know where to draw the line.

It depends on your context

I don’t think that there are any hard and fast rules in this area.  It would be ridiculous for a missionary to insist that the men in a jungle tribe wear suits to come to church.  But in a community in which formal dress is the norm for social occasions wearing jeans to church might not be appropriate.  They key is to apply the missionary principle in a spirit of humility and ask what sort of dress code will help further the Gospel in your particular setting.  Are you willing to wear a suit if that will open doors for the Gospel?  Are you willing to lose the suit if that will reach more people for Christ?

What do you think about this issue?  What would Jesus wear if He came to your church?

Join the Conversation

11 Comments

  1. One more possibility that you don’t mention: a Geneva robe or vestments of some kind.

    The advantage of this choice (for now I’m putting together the Geneva robe with vestments) is that it marks out the pastor serving the congregation as an officer of Christ during worship, whose authority comes from Christ and not from his own personality. His reading of Scripture, for example, is to be heard because Scripture is God’s very word; his preaching is to be heard because it explains and applies God’s word.

    In contrast, a suit, or anything else that people may normally wear, really, expresses a preference for a certain sector of the population. I believe this preference implicitly encodes either a preference for the rich or for the casual.

    But by wearing non-ordinary clothes, just as a fireman wears his uniform, a pastor shows that he’s acting in a special capacity, liturgically in the physical role of Christ. Thus, the question ‘what would Jesus wear?’ is both strikingly apropos and, perhaps, not the real question. Do you imitate directly, or do you signal the connection itself?

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. In some church traditions pastors (or priests) have a special uniform that sets them apart as God’s servants. But I have a hard time finding any justification for that in the NT. The OT priests had a special uniform to wear when they were serving at the temple, but in the NT all believers are priests. I think that this would point in the direction of the pastor not wearing a special uniform.

    The NT teaching on the Body of Christ points in the same directions. There is no body part (gift) that represents Christ to the rest of the Body. Pastors are not the neck.

    I am not sure exactly what you mean by saying that pastors act “liturgically in the physical role of Christ.” Is there any NT basis for this statement?

  3. »I am not sure exactly what you mean by saying that pastors act “liturgically in the physical role of Christ.” Is there any NT basis for this statement?«

    In presiding over the Eucharist by pronouncing the words of institution and in standing in Christ’s position proclaiming how the word’s been fulfilled in our hearing by the presence of Christ.

    Although we’re all priests and we’re right to emphasize that all the time, we do in fact have one person physically doing what the high priest would be doing in worship if he were physically present, and we know one day Christ himself will do it, and we’ll all be the priestly liturgical followers. In the meantime, the church’s bishop is usually the one physically performing that role.

    I’m also not sure it’s only in the NT that priestly status is on the whole Church. We do hear some foreshadows of it in Exodus 19.5–6: ‘Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

    At the same time, we seem to view ordination as conferring a certain kind of authority, especially in the area of church discipline (positively and negatively). It’s for this role too, the role of the ordained presbyteros, which I think before Christ comes again is a theologically licenced role and not simply a humanly practical need, that different (and entirely outside-the-socioeconomic-spectrum) garb can be useful.

  4. Pastors and elders do have spiritual authority, but I’m not sure that it is a priestly position. The Lord’s Supper (aka Communion, Eucharist) is not a re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice, but rather a memorial to what has already been accomplished. Christ said “Do this in remembrance of me.” There is no sacrifice taking place when we have the Lord’s Supper and a priest is not required to officiate. It is not a specifically priestly function to remember and commemorate.

    I agree that there is an intimation of the priesthood of all believers in Exodus. But they still had a separate priesthood in Israel, which we do not need in the church. Once the temple sacrifices were fulfilled in Christ’s sacrifice the priesthood became unnecessary.

  5. Oh, I’ve never associated the different clothing with a priesthood difference, only in authority and in different performative roles in liturgy. Of course Christ isn’t being resacrificed, and neither will he ever be even by himself, but the sacrament does in a way act like a non-verbal prayer for God to remember the sacrifice and give his gifts to his children.

    What do you consider to be our priestly functions? I tried to get at one on my blog some weeks ago, but I still consider worship to be the focal point of our priesthood.

  6. PK, I agree with you. The rest is all religious regalia that is used to attract attention to self. We are all priests in the new covenant. Its time that the old Pharasees call it a day.
    Drop the traditional doctrines! Focus on Jesus..forget denominations! Just be The Hands and Feet and Arms of Christ!! Forget the Lectures! Forget the hieararchal crap!Get to the CORE..Forget everything but our OWN accountability to reflect LOVE…without AGENDAS!!

  7. @Lue-Yee: I think that our main priestly function is to represent God to the world. It seems that this was the idea in Exodus where Israel is called a nation of priests.

    @PT: We should try to stick as close to Scripture as possible, which means that both doctrine and authority structures have an important place in the church. We should focus on Jesus by carefully studying what He taught and following the example of the Apostles whom He personally trained.

  8. »I think that our main priestly function is to represent God to the world. It seems that this was the idea in Exodus where Israel is called a nation of priests.«

    On one level, this sounds absolutely right:

    But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

    I think, however, it may also be more problematic than it seems at face value. I’m assuming our priestly role continues after the parousia. If so, our priestly role must consist of more than, to put it crudely, evangelizing unbelievers. But if this is true, then what? Worshipping in Spirit (the Holy Spirit) and Truth (the Son), I suppose, and thus leading all creation in its worship of its Maker (Psalm 95 & passim), proclaiming the glory of the Lord.

    But then we’re back again at the priestly role being inherently a liturgical role for believers, even more fundamentally than any role that we might commonly call evangelistic. Or, as I think John Piper said, evangelism exists because worship doesn’t [in some place].

  9. What is the role of a priest? I think that fundamentally it is to serve as an intermediary between God and man. So I can’t see any need for a human priestly role in eternity. Christ will always be our High Priest, but human priests will be unnecessary.

  10. Personally I always found suits to be rather worldly and immodest. Seeing someone in a suit doesn’t make me think about someone teaching God’s word, it make me think about businessmen and politicians.

  11. I understand your point. Yet there are others who would consider a pastor who preached in blue jeans to be disrespectful of God. Appropriate attire depends on the context.

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