In recent weeks we had a couple of separate issues that converged to create the “perfect storm.” The main issue is this: “What should we wear to church?”
Three related issues sparked a larger conversation. In no particular order: What should deacons wear when they serve the Lord’s Supper? Would a very casually dressed person be welcome at our church? Is “Shoeless Sunday,” an attempt to raise awareness of shoeless orphans, a good idea?
The issue came into sharp relief when “Shoeless Sunday” and the Lord’s Supper ended up happening on the same day. It was an accidental, if not providential scheduling faux pas that brought creative stress–healthy I think–into our system. The deacons especially struggled with their desire to be a part of the energy of a creative mission emphasis, while needing to maintain dignity while serving the elements.
We are a moderate Baptist church in northwest Houston. There are churches nearby that are formal, but most are casual; more casual than even we are. Suits are almost non existent; ties are rare. We have neighboring churches where people wear flip flops and shorts. They even bring coffee into worship.
This seems heretical, until you realize that one of those churches is running 3,000 after five years. The other has doubled and has had 550 professions of faith in 13 months.
The pragmatic entrepreneurial side of me is ready to jettison tradition and move toward a more casual environment. In this neighborhood, it makes for a much more inviting atmosphere for non believers. But the question remains: “What would Jesus wear”?
The Bible says remarkably little about dress and style in worship. In Matthew 6 the wealthy Pharisees are critiqued by Jesus for their practice of prideful prayers and gaudy prayer robes. The hero is the sinner on his face in the street. The scene takes place in the street; not the temple or synagogue, but the context is clearly worship.
In Matthew 15 Jesus takes the Pharisees to task again. This time the offense is the refusal of followers of Christ to wash their hands before worship. The context indicates that the issue for the Pharisees is tradition and ritual, not hygiene.
Peter tells women that they should be more concerned about their inner beauty than hair styles or jewelry. Paul tells women at Corinth to keep their head covered for the sake of decency in church. Is this a command for all times or was Paul worried that some women and their hairstyles; if not shaven heads, would cause confusion and draw comparisons to the temple prostitutes nearby?
I do recall the Easters of my childhood when every God-fearing Baptist woman would dust those hats off and wear them to worship. Was it tradition or Scripture that compelled them? There are groups like the Amish and Mennonites who still require women to cover their heads in worship.
James tells the story of hypocrisy in the early church. In Chapter 2 he recounts the tale of churches that seat the wealthy in seats of prominence, while relegating the poor to the back and the corners. James asks why such a form of discrimination would ever occur in church. Especially disconcerting to James is the fact that they treat the rich with preference, even though these same people oppress them during the week.
Bill Tillman suggested in class in my seminary days that God not only honored the disadvantaged, but perhaps even preferred them. Would it be an exaggeration to say the same of the disadvantaged in worship? Would it be too much to say that we should adapt our traditions to be inclusive; not of those who have the most, but to those who have the least?
What are the arguments raised against such a question? They are simple. They are tradition. We were taught for years that we were to bring our best to worship. This was interpreted as wearing your “Sunday Finest” or your “Sunday Go To Meeting Clothes.”
When the Bible speaks of bringing your best to worship, does it ever mention clothes? In Psalm 24, the question is actually asked, “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord”?
The answer: “He who has clean hands, and a pure heart, and has not lifted his soul unto prideful vanity.” No mention of clothes.
More than that, the Bible says: “God does not look on people the way we do. We look at the outside appearances. God looks at the heart”.
Oftentimes Baptists have ridiculed other faiths about their traditions and liturgies. If you want to see if Baptist liturgy or tradition exists, ask your deacons to serve the elements of the Lord’s Supper barefoot.
The real question for me is twofold and rather simple.
Is our Sunday habit of dress biblical or tradition?
Does our dress create a barrier for people who cannot afford expensive clothes, or even those who can afford more, but that is just not who they are?
If we are serious about reaching the lost, these questions must be answered.
Some of our deacons served shoeless. Others came well-shod. My goal is not to change the way my deacons, or anyone else, dresses in church. I do want to make sure the young man in flip flops and shorts gets as good a seat as the business man in an Italian suit and Gucci loafers.
What would Jesus wear?
Ed Hogan is a public school teacher and ordained Baptist minister who lives in Houston, Texas. He served previously on the EthicsDaily.com / Baptist Center for Ethics board of directors.