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Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in Banner's Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.

Column: Resident Aliens by Mark Johnston

Just as I am, without one Suit

April 24, 2015 •

I came across one of those stories recently that are funny, but true. It was in a church on the island of Lewis in the Scottish Hebrides – probably the last place in the British Isles that still feels the lingering afterglow of a spiritual awakening that took place over half a century ago. Some who experienced what happened then are still alive and the culture on the island is still shaped to a degree by the impact it made.

The story concerned a young man who was from a non-church background who heard the gospel and came to faith. Almost immediately he began attending a local congregation and did so regularly for about three months. After that time his minister noticed he was no longer coming to church, so went to ask why he had stopped. The young man told him, ‘Minister, I haven’t got a suit’. ‘But, Michael’ the minister replied, ‘you had a suit these past three months!’ To which the young man answered, ‘That wasn’t my suit, it was my friend’s and he’s just become a Christian, so he needs it now!’

The story came to mind a few weeks ago when I was speaking at a Youth Conference and the topic of dress code for Christian gatherings came up in discussion. The fact it came up at all was interesting, given that it has become a virtual non-question in many Christian circles these days. If anything people tend to dress down for church, rather than dress up in a way that was the norm for a previous generation. But does it really matter?

In a very real sense it doesn’t. The Bible makes it clear that God is less concerned about outward appearance than the inward state of a person’s heart (1Sa 16.7). On top of that, for an older generation – especially for women – the effect of their dress code for worship was to do the opposite of what it was supposed to achieve. Instead of drawing attention to God and the honour of being in his presence, it ended up drawing attention to them themselves and their own sartorial elegance.

Of course, that was never their overt intention. Indeed, if they were seeking to justify their wardrobe protocols for Sunday worship, they would have pointed to God’s instruction to the Israelites at the foot of Mt Sinai when he said, ‘Make them wash their clothes’ in readiness for when he would come down on the mountain on the third day (Ex 19.10-11). Presumably the exigencies of wilderness wanderings for a rag-tag band of erstwhile slaves meant the very notion of possessing ‘Sabbath best’ clothes was little more than a dream. So washing the best that they had was the best they could do. But the point was clear. Meeting with God implied the need to do so in a manner that showed due reverence and readiness for such a solemn encounter.

The fashion trends in what Christians wear to church have altered radically in the space of two decades or less. In part it has been by way of reaction to what was deemed by some as the outward display of going to meet with God (which sometimes sought to cover a multitude of sins.) But it was also a function of the wider cultural trends that have engulfed Western nations. Even Presidents and Prime Ministers are now quite content to dress down in their public life.

So, again, it raises the question, ‘Does it really matter?’ I think the Bible’s answer to that would be both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. ‘No’ in the sense that there is no theology of dress code for worship in the Bible. Even in biblical times the sheer diversity of regional fashions would have been reflected in local congregations. And what was acceptable in one culture may well have raised eyebrows among worshippers from another.

That is very much the case today with the clash of cultures that takes place in all kinds of ways in our multicultural world. In fact there is a very real sense in which being able to go along to a church service and be met with a kaleidoscope of colour and variety in how the congregation is dressed is a little foretaste of heaven and a reminder of the rich variety among the redeemed who will be there.

There is, however, another sense in which the Bible if not saying an outright ‘Yes, it does matter’, would at least say, ‘It depends’. It depends on what kind of statement we make by the way we dress. Because despite wanting to give the impression ‘How we dress doesn’t matter’, ever since blue jeans became the de rigeur uniform of the younger [and now middle-aged] generation, the reality could not be more different.

The post-1960’s generations have been the ultimate nonconformists. Not just in their taste in clothing, but at all kinds of levels they have made it clear they will not be squeezed into someone else’s mould. So, if how we choose to dress for worship is designed to send the subliminal signal, ‘I’ll do it my way’, then there is a problem and God may well be more concerned about it than we imagine. Because at that point, while the issue of what we are wearing is neither here nor there, it is a symptom of something deeper that needs to be dealt with.

I never did hear what the lad from Lewis ended up doing over his suit problem. Perhaps he had to emigrate to Glasgow to find a church. But it still makes me smile as it reminds me of how we can tie ourselves in knots as Christians over things that an older generation of believers labelled adiaphora. Let the words of the Apostle Paul be our guide regardless of what our dress code may be: ‘And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him’ (Col 3.17).

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