It’s a question that has cropped up time and time again since the modern church has formed, and I’m sure is asked in many different cultures across the world.
Randy Alcorn attempts to answer it here:
I’ve been asked, Do you think that how you dress is important when you attend church? Isn’t that part of showing respect for the things of the Lord?
I think showing respect to the Lord involves different things for different people in different places. Dress is cultural. Some in jeans and t-shirts are wholly focused on the Lord, lost in worship and adoration. Some in suits and ties can sit there in anger, lust, and indifference to the Lord (just like some of those in jeans are no doubt doing, but I doubt they are doing them more).
I’m not sure there’s any dependable relationship between the quality of attire and the heart’s focus on the Lord. I know there isn’t for me—when I’m dressed up, doing a wedding or attending a memorial service, I don’t feel closer to God or more honoring to Him. I just feel like I want to get home and change. But for those who are showing more respect for God by dressing up, they are right to pay attention to that and do what prompts them most to honor Christ.
For those who are making a statement of respect for God, I think it’s great. For those who are saying, I love a God who looks at my heart not my clothing, I think that’s great too. Everybody should be convinced in his own mind. For me, my best times with God are when I’m wearing an old t-shirt and jeans and slippers, haven’t shaved, am drinking coffee, etc. I don’t feel even slightly disrespectful. Some people feel when they’re with others they have to look different before God. Maybe it goes back to the “house of the Lord” idea, but while I love worship and rich fellowship, I have never seen a church building as part of making me closer to God. If we gather at a park and worship God I tend to feel closer to Him than in a building.
Those of us who didn’t grow up in church sometimes view it differently too. I grew up in the home of a tavern owner. We didn’t dress up for anything. I came to Christ as a teenager in 1969 in a church where most of the adults dressed up, but most of the teenagers dressed casually, and the guys like me had long windblown hair too—my sideburns were a sight to behold. To have grown up in my part of Oregon, AND in a blue collar home AND in an unbelieving home where my first church experience was as a teenager, has no doubt influenced my views and habits. Just as to grow up in a church in Philadelphia, where some pastors I know wear suits and ties to staff retreats, has influenced others.
Where I live, to show up at a friend’s home in shorts and flip-flops is simply to be at ease with them and not put on airs. For most people here in Oregon, dressing up to go to a friend’s house would be really awkward. You take off your nicest clothes that you may have worn to work, then change into your most comfortable ones. To most people here dressing up is becoming uncomfortable. Rather than stay late to hang out with your friends you want to get home where you can change and get comfortable. If you want to spend a long evening together, or want to hang out late at church and have coffee, you dress more casually.
Here, dressing down is relaxing, something you do when you want to stay and hang out and have fun and enjoy each other and the Lord. Dressing up is widely viewed not as showing respect but showing off. It comes across as an attempt to impress others by looking nicer than they do. I speak to a lot of younger audiences, and when I speak at younger churches I always speak in jeans and an untucked casual shirt, but when I go to more traditional churches I dress up more, though I don’t wear a tie unless I’m asked to. 🙂
Personally, I never assume people are showing off or flaunting wealth, I know some just like to dress up. That’s great for them. But I’m thankful that those of us wired differently have the freedom to be casual. And what I REALLY love is when people who love to dress up and people who love to dress casually can do so together with full respect for God and each other.