Is It Necessary To Dress Up To Go To Church? Where Does Our Seventh-Day Adventist Understanding Of Dress Codes Come From?
There is no clear answer regarding what we are to do concerning dress codes in church. Naturally, some church members wish for a Bible text that clearly states whether they should or should not dress up to go to church. But unfortunately, we need to accept the fact that some issues/problems facing the church today were of no concern to the writers of Scripture. Ellen G. White would agree since, for her, “the dress question is not to be our present truth.”1
That being the case, let’s try to understand where our dress code tradition came from. But first, let’s at least partially deconstruct each assumption we might bring to the issue. Where do we get the idea that we need to dress up to go to church? There are many possibilities, but I want to focus on at least two that I believe are quite influential:
1. The Ellen G. White writings argument. We must remember that the writings of Ellen G. White are not exempt from interpretation since, at one point, she advises people not to purchase bicycles.2 Think about her words on the need for common sense: “My mind has been greatly stirred with the idea, ‘Why, Sister White has said so and so, and Sister White has said so and so; and therefore we are going right up to it.’ God wants us all to have common sense, and he wants us to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relations of things.”3
The contextual background and circumstances of her writings are crucial! For some, part of the “formal-dresscode-in-church” mindset does not come primarily from a conception of the sacredness of the church space but from some of Mrs. White’s writings. In her day, people commonly worked on farms and did heavy manual labor during the week. To differentiate their time/dress in church from the time/dress of these common and secular activities, people would dress up to show that the seventh day was different from the other days of regular labor. This idea is found in quotations such as this:
“All who meet upon the Sabbath to worship God should, if possible, have neat, well-fitting, comely garments to wear in the house of worship. It is a dishonor to the Sabbath, to God, and to his house, for those who profess to believe that the Sabbath is the holy of the Lord, and honorable, to wear upon that day the soiled clothing which they have worn through the labors of the week, if they can obtain anything more suitable.”4
Interestingly, this practice has some Jewish roots. The weekly kabalat Shabbat (the receiving of the Sabbath) is ideally marked in each Jewish household as family members dress up to receive the Sabbath. So there is an element of respect for the day that leads people to dress formally. And this conception is not bad. But it must be counterbalanced with texts such as this:
“On Sunday many popular churches appear more like a theater than like a place for the worship of God. Every fashionable dress is displayed there. Many of the poor have not courage to enter such houses of worship. Their plain dress, though it may be neat, is in marked contrast with that of their more wealthy sisters, and this difference causes them to feel embarrassed.”5
So, based on these preliminary thoughts, it is safe to say that part of the formal dress-code mindset stems from a narrow view of some of Ellen G. White’s writings. If we take time to read her insights on this issue, the key word that surfaces again and again is simplicity.
2. The church/sanctuary argument. Along with the issue of formal dress codes, many other practical issues that the church struggles with also stem from a misconception of what the church is. Why is this so? Because the assumption in many churches is that today’s church is the modernday equivalent of the Old Testament sanctuary. Even the architecture of most churches around the world reflects this idea. Whether we realize it or not, the architecture of our churches expresses a way of thinking; that is, a church building says a lot about our conception of what ministry and mission are by the way it is set up. Think about this! The majority of our churches have a common area (pews), a holy place (pulpit/platform), and a most holy place (pulpit/ baptismal tank). This sanctuary structure is also seen with some variation in Protestant and Catholic churches and especially in Greek-Orthodox churches.
The church/sanctuary mindset not only impacts the architecture of our church but also informs part of how many church actions occur: church discipline (the sinner is excluded/cut off from the courts of the temple/church); music (we use texts that talk about temple music in the Old Testament to support what music is appropriate for the church); and other activities I could mention that reflect this idea.
Although church discipline and appropriate music are important ecclesiological elements, our mindset in going about these activities can be affected by thinking that the church is a sanctuary. For example, instead of viewing church discipline as a brutal/divisive practice (which follows the church/sanctuary mindset of cutting off and sending away), we should view it as the redemptive activity the Bible intends it to be.
The formal dress-code mindset could fall under the same misconception of church/sanctuary. The rationale is: We are going to church/sanctuary, and our “external” appearance must conform to the fact that we are going to God’s house.
This church/sanctuary mindset is problematic on many levels. We need to understand that today’s church is not equivalent to the Old Testament sanctuary. The church is not a modification of the synagogue. The church today is not even a proper reflection of the New Testament ekklesia (where the church was tied to the reality of its members and not to a particular place). Jesus Himself shifted His attention from sacred space to a sacred attitude when He spoke to the Samaritan woman in John 4. Jesus said that the day would come when common geographical markers would be irrelevant! What matters is our attitude, and true worship is marked in spirit and in truth. A new attitude, a new geography. This does not mean we should not gather in a building, but it highlights an important question: Is there a difference between how we meet God in church and how we meet Him during the week? If there is no difference, then the argument that we dress because we are meeting the Almighty God in His house collapses. Once we think of divine presence being tied to a particular building, we are thinking within the lines of what the Samaritan woman was thinking: that worship and God were tied to a place (the basis of Catholic ecclesiology and mission). We must not go back to a form of worship that Jesus Himself undid.
So why do we have formal dress codes in church worship today? I’ve explored two possibilities, but there are many more. This response was not written as an answer to this question; it was written to further clarify the complexity of the question itself and to provide talking points for dialogue in your local church.
1 Ellen G. White, Manuscript 167, 1897.
2 ———, Testimonies to Ministers, 398.
3 ———, Selected Messages, 215, 217.
4 ———, Christian Temperance and Bible Hygiene, 86.
5 Ibid., 85.
This question was answered by Tiago Arrais. He is a PhD candidate at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.