I try not to live in an echo chamber. That is, I try to listen to a diversity of beliefs—even and especially those I disagree with. But despite my best efforts, I seem to have been blithely unaware of the persistence of one issue. I thought it had died unceremoniously, but the past few weeks have shown that this “controversial” topic is as fervent as ever. That is church dress. Quite recently, I’ve seen an uptick in postings among individuals and in groups about the “proper church attire” for Divine Worship. It’s not that I believed no one cared at all, but I thought it stopped being a raging debate that had gone the way of the dodo and the argument about whether having song lyrics on screens is less holy than just using hymnals (For all I know, this too may still have underground pockets of contention). I believed we had all reached the understanding that what you wear to church isn’t nearly as important as worshipping God in the fellowship of believers. Come as you are—just come! Silly me.
Even if you still put a premium on what you wear (for whatever the reason, and I’ve heard it all, including comparing Jesus to Queen Elizabeth, comparing the church building to the White House, and comparing church attire to the widow’s mite), one would think the singular thing we would all be able to agree on is that church clothes are not as important as your salvation. A colleague wrote a social media post stating this fact, and you would have thought he had stated that Judas was a very fine person! Debate ensued where people were unwilling to concede even that basic point. Some went so far as to argue that clothes were a signal of virtue and only those yet to be truly converted would dress below a certain standard (who the bearer of this standard is is still a mystery). There’s nothing biblical (neither explicitly stated nor implied) that would lead one to such conclusions. In fact, quite the opposite. Samuel mistakenly believed David’s older brothers to be “king material” because of their outward appearance until the Lord reminded him that, unlike man, God looks at the heart.
I wouldn’t have been too concerned if my friend’s social media thread had been a “one off.” But I saw the issue crop up in various Adventist discussion groups and even in a forum with ministers. Maybe there is a cycle where, every so often, the issue dies down only to become a “hot button” topic again some time later. Or maybe the issue has always been lurking and I’ve been paying attention to other things. But one thing is for sure, we need to get over our preoccupation with keeping up appearances. And I don’t just mean physical attributes.
We as a church ought to be a welcome respite from a society that values keeping up with the Joneses (or Kardashians). Yet we fall into the same traps. Of course, tearing ourselves away from this detrimental habit is easier said than done. After all, this isn’t just a 21st century problem; it was a 1st century problem, too! Ananias and Sapphira should have been a cautionary tale against prioritizing the need to impress others. Yet we continue this pattern to our own detriment. While it can be tempting to dismiss their story in Acts 5 as a bit of an outlier in terms of consequences, I beg to differ. Even today people are literally dying because of their need to live a life of façade.
We recently found out about designer Kate Spade’s tragic suicide. One of her sisters disclosed to news sources that her death was devastating but somewhat unsurprising. According to her sister, Kate struggled with some form of a mood disorder for several years. On multiple occasions, Kate’s sister had urged her to get treatment at a residential mental health facility. Several times she was almost successful. Almost. They would get to the point of Kate having her bags packed when she was overtaken by the dread of what other people might think. Deterred by this, Kate never got the help she so desperately needed . . . help that could’ve saved her life. Our congregations are full of Kates who are dealing with depression, anxiety, psychosis, abuse, and a host of other issues while they smile brightly in beautiful, fashionable clothes.
We may think that such situations around mental illness or abuse are totally unrelated to judgment about dress, but it is all part and parcel of a mindset that permeates our church. We have created an expectation that appearance is tantamount. I guarantee that if you take an informal poll of people you know who no longer attend church, you’ll find a large portion of them stay away for fear of being judged. It may be about their clothes, their present circumstances, their illnesses . . . whatever. That’s why so many of our sanctuaries are only fractionally full. We should be eager to have folks fill our pews, not drive them away! We have to create atmospheres where people who come don’t feel pressured to meet some arbitrary standard of perfection that we have set. People shouldn’t feel compelled to pretty up their wardrobe or their lives to our satisfaction prior to coming to church.
Any time we put out the clarion call for people to simply “come as you are,” inevitably someone feels the urge to add “but.” “But don’t stay as you are!” or “but make sure you’re still doing your best!” or some other qualifying phrase. I implore you to suppress that urge. Just like we don’t set standards for appearance, we don’t set Divine timetables for change. Let’s beckon people to simply “come.” Come as you are—just come!
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is a clinical psychologist and ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/authors/courtney-ray
Image Credit: Unsplash.com
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