Erasing formalities.

October 19, 2014.

Have you ever been able to associate with the sentiment of “It was really cool to get to know so and so outside of his suit and tie environment?” or even “outside of the Sunday morning” environment? I’m sure theres a more elegant way to put that, but I hope you understand what I’m trying to say. I have said things along these lines from time to time about preachers and elders that I have worked with outside the worship services held three times a week when we have worked together on a project, met to have lunch or even been together on the mission field. It truly can feel like a different relationship outside of our formal clothes, so to speak. I have read some blogs lately and talked to some people about this idea of formality in worship and I am starting to see how it can actually be a detriment to our fellowship. If we are honest, we know that when we say things like the statements above we are implying that we had a better time with the people outside of their formal setting and into a more relaxed and personal setting. Should we not always have this relationship with our spiritual family?

The first place I want to turn to discuss this concept is the obvious example of the early church. If you read passages in Acts and infer relationships from the letters, you can get this overall concept of a truly connected family. Now the early church was well connected for many different reasons and I don’t think there is one reason that stands out as the ultimate “this is why they were so close” answer; however, I do believe that there are some reasons that lie at the top and were absolutely critical for their community and close fellowship. Some of these reasons include (but are not limited to) persecution, a common goal and love, the working of the Holy Spirit, eating together and their close proximity, at least at the onset of establishment of the church. We get a clear picture of the early church’s fellowship at the end of the second chapter of Acts:

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
(Acts 2:42-47)

Yet there is one thing that is present in our congregations today that seems to be absent in the early church: formality. You don’t read of each person putting on their “Sunday best” and traveling to a building to shake hands and smile. You don’t read of any of the formal “how are you?”s just to check off that you ‘visited’ with a brother or sister. You get a picture of a real family that met together daily. A picture of people who were actually members of one another, caring for one another and sacrificing for one another. Let me ask you a question. When you are going home and the only people you are going to see is your family, do you put on your best formal clothes to go see them? Do you step into the house with a firm handshake and a “how are you,” and then move on to another room? Is it formal in any way? Perhaps you indeed do some of these things, but probably not in the formal sense I am referring to. I would also like to point out here that it is not wrong to ask some one how they are doing, I’m referring to the motivation behind the question. If you are doing it because you genuinely want to know how they are doing, by all means ask the question. But often we ask out of formality and then move on to the next person. I just don’t get that sense from reading about the early church. In fact, James is rather blunt about those who enter the assembly with fine clothing:

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?”
(James 2:1-5)

It’s easy to sit back and say “well, we don’t do that today,” or “that’s not why we wear fine clothing now,” but I must ask the question: really? Is it really not the reason, or do we really not judge others for not wearing their “Sunday best” to the assembly on Sunday mornings? Unfortunately, I think an honest evaluation would reveal some truth that we don’t want to hear.

I know that I have been taught for a long time that I should present my best to God on Sunday mornings, with the implication that if I didn’t, I would be in the wrong or irreverent. But after thinking about this on a deeper level, I simply don’t think this line of reasoning holds any water. First and foremost, we should present our best to God every day, not just on Sundays. Does this mean we have to dress up in nice clothes to live our lives in worship daily? No. God is not interested in clothing. His word on clothing is to be modest. If we call clothing presenting our best, then I think we have missed a crucial point in Christianity and have followed the logic of a material world. It is the world that tells us that fine clothing is good, not God. That is why James rebukes those who show partiality to members with fine clothing! That is strictly a worldly concept and has no basis in Scripture.

Secondly, the concept of wearing your best to Sunday morning worship is a relatively new concept, appearing within the last two to three hundred years with the rise of the middle class in America, and when it first appeared, it was strongly opposed by many Christian leaders. Yet America’s focus on materialism overcame the strained voices of those leaders and wearing fine clothes to be “reverent” became the norm among middle class Christians. Now it is often seen as almost a doctrinal issue of having to present your best. Deep down, it is all based on how other’s view us and our appearance to our congregation. If I wear a suit and tie to service ever Sunday, that must mean I’m a good Christian, right?

In addition to this, there are passages that actually lend themselves away from dressing up for matter of appearance. These are passages that are often conveniently ignored for the sake of sparing our consciouses. I am fully including myself in that statement. I said earlier that God’s word on clothing is modesty, but there is even more to that statement. In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he instructs him how women of the church should adorn themselves:

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling;likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.”
(I Timothy 2:8-10)

Now is Paul saying that if you braid your hair, you’re going to hell? Of course not. But he is saying that we are not to put on lavish adornments or costly attire as a matter of appearance to others or to get attention and praise from others. This goes against some of the key points of Christianity, namely humility. Peter makes a similar statement in his letter:

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands,as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.”
(I Peter 3:1-6)

We look at these verses and often say, “well, he wasn’t actually talking about what you wear, but why you wear it,” and then dismiss them quickly. There is some truth to that statement, but when we dismiss it outright we are exactly the people to whom Peter is addressing. We say he didn’t mean that so I can wear things that make me look good or presentable, yet I believe that this is almost exactly what he is talking about. Notice what is important to God: not the outward appearance, but the hidden person of the heart with imperishable beauty or a gentle and quiet spirit. Peter says this is what is very precious to God. Should we not think along the same lines?

Before I go on, I would like to say that I am not condemning anyone for dressing up on Sunday mornings. I wear clothes that I consider to be very formal that I would not wear on a normal day just like most people. It is not wrong to dress up, but it is wrong to dress up for the wrong reasons. And even if we not dressing up for these reasons, I think we need to consider a few ways that it might actually hinder our congregation if we dress so formally all the time.

The first problem with dressing in a formal manner is the root of what James was talking about in the passage above: it excludes those who cannot afford such clothing. I know we kinda brush over that with a “I know, I know, but we don’t really have to worry about that because no one feels excluded or we can help them get some better clothes,” but I think we are missing something when we do this. We are missing the fact that there are many, many people who do not assemble with us because they feel excluded. The reason we don’t think this happens is because they would never tell us that. In college, believe it or not, there were more students on a typical Wednesday night service than on Sunday morning. Why? Well there are different reasons, but one of those reasons is because the Wednesday night service is typically more casual and has a more laid back atmosphere. People were more comfortable being there.

Brothers and sisters, this is what we should strive for all the time, even on Sunday mornings. We are more comfortable with our families because formalities go out the window. Maybe not all formalities, but all of the ones that would be present in a formal setting in the world. But the church is our spiritual family! We should be comfortable around them as well. I am convinced that one of the biggest reasons we are not close to our spiritual family is because we have turned the “worship service” into a formal gathering out of what we deem as “reverence.” But is this reverence in God’s eyes? Now, I am not advocating for disorder and chaos, for Paul says we are to be orderly in our gathering, but I know from experience that you can be orderly without being formal. And when this happens, so much more of a sense of community and fellowship emerges.

What did Jesus say about the matter? To begin, we must look at the example of His life and how He conducted Himself in public. Did He set Himself up as some formal ruler? No. Did He only associate with the upper class? Absolutely not. Did He ever say that you must look ‘presentable’ before you come to Him? I think you get the point. Upon multiple occasions in Scripture does Jesus refer to children and how we are to use them as a model if we are to enter the kingdom. When His disciples were arguing over who was the greatest, Jesus teaches thusly:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 18:1-5)

Mark records a similar teaching:

And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
(Mark 10:13-15)

How do we receive the kingdom of God like a child? Are children formal? Do they make distinctions among people? Are the prideful? Children typically will love just about anyone (at least after being with them for a while). When you interact with children it is different than interacting with adults. There is no formality. There is usually only love and excitement. Jesus compares the kingdom of God to being like children! There are a lot of things that we can learn from children.

So, is it wrong to dress up? Well, yes and no. Clothing is amoral, neither right or wrong in and of itself, but it can be used both for right and wrong. It is how we use it that determines whether dressing up is right or wrong. I do think we should consider the detriments that formal clothing (and formalities in general) can have to our congregation, especially with our guests and visitors. Many people do not feel welcome in church, and that is even before they go, often because the world has a concept of church goers in their formal clothing ready to condemn anyone that is below their moral standing. We have to take at least some, if not a good majority, of the blame for this. We gave ourself this image of “holier than thou,” and formality only makes it worse. I know that this is not our intention, trust me, but it can very well be a by product without us even knowing it. We need to band together and grow closer to one another. One of the first steps to doing this in my opinion is by erasing formalities. Then we can start pursuing one another in love.

We are a family. It’s about time we start acting like one.

Suggested Daily Reading: Mark 10, I Corinthians 6, I Peter 3, James 2.

Let all be done for the building up of one another.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Renee Harrington says:

    I understand what you are saying. It is, however, humorous to me because when I was younger, what a lot of people wear today would be considered more casual. 🙂

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