Enforcing dress codes in church
The arresting subtitle of the Sunday Times article by Elizabeth Soh (Feb 6, 2011) read: “Catholic churches are enforcing dress codes, as more turn up in inappropriate attire”. Such inappropriate attire included shorts and flip flops; attire that exposed the entire shoulder, chest, back or thighs; low rise jeans and T shirts with loud graphics or rude slogans. A church even had a poster showing prohibited forms of dressing for parishioners, except that there was no FINE. It had even recruited “hospitality ministers”, an euphemism for fashion police. Some inappropriately attired parishioners may have been denied entry and barred from taking holy communion.
Church members’ attire often reflect what is popular and acceptable in society. People dress down and love casual nowadays. The preferred university dress is casual tops, shorts and flip flops. We see young people wearing that in church too. Executives want a break from having to be dressed smartly during weekends. Society has also made ‘more skin’ equivalent to more attractive and more fashionable. With the triumphant upliftt of bra design, even petite Chinese women have been emboldened to show more skin. Any priest serving at the communion rails would have to pray, “Lord lead me not into temptation” more often than a decade ago!
The rationale behind churches enforcing dress code
What were the reasons for this push for decent dressing in the Catholic Church? In recent years the parishioners dressing have “got to a point where people were wearing tube tops with shorts barely covering their bottoms”. Priestly prudishness? No. The priests generally feel that parishioners should “dress with reverence, to show respect”. There is an obligation to revere the Eucharist. The Archbishop’s office told the Straits Times: “Many Catholic churches in Singapore, and throughout the world, post guidelines on the type of dress that is considered ‘proper’. Dressing in one’s ‘Sunday best’ has historically been the protocol for attending Holy Mass.” Another priest wrote to 10,000 parishioners: “When others look at the church, they learn something about us as Catholics. This would mean to dress appropriately and to be covered sufficiently.” The young ones are the main target and they feel it but are not convinced: “We are taught that God loves us no matter what we are, so why should the church discriminate against our attire?”
The truth about attire
Does the Bible have anything to say about how Christians should dress themselves and why? And if a faith community wants to disciple people in the practical area of dressing how can it be done wisely and graciously? There are two passages that can be cited about dressing in the letters of Paul and Peter. The first is about dressing for women in worship gatherings, the other about the essence of true feminine beauty.
1 Timothy 3:9,10: I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
1 Peter 3:3,4: Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.
What’s the point?
From the pen of the foremost apostle of grace come the golden guidelines: modesty; decency; and propriety. From Peter’s mouth: clothe yourselves with unfading, instead of temporal beauty. Both emphasized that outward beauty and refinements like “elaborate hairstyles, gold or pearls or expensive clothes” must not detract from the inward beauty and character of the Christian that the Lord of grace had handcrafted. To my mind, the attire is just the frame, the character is the masterpiece portrait. In God’s eyes, our outward adornment must not detract from the showpiece of the brushstrokes of His finished work. The inner beauty must stand out, take the spotlight, so that Christ is exalted and praised by believers and unbelievers, and the grace of God is displayed and magnified. The frame should enhance, direct the eyes of onlookers to the masterpiece, and cause them to praise the Master Artist.
If wearing Sunday best means wearing the best suit of clothing I have, I am not for it. Its too burdensome. Honoring God, respecting others, protecting the brothers in the church from unnecessary temptation may all be good reasons but they gain significance when viewed in the light of the understanding that we Christians are partnering with the Holy Spirit to glorify, magnify Christ in our lives.
How the discipling community does it
We certainly can teach guiding principles just as the ultimate preacher of grace did: modesty, decency and propriety. Imparting an understanding of the whys and imparting the motivation of gratitude is better than having explicit detailed dress code. Guided group discussions about this topic in the cells is good way of learning God’s way- if there are to be community agreement let it come from the community through collaborative learning informed by biblical understanding. Discussing together and teaching people to prayerfully judge for themselves is much more respectful of how God works to transform individuals. It is a better path to maturity than legislation and imposition from above. Such imposition only increases anger, frustration, transgressors, hypocrisy, self righteousness, guilt and pride. We want to avoid judging one another, gossiping, and nit picking at whether the skirt should not be allowed one or two or three inches above the knee. We do not want Christianity to be mistaken as another religion with all its detailed rules and regulations to be kept to be accepted by God. When there is strong community life, we can lovingly and tactfully show individuals in need of specific application and instruction, the way of Christ. This may actually be a wonderful learning opportunity for the discipling community: a time of collaborative learning as a body.
Different levels of understanding and personal growth
Grace would make room for different levels of understanding and different contexts. We shouldn’t bar anyone who dresses otherwise, for we are all walking with the Lord at different pace, and are at different milestones on this faith journey. A church that often receives beach tourists would be mad to ban flip flops. Of course there will be some different specifics in different context. In Myanmar the pastors wear flip flops – if you wear something else, you’re not following the unwritten rule!
Spiritual offering of our life
When Christians know how much God loves them and what he has done for them they will be grateful enough to want to glorify Christ, whether at church, at work or at play or at school. Attire is a part of the total spiritual sacrifice we offer to the Lord as priests. The motivation has to be a grateful heart.
Here is a list from the article of three different dress codes of three Singapore Catholic churches just for information and discussion:
Church of our Lady Star of the Sea: inappropriate dressing includes camisoles, halter tops or translucent tank tops, miniskirts or shorts, bermudas worn with flip fops, men’s tank-top sports wear, low-rise jeans, T shirts with loud graphics or rude slogans.
Church of St Anthony: No attire made of spandex or translucent material; no attire exposing the entire shoulder, chest, back or thights; no attire promoting violence or vices such as drugs and alcohol; no sportswear or flip-flops.
Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour: For women, please wear: blouses or dresses with sleeves, trousers and skirts of a decent length; spaghetti-strap tops or tank-tops should be worn with a cardigan, a shawl or a jacket. For men, please wear: Shirts with sleeves, T-shirts paired with trousers and shoes.