Wearing Sunday best and forbidden flip flops

poster showing forbidden attire

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.

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  • I think now I know why the air-con in service is always at full speed and felt so cold =P

    Maybe instead of barring those who dress down, we can offer them jackets at the door =)

  • With Jesus’ sandals, he wore what was appropriately affordable for himself. What can you afford? What are you comfortable in that does not impede worship of God and does not distract others from worshiping God?

    God is to be the focus of our worship. For knowing believers, it behooves them to dress in a way that does not make them the centre of the adoration (or condemnation) of others. For unknowing believers, they can and will be taught by the Holy Spirit as to what is appropriate garb for worship and fellowship.

    Is it about me or is it about God when I go to church to worship God?

  • @Maria, if my dressing is a “distraction” to you, is it my fault or your fault?

    When you go to church to worship God, is it about him or how OTHER people dress????

  • I’ve heard sermons and musings of ministers on this. I find them almost always on the judgmental side of things. But your post showed wisdom in how to approach this. Thanks for this post.

  • We would not have that problem of dress code and people dressing scantily before the fall of man, in the Garden of Eden! There was that perfect relationship between God and created being. There won’t be any prying eyes and lust:)

    While in journey back to that perfect relationship with the Father, grace is the answer ..modesty like what you Paul said 🙂

  • I agree with the parts about dressing modestly. But I guess I’m concerned about where the poor and homeless would go to. They would feel totally out of place in a Church like New Creation or City Harvest and any Methodist Church – and most churches for that matter. They wouldn’t want to come when they see people dressing so well and they feel out of place! So when Churches say that they want us to dress our best to give God our best, I think you have to also think about how the people you want to reach out to (of course, that’s assuming we do wanna reach out to the poor and those who may dress or behave differently from us) would feel. Ultimately, it’s not about what you wear on the outside because that’s not most important to God.

  • Is a dress code for the benefit of God or man? Will God be offended if I dress in singlet and shorts and flip flops to church? I don’t think so; after all, when God created Adam and Eve, He clothed them in honour and glory, nothing else. Now, He has clothed us with the robe of righteousness and I believe this is the only piece of fashion wear He sees.

  • Gentleness, meekness, graciousness, gratitude,joy and love should be the end result of a “transformed Christian” – unfortunately most of us are half baked still trying to justify our own beliefs. At times some church leaders have also tried to influence what constitute acceptable fashion, the tinted Korean hairstyles to MIB to street fashion – even selection of mates. Guess most organizations flip flop between cult and club.

    Surprised that the Catholic Church has not prioritize acceptable moral behavior than it’s emphasis on acceptable dress code.

  • Hi Blogpastor,
    I supposed this is not a new issue but it seems to always poke people the wrong way (especially with youths). You are right that the church has to teach/educate her people on the “whys” of certain dress guidelines instead of a “because the boss says so” rule.(one wonders if the boss meant the Lord or the Senior Pastor).

    Besides the 2 verses you quoted on dressing, i would like to add 1 Cor 10:23-24,31 – “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. 31″So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God”.

    In principle, the 1st thing we ought to consider is really for the good of of others and for the glory for God(which brings to remembrance the great commandment) Bcos when it comes to dressing, our very human nature of asserting our own rights will rear its ugly head. “This is ME. why can’t I dress as MYSELF?” and we forget about others.

    The other thing I often used as an example when teaching the youths is “appropriate dressing for appropriate places/occasion”. e.g. when you go to the swimming pool, what do you wear? (ans:trunks/suit). “Will you wear that and walk in Orchard road?” (ans:no) Why not? (ans:…..) Then explained why there are attire guidelines to follow and that it’s NOT a church thing. We adhere to attire guidelines sub-consciously everywhere (in school, at work, weddings, functions etc)

    And for those visiting(friends/non-believers), you are right we must be gracious and cut them some slack. After some time, the culture/environment/Holy Spirit does influence a person’s dressing(a boy who came with multiple piercings stopped wearing them on his own one day)

    I really hope more churches will understand the good of attire guidelines for the sake of modesty, appropriate dressing, love and honour to God. And that they will be conscious to teach and gracious to accept imperfections.

  • Hi Family,
    After reading Pastor Kenny’s latest blog on CEBU, I think we should not worry too much of what to wear to church. It has brought tears to my eyes….

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