(This is a guest post by Tiago Arrais. He is currently finishing his PhD in Old Testament from Andrews University. After this post about JaRule going to church received so many comments, I asked him to give a response. While every denomination has had debates on this issue, this response takes into account issues and history directly related to the Seventh-day Adventist Church)
The question I want to address in this post is: where do conceptions of formal dress-codes in church come from?
This post is a reflection upon some of the reactions that came from an earlier post in this blog about the relevance of dress-codes in the church. I have found that there are at least two positions concerning this issue:
A. Those who understand that formal dress-codes are necessary to maintain a level of reverence, of respect, to the God that we as a church worship together and to represent Him well by the way we dress to the world.
B. Those that understand that in order for the church to be a place that welcomes all, it must not create any barriers (such as formal dress-codes) that would hinder anyone from entering through its doors.
Before I begin my ramblings here I must say that I do not believe there is one clear answer concerning what we are to do concerning dress-codes. This is naturally what people would like. But, unfortunately, we need to embrace the fact that some issues/problems we have today are of no concern to the writers of Scripture. These issues are sort of a holy version of the “first world problems” we have today. Example: we get “upset” when our phone battery dies while we are sending an email. You get the picture.
So, let us think about the ontology of formal dress-codes! And by ontology here I mean, breaking down what makes our conceptions of formal church-dress codes what they are. What are the assumptions that govern our behavior? Because whether we want it or not, our church behavior is not a thing in itself—it stems from thinking. We behave in a particular way, because we think in a particular way (quite Cartesian of us)!
I believe the first step to answer these questions, at least partially, is to deconstruct each assumption we might bring into 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. The first deals with a problem particularly present in my denominational community (the Seventh-day Adventist church), while the second might apply to all Christian denominations. In case you have no interest in reading some of the Seventh-day Adventist assumptions behind this issue, jump to reason #2!
Reason #1: The Ellen G. White Writings Argument
The Adventist church maintains a healthy relationship between Scripture and the writings of Ellen White, one of the founders of the Adventist denomination. When it comes to issues of praxis, her writings have often been found quite influential. Yet, we need to keep in mind that the writings of EGW are not exempt from interpretation since at one point she advises not to purchase bicycles (see TM, 398). Think about these 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” (Selected Messages, 215, 217).
The contextual background, the circumstances of her writings are crucial! For some, part of the “formal dress-code in church” mindset does not primarily come from a conception of sacred space but from some of EGW’s writings. Writings that are set in a rural background where people commonly worked in farms and in heavy manual labor throughout the week. To differentiate their time/dress in church from the time/dress of these common and secular places they would dress up to show the differentiation of the 7th day from the other days of regular labor. This idea is found in quotes 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” (CTBH 86).
Interestingly, there are some Jewish roots to this practice. The weekly kabalat shabbat (the receiving of the sabbath) is ideally marked in each Jewish household by their dressing 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 quotes 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” (CTBH 85).
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 EGW and her writings. If we take time to read her insights on this issue the key word that surfaces over and over again is: simplicity. In sum, a call for common sense in the usage of EGW’s writings is imperative.
Reason #2: The Church/Sanctuary Argument
Being from South America, I know from experience, that along with the issue of formal dress-codes, MANY other practical issues the church struggles with also stem from a misconception of what the church is.
Why is this so?
Because the assumption in many churches in South America (as well as in North America), is that the church is the modern-day equivalent of the Old Testament Sanctuary. Even the architecture of the majority of the churches around the world reflects this idea. Whether we realize it or not, the architecture of our churches express thinking, that is, a church building tells a lot about our conception of what ministry and mission is 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). When I was a kid, deacons would pull my ear if I ever played/ran in the pulpit area (because in their mind that area represented holy space!). This sanctuary structure is also seen with variations in protestant churches, catholic churches, and particularly in greek-orthodox churches.
*A note on architecture – it is very hard not to dress up when our church buildings look the way they do. To be underdressed at PMC (my local church) would draw the attention of people, not because people don’t like it, but because the underdressed would be in disharmony with the building itself! Now, I’ve heard of churches that are built like warehouses–worship takes place there on the weekends, but during the week the “church/warehouse” serves as a shelter for the homeless, and as food-banks for the hungry, etc. Formal dress would definitely stand out in such context. The question here is: what does your church building communicate in regards to the mission it is engaged in? What is the focus? Pews that cannot be moved facing the front of the church show the importance of the message/preaching, of baptism, but is this all the church is about? Food for thought.
Back to our discussion.
The mindset of the church/sanctuary does not only impact the architecture of our church but it also informs part of how many church actions occur. For example: church discipline (the sinner is to be excluded/cut off from the courts of the temple/church), music (we use texts that talk about temple music in the OT to support what is appropriate music for the church), and there are other activities I could mention that reflect this idea.
I’m not advocating here that church discipline and appropriate music are not important elements– Biblically they are– I’m only saying that our frame of mind in going about these activities can be off by thinking the church is a sanctuary. A simple example of this reality is making church discipline a practice that is brutal/divisive (church/sanctuary mindset: cutting off and sending away) rather than a redemptive activity as the Bible intends it to be.
The formal dress-code mindset could fall under this same misconception of church/sanctuary. The rationale is: we are going to church/sanctuary and our “external” appearance must be in conformity with the fact that we are going to God’s house. Although many who are in favor of formal dress-codes in North American churches today might not think in these terms, I have observed this rationale as the basis for these practices, not only in America, but in other countries as well.
This church/sanctuary mindset is highly problematic on many levels. The first one being that the church is not the equivalent to the OT sanctuary. The church is not a modification of the synagogue. The church today, although we wished it would be, 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 the attention from sacred space to sacred attitude when he spoke to the Samaritan woman in John 4. Jesus said that the hour would come where the common geographical markers would be irrelevant! But the new thing would be true attitude, true worship marked by spirit and truth: a new attitude, a new geography. And I’m not going to break down what this means here… but its effect on the church/sanctuary conception is significant. It does not mean we should not gather in a building, but it does bring to light an important question we need to ask ourselves: is there a difference between the way we meet God in church and the way we meet Him throughout the week when we are in our jeans and pajamas? If there is no difference, than the argument that we dress because we are meeting the Almighty God in His house falls to the ground. And I’m not advocating pajama worship (common sense!), but we need to undo our idea that in church we meet God differently than when we prayerfully seek Him in the Word in our home, office, etc. Once we think of Divine presence tied to a particular building, we are thinking within the lines of what the Samaritan woman was thinking – worship/God 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. And please don’t think of Matthew 18:20 to contest what I am saying here (for where two or three are gathered)… Matthew 18:20 is a text about church discipline, not church worship.
The fascinating thing I’ve discovered in visiting our churches around the world is that we normally don’t think about Divine presence. We only assume it. And because we don’t think about it, our behavior ends up reflecting a mixture of conceptions that we have difficulty justifying or finding their origin.
So why do we have formal dress-codes in church worship today? I’ve explored two possibilities but there are many more. This post was not written as an answer to these questions, but it was written to further clarify the complexity of the question itself, and to provide more talking points for dialogue.
So let the dialogue begin!
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[image by mudpig]