09 June 2018

Traditions that Need to Go Out of Style: Church Clothing Legalism

Thankfully, condemnation of others' choices in churchgoing attire is becoming less and less fashionable all the time. But we've still got a long way to go.

One particular Sunday during my college days, I wore dress slacks -- nice ones, I might add -- to church. During the coffee hour, an older gentleman cast a disapproving eye up and down my personage before remarking with no small amount of disdain that in his day, respectable young ladies wouldn't dare be seen wearing pants on the Lord's Day. This aroused my ire and the following Sunday I not only wore pants; I wore jeans. He never spoke to me again after that. The older generation in that church considered the donning of denim in God's house to be the ultimate sacrilege, on par with getting drunk on Communion wine.

There was little doubt that business wear was the default for acceptable church clothing -- not only in that church, but in many others as well. The standard line issued in defense of this principle was: "You should dress as formally to meet God as you would if you were going to meet the President."

And I always thought to myself: What an insult to compare God to the President -- any president! Yet the fans of this dubious analogy seemed to think they were paying God some sort of compliment by equating His glorious, majestic omnipresence to that of an elected politician.

I'd also point out that God sees us all the time -- not only at church, but even when we're... well, engaged in activities we wouldn't want other humans to observe. Besides, when you consider in what state we enter the world, it sort of suggests a different perspective on what kind of clothing -- or lack thereof -- God deems acceptable. (I am not advocating for nudity, in case anyone needs an explicit disclaimer.)

And, well, then there's that whole "Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" thing. You know.

Yet the conservative Christian prejudice against casual clothing, particularly jeans, persists. Nor is it limited to Sunday mornings. When I was in Bible college, for example, we weren't allowed to wear jeans or "T-shirts with writing on them" (i.e., logos) to classes or daily chapel services. Women were allowed to wear pants as long as they weren't made of denim (a big step up from the days when the rule was skirts and dresses only). Khakis and corduroys were okay. Strangely enough, even blue pants that looked like jeans but weren't made of denim were okay. Denim skirts were, of course, a thumbs-up. You might even be able to get away with denim jeans in a non-traditional color, such as black, brown, or white. But blue denim jeans? They were of the devil. They would lead you into sin.

The student services committee told us that the no-jeans rule was in place simply because the senior board of administrators wished it so (and assuredly the wishes of certain wealthy benefactors came into play somewhere). They wanted to project to the world an image of godly young people who dressed respectably. We were training for ministry, after all -- and besides, pastors always wore a suit and tie. Didn't they?

Well, that idea kind of fell by the wayside after several pastors showed up to speak at chapel services wearing jeans. They'd look out at the crowd of students, all clad in their respectable khakis and corduroys, and say: "Why am I the only one wearing jeans here? You people need to get with the times."

Ah, well. And thus we bid adieu to the bygone era of Pastors, Suits & Ties. But all good things must come to an end. As of 2010, students at Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School are permitted to compromise their morals wear blue denim jeans to class. I still don't know where "T-shirts with writing on them" stand, though.

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