Eight years of pastoral ministry have generated countless conversations about dress—men’s dress, women’s dress, dress for worship, dress for camps, dress for jumping on trampolines in mixed company, and much more. To be honest, I’m never totally comfortable having those chats. So, with lingering uncertainties in mind, I thought I’d bust out an article on clothing.
Or so I thought. You see, sometimes ideas get away from us. The information explodes in a thousand unpredicted directions. And before we know it, the complexities overwhelm any sense of straightforward organization.
Such is the case with dress. The deluge of Bible information is so far-reaching in its implications, so counter-intuitive in its expression, and so profound in its theology, that any honest discussion must go far beyond our word limit for a single article.
So, before embarking on a multi-post theme, let’s establish three biblical pillars that will inform just about everything clothes-related for the born-again Christian.
1. God Cares About Clothing.
At first blush, clothing seems a human invention. Adam, after all, is the first person to sew (Gen. 3:7). But Adam didn’t make clothing, per se, he simply fashioned a covering for newfound nakedness. God, on the other hand, clothes man with skin and flesh (Job 10:11) and clothes the fields with flowers (Matt. 6:30). Either way, God was a whole lot better at making clothes for Adam than Adam was (Gen. 3:21).
Furthermore, God is comprehensive in His apparel choices. When it came to Israel, God commissioned specific outfits for priestly attire (Ex. 39), prohibited the use of blended fabric (Lev. 19:19), demanded gender-specific fashion (Deut. 22:5), and specified decorative details like tassels (Deut. 22:12). Beyond regulations, God delights when His people match their emotions with their appearance: beautiful garments communicate joy (Is. 52:1), sackcloth signifies repentance (Jer. 4:8), tearing one’s clothes symbolizes despair (2 Sam 1:11), and removing one’s shoes connotes sacredness of the highest order (Ex. 3:5).
Here we encounter an inescapable conclusion: God cares about what we wear, because . . .
2. Clothing Communicates.
Joseph’s coat communicated favored status (Gen. 37:3), John’s camel-hair denoted blood-earnest sincerity (Matt. 5:4), and widows commonly displayed their status with unique apparel (Deut. 24:17). God Himself, in fact, communicates through clothing. He displays utter sovereignty with a train that fills the heavenly temple (Is. 6:1), radiates blinding purity with clothing white-as-snow (Dan. 7:9), and dawns military robes as the Rider on the white horse to judge the nations (Rev. 19:16).
Biblical writers assume that rich people wear rich clothes (Luke 16:19), poor people wear poor clothes (James 2:2), kings wear kingly clothes (1 Kings 22:10), priests wear priestly clothes (Ex. 28:4), prostitutes wear prostitute-ish clothes (Prov. 7:10), and preachers should avoid having too many clothes (Luke 9:3).
And now, with these first two pillars established — that God cares about our clothing and that clothing communicates — a third pillar assumes even more meaning.
3. Clothing is Redemptive
Even though Adam’s fig-leaves simply weren’t up to the task, God supplied both atonement and redemption through what we suppose was an innocent animal’s sacrifice. God not only covered their sin, but restored their dignity by covering their bodies properly. In fact, Genesis 3 is simply a foretaste to the redemptive significance of clothing. Isaiah predicts that Israel will rejoice greatly in “garments of salvation” consisting of beautiful headdresses and bridal jewels (Is. 61:10). After Jesus healed the demoniac, he restored the man’s dignity by clothing him (Luke 8:27). In fact, heavenly worshippers, people with glorified bodies, will worship Christ Jesus in white robes, not to cover sin and shame, but to symbolize their redemption in the Lamb who washed their garments white as snow (Rev. 7:13ff). Jesus Christ was stripped bare of all human dignity; He hung naked on a cross so that we might be robed in His righteousness.
But all of this biblical data begs the question: what’s the point?
Christians’ discussion about clothing tends to be (1) based on an incomplete understanding of clothing, (2) overly reactive, and (3) too self-aggrandizing.
First, it’s biblically incomplete to assume that clothing is merely functional, namely, that it only covers nakedness, protects the body, etc. Yes, clothing covers. But dress also reveals our redemption as God’s appointed rulers on this earth. Dressing in a style of deliberate frumpiness, for example, minimizes the redemptive role clothing provides and ignores several Bible factors: splendid clothing symbolizes divine blessing (Ez. 16:13), the exemplary wife clothes herself in fine linen (Prov. 31:22), and vibrant dress communicates the joy of one’s salvation (Is. 61:10).
Second, discussions about clothing are typically reactionary, namely, avoiding worldliness and immodesty. Yes, there’s a very appropriate time for mothers to tell their daughters, “Young Lady, you’re not leaving the house in that!” Or for dads to say, “Son, you’re not wearing that to a wedding.” But why? Because God cares about the message our clothes communicate. And since clothing is redemptive, our fashion choices should reflect the joy of our salvation, the abhorrence of sins for which Christ died, and the restoration of our shattered dignity. These are positive faith-pillars on which we can build positive faith-practice.
Third, our discussions about clothing too often puff up. In Colossians 2, Paul encourages us not to allow others to impose artificial godliness (2:16-23) upon those of us who’ve experienced Christ’s redemption (2:11-15). What does this passage have to do with clothes? Well, it doesn’t … directly, anyway. But, you see, Paul is attacking a human tendency to reduce religion to external demonstrations. By doing so, we reduce the potency of grace and increase the effectiveness of our own accomplishments. And all that by the power of self-comparison. Specifically, we think that because we dress more [insert the adjective of your choice here], we are more holy. This self-aggrandizement breaks both ways, of course. Men wearing flip-flops and Hawaiian print to Sunday services can sneer just as easily as those sporting a coat and tie.
The bottom line is this: the greatest consideration when selecting our clothes should not be our particular fashion taste, but the God who redeemed our bodies with the ransom price of Jesus’s blood. He now gets to say what we communicate with our clothes.
In our next installment, we’ll tackle the biblical topic of modesty.