John Calvin Wouldn’t Wear a Necktie

There is a certain theology to clothing.

John Calvin offers some pastoral insight…He calls dress an “indifferent matter.” As such, he notes that it’s “difficult to assign a fixed limit, how far we ought to go.” And concludes: “This at least will be settled beyond all controversy, that every thing in dress which is not in accordance with modesty and sobriety must be disapproved.


This last week in Sunday school we entertained an interesting question: what did a corporate worship service look like in the New Testament? As we discussed this question there were notable differences from what many are probably accustomed to today. For instance, the biblical picture we get is that it was likely very simple. As they met in homes or upper rooms they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. They sang the Psalms and there isn’t any indication that they used a praise band much less any musical instruments. Additionally, their gatherings may have lasted quite a bit longer than ours, and they sat where they could find a seat — even in a window! But, what did they wear?

Many of us are familiar with the well-known phrase: “Sunday best,” referring to the kinds of clothes someone should wear to church. We’ve also heard the tired and worn comparisons: “If you were going to meet the President wouldn’t you wear the nicest clothes in your closet?” I even had someone tell me that if I hope, as a pastor, to influence people I need to learn how to wear a necktie. I suppose one man’s influence is another man’s alienation (ahem…welcome to rural America).

Whether we like it or not a church’s “dress code” is a significant issue. There are those who have felt burdened by imposed expectations. It’s caused tensions and even divisions in congregations. It has reinforced people’s stereotypes of the church as stodgy and stuffy. It’s given as an excuse for people who feel uncomfortable or want to avoid a worship service. It’s also often explicitly mentioned on church websites helping direct visitors to what is or isn’t appropriate. To put it simply, quite unfortunately it’s an issue that has caused a lot of unnecessary offense.

To be clear there is, to express it this way, a certain theology to clothing. This first articles of clothing (garments of skin given by God himself) were intended to cover the shameful effects of sin (Genesis 3:10, 21). Biblically, one’s outward dress sometimes expressed a condition of the heart. For instance, Jacob wore sackcloth as he mourned for Joseph (Genesis 37:34),  and whatever it was and however it’s understood the head covering in the Corinthian church was a “symbol of authority” (1 Corinthians 11:10). Further, clothes sometimes designated an individual in their place or purpose. You can think of the High Priest who, according to the ceremonial law of the Old Testament, wore the ephod and turban on his head as “holy garments” (Exodus 28:4).

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