I never expected the start of the school year to have me so busy, but here we are. It’s been long enough that I thought I’d combine two topics I’ve wanted to write about for a while since they both have to do with how we dress, though in very different ways, as you’ll soon see.

Dressing Well

Years ago I remember a video being passed around the internet in which a man, dressed as a beggar, pretends to have a heart attack and collapse on the pavement. No one comes to see if the guy is okay, and the video cuts to black before the twist. The same man in the same place is now dressed in a well-fitted suit. Again, he pretends to have a heart attack and collapse onto the pavement. This time, a bunch of people run up to him to see if they can help.

The moral of the story for the women sharing it around was that people are bad for “judging things by their covers”. In reality, raggedly dressed men pulling stunts is probably a common thing for people who make it a habit to walk around downtown city blocks.

The real lesson in the video was lost probably on the producer himself. The lesson is that you should dress well. It can make all the difference in the world. A deeper lesson is that you should respond to the world as it is rather than complaining with self-righteous indignation how much better it would be if people acted like you. “Self” righteous because I’m confident few of the women (it was all women) sharing the video would have stopped to help the guy themselves.

This all leads to my point, which I’ll make and then attempt to justify: As a Christian, you should not try to infer the moral character of a man based on his dress alone, but you should dress as well as you can in all circumstances.

You can, and should, judge a lot about someone by how they look. I suspect even our physical traits begin to reflect our character. But the fact is, you can never be certain if he’s wearing a torn T-shirt and jeans because he has no self-respect or because his home burned down last week and he doesn’t have anything else. Especially for someone attending church with us, we should take the time to learn what’s really going on.

That said, we should try to dress as well as we can. It’s good for us. It’s good for everyone else. It exudes our character. In that sense, we should expect people to dress better as their character matures, even if slowly and in small ways. When I say “dress well”, I’m leaving it intentionally ambiguous because different situations call for different dress. There’s also the fact that a fit man or woman can, and should, dress differently than one who is obese (though I’d argue that physical fitness is another reflection of character, something I’m busy working on myself).

The trendy church response to clothes is to say that your appearance doesn’t matter, by which they mean you shouldn’t care about any of this. You should wear whatever you want, whatever fits in, and don’t worry about it. It’s shallow, pietistic stuff, and maybe even Gnostic. The church, ironically enough, is full of people concerned with their outward appearance on social media and in public life. It’s a dual problem, and I think the solution is to pull back from both extremes.

The point is that we should take the time to improve how we present ourselves to everyone else, even if we aren’t quite as quick to expect it of others, though we ultimately should. A log and speck situation, I think.

Dress Codes

It’s Sunday morning. You just got to church, and your family is getting seated in the sanctuary. The music starts and you stand up to sing with the rest of the church. Then, out of the corner of your eye, you spot something so jarring you have trouble forming words: a woman, completely naked, walks up the aisle and sits a few rows ahead of you. None of the adults say a word, though you hear whispered excitement among the young men.

That wouldn’t happen. We know that. Churches have dress codes. But suppose this did happen, and the woman was a visiting unbeliever. What would the church do?

We all know what they’d do. It wouldn’t have gotten to this point. Before the woman even got to the door, an awkward conversation between the greeters – a husband and wife – would have led to the wife running down the stairs into the parking lot to tell the woman to come back when she could find a little self-respect. Could she be turning a way a potential convert? Yeah, but no one would fault her for it, because there is another cost to letting this woman in. There are always trade-offs.

This series of events didn’t happen. I made it up. But another series of events did, I’m told. And it’s been happening, unfortunately, for a long time. A local church has had a man dressed as a woman attend for several years, singing praise music along with the congregation and sitting in the sight of young children. This is a conservative church, mind you, and the church knows that the dress is wrong, but it’s tolerated for the sake of the man’s salvation. If he encounters people being mean, he might walk out.

This whole scenario likely plays out at many churches these days. The problem should be apparent, but if not allow me to help make it that way.

A naked woman in public is shameful, and it’s a sin for her to do it, but it’s not an abomination. Presuming she’s not doing anything else but walking naked, the correct response of a church would be dismissal from the grounds of the church.

A cross-dressing man is an abomination. The Old Testament speaks of it in the harshest terms, saying that to do so is a capital offense, punishable by death. The correct response of a church would be, at a minimum, dismissal from the grounds of the church.

But that doesn’t happen. We would have no tolerance for the woman; we’d demand she get dressed or not come back. But we have infinite tolerance for the man in drag. We might tell him we disagree, but we’d never make him change his clothes. And yet Scripture places the shame of nakedness and the attendant sins in a tier far below the abominable sin of cross-dressing. As I said before, there are trade-offs here. It affects the sorts of things people are willing to say. It brings shame on people who know they should speak up but don’t want to rock the boat. It scandalizes children and chips away at their innocence. In church.

If we really think about, this is just a tiny island in a sea of contradictions. We treat the sin of same-sex attraction with far more levity, nuance, and gentleness than the sin of adultery, despite Scripture having it exactly the other way. We treat the sin of racial animosity like the most severe sin on Earth – often the only sin pastoral leadership and places like The Gospel Coalition want to talk about – while we are silent or soft on the culturally acceptable sins like sleeping around or contract child murder.

There’s another problem here, though it’s a little hidden, and that’s what the church is for. Normally when we say “church” we mean the body of all believers, but here I really mean church meetings on Sunday morning. Who is that for? In Scripture, it’s very clear: church is for believers. It’s for families of believers. It’s for individual believers who live with unbelievers. It’s for people who want to repent and become believers. But it’s not for everyone and anyone. It’s a bit of shock to hear, probably, because we don’t typically keep people from attending (nor am I suggesting a general policy where we start to do that). But the purpose of the church meeting is the fellowship, instruction, growth, and nourishment of the body. Decisions about what happens during that meeting must be made with that goal in mind. Church services are about building disciples who have already accepted the Gospel. “Seeker-sensitive” is a synonym for shallow for a reason.