The Regulative Principle of Worship has been a part of the worshiping community of the Lord from the beginning. It defines our worship and regulates it to the glory and pleasure of God. Traditionally, the principle identifies elements of worship that should be included in the Church’s offerings whether of the Old Covenant or the New. It guides us so that we might offer the Lord His due…It covers the elements of the ministry of the Word of the Lord, prayer, offerings, music, etc. but might it also address our dress?
It was a few minutes before the start of our worship service and I was trying to personally greet as many people as I could. A young man came in and took a seat. He was a first-time visitor and I especially wanted to speak to him. I found that he had recently moved to our city to take a position as a musician with our local symphony orchestra. What I remember most about him was the way he was dressed. I don’t usually notice such things but his clothing was striking. He was wearing pretty ratty denim shorts, a wrinkled t-shirt and flip flops. I’m sure he was comfortable but I found myself being otherwise. As the morning went along, I realized I was thinking about his clothing a lot and I was becoming more and more…perturbed. I knew he didn’t, he couldn’t, dress that way for an orchestral performance that likely required him to wear a black-tie tuxedo. Why, I thought, would he, then, dress so casually for church? It was as though he intentionally, with forethought, dressed as slovenly as he could for worship. He couldn’t have appeared more discourteous for coming into the presence of the Lord. Why? And why did it bother me so?
The Regulative Principle of Worship has been a part of the worshiping community of the Lord from the beginning. It defines our worship and regulates it to the glory and pleasure of God. Traditionally, the principle identifies elements of worship that should be included in the Church’s offerings whether of the Old Covenant or the New. It guides us so that we might offer the Lord His due. How else could we know how to worship except for God’s own direction and instruction. But how far does such direction go? It covers the elements of the ministry of the Word of the Lord, prayer, offerings, music, etc. but might it also address our dress?
God in His Scriptures tells us what the teaching and preaching of His Word should look like (Matt. 4:17; Acts 15:35; 2 Tim. 2:1-2; 4:1-4). He teaches us how to pray to Him (Matt. 6:5-13; 1 Thess. 5:17-18), directs us how to give to Him (Matt. 6:2-4; 2 Cor. 8:1-5; 9:7), shows, even models for us how to sing His praises (Zeph. 3:17 NIV). He regulates these but does He also regulate how we should be clothed before Him in worship? Spiritually speaking, absolutely!
We can only appear in the presence of God clothed in the righteousness of Christ. This is a cardinal truth of the gospel. Our natural, spiritual condition is one of depravity, guilt and unrighteousness. The Lord, however, dwells in holiness and possesses only purity and righteousness. Never the twain shall meet! But once we are in Christ by repentance and faith through the gospel of Jesus, we’re covered in His righteousness imputed and gifted to us in grace. Notice the language the Bible uses for this. “I will rejoice greatly in the Lord, my soul will exult in my God; for He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Isa. 61:10). “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:27). “…and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph. 4:24). Clearly, we cannot enter into the presence of Him whose “eyes are too pure to approve evil [nor] look on wickedness with favor” (Hab. 1:13) without having our sin covered by the righteousness of Christ.
We must be clothed in Him under His gospel. That’s the covering of the soul but what about the covering of the body? Does worship before the Lord affect this covering? Does the Scripture in any way regulate this?
This isn’t even a question often asked within broad evangelicalism but should it be? Isn’t it a bit trivial? Where would we go to even begin to find an answer? Perhaps the worship found in Genesis 4 can give us a starting point.
Brothers Cain and Abel were involved in the first recorded act of worship in the Scripture presumably having been taught this by their father. In verses four and five we’re told that the Lord found Abel’s worship acceptable but not Cain’s. The difference in God’s response surely has to do with the distinction made concerning their respective sacrifices which was indicative of the spiritual condition of their hearts. Cain is said to have brought an offering of the fruit of the ground with no further characterization made about it (v. 3). On the other hand, Abel sacrificed to the Lord from his flock what was designated to be “of the firstlings…and of their fat portions” (v. 4). The “firstlings” is simply the first from the flock; off the top as we could say. The “fat portions” of the sacrifice under the Old Covenant were considered to be the best part of the animal that could be offered as an honor to the Lord (See Gen. 45:18; Lev. 3:14-16; Ezek. 34:3). Abel offered God the first and the best he had. Shouldn’t this truth guide our worship of the Lord even today? How would it work?
On a personal level, I have followed the monthly practice of making the first check I write be our tithe to the church. My wife and I want to give the Lord from the first of His blessings to us right off the top. Is this required? No, but we desire to do it this way from hearts that are thankful to Him. In our congregation some years ago, we changed the Sunday morning schedule from Sunday School first to corporate worship being first. We found that people were a bit tired in worship after spending time in a study class and we wanted to offer the Lord in worship the first and the best of our time. Don’t we all do this naturally in our churches? In worship we use the best musicians from our congregations, we’re led by the elders who can best guide us to honor Christ, we have the best preaching available. But what about how we dress? Shouldn’t we come before the Lord in the best clothing we have?
For me that means a suit and tie; I don’t own anything better so that’s what I wear. Doesn’t dressing in the best we have as we come into the Lord’s presence honor Him and show our respect by following Abel’s example of giving Him our first and best? Then what about my young musician friend? If his clothing that morning in church was the best he had to wear, I would have no problem with it. None. In fact, I would thank God that he had come to worship with the saints spiritually clothed in the righteousness of Christ and physically clothed in his best.
So, does the Bible require us to dress up when we go to church? Not necessarily. But why wouldn’t we?
Dr. Randy L. Steele is a Minister in the Bible Presbyterian Church and serves as Pastor of Providence BPC in Albuquerque, NM.