Church Attire in the First Century

Rather often I see an article about what Christians ought to wear to assembly on Sunday. I know many of us have diverse views on the matter. For example, someone may say, “Wear your best,” but not everyone’s best is the same. One man’s best might be a suit and tie while another’s would be jeans and a clean t-shirt. Furthermore, how we define “best” according to wardrobe may differ. My best might entail wearing my doctoral robe which would come off a bit pretentious, or I could wear my kilt along with the formal dress that accompanies it, but then someone would accuse me of seeking attention. Others have the come-as-you-are attitude. We have one fellow who comes to our assembly in gym shorts, sandals, and a hoodie. He’s a relatively recent convert and a university student. He mingles right along with those of us in suits and ties without any regard for some arbitrary dress code which the Bible hasn’t enjoined upon believers.

Were we to be honest, most of us use reasoning to come to our dress code conclusions. “Don’t you think you should wear your best for the Lord because He deserves our best?” “Jobs have dress codes, and worship is much more important than any job.” And on and on it goes. Our modern notion of church dress, at least as it pertains to dresses and suits and ties, is very much Edwardian Era etiquette. What’s appropriate isn’t always the same throughout generations. For example, were we to go on a mission to an extremely hot climate and minister to poor people, we’d likely dress down compared to our American Sunday dress. Dressing down may only entail ditching the sports coat, but it’s still dressing down no matter how minor or severe. I confess as a hot natured chap that I prefer not to drench myself in sweat if I can keep from it while in a suit. Therefore, during the dog days of summer, I will usually ditch my tie after morning services and sometimes my jacket too, especially since I have a literal spotlight focused on me that makes it hotter from the pulpit than the pew.

What if we truly looked to the Bible to see how people dressed for assembly in the first century? It isn’t a novel idea because most of us do that for other things already, so I point us, first, to the earliest New Testament writing, the book of James—written somewhere in the 40s. In chapter two, James addresses partiality in the hearts of Christians who at this time are mostly Jews. He even mentions if someone comes into their “synagogue” (James 2:1)—most English translations render this “assembly,” but synagogue is what’s in Greek (cf. Hermas, Man. 11.9). There are two men juxtaposed: one well-dressed fellow and the other who’s “a poor man in filthy clothes” (James 2:2). James doesn’t pinpoint the manner in which the poor man is attired, but the attitude Christians might have had in showing partiality to the rich over the poor. The poor man, noticeably dirty, was in synagogue like the rich, and the issue isn’t how either was dressed but is simply mentioned as a matter-of-fact. Chrysostom gives this advice, “There is no difference between rich and poor in Christ. Pay no attention to the outward appearance, but look for the inner faith instead” (Catena).

What we have from James, thus far, is that each dressed according to their economy. No one would dispute a person of lower standing having an inability to dress above them in those days, but there is a refutation of those who dress fancifully because they have means. Two passages are used to this end but are typically employed by our brethren to advocate modesty. Modesty, at least to an ancient audience, is different from how we use it today. To them, it had to do with concealing one’s dignity and not revealing their inner thoughts. In these two passages, it also had to do not so much with covering the bits and pieces that only a doctor should see, but with not overdressing. I point the reader to 1 Tim 2:9–10 and 1 Pet 3:3–4. These two passages clearly prohibit overdressing to be fanciful just because someone has it to wear. Ergo, my wearing my best would be precluded based on these similar admonitions in principle.

From the passages we have in the New Testament, could our best ever be considered by God to be overdressed? What, precisely, is modest for us to adorn ourselves with in the classical sense? Finally, do we make too much of something that may not even be that big an issue to God? When He led Israel out of Egypt, He instructed that they take time to wash their garments to appear before Him at Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19:10). These were former slaves. All that was required was that their garments be clean. They weren’t to go to Jos. A Banks or JC Penny’s for new frocks. They were only to have cleaned their garments which were likely torn and less than modest. They were the clothes of slaves, and cleanliness was enough for God.

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.