Recently I was asked by my denomination’s magazine for women to write a feature article on what women wear to church. The editors suggested I focus on what we wear on the outside, but also how we prepare on the inside -mentally, and spiritually – for worship. They also asked me to touch on the traditions and standards of dress among women of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, for example: the elaborate hats and colorful church suits in some African-American churches.
I thought it would be an easy article to write. But as I delved into the topic and began interviewing sources, I discovered that, even for mainline and progressive Christians, what women (and men) wear to church is a complex, and sometimes emotionally-charged subject; one rooted in competing theological claims.
On the one hand, there’s the notion that God accepts and loves us just as we are. Even when we roll out of bed, brush our teeth, skip the makeup and throw on jeans and a t-shirt, we have God’s unconditional love and acceptance. I believe this is true, and I think many Christians would agree.
On the other hand, our Christian witness includes the way we present ourselves – spiritually but also physically. When we worship in community, we are presenting ourselves to God, but also to our fellow believers. We’re not invisible; we’re not spirit-beings. Our bodies matter, and how we clothe them matters too. Our appearance sends a message to others, and we ignore this at our own peril.
What does Scripture say about all this? Some communities have clear-cut rules and norms for how women should dress, and those norms are rooted in particular scriptures, such as 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.
Yet, even among those who claim to interpret the Bible literally, there is disagreement. Do a quick Google search, and you’ll find arguments over how 21st century Christians should understand Paul’s insistence that women cover their heads in worship. Some interpret the passage as meaning women should wear hats, scarves, or veils. Others believe Paul was talking about hair, but there is still disagreement over whether a woman’s hair ought to hang long and uncut, or was intended to be worn up.
I’m not a literalist when it comes to Scripture, but I do take the Bible seriously. For me, there’s no clear-cut, defining text on the subject of women’s attire, but there are a few passages that come to mind.
First, Jesus taught his followers not to worry about what to eat or wear. If God provides for the sparrow, if God created the lilies of the field in all their glory, then surely we’re fine.
Jesus never called anyone out for a fashion faux pas, but Paul (or his later disciples and editors) did. I know Paul is not Jesus, but his letters still speak to what happens when we try to live out the teachings of Jesus in the context of a wider culture, and in community with others. Therefore, we can’t simply say that Jesus trumps Paul and leave it at that.
One of Paul’s chief concerns is the way our habits and practices impact others, especially newer Christians, the poor, and those whose faith is weak. So Paul’s concerns — for modesty, for differentiation from Roman and pagan values, and for the need to avoid persecution — are still relevant.
These claims — that we shouldn’t worry about what to wear, and that we should — aren’t always in conflict, but sometimes they are. And in most faith communities, it’s not merely an academic or hypothetical matter. Many Christians can relate their own experience of being on the receiving end of scornful looks and remarks for dressing inappropriately. Others will open up and admit that they have been offended, at some time or another, by what another member of the faith community has worn to church.
If we’re honest, we could probably say that we haven’t always been as discerning as we ought to about how we appear. I’ll be the first to admit it. I learned the hard way.
I was two months into my seminary internship in the congregation where I now serve as co-pastor. This congregation is more traditional than the church where I had spent the previous 10 years, but the mode of dress among congregants is fairly wide-ranging, from jeans among the under 50 crowd to formal suits worn by older members.
On this particular day, I was wearing a nice pair of jeans, a turtleneck, and high heeled boots. Frankly, I thought I looked pretty hip for a middle-aged seminary chick – approachable, easy going, but not too trendy. At least that’s what I was going for. I wasn’t preaching that day, but I was scheduled to lead worship. Five minutes before the service began, one of the elders came up to tell me that Gertrude (not her real name) had complained about my outfit and wanted me to put on a robe (in our congregation, the preaching minister wears a robe most Sundays, but the worship leader does not). I put on the robe, swallowed my pride, and performed my duties with a smile. But inside, I was stunned, embarrassed, and angry.
After worship, several other older church members came up and apologized. “Gertrude’s always been that way,” they told me. “She thinks she’s better than other people. She can be abrasive and sometimes rude, but that’s just her. Don’t take it personally.”
I thanked them for trying to explain, but as the hurt and anger wore off, I could see Gertrude’s point, to some extent. Granted, I didn’t have the income to afford a wardrobe like hers – bright designer suits, fancy hats, matching purses and shoes. But maybe I needed to rethink the way I dressed for church.
Ministers and those who lead and serve in worship probably need to give special consideration to appearance, but where do we look for guidance? A few months back, I came across Victoria Weinstein’s blog, Beauty Tips for Ministers . Weinstein writes under the nom-de-blog of her alter ego, Peacebang.
Five years ago, Weinstein, a Unitarian Universalist minister who lives in the Northeast, was talking with her sister, and they got on the subject of how female clergy can sometimes be…well, frumpy. Her sister suggested she start a blog on the subject. Weinstein created the Peacebang persona, which she describes as a “stage mother” who wants all of her children to succeed, figuring she’d write a handful of entries and be done with it. Five years later, Beauty Tips for Ministers has thousands of readers in at least ten countries who appreciate Peacebang’s honesty and humor, and the opportunity to debate the merits of swearing off flip flops, A-line skirts and Mary Janes in favor of something a little more fashion forward but still age appropriate.
Weinstein firmly believes that how we present ourselves matters, and as Peacebang, she delves beyond the superficial aspects of fashion to explore the theological, aesthetic, and ethical underpinnings of what we wear to worship. Her blog posts are funny, affirming, and occasionally blunt. While her primary audience is female clergy, the subject matter is of interest to laypeople and ministers, both male and female. Weinstein recognizes that as physical beings who profess Christ, we can’t dismiss the need to talk about appearance — as an expression of our inward state of being, but also as it affects others in our community and in the world.
In my phone conversation with Weinstein, she pointed out that appearance is a form of non-verbal communication — a point that is widely acknowledged and discussed in both popular culture and the business world, but rarely acknowledged in many churches. And as with other forms of non-verbal communication, it leaves plenty of room for misinterpretation and mixed messages. While some of this is beyond our control, we can, and should, be mindful of it.
At the same time, as a Christian and a feminist, I’m wary and well aware (as is Weinstein) of the way the ideals of femininity and beauty are dictated and reinforced by a culture where men still hold much power. I can’t help but think, sometimes, of the amount of time and money that women spend on their appearances, and wonder what we could accomplish if we freed up just a fraction of that latent power. As I browse the racks at the local mall, I sometimes wonder if the garment I’m about to try on was made by a woman who labored 18 hours a day in a sweatshop, her value measured not by her beauty or intelligence, but by her ability to produce.
But I also admit, I look better with makeup. I love colorful skirts and cute shoes. I wear bangs primarily because they hide the wrinkles on my forehead.
Weinstein, during our phone conversation, pointed out that as Christians, we rarely talk seriously and theologically about our appearance. Maybe this is part of the reason — we’re all hypocrites, to some degree. We’re clothed, literally, in both our convictions and our contradictions. But in avoiding the subject, are we unconsciously embracing a dualistic form of Christianity; one where the mind and the spirit matter more than the body? Such a theology is, in my opinion, unsound and unorthodox.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s talk about what we wear. And rather than start with opinions and answers, maybe we can begin by identifying the questions. Here are a few that come to mind for me. I hope you’ll add others to the conversation.
- If we give consideration to fashion, are we conforming too much to culture and ignoring the notion of being “in the world but not of the world?” Does this pressure exist even in younger, missional/emergent congregations [i.e. are we replacing “proper” with “cool”?]
- Can a more “dressed up” faith community accept those who are not able to conform to its standards? The homeless, the poor, etc.?
- Are we responsible for the way our clothing impacts others? For example, if I feel comfortable showing cleavage, should I also consider how it might impact someone struggling with a sexual addiction?
- Are there standards and norms within our own faith community regarding appearance? If so, who enforces those and how?