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Why I favor dressing up for church

Why I favor dressing up for church

Feel free to dress casually.

From what I’ve seen, most church websites and bulletins these days are very sure to include something like this somewhere noticeable. They want it to be clear: we’re not a stuffy old church that insists you dress like businessmen and Victorian ladies if you want to experience the presence of God. We know God as living in a personal relationship. So come as you are and enjoy fellowship among equals all in this together!

For what it’s worth, I appreciate that. The legalism which had built up in vast swaths of the Western church over the centuries about what to wear was stifling and unbiblical. Even now, you occasionally hear horror stories from old Baptist congregations: an usher scolds some single mother for her choice of attire, and she misses what might have been a redemptive moment. Such nonsense is a shame in the strongest and most condemning sense of the word.

Nonetheless, in our efforts to remove legalism and open welcoming doors to outsiders, I fear it’s easy to miss some of the good from the old tradition. The impulse that led people to dress up for church was deep. It definitely goes beyond the generic answered reason of “giving God your [culturally relative] best.” I think there are actually two areas of theological significance which can give the practice real meaning.

First, there is the idea of the sacred. In church, we are not members of a club. We don’t gather for some mere earthly thing we have in common, whether politics, hobbies, careers, or family relationships. We gather to worship God the Father Almighty, the transcendent One who is infinitely different from and superior to us. We come in the name of Jesus, His beloved Son who mysteriously unites human and divine natures in Himself in order to bring us to God. We unite in the power of the Holy Spirit, the very personal presence and power of the God who made everything and everyone. This puts us on holy ground. When we gather as a church (not, I should specify, just “in” a church), we are entering the presence of a Holiness which is set apart from anything else we know.

So when we dress differently than we do elsewhere, it can serve as a sign, especially when done freely and not legalistically. It can symbolize and point to the fact that Body of Christ is not just another function of human life, but is the point where the radically different life of God meets us. This, of course, doesn’t bind us to any particular kind of clothing. But when we, by our clothes and other, more important things (you know, like love for each other and praise of God), mark out church as sacred time and space before God, we testify to the world that we’re dealing with something, or better Someone, different than everything else. (As a side note, this idea is not compatible with our “Sunday best” simply being the same as our business clothes, or formal wear, or any other category. It sets itself apart, even perhaps undermining the traditional ideas of what special clothes make sense to wear for church.)

The other possible Christian significance to dressing up at church has to do with our identity. As a people born again, we live in hope of a resurrection to glory. We are now, and one day will be more fully, members of a new creation. Everything will be made better. Redemption will extend to every nook and cranny of creation, including our bodies. All will be beautified and perfected. When Jesus comes back for us, we will all be our best selves both inside and out.

To dress up, then, also serves as a sign of the new creation. No one can deny that, culturally relative as it may be, dressing up makes people look nice. In all but the rarest instances, we look our best when we dress our best. And while our looks aren’t the point, they can be a sign for ourselves in the world: we look like our best selves now in anticipation of how we will become our best selves when Christ returns, and in fact we are already our best selves hidden in Him. The visible points us to what is now invisible so that we can remember and witness to what Jesus has done and will do.

Of course, none of this is meant to construct a new legalism where we must dress up at church to make theological points. The beauty of the sign is at least in part in its freedom, showing that we have been freed by Christ into new creation, not forced. We must not submit to any yoke of slavery. But my point is rather not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The legalism and formalism of yesterday’s “dress your best” church is and deserves to be dead, but that doesn’t mean we need to give up on the dress up altogether. We still have power to be signs if we want, or even to be signs by some other method. In any case, let each render to God according to his own conscience for God’s glory.

Jesus will judge Joe’s salvation, so you don’t have to.

Jesus will judge Joe’s salvation, so you don’t have to.

Stop it.

Stop trying to discern who is “really” saved and who isn’t.

I say this as a simple message I’ve slowly learned from reading Scripture. Simply put: there is never a Biblical command or permission for us as individuals in the Church to make decisions about whether other individuals in the Church are actually Christians or not.

There are similar issues, to be sure. We are commanded to discern false teachers, but their position of authority and destructive impact, not to mention their peculiar relationship to the churches they teach, makes their case quite different from Joe in the pew. We are also commanded to discern between false churches and the true Church based on the criteria of love, holiness, and sound doctrine (specifically, a right view of who Jesus is). And finally, we are certainly commanded to judge between good and evil actions and lives, and to call our brothers and sisters to repent if they sin.

But, none of that is the same as a command or permission to decide whether Joe two pews down is a “real Christian” or something else.

There is no such command. Nor is there such a permission.

If Joe is participating in the life of the Church through a local congregation, we have only one proper response: accept him as a brother. If he is a living a life or espousing doctrines that contradict the Christian faith, we may and should by all means call him out and ask him to repent. If he doesn’t, we should certainly exercise church discipline up to and including excommunication, cutting him off and kicking him out. But until (and perhaps only until) that point, we are only allowed to treat him as a wayward brother, someone who has strayed from the truth and needs to return.

The one thing we have no right to do is try to decide whether we’ll see him in glory on Judgment Day. We can’t declare him “real Christian” or “fake Christian,” or speculate about the negative possibilities for his eternal destiny. Why? Because until he is removed from the congregation (which he should be if he persists in unrepentance), we have no ground to stand on from which to make such a judgment, even as a personal opinion. We have only one option: take his baptized identity for granted and treat him as a member of Christ’s Body. Apart from Jesus’ promise to be with us when two or three are gathered to execute church discipline, we don’t have any basis for saying otherwise. So our job is to treat them all as brothers until Jesus comes back to sort out His own household. He is the Judge who sees in the depths of the heart and knows the reality of all faith or pretending. He will make sure of who is His far better than we ever could.

So in case it’s not obvious exactly what I’m proposing, I’ll break it down:

Treat everyone in the congregation of the Church as a “real Christian.” Period.
If they sin or adopt heresy, call them to repent.
If they continually refuse to repent, boot them out.
Treat everyone outside the Church as outside of Christ. Period.

I think this solves lots of problems, and I think it’s Biblical. Nowhere in Scripture do we find commands or permissions to try to discern between true and false, real or fake, members of the Body. Instead, we find strong church discipline and letters which address whole churches as believers. We find acknowledgments than human judgment is utterly fallible and based on the outside, and that only God sees the heart for what it is.

Note that, again, none of this is to say we can’t judge sinful lives and behaviors as sinful, and even seriously so, or judge heresies as heretical. We must do these things, and do them consistently without compromise. But we aren’t permitted to go from “Joe is living sinfully right now [or for a long time]” immediately to “Joe isn’t a Christian.” We instead must bind ourselves to the form of the Church and its authority in this age, where we come together and go through the appropriate processes of discussion and discernment to execute discipline or encourage restoration.

Anything beyond that is a presumption of Christ’s own prerogative over His Church, a denial of His own right to discern and define His bride.

This is not, I want to emphasize, just a part of the “Don’t judge,” “You don’t know their heart!” or “Your Christian walk is just between you and God” cultures. We must judge right from wrong, darkness from light, goodness from evil, and obedience from rebellion. People’s actions do expose, to at least some degree, their hearts. And our walk with God is not our own, but is part of a collective pilgrimage of the whole Church in which we are all members of one Body whose lives affect and determine each other.

But none of that puts us in a place to discern the core: what actual relation someone in Christ’s Church has to Christ. How are we to know who will repent, who is going through a David/Bathsheba fall, who is disrupted like Peter, or who was like Judas all along? We cannot know from our limited perspectives what is really going on, and we must defer to Christ. Our only responsibility is to remove the wicked person from among ourselves, but love them before, during, and after.

Basically, as Romans 14:4 says, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”

Every Lucid Moment

Every Lucid Moment

[This is a repost from The Nicene Nerd to help fill the new blog with some content.]

Hazy. That’s  the best word I could think of to describe many of the hours in my average day. I’m not sure what all I did or how much I enjoyed it. During the day I tend to slip into a mode: doing what I do. And at the end of the day I find myself wondering: what have I even been doing?

See, when I think about it, there is quite a bit I’d like to change about my life. I’d like to spend less time on the computer doing mostly nothing and more time enjoying the family God has entrusted to me. I’d like to pray more, and spend more time reading Scripture. While I read lots of random articles and blog posts online, I know I would benefit from reading more real books.

Beyond habits and time management, I have character issues and virtues to work on. I want to become less self-centered and more aware of others. In my relationships I want to be more genuinely interested in what other people say, do, and care about. I’m too arrogant in my knowledge and could use some humility. Perhaps my most practically difficult flaw is my grand introspection, where I inflate my every last mistake into a life-scale issue by tracing out all the flaws in my heart and worrying about my ability to fix them into the future.

All of this deserves my effort and careful attention as I live out my day. I can only make progress if I actually try to. But alas, I don’t usually think about these things until the hour that they become painful problems. After that’s over, I remember my lesson for a while and then forget as I get back into the groove of everyday life. Next thing I know I’m making the same mistakes again. And so the circle goes on.

What I have come to realize is how very necessary it is that I capitalize on the moments when I am thinking and genuinely concerned. During the times in which I am aware of my flaws, I have to make what progress I can before life sweeps away my focus. This is what I usually fear to do, sometimes out of the fear of what might happen if I do change, and sometimes out of the fear that I won’t be able to keep up whatever I wish to accomplish. I find myself too often paralyzed by the awareness of my impending forgetfulness. So then I lose the moment, and the pain which brought me clarify becomes vain.

Obviously, what I ought to do is very different. The lucidity which fills me with fear for my future ability to do right ought to take one more step. When I think even more clearly, I see that any progress I hope to make must start with the moments that I can see that I need it. This means taking the first act, doing whatever I can to grow, instead of doing like I normally will and waste the time fretting over my lack of willpower. I have to capitalize on the times God opens my eyes before they fall shut again.

The best way to do this is to pray. While other actions are also necessary, I must take every lucid moment to pray. After all, there is no way for me to grow apart from the Holy Spirit. My flesh can only do so much, and its fruits are always full of worms. So when I know I am nothing and in need, my immediate response must be to call on the Lord, who gives to all generously and without criticizing. He promises to be my healer, the one who sanctified me and will sanctify me. If I don’t do this, if I wait or let my apprehension keep me from moving, what hope will I have? If I don’t take the opportunity to ask, seek, and knock before I forget what I am looking for, I will only come away empty-handed.

Father, you are my only hope. In Jesus you have created the perfect human life that I so desperately need. So by your Spirit living inside me, uniting me with your holy Son, let me become the man you call me to be. Every time you open my eyes, let me make the move I must make, and pray so you can continue to move me. Then when I am back in the normal course of life, I can trust you to work behind the scenes. In the name of my only Lord Jesus, Amen.

So I find that this law is at work: when I want to do what is good, what is evil is the only choice I have. My inner being delights in the law of God. But I see a different law at work in my body—a law that fights against the law which my mind approves of. It makes me a prisoner to the law of sin which is at work in my body. What an unhappy man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is taking me to death? Thanks be to God, who does this through our Lord Jesus Christ!

Romans 7:21-25a