“Mom and Dad, why do I have to dress up on Sunday?”
“Because it’s the Lord’s Day, and we want to look our best for him.”
Does this advice ring a bell with anyone else? I heard this constantly growing up. Anytime I didn’t want to wear a frilly dress and wanted to wear jeans instead, I was told that it was the Lord’s Day. I was in elementary at the time, and the meaning didn’t really sink in. All I knew was you dressed up for church.
However, over the past couple months I’ve been re-evaluating why we choose to wear our best clothes on Sunday. As I’ve pondered Mariet Hardy Freeland’s, early Free Methodist educator and evangelist, biography, and re-read the diary of Edith Gage Tingley, daughter of Free Methodist evangelist Ida Gage, I am beginning to think our approach to Sundays is off-base.
Freeland believed simplicity was best. It allowed her to spend more money on ministry and didn’t promote vanity. Ida Gage struck a balance between simplicity for the sake of the gospel and simplicity for the sake of legalism, which was becoming rampant in early twentieth century Free Methodism.
As Edith Gage Tingley notes in this journal entry from the family’s time in Hume, Ohio where Ida was an evangelist extreme legalism in dress and décor was seeping into Free Methodist culture:
The former pastor, Dan Wesley, was an extremist, and that is what he taught his people Brother and Sister Crider were really the mainstay of the church. They formerly were Lutherans, but were converted under Brother Wesley, and his views were very different from what they had been taught; and they really went overboard. My mother believed in plain dress, but not so plain. The Criders even took it into their home. They took down the lace curtains, and they took the pictures off the wall and everything else that Brother Wesley told them was worldly. They packed them all in a trunk upstairs. Sister Crider made her clothes perfectly plain. A plan waist with long sleeves, perfectly plain, sewed in the waist with no gathering, a long skirt gored and no gathering. The skirt, of course, came down to her feet… My mother was not radical like that. While she did dress quite plain, she ever went to extremes. We had lace curtains and pictures, etc. She was taken to task at one time for putting pretty lace collars on our dresses, but she didn’t think it was wrong, so we kept the lace collars.
Early Free Methodists saw plain dress as part of their mission to make Christianity accessible to everyone. It wasn’t about a set of rules. The denomination was founded in 1860 and by the late 1800s there was a marked difference in Free Methodists’ beliefs on dress. The Free Methodist is filled with advice about what to wear and an intense debate raged in the early 20th century Free Methodist about women’s head coverings and if they should preach with a hat.
It was more about DOING it to appear pious and less about LIVING it as a commitment to evangelism. This focus on dress without understanding the cultural and legalistic notions behind why we wear what we do continues today. In the 1980s when my family joined the Free Methodist Church my mom (who was coming from a Lutheran background) recounts how coming in wearing shorts for the Sunday night service resulted in some dirty looks from people. All the women where in dresses or knee length skirts. Today, shorts aren’t as taboo, but other things such as tattoos, tank tops, and certain shades of dyed hair are not viewed as “acceptable” in everywhere but West Coast Free Methodism (God bless you West Coasters).
Even if no one says anything I continue to notice nonverbal disapproval for certain types of appearances. Perhaps this is because I fit in the tattoo sporting, red hair dying category, and I’ve witnessed this first hand.
About four years ago I was teaching a Sunday school class on integrating millennials (my generation) into the church and questioning the class about who they would accept walking through the church doors. I had one very nice lady say “Well, someone with a tattoo is welcome to come here to church but I don’t think I’d feel comfortable having them teach my children.” I didn’t say that I had a tattoo, and I was already teaching her kids. I let that one slide.
We need to seriously consider how the Free Methodists’ commitment to dressing like the average person translates into twenty-first century Christianity. Perhaps, we need to embrace the mindset of Mariet Hardy Freeland:
‘But how,’ she questioned. ‘Shall I know just the standard in dress that I should adopt? Will I not go far as to become ridiculous and be constantly in bondage, fearing I am not doing just right?’ The Holy Spirit spoke encouragingly to her heart, assuring her that she should know God’s will even in these apparently small matters… No human standard would do. She dared not look to the example of others; she must know for herself. In secret, alone with God, no human voice to influence, her life-long rule in regard to dress was adopted…First- She was to wear nothing merely for ornamentation, nothing that was not in some way necessary for comfort, cleanliness or modesty. Second- She was to refuse no fashion simply because it was fashion, nor was she to discard anything because it was out of fashion. (Freeland Shay, 31)
So, how do we put the early Free Methodist practice of seeking God’s will in dress into action? First, as Freeland notes, it cannot be based on what others say or do. It must come for our own conversations and convictions from God. Since moving into the city I have realized my grubby clothes are still better than many of neighbor’s best clothes. I now refuse to wear dresses, fancy skirts, heels etc. to church. I intentionally dig through my wardrobe and usually wear jeans and a t-shirt. I want to be approachable. I don’t want to be the reason anyone is uncomfortable as they walk through the doors of my church. I see greeters and ushers dressed in expensive suits and fashionable, expensive outfits on Sunday. I look around at some of the people who come in need to church. They can’t afford to dress like that. Aren’t we creating a barrier between us and them? A barrier that could prevent them from connecting and hearing the gospel?
Each person must hold true to what God has convicted them about. I’ve been convicted about my love of fashion and trying to best everyone on Sunday with the most stylish outfit. No more, I am now one of the most under dressed people at church and I’m going to keep it that way. Save the fancy clothes for the office. Come in what you have. God doesn’t want our best in terms of clothes on Sunday. He wants our best in terms of behavior.