Must we wear shirt and tie in the pulpit?

A few days ago, I wrote about being careful about the words you use and the clothes you wear when you preach. The thrust of that article argued that you should just be yourself. It was an argument in favour of authentic preaching; being the same man in the pulpit as you are out of it. You can read the full post here.

Most people seemed to agree with the thrust of the post and nobody disagreed over being careful in our choice of words (at least, nobody who passed comment). A few, however, wanted to push back on the clothes we wear. One argument suggested the clothes we wear make clear something is important i.e. if we wear a suit a tie we are making a point that our sermon matters. In this post, I want to show how this is neither Biblically nor culturally demanded.

It seems worth noting from the outset, I have never once heard people defend a shirt-and-tie-on-principle stance with any reference to scripture. I can only surmise this is because (a) there is no scripture that supports the position, (b) there is a significant amount of Biblical data that stands against it, and (c) there are good theological arguments against the stance.

Typical arguments in favour of shirt-and-tie-only tend to be cultural. Normally they land on the excruciatingly lame, ‘if you were visiting the Queen, would you go in jeans?’ The problem with this line of reasoning is several-fold. First, and sorry to state the obvious, but that is not a Biblical imperative. Second, it fails because the expressed etiquette of visiting the Queen demands dressing up; the Lord has not demanded that from us in his word. Third, it fails to contend with the fact that the Queen – along with anyone else watching on – can only judge outwardly like all people. The Lord, by contrast, is quite clear that he is concerned with our hearts, not the clothes we wear or other outward things.

Alternatively, a cultural argument might be advanced on the ground that preaching is important and thus wearing a shirt and tie makes clear we are not being casual about the Word of God. Of course, this view doesn’t account for the fact that we are to live our lives coram deo and consistency would demand we wear a shirt and tie all day every day which, if Paul were making the argument, would be our spiritual worship. Unless we want to argue for shirt-and-ties, even as we go to the shops and knock about the house, why siphon off stepping into the pulpit as opposed to anything else that should form part of our worship/service too? Most scoff at the Mormons doing their door-to-door in suits but, if we are going to insist that shirt-and-tie shows how seriously we take something, shouldn’t we advocate for shirt-and-tie only evangelism too? Or is that not important enough to worry about?

In the absence of any Biblical data pointing toward us wearing shirt and tie, are there any verses that imply it is largely unnecessary? Obviously, not one single person in scripture wore a shirt-and-tie. Jesus didn’t stand up in the synagogue and speak in that sort of get-up. But, what of the wider point – even if culturally determined – that we should wear our best to show that what we are doing is important? Here are some pertinent scriptures:

For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7b)

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place”, while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there”, or, “Sit down at my feet”, have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honourable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfil the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:1-9)

Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. (1 Peter 3:3-4)

Why do you pass judgement on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God. (Romans 14:10)

Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the market-places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts. (Luke 20:46)

They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. (Matthew 23:5)

Then, of course, it bears considering Jesus’ words of John the Baptist in Matthew 11:1, ‘Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist’ and comparing it to Matthew 3:4, ‘John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt round his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.’

This list of verses is not exhaustive but they are instructive. The strong implication is that the Lord is not concerned with the clothes we wear but with the state of our hearts. What is more, John the Baptist was called great by Jesus and was a herald for the coming Christ. He did not wear the clothes that were culturally deemed to denote the importance of his message. Those who wore fine clothes were routinely called out as hypocrites by Jesus while those who were ostracised by society were welcomed by him. None of this points toward a shirt-and-tie culture.

Further, there are good theological reasons to suggest that special clothes are not required. First, there is the fact that the temple is no longer physically located in one place but the Spirit is resident with all true believers all of the time. If God is always present with us, and we are wearing special clothes for the purposes of either worshipping him (which we should do all the time) or ‘coming into his presence’ (which we are in all the time), it demands the need to wear shirt-and-tie all the time (which, to my knowledge, nobody argues for). Unless we believe the church building is the new temple – and, for the avoidance of any doubt, it isn’t – there is no reason to wear special clothes when we enter it.

Second, there is the theological case the Lord is concerned with heart adherence not outward appearance. We have the example of John the Baptist, who was lauded for preaching the coming of Christ and pointing to him as messiah (the task of every gospel preacher), yet did so looking like something of a wildman. We have no example of one apostle wearing special clothes in order to proclaim Christ nor getting dressed up in order to preach the Word. To demand that we do so today is to insist upon what the apostles didn’t and to make the case with no basis in scripture. When we insist upon this, we suggest the Lord is actually very concerned with our outward appearance when the scriptures directly tell us this is not true.

Even if we insist that the cultural argument is the most important (and it shouldn’t be), this still doesn’t hold. When the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom can happily be pictured wearing jeans on official trips, and when workplaces routinely eschew ties in favour of more casual clothes, it is safe to say that these things are not so culturally significant anymore. Plenty of university lectures are delivered by guys in jeans and t-shirts. A shirt and tie is simply not a sign that something is important anymore and nor do jeans and t-shirts imply something doesn’t matter.

What is more, we should rightly want to remove any unnecessary barrier to people hearing the gospel. Whilst, as I argued here, people expect their churches to be a bit ‘churchy’, we shouldn’t want to put unnecessary barriers in the way of people engaging with the gospel. Whilst, ironically, some of things we might consider barriers – and work very hard ot remove – actually turn out to put a lot of people off, being made to feel uncomfortable because you are the only person in the room who isn’t in a shirt and tie, particularly when culturally most people nowadays do not wear such things on an everyday basis, is likely to put people off the church.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus welcomed those who did not dress or look as others did. We must ask, seriously, how are we emulating Christ when we insist people wear particular clothes in church? If the preacher is always in a shirt and tie, what does that imply to the average person in the church about the preaching? I am willing to bet that ‘preaching is important’ is not the immediate thought that comes to mind. It would imply to many that preaching is not for them because they do not dress (or speak) like anyone they allow in the pulpit. Worse, it creates a kind of clericalism. It implies an ‘us and them’ between the preacher in his suit and the rest of the church.

In the end, there is neither a Biblical, theological nor cultural case to be made for insisting on shirt and ties, suits or any special clothes in the pulpit. As I said in my earlier post, if that is what you are naturally like outside the pulpit, then it makes sense to be your natural self in it. I am not suggesting it is wrong to wear a shirt and tie in the pulpit. What I am saying is that there may be some reasons, based on wisdom and sensitivity, that we might consider not doing so. I am certainly saying it is wrong to insist on shirt and tie in the pulpit when scripture doesn’t demand it.