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Beyond the Sunday Best

Beyond the Sunday Best

Analyzing Biblical and Cultural Guidelines for Hats in Worship

Mitchell Leach

Community Pastor

Peace Church

Published On:

March 29, 2024

Celebrating Fashion in Worship

Praise God for fashion. I mean that sincerely. While you'll hear many pastors condemn the fashion industry as an immodest bastion of our cultural moral identity, I love when I can find clothes that fit me, clothes that I enjoy, and express something about me. I think all of us can agree about this. There is something gratifying about wearing your favorite jeans, or when you get dressed up for a nice occasion. If you disagree, I would have to appeal to the ZZ Top song “Sharp Dressed Man.”

Diverse Perspectives on Dress Codes in Church

When it comes to the way we dress, we all have different opinions on what should and shouldn’t be worn in a variety of different settings. While there definitely are appropriate things to wear in different settings, I believe that when this conversation comes up at church we (as churches) don't have a good track record for leading people to true worship, but rather have led toward our preferences and/or to appease those already in the church.

Theological Reflections on Worship Attire

What is required of us when we come together to worship? What guidelines are there? Is it right for a man or woman to wear a hat, or to dress casually? It is my argument that Christians have the freedom to wear nearly any type of clothing if they love their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Hats in Church: A Cultural and Scriptural Analysis

Is it ok for a man to wear a hat in church? If you attend a more traditional church, you will hear that it isn’t appropriate. An argument I've heard about prohibiting hats in church is that, it’s respectful - for men specifically — to take their hats off when they walk into a building. But where did this idea come from? A long time ago, hats were worn as a sign of status. You could tell a person’s social rank by their hat. The more grandiose the hat, the more important was the person.

In today’s culture, this no longer is the cultural norm.

Ask yourself this question, when was the last time you saw a man take off his hat before going to a restaurant, hardware store, or grocery store?

I can’t remember. To be more succinct, in our culture today, men wear hats anywhere. Culturally speaking, asking men or women to not wear a hat is more of a cultural faux pa than allowing them to wear one.

The Role of Scripture in Guiding Church Dress Codes

Yet this is my assessment of culture. While cultural norms play some part in this, the scriptures must be our highest authority. So, what does the Bible tell us? Does scripture prohibit hats?

1 Corinthians 11:4-7 says:

4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.

The Principle of Love and Freedom in Church Attire

Does this passage prohibit men from wearing a hat in church? In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Andrew Naselli — the associate professor of systematic theology and New Testament for Bethlehem College and Seminary — gives us context to this passage of scripture:

“This passage on head coverings, however, is one of the few places in which there is simply no way we can understand the text without understanding its historical-cultural context.

During pagan religious ceremonies, priests—Roman men with a high social status—pulled their togas over their heads when they led by praying or sacrificing. If socially elite men in the Corinthian church covered their head when they prayed or prophesied during corporate worship, they would be highlighting their social status instead of highlighting Christ, the church’s head. They might even exclude low-status people from praying or prophesying. So Paul commands Christian men not to adopt that syncretistic custom.”

To summarize and apply what Dr. Naselli said, men wearing hats today have no bearing on this scriptural command. This passage of scripture was meant for specific people at a specific time. While there are principles for us to glean from this passage, using this passage to prohibit men from wearing a hat while praying is a distortion of scripture.

The Dangers of Prioritizing Preferences over Doctrine

But does the understanding of 1 Corinthians then allow men to wear hats? When I've had this conversation with pastors or elders who have strong opinions about this if they bring up the 1 Corinthians passage, they'll usually concede that this passage isn't a universal command, but a cultural exhortation to the Corinthian church from Paul.

But their next argument tends to be from 1 Corinthians 10 where it says:

23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.

The argument follows the idea that we shouldn't seek to offend those in the church and therefore people who would want to wear hats shouldn't wear them out of love for their neighbor. As I've pushed back against this, I've been told "You should try to assimilate into the culture as best you can in terms of dress."

It makes me sad when I hear something like this. Because we've missed the whole intent of that passage. Paul isn't writing this so that the church in Corinth could weaponize this against fellow believers. This was written so the Corinthian church would see that (in worship) we all have preferences. And out of a spirit of love and unity, we should find joy in setting aside our preferences so that we can worship with others.

Another argument against hats - or any preferred dress code - in churches is that "it is a distraction from worship." In his book The Screwtape Letter, C.S. Lewis writes a series of letters from the point of view of one demon to another on how to tempt a human. In one letter he says this,

"When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like 'the body of Christ' and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy's side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous."

Unfortunately, too many Christians in too many churches have fallen for this kind of temptation. A temptation to believe that everyone in church should be as "amazing" as we think we are. The notion that hats can distract us from worship is as nonsensical as saying that shoes, coats, or belts could distract us. If in a worship service, the people around us take our eyes, hearts, and minds of the all-satisfying power of Jesus, our problem isn't with our neighbors but with a very real enemy.

Doctrine not preferences should be the walls that keep people out. By that I mean it is the duty of churches to set walls in place to keep unity in places that matter, like the cross, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, etc. These are good places where the church should say, "If you don't believe these things we cannot let you become part of this body."

But drawing the line in the sand that says "hats, or sweatshirts, or (you name it), are unacceptable, and therefore we're asking you to change" is absurd.

I grew up on a farm until I was in elementary school. My dad was a farmer, my grandpa was a farmer, his dad was a farmer, and his dad was a farmer. And that’s as far back as I know. Growing up in a little Presbyterian church in rural Michigan, I can remember sitting in church with my grandpa and I remember him wearing his John Deere hat. During the planting and harvesting season, many farmers are so busy that they miss church on Sundays. But the church I was born into said, “Come in your dusty overalls. Come with your hats on. It’s more important to worship together than you to miss because of your appearance.”

On the argument of "assimilating to the culture's dress" I want to say this is a hypocritical argument. If a man came dressed in a suit and tie every week (which in this context would be overdressed), no one would ever approach that man to tell him that his suit "draws attention to who they are and takes away from who Jesus is in our worship."

All across America, churches are bleeding members. Maybe you feel that in a very real way in your congregation. Are hats and dress codes going to be the hill we die on?

The Gospel's Call to Welcome the Unkempt

The true heart of this argument is an unfortunate one. It says, "We want this place to look like 'good' people come here. It should be refined. We won't attract the kinds of people we want to come here in the future if we allow unkempt people in."

The response to this is almost unnecessary but I won't allow it to be unsaid.

The gospel has always been for the poor and the outcast. Or another way you could say it is unkempt.

The good news has said blessed are the poor, or poor in spirit. Being poor makes you realize that you cannot do it on your own and that you are a charity case. And this is true for those who are poor in spirit. We are spiritual charity cases. We cannot do it on our own and we needed another to pay for us.

Reevaluating Our Priorities in Church Dress Codes

My plea is for the church to cherish such people. Cherish those who don't have their act together, who desperately need the good news, who look different than you, and who dress differently than you’d like. My plea is that the church would seek and save those who are poor in spirit, rather than trying to preserve the preferences of those who are middle class in spirit.

This isn’t about socio-economic class, this is about our heart. Jesus didn’t atone for our sins so that one day we could be sanctified enough to not wear hats in church. Our sanctification should drive us to unity and a sacrificial love for people whom we wouldn’t naturally love. The whole bible is a story about loving the stranger and the outcast. Abram the Urite, Ruth the Moabite, Rahab the Canaanite, Uriah the Hittite, Naaman a Syrian, etc. God has a special heart for redeeming those who don’t seem to fit, and working through them to do unimaginable wonders.

So when it comes down to it, is our appearance where we are going to draw the line in the sand? Are we willing to die on this hill? Are we willing to have a church full of hat-wearing folks, or would we rather keep our upscale prim and proper country club?

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