Legalism: Are Your Shoes Polished in the House of God?


 Are Your Shoes Polished in the House of the Lord?

The Growing Problem in Our Congregations

I can think of few things more indicative of a spiritually slothful heart, a heart improperly prepared for the worship service, than when a man enters into the assembly of the saints with unpolished shoes. Nothing speaks more of a lack of heart preparation, nothing speaks more of a lack of reverence for, and honour towards God, than a lack of proper polishing! Those who run hastily into the congregation of the saints, with dusty, dirty, or even muddy footwear evidence the fact that they are not at all serious about worshipping God. Sadly, this issue of inadequately kept footwear has invaded the church and shows forth the sad state of our local assemblies.

Some will argue that the state of ones shoes has nothing to do with the readiness of their heart before God during the worship service; still others will argue that it is utterly inappropriate to judge a person’s eagerness to hear the word of God by whether or not their shoes are properly polished. To that I say, ‘they are right!’ — It is utterly inappropriate to judge another person’s reverence towards God, and readiness to hear His word, by the quality of their shoe-polishing. However, it is no more inappropriate than those who impose artificial and unbiblical dress codes on the worship service and who use earthly apparel as a measuring stick for sincerity and dedication.

There are those who believe that suits are required dress for the worship service. Others may not go so far as to require a full suit, but would maintain that dress shirts, dress slacks, dress shoes and possibly even dress ties are a must. In enforcing such requirements, some will go so far as to tell others what they should (or must) wear during the service. Others may not be so bold, but will pass judgment, either publicly or privately, on the ‘unpolished’ concerning their supposed lack of reverence (as displayed by their ‘inadequate’ clothing).

How did this notion that formal dress equates or evidences commitment and reverence enter into the church of God? How is it that many godly men believe that standards not set forth in the Bible are somehow justified and fit to be imposed upon God’s people? From whence does this error arise? Quite simply, it arises from the pride and tradition of men. It arises from false concepts of what true praise, reverence, and worship really entails. It arises from men trying to be holier than what God requires in His word — an act and mindset that has the opposite of the intended purpose; it is like playing with strange fire. Such notions do not serve to glorify God, but rather, they serve only to setup barriers against godly unity and fellowship, which in turn, proves dishonouring to Christ and His body.

What Does the Bible Say About Attire in the Congregation

It is interesting to note that the Bible has very little to say about clothing as it pertains to the worship service. Search the scriptures, find in it any reference to a dress code that believers must adhere to to show forth proper reverence towards God; I trust that you will find no such thing (beyond the requirement for simple modesty). Consider the following:

Romans 12:1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, [which is] your reasonable service. 2 And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what [is] that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.

1 Timothy 2:9 In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; 10 But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.

Titus 2:3 The aged women likewise, that [they be] in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; 4 That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, 5 [To be] discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.

1 Peter 3:1 Likewise, ye wives, [be] in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; 2 While they behold your chaste conversation [coupled] with fear. 3 Whose adorning let it not be that outward [adorning] of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; 4 But [let it be] the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, [even the ornament] of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. 5 For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: 6 Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.

1 Peter 5:5 Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all [of you] be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.

Man-made Rules and Judgments

Beyond the call for modesty and humility, there are no rules in the New Testament requiring any sort of dress code in the assembly. One can infer a standard of reasonableness; by that I mean a standard by which something is not only modest, but also not over the top, or otherwise serving as a distraction to others. Surely wearing a fireman’s uniform to the worship service is not prudent if you are not a fireman and not coming from work (or heading to it straight after) as such.

However, the Bible does have something to say about unrighteous judgment as it relates to clothing. God declares in James 2:1-4:

James 2:1 My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, [the Lord] of glory, with respect of persons.2 For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; 3 And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: 4 Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? 

The word vile in James 2:2 literally means to be dirty, grow filthy, base, defiled (as in defiled with iniquity). Although I am sure this passage has spiritual application, I do not believe it right to dismiss the very clear practical application of it. If we are not to judge, mistreat, or single out a man in vile raiment, how much less should we judge, mistreat, or single out a person wearing clean, modest, clothing (clothing that nonetheless does not attain to some arbitrary standard created by men)? If vile raiment is nonetheless meet for worship, so is anything else that is modest. If we make dress, so long as it is modest and reasonable dress, a point of separation, then we become like those in Isaiah 65:5 who declare: “Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou.”

The “holier than thou” mentality was exemplified in the Pharisaical form of dress. Jesus warned concerning the scribes and Pharisees: Matthew 23:5 “But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments…” Sadly, many in our day substitute broadened phylacteries and enlarged garment borders with suits and ties; even godly men are caught up in this error.

Common Objections

If you were going to meet the President, you would wear a suit…

This is true; if I was going to meet the President of the United States, or attend a wedding, or go for a job interview, or attend a funeral, I would dress up in a suit. I would dress up in a suit primarily because (a) it is expected of me; (b) because I do not want to look out of place; and (c) it is our cultural tradition to do so.

However, when one attends the worship service, should we really dress up simply because others expect us to do so; isn’t that tantamount to man-pleasing? Should our motivation really be that we do not want to look out of place; doesn’t that go a bit to pride if we are otherwise dressed reasonably and modestly? Should we dress up simply because it is our tradition to do so; doesn’t that go towards form without substance? Even if the answer to all of the above is a resounding yes (i.e. that we ought to do it out of expectation, conformity, and tradition), does that yes give us the right to dictate a dress code or to look down upon, judge, or discipline those who do not adhere to it? Surely not.

But what of the reverence argument; some wear suits to weddings, funerals, and other important functions out of reverence. But does the God who desires to be worshipped in Spirit and in Truth require outward form of attire for proper reverence? Surely if attire was indicative of reverence, God would have made mention of it in His word. If reverence towards men supposedly requires a certain form of dress, does that necessarily translate into the same requirement for reverence towards God? Does God require that which man requires even though He, Himself, makes no such requirement known to us? I think not. The reverence argument is a misleading one and is based upon the same rationale that most every religious tradition (or commandment) of men has been based upon. Almost every tradition of men has at the root of the argument the notion that the tradition is necessary “to ensure proper reverence towards God.”

Godly men of old have been wearing suits for ages, are you saying that they are all wrong?

This logical fallacy of  appealing to tradition is a dangerous one; it is also a root defense for almost every commandment of man. The argument that godly men of old have always done something ‘reverent’ bears no weight if there is no scriptural defense for that tradition. Godly men of old may have worn suits for whatever reason (cultural distinctions being a very likely one), but to make a religious requirement out of it based in whole, or in part, upon what these godly men of old have ‘always done’ only serves to reinforce the reality that this is a man-made requirement and not one from God. During the assembly, godly men of old may have worn togas at one point; it doesn’t mean we must do so today.

Moreover, history is full of godly men who have been in error (not to say that wearing a suit is an error). To repeat an error simply because godly men committed it is wrong — I’m sure most would agree. To impose an artificial, non-scriptural, requirement on others under this same mindset is likewise wrong. It only serves to erect divisions where none would otherwise exists and fosters a “my way is the right way to worship/reverence God” mentality that God has nowhere declared or affirmed in His word.

Why do you feel the need to be different; doesn’t Christian humility and unity demand that you do what the other brethren do?

This appeal to conformity is also quite dangerous; how many erroneous traditions likewise exist due to this type of argument? I trust many indeed! If what the rest of the brethren are doing is ungodly (e.g. if they are “teaching [for] doctrines the commandments of men.”), then appealing to Christian unity and humility to force conformity is sinful in itself. It is true that Christians ought to be humble, and seek to live and interact peaceably. It is also true that no assembly is perfect; there will always be elements of tradition that get in the way of full unity; we all see in part. However, it is incumbent upon the elders, deacons, and all of the brethren really, to work together to get rid of anything that unduly interferes with Christian fellowship and the true worship and reverence of God.

Christians, whether they be elders, deacons, or so-called ‘lay people’ ought to be working diligently to search the Scriptures, verifying whether the doctrines to which they hold are true, and then working to root out unbiblical traditions, unjust judgments, and other such errors. Instead of seeking to conform to denominational nuances and standards, we ought to seek to tear down the Berlin Walls of pet (man-made) traditions so that all of the brethren feel welcome and united to the assembly — without regard to baseless denominational distinctions. 

Although it may be prudent, at least for a season, to conform to the traditions of men for the sake of benefiting the weaker brethren, it is never good to impose or enforce unscriptural traditions upon them. It may be better to wear the customary apparel for a time, but it is never good to wear any apparel under the false notion that it will make you more reverent, sanctified, or sincere in your worship. If certain clothing is ‘required’ to prepare the heart for worship, beyond the modesty aspect, a deeper problem exists.

We need to set a proper example for the world and set ourselves apart from the unregenerate in it (so that the world can see Christ in us).

Some honestly believe that wearing certain clothes can somehow generate a better testimony. Clearly, if we dress immodestly, we undermine our testimony. However, if we strive to dress modestly, and not draw undue attention to ourselves, our cause will not be helped any further by wearing a suit (or formal / semi-formal apparel in general).

Outward show of religion is not going to make anyone see ‘Christ in us.’ As godly men have said already, ‘the world didn’t even see Christ in the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Seeing Christ has nothing to do with the clothing we wear. Moreover, imposing a dress code will set us a part from the rest of the world, just as broadened phylacteries and enlarged garment borders set the Scribes and Pharisees apart from the rest of the world. However, is that really the pattern we want to emulate? Do we really want to follow the path of the Pharisees when considering dress? Do we want to establish codes against “vile raiment” (i.e. any raiment less than a suit, or shirt and tie, or whatever we personally deem necessary for right reverence and worship).

It is God who sanctifies; He alone makes us holy and sets us apart from the world based upon (a) what the Father has purposed and given us from eternity past; (b) what the Son has done for us in light of His atoning blood and imputed righteousness; and (c) what the Holy Spirit does in us (regeneration, conversion, and the ordering of our paths unto the good works that God has before ordained that we should walk in). Subjectively, as we work out our salvation in this life, we set ourselves apart from the world by striving to proclaim the Gospel of free and sovereign grace (defining it and distinguishing it from all counterfeits without compromise). Likewise, we set ourselves apart by the grace of God, by striving to adorn the Gospel with conduct and conversation meet for a Gospel profession (Titus 2:10, Matthew 5:16, Ephesians 4:1-3, Philippians 1:27, Philippians 2:12-15, 1 Peter 2:11-12, 1 Peter 3:13-17).

Think about this as well; think of all the high-flying, holy-rolling Charismatics and Pentecostals that dress-up in their Sunday best. Do you think that the unsaved world really sees any difference between the true Christian and the false when both are wearing suits? Or what of the well-to-do Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran and others who come to their false congregations suited up most fancily. Does anyone honestly think someone is going to say “that man wears a suit; he must be a real Christian. Look at how he is set apart from all of the rest.”  Of course no one will say that, at least no one with any semblance of right knowledge. They will see the suited Arminian in the same light as the suited High-Calvinist; they will simply see a religious figure in a suit. We are fooling ourselves if we think that man-made apparel in any way distinguishes us beyond the realm of morality. Sure, they will see us as modest perhaps, or more moral, but will they see Christ in us because of our clothes… never!

Nonetheless, Wear a Suit If Need Be…

We read in Colossians 2:16 “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath [days];” I do not think it a stretch to incorporate dress codes and any other unbiblical man-made traditions into the list of  things that we are not to let any man judge us concerning. Strive for modesty, strive for unity, and recognize that there is no harm in speaking out against traditions or human commandments taught as doctrine.

However, the above is not a call for disorderliness; in fact, although I have no qualms about wearing jeans in the assembly, I for one usually wear more ‘formal’ attire (dress shirt, slacks, shoes, and a tie); I also wear suits sometimes. This article is not a call to arms against suit wearing, formal dress, etc. Rather, it is a call to reject the types of man-made divisions typified by unwarranted dress codes. In other words, it isn’t the wearing of the clothes that is an issue, but the mindset that is often behind it. Any human element that is allowed to interfere with unity should be avoided – we must see that this issue goes well beyond mere clothing.

Nonetheless, in many instances it may be prudent to wear a suit; especially when visiting or attending a faithful assembly where everyone else wears one (presuming of course, that you have one to wear and/or that you can readily afford one). God, through the Apostle Paul, declares in 1 Corinthians 9 “19 For though I be free from all [men], yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. 20 And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; 21 To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. 22 To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all [men], that I might by all means save some.” 

If you can best aid weaker brethren by becoming as them in appearance, custom, etc. then it may very well be beneficial (at least for a season) to be like them in such things. We do not want to go into assemblies stirring up strife and seeking to overturn norms and customs – no matter how unbiblical they may be. We want to live peaceably and to focus on that which is most important – the Lord Jesus Christ and His glory and honour. Through prayer, and godly reasoning when asked of others, God may very well open up the eyes of others to the truth of these things.

So though our mission is not to go in and attempt to change the minds of others, we most certainly do not want to engage in, or partake in, the unbiblical (and ungodly) behaviour of setting up divisions amongst brethren, esteeming ourselves above others who do not share our fashion tastes, and making carnal, earthy, and material things measures of sincerity and earnestness in relation to the reverence and worship of God. If we see brethren in jeans in the worship service, we ought to embrace them straightway, without trying to get them to conform to any personal views concerning right attire (same goes with those wearing suits). If we see that they wear jeans often, it may be that they cannot afford (or do not have) anything else to wear; in which case, consider wearing a pair yourself so that they feel more comfortable and at ease amongst the congregation. Do whatever it takes to make brothers and sisters in Christ comfortable, so long as your actions are godly and motivated out of love for the brethren and for the Lord (and not the commandments of men).


Clothing is relatively unimportant; it exists mainly to keep us safe from the elements and to keep us safe from immodesty (and the lusts that follow after it). So long as we strive to dress reasonably and modestly, unto the glory of God and for the sake of the weaknesses of our fellow man, we should not give too much thought to what we wear. Moreover, we surely should not make anything above reasonableness and modesty a criteria for how we judge the clothing of others. Although many may have differing views of modesty, it is not hard to determine both what is reasonably modest and what is clearly immodest. Surely no one can seriously argue that a suit, or a dress shirt and ties, is required for the purposes of humility and modesty.

Consider also that some things that are modest, may not always be reasonable. Wearing clothing from the 13th century may be modest, but given that it will likely serve to distract, it is likely neither reasonable nor appropriate in our day. Likewise, I could make a far better argument for requiring the wearing of sackcloth and ashes in the assembly (to show forth godly fear, repentance, reverence, etc.) than I could for requiring the wearing of suits (see for instance, 2 Kings 19:1-2; 1 Chronicles 21:16; Esther 4:1-4; Isaiah 37:1-2; Daniel 9:3; Joel 1:8-13; Jonah 3:4-10; Revelation 11:3); however the wearing of sackcloth and ashes in the assembly may not be reasonable in our day and age, serving only to distract from the worship service (but who am I to say that; it may indeed be reasonable in our day if done in sincerity). Some could argue that wearing a suit is not appropriate in certain modern situations (e.g. when amongst those who clearly cannot afford one, in the extreme heat of the tropics, etc.), but again, that is not for me to judge. Personally, I prefer a mixed assembly; I prefer to see some in jeans, some in shirts and ties, some in full suits, etc, so that no matter who arrives, they will not feel out of place over something as relatively insignificant as clothing.

I think it fair to say that striving to cover ourselves appropriately, and to not draw undue attention to ourselves, is the best guideline to follow. Making anything else a requirement for right worship only engenders strife, division, legalism, and at worst, Pharisaism. We can see a picture of this with the Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites, and other adherents of free-will theology (will-worship) who make spectacles of themselves by wearing certain kinds of clothing in an attempt to be, or appear to be, more holy. We can see this error even more clearly with those followers of Islam who require the wearing of burkas and other such garb. Anachronistic attire does not make someone more holy; nor does dictating or following anachronistic traditions, or commandments, of men.

Thus, if others want to judge their degree of reverence, holiness, sanctification, sincerity, devotion, etc. by their outward apparel — let them do it (it is between them and God). But let no one judge you by such things; these material, temporal things are of no matter. Simply make sure that you know that God judges not according to the appearance but that He judges righteous judgment — and therefore, so should we (John 7:24).  If we so judge, let us never impose undue burdens on others — especially when no biblical warrant whatsoever exists for it.

Nonetheless, to God be the glory. May He give us the grace and strength to love Him and to serve Him all the more.


Curt Wildy

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