This is probably the single most difficult issue for me personally in my ministry thus far, which causes me to give thanks to God, from time to time, because it’s easy potatoes. It’s a source of distress to many to whom I minister, though, and so here’s my apologia – these are the reasons that I don’t like to wear a tie to worship, barring special occasions*. I note heavily that this is me – in some ways this is also a confession of the intensely personal reasons that I struggle with the issue.
1. I learned to dress professionally in the technology world
Zuckerberg, Gates, Jobs – these are the men who were lifted up as role models during my development. Smart, professional, capable, and competent…and not a one of ‘em will you see, these days, in a suit and tie. Business casual is my default setting, the uniform of the technology professional that I, to some extent, remain today. It’s my most comfortable context, and just for me personally, it’s where I like to stay.
2. I experience it as off-putting to young people
I was once prepping a talk to my college Christian Fellowship. As I was about to sling a necktie around my neck, having been persuaded of its necessity by a former pastor’s wife, a friend stopped me. “Don’t do that,” she said, “or no one’s going to listen to you. I am less likely to believe or listen to you in a necktie than without it.” I was so struck by the experience that it stuck with me. When I am addressing folks under a certain age, I try to respect their context in this particular way.
3. I don’t like what the suit and tie symbolize
Now that’s what I call a sharp-dressed man.
Many in my generation – I certainly place myself in this category – experience “suits” as a source or symbol of oppression and imperialism. The suit and tie are a symbol, for us, of corporate greed and unhealthy power dynamics. Wall Street bankers and corrupt politicians are suit-wearers, and as much as possible, I want to distinguish myself from that crowd. If I have to dress formally as a symbol of my office, I vastly prefer my clerical collar (which sends an odd message to some people) over a necktie. At least, there, I am buying into a tradition of care that I have chosen.
4. I don’t care what people wear
At my previous congregation, I started hearing complaints about how some of our younger female parishioners were dressed. Very literally, I had to ask the complainer who they meant, and what particular garment had offended them, because I hadn’t noticed. I am a healthy, young, straight male, and I hadn’t processed any distracting outfits, because my fundamental assumption is that people are, y’know, wearing clothes. I don’t care, by and large, what other people wear, and so am always deeply surprised when people have opinions about what I wear. It seems to me such an profoundly unimportant fixation, how folks are dressed. Clearly I am not in the majority on this viewpoint, but it’s deeply rooted in how I feel. I don’t care what you wear, up to a point. If we’re avoiding obscenity, who cares what we wear?
5. I understand respect and reverence very differently
The most common and consistent comment I hear about “appropriate dress,” the one that concerns me most today, is that it shows respect and reverence for God. These are concepts which, to be frank, I struggle in terms of dress and appearance. My lifelong experience is that respect is a matter of action and speech. I have never once felt disrespected by something that someone has worn or not worn, and have often felt disrespected because of something that someone said or did. I have experienced enormous deference and respect from people in enormously casual wear, and tremendous disrespect from people in extremely crisp suits.
Respect is also tricky because it MUST be a two-way street. Being respectful of other people must fit in a context that they can experience clearly. Wearing a suit and tie is a sign of disrespect in some cultural moments. Being derisive or nasty about folks’ tattoos is a sign of disrespect in those same cultural moments. If we’re going to demand respect, we also need to be willing to give respect. Respect is a construct between two equals – it cannot flow simply from the powerless to the powerful, or much of Christ’s work is nonsense.
Reverence is tricky for me in short, because I can’t imagine a time that my life is disconnected from God. God is with me when I’m praying on my knees, when I’m laughing at a movie with friends, when I’m weeping with a broken-hearted congregant. I find the idea that Sunday worship is a time somehow set apart from other times problematic. The Holy thing in our faith is not Sunday, nor worship, nor the sanctuary, nor my robe nor stole nor cross. The holy thing is the people. The Church is the holy people of God, be they sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes or drunk or addicts or HIV positive. We are made holy not by what we wear, nor what we say, nor what we do, nor even by what we believe. We are made holy by the grace of God, and none of us, no matter how sharply dressed, has deserved that glorious gift.
6. God has bigger fish to fry than how you dress on Sunday morning
God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, says of the respectful, reverent practices of Israel, “Is this the kind of fast I choose, a day of self-affliction, of bending one’s head like a reed and of lying down in mourning clothing and ashes?…Isn’t this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke? Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family?” (Isaiah 58:5-7). Again, when Jesus is questioned about the behavior of his disciples, violating the letter of the Jewish law as it concerns Sabbath rest, he replies, “The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath.This is why the Human One is Lord even over the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28) For me, worship is a time of authentic presence before the face of God, a stripping down to the essential elements of your spirit. I say, if your necktie is causing you to sin, is separating you from the call of God to love and compassion and obedience, then strip it from your neck! It is better to enter the Kingdom of heaven “improperly dressed” than to burn in a blazer and a sharp tie.
Don’t be these guys.
Finally this – and this is critical. If you have a problem with something that I am doing, or not doing, come and speak to me. I heard about these issues folks were having at secondhand, and that is not fair to me, or to the receivers of complaints. You can ask around – I have no problem whatsoever being criticized, no problem listening and responding. I’m here to listen – just pop on by the office, ring me up, drop me an e-mail, or send me a card.
And for this one, please – comment and respond! This is an ongoing conversation for me, and one I’m always happy to work on further. I’m especially interested in what “respect” means to various folks, because I’m almost 30, and I don’t think I really understand respect.
Be sure also to check out the rebuttal from ruling elder Kaye Lamb!
* Special occasions are tricky to define, but, in short, I feel that Easter, Christmas, funerals, weddings, and job interviews qualify. Few others do.