Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Brief Theology Of Clothing And Fashion

          A couple of weeks ago, I turned up at church wearing the new outfit that I had purchased back in New York last December. Blue dress shirt with a Navy Tommy Hilfiger top, DKNY jeans, and a pair of Polo Ralph Lauren boots. That was the first time in a long, long, long, long time that I can remember being complimented for my clothing. No fewer than three people responded with some variation of "Dan! Nice shoes!" when I said hi to them, and Roy Wu actually saw me from across the whole hall and came over just to comment on my attire. It felt nice. It made me smile. It confirmed that I like it when I wear nice clothing and people notice.
          Truth be told, I didn't acquire a single article of clothing that I was wearing that day on my own. My fiancee Jo picked out the shirt and jumper, I was assisted with the jeans, and my friend Phil Thai practically had to hold a gun to my head to make me buy those nice brown shoes. "But, why would I need them?" I protested, "I don't even have a brown belt and I've already got a pair of nice shoes." "Dude!" he cried out, exasperated, "They're on a ridiculous sale and you can't get through life with just one pair of twenty dollar loafers!" And then at some point, he said,

"When you preach, you should look good"

          My fashion sense has changed a lot in the last year. For example, I now know that, as itchy as scarves are, people often don't wear them for the warmth so much as for the style and the way that it complements their coat. I used to have two kinds of clothing in my closet; my suit, and everything else. I had one pair of dress shoes (with shoelaces because I didn't know that loafers are now in), one pair of sneakers, and one pair of football cleats. Now I have going-out sneakers and every-day sneakers. I have going-out jeans and every-day jeans. I even have a brown AND a black belt. I'm even looking to buy a scarf!

What changed?

          I used to be one of those guys who didn't care about what I looked like or how I dressed. But now I do, and it's not because suddenly I am materialistic or vain or my self-esteem is tied to what other people think of my and my outer beauty (if I were, then I would have definitely lost that extra 10kg that I've gained since starting ministry apprenticeship). What changed was, sometime last year, I decided to learn what the Bible said about clothing and fashion. Here's a brief summary of what I've learned.

The Bible has a LOT to say about clothing and what people wear
          The first thing that I did was go on Bible Gateway and do a word search on every Bible passage that contained "clothes" "clothing" "dress" or "wear". What I found was, from Genesis to Revelation, there were endless references to these terms. Now, of course in a search of this kind, a lot of the references have nothing to do with fashion or clothing, for example, ones that were just detail used to bring a narrative to life. But not all was like that. What's interesting is, God actually cares a lot about what people wear. For example, in Exodus, there are two whole chapters (28 and 39) of instructions on how God's priests were to dress. The high priest's fine clothing both covered up nakedness (Ex 28.42 and gave him dignity and honor (Ex 28.40) You can bet that God didn't want them to turn up to a sacrifice ritual in trackpants, crocs, and a Harvard University hoodie. Speaking about John the Baptist's modest wear, Jesus says, "those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces." Joseph' beautiful coat got him into a lot of trouble. Elijah's mantle was passed to Elisha, along with his divine commission. And in Galatians 3.27, Paul says, that we're all baptized into Christ and have now clothed ourselves with Christ.
          What this means is, at the very least, what we wear is NOT inconsequential. The sheer volume of meaningful references that the Bible makes to clothing, from Adam and Eve's nakedness, to priestly wear, to how Jesus was adorned when he went to the cross, confirms that clothing and dress is a significant part of the human experience. To wear is human.

Fine clothes = Glory and Beauty
          In Genesis 3, God responds to Adam and Eve's newfound awareness of their nakedness by sewing for them fig leaves to wear. A lot of Christians fixate on this passage to make the point that clothing was a concession of the Fall. It is there to cover up our shame. God created us to be naked and unashamed, just like we were in Eden before sin entered the world.
          But what I found interesting is that, when we skip ahead to the end of the Bible, in Revelation where we're given a view of what's the come, it doesn't say we end up being naked again! Oh you can definitely be sure that shame is gone, but we don't return to a state of nakedness any more than we return to a garden. Just as history ends in a city, history also ends with the saints of God clothed in fine linen, bright and clean (Rev 19.8)*. 
          Fine clothing is a way that God's people are adorned with beauty and glory. Just as today there is a connection between a woman's nice dress and a woman's beauty, one day God is going to lift up his people and make them beautiful by dressing them.

Fine clothes = Righteousness
          Job says he puts on righteousness like clothing, and justice as headwear (Job 29.14). The theme is repeated in Isaiah, where he rejoices because God has clothed him in garments of salvation and robes of righteousness (Isaiah 61.10). Of course, ultimately, we will be clothed with Christ (Gal 3.27) and be counted righteous by the life that he lived.

In all this, we can conclude that in the Bible, clothing is a way that God blesses his people. It's a gift, a means of blessing, and the content of a promise that, one day, what we wear will show that we are beautiful and loved and valued and prized, God will make it so. One day, God is going to clothe us with beauty and honor and glory and wealth. We will be living and wearing luxury and true decadence. It is one of the perfect gifts that we can look forward to when our God comes to dwell with us. Amen, hallelujah!

In my research, I've discovered two things. The first is that the Bible really does have a lot to say about everything that is meaningful to mankind. It sure has a lot to say about clothing and I haven't even thought through half of it. And the second thing is, there are a certain oversimplified views of clothing that need to be folded up into and balanced by a richer, more robust, biblically faithful view of clothing. Here are a few:

The "be all things to all people" oversimplification
          The "be all things to all people" people use 1 Corinthians 9 as a lens through which they understand how they are to dress. The principle is, what I wear is simply another tool for completing God's mission. It's another area of my life that I need to sharpen in order to do ministry well. So the reason that I would wear nice clothing when I preach is because if I don't, then no one will listen to me. People respect well-dressed people, and if I want to preach to them the gospel, then I am going to need to invest in a nice pair of brown Polo boots, down an absurd 50% to $50.
          The problem with this view is that, taken to the extreme, it doesn't recognize the richness of fashion and fine clothing as an asset to human existence. Ironically, these are well-dressed people who don't actually fully appreciate God's gift of clothing. Yes, it's true that what I wear has implications for how I do ministry. I wouldn't wear a gold rolex to a soup kitchen any more than I would preach in torn jeans and a Steelers NFL jersey to a congregation of upper-middle class men and women who wear suits to work five days a week. But if we think that clothing is nothing but a missional strategy, then we aren't truly comprehending how deeply connected it is to human life. C.S. Lewis famously said, "Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art... it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival." And I would say the same thing about fashion and fine wear.
          In other words, it's okay that I feel good about what I wear. It's okay that I am complimented. It's a joy that God has given us, much like the joy of being able to dunk a basketball or brew the perfect cappuccino or architect a skyscraper from the ground up in the style of art deco. For the sake of the ministry I ought to dress prudently, but I don't dress well only for the sake of ministry.

The "all clothing is evil" oversimplification
          The "all clothing is evil" people have a deep sensitivity and a painful awareness of our fallen world and of people's sinfulness. Because of sin, the good gift of fashion and beauty have become tarnished. One of the interesting things about my research of clothing and fashion is how many of the references to clothes refer to them as gifts, or objects for the sake of others. We wear clothing for the sake of others. We wear suits to honor the bride and groom on their wedding day. We wear black to grieve with those who've suffered loss. We dress nicely, not just for ourselves, but in order to make us pleasing to look at, and thus, for others.
          The people in this oversimplification only see how in sin, fashion and dress have become more tools of self-advancement and self-glorification rather than love. We wear nice clothes to give ourselves meaning and significance; a meaning and significance that only God can truly give us. We use fashion and make-up to try to make ourselves beautiful, or at least to hide how ugly we truly are or to hide from ourselves how ugly we truly feel. We use clothing only as a way to replace fulfillment from God.
          These people believe that, since God looks at the heart, and all clothing by nature sits outside of the self, all clothing is therefore evil. it's just another manifestation of sin; another way that God can be replaced in our lives.
          While all of the above is true, it is again an oversimplification. How else could what I wear make me feel beautiful if it was never meant to in the first place? Of course what I wear makes me feel beautiful! And that's okay! Just because pornography is wrong doesn't make sex evil, and just because you can use fashion and dress evilly doesn't make it all evil.
          Before I really gave this issue some serious thought, I think I was implicitly a member of this group. I dressed like a bum because I just didn't care. And I reasoned that if I didn't care how I looked, then neither should anyone else. And by that reasoning, I thought that any Christian who tried hard to dress nicely was a vain, shallow, self-focused sinner. And then one day last year, I was at a church-planting event where my former pastor from Boston, Stephen Um, was speaking. I remember being excited that he had come all the way out here and I was able to meet him, so after the session I went up to him to chat and to take a picture. And there I was in the picture, wearing my ugly, frayed neon green t-shirt, basketball shorts with one side of the draw string hanging lose, and my flip flops, next to a well-dressed, well-groomed, sharp looking man. It was embarrassing!
          The reality is, clothing can be used to sin against and hurt others, but then again so can anything else. You can use a microwave oven to kill someone. It doesn't mean that you're sinning if you use it to reheat your cold tea. For the sake of my neighbor I ought to dress prudently, but not all dressing well is sin.

The "inner-beauty" oversimplification
          This one is quite closely related to the last oversimplification. People who fall into this category tend to have a keen understanding of true righteousness. True righteousness is, of course, found in the heart. And in Scripture, fine clothing is so closely tied with true righteousness. Peter says that beauty should not come from outward adornment, but from the inner self (1 Pet 3.3-4).
          The problem, again, is when you take this to the extreme and say that NOTHING else matters except your heart.
          I've been leading music teams in church for years and I hear the whole, "it's not about the outside, but about your heart" line a few times each year. Sometimes, it's sincere, and on occasion, it's uttered as a justification for inexcusably poor musicianship, laziness and unwillingness to practice, and generally poor quality service. If it's about the heart, does that mean that I can play the piano so poorly that my congregation's ears bleed and still call it worship? No! Because what's outside usually reflects what's inside.
          The same principle applies to the whole inner-beauty thing. The reality is, people whose hearts are so captivated by God's beauty and overflowing with love for Jesus will perfect every part of their life to bring God the best. It's why God was pleased with Abel's offering but not Cain's even though nowhere in Genesis 4 were there instructions for what kind of offerings pleased God. Abel just knew to bring the best.
          Look, I'm not knocking on people who turn up to church dressed like dags, and I'm not saying we all should wear suits to church no matter what context. I'm saying that outer beauty, when done right, reflects inner beauty. The whore of Babylon in Revelation 17 was dressed in purple and scarlet and adorned with gold and precious stones, but that didn't mean that God said, "Oh well, let's forget the bling then and just hand out a pair of Uggs and a onesie to everyone in my kingdom."

Fashion and fine clothing
          Fine clothing, like fine arts, fine dining, or fine anything else, points to a wonderful, magnificent, glorious God who knows how to live it up. The yearning in our hearts for nice things confirms the fact that we once knew what was truly lavish, but have it not today. The richest people and the most powerful kings in the world were never able to attain it (see Ecclesiastes). Today, we have the gift of fine clothing, but only a shadow of it. No royal dressed in the best that the world can offer would look presentable in God's future kingdom.
          In a sense, sin is when we take what we have today and make it into the ultimate. If I make my fashion and style ultimate, if I replace God with the joy that I get from being complimented about my clothing, then I am not only an idolater, but I am also robbing myself of the anticipation of a future glory that I cannot even comprehend now.

I am thankful to my good friend Phil Thai and my wonderful fiancee Jo for patiently giving me a fashion sense and teaching me the joy of nice clothing. I hope that what I wear doesn't stumble anyone, but reflects a grateful sinner who is allowed to enjoy God's good gifts, reflects my inner beauty and glory bestowed by God, and reflects a seriousness about the gospel ministry that I have been commissioned to take part in.

-Dan Shih

*And comfortable, as C.S. Lewis repeatedly insists in the Chronicles of Narnia.


  1. This was an excellent post, Dan. You made several well thought out points.

  2. one of your best! and it got my attention because it was about clothes.

    a few things:
    1. you wore a jumper?!
    2. how much is 10kg?
    3. you've come a long way since your days of not wearing jeans :)

  3. oh the things God teach us through dating fashionable women! :)

  4. also, do you have a pic of your outfit?