“I’m gonna’ put on my robe, tell the story how I made it ova’.”
Contention over dress within the Christian church it is nothing new. For African Americans, clothing, fashion, and style have historically been acts of resistance, liberation, and counter-narrative. Our garb has also signaled and signified who we are and how we “made it over.”
So why is it that we ask the controversial question “how should we dress for worship?”
Many have harbored strong feelings about the topic of dress and worship for some time. And whenever people feel strongly about a topic that the Bible does not give explicit instructions on we find ourselves in an imbalanced state of division. But if we look back at history, P.E. Klassen documents in an article for Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation that Black women in the 19th century used dress to communicate. Both the political and religious messages in their attire suggest that women understood the power of dress and how it legitimized them in a society that was originally hostile towards them. In other words, dress in African American communities has traditionally not been a separate entity. Our dress was functional, political, and religious, all while displaying our cultural expression through style.
With dress originally playing such a pivotal role in African American political and religious culture, when did the two separate? How is it that now, African American dress is a choice between religious respectability or cultural identity?
Sacrificing Culture for Salvation
The truth is, I believe some African Americans have sacrificed their culture for salvation. Many African American Christians have traded in their cultural identity for respectability in Western European Christian churches. It’s as though we’ve omitted the origins of dress as a feature of culture, and an expression of being. But there is no Scriptural support for such a sacrifice. In fact, Scripture reveals that dress and all its particulars has always been important to God. In fact, God even believed certain religious leaders, those being the priests, should wear particular garb. Exodus 28:2 says, “Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron to give him divinity and honor.” Some translations say “for glory and for beauty,” meaning the robes of the priests were to be both appealing to the eye and sufficient to represent the glory of God.
In other words, the garments in Exodus represented the culture of post-Egyptian bondage as now they are a people that has been set a part to worship Yahweh and Him alone. But they are also a representation of God’s standard of “divinity and honor.” These robes were to help them understand the significance of humanity coming into the presence of God in the sanctuary.
But God also spoke to the Israelites about His plan to save them and atone for their sin using the dress of the day as a metaphor. In Ezekiel 16:10-14, God describes how He found humanity, metaphorically a woman in the text, naked and covered in blood. He washes her and covers her:
“I clothed you in embroidered cloth and gave you sandals of badger skin; I clothed you with fine linen and covered you with silk. I adorned you with ornaments, put bracelets on your wrists, and a chain on your neck. And I put a jewel in your nose, earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen, silk, and embroidered cloth. You ate pastry of fine flour, honey, and oil. You were exceedingly beautiful, and succeeded to royalty. Your fame went out among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through My splendor which I had bestowed on you,” says the Lord God.
Here, God is speaking to the prophet Ezekiel and He’s likening His redemption of humanity to clothing a woman in fine linen and jewels. Speaking of the fabrics and ornaments of that time period, God is not put off by cultural dress. No, here God uses the cultural dress of the time to describe His plan of justification and sanctification. The beauty of such spiritual covering, God believed, would be best understood by the people if likened to the finest fabrics and jewelry of that time.
Dress is an Act of Worship
By likening salvation to the cultural dress of the time, we see that African Americans have the authority to express their relationship with God through dress. God desires that we be beautifully garbed. But what’s of greatest significance is that our garb is not a prerequisite for coming into His presence. In fact, the truth is, all we do and anything we wear is as “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). This is why God promises to clothe us and cover us like the Father did the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32.
Yes, God designed a robe specific for the priests because of their role as intercessors on behalf of the people. But to the people at large God did not designate any particular kind of clothing that was specifically for worship. This gives us the freedom to celebrate our authentic walk in Christ enjoying how our clothing is a symbol of God’s infinite grace. God is the Master Stylist. He took our fig leaves and clothed us in lamb’s wool, and because of the sacrifice of Christ takes our sin and clothes us in His righteousness. And God has even promised that when it’s all over He’s going to hand us a crown and a robe and we will put on the garments of Heaven and tell the story of how we made it over. So until that day, let us feel free to worship Him with the fashion of our various cultures remembering they are beautiful symbols of our justification and sanctification.