A young pastor friend of mine recently wondered if millennials are going to finally get rid of the required suit and tie in the pulpit. My response: lawyers tried this in the 90s, and got with the business casual look. Then they discovered that clients found them less authoritative, credible, and believable, and less likely to pay their billing rates. Dark suits came back real fast. But if you do not care much about credibility, believability, and influence, wear whatever you want. Pastors may not need to look exactly like corporate or trial lawyers; but their jobs do involve a similar task of presenting a credible appearance to persuade people of the truths they represent.
It’s true that the disciples didn't wear suits, and neither did Jesus for that matter. And if you can heal the crippled, give sight to the blind, and baptize 3,000 in a day, you don’t need to either! But look, I get it, it's not the suit and the tie that brings spiritual power, and there are no substitutes for a well-crafted, biblical sermon. There is no text to support making a suit and a tie mandatory in the pulpit. But wearing culturally appropriate clothing says you take your job, message, and audience with the appropriate dignity and respect.
Ellen White says: “Carefulness in dress is an important consideration. The minister should be clothed in a manner befitting the dignity of his position. Some ministers have failed in this respect. In some cases not only has there been a lack of taste and of orderly arrangement in the dress, but the clothing has been untidy and slovenly.” Evangelism 673
Appropriate “dignity” could mean dress slacks and a barong in Asia, golf shorts and a collared shirt at the beach, but still probably a suit and a tie in most western churches, though speaking to groups of youth and young people can allow for a more casual look. But know your audience, and do not assume that what has changed for the millennial has changed for everyone else; or even that the millennials will not change on this. Flower power morphed into Reagan's conservative America.
There is also another aspect to this: No matter how dressed up, or dressed down you think is appropriate, tasteful economy is also important to the witness of the minister. One can buy decent suits inexpensively, and casual clothes that are very expensive. Quality clothes, including suits, can be had at reasonable prices if one shops carefully. I believe that Jesus had this mastered. His clothing was of sufficient interest to the Romans for them to cast lots for it, which they wouldn’t have done for a pile of rags.
It is not true that clothes make the man; a saying that which Mark Twain pithily ridiculed by wryly observing that “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” But people do make judgments, fair or not, based on outward appearance. Lawyers prepare witnesses to enhance the credibility of their testimony, often asking men to dress neatly in a suit and tie, and women to dress modestly, wear natural make-up, and to remove jewelry. So ministers of the gospel should be aware that their appearance will add to, or detract, from the credibility of their message.
Nicholas Miller is professor of church history at Andrews University, and legal counsel for the Lake Union Conference