Dignity Without Ostentation

Wayne Jackson
Does it matter how you dress? Should dress be appropriate to the occasion? Most in society feel that it should—within reason. Let’s talk about this for a moment.

“Dignity” is defined as a “state of quality, distinction, honor.” “Ostentation” has to do with acts of “pretentiousness, outward display, to show off.” There is a significant difference between the two. The first has to do with honor or reverence rendered to something that one deems worthy of such; the latter involves an act or state of display that has the aura of self-aggrandizement.

Paul Johnson is the author of a number of best-selling books dealing with history, politics, culture, etc. He also has written for the National Review, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other prominent periodicals. Johnson recently gave a lecture titled Heroes: What Great Statesmen Have to Teach Us. Oddly enough, a major thrust of the presentation has to do with how various statesmen have reflected their attitudes by the way they dressed on various occasions.

General George Washington wore a military uniform whenever the Republic was in danger, but during times of peace he wore simple civilian clothes; he did not wish to use his military celebrity to enhance his personal status.

Before he became president, Harry Truman had seen action in the First World War as a major, and he took an active part in the Reserve between World War I and World War II. When he became ex-officio commander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, he never wore the uniform (which he had every right to do); rather he dressed in a simple, neat blue suit.

When Ronald Regan was President, he would not enter the oval office without a suit and tie, because he has such great respect for what that room represented.

Some years ago I held several gospel meetings in Richland, Washington. While there I always stayed in the home of brother and sister G. D. West. Mr. West had held a responsible position in an atomic energy facility in that area and also served as an elder in the church. When he retired he spent a great deal of time serving in his position as a shepherd of the flock. Each morning he would put on a white shirt and tie. If he visited someone he wore a suit. He held the office of an elder in such esteem he felt he must exhibit a dignified demeanor as he took care of his duties.

As a young preacher I was taught that the role of proclaiming the gospel was the most important task one could pursue, and that such deserved presentation characterized by solemnity and stateliness. I further observed that men who had important positions dressed neatly. If I had an interview with a banker, he was dressed in a business-like fashion. If I consulted the services of an attorney, he was dressed in a suit and tie. I’ve even noticed more recently that the two surgeons with whom I’ve counseled both wore nice shirts and ties with their medical coats.

In college I once had a professor who also was a flamboyant preacher. He sometimes wore a fire-engine-red suit, and advertised on his own behalf: “Come hear the preacher with the red suit.” He also occasionally wore a snow-white suit. I sometimes thought of saying to him, “Colonel Sanders, I just love your chicken.”

While such extreme cases are relatively rare, it seems to me our up-and-coming preacher-hood is drifting in the other direction. With many young ministers things have changed dramatically—from the stately to the casual-sloppy. When preachers wear ties with cartoon characters and silly slogans, and when their shirts and suits look as if they’d been “ironed” with some kind of road-construction machinery, something is wrong in the ministerial “cranium.”

I feel that I must teach the word of God in a dignified fashion. In addition, I’m convinced that the way a teacher/preacher dresses has something to do with the frame of mind that accompanies him during the process. Dignity of attire, in my judgment, reinforces the reverent disposition one should have in dealing with eternal issues. It can emphasize how one feels about the nature of what one is doing.

Remember this: when you are teaching, or leading in a worship service, your audience is not just listening; they are looking. I understand that such issues are, to a significant degree, a matter of opinion. Your have a right to yours. And I have a right to mine. And this is it.