The wearing of a plain suit coat for men has been a blessing to the Mennonite church for many years. It represents one effort to keep the world’s fashion out of the church and maintain a degree of uniformity. We consider this subject occasionally and understand what relevance this practice holds for us today.
Suit coats are expensive and often must be custom-made. Some have raised questions about the stewardship of buying an expensive suit. However, with proper care a suit coat can last quite awhile. Many of us gain weight and need a new suit before the old one is worn out. It is strange how concerned we can be about the money for a new suit and still show no concern about our appetite and the money that costs.
Suits often provide only minimal weather protection. Suits may also be hard to keep clean, especially when caring for children. They usually require dry cleaning as opposed to being cleaned in the family washing machine. These and other reasons have caused some to conclude that the plain suit is not practical. With some carefulness a suit can be kept reasonably clean. Dry cleaning twice a year is not a burdensome expense to most of us.
Recently reading through a history book about Mennonites in New York City, I noted several observations. Early in this mission work some felt the plain suit hindered their witness. The logic was that poor people could not afford suits of any kind and plain suits were not available locally. The workers felt that to wear a plain suit placed them on a different level than the people they labored among and as a result they eventually discarded the wearing of the plain suit. Initially, these people were pictured in plain clothes but without plain suits. Soon afterwards, there was the shift to short sleeves and more fashionable tailored shirts. Later in the book, lapel suits are pictured and eventually men with ties. In the end, both the converts and the missionaries were clad in the world’s clothes. This same type of change can be seen in other churches and missions from the past. We ask the question, “Why this drift?” It is true that the larger issue at work in their church was the accommodation of the world and its practices. Putting off the plain suit did not bring apostasy but it was one step on their road to apostasy.
There are Christian groups who do not have this practice. They are not automatically wrong or worldly for not wearing the plain suit. but for us who have been blessed by it, “Why should we desire to lay it off?”
The plain suit identifies us as conservative Mennonites. Many people of the world, when seeing us dressed in our suits, know we represent some kind of religion. They do not always know what religion.
In an airport a few years ago I felt alone among the sea of worldly people. Suddenly I spied a man in a plain suit, and I knew that he was of like faith. I was not disappointed. Many times while traveling, especially in airports, people ask about my religion. Coming home from school board meeting recently I stopped at our local supermarket and the cashier asked me if I believed in Hell. He was seriously wrestling with eternity questions and he asked me about it. I asked him why he addressed me with this question. He said he knew I was a preacher by the way I was dressed. The plain suit has provided many men an opportunity to witness to people for Jesus Christ. The plain suit has never identified me with the world’s crowd.
In street evangelism it has always been a blessing to me, never a hindrance. To sincere seekers of the world, it speaks of a people set apart from the world for God.
In Number 15, God called His people to put a ribband of blue on their clothes to remind them who they were and His call on their lives. While God does not ask New Testament believers to wear a specific mark or piece of clothing to represent Him, He does require separation from the world. In that practice of the ribband of blue He established this valuable principle. It is helpful to us when we are clearly recognizable as God’s people in the world.
A consistent practice of wearing the plain suit also brings a measure of uniformity to our group. even worldly powers like the Air Force and Navy understand the place of uniformity. They do it for an earthly cause; we for a Heavenly. They realize that uniformity provides a platform to take a wide range of people from various backgrounds and blend them into a united force where men live together, work together, and even die for the one cause they represent.
At times, when a Navy vessel docks in a foreign port, the sailors are allowed to go ashore in civilian clothing; at other times they require full military uniform. It is said that on days that they must wear their full uniform there is much less frivolity, partying, drunkenness, and such committed by the servicemen because everyone knows who they are and the nation they represent. There is no hiding their identity.
We should be able to recognize how the same principle works in the church today. When we wear clothes that distinctly mark us as God’s people, it will help us to avoid some temptations. Why then should we as the army of the Lord and the body of Christ chafe under issues of uniformity and nonconformity to the world? Why should we discount the value of things that help to unify us and blend our individual ways into the cause of Christ? Will it be said of us that the men of the world around us are wiser than we?
The plain suit helps combat the world’s fashions from entering our wardrobe. Invariably when conservative Mennonites lay off the plain suit coat, the world’s clothes rush in to claim that spot. Jackets and shirts begin to look more and more fashionable. Over the last century, Mennonites have repeatedly proven that when we lay aside this distinctive dress, we soon follow the world’s patterns in attire. Our own history stands to remind us that if we want to maintain separation from the world we will need to respect and maintain this practice.
The plain suit also provides a respectful, worshipful appearance for us when we go to God’s house. The present fad of casual clothing and even “trashy” clothes is not fitting for worship of our high and holy God. Many people are comfortable today to appear for worship in clothes they know would not be appropriate in our culture to wear to meet the president or some other high ranking official. The plain suit provides a way for us to appear before God in reverence and Godly fear without worldly fads and fashions. We should not put aside our suits at the earliest sign of spring and wait till late into winter to put them on again.
Plain suits do cost money and do require some care to keep them clean and pressed. They are part of a tradition handed down to us from past generations. But they have proven to be valuable to the church today in maintaining uniformity in our midst, in keeping separation from the world, in resisting fads and fashions in dress, in maintaining a witness to the world, and in keeping a respectful appearance for worship. But if these values and principles are not first in our hearts, the practice will be burdensome to us. It is appropriate for the church to require this practice even when some do not understand the full blessing of it. Many of us have come to appreciate it by practicing it. I thank God for faithful forefathers who established and maintained this practice. I marvel at how relevant it is today in this “new era” of time with its many changes. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 says, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” For our church and many like us, this practice has been a good thing. Yes, it is an old practice, but it has been proven to be good in many ways, so let’s appreciate it and hold on to it.
We should also consider how consistent we are with the rest of our Christian testimony. It is possibly to clothe a worldly heart in a plain suit.
What do I look like in a plain suit driving my flashy car? Do the shirts I wear really fit with the plain suit? Our wardrobe and our other possessions should be such that people are not shocked when they see us in a plain suit. We should each take the plain suit test more often. Can I put my suit on with these clothes and not send a mixed message to the world? In this way the plain suit can help us to stop and check our heart and its tendency to accommodate the world.
We should also learn how to keep our older suits for shopping and such like. Why should plain suits only be worn to church services a few times a year? We should wear them more places where a more formal or separated appearance is appropriate. What a beautiful, consistent testimony it is to the world to see a Godly couple in a store, she, with her covering on and he with his plain suit!
More of our family photos should picture men in plain suits. Young men should not be ashamed to have their personal photos for bible School taken wearing the plain suit.
If we want to instill the appreciation for this practice in the rising generation we will need to love it, explain it, defend it, and practice it as older men and consistently ask our young men to follow our footsteps.
God help us to faithfully represent His kingdom in our day and pass on the faith to the generations that follow.