What is a Christian T-Shirt?
It’s a question the answer to which helps us see how notions of how to show Christ to the world has changed and is still changing. How do I represent Christ, and how to I behave like him? Clothing, gear, things purchased—this is as much of the conversation as it was in the first century. Can the answers people give tell us a lot about how they prioritize the morality of Christian behavior?
Well, there’s no such thing as a “Christian shirt” because shirts don’t have souls. But if we are going to say that something like a shirt can be worn and represent Christianity, here are some categories people might use to define a tee shirt as “Christian”.
A Sexually Modest shirt:
“Dress modestly.” To many this only refers to how much you show. This is an important part of modesty, but it’s not the only part. Still, dress that communicates to people “the sanctity and privacy of my body means less to me than does getting attention from you and feeling attractive” cannot be considered Christ-like. The question of what constitutes sexually modest dress (or the need for men to take responsibility of their lust and not blame it on women) is not the purpose of this post , but we must agree on the necessity of respecting your bodies with our dress.
A Decent message:
This has both a positive and a negative instruction.
The positive—The notion that one should try to wear more T-shirts that bear a Christian message or a scripture.
The negative—The notion that one should not wear T-shirts that have inappropriate messages on them, like beer ads or the Hooters logo or a pentagram.
The notion that Christians should dress “nice”, which goes beyond sexual propriety and into class propriety. A nice shirt is a tucked in button-up, and if not that, a polo, and if not that, a T-shirt with either no logo or a Bible verse. But it is not an undershirt. This may only refer to “Sunday dress” or even “Wednesday dress”, but for some applies to every day.
A Shirt from a Vocally Christian Seller:
The notion that a shirt should be purchased from an establishment whose owner has spoken out for or against something deemed “Christian” cause—their stance on abortion, gun rights, or prayer in schools. The idea is that you are making more wealthy a merchant who speaks out.
Shirt from a Charitably Christian Seller:
The notion that a shirt should be purchased from an establishment that donates some of its proceeds or services to some charitable or otherwise deemed “Christian” cause—an orphanage, a well digging non-profit in Africa, a VBS program. The idea is you are funneling money into Christian charity with your purchase.
Shirt from a Mercifully Behaved Christian Seller:
The notion that a shirt should be purchased from an establishment that practices Christian virtue in its doings towards its employees and the community—decent wages, decent work conditions, decent support.
A small number of shirts:
The notion that whatever the shirts are, they are small in number, because you only need so many, and should not be greedy or stuffed with material possessions.
A shirt given away:
The notion that the shirt, aside from other aspects of it, should be easily and lovingly given to someone who needs it.
Shirt from a Ecologically Sustainable Practicing Establishment:
The notion that the making of shirts should be beneficial to the environment and purchases should support such practices.
Shirt from a Economically Sustainable Practicing Establishment:
The notion that the making of shirts should benefit the local economy of one’s neighbor and support more fragile economies, and purchases should likewise support those economic principles.
A shirt that is not hypocritical or allegedly Christian but rhetorically abusive or crude:
The notion that if a Christian message is on the shirt, it will not say something like “life is short, eternity is long, hope you know Jesus”—or even “God hates ______” (fill in the blank with anything).
So let’s use this illustration as a way to examine how Christians with different perspectives view holy living.
Do groups of Christians tend to focus on some of these at the expense of another when considering “Christian clothing”? What does it say about us?
Earlier in my life, my conception of Christian dress was more centered toward notions of sexual modesty, literal message bearing, and even class “nicety“. We should respect our bodies by not “spilling” the privacy of our intimateness to every eye, and we should use all forms of media soundly to spread the Gospel.
Later, I grew aware of environmental and ecological concerns. I also expanded my understanding of hypocrisy. Our cheapest shirts are made with cotton, some of it from America, but some of it from other countries. The weaving of shirts occurs in China, India, Mexico, and Guatemala. They are designed usually in America and Europe, and usually pressed in Europe. Sometimes, you see these shirts costing only 3 dollars. As worldwide production of materials like T-shirts grows, use of resources increases. We have to ask ourselves if the practices of making these products the way we have been making them is worth it.
From early in my life to recently, one message I remember hearing always was that of giving someone the shirt off your back. In reality, the most “Christian” thing about a shirt would not be its make-up, but the make-up of the person wearing it. Perhaps the most important signal of this is the person’s willingness to lose the shirt for love of a person in need.
I try to wear my clothes as long as I can, even the cheap ones, because they haven’t worn. Our culture tells us we must buy whole sets of new clothes on a yearly, sometimes even seasonal basis. This is unsustainable in a number of ways. I’ve begun to realize now that all these things really connect:
If I am used to buying cheap shirts on a regular basis and just tossing them when they’re not trendy, this affects how I treat the person wearing them—myself, and I may be more inclined to treat my body as cheap and my sexual intimacy as something “disposable” to others.
To put it short, to commodify the human labor that makes shirts is connected to commodifying the body. To exploit the environment and economy in order for the wealthy to have nicer and more abundant things encourages us to exploit our own bodies more directly.
And if my purchasing and wearing of shirts is made without conscience, so will my disposal of shirts. I will only give clothes to people as a “gift” when I dispose of them, and feel good about it. Yes, giving old but usable clothes away may be better than trashing them.
But what if I wore mine until they were torn, converting them to cloth rags when they tore, and bought brand new clothes for the poor that were nicer than mine?
I have begun to try and see this holistically. Using the buying, wearing, and disposing of clothing as an analogy, shouldn’t our practice of faith be compelled to obey God’s commands to the fullest extent we can? Shouldn’t I try to buy shirts from companies that speak well and do well in all their avenues, that help the economy and environment and self-image of consumers and promote the Gospel?
What does it say to donate a shirt to someone that will show half their cleavage?
What does it say to wear a shirt with a Bible verse on it, but is made in a sweat shop?
What does it say to own ten polo shirts that cost a hundred dollars a-piece because of a name brand?
What does it say to wear a shirt made with organic cotton from a company that pays a third world country worker twice their minimum wage, yet bears a logo for a humanitarian organization that happens to promote atheism?
What if it’s time to think of all of these principles? Which ones don’t really have any relation to being a good Christian?
(I could do away with the whole “class nicety” thing. I see no Christian principle indicating that polo or button-up is more “Christian” than a tee. All those styles indicate is cost and fashion, and on certain occasions, mere environmental functionality).
So what matters to you?
What values stand out to you when you purchase, wear, and dispose of your clothing?
What do you think should take priority?
How are ways we can practice this industry of clothing more holistically sound?
And how does this relate to other things we do, besides make and wear clothing?