June, 2015

Why I Wear a Robe in Worship

One of the questions I often get asked by people inquiring about visiting our church is, “What should I wear?” This always makes me laugh because I’m the least qualified person to answer that question. I do many things well, but fashion advice is not one of them. The question is asked, however, not because folks are looking for fashion tips but rather they want to know what is expected or what is appropriate for our worship service. Every church has an unwritten dress code. In some evangelical churches, wearing a screen-printed t-shirt with big skull emblazoned across the chest is normal. In other churches a suit and tie is expected. And if you confuse the two, then you stick out like a sore thumb…and no one enjoys that experience when visiting a new church.

It is no different for pastors. There is an ever increasing spectrum of expectations for what a pastor is supposed to wear in the pulpit on Sunday. In some evangelical churches the pastor is supposed to be hip. He might wear skinny jeans, black boots, and a v-neck tee that shows off an artistic tattoo on the forearm. Or he might wear a Brooks Brothers suit and power tie with matching pocket square. Or he might wear khakis and a golf shirt. Or he might wear a robe. Each of these are choices made by the pastor to communicate something he deems important for the congregation to quickly (even if only subconsciously) understand.

The dress code of the pastor (written or unwritten) communicates something. Military officers wear a particular uniform because it quickly communicates order. Doctors wear a white coat because it shows that this person can be immediately trusted with medical decisions. Judges wear robes to signify the authority of the state which has been given to their judgments. The pastor who wears casual attire in the pulpit typically wants to communicate, “Hey, I’m one of you. You can trust me.” The suit-wearing pastor typically wants to communicate, “I’m a professional. You can trust me.”

I believe that a robe communicates a different message. It neither communicates my relatability, my competencies, nor my trustworthiness as an individual. It communicates the authority of God. Let me explain. With respect to this congregation, I am friends with many of you. I enjoy joking around and cutting up with you. I enjoy talking theology or sports with you. I am even married to one of you. I am also the father to three of you. These are all important relationships. But when I am in the pulpit preaching God’s Word; I am not your friend. I am not your husband. I am not your father. I am your pastor. This is an important distinction. The robe is a symbol of that relationship. As I ascend into the pulpit to speak God’s Word, I do not do so because I am better than anyone (clearly, I am not); I do not do so because I am smarter than you (a cursory glance at the degrees of our congregation would prove that I am not); I do not do so because God loves me more than you (He doesn’t). Rather, I do so because God and this congregation has called me to do so. I am your pastor, and the robe is the visual that represents that calling. The robes covers me, the friend, the husband, and the father, and displays the office of God’s called pastor to the congregation.

I wear a simple black robe that is known as a “Genevan Robe.” It is a robe that finds its clerical roots in the Reformation. It was the academic robe of the university professors in Europe. Before the Reformation, clergy would use white albs with colorful stoles, cinctures, and chasubles; each element a symbol of Jesus’ passion. But during the Reformation, the reformers moved away from using the vestments of the Roman Catholic Church. These vestments were ornate and colorful and designed with a priest, not a pastor, in mind. The reformers sought to show their authority was ministerial, not magisterial. Thus, the simple black Genevan Robe became commonplace in the Protestant church. It is a symbol of our Reformed tradition.

Finally, I wear a robe because it adds to the reverence of our worship service. Hebrews 12:28-29 tells us, “let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” The Genevan Robe compliments a reverent atmosphere. What we do as the gathered people of God on the Lord’s Day is different from what we do any other day. We are recounting the glories of redemption. We are declaring the glories of God. We are looking forward to the hope we have in a Christ who has defeated death, risen from the grave, and is returning to redeem all of creation. The gravity of this world-changing message deserves a minister dressed in something better than what I’d wear to grab a gallon of milk at the Shop-Rite. The robe shows the authority of the office and lifts our eyes up to the God who is worthy of our worship.