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Why Does the Pastor Wear a Robe?

A Defense of the Use of the Ministerial Robe in Public Worship

By Rev. Jeffrey J. Meyers

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.

The purpose of this series of articles is to explain our biblical philosophy of worship and how we have sought to implement it here at Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church. We have thought through our worship services. We have reasons why we do things the way we do–sound biblical, theological, and historical reasons. We are not simply following the dead, musty, liturgical traditions of our denomination. Neither are we clamoring to be “trendier than thou,” like so many twentieth-century American churches seem to be doing these days.

Drawing on the wisdom of the historic Church, especially the Reformation tradition, our worship is grounded in the Word of God. We want to be sure that the inquiring visitor as well as the committed member will understand the biblical explanations for our corporate, Sunday morning worship life, and so be able to worship intelligently with us, experiencing the fullness of reverent worship and praise

Why does the pastor wear a robe? Does this mean something? Is it biblical? Or is it something that has just always been done that way? Isn’t this too “Catholic”? Does the robe mean that the pastor is better than me? Closer to God than I am? Is he a priest? Why does the pastor lead the entire worship service? These are the kinds of questions that I will attempt to answer in this brief article.

Clothing and Calling

1. The robe, among other things, helps emphasize the office of the pastor and de-emphasize the personality of the man in the pulpit. Sometimes it’s hard to be led in worship by a elder or pastor who is a good friend or a peer or even (especially) one who is younger. To help us get over this feeling, the church in general, and the Reformed church in particular, has historically placed special robes on her ministers when they conduct worship. This helps the people to remember that it is not just good ol’ Jeff Meyers up there; rather, it is God’s appointed minister leading us into God’s presence and speaking God’s Word to us. Strictly speaking, the worship service is not conducted by Jeff Meyers anyway, but by the robe of office which Jeff Meyers happens to be filling at the current time. We submit to the office, not to the man, during worship. (The concept of submission to church office is eminently biblical: Acts 20:17, 28-35; 1 Cor. 12:28; 16:16; Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Thess 5:12, 13; 1 Tim. 3:1ff; 4:14; 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 17; & 1 Pet. 5:1-7.)

These truths are reinforced when the pastor wears something that reminds the people of his special calling on the Lord’s Day. In the Bible clothing and calling are often connected; a person’s calling or office together with whatever authority is connected with the office is often visually symbolized by the clothing the man wears (Gen. 9:20-27; 39:1-13; 37: 3-11, 23; 41:1-44; all of the references in Exodus and Leviticus to the clothing of the priests; 1 Sam. 2:19; 15:27; 18:4; 24:4, 5, 11, 14; Ezra 9:3-5; Esther 8:15; Isa. 22:21; Jonah 3:6; Matt. 22:11ff.; 27:31; Mark 16:5; Luke 15:22; Rev. 1:13; 4:4; 6:11; 19:13, 16). The purpose of the robe is to cover the man and accent his God-ordained office or calling.

2. The teaching elder who leads the worship plays a symbolic role during worship. When he leads the congregation in prayer before God, he symbolizes Christ leading the church in prayer before the Father. When he reads and preaches the Word, he symbolizes Christ, the husband, speaking to his holy bride (which is, by the way, one of the main reasons why women cannot be pastors: they cannot symbolize Christ the Husband to his bride, the church, 1 Cor. 11:2-10; 14:33-38; Eph. 5:22-33; 1 Tim. 2:11-15). The robe is not meant to set him above the congregation, but to set him apart from them because of his unique office as pastor during the Lord’s Day worship service. Here’s what the French Calvinist theologian Richard Paquier says about this:

It is natural that the man who officiates in the worship of the Church be clothed in a manner corresponding to the task assigned to him and expressing visibly what he does. Moreover, whoever leads in the act of worship does not perform as a private party but as a minister of the church; he is the representative of the community and the spokesman of the Lord. Hence, an especially prescribed robe, a sort of ecclesiastical “uniform,” is useful for reminding both the faithful and himself that in this act he is not Mr. So-and-so, but a minister of the church in the midst of a multitude of others. (Dynamics of Worship: Foundations and Uses of Liturgy [Fortress Press, 1967], p. 138).

3. The pastor is not a businessman. He is not the CEO of the ecclesiastical corporation. I always feel a little uncomfortable in a starched shirt, suit and tie. It tends to contribute toward a very real problem in our PCA churches we tend to attract upper-middle class people. Upper middle class people are comfortable around a pastor whose uniform is a suit and tie. People in other economic strata, however, sometimes find it hard to relate to a pastor who dresses like and acts like a business man. I often sense that what I wear erects unfortunate barriers in certain situations. Just because a congregation doesn’t have its pastor wear a robe doesn’t mean that they escape the idea of a uniform. In most American Protestant churches, for example, there is an expectation that the pastor dress conservatively, with a black or dark suit, a white starched shirt, a conservative necktie (no Mickey Mouse ties!), etc. In our culture this is the weekday uniform of a lawyer or middle to upper management business man. This has become de facto the American Evangelical clerical garb. I think this “uniform” often communicates precisely the wrong message in our churches and the communities in which we minister. Our pastors too often seek to conform to the patterns and symbols of authority prevalent in American culture. It is simply not possible to escape the symbolism of clothing. When the minister of the Word wears a robe, it helps to focus the congregation on the work of Christ and the Apostles, because the minister has no authority outside of them.

4. The robe adds dignity and reverence to our services. Why is it that pastors wear robes during wedding services and not during Lord’s Day worship services? At weddings the robe adds to the solemnity and glory of the event. The same ought to be true on the Lord Day. Are wedding services more important than Sunday services? No, just the opposite. The Lord’s Day worship service ought to be just as (or more) glorious and formal as a wedding.

Possible Objections

1. It too Roman Catholic. First of all, we are not talking about a collar, but a robe. But even here we have to be circumspect. The Roman Catholics are wrong in many areas, but we need to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Just because Roman Catholics do it, doesn’t automatically make it wrong or undesirable. Besides, if you would care to check it out, Reformed pastors in the past actually wore uniforms of some kind not just in worship, but during the week as well. That holds true for continental Reformed churches and even for many of the Puritans. Pictures and portraits that we have of these pastors show them in clerical or academic garb. Take for example the painting on the cover of James Bannerman’s The Church of Christ (Banner of Truth). James Bannerman is one of the most respected Scottish Presbyterian apologists for our form of church government and life. You might call him a super-Presbyterian. The painting on the cover of this volume is by John Lorimer, and it’s called “The Ordination of Elders.” The minister/pastor in the picture is wearing a black gown, and he also has a peculiar collar (you’ve probably seen pictures of these before) with two white tabs sticking out from it. No one else is dressed that way in the service. Scottish Presbyterian ministers, who traditionally have been fiercely anti-Catholic, have consistently worn clerical uniforms. There is nothing characteristically Roman Catholic about pastors wearing distinctive clothing during worship service.

2. The formality will turn people off. Recently a visitor to our church (from another denomination) commented on the beauty and solemnity of the service, but then asked why the pastor was wearing a suit and tie rather than a robe. She said that looking at the pastor in his own suit and tie was awkward and distracting. It seemed too casual. Why didn’t he wear something appropriate to his calling and duties on Sunday morning? she asked. Many mistakenly think that avoiding formality and ceremony is an evidence of simple faith and humility. C. S. Lewis has said, “The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the worshiper’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper place of ritual.”

Since for Americans there is often an in-built negative reaction to any mention of formality in worship, let us turn briefly to Hebrews 12 and Revelation 4-5. Hebrews 12:22-24 describes a New Covenant (contrasted with the Old Covenant worship of vss. 18-21) corporate, Lord’s Day worship service. When the church gathers on the Lord Day she enters into heaven (by faith) to worship God with all of the angelic host and departed saints. It is as if the roof of the church building is torn off when the pastor calls the people to worship. Notice that the worshipers are all organized around the throne of God. The worship service does not merely provide an opportunity for private devotional experiences. The church is a “city” and a “joyous assembly” or “festal array” (v. 22). The word translated “festal assembly” denotes an assembly of people gathered for a celebration or festival. Later, when we are privileged with the Apostle John in the book of Revelation to peek into heaven, how is the worship conducted? What kind of worship is modeled for us in heaven? There are all kinds of liturgical lessons to be learned here. I only wish to highlight one aspect: the heavenly service is liturgical and formal. According to Revelation 4-5, heavenly worship is a formal, coordinated activity. There are cooperative, formal responses by groups of worshipers. Everybody responds together with the same words. There are no individual displays of spirituality. Angels, elders, and creatures respond antiphonally with responses that must have been learned! They have been trained. There is a pre-arranged form to the worship. They have rehearsed this event, and they are dressed accordingly (Rev. 4:4). In other words, heavenly, Spirit-guided worship is liturgical and formal (1 Cor. 14:26-33).

3. The robe will make the pastor unapproachable. Not so. It makes him more approachable in his capacity as pastor. It forces “Jeff Meyers” to recede and brings forward the office of pastor. The robe will highlight the pastor’s office and role. In fact, people may be more apt to address the pastor with spiritual questions and concerns. They will be reminded that Jeff is the pastor! After all, people want to be able to trust their pastors. They want their pastors to be different.

People long to be able to place some kind of secondary confidence in the office of the pastor and elder (our primary confidence, of course, is in God’s Word!). An outward sign of that office helps people. This is not hard to prove. Think about doctors, nurses, judges, and policemen. People want them to wear something distinctive that reminds them of their expertise or calling. We are helped when our doctor wears a white uniform. The uniform assists us in remembering that we can place some confidence in him. This is his calling. The uniform reminds us of his training and commitment. The same ought to be true with our pastors. Biblical teaching as a whole links clothing and calling. You are what you wear or you wear what you are. Just as judges, physicians, policeman, and auto mechanics wear clothing that befits their calling, so should the pastor, especially when he is performing the specific duties of his office during the Lord’s Day worship service.

Summary

In Christian worship, biblically and historically, the ministers wear distinctive garments to testify to their office as representatives of Christ. The robe serves to hide the personality of the man and highlight his special calling. The pastor represents Christ, the Husband, to the church, his bride. When the pastor leads worship, the robe helps remind us that it is not “my friend Jeff” up front. God in Christ calls us to worship, to confess, to hear his word, to give, etc., and he does so by means of his ordained servant. The pastor does not act for himself, but for Christ. A judge or a policeman wears a uniform because he does not act for himself. He is under orders. He represents the law and government of the county, city, or state in which he serves. In the same way, a minister represents the law and government of another kingdom. The clothing he wears testifies to this. He also is under orders. The pastor’s authority does not derive from his economic or social status (expensive suits and starched shirts). It does not derive from his natural charisma (impressive hair or flashing dark eyes). It most certainly does not derive from the fact that he looks and acts like other leaders in the world (business suits), even though this is what happens too often in America. Just as the location of the pulpit and table have symbolic significance, so also the minister’s clothing communicates that he is the ordained servant of the risen Christ, called to lead God people in covenant renewal worship.

Therefore, by placing a robe on our minister at Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church, we are 1) taking a stand against the current American Evangelical church’s tendency to transform the pastorate into something like an executive position (the CEO of the church!) by mimicking American corporate big business, and 2) seeking to bring our practice in line with what the Bible implies, back in line with what the historic Church has practiced, and in line with what other Reformed churches do worldwide.

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.


Jeff Meyers [contact him] is the pastor of Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church in Saint Louis, Missorri. He has been ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America since 1988. After college and serving as an officer in the U.S. Army, Jeff attended Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Jeff later earned his Master of Sacred Theology (S.T.M) and is currently completing his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary. He has a personal blog page called Corrigenda.

Jeff is also the author of The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenantal Worship, a practical pastoral guide to worship that introduces readers to the application of Old Testament sacrificial liturgics, biblical typology, and covenant theology.



45 Comments »

  1. Galatians 3. Also, personal opinions do not belong in the word of God. Listen to God’s voice and be led of the Holy Spirit. If He says wear a robe, wear it. If He does not, then don’t wear it. Be blessed and Grow in Grace.

    Comment by Rev. J.C. — June 19, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

  2. who are we to say .who can pastor and who can not . who died and made you god?read your bibleand see how many women>s god used to do his will . I have a list of them. read joel the whole book . god say I will pour out my sprit in the last day.

    Comment by ardelia — March 29, 2014 @ 10:03 pm

  3. The town is the church….going out into the town public a white robe is not just a sign of authority but to be.cool.and minamize sweating….and a.white suit is allowed in the sanctuary……mark jones mesoeasy21@yahoo.com…….

    Comment by christ — July 1, 2014 @ 4:12 pm

  4. Having just read this interesting article and a number of the comments attached to it, I would just like to add that I see the robe much like a military uniform which by its style denotes a person’s position. The priests of old were at times directed to wear certain clothing during particular worship services and celebrations. I do believe that the robe(s) itself should not be so elaborate that the congregation is unable to focus on the message being delivered by the messenger.

    As for women preachers/pastors/leaders. Spirit filled women are as important to ministry as any man and more so if the men don’t harbor the Spirit of God. I believe that God can move through any being… (He spoke through a donkey). We have to understand the context of what is written throughout the bible and the times during which it was both written and translated.

    I just wanted to add my 2 cents… Happy New Year 2015!!!

    Comment by Elder Owens F. Shepard — January 2, 2015 @ 4:25 pm

  5. Please I am Isaac Ameyaw Yeboah,an apostle by calling and wants to affiliate with your denomination.
    Please what’s the way forward?
    I am a Ghanaian by Nationality.
    My Facebook name is:Isaac Ameyaw Yeboah
    God bless u through His son and our risen Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

    Comment by Isaac — July 25, 2016 @ 11:42 pm

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