It is not unlikely that in the near future one or more of our ministers will appear some Sunday in a robe, or toga. And lest this be misunderstood as either a move toward clericalism or even toward “modernism,” or lest it be too great a shock to some, a couple of the brethren suggested that a few words of explanation might be helpful.
And then I would point out, in the first place, that the matter of one’s particular style of clothing in the pulpit belongs in the sphere of the adiaphora, or so-called indifferent things. Reformed churches have never legislated about this subject. There is no law requiring that ministers have a certain garb peculiar to their office; neither is there any law forbidding a certain garb. This is simply a matter in which no principle is involved as such. In other words, within the limits of propriety, neatness, and good taste, it is simply a matter of individual choice. By the same token, the fact that a minister wears a special, or formal, garb does not mean that he associates his office with the idea of a priestly function in the Roman Catholic sense of the word. The latter is an altogether different notion. Each part of a priest’s clothing (and that, too, at the various levels of the hierarchy) has its own liturgical and symbolical significance, just as the clothing of the priests in the old dispensation did; and it belongs to the office of the priest that he be clothed in his priestly garments, so that to function without them at the mass would be sin. This, of course, is not and never has been the idea when Reformed ministers, our own included, wore distinctive clothing in the pulpit.
In the second place, distinctive clothing in the pulpit is not something new, but very old in Reformed churches, both here and in Europe. This has been true in our own churches, as well as in others. In years past our ministers all wore the long, black “Prince Albert” coat, black trousers, and usually the uncomfortable square-pointed collar which forced them to hold their chins high. Most of us probably are unacquainted with that style, except from pictures. Later, when styles changed, the cutaway, wing-collar, and striped trousers came into fashion. But that, too, has had its day; and at present it is seldom seen any more, probably mostly for reasons of style. In many churches the robe has come into style today; or perhaps I should say that it has come back into style. For actually the robe is the oldest type of pulpit-wear of those that I have mentioned. It dates back to the times of the Reformation. And as might be expected of Reformation times, the wearing of the robe certainly was not a left-over from the Roman Catholic custom of priestly garments: for such thoughts were anathema to the reformers. The fact of the matter is that the robe was simply the formal garb of academic people, of those who held positions among the educated and among educators. Thus, for example, pictures of Calvin show him clothed in such a toga.
What, then, might be the reasons for a minister to wear formal garb of any kind in the pulpit?
As I indicated, it is a matter of no principle. Whether it be a Prince Albert, a cutaway, a plain, dark business suit, or a robe that he wears cannot be decided as a matter of principle.
But there are, chiefly, the dictates of propriety, dignity, and formality.
That one’s dress should be appropriate to the occasion, I think, no one will deny. One does not go to the beach or to the golf course in his dress clothes; nor does he attend church in a bathing suit or in his greasy work clothes. Why not? Simply because it is inappropriate; it doesn’t fit. So also, one does not expect a minister to ascend the pulpit garbed in a flamboyant sport coat, a flashy sport shirt, and a loud tie. Nor does he expect the minister to appear with muddy shoes which are sorely in need of a polishing and a suit which looks at though he slept in it; but he expects him to appear neat, clean, well-groomed, and soberly dressed. Why? Simply because this is in keeping with the occasion.
Similarly, the occasion of the meeting for public worship demands a dignity and formality which is appropriate to its nature. That occasion is the occasion of the assembling together of God’s people, His church. It is the occasion when God meets with His people, particularly through the means of the preaching of the Word and the sacraments. It is a sacred and solemn occasion. It is an occasion of solemnity and dignity, not an occasion of frivolity and commonness. It is something special, very special. And at that occasion the form also must be appropriate to the occasion. The reason is not that form and formality amount to anything in themselves; on the contrary, taken only in themselves they are utterly empty, and as empty form are an abomination to the Lord. All of this does not mean, however, that form and formality which give expression to one’s inner attitude and to the essence and idea of the occasion must be discarded. On the contrary, they are appropriate. I sometimes feel that there is a tendency in this regard to throw out the baby with the bath, so to speak; out of a spirit of debunking formality and a desire to be informal, or out of a fear of empty form, we tend to throw out all form and dignity, even when the occasion calls for dignity and solemnity. Well, this holds true also, and especially, for the minister of the Word. The point is not that he is anything special in himself. But he is an ambassador, an ambassador of the Lord. He functions in a high office, in the name of a high and holy Sender. And he brings the message of his Sender, God’s holy Word. And he appears before a very special people, the church of God. And all that belongs to the form of that occasion should bespeak the solemnity and the dignity of that occasion. To that form belongs his appearance and his garb. I well remember that in our old Dutch Homiletics notes in seminary there was sounded the caution that “the minister must not be too quick to take off his dress coat.” And I agree. And while there may be room for difference of opinion and of taste as to the particular form which the minister’s appropriate and dignified and formal garb should take (and styles and tastes differ and change), because within limits these things are relative, the toga certainly qualifies on these counts. Besides, it is comfortable and practical, far more comfortable than the old Prince Albert or the cutaway.
That it would represent a change in the direction of modernism is, of course, nonsense. Modernism is not in the clothes, but in the message. Besides, the modernistic tendency is more and more in the direction of the informal, not the formal. Besides that, as I indicated above, a toga in the pulpit is no more modem than John Calvin
So . . . if you see your minister in a robe one of these days, don’t be too surprised!