Remember that Christian people need to be able to have confidence in the office of the pastor and elder. Our primary confidence, of course, is in God and his Word! But God mediates his presence and authority through his officers in the church. They have a secondary, delegated authority. An outward sign of that authority and office helps people. This is not hard to prove. You may have heard of the J.D. Power & Associates study on the importance of uniforms in the workplace. They found that customers prefer to deal with sales associates, service people, etc. who are in uniform. 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, policemen, and auto mechanics wear clothing that befits their calling, so should the pastor, especially when he is available to minister to people in the community.
When a pastor wears distinctive garments around town it testifies to his office as a special servant of Christ. The white collar has been associated with the iron collar of a slave. The minister is the bondslave of Jesus Christ. The symbolic clothing serves to hide the personality, social class, or economic status of the man and highlight his special calling. The pastor represents and ministers Christ to the world. The pastor does not act for himself, but for Jesus 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, as Paul reminds young pastor Timothy:
You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier. And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. The hard-working farmer must be first to partake of the crops. Consider what I say, and may the Lord give you understanding in all things (2 Timothy 2:3-7, NKJV).The pastor’s authority, therefore, 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 church building with its steeple and cross symbolize the presence of a congregation of believers in the community, so also the visible presence of the pastor in his “uniform” at the grocery store, post office, cleaners, mall, bookstore, etc. makes the ministry visible and more readily available to those outside of the church. It creates opportunities to speak to and serve people in the community.
Many of our Christians forefathers would not have understood the need for such a essay as this. Before the democratization of American culture, ministers commonly wore uniforms that set them apart from other callings.
NOTE: I am using “democratization” in a negative sense. Egalitarian socio-political movements at the opening of the 19th century radically affected American culture. Traditional notions of authority and leadership in society and church were attacked as “undemocratic.” One of the most fascinating and instructive accounts of this period is Nathan O. Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven,CN: Yale University Press, 1989).In the past ministers were expected to wear uniforms. In many parts of the world, this is still true. In these cultures there is no need to explain why a minister should wear his uniform around town.
Since the time of the Reformation there were, of course, questions about exactly what kind of clothing Protestant ministers should wear, but there was not a great deal of controversy about the fact that they should wear something visibly different. Puritan ministers objected to Episcopal vestments in the sanctuary, for example. But even they themselves wore some sort of robe to lead in the assembly on Sunday and clerical clothing during the week around town to identify them as pastors. It may have been something as simple as the “Geneva bands.” If you’ve seen portraits of 17th and 18th century ministers (like George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards), then you’ve seen the two strips of white cloth that hang from the front of the collar. It seems like every other Banner of Truth magazine displays on its cover a portrait of a 17th, 18th, or 19th century minister wearing pastoral tabs.
It is clear from paintings of Presbyterian clergy of an earlier era (e.g., John Witherspoon in the late 1700's or Archibald Alexander Hodge in the mid-1800's) that clerical garb was considered normal. At one point in Dr. Calhoun’s American Presbyterian Sunday School class earlier this year, after he had been displaying various pictures of 18th century Presbyterian ministers on the overhead projector, someone in the congregation raised their hand. “I can’t help but notice that all of these Presbyterian ministers wore some sort of distinctive clothing.
Did Presbyterian pastors wear ministerial clothing and collars back then? If so, when did this practice change?” Dr. Calhoun answered the question in the affirmative and briefly explained that the practice of wearing pastoral uniforms became problematic in the 19th century with the increasing democratization of the church. Of course, Protestant ministers did, over time, choose clothing that distinguished them from Roman Catholic priests. In our context, I think this would mean avoiding the black and white-collared shirt. I will be wearing either a white, blue, or gray colored shirt with a small white tab over the front of my throat.
The objection cited at the beginning of this essay implied that it was unnatural for a minister to be identified in any other way than by his life and speech. Is this helpful? How a minister is identified is a little more complex than how Christians with other callings are known to be believers. Around my neighborhood, people know that I’m the pastor of the Presbyterian church up on Sappington and Eddie & Park. I have had a few opportunities to talk with people based on that general knowledge. They came to me with questions or favors. They did so because they knew I was a minister. A similar kind of thing ought to happen to all Christians in their neighborhoods. People should know that you are a believer. But you will have to tell them. They will not be able to discern that you are a genuine believer in the Lord Jesus Christ by observing your activities around your home. Even if you offer your help and service to various neighbors, you are nothing more than a nice guy (or maybe even a Mormon!) unless you make it known somehow that you are a Christian. With those we have contact with on a regular basis this works just fine. We will have opportunities to share Christ with our relatives, our neighbors, and our workmates if they know we are Christians and see that we live according to the example of Jesus Christ.
All of this is great and true for me as well. But I have added responsibilities. There are people at the Post Office, the restaurant, the bank, the video store, Barnes & Noble, etc. that will never be able to guess that I am a Christian or a minister by the way I act or talk. Not unless I’m obnoxiously going around announcing the fact to everyone I meet. But if I wear a collar, then everyone who sees me knows that I am a pastor. They may not discern what kind of minister I am, whether liberal or conservative, Lutheran or Reformed, but they can recognize the distinctively Christian clothing of a pastor. (As I mentioned earlier, they should know that I’m not a Roman Catholic priest, since I will not normally wear a black shirt with the collar.)
But what, you may ask, will that accomplish? Well, with some people it may mean nothing. For others it will evoke hatred and spite. But there are those who may be curious and want to ask me who I am. There are others who are in need and will ask me for help. Some may have questions about difficult situations they are facing. I anticipate one day walking into Schnucks or Barnes & Noble and having people actually recognize me. “That’s the pastor of the church on the corner of Sappington and Eddie & Park.” That kind of visibility and familiarity cannot hurt the church, can it? I suspect that it will greatly increase my (and our) ability to evangelize people in this area.