So What's With the Robes?

I spent last weekend with a great group of people interested in joining our church. I gave them an opportunity to ask me any questions they might have about TCPC, and one person raised his hand and asked what apparently many want to know, “So what’s with the robes?”

TCPC tends to attract believers whose previous experiences were primarily with parachurch organizations and broadly evangelical denominations. In these sub-cultures, Christian formality is mostly unheard of and because of this, TCPC’s formal practices are a bit of a culture shock for many. Interestingly I have found that the robes, above everything else, are most puzzling.

So what’s with the robes?

Offering the qualification that I in no way intend to imply that a pastor has to wear a robe or that there is something wrong with a worship service without robes, I’ll give you five reasons why this is our practice at TCPC…

The Robe Has Biblical Precedent

First and foremost it must be said that the Bible is not silent here. The practice goes all the way back to the Old Testament where the office of priesthood was set apart with a robe. In fact an entire chapter of Scripture, Exodus 28, is devoted to the priest’s clothing. At the very least, we can extrapolate from all these passages that it is very appropriate for those leading God’s people in worship to be set apart with a robe.

The Robe Has Historical Precedent

It is not just a Biblical practice; it is an ancient and historical practice. And no, I’m not just talking about the Roman Catholic Church. The plain black robe that I wear on Sunday morning is called a Geneva Robe and finds its roots in the reformation. It wasn’t until the 19th century that pastors began ditching the robe, so the robe-less preacher is actually a relatively new phenomenon. It matters to me that all my heroes preached in a robe, and I’m just unwilling to abandon historical practices without really good reason to do so.

The Robe Communicates Authority

The past couple days I have been performing my civic duty as a juror. You know what the judge wore throughout the trial? A robe. And amazingly nobody seemed surprised and nobody ever complained. We are comfortable with a judge wearing a robe. In fact, we would be perturbed if a judge didn’t wear a robe. Why? The office is still viewed with authority.

Something has happened to the holy office of the minster, and I honestly think it is very sad. The calling has been stripped of all authority, and in its place has arisen a trite and pedestrian caricature of what was once so profoundly significant.  Truth be told, the ordained minister has been entrusted with the authority of Scripture and stands as the representative of Christ to His people; nothing could be more significant, and the robe communicates this authority.

The Robe Creates a Culture

Another situation where people don’t seem to have a problem with robes is a graduation ceremony. Why are we okay with graduates and faculty being clothed in robes? I think we view this occasion with significance, honor, esteem, and reverence, as well we should. Likewise we believe that worship of the living God is a very serious occasion and should feel as such.

Truth be told, the pastor’s clothing sets the ethos of the worship service. A pastor in jeans and a t-shirt will create a certain culture as will a pastor in a Brooks Brothers Suit. We are kidding ourselves if we don’t think the pastor’s attire shapes the entire culture of worship. If so, then it comes down to how you view the culture of worship? There are many views here, and truthfully you will see the views play out in the leader’s attire. At TCPC we believe that worship is a reverent and holy occasion worthy of solemn pageantry, and I think the robe cultivates this conviction.

The Robe De-emphasizes the Person and Emphasizes the Office

In the celebrity culture of the Church today, the danger of pastor worship is always lurking. Do you know one practical way to push back against a cult of personality? Put a robe on the preacher.  When clergy are robed, Sunday mornings become less about the style, fashion, and personality of the pastor, and become much more about the tasks and duties of the pastor. A clerical robe naturally gets the person out of the way and emphasizes the office the person is fulfilling.

Have you ever noticed how you perk up when you see a police officer? If that officer was in civilian clothing you wouldn’t even notice them, but you most certainly notice and respect the uniform. There’s nothing particularly special or authoritative about the person, but there is something special and authoritative about that badge. The same is true for clergy. There is nothing special about the pastor, but there is something special about the office, and the robe represents the office. Week after week at TCPC the robe, not the preacher, is the constant. The person filling the robe can and will change, but the holy office represented by the robe has and will carry on for generations to come.

Rev. Robert Cunningham