Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Gospel motivates fidelity to doctrine in practice: Brief words on the use of distinguishing clerical attire

Way back in September of 2010, I published a brief essay entitled, "How, then, shall we be attired?" or "Why I Wear a Tie to Church". It began with a statement in the introductory paragraph suggesting that there is a foundation in what people are convinced as a matter of Christian Conscience is True for how they act; suggesting, that is, that Christian doctrine may actually be the foundation of Christian practice rather than being completely disassociated from it: "There's a reason why people have reserved some of their finest clothing for Sunday, referring to it as their 'Sunday Best,' and I think there are good reasons for Christians to continue doing so. What we do is a reflection of what we hold to be True."

From this point my brief essay proceeded by describing some of the important Truths of Christian doctrine which confessional Lutherans, who recognize the significance of historical belief and practice, consider the ongoing realities of incarnational and sacramental doctrine, and suggesting that these realities, if they are actually regarded as such rather than merely claimed as such, are sufficient to motivate practice that is consistent with them. Namely, we believe that Jesus Christ is actually present in the Divine Service, and is there actively serving us. If we not only claim that this is true, but actually believe it is true, then we are apt to engage in practice that is consistent with actually believing it, rather than merely saying it. This includes our choice of attire, as I continued in that little essay. At no point was Law used as a basis for suggesting that certain attire may be more appropriate than certain other attire; instead, it pointed to the significance of the Gospel as motivation for the desire to represent with fidelity what we confess to believe. Indeed, it concludes with the strong suggestion that such practice is not only consistent with important Christian realities, but is evangelical as well: "The reality is, in Western Society, the Christian's 'Sunday Best' is his 'religious garb' – it openly communicates his Christian religion and his observance of it to those who see him, and opens doors of communication where inconspicuous dress would fail to do so."

Appealing to the Gospel, Rev. Michael Berg (WELS) suggested much the same thing in his excellent paper, The Beauty of the Western Rite, which he delivered at the 2012 Conference of Intrepid Lutherans: Church and Continuity – see pages 11, 26, 36 and 54, for example, or hear his comments @~5'45" to ~7'35", @~10'45" to ~11'50", @~38'10" to ~42' or @~44'35" to ~54' in the video we posted of his presentation. Who is actually present in the Divine Service, and how does that motivate the order of our practice? Rev. Berg offers a very compelling case.

Likewise, Rev. Anthony Voltattorni (LCMS), in a November 6, 2012 interview on Issues, Etc., makes a compelling and motivating case for the use of traditional clerical garb instead of the non-distinguishing casual wear that continues to grow in popularity as pastors grow more and more disconnected from their office, and take on the role of representing contemporary culture before the congregation rather than Christ.

Why Does a Pastor Wear a Clerical Collar? – Rev. Anthony Voltattorni (LCMS), 11/6/12


In this 30 minute interview, Rev. Voltattorni centers his discussion on the evangelical significance of Office of the Holy Ministry. He makes the point that according to this Lutheran teaching, the pastor does not represent the culture before the congregation during the Sunday morning Divine Service or through the week as he carries out the functions of his Office. On the contrary, the pastor represents Christ. The evangelical significance of this teaching is compelling enough to motivate the conscientious Lutheran pastor in his public practice, such that he strives to carry it out in an unambiguous and consistently representative way. The purpose of casual garb, observes Rev. Voltattorni, is to fulfill the former (and wrong) understanding of his role – that of representing the culture before the congregation – by drawing attention to himself as a representative of mankind. In contrast, the purpose of clerical garb is to fulfill the latter – of unambiguously representing Christ by adopting the attire recognized worldwide as peculiar to his Office – by reminding not only the congregation of this fact, but himself as well, helping him submit to his Office and refrain from frivolity and offense. Rev. Voltattorni proceeds by pointing out that distinctive clerical garb does draw attention to it's wearer, in agreement with one of the primary criticisms of its use. Yet, he continues, casual wear attracts attention as well – it does not make the wearer inconspicuous, it only makes his Office inconspicuous. Distinctive clerical garb, on the other hand, draws attention to its wearer as one who occupies the Office to which Christ appointed him through His congregation, and as one who is always eager to represent Christ and share his Message everywhere he goes. Moreover, concludes Rev. Voltattorni, by publicly distinguishing himself in this way, instead of remaining inconspicuous when in public, the pastor is not only announcing his desire to share the Good News of Salvation through Faith in the promises of Christ, he is also boldly inviting persecution from those who hate Christ and His messengers.

It is an informative and compelling little interview, and, of course, Rev. Voltattorni expresses himself far better than I have summarized him here. We recommend that our readers listen to and consider what Rev. Voltattorni has to say.


Anonymous said...

I wear a clerical collar because it is an effective outreach tool. Surveys indicate that most people identify the clerical collar as the garb of someone who can be approached to get answers to spiritual questions. If you want to be on the cutting edge of church growth in the 2010s, clerical garb is the way to go/grow.


- Rev. James Schulz

Mr. Douglas Lindee said...

I appreciate the humor, Rev. Schulz!

Regardless of "what the surveys say," I often wonder why a Lutheran pastor wouldn't want to be recognized as a Minister of the Word as he is out and about in the community during the week. There are so many folks who want to talk to someone knowledgeable about religion. I know from experience. Maybe they are struggling under some heavy burden, maybe they have questions – maybe they hate God and the Church and are looking for an argument. Great! Bring it on! Is that person at the checkout counter, who's considering divorce or suicide, going to spontaneously ask the dude wearing baggy shorts and a hawaiian shirt in front of her, about the life, death, or family issues she is struggling with? Not unless she's some kind of nut. What if that gentleman is recognized by his "uniform" as a Minister of the Word? Then it's much more likely that she would, that, if she had forgotten about spiritual matters in the midst of her struggles, she would be reminded of them and then want to talk to a Minister (whether it's the Minister at the checkout counter, or someone else). Desiring to be conspicuous in this way is decidedly evangelical.

For myself, I can only say that no one ever approaches and initiates a conversation with me about religious or spiritual issues when I am wearing street clothes, when my attire on Sunday morning is little different than what one would wear to the local Bar and Grill on Friday night. But on Sunday, as I am out and about in my tie and jacket after Church (usually with some of my children, or even my whole family, similarly attired) – that is, when there is a clear and highly-probable association between my attire and my religious confession – the opposite it true. People I've never met before will initiate conversation with me about Church or religious matters. Usually, it's just casual conversation of some sort. On occasion, however, people have asked my opinion on serious spiritual matters that they are struggling with. Out of the blue. Because they recognize me as a Christian. Because they recognize me as a practicing Christian, who isn't some kind of "Jesus Freak," but who is evidently a stable person that nevertheless takes his religion seriously enough to be tastefully conspicuous about it in public. Even among those with whom I have no opportunity to speak, or with whom religious matters are never raised, my attire reminds them of Christ and the Church – I see it written on their faces. Every week. I can only think that in at least some cases, such reminders cause them to begin dwelling upon matters of faith and eternity, and play a part in compelling them to seek out a Minister or the company of Christians. Regardless, I am convinced that being conspicuous in this way is decidedly evangelical.

My Opinion.

PCXIAN said...

Did Jesus the carpenter and rabbi wear clothing that distinguished himself differently from others? Most likely not.

Since his daily garb isn't mentioned in Scripture, with the exception of the swaddling clothes at his birth, the robe that was draped on him while he was being abused before His crucifixion, and the soldiers gambling for His clothes while He was on the cross, yet He still, due to His teachings, effectively outreached to the people with the Good News. No collar required...just the Word.

Pastor Spencer said...

Perhaps Jesus did wear "clericals." Here is another point of view:

Objection: But Jesus Didn’t Wear Clericals! Now of course there is the objection that Jesus allegedly wore the clothing of the working man, not special clothes of the clergy. The assertion doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny in Scripture. In many places, people walked up to Jesus out of the blue, addressed Him as “teacher,” which the New Testament informs us is the translation of the word “rabbi.”
Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” (John 1:38)
Without knowing who He was (that is, Jesus), they knew what He was (that is, a rabbi), because they asked him to do rabbinical things: to heal the sick, cast out demons, settle disputes, probate wills, and decide religious issues: “As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)
If they thought He was a rabbi, these were reasonable expectations, because those were the duties of rabbis. However, in John 7, Jesus attends a festival at the Temple and even though everyone is talking about Him, they are unaware that He is among them in the crowd. Since there was no photography in those days, we can understand that strangers would not recognize Him by His face. There was no television newscaster to say, “Galilean rabbi draws large crowds with His controversial miracles - film at eleven.”
However, after his brothers had left for the Feast, he went also, not publicly, but in secret. Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, “He is a good man.” Others replied, “No, he deceives the people.” But no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of the Jews. Not until halfway through the Feast did Jesus go up to the Temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having studied?” (John 7:10-15)
So we have to ask: how could they know He was a rabbi in one circumstance, but not in another? Why were people surprised by His expertise at the Feast in John 7:10-15, when they took it for granted in situations such as Mark 10:17? The only explanation is that they knew by the way He was dressed. When they addressed Him as a rabbi, He must have been dressed like a rabbi; the surprise was not that He was a rabbi, but how He handled their requests. In John 7, they did not recognize Him as a rabbi, so they were surprised that He knew rabbinical things. He must not have been dressed as a rabbi. The only way He could attend the Feast “in secret” was to go without wearing rabbinical clothes.
While Jesus definitely did not wear a black shirt with a white collar, He obviously wore the first-century equivalent. So clergy who wear clericals are imitating Christ. The clergy who do not wear clericals have the more difficult position to defend. (An abridged version of an article by Pastor Ken Collins)

Anonymous said...

Except in WELS circles where often the reaction to seeing the clerical collar is the equivalent to averting your eyes from a bright light, by far and away my experience in the real world has been that the clerical collar opens doors to sharing the gospel. Also, my experience has been that wearing liturgical vestments in the divine service communicates a spirituality that most sincere "seekers" appreciate and are looking for. Distinguishing clergy attire is both "spiritual and religious." - My experience.

- Rev. James Schulz

Pastor Spencer said...

I agree, Jim. That has been my experience as well these last fourteen years. I only wish I had started this practice right out of seminary, or even while in sem.

Speaking of which, I note that it was a very rapid change in our circles from black Geneva to white Geneva or alb. I'm not exactly sure when it happened or who started it, but it spread like wildfire, and I've been odd man out at installations ever since. I wonder what it would take for the same thing to happen re: clericals. Perhaps if a sem prof began sporting a collar, or a couple of DPs, or our esteemed SP, it would happen nearly overnight. For all our our reputed "ragged individualism," one thing WELS Pastors DON'T like to be is different from one another. Once something becomes the new "normal," everyone piles on.

One other thing - when visitors come to a church where the Pastor is in clerical garb, they don't have to try and figure out who the Pastor is. Just saying.

Pastor Spencer

Anonymous said...

If I recall correctly from a book or essay that WLC's Prof. Mark Braun wrote, I believe back in the '60s the WELS MN DP wore a band clerical collar.

Can you imagine WELS' "Forward in Christ" publishing an article defending and promoting the use of the clerical collar as did the LCMS' "Lutheran Witness" in its most recent issue with this article: "Hiding Behind Christ" (Nov. 2012)? My experience in WELS has been you're more likely to be mocked and attacked openly and covertly for wearing a "fancy" clerical collar. (Liturgy-leaning LCMS pastors thinking of going WELS, you have been forewarned).

WELS is bipolar when it comes to promoting liturgical garb: alb and stole: OK, clerical collar and chasuble: NO. Why one, but not the other? Why is the alb OK, but a cincture frowned upon?

Why can't we all just get along?

- Rev. James Schulz


A couple of observations from the antipodes. A clerical collar is basically a symbol and we before we mandate it for use we should be aware that the meaning of symbols can be different from culture to culture (e.g. the Swastika has quite different connotations in India & Germany) and can also change within cultures over time (again, the Swastika in Germany is a good example).

In my neck of the woods, the clerical collar is most likely to identify the wearer in others' minds as a Roman Catholic priest. The next thought that will pop into their heads is "is he a pedophile?" That is not conducive to spiritual conversations! Indeed, in my experience - and I habitually wore a clerical collar in public for several years - most people, except for devout papists, instinctively shy away from a man in a clerical collar. Unless one's ministry is directed towards converting papists, then (surely ethically questionable?!), there doesn't seem in my context to be any advantage to wearing a collar as far as evangelism goes - quite the opposite. I'd do better to stand on a downtown street corner and hand out tracts.

Further, we need to remind ourselves that there is nothing inherently confessionally Lutheran about the clerical collar (it was invented by a Presbyterian in the 19th C.). Outside of the church setting, it doesn't automatically convey anything about the distinctively Lutheran conception of the office of the ministry as distinct from the myriad of other, erring conceptions of that office within Christendom. Why, in the UK, even Baptist pastors routinely wear clerical collars, and they have quite a different view of the preaching office from the Lutheran Confessions.

What I'm saying then, is that it is a case of "different horses for different courses". A clerical collar is, after all, an adiaphoron, and I would hate to see a pastor's confessional commitments called into question simply because he doesn't wear one (conversely, banking on that over-estimation of a symbol, liberal ministers have been known to wear clerical collars to disarm and deceive conservative laity). So, I say, to borrow a phrase, let a minister be judged by the content of his preaching, and not the style of his collar!

As it happens, I still do wear a clerical shirt under an alb, mainly for practical reasons (and, while we're on the subject, to be strictly correct, the clerical collar, being a form of street attire and not itself a liturgical vestment, is not meant to show above or be featured in a niche in the neckline of the alb. It is meant to be covered by the amice, which is "built in" to some of the better modern albs).

PCXIAN said...


Sorry, but your explanation that the people knew Jesus as a rabbi because he obviously didn't dress like an ordinary man, doesn't fly. They knew Jesus was a rabbi because of what He said, pure and simple.

John the Baptist wore camel skin, not fancy clothes, and he certainly had many disciples. They followed him because of what he was proclaiming. Likewise, a pastor (or any Christian) represents Christ by what he says and how he acts.

Mark Henderson's comments above pretty much say it all.

Joel Lillo said...

I say, "Bring back the neck ruff!" That will really identify a pastor as something different!


--Joel Lillo

Mr. Douglas Lindee said...

I would totally agree with that, Rev. Lillo, although I think that the predecessor to today's clerical collar, the clerical cravat is a bit more tasteful and not so jarring in appearance to modern eyes -- even by today's standards. With it, one could also bring back the use of preaching tabs. Are such things stylish? Well, as I remember from high-school, styles are started by someone deciding to wear something different. When others follow, it is defined as a new style. It's as simple as that.

So. the point isn't necessarily the use of collars, per se, but the evangelical benefit of attire which conspicuously identifies a clergyman in public as a Minister of the Word. There are many acceptable variations, I would say, including the re-use of older styles. Whether one style is better than another may well depend on a variety of factors, as Rev. Henderson points out, but I still maintain that, in principle, distinguishing attire is far preferable to that which is inconspicuous.

My Opinion.

Pastor Jeff Samelson said...

A few somewhat random responses (I've tried multiple times to post this since yesterday afternoon):

1) I've been a WELS pastor for 12 years now. I have never witnessed any pastor of our (or another) fellowship being "mocked and attacked openly and covertly for wearing a 'fancy' clerical collar". I cannot say it hasn't happened or deny anyone else's experiences, but my experience is that while it has been questioned or simply noted as "different", it hasn't been an invitation to abuse.

2) The clerical collar does *not* have a long tradition in confessional Lutheranism. The Lutherans who first adopted it -- in the 20th century -- were generally the more liberal ones, and it took time for it to be adopted as normal practice even in the LCMS (it was still something of a novelty in Missouri as recently as the 1950s). It caught on overseas before it did in the US.

The fact that there is no agreement on which type of collar is more "Lutheran" underscores the lack of long tradition in our churches.

3) The clerical collar has never been the accepted "clerical attire" of the WELS ministerium. While certainly the argument can be made that it would be wise to adapt it as such, those who suggest (I've heard/seen it elsewhere - not necessarily here) that WELS pastors are somehow abandoning a confessional practice by not wearing the collar need to review our church history. (Some of the criticisms I've come across have sounded to me like Army infantry faulting Navy sailors for not wearing green fatigues.)

4) The argument by Pastor Collins via Pastor Spencer about Jesus wearing "clericals" of some sort is thought-provoking but hardly the way we're supposed to make arguments about Christ. When someone says "The only explanation is …" on something Scripture is silent about it, we can't accept it without a lot of hard evidence, and all that is presented is supposition. One could just as easily say, "The only explanation is … that the Holy Spirit somehow communicated to people whether Jesus was a rabbi or not, " or "The only explanation is … that Jesus wore a sign saying, 'Hi! I'm a rabbi. How can I help you today?'".

Please note I am not saying it's impossible that Jesus wore some kind of garment or item that identified him as a rabbi (it's actually a rather plausible explanation); it's just that supposition where Scripture is silent is not a solid argument.

5) The only comments I recall hearing about wearing a cincture or not were more a matter of appearance: the pastor who is, shall we say, too fond of his beer who wears a cincture calls attention to that feature of his anatomy (and perhaps his habits) -- contrary to the purpose of the vestments, in which the pastor is to be hidden so that the gospel office might be more readily apparent.

Brian G. Heyer said...

Pastor Voltattorni emphasizes in his podcast and related article that the clerical garb allows the pastor to hide behind Christ, that is, they bring Christ and the pastoral Office forward in the minds of the people.

It's a contrast: a pastor taking pains to fashion himself into "relevant-dude" with torn jeans, glued hair, and ironic T-shirts builds his personal career brand, but the collared pastor protects his flock with his fungibility. The pastor may change, but the Office remains.

Here's an interesting exercise: Can you imagine Steven Furtick or Perry Noble in a collar? Joel Osteen? Rick 'Saddle-your-back-with-Law' Warren? What doesn't comport with the esteemed collar?

Daniel Baker said...

Thank you, Pr. Henderson, for pointing out the fact that the clerical collar is a 19th century sectarian innovation. I have tried pointing this out to folks in the past, but it isn't a popular topic. That being said, I readily grant that the collar was created to mimic the standard clerical wear (that is, the cassock), and I have no problem with that attire. In fact, I think it would be great if the cassock became a standard "clerical uniform," as it were. But I definitely don't see this as some sort of last-stand issue. I'd much rather see a business suit-clad Pastor preaching and teaching Scripture as exposited by the Confessions and praying and using the full counsel of our Liturgical heritage rather than a collar-clad Vatican II wannabe. Just my opinion though.

RDCarlson said...

If it were in fact true that the people of Jesus' time recognized him by his attire, then what would this say about the disciples? Did they dress likewise? They were never called "rabbi's" or "teachers", at least not until after Christ's resurrection. While I don't agree that the people knew Jesus by His attire (but by what He said and the reputation that preceded Him), I also have to assert that the understudies did NOT dress like the teacher/rabbi. I also don't think that seminarians should be wearing clericals UNTIL they are ordained. It creates confusion, and more often than not (from my experiences AS a seminarian) the reason that many choose to wear their collar on an almost daily basis is not out of tentatio, but out of some feelings or exuberance toward BEING CALLED "pastor"...they set their rooms up like offices even. It's almost funny. I think, as a general rule, seminarians should be discouraged from wearing collars OR if they must fulfill their enthusiastic/Pentecostal need, wear a collar that isn't white, so at least those of us who ARE Lutheran can tell the difference and not be burdened by doubts or questions.

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