I want to look today at the practice of clergy wearing special or distinctive garb when the church gathers as a signature trait of institutionalism. I suggested on social media that the wearing of a suit and tie by pastors or other forms of distinctive garb by clergy is a prime trait of institutionalism. An individual took umbrage at this so I want to expand on my thoughts on the topic of clergy dressing distinctively from the laity.
This practice is pretty common across the religious spectrum, particularly in Christian and pseudo-Christian groups. Many "high church" types have clergy adorned in vestments with fancy robes, sashes, etc. Conservative Mennonites wear the simple coat and white dress shirt. Most Baptists pastors, especially proponents of a certain antiquated translation, wear the suit and tie as do the clergy of most evangelical churches, with the exception of those local church gatherings where the pastors are desperately trying to seem hip and cool and instead of a suit and tie they wear v-neck t-shirts, hipster glasses and sport some tattoos because that makes them seem "authentic". Even religious groups outside of orthodox Christianity have their uniforms, from mormon men being required to wear a white dress shirt to pass out "communion" to the elaborate and distinctive "priestly" garb of Roman and the various "Orthodox" faiths. When you walk into a religious gathering of this type you can usually pick out the clergy right away, some more than others but they are usually readily picked out of the crowd.
Why do clergy dress differently than the laity? Because it distinguishes them from the church. It says to anyone who looks that "they" are different from "us". Our culture places a lot of emphasis on what you wear as a sign of power, prestige and authority. If I go somewhere in public wearing a suit and tie, I get immediate deference. In contrast if I show up somewhere in shorts and a t-shirt I fade into the crowd. I have observed this first hand more times than I can count. When clergy wear special garb or even a suit and tie in a room full of khaki pants and polo shirts, it serves to create a sense of authority, just as religious titles and standing behind a pulpit serve as artificial means of exerting a sense of dominance over and separation from the rest of the church. This only compounds the clergy-laity divide and further deepens the love-hate relationship between the two. As our general culture grows more and more casual, this difference becomes even more pronounced.
That is of course not how it is spoken of by clergy and the proponents of the clergy-industrial complex. The suit or other garb is seen as sign to being sober and serious, an indicator that you take seriously the responsibility of being a pastor and "preaching" the word of God. I get this, I always wore a suit and tie when I was "preaching" but looking back I can see why I did and it wasn't as pious as I thought.
So why is the suit a symbol of institutionalism? Simply put, keeping a distance from the laity and being perceived as having a special authority over them is a critical component of institutionalism. For the institutional church to survive it requires a separate and distinct ruling class and conversely this ruling class depends on the perpetuation of the institutional system. Hierarchy is the lifeblood of institutionalism and the attire of the clergy is one of the key distinctive features of the hierarchy. In a family setting you know who the father is, or who the older uncles who are wise and worthy of being listened to are because you can see their age and you can hear their wisdom when conversing with them. In the institutional church we lack that sort of intimate fellowship so we not only select our elders and leaders by an extra-biblical (and I would say often unbiblical) method, likewise we recognize and honor them extra-biblically, recognizing them by the attire and honoring them by the payment of a permanent, regular salary.
The Bible has some things to say about how we dress as the church but it has nothing to say about how the elders of the church should be attired distinctively from the rest of the church when we gather. This distinctive attire is a deeply ingrained cultural expression of the institutional church, and it is especially evident because so many of us don't even realize it.
Duane Liftin, former president of Wheaton College, writes for Christianity Today with an article titled Clothing Matters: What We Wear to Church.
Over the last several generations, American attire in general has lurched dramatically toward the informal. A feature that quickly dates an old photograph, for instance, is the men wearing fedoras; most today wouldn't know where to find one. Those who are old enough can remember when travelers got spiffed up to board an airplane. Today's travelers think nothing of flying in duds they might wear to the gym. Or consider the rise of the term "business casual." In most parts of the country, though not all, even the corporate setting has grown less formal.
These changes are part of a broad shift toward the convenient and comfortable. It's a shift we see on display every week in our worship services. In many churches casual wear is de rigueur. It's easy to imagine how one might look over-dressed there, but less easy, short of immodesty, to imagine being under-dressed. Jeans or shorts, tee shirts or tank tops, flip-flops or sandals: these draw scarcely any attention, while full dresses or a suit and tie appear strangely out of place. Relaxed, even rumpled informality is in; suiting up in our "Sunday best" is out. The question I want to raise here is, What should we make of this shift in worship attire?
Many seem convinced it's a good thing, because, again, it's the heart that counts. Yet precisely for this reason—because it's the heart that counts—I want to suggest that what we wear in our public worship may matter more than we think. To grasp this connection, let us draw on some helpful insights from the field of communication.
Where Duane goes wrong starts right with his assumptions about the church. He speaks again and again about "worship" but I have come to really question if religious observations are what the Bible meant when it speaks of worship. Is "worship" the reason we gather? Is there a correlation between the Old Covenant forms of worship with careful ceremony or is the New Covenant form of worship completely different from the Old? Much of his argument is based in two streams of reasoning. One is that our culture attaches unique significance to how we dress. The other is the Old Covenant with its carefully ordered forms of worship, esp. in the tabernacle/temple. Neither of these streams of reasoning is especially compelling. It is not like Paul wore a suit when he met with the church. In fact I would be willing to wager that he often ministered to people, preaching the Gospel and teaching the church, while wearing dirty work clothes.
The idea of church as consisting of sacred time observing sacred activities in sacred spaces by holy men has a serious hold on the church culture of the West for centuries, going way back to the early days of Roman Catholicism. I also believe that is where we get our traditional understanding of the church gathering as a modified Mass. The people gather for a religious ritual, wearing their "Sunday best" to differentiate between the sacred world of "church" and the profane secular world of everyday life. I was always a suit and tie guy for church, esp. if I was teaching. Now, I feel free to wear khakis and a polo shirt or even jeans. Many people will affirm that church is about more than the Sunday morning meeting but boy we sure make it seem like that hour or two on Sunday is the focal point of the church.
Evangelistic gatherings can in many ways be designed to fit the unbelievers we are trying to reach. But this is harder to do with our corporate worship. The church must first shape its worship to honor God, a goal to which all else must be subordinate. But thankfully, watching believers do what they do can have its own evangelistic effect. When Christians are worshiping as they should, says the apostle, and "and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you" (1 Cor. 14:24–25). Attire that genuinely reflects a God-honoring attitude toward worship may well contribute to a similar result.
Is that true? Or is it perhaps more likely that those who truly need to hear the Gospel, those most desperate for the King, are discouraged from coming to a neat and tidy "house of worship" where they don't fit in because their clothes are shabby and wrinkled? Are we impressing people with our dressing up and external piety or are we portraying the religious hypocrisy that Jesus so despised? Is church designed to be attractive to the already religious even though we assume that non-believers are welcome to come and hear the Gospel? Are we like the Pharisees:
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:23-28)
The Bible is not silent on matters of our attire. Women are to cover their heads when praying or prophesying, something few women even in the most formal church. Few preachers bring it up because it is far easier to talk about wearing nice clothes to church than it is for women to cover their heads and mess up their carefully coiffed hair. Women are also called to dress modestly (at all times not just "at church") but that often clashes with our notion of fashion and appropriate church attire. What is clear is that cultural expectations of "proper" clothing to worship is entirely absent. I think the last thing the church was worried about in the first century was making sure that they wore culturally appropriate attire to gather with the church. In fact it seems that this is a symptom of a church that has nothing better to worry about. We don't face real opposition or persecution. We are comfortably cocooned in the culture. So we find stuff like this to worry about or "worship style" or nuances of theology or any of the myriad other stuff we fight and fuss about. All the while those who need Jesus are dying all around us, many of them in church wearing their nicest suit.
It may sound trite but I am more concerned about what is in a person's heart and how God is working in their lives than I am with what they are wearing. What do you think, does God care what we wear to church?