I put together an exercise for elders in theological thinking around the color of the robe a minister should wear. I used this because I think it gives people a question that’s not generally emotional. It’s also not that important in the grand scheme of things. However, it is a place where we see how theology works–as the place where scripture, contextual awareness and symbolism converge. Here was the summary of the of the options I gave them.
Originally, priests were dressed in a manner similar to wealthy members of the culture at large. But as secular forms of dress changed, the liturgical vestments did not. In time, the items of a priest’s clothes were given special meaning. For example, the rope or belt holding an alb in place originally served the same practical purpose any belt would but in time it was interpreted as a reference being ready for Christ’s arrival (Luke 12:35).
During the Protestant reformation, reformers like John Calvin objected the elevation of the minister through ornate clothing. God and God alone deserves our worship and so they ended the practice of highly decorated liturgical clothing along with the veneration of saints and other practices thought to be excessive.
Puritans who had been influenced by Calvin did continue the practice of having the preaching minister wear a somber black robe to efface the minister and focus attention on the word and simultaneously to reflect the minister’s education. Often the minister presiding at the table would wear an alb to contrast the two services (word—a time of learning; table—a time of communing).
Geneva or academic robes, as has been said, reflect the influence of the Protestant reformation in particular, John Calvin. They reflect the following:
· The ministers wearing robes represent the church and as representatives of the church, their appearance represents the churches role in teaching. The church is admonished to be the place where people learn and grow in their faith. Colossians 3:16 clearly refers to worship with its references to “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” and its first instruction is to “Let the word of Christ indwell you” and secondarily “teach one another.”
· Dark colored and nondescript robes draw attention to the Word of God. Often times they are called “preaching robes.” “Traditionally, Reformed clergy [NOTE: Disciples belong to this class] also wore the pulpit robe, sometimes referred to as a ‘Geneva gown,’ after the town in Switzerland where Calvin preached. This was an academic gown worn to signify the education of the clergy but also to efface the personality of the pastor so the focus was on the Word rather than the preacher” (Stake, “Vestments,” The ABCs of Worship, p. 186; emphasis added).
· Nondescript, academic robes should convey to the congregation their role as learners, students, and saints ready to be equipped. Romans 12:2 says, “Be not conformed to this but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
White robes (off-white might be chosen for practical reasons but off-white might also dilute the meaning) robes convey something else. Derived from the Alb—a very common and early garment for Christian ministry. White robes reflect:
· Baptism—The tradition of baptizing people in white robes originated with baptizing people and then giving them a white robe as they are raised from the water. The newly baptized would wear their white robe for 8 days following baptism. Paul describes baptism as being clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:26-28).
· Resurrection—The angel who proclaimed resurrection was described as wearing a white robe—white as snow (Matthew 28:3).
· Consummation—The white robes also represent the image of the Saints from every tribe and nation gathered around the throne of the lamb proclaiming God’s salvation (Revelation 7:9-15). Gail Ramshaw wrote, “It is unfortunate that light-skinned persons are usually called white. The white of baptismal identity means to recall not the skin tone of Northern Europeans, but the blood-bleached robes of the saints around the throne. The good news is that the baptized become, not fair-skinned, but God-covered, Christ-attired, dressed in the communal values that arise from life in the Spirit. It might be useful to remember that the white color of bpatismal robes is the spectrum’s way of combing all the colors of the rainbow” (Ramshaw, Treasures Old and New, p. 97).
· White robes, if worn, should convey to the congregation their life in Christ. That they have been baptized into Christ; they have been lowered with Christ and raised to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4); consequently we—like the angel of the tomb—declare Christ’s resurrection and point people to the consummation (heaven).