Now some of you reading this will lift an eyebrow or two, and no wonder. Clerical dress being promoted by a reformed evangelical? Yes. And why not?
Let me give you my reasons for this statement. I can remember a day when every minister within the Presbyterian family of churches wore his clerical collar and many their pulpit robes. That was also a day in which dignity in worship was observed. The situation when a congregation met for the worship of God was a solemn and serious occasion. It was not an occasion for levity and laxity. The solemnity of the hour demanded the deepest reverence for what was being done. Worshippers presented for worship at God’s house in a manner fitting for a visit to a king or queen. The occasion was such that proper protocol was observed by all.
Indeed, if these same people were to be presented to the Queen at Buckingham palace, they would ensure that they observed all necessary protocols. They would be respectful and reverent and on their best behaviour. Their mobile phone would be switched off in good time, so as not to upset the occasion. They would wear their best clothes and spend time preparing to present themselves to the monarch.
Exactly the same goes for dress at work. Many professionals are expected to dress 'professionally' for their work and even 'back-room' staff have to do likewise. Teachers in schools would never dream of turning up to work the way some of them turn up for worship!
But not so today! Modern Christians do not even dress as well to appear before Christ the King as they do to go to work. Can you imagine a professional teacher turning up in school to teach his/her pupils in jeans and a sloppy tee-shirty? The boss would not tolerate it. There is much more respect for the one who pays the salary that there is for the Risen and Glorified Saviour Christ.
Now where has this all emanated from? I must hold up my hands here and confess that I was in the trail of those who wore clerical dress less and less when I was in pastoral ministry. My reason? Oh, it was very spiritual and biblical; of course it was. There was no distinctive dress in the New Testament, so the church today does not require it. Simple. Allied to this was the fact that non-evangelicals and anti-evangelicals within my denomination never failed to wear clerical dress, and I wanted to create some distance between myself and them.
What has been the knock-on effect of this position? Well, when the ministers slowly but surely stopped wearing distinctive clerical dress, the people stopped slowly but surely wearing appropriate dress when presenting themselves before the Lord each Sunday. Then, the minister wore shirt and tie, like every other man. Then, he stopped wearing the tie and went with an open-necked shirt. Then it degenerated into denims and trainers, and some even wear jog suits and trainers.
What have the people done? Have they maintained the standards appropriate to appearing before King Jesus? Hardly. They have exceeded their ministers in wearing provocative clothing, not conducive to the worship of the triune holy God. They sway and gyrate with modern upbeat tunes as they sing about the Cross on which the Saviour of the world suffered and bled and died. Then they bring in the tom-tom drums to emphasise the beat; then the other noisy instruments that tend to dominate the worship – if that is what it can now be called.
And the result? Exactly what C. H. Spurgeon in the nineteenth century called the ‘downgrade.’ There has been an observable down grading of the importance and solemnity of public worship to such an extent that it became an opportunity for musicians to parade their gifts and hopefully be noticed by a promoter.
The solemnity of the worship of God has disappeared from many churches, even amongst those that claim to worship Him properly. It is no longer the holy thing it was when I was growing up. Now it is more of a show, a talent competition, a variety concert.
Then we wonder why God is not present with His people in the way we would like to see and experience. We pray for Him to be present, but what we want Him at drives Him away. But when He does turn up in our churches, He will again have to make a whip of cords and drive out what is displeasing to Him.
For all its other-worldliness value, clerical dress did maintain a level of decorum and sanctity in the sanctuary of God’s house, and we are greatly mistaken if we think otherwise.