Font to Table: Why Does the Pastor Wear That?
In many churches, the pastor wears clothing referred to as “clerical vestments.” This may seem odd, particularly if you’ve never attended a church where this is practiced. Clerical vestments are the adaptation of ordinary clothing to set clergy apart from regular church members. Think of it as a pastoral uniform, like that worn by a fireman or postal worker, indicating a dedication to their vocation.
Vestments fall into a category known as adiaphora in Latin, or things indifferent. They are neither required or forbidden. Some may see them as a hindrance, but others, such as myself, find them to be helpful in supporting the message of the cross.
Like all fashion, the clothes worn by pastors developed over time for both symbolic and practical reasons. In this article, we will explore the most common vestments found today in post-Reformation churches.
Every Day Dress
The cassock was the everyday wear of the clergy: simple and black to show both the sins of the wearer and the dignity of the office. The thirty buttons indicate the age at which Christ began his earthly ministry. The cassock as everyday wear has been replaced by the clergy shirt, whose notch is meant to imitate the notch in the neck of the cassock.
The black suit and clerical collar were the basic clothes of any professional pastor from about the 17th-century on. The collar is reversed, however, to indicate spiritual service. The color black is supposed to symbolize “separation from the world,” but truthfully, at one-time black was one of the few dependable dyes for cloth, readily available, and affordable.
The most common vestments worn on a Sunday morning when the Lord’s Supper is being celebrated are a preservation of the clothing worn by the “middle class” of the Hellenistic and Roman period. They were retained by a number of branches of the Church in honor of the saints and martyrs of the Church’s earliest days.
The alb is a long, white, linen vestment. It was the normal “bottom layer” worn right up to the Middle Ages. Its symbolism is the white robe of Christ’s righteousness worn by the saints in Revelation 8:9:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
The cincture is a woven cord used as a belt over the alb. Its practical use is to hold the clothing together. When there was work to be done, pastors would use the cincture to tie up the skirts of the alb into a form of work pant. The expression “gird thy loins” comes from this practice (read the KJV of Job 38:3; 1 Peter 1:13). The symbolism attached to the cincture is self-control and obedience to the truth (Eph. 6:14).
The stole is a long, narrow strip of fabric, typically embellished with a cross or other Christological symbol. In the ancient world, it was a sign of your particular office or calling. For example, the Roman emperor presented stoles to his magistrates as a sign of their authority to act in his name. The Church adopted the stole as a sign that their pastors act in the Name of their King Jesus. The symbolic meaning of the stole is that bearing the authority of Christ also means bearing His cross.
The last piece of clothing, though not as common, is the chasuble. It is worn over everything else. Originally, it was a poncho-like overcoat worn simply to keep the pastor warm (no central heating in those large European cathedrals during the Middle Ages). It soon became associated with the yoke of Christ and the pastoral office, which explains why many chasubles are marked with a cross on the back in the form a “Y,” as a symbol of carrying the cross of Christ. It is worn only by the celebrant at the Divine Service.
Today, many Christians look down upon clerical vestments as an unfortunate and unnecessary hold-over of Roman Catholicism; and while I get that, I see many advantages to retaining these traditions.
First, they keep our connections with the ancient Church—our brothers and sisters who’ve gone before us. Second, vestments stress the office of the ministry over the particular men who fill them. This is one, among many, reasons that you do not find too many celebrity pastors in traditional churches. The minister’s clothing represents his office of service, derived from the ministry of Christ, and never himself. Lastly, and more practically speaking, it is easier to know who the pastor is when you’re visiting a church for the first time. And when I wear my clerical collar on hospital visits, it often opens up opportunities for ministry and prayer for others who have sought me out simply because of the shirt on my back.