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The House Church Network: Dedicated to Kingdom Expansion
Why Do Some Clergy Wear Robes?

This week we've been asked about ministers and their robes. Why do some wear robes and why do some ministers not wear them?

The answer is primarily the same as that which keeps the fiddler on the roof tradition! But beneath tradition are some longstanding reasons.

In the earliest days of Christianity, during the first century, the common dress of the Middle-East was robes. Although the Romans had begun to dawn shorter robes called togas, this didn't catch on with the folk in Palestine for some time. Paul, John, and Peter, who wrote some of the later letters of the New Testament, used the garb of society as a metaphor for a number of their points. For instance, "putting on the whole armor of God" (Ephesians 6.11) used the garb of Roman troops to illustrate the positive traits of Christianity. John took the garment of daily wear, gave it a twist, and made it the mark of a true follower of Christ, "Then he said to me, These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb'" (Revelation 7.14). Thus, what was common to the day of the early Christian was rendered sacred. Though in the early days all the Christians wore robes, clergy and laity alike.

But times began to change and Christianity spread to Europe where robes weren't particularly practical in snow and inclement weather. Fewer people, indeed few people, wore robes save those in the Middle East who wore them as their practical, everyday clothes (as many do to this day). But the sacredness of robes had stuck. Clergy continued to wear the robe as a mark of reverence.

And as a mark of humility. During the third and fourth centuries, a few humble Christians began to separate themselves from the churches, claiming the church was too political and too bureaucratic. They moved to the desert to live as monks, where they wore the practical clothes of the sand robes. Eventually there were those who came to understand the robe, not as a sacred badge, but as a mark of humility.

In either case, sacred badge or mark of humility, the match of clergy and robes caught on and became a firm tradition. A tradition that continues to this day.

But tradition is not the only reason some clergy wear robes today. In more recent times there was a move for some in the church to parade themselves as if they were participating in fashion shows; churches became a place where the wealthy and the self-righteous dressed for public adoration and acclamation (on Easter Sunday in particular). Some donned clergy robes during this period to cover the minister's Sunday Best so they and their clothing would not be aggrandized. And even in this day some clergy cite the wearing of robes to cover themselves so their congregants don't comparing ties, suits, dresses (on women clergy), etc.

But other ministers choose not to wear robes. Their reasons often come down to tradition as well. During the Reformation of the 1500s, in reaction against the Roman Catholic Church, many clergy stopped wearing robes as a mark of separation from the Roman church. In many traditions this has lived on until today. Other denominations, formed well after the Reformation, also chose not to wear robes claiming that robes were a mark of the elevation of clergy over the laity. Today similar claims are sometimes made by those who choose not to wear robes.

So why or why not wear robes? Mostly it's the tradition of the church and the theology of the minister that dictates the choice. In some churches robes would be out of place simply because of the history and the traditions of the church. For others, a minister without a robe would be to not dress at all for worship. For those ministers who make and have the conscious choice, wearing robes is a mark of their calling and a hiding of the self. For those who choose not to, their garb speaks to the common grounding of both clergy and laity. Viva la difference!

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