Why a Genevan Robe? - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahonArticles on Puritan Worship and the Regulative Principle
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Ever since God instituted worship, He has created divisions that demonstrate the profane from the holy. Even in our own day the Lord’s Supper is no ordinary supper. Water sprinkled on a new Christian is not simply a shower when it is administered in Christ’s words. Certain ideas take on the idea of “holy” when they move into the sanctuary of God underneath the proper preaching of the Word.
Why has it been the practice of ministers and elders in the church to wear a robe while preaching? It is not that the old pictures of the early church fathers, reformers or Puritans were trying to look more prestigious or honorable. Nor is it that that they were trying, in some way, to hold onto Roman Catholic ideas surrounding vestments in copying some of the ceremonial aspects of the Siniatic Law. Rather, it surrounds a need for the preacher and congregation to be reminded, constantly, that the office of the minister is to be regarded with a submissive attention to his work as the preacher of God’s Word. There is a great difference between John Calvin asking his congregation to listen respectably to “John Calvin”, and listening heartily to the Word of God. In aiding the congregation to remember the distinctions in office here, the ministers of the Reformed Church have consistently worn a ministerial robe in every era of the church, even up to modern times.
Clothing has been often used to make distinguishing marks even among secular positions in the job market. When you see a policeman, you recognize him by his dark blue uniform, badge and gun. When you see a doctor, they are dressed in a white trench jacket, or maybe blue surgical outfits. When you see a judge, they wear their officiating robe. If you see a judge in England, not only do they wear a robe, but also a white powered wig. Painters wear smocks, and sports figures have their own sporting attire. In all of these professions the clothing points one in a direction that informs and educates the mind about what it is seeing. It would be a very hard thing to walk into a hospital with a dying patient, only to find that everyone was wearing regular clothes. Instead, the surgical garb of the surgeon, or the white coat of the doctor pinpoints the one that needs to be found expeditiously. Or what if there was an emergency on the street and a policeman was simply dressed like the rest of the crowd? Clothing distinguishes various secular offices for the ease of recognition, and they remind the public of the various offices that different people hold – from construction workers with their yellow and orange vests, to the gardener and his dark green jumpsuit.
When people walk into the church, they should be leaving the secular to enter into the sacred – the arena of God’s people for corporate worship. Who is the minister residing over the service? In most Evangelical churches it is anyone’s guess until the minister stands behind the “podium”, or ascends the “stage”. But the Genevan Robe instantaneously distinguishes the minister from the congregation at first glance. This is not because the ministers wants to be special, but rather, because the minister desires the congregation to especially listen to the Word of God being preached, not the minister under the robe. Here, Christ is exalted in the Word, and the minister is forgotten – only his office remains.
The Genevan Robe aids the congregation in being reminded as to what is taking place – it is the elevation of the Word of God. As Paul states in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, “For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe.” The Genevan Robe emphasizes the importance of heeding the Word of God, instead of worrying about how the pastor looks this week. Allow this example to make the point – after a service that I attended in a church I was visiting, I overheard two women talking immediately after the service. At first, I thought that these women were going to make a comment about the sermon that had been given. Instead, they began talking about something quite different. One woman said, “Didn’t the pastor look wonderful today?” The other responded (truly) by saying, “Yes, the crease in his pants is always so perfect.” I was taken back. Instead of concentrating on the Word of God being preached, these women (and it could have just as easily been the men) commented on how good the pastor looked that day. The personality, clothing, and demeanor of the pastor should not reflect the manner in which he dressed that day in a nice suit, but rather the Word of God should be the focal point where attention should be called. The Genevan Robe aids in the congregation’s focus on the Word of God, and is a lawful distraction from the personality, demeanor and clothing of the preacher who is standing in the pulpit to deliver that Word.
The Genevan Robe also detracts from the person of the pastor as well. People often listen to preachers they like to hear. Maybe they have become very friendly with the pastor. Maybe the pastor is a father of a large family, and is a husband. Maybe his mother and father have come to his church, or are in town to visit. Maybe they all attend regularly. How do relatives and friends view the pastor? Will they take him seriously? Or is he just their buddy, husband, son, or friend? The office of the minister is briefly explained in the Presbyterian Form of Church Government in the Westminster Standards. It says that ministers are appointed by Christ, “for the edification of his church, and the perfecting of the saints.” They pray, read the Scriptures publicly, dispense the Word of God, feed the flock of God, catechize, dispense other divine mysteries, administer the sacraments, and bless the people. The minister’s wife, children, mother, father, or any relative may find it more difficult being lead by their husband, son, father or relation of that sort. Or maybe some in the congregation are very close to the pastor and have a special friendship. In this way the dispensing of the Word in its various forms may be equally difficult for some in the congregation to take the minister seriously; or rather, as seriously as they should. In order to overcome some of these familial and friendly relationship barriers to heeding God’s Word, the Genevan Robe acts as a barrier between what is being accomplished in divinely dispensing the Word, and the person of the minister in general towards the congregation. The congregation should have a sense of being lead by the Spirit of God through the ministerial act of dispensing the Word of God. They should never feel as though their “husband” or “son” or “father” or “friend” is up there telling them something about the Bible. Submission, in this respect, is to the office that Christ has appointed. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:28, “And God has appointed these in the church…teachers…” Even in terms of young ministers, Paul says in Titus 2:15, “Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no one despise you.” The writer of Hebrews says in 13:17, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.”
When the minister of the Word of God stands in the pulpit while wearing a Genevan Robe, such an act demonstrates that “something is going on here that is eminently different” than normal. There is a more profound affect on the congregation to listen to the Word of God rather than the man, or how good the man looks, or whether his pants are creased well. The purpose is to detract from the person of the preacher, and to emphasize the office of the minister. The Genevan Robe is not worn to make him more prestigious than the rest of the blood-bought saints that come to corporate worship, nor is it to set him above the congregation in any way. Rather, the Genevan Robe reminds the congregation that he is “set apart” to work as a mouthpiece for the Word of God preached during worship. Therefore, it is not “unnatural” to see the minister of the Word “looking” different than he regularly does on days of visitation, or in his study preparing sermons. He should visibly be set apart in clothing that accentuates his office. Such clothing should elevate the thoughts of the people in a manner that they respect what is going on more seriously.
On a side note, in the realm of the business world, the way one dresses often has an affect on the mind psychologically. At work, when people come in as if they rolled out of bed, well, they often work that way. But if they take the time to dress up, and come in with a “power-suit” or look “professionally”, then this often presses them psychologically to take themselves and their job seriously. What does it mean to “look professional?” It means putting time into dressing up so that people take you seriously. If “looking professional” means something in the workplace, how much more important should it be that the minister “looks professional” in his ecclesiastical clothing? The Reformed ministers of the church, in this respect, have always worn ministerial garb.
Wearing a Genevan Robe stands in stark contrast to the “normalcy” of the Evangelical church. Preachers usually look like CEOs or lawyers. When I wear a Genevan Robe, it would not matter if I were dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, or a suit, underneath. In either case, my clothing is hidden from view completely, and only the hands and the head are seen. My hands turn the pages the Word of God, and my mouth preaches. My eyes make contact, my facial expressions and hand motions are all that are needed. It does not matter if I am not wearing a suit under the robe in this respect. Creases are not that important. The Genevan Robe creates the air of formality that is lost with glass pulpits, puppet shows and parades that one often finds in secularized services.
One parishioner in my church said to me once, “When you enter the pulpit, you change. It’s like you become someone completely different.” I understood what she meant. I also thanked her. Ministers should be “ministers of the Word” in the pulpit. Not a friend, a husband, a father, a buddy, etc. They are there to perform a solemn task of bringing saints to heaven and rescuing sinners from hell in their preaching. Certainly, it is God who works these things, but the minister, in every respect, should take every advantage given to him to set apart the gravity of the preached Word. This includes the manner of his clothing. If the manner of his clothing did not really matter, then he could wear anything he wanted and be respectable. But we know that flip-flop sandals, worn jean shorts, and a tie dyed T-shirts are not respectable and not becoming a minister of the Word of God as God’s representative on behalf of the Word studied. Rather, we move in the opposite direction. We say that the formal and solemn preaching of God’s Word should be all that the congregation is attentive to, and that the clothing of the minister should reflect that calling.
Throughout the history of Christian corporate worship Reformed ministers have worn distinctive clothing to testify to their office as ambassadors of Jesus Christ. The Genevan Robe reminds the pastor that he serves the Lord Christ, and it reminds the people that the Word of God is of central importance. In this act of his own worship, the minister decreases, and the Word of God increases (cf. John 3:30).