Dressing to Confess


The Summer 2009 issue of Higher Things has an article entitled “What’s With the Collar?”  It makes some fine points favoring the wearing of a clerical collar which I do six days a week, but I am being pushed towards wearing a shirt and tie or perhaps even a black polo shirt with a cross or fish emblem on it. And it’s the laity who is pushing me.  Let me explain how.


It begins with something the article says. “There is, however, a significant amount of symbolism behind the use of vestments and especially a clerical collar.”  I would say there is significant amount of symbolism that can be made from them but it’s not “behind” their use. Rev. Roger Pittelko, the former president of the LCMS’s English District, who went by “bishop” before bishop was even cool among us, wrote a short piece in the April 2004 Concordia Theological Quarterly titled “Clerical Collar – To Wear or Not to Wear?”


He writes in part, “What we call liturgical vestments were, in fact, originally ordinary clothing worn by all.  The alb, cincture, and chasuble were regular dress in the Roman world.  But styles changed.  When the barbarians invaded the Roman empire, they brought a new form of dress, trousers and a shirt.  As the new styles were adopted, the clergy retained the old clothing.  The old clothing was not understood to be liturgical vesture for use in the services of the church.  The old clothing, now considered vestments, was given new symbolic meaning.  This process of the clergy keeping the old style has gone on ever since.  The cassock, a common walking coat used by all gentlemen in the Middle Ages, was retained by the clergy when it was shortened to form a suit coat….From the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, gentlemen wore elaborate collars.  Often they were of lace or something that took the appearance of a primitive ascot tie.  To keep the collar from being soiled, a band of linen was worn around the neck.  In time, styles changed.  The collars disappeared, but clergy retained the band of linen around the neck.  The band of linen used to keep the collar from being soiled is the clerical collar of today” (p. 154). (For more in-depth information on the origins of vestments in ordinary clothing see Church Vestments Their Origin & Development, Herbert Norris.)


Here’s the sentence from Pittelko that makes my case.  “With our culture adopting more and more casual clothing, it is possible that the new clerical uniform will be a shirt and tie” (p. 154).  The more people come to church in jeans, shorts, sandals, etc. the more pastors will be encouraged to adopt what was once considered proper attire for church: a coat and tie.  The robes could be lost too following this rubric although historically society has always robed what they honored most clergymen, women, and judges.


Since the Supreme Court is much in the news of late, did you know they have rules for the attire of lawyers and journalists?  “The rules are strictly interpreted and strictly executed.  And then some…..’The dress code is part of the court’s desire to maintain the atmosphere that one might expect in the nation’s highest court,’ said Kathy Arberg, the court’s public information officer” (Joan Biskupic, The Washington Post, “In this court, one must dress with respect for the justices,” in Austin American Statesman, 12-18-99, p. 4).


Obviously James 2 comes into play and his warning against being prejudiced against “a poor man in shabby clothing,” though the setting there is probably the court and not the church.  How people dress for church can’t be a matter of the law.  People are to dress for church as they do for everything else according to their evaluation of the occasion they are attending.  We have all gone someplace under or overdressed.  If a man showed up in church in a tuxedo or a woman in an evening gown, he or she would be overdressed, but everyone would know just how highly they evaluated the Divine Service, wouldn’t they?  Wait a minute that is how most people dress for their marriage and the marriage supper that follows, hmm.


As for us pastors, since we have historically taken our cues from how our people dress, as you go we go.  That means when you make the move to T-shirts and shorts I get to wear a polo.  For now, I’m thinking of trying a shirt and tie.  I miss ties.  They offer such a wide variety of color choices. So many ways to express myself.  Then again why don’t I make the move to colored clericals? Whatever I wear I’m confessing something.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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2 Responses to Dressing to Confess

  1. Bart Goddard says:

    I’ll be sure and start spreading the word to the ladies
    of the congregation that their refusal to wear hats in
    church is pressuring you to wear one.

    I recommend a flashy fedora. Think “rakish”.

    • 1) “A man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God” (I Cor. 11:7). 2) Along with St. Paul “we have no such practice” (1 Cor. 11:16) of women being covered.

      That men no longer wear hats in society may be a point. Father Brown wears one.

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