“Aaron and his sons shall wear them when they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister in the holy place; or they will bring guilt on themselves and die.” (Exodus 28:43, NRSV)
In last month’s blog titled, “Sunday Best, I Guess,” I concluded by stating that I would further the discussion on proper attire for worship by addressing clerical attire in my next month’s blog. As I was drafting this month’s blog, I noticed recent Facebook chatter about wearing doctoral robes in the pulpit. The discussion centered on whether it is appropriate for a person to wear a doctoral robe if the person has not received an earned doctorate degree.
My thoughts are this, why even wear a doctoral robe during worship to begin with unless the service calls for it. Wearing academic regalia for perhaps a special worship service to celebrate recent graduates would be deemed decent and in order in some traditions. But for those to whom the robe was “earned not given” (King LeBron James version), there is no need to flaunt one’s academic achievement in the house of the Lord. It is God who deserves the glory, not the preacher.
I am proud of my academic achievements and so are the persons in my church, but I don’t feel the need to elevate myself above them by showing off three chevrons on my sleeves. The purpose of the robe is to cover the preacher and promote the God-ordained office or calling of the preacher. Unless the service calls for wearing regalia, I would say—NOT!
If you do not have an EARNED doctorate or honorary doctorate degree (Earned meaning you put in the time, money and energy to do thorough research, you spent many late nights, personal sacrifices, constant prayers, and time IN the academic setting (not on the internet), from a respectable and accredited institution, where you were “not given” your doctorate degree in less than three years time, then to wear or not to wear a doctoral robe I would say—NOT!
As a woman who has frequent opportunities to stand behind the sacred desk, I do, however, support wearing clergy attire. First, I find that a clerical robe takes the focus off what I am wearing. Given all the horror stories I’ve heard about criticism of skirt lengths, open-toed shoes, and neck-line, a pulpit robe has become my great deliverer (thanks, J. Dan Day!). Second, certain worship services just demand the choir and clergy adorn themselves in worship attire. A guest preacher would want to inquire from the host church the context of the worship service and whether wearing a robe, business casual, or Sunday best attire is most appropriate.
When priestly garments were worn in Old Testament times, these garments were highly symbolic and illustrated that spiritual leaders were anointed and set apart from others to do the work of God. “To Robe or Not to Robe” was not an option because it was mandatory for the priest to adhere to the dress code. Exodus 28:43 says, Aaron and his sons shall wear them when they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister in the holy place; or they will bring guilt on themselves and die. (Exodus 28:43, NRSV). A High and Holy worship service would call for the preacher to wear a robe, but it also depends on the faith tradition.
At the end of the day, whether you decide to robe or not to robe, be mindful that your priestly garments have biblical significance and symbolize that you have been set apart to serve God. “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:17)
C. Lynn Brinkley serves as the director of student services and alumni relations at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina. Lynn is also an adjunct professor at Campbell and an ordained minister at First Baptist Church in Clinton. For more information about proper attire in the pulpit, check out Lynn’s new book: Manners & Money: A Manual on Preaching Etiquette.