Is Your Pastor Beginning To Dress Strangely At Work?

To this very end have the Papists brought in such a variety of mass vestments, surplices, and other special clothing for the priests, in order that thereby they would have so much the more splendor and magnificence, as in the Old Testament the priests and Levites wore their adornment and garb.

But by the light of the gospel, the night and darkness of the Papacy has been driven from the Protestant church and one is able to assemble with peace in the light of day. The Levitical pomp has been abolished by God Himself.

And at the original Supper, the Lord Christ (as well as the apostles afterwards whenever they observed the Supper) used their ordinary clothes and did not for the first time put on new and distinct surplices, albs, chasubles, or the like, which more disguise the administration of the Holy Supper and of themselves more closely resemble theatrical masks than serve as an adornment to the church’s worship.

Therefore, for the administration of the Lord’s Supper and for other occasions, there has been in the churches of this land (as was previously done in the neighboring churches and in many others) an entire abolition of all this vain pomp of illuminations, candles, surplices, and mass vestments as being the colors of Antichrist’s court.

And it has been prescribed that the ministers of the churches are to maintain their ordinary, albeit honorable, garb when they preach and distribute the sacrament.

By this, nothing is taken away from their office. So it is with those who attend the Lord’s Supper, for they also subtract nothing from the proper use of the sacraments when they do not put on distinctive and novel clothes, but maintain their commonplace clothes which they would otherwise ordinarily wear.

The Nassau Confession, (1578) in James T. Dennison Jr., ed. Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: 1523–1693, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008–14), 491–92.


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  1. Isn’t it true that the use of these vestments and other garments took off in the early church after the Constantinian adoption of Christianity into Roman society? That is, they adopted much of the pomp and circumstance of the high Roman empire.

  2. Can this be categorized as adiaphora if those wearing the vestments are not attaching any power or command to them? I’ve often heard some Lutherans and Anglicans say they retain them as they are for beauty and exalt the office of holy ministry hiding the minister. I think the Book of Concord has some words on this stuff as adiaphora. I personally think the church calendar with color coded vestments are silly. They dont make me think of God or hide the minister. They make me think how ridiculous and pompous it makes ministers look.

    • Mike,

      This has always been the Anglican/Lutheran argument. We do not have to guess at how this actually worked out since there were Anglicans who, for the reasons given above, refused to wear those vestments they regarded as priestly or sacerdotal, e.g., the stole and the surplice. They did not object to wearing Luther’s modified academic robe, which came to be known as the Genevan robe/gown. When they objected, the Anglican authorities said, “it’s indifferent.” The Reformed guys said, “if it’s indifferent, why are you insisting?” Of course it wasn’t really indifferent.

      The appeal to adiaphora misunderstands the nature of “circumstances.” A circumstance is required by nature. It’s unavoidable. We must meet at one place, at one time, and use a common language. Those are circumstances. Elements are required by God. That’s it. Priestly (“Levitical pomp”) vestments are neither circumstances, which are truly adiaphora—it is morally indifferent whether we meet at 8AM or 10AM—nor elements, i.e., ordained by God.

      Here are some more resources on this:

  3. Beautiful line–especially in its context:

    ” But by the light of the gospel, the night and darkness of the Papacy has been driven from the Protestant church and one is able to assemble with peace in the light of day.”

  4. I once knew a pastor who devoted his latter years ministering to German Lutheran enclaves in the former Soviet Union territory known as Uzbekistan. He told me that if he had shown up to preach dressed in anything other than a plain black gown he would have been criticized and reprimanded for it. And that included anything with white in it. It was their view that the minister should show his sins (with black) the same as the rest of the congregation whereas white would have supposedly demonstrated a blemish-free (sinless) display of false superiority. So there you have it.

  5. I was a continuing Anglican church member in the late 90’s and can tell you what they called adiaphora was adhered to as divine law. There were so many rubrics and details on how and what and where to do liturgical mechanics. It was exhausting. Everything had symbolism and meaning. It was so distracting. At first it all seemed so extra spiritual and important until I realized none of this is commanded. It’s almost as if they dont think God needs our help, like his word isnt enough.

    I remember reading Luther’s Small Catechism and he even says you should do the sign of the cross in the morning and in the evening. It seems so ridiculous to me. Why? I remember going to a Lutheran church and it was the same as when an Anglican. Bowing to an altar, signing ones self, doing all these man made things. Silly costumes and 10 minute sermons. I appreciate the Reformed’s insistence on only doing what God commands.

  6. So as a guy who would agree with the ‘abuses’ of Rome and as a minister who does not wear a clerical robe (Genevan or otherwise), and yet has no qualms with a Genevan robe, or one with a bit of color, I do have qualms with this statement: “[t]he Levitical pomp has been abolished by God Himself.” If by “Levitical pomp” he means that which God Himself prescribed under Moses for Aaron and his descendants to wear in their priestly service (Exod 28), then I would demur. There seems to be an unexamined and unspoken connection between the prescribed levitical vestments and Romish vestments. I personally, and respectfully think that that is an unjustified and woefully unnuanced assumption. I think it needs to be unpacked a bit more. Moses tells Aaron, et. al. that such vestments should be for “glory and for beauty” (28:2, and 40). So assuming a Reformed and Presbyterian hermeneutic that seeks to mine out the “general equity” of the Law for the New Covenant people of God (WCF and 2LBC 19.4), how does the prescription of priestly vestments for “glory and for beauty” carry over into the New Covenant? Yes, of course, ministers of the New Covenant (NC) are not priests. I get that. But, Paul sees much ‘carry over,’ as it were, from the OC priest to the NC minister (cf. Rom 15:16, “….to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God”). The OC priest had a ‘uniform’ so to speak, which signaled to everyone who he spoke for and what he worked to accomplish. A black robe/gown can do that today. I agree. I like the idea. But I’m not quite sure it would fully express the general equity of “glory and beauty” in the NC. Again, I think that there have been abuses in how vestments are approached and viewed and that such abuses should be avoided and rebuked. But does the addition of color to a minister’s robe necessarily mean that the minister is perpetuating “levitical pomp?” I’m not sure that it does. Just a thought. I’m sure I’m missing something and stand by to be disabused of my shortsightedness. all the best.

    • Joshua,

      I think I detect some misapprehensions in your reply:

      1. The Reformed were well aware that God himself had instituted beautiful vestments under the types and shadows. They were also aware that God the Son himself incarnate is far more beautiful to us who believe than any mere type and shadow. This was not an “unexamined” assumption. It was a studied conclusion.

      2. The medieval church had appealed to the Levitical pattern to justify transforming pastors into priests. First, in the 4th century, we began to imitate Roman civil authorities in our ecclesiastical dress, then we began to describe ourselves not as ministers, presbyters, overseers, or pastors but as priests. The Reformed rightly sought to return the pastoral ministry to its proper status. Christ alone is our high priest and intercessor. Pastors are shepherds, they are ministers, but they are not priests. Christ has instituted no special NT priesthood. The NT is not, as Rome says, “the New Law” (a major assumption behind the rise of the priestly office in the medieval church). The Reformation re-asserted the movement and development of redemptive history.

      3. General equity does not mean what you seem to think. Resources:

      What Does “General Equity” Mean?
      Samuel Rutherford Contra Theonomy On General Equity
      Ussher Rejected Theonomy And Explained General Equity
      James Ussher On General Equity
      William Perkins On General Equity

      The general equity of the Levitical priesthood leads the New Testament first to the priesthood of Christ and secondarily to the priesthood of believers. It never leads the NT to a literal NT special priesthood, as it had in the medieval church and as it does today in the Roman and (some) Anglican and Lutheran communions. Yes, as Paul says, pastors have a priestly function but they also have a prophetic function. It is a stretch to move from an aspect of ministry to priestly vestments.

      Those vestments have a dark history in the Reformation and since. They were imposed on Anglican ministers who sought to obey the Word of God and their conscience shaped thereby. In the Anglo-Catholic/Tractarian movement, they signaled the rejection of the Reformation.

      For a minister to dress like a priest, with the stoles and the surplice, is to suggest to the laity that he is more than he is. This is not mere theory. This is one of the darker aspects of the Mercersburg Movement, a part that doesn’t get highlighted often. Some of the old German Reformed, when their ministers turned the Lord’s Table into an altar and began to wear stoles and the surplice, tossed the altar and their new “priest” out through the narthex.

      A pastor is a shepherd, he is a servant of God’s Word. That’s it. All his authority comes from the Word of God. He is a servant of the sacraments. He has no special access to God nor any special intercessory powers and he is certainly not making any propitiatory offering to God.

      4. That P&R ministers are appropriating medieval liturgical vestments, apparently unaware of the Reformation concerns about their use by New Covenant ministers, bodes ill. It suggests that they are doing the same thing that the early medieval church did, for the same reasons. That will lead to the same outcome, something much to be avoided.

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