You board the Metra train at Arlington Heights station one afternoon, heading to downtown Chicago for some sight-seeing. As the train departs from the station, a man in jeans, a striped t-shirt, and a Kansas City Royals baseball cap enters your train car, and begins asking to see each passenger’s ticket. To your surprise, most people hand him their tickets without question. But when he comes to you, you ask, “I’m sorry, are you the conductor?”
“Well, sure,” he responds. “Why would you ask that? I asked for your ticket, didn’t I?”
“You did,” you answer quizzically, “but with all due respect, you don’t look like a conductor. And plus, you’re in Cubs country.”
There is a brief pause, and the train continues down the tracks.
Just then the door opens, and the conductor walks in, proudly sporting his Metra vest, tie, and hat. The imposter takes off down the aisle.
In many different common situations, a person’s role is clear through his or her uniform. If we wake to our house being on fire, we don’t run away from the masked intruder wielding an axe, we let him help us escape safely—he’s a fireman. When at a restaurant, we don’t ask the man walking past our table in HVAC coveralls for a refill on our sweet tea—he’s there to fix the A/C. There’s no need to fear the alien in red and blue spandex—he’s Superman.
Without uniforms, we could probably figure things out well enough. But we’d be left questioning whether we are talking to the auto mechanic or the salesman about the weird noise we heard in the engine. And we’d wonder how “serious” of a restaurant it was that told its wait staff to dress however they pleased, and to not bother changing after leaving the gym.
Our clothing represents who we are, and what we are expected to do. If we are employees, our clothing represents something about our boss.
You’ll notice that the leaders wear a uniform at Christ Covenant Church of Chicago. Instead of a jacket and tie—which tend to represent business settings more broadly—the pastor and elder(s) leading the service wear an alb (white robe), stole, and cincture. What is the purpose of these vestments? Are they biblical? Does this mean we have priests at C4? Didn’t Jesus Himself tell us, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces” (Mark 12:38)?
At the time of the Reformation, the reformers taught and preached against what was an overly-sacerdotal church system. What this meant is that, in part because of the Roman Catholic view of the bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist, a Priest needed to be present to mediate between the people and God. In the reformational return to biblical principles, the realization returned that the Bible teaches us of our immediate access to God through Jesus Christ (1 John 2, Hebrews 4:15-16), and calls us “a chosen race, a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9).
We do not need a man to connect us to God, we need The Man (Jesus). Jesus is the cornerstone of the Church (Ephesians 2:20), however, He also left us a foundation of the apostles’ and prophets’ teaching (the first century witness we now find in the Scriptures), as well as representative shepherds in the church “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood.” (Ephesians 4:12-13) Leaders in the Christ’s Church, then, do not mediate our relationship with God, but they do represent God and His call of salvation to His people.
St. Paul urges the Corinthians to “imitate” him, as he in turn “imitates” Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1), and beckons Timothy—a minister of the Gospel—to “follow the pattern of the sound words that” he heard from Paul, “in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13). Hebrews tells us, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). St. Paul describes the ministry of the Word as one of an “ambassador” for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20, Ephesians 6:20). As an “ambassador” represents the government of one nation to another nation, a minister in the Church represents the government of heaven, the Lordship of Christ, in the world. To a certain extent, all believers are ambassadors of the Gospel, but the Church’s ministers are to lead in this, by example.
Admittedly, that is a bit of a long-winded way of saying that these vestments are the uniform of Christ’s ambassadors on earth.
Now one might grant that the ministers of Christ’s Church ought to have a uniform, and yet question the use of robe, stole, and cincture as the uniform. Couldn’t the uniform be a crisply-pressed suit with a cross pinned on the lapel? Couldn’t the uniform be skinny jeans and a t-shirt proclaiming, “Be my homeboy like Jesus is mine (1 Cor 11:1)”? Where does the Bible teach us to use these particular vestments?
While it’s true that robes are not really the fashion style one sees on the runways in New York City these days, and so much of the cultural context may be lost on us, we do find robes featured many places in the Bible.
Of course, throughout Exodus and Leviticus, the priests of the tabernacle wear special robes, ephods, and turbans, but remember, we’ve got a slightly different picture in mind since our relationship to God is not mediated by priests. Rather, we find that robes can portray uniqueness of office. For instance, kings wear robes (2 Kings 22:10, 30; Esther 6:8; Ezekiel 26:16; Isaiah 22:21).
But more important is not the robe itself but the fact of it being a white robe. In Daniel 7, Daniel sees the Ancient of Days (Yahweh) take His throne, and “his clothing was white as snow” (vs 9). Psalm 93 describes God’s white robes as pictures of His majesty and strength (vs 1). When Jesus is transfigured, His robes are said to become “white as light” (Matthew 17:2, cf. Revelation 1:13-14). When God sends heavenly ambassadors to earth, they are robed in white (Matthew 28:2-3, Mark 16:5, John 20:12). When elders rule in heaven, they wear white robes (Revelation 4:4).
In short, the white robe is the garment of heaven. As ambassadors of heaven (“angels” in a sense: messengers of God), ministers in Christ’s Church wear white robes to signify their role in witnessing to the Gospel.
But notice what this does—and this is an extremely central point: the vestments obscure the person and underscore the function.
What do I mean by this? When you see someone in uniform, you do not see “Mel,” “Randy,” or “Judy”: you see the Metra Conductor, the Police Officer, the Judge. Who they are as private persons is shrouded by who they are in their role and responsibility.
Likewise, when you see a minister clad in an alb, you ought not see Jon, Leo, or Dave: you see pastors/elders, ambassadors, representatives, emissaries of God. You don’t notice Dave’s nice suit jacket. You don’t see Leo’s tie patterns. You don’t realize that Jon’s belt and shoes don’t match. In short, you don’t consider our fashion choices. You shouldn’t even see Jon the man, Leo the man, or Dave the man. Rather, our fallen human capacities and personalities are absorbed and overshadowed by the gravity of what God calls us to do: speak His very Words and administer His Sacraments. If it were Jon, Leo, or Dave doing these things on our own strength, you should be very afraid indeed. But as it is, we shed our shortcomings and our own efforts, and embrace and rest in Christ’s work. We cling to His call on us to represent Him. To represent Heaven’s government, the very Kingdom come, that it may be on Earth as in Heaven.
There are a few other things to think of when you see an alb, however. The book of Revelation is full of them! Revelation 3:4-5 speaks of the members of the church in Sardis. Many have been unfaithful and “soiled their garments”, but others have remained righteous and faithful to the end. These will be clothed in white. In Revelation 6:10-11, those who have been martyred for their faith are given a white robe as they wait for their vindication. In Revelation 7 a massive, innumerable crowd of those who came through the “Great Tribulation” are clothed in white. Revelation 22:14 says, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.”
To this point, for simplicity’s sake, I have mainly spoken of the way the alb in our context sets apart a particular office of ministry–because only a minister or leader will typically wear one. However, biblically, a white robe is also an indication of all of the faithful. That is, those who are baptized have been washed clean, and are forgiven. A white robe, early in church history, was given to each person immediately after they were baptized, signifying them as cleansed. In the context of worship on the Lord’s Day, we are not going to begin robing everyone in white! But, properly speaking, any baptized believer could wear one for the purpose of serving in worship. In many liturgical churches, laypeople (non-clergy) wear an alb if they are assisting in worship in some formal capacity.
To recap, though we will only see the leaders robed, there are a number of things to remember when you see one of us in an alb:
1) We are representatives of heaven, examples to follow.
2) We are not—as individuals—better or more spiritual than everyone else. It is the office or role of minister/elder that is deserving of respect, not the person alone.
3) As we are dressed in white, signifying that we are cleansed in baptism, remember your own baptism: your forgiveness and your cleansing in Christ.
4) Remember that martyrs are specially robed in white. When you see a leader in white, know that he is called to give of his life for the congregation. He would take a bullet for you, the church, for the name of Christ.
Finally, aside from the alb, there are two other pieces of the ensemble to point out: the stole and the cincture. The stole is the long piece of fabric (a bit like a scarf) that hangs around the neck, and the cincture is the rope belt that ties around the waist. Both of these pieces are to indicate humility and service. Ministers follow Christ’s example, and we know from the epistles of St. Paul (repeatedly) that Christ gave Himself up for the Church (Ephesians 5:25, 1 Timothy 2:5-7, Titus 2:13-15). We, as leaders in the church, are here as humble servants of the cross. No fancy leather belt or gaudy belt buckle is to be found, but simple rope around our waist. Likewise, the stole indicates the calling and ordination of a minister, who bears the yoke of ministry in service to God (1 Timothy 6:1, cf. Jeremiah 28), as well as represents a towel or cloth such as was used by Christ to wash His disciples’ feet (John 13). The minister wearing stole and cincture is a humble servant of God, given to bear your burdens, mourn with you, laugh with you, pray for you, and wash your feet.
Thus, the alb, stole, and cincture indicate things about you (the congregation), us (the leaders), and God (the Lord of Heaven and Earth). These vestments, we believe, serve to fill out the picture of our heavenly worship on the Lord’s Day (Hebrews 12:22-24) and make our worship more reverent. We pray they will also take away any distraction given by us as persons, and replace it with a clearer picture of who we are as leaders, servants, and representatives of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Jon Herr is the pastor of Christ Covenant Church of Chicago.