On Pastoral Robes and Supreme Court Justices2
This week, at the beginning of the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse gave a remarkable 10 minute address on the significance of the Supreme Court Justice robe. As I listened to him explain the meaning of the simple black robe to the Senate, I was struck by how relevant his comments are for understanding why ministers of the Gospel have historically worn robes when leading the public worship service. In fact, at one point in his address Senator Sasse makes this same connection.
As Redeemer is a church that has chosen to continue the practice of the ministerial robe, I share below some of his more pertinent points in order to remind us why we do what we do. This is particularly important because use of the ministerial robe has fallen on hard times in American evangelical churches, and the purpose for it is often misunderstood completely.
The first point (like a good preacher, he had three points all of which he stated up front!) made by Senator Sasse regarding the meaning of the robe is that wearing the robe "changes the way our eyes see the court." He explains
It (the robe) calls attention to the office, rather than the person. The robe forces their personality into the background so that we can focus on the important but modest job they have to do, (namely) to drill down on facts and law. Facts are objective. They don't change based on personality. They are evaluated against written objective laws, not on what someone wishes the law to be...Our ideal is one where you can trade out one judge for another and get the same outcome...we are not to be ruled by a judges passions, empathy, or policy preferences.
This is an absolutely remarkable statement, and if you insert "God's Truth/Law" where Sen. Sasse says "facts," you get an accurate understanding of the purpose of the ministerial robe. It is indeed to call the listener's attention away from the personality of the preacher, and focus it on the office that he is filling as he stands behind the pulpit, namely God's ambassador called to proclaim God's truth to God’s people. It is also a reminder of what a congregation should expect from the minister: he is not there as an entertainer, politician, or professional story teller, but as an expositor of the Word. The robe is a symbol that the minister is under obligation not to say what the culture wants to hear, not to reflect the popular opinions of the day, or even to appease his own congregation. He is bound to preach the Word.
Secondly, Sen Sasse notes that the robe "reiterates the calling of the judge back to the judge." This is where he makes a connection between the role of judge and the role of minister:
Many people sat in church pews and listened to someone preach wearing a robe...Why the pulpit, why the robe? Because these things make it harder to see the preacher. They help us all understand.it is not about the messenger but the message that was being passed down from above. It was also to remind the minister of the same cloaking...Likewise a good judge on the bench knows that its’ not about (him)...When you put on a robe, you are cloaking your personal preferences, you are cloaking your partisan views. There is not a red robe for republicans or a blue robe for democrats. We issue only black robes.
Again, this is remarkably helpful in understanding the purpose of the ministerial robe. The robe isn’t worn merely for the congregation, but for the minister himself. Wearing the robe should humble the pastor. He is not up there to preach himself, ultimately he is a nobody (in an age of Christian celebrity, this is incredibly important), and what is happening is not at all about him. Rather, like John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said “he must increase,” the robe reminds the pastor that is office is to preach nothing but Christ and him Crucified. The personality, personal likes and dislikes, or political views, of the minister must never override, distort, or distract from the message of God to his people that morning.