Robes freak out most evangelicals. I get that. I don’t want to wear one. But most miss out on the reason why some non-Catholics wear robes because it is not just a Catholic thing. The reason for non-Catholic robe-wearing clergy is different and more nuanced than the setting apart of the clergy as a separate class of men. It is, in fact, to hide them.
The Mars Hill/Driscoll drama is happening all over American in smaller, less obvious ways where Leadership Centered churches jerk and heave, sputter and roar, as their leaders go. And most will not live past the last dynamic leader. For many the whole Mars Hill debacle process is in slow motion, but the same thing is happening. It is Leadership-Centered worship.
I do not mean that the leaders are asking to be worshiped. I am not even referring at this point to the extreme cases of megalomania. In fact, I’m not talking about megalomania or egocentrism in leadership at all. I’m talking about a fundamental misunderstanding of church worship in places where the exegetical exposition of the Word of God is primary. I’m talking about the good churches.
The centrality of preaching (a good thing) which was recovered in the Reformation has inevitably resulted in the centrality of the preacher (a bad thing). I have had a number of conversations with pastors who are beaten down under the burden of having to be the star of the show week after week after week. But the worship service shouldn’t be about good preaching only. It is about receiving the Word and the Sacraments. Because of the diminishment of the sacraments, the burden on the preacher in the professing Word-centered congregation is intense because the Word is primarily preached. Thus, the preacher becomes central. But the Word should be read, not just preached. And the Word should be accompanied with the sacraments, the closest most evangelicals get to an ordered liturgy. As a preacher that is at least as good as average, I love the responsibility of preaching, but I can testify to the nearly oppressive anxiety to perform week after week after week before we began to implement the Lord’s Supper on a weekly basis.
So, what does this have to do with robes?
Robes make the preacher invisible. The Word/Sacrament-Centered worship is not about the giftedness of the preacher. The preacher is a mere voice box. Thus, some Protestant churches have seen the value of covering their preacher with a robe, the same vestment worn week after week.
I don’t want to wear a robe, but as we begin to form as a church I want to be a place, starting with our worship, that is Word/Sacrament-Centered and not Leadership-Centered. In the Leadership-Centered church the Leadership is the sun around which the other planets orbit throughout the week. The leadership chooses the sermon series, the texts, the songs, the project, the goals, the philosophy. At least in a Word/Sacrament-Centered church the worship is unhooked off the leadership. The liturgical calendar influences the Scripture choices and the Holy Communion present a Crucified Christ with the blessed assurance of forgiveness and Presence week after week. The leadership is practically irrelevant during these parts.
This influences the rest of the church life. Community and fellowship flow out of a Word/Sacrament-Centered worship and result in, at the very least, a mitigated and humbled Leadership-Centered church life or, most desirably, a Word/Sacrament-Centered church life that fleshes out Christ in the everyday world.
For us the “robe” we wear is our leadership losing itself in the regulated liturgy of the worship service. Hopefully, we fade away. Even if we’re wearing jeans.