Does Your Pastor Dress as a Shepherd or a Sheep?

GaleWork clothes and uniforms are signs or markers which speak of the vocation wherein we serve our neighbor. In a most delightful way the work clothes of the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts bring a smile along with understanding. Seeing this uniform you understand said person is equipped to help in a most cheerful and thoughtful manner. It may be with knowledge accrued through merit badge advancement or those delightful cookies!

In the Old Testament God instructed the priests who served to wear work clothes befitting their office as one of service. These work clothes were markers signifying to the people exactly what type of service and goods could be expected from individuals attired in such raiment. Through Moses the Holy Spirit caused to be written:

Bring near to you Aaron … and his sons … to serve me as priests.… And you shall make holy garments for Aaron …, for glory and for beauty. You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him for my priesthood. These are the garments that they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a coat of checker work, a turban, and a sash (Ex 28:1-4).

Following what our Lord has given in the Old Testament, our Lutheran Confessions say: “We keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of the lessons, prayers, vestments, etc.”[1] Liturgical Christians have kept some semblance of work clothes or uniform that mark that the attired individual is a bearer of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The pastor may wear at least some of the outward marks of his office and order—Walther suggests as a minimum the beffchen (in contemporary terms, a clerical collar) to remind the people and himself that he does not come in his own name or with his own expert word and gifts. By his dress and manner the pastor presents himself as the servant of another. He speaks a word and does a work given him by the Lord.[2]

SchroederWe all agree (I hope) that it would be inappropriate for a pastor to conduct the Divine Service wearing the uniform of a fire fighter. This vocation is laudable but the service of fighting fires is not what the Divine Service is about! (However, there is a pun in fighting fires in Baptism J). Should your pastor’s attire on Sunday morning be the scrubs of a nurse that too would give the wrong message for it is a marker, a signifier pointing people to different gifts—would it not? In its proper place such work clothes speak of a most noble and virtuous vocation. The same could be said regarding the uniform of police, EMT, a judge, etc.

Now, to respectfully drive home the point would it be acceptable for the pastor to lead the Divine Service dressed in the work clothes of a Muslim Imam or a Jewish Rabbi? No, not at all for such uniforms speak of service that comes from the Koran or from the Talmud and this is not what the Church of the first-born (Heb 12:23) is about.

Then why do some Lutherans find it acceptable when their pastors wear a suit and tie on Sunday morning when they lead the Divine Service? I will not even address those in loafers and khakis with a cup of Joe in their hand studiously trying to pass themselves off as casual. A suite and tie are the work clothes for a business person who makes money and runs a business which is a laudable vocation. But this is not the calling of the church. So why then do some clergy adorn themselves in this manner and the baptized find this attire acceptable? This form of pastoral attire comes not from Lutheranism.

At the time of the Reformation Andreas Karlstadt departed from Luther’s Reformation and with his non-Biblical theology along-came non-churchly attire. These two departures are related!

Foreshadowing the turmoil to come over decorative art in the churches, Carlstadt conducted Holy Communion on Christmas Eve, 1521, and did so not in prescribed clerical vestments, but in his everyday plain clothes. Carlstadt began even more to show that he was not a follower of Luther and the conservative reformation but instead a follower of the radical reformation…[3]

In other words Pastor Karlstadt dressed not as a shepherd but as a sheep! Due to Karlstadt other problems developed in Wittenberg. Luther returned on March 6, 1522 and for eight days preached what became known as the “Invocavit Sermons.” Through faithful doctrinal preaching Luther brought calm to the city instructing people how to remain in the Conservative (i.e. Lutheran) Reformation rather than being led astray by Karlstadt’s Radical Reformation. And Luther did so by adorning himself in his priestly work clothes. He dressed not as a sheep but as a shepherd for that is who Pastor Luther was, first and foremost. James Kittelson has written: “Back in the black cowl (the vestments) of an Augustinian monk, Luther mounted the pulpit on March 9, 1522.”[4]

THOMA_20071216_DSC_7581Perhaps the motivation is that a perspective new member might not understand or appreciate the significance and beauty of such work clothes. That is where teaching comes in and what a gift it is! It may be that a young person does not know what the blue uniform affixed with shiny badge symbolizes. Mom and dad will then take the time to explain to their young child that such a uniform says, “I am here to help and serve you!” That is a beautiful teaching moment.

Remember when you were lost in an unfamiliar city? You scanned the many people looking for some sign that help could be trusted. The heart beat a little faster than normal and the palms were sweaty. And then, a smile came across your face as you saw someone dressed not as a civilian but as a law enforcement officer. Without even reading the wording the uniform spoke the words, “I am here to help you.”

You may recall a time when in a hospital looking for assistance for a loved one. Your brows are furrowed in concern. You have been taught to search for someone in medical work clothes to assist you. And then, down the corridor you see one dressed not as a patient but as a member of the medical community and peace enters your heart. Her uniform says she is here to serve you in healing and comfort.

To be sure the specific decorum of vestments evolve over time. No one disagrees over this reality. The problem comes when the change in uniform symbolizes the giving of an all-together different gift; fighting fires, nursing, or making money. That is the problem—not the fact that the decorum of the uniform has changed over time. Our Lutheran Confessions say Lutherans gladly hold to ceremonies and practices—such as uniforms—so as to not cause offense and to be a marker as to what gift is being served through this uniformed individual. Here are two citations from our Confessions:

  • Our churches teach that ceremonies ought to be observed that may be observed without sin. Also, ceremonies and other practices that are profitable for tranquility and good order in the Church (in particular, holy days, festivals, and the like) ought to be observed.[5]
  • The Sacrament is offered to those who wish to use it, after they have been examined and absolved. And the usual public ceremonies are observed, the series of lessons, of prayers, vestments, and other such things.[6]

To those who would wantonly change the liturgy, vestments, hymnody, simply for the sake of change and “freedom” Martin Luther has written:

Now when your people are confused and offended by your lack of uniform order, you cannot plead, “Externals are free. Here in my own place I am going to do as I please.” But you are bound to consider the effect of your attitude on others. By faith be free in your conscience toward God, but by love be bound to serve your neighbor’s edification, as also St. Paul says, Romans 14 [15:2], “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him.” For we should not please ourselves, since Christ also pleased not himself, but us all.[7]

People are pleased when medical personnel wear attire befitting their office rather than the attire of a patient. Individuals in need are reassured when law enforcement is clothed in a uniform that bespeaks their office rather than dressed as citizenry. And sheep are comforted when the Pastor dresses as a Shepherd rather than a sheep. Vestments and uniforms are designed to minimize the personality of the individual and extol the public office of service!

“Lutheran pastors wear robes and vestments and collars to symbolize that this human being—no different in himself from his parishioners—is clothed in an office, in which he must act in the stead and the command of Christ.”[8] These work clothes bring joy to the heart to those who seek forgiveness of their sins. In has been attested by many a Pastor or Roman Priest that such a uniform opens doors in hospitals and receives polite nods in public. In times of crises when comfort from Jesus is in order people scan the crowd looking for such message. May we never be ashamed of the Gospel (Rom 1:16) and work clothes that proclaim the Gospel(!) that such an office holder is present to bring Jesus’ mercy and comfort to people who are in need.

In Christ,

Pastor Weber



[1] Augsburg Confession, XVI, “The Mass,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. and ed. Theodore Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 249:1

[2] Norbert Mueller and George Kraus, co. eds., Pastoral Theology (St. Louis, MO.: Concordia Publishing House, 1990), 106.

[3] Steven Ozment, The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther, and the Making of the Reformation, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), p. 136-137. [Accessed December 24, 2014]

[4] James M. Kittelson, Luther: The Reformer, The Story of the Man and His Career (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), p. 182.

[5] “Augsburg Confession, Article XV, Church Ceremonies,” in Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, 2nd edition, gen. ed., Paul T. McCain (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005): 39; AC XV:1.

[6] “Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV, The Mass,” in Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, 2nd edition, gen. ed., Paul T. McCain (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005): 220; AP XXIV:1.

[7]Martin Luther, “Liturgy and Hymns,” Luther’s Works, American Edition, 55 volumes, edited by J. Pelikan and H. T. Lehmann (St. Louis: Concordia and Philadelphia: Fortress, 1955-1986), 53:48.

[8] Gene Veith, The Spirituality of the Cross, revised edition (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010), 110.

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