Pastoral Perspectives

What’s That On Your Neck?

Once, I was standing at the entrance to the sanctuary after a Sunday worship service, shaking hands and exchanging greetings – ‘Welcome,’ ‘The Lord bless you’ – when one worshipper came up to me, pointed at my collar and asked, “Why do you have to wear this?” He was referring to the piece of white plastic (yes, mine is made of plastic) that you see ordained ministers wearing usually when we are preaching and definitely when we are administering the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Other occasions when you see us in this attire are when we are officiating weddings or conducting funerals.

That piece of white plastic is called the clerical collar (‘clerical’ comes from the word ‘clergy’) or sometimes the people, in jest, called it the dog collar (the earlier type really looked like one). Though many people associate this attire with the Roman Catholic Church, it was actually of Protestant origin. The Rev. Dr. Donald McLeod, a minister of the Church of Scotland, invented it in 1827. It has no particular religious meaning except to identify the person wearing it as an ordained minister.

Besides the clerical collar, there is also the Genevan Robe (that looks like an academic gown while children see it as a batman suit) that we dress in once a month during Communion Sundays.  It was John Calvin who started the tradition of wearing such robes in the church in Geneva, the place where he promoted the Protestant Reformation. John Calvin had a disciple named John Knox and it was Knox who founded the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. Therefore, our roots (doctrines and practices, including clothing) can be traced back to Calvin. The Genevan Robe together with the clerical collar sets apart the ordained ministers and enables them to be easily identified.

I have come across pastors who do not wish to wear the robe and the collar because they feel that by doing so, people will regard them as the professional Christians and put them on the pedestal and since these pastors are strong advocates of ‘the priesthood of believers’ (1 Peter 2.9) – all are priests, clergy and laymen alike, pastors should not wear anything that will set them apart from the rest of God’s community.

I too am a strong advocate of the priesthood of believers. Pastors don’t need to be the ones always to say ‘grace’ at meal times. “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (James 5.16) The righteous man can be a pastor as well as a lay person so why should the prayer of a pastor be more powerful than that of a lay person. Why is it that people are disappointed when a deacon turns up at their doorstep instead of the pastor? Why is it that when it comes to the sharing of the Gospel and defending the Christian faith, it is best left to the pastors? Pastors have been given the task to equip the people of God for works of service. Paul said, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” (Ephesians 4.11-12) All of us are in it together and rightly so because we are the priesthood of believers.

The priestly ministry is one of bridge building, mediating, connecting people to God. First, a priest is one who speaks with God directly. Whereas OT priests needed to present blood sacrifices in order to approach God, Jesus’ own sacrifice provided a once for all atonement so that we are now empowered to converse with God confidently, even boldly. Second, a priest is to intercede on behalf of the people, standing in the gap between the world and God, and bearing our neighbours’ burdens as we lift them up before God’s throne of mercy and grace. Thirdly, just as a priest helps people connect with God, a priest also connects God with people. This priestly function is evident whenever Christians show and tell the power of the Gospel. By word and deed, believers are called to convey God’s love to everyone. Yes, these roles are not limited only to the clergy; every disciple of Jesus has a priestly ministry.

If we are all priests, then why should the ordained ministers still be set apart by special attire? Although wearing the collar distinguishes us from the rest, the distinction is not one of status but of office. We are ministers of the Word and Sacraments. This means that we have been ordained to the office of preaching the Word of God and administering the Sacraments which Christ has instituted. Just as clothing distinguishes various offices in the secular world and reminds the public of the diverse functions that different people play – policemen, doctors, judges, bus drivers, and even construction workers with their yellow and orange vests, it does the same for the clergy. But more importantly, the clothing reminds the congregation that the ministers are not acting on their own, but performing in their official capacities as ordained (intended) by God. The emphasis is not on the person of the minister but the office of the minister and the clothing is meant to accentuate the latter. Submission, in this respect, is to the office that Christ has appointed rather than to the person. Therefore, even if the ordained minister is relatively younger in age compared to the congregation, the older folks would still have to respect the office that the young pastor holds and submit to the Word of God preached. Their submission is thus to the Word of God rather than to the preacher.

For me, the collar rather than being a symbol of status is a symbol of servanthood. As I adorn the special attire, I am reminded that I have been called into the office of preaching the Word faithfully and conducting the Sacraments meaningfully through which I serve God and His people. In that way, it is not so inappropriate when ours is also known as a dog collar, dogs being good servants (although I am sure it was meant to be a joke when it was first given that name).

Ps Kien Seng

February 13, 2011