The Appeal of the Clerical Collar

Anthony Esolen, who writes for [Touchstone Magazine](http://merecomments.typepad.com/merecomments/2006/08/man_of_god.html), has a post up promoting the ideal that ministers should set themselves apart from the common man.

> Ministers who want to be jus’ folks should take heed. God has singled you out, you men of God. I accept the priesthood of all believers; but I think that God has marked you with the sign of Melchizedek in a way that he has not marked me. Then do not try to efface that sign. I suppose it is a burden to you. Does it leave splinters in your shoulder? Does it bow your back and make your legs tremble for weariness? You cannot have expected otherwise. But it does not matter whether you would prefer to be my pal, the buddy at the card table, somebody just like me. You are no longer just like me. Pals I already have, and plenty. I don’t need any more of them. I need you: the spiritual father, the minister, the man of God.

I’m not sure what to make of this kind of perspective. Esolen is from a very different tradition than I am, and it’s doubtful that I’ll ever be wearing robes and clerical collars, but this “clothes make the man” sort of argument has some intrigue to it for me.

I once performed an experiment on the local mall: My natural way of dressing was *very* casual at the time, but I was starting to learn about the importance of dress in different circumstances. All things being equal, the better dressed candidate will get the job. So I went one day to the mall wearing badly fitted jeans, an old ragged tee shirt, and flip-flops, and I visited all the high-end specialty shops. Generally speaking, my presence was barely tolerated. I was newly employed, and genuinely interested in buying things. Disgruntled, the next day, I returned, wearing my best clothes: a pressed pair of dress slacks, newly polished shoes, and a white button-down oriental-collar shirt. Every sales girl greeted me with a smile and offered me help.

Ever since that day, I’ve been aware of the power of clothes. I keep in mind the effect I want to have that day as I get dressed in the morning. Because I know I’m going to have an effect. As a minister (or, perhaps, someone might want me to say, as a minister in training), I’m sensitive to the fact that people expect ministers to wear clothing that they approve of on a “spiritual” person, and I try not to offend those sensitivities, since by playing into those expectations, I have a better chance of getting an audience for the gospel. I don’t come from a tradition with robes and clerical collars, so showing up at chuch with robes and collars would have no benefit – they’d be an offense to most, but I try to dress in a way that builds esteem for my message, so that by all possible means I might save some.

But Esolen isn’t arguing for simply breeching barriers. He’s arguing for some kind of priestly caste: “I think that God has marked you with the sign of Melchizedek in a way that he has not marked me.” I think he’s wrong. The Bible clearly states that some, not all, should be leaders in the church. Paul gives criteria for selecting elders and overseers. These are people who are to stand out in the church as leaders and teachers. But what criteria are given for selecting these men? Nothing but what any ordinary Christian ought to aspire to. These people have the responsibility for teaching and for leading, not for being more spiritual than other Christians.

The difficulty, I think, is in the role of the uniform. A firefighter has a professional responsibility for the elimination of out-of-control fires. He wears a uniform that designates him as an authority in the tending of fires. You might expect him to be more fire safety conscious than your average citizen. But would you be right? Of course not. The fireman will be the first to tell you than *you* have the primary responsibility for prevention of house fires. If my house burns down, it is no excuse to point out that I am not a fireman. A policman has a professional responsibility for the prevention of crime. He wears a uniform that designates him as an authority in the prevention of crime. But that doesn’t absolve me of any responsibility for intervening when I see a woman being abducted on my street.

The question is: does the minister have the responsibility for wearing a special uniform? If he does, what exactly is “the priesthood of all believers” supposed to mean? If a minister wears a uniform, how is his day-to-day behavior supposed to be different from that of a normal believer? Is a minister supposed to be some kind of Christian squared? I don’t think so. We are all called to the same standard of righteousness.

“I suppose it is a burden to you,” Ensolen says.

> Does it leave splinters in your shoulder? Does it bow your back and make your legs tremble for weariness? You cannot have expected otherwise. But it does not matter whether you would prefer to be my pal, the buddy at the card table, somebody just like me. You are no longer just like me.

No, I suppose not. But that’s a problem, isn’t it? There’s only one standard for holiness. There’s only one calling for Christian spirituality and conduct. By raising the minister to some imagined higher standard, are you really raising a standard? No. There is no other standard to raise. If I have some extra responsibility to be super-spiritual, haven’t you really only absolved yourself from that responsibility? “You must be super-spiritual so I don’t have to.”

I understand the appeal of the clerical collar. It’s useful in certain contexts. But the great danger is the trap that Esolen seems to have fallen into: the belief that the clothes actually do make the man. Or at least, that they should be required to indicate the man. He seems so full of disdain that I might chafe a bit under the cross he thinks I ought to carry, and I wonder why he should be so proud of a cross that he himself feels no need to carry. There’s only one kind of cross. Why doesn’t it bow his back and make his legs tremble for weariness?

Did he expect otherwise?

1 thought on “The Appeal of the Clerical Collar”

  1. There’s only one kind of cross. Why doesn’t it bow his back and make his legs tremble for weariness?

    Very well said. Ensolen seems to be promoting some kind of spiritual hierarchy in which the “minister” is a rung above the other folks. But in the church, there is no hierarchy. Each have their roles but we are still in mutual submission to one another.

    Like

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