By: Thomas F. Booher
Last time I wrote about reforming evangelicalism. I wagered that there was a solid 25-30 million non-Reformed evangelicals that would be willing to listen to Reformed/biblical teaching that could be positively impacted by it. I argued for incrementalism, that any improvement in the non-Reformed is a victory, even if they end up simply incorporating some Calvinistic teaching into their theology. Obviously, we want them to see the reality of their deadness in trespasses and sins and to express that biblically, which would lead to belief in election and predestination, but if they come closer to that, becoming more God-centered and biblical, that's still a victory. Progress, any degree of trending in the right direction, would be a huge improvement over the current state of affairs in Evangelicalism.
Tonight, however, I want to address the issues in the PCA that I have seen. Because it is a confessionally Reformed denomination, I cannot so easily argue for incrementalism. The ministers and elders should know better and have taken vows to affirm the WCF. It's not that I think most of them have rejected Calvinism or the majority of the WCF, but WCF chapter 21, section 5 does say that the reading of Scripture should be done with "godly fear" and that the hearing of the Word should be done in "reverence." I do think most ministers strive to do this in the PCA, however, I also believe our clothing, the pulpit (or lack thereof), pews (or lack thereof), all the external things in the church building, speak about reverence and godly fear. I am not saying you have to “dress up” to preach with godly fear in the heart or read the Word with godly fear in your soul, nor am I saying pews and a fancy pulpit are essential to righteous worship of God. But I am saying that ministers who understand their role will want to show their godly fear consistently, including in the architecture of the worship area, the place where the saints meet each Lord's Day to draw nearer to God, sing praises to Him, and hear from His Word. The very next section of the WCF (XXI.6) says that,
"God is to be worshipped everywhere, in spirit and truth; as, in private families daily, and in secret, each one by himself; so, more solemnly in the public assemblies, which are not carelessly or wilfully to be neglected, or forsaken, when God, by His Word or providence, calls thereunto." (bold added).
It is probably legalism to mandate that one cannot preach in jeans and at the same time be "solemn" in the public assembly and "reverent" in the reading and preaching of the Word. I'll grant that. My concern, however, is that there is a theological and ecclesiological motive behind many who preach in casual clothing such as jeans and possibly even T-shirts, and that this motive has the effect of de-solemnizing worship. This is because their motive is to make visitors and members feel more comfortable and less intimidated. But the hallmark of solemnity and reverence is not, or at least should not, be comfort. The stated motive of these PCA ministers is usually to teach the congregation that God accepts them just as they are and presumably that they can come before Him just as they are. But passages like Zechariah 3:3-5 show that external garments, particularly of the priest/pastor, speak to the congregation, and indicate something of the majesty of God and His worthiness. Revelation 3:4 says that the faithful will walk with God "in white" because they are worthy. Revelation 19:8 explains how the church, the bride of Christ, has made herself ready and is dressed in fine linen, clean and bright. Yes, it is the righteous deeds of the saints being referred to, but does this mean that we won't be in fine clothing of some sort? Revelation 19:11-14 further describes the appearance of Christ and his heavenly army, again in beautiful bright clothing.
I understand this is imagery, but do we think Christ is going to return on a donkey? Do we think Christ, now at the Father's right hand clothed in glory, will come down without a glorious appearance? You cannot be clothed in glory without appearing glorious. We worship the risen, ascended, and exalted Jesus. The lowly Jesus that emptied Himself of His rightful glorious appearance (Phil. 2:5-8) has finished His sacrificial act of love and mercy for humanity (though in His exalted state He continues to be loving and merciful), and is now enthroned once more with the eternal glory that He had always possessed (John 17:4-5), and He is to be worshiped in His full glory (Phil. 2:9-11), not in His emptied, lowly appearance while on this cursed Earth. He is man, but He is exalted God-Man, and He is to be worshiped as such.
So my question is simply this: Is God the Father or the Son ever depicted as less than glorious in appearance when He is to be worshiped? Did the transfiguration not help reveal Christ to the disciples as the Son of God, and in the transfiguration did not Christ's clothing turn dazzling white (Matt. 17:2)? Would Christ come in glory at the Second Coming in, say, blue jeans? T-Shirt? Better question, could He? To ask the question is to answer it. The verses above indicate that Christ's glory is understood and experienced externally through appearance, not just understood and experienced internally through the Word penetrating the heart (the two work together and for the minister the preached Word must always be present), and so the minister ought to depict the exalted glory of Christ externally consistently, with the beautiful words of the gospel and the beautiful garments befitting the minister representing the glorious Christ to the bride of Christ. The clothing of the minister should ordinarily not be common, everyday clothes, but special clothes, clothes that bring to mind honor, respect, majesty, glory. If one objects that the minister and thus the exalted Christ will then seem unreachable or out of touch with the lowly needs of the congregation, the answer is that the minister is still a man just as Christ, though exalted, is still the Word become flesh who dwelt with man and was seen by the disciples in His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father (John 1:14). The transfiguration revealed His glory (Luke 9:32) and so did His miracles (John 2:11).
What got the disciples excited about Christ wasn't that He probably would have worn (as a man who emptied Himself as part of coming under the curse of us) jeans if He came in the 21st century, but rather that He occasionally pulled back the veil of His common appearance to reveal His exquisite beauty and glory and honor. Jesus doesn’t appear as simply a farm boy in overalls, and He certainly doesn’t personify a designer jeans wearing, Starbucks latte drinking metrosexual. He is God incarnate. He is glorified God-Man. While Scripture calls us to remember His humility and that He can sympathize with our weaknesses as our great high priest (Heb. 4:15), we are to do that in the context of remembering that He has "passed through the heavens" (Heb. 4:14). Jesus who died, is now glorified, and is now enthroned with glory as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Yet, many churches that stress casual dress and worship can give the appearance of presenting a casual God and a casual Christ by their casualness. Christ seems to be emphasized in His lowliness, as He emptied Himself here on Earth, more than as He is now, high and lifted up, clothed with majesty. Such churches call to mind Christ as a member of 21st century culture, living in the city and enjoying the wares of the city, but also teaching sinners in the city to stop sinning. But we are to worship Christ as He is now, not as He was on Earth. If we get upset with the Catholics' crucifix for making us think of Christ as still suffering, we should probably be displeased with the pastor's skinny jeans for making us think of Christ as still humbled and ordinary.
In researching some PCA churches, the ones that are more "contemporary" or "casual" almost without fail make a point of this, not just with pictures but with words. It's part of the fabric of their worship. They don't leave it to the imagination. They indicate they are trying to make a statement with their fashion, both of the minister (often unsaid) and of the congregation (explicit under the "what to wear" sections of the church websites). One website even said that God accepts us as we are, and spelled out that we can come into His presence just as we are! Though I imagine they fail to realize it, that is antithetical to the gospel. We are clothed in the righteousness of Christ; we are sanctified by our own righteous deeds done by the power of the Holy Spirit. But we certainly cannot approach God just as we are. If that were the case, there would be no need for Christ to come and die. Likely what they mean is that through Christ we can come as we are. But that isn't made clear, and often the impression is given that visitors, whether they are believers or not, those who come through Christ or not, should dress how they want, because God accepts them as they are no matter how they appear.
Yes, it's true, some in the congregation may not understand the theology of dress, and some may honestly be too poor to have nice clothes. But that is beside the point. The point is that with our clothing we acknowledge the majesty of the presence of God, or we do not. That is true for the congregation, but it is especially true of the minister himself, who represents the glorious presence of God and His Word to the congregation. Our faith is still not perfect, we still struggle with sin. We still need the visible reminders of the gospel through sacraments, and we need it through how the minister dresses as well. This would aid greatly in solemnizing the public worship service and giving God the proper reverence due His name in worship. I simply do not see how casual and common attire can inspire reverence and solemnity. At best it's neutral, but given the theology behind the casualness in many of the churches that do this sort of thing, it seems to actually be intended to remove the feel of majesty or holiness or otherness, in order to make everyone comfortable and relaxed.
I wish to weave one final thread into this post, and I think it's the most important and ties things together. Most of these casual PCA churches also emphasize being "real" and "authentic" and "missional." One wonders if wearing your Sunday best is therefore inauthentic and anti-missional? Whatever missional exactly means (there seems to be much debate), it seems to be rather broad and encompasses the concept of "loving people as Christ loves us." It has to do with engaging culture with Christianity, though saying "Christianity" would probably not be the way missional churches would like to phrase it. They would probably prefer to say missional is engaging the culture/local city in which the church is located in with Christ and living life together by fostering love and community and "authentic" relationships with “real and broken people.” Broken seems to be a more preferable word than the offensive word, sinful.
Thankfully, most of these churches still at least claim to desire to practice expositional preaching, and I trust many of them do. But then, if that's the case, other than the externals of worship, I don't see much difference between missional and authentic churches vs. non-missional and inauthentic churches (well, except for trading pianos out for guitars and drums). So, isn't it the missional churches that are actually trying to claim that clothing and music really are important and really do make quite a bit of difference? But as I hope I have shown, this exchange of the externals by those who might identify as missional, while it might be culturally appealing and palatable, is not more biblical. I do not believe it represents who God is any better, but worse. I do not believe it inspires thoughts of God as holy yet merciful, but it could inspire thoughts of God as common/casual and easygoing.
But I believe C.S. Lewis had it right. He put it simply enough for even children who read the Narnian Chronicles to understand. God, like Aslan, is not common, is not safe, but is holy. But, He is also good. He is holy goodness. He is holy grace and mercy. And it is His holiness, in one sense His unapproachableness, that makes Him good, just as much as His mercy and grace and sacrificial love make Him good. To quote R.C. Sproul,
The clearest sensation that a human being has when he experiences the holy is an overpowering and overwhelming sense of creatureliness. That is, when we are in the presence of God, we are humbled and become most aware of ourselves as creatures. This is the opposite of Satan's original temptation, "You shall be as gods.” (Emphasis added)
In summary, the minister shows that God relates to man because the minister himself is a man, as Christ was a man, but with the minister's fine clothing he reminds the congregation that God is God and exalted over man, and that man is a creature. We need to be reminded of this so that Satan will not deceive us by whispering that we may become equals with God by Christ becoming man.
To really be missional, I believe we need to engage culture, but we need to do so with the holy love of God. A simpler way to put it is that people need to understand the bad news of our sinfulness in light of God's holiness and majesty before they can rightly receive and respond to the good news of Christ's becoming a lowly man and dying as a payment for sin, for all who repent and believe. To be faithful Christians, we need to be reminded in the pews that there is a solemnity and reverence to what we are doing in worship because God is with us, and the minister is the clearest visible as well as vocal reminder of this, for Christ through the minister and by the power of the Holy Spirit, feeds His sheep. Authoritative words from a holy God are often better understood and more aptly received from the minister who resembles something of the authority and majesty of the risen Savior both in proclamation and physical manifestation.
May our holy thoughts, words, and conduct be matched with a solemn and reverent appearance when we meet with God in our holy assemblies on the Lord's Day, and may the minister represent the Lord Jesus Christ in all His holy glory as best and as intentionally as he possibly can as an undershepherd of Christ’s sheep.
Psalm 96:1-9 is just one passage that depicts the reverence with which we must worship God:
Oh, sing to the Lord a new song!
Sing to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Sing to the Lord, bless His name;
Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day.
3 Declare His glory among the nations,
His wonders among all peoples.
4 For the Lord is great and greatly to be praised;
He is to be feared above all gods.
5 For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
But the Lord made the heavens.
6 Honor and majesty are before Him;
Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary.
7 Give to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
Give to the Lord glory and strength.
8 Give to the Lord the glory due His name;
Bring an offering, and come into His courts.
9 Oh, worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!
Tremble before Him, all the earth.