Using TLC’s What Not to Wear and Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as models, I’m developing a television pilot program this spring for CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network). I envision a cadre of Christian cosmopolitans – similar to the “Fab Five” – whose mission field is fashion-challenged clergy – aren’t they all? Dandies meet dowdies!
Okay, I’m being facetious here. There’s no television pilot in the works, but I urge men of the cloth to closely examine their cloth, determining whether it’s “for glory and for beauty” (Exodus 28:2) – the purpose behind the “holy garments” of the Levitical priests. Moses received these sartorial instructions from the Lord:
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. They shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons to serve me as priests. They shall receive gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen. (Exodus 28:3-5).
Does God actually care about what his ministers wear? It would seem so. The twenty-eighth chapter of Exodus is devoted entirely to how the priestly garments are to be made, down to the minutest details. For instance, the elaborate construction of the breastpiece rivals any attire from Versace or Valentino:
You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, in skilled work. In the style of the ephod you shall make it—of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen shall you make it. It shall be square and doubled, a span its length and a span its breadth. You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of sardius, topaz, and carbuncle shall be the first row; and the second row an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond; and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; and the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. They shall be set in gold filigree. There shall be twelve stones with their names according to the names of the sons of Israel. They shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes. You shall make for the breastpiece twisted chains like cords, of pure gold. And you shall make for the breastpiece two rings of gold, and put the two rings on the two edges of the breastpiece. And you shall put the two cords of gold in the two rings at the edges of the breastpiece. The two ends of the two cords you shall attach to the two settings of filigree, and so attach it in front to the shoulder pieces of the ephod. You shall make two rings of gold, and put them at the two ends of the breastpiece, on its inside edge next to the ephod. And you shall make two rings of gold, and attach them in front to the lower part of the two shoulder pieces of the ephod, at its seam above the skillfully woven band of the ephod. And they shall bind the breastpiece by its rings to the rings of the ephod with a lace of blue, so that it may lie on the skillfully woven band of the ephod, so that the breastpiece shall not come loose from the ephod. So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the Lord. And in the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron’s heart, when he goes in before the Lord. Thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the people of Israel on his heart before the Lord regularly (Exodus 28:15-30).
If you could not make it through these fifteen verses of fashion design, you are probably one of those clergymen who thinks a brown leather belt can be paired with black patent shoes. If you regard the colorful yarns and stone engravings as garish or the rows of precious stones as gratuitous, you are missing the point. This breastpiece is more than sensual display. It is about tribal identity, cultural memory, and spiritual function. Above all, it is about the fashion designer: Yahweh. The House of Heaven, if you will, demands that the ministers of Yahweh are clothed in garments befitting of His royal authority over Israel.
I dare to question a scholar who argues that the fashion industry began in the Renaissance: “Fashion is usually thought to have started in this period, as a product of developments in trade and finance, interest in individuality brought about by Humanist thought, and shifts in class structure that made visual display desirable, and attainable by a wider range of people.” I contend that fashion originated when “a kingdom of priests” were dressed for Yahweh (Exodus 19:5-6).
Fast forward to the twenty-first century. Where are the holy garments in the priesthood? I cringe when Evangelical pastor Rick Warren sports a floral camp shirt at the pulpit, which looks appropriate for a sunny afternoon of barbecuing – not a Sunday morning of preaching. Of all the clerical clothing in Protestantism, Anglicans deserves the highest encomium, followed by Lutherans and Methodists. The vestments of bishop N. T. Wright look regal in an ornamented chapel.
We Protestants rightly eschew couture craftsmanship for clergy when we reject sacerdotalism and affirm egalitarianism, owing to the New Covenant. Martin Luther’s words resound in To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation:
The pope or bishop anoints, shaves heads, ordains, consecrates, and prescribes garb different from that of the laity, but he can never make a man into a Christian or into a spiritual man by so doing. He might well make a man into a hypocrite or a humbug and blockhead, but never a Christian or a spiritual man. As far as that goes, we are all consecrated priests through baptism, as St. Peter says in 1 Peter 2:9, “You are a royal priesthood and a priestly realm.” The Apocalypse says, “Thou hast made us to be priests and kings by thy blood” (Revelation 5:9-10). The consecration by pope or bishop would never make a priest, and if we had no higher consecration than that which pope or bishop gives, no one could say mass or preach a sermon or give absolution.
I wonder, however, if there’s another condition that motivates Protestants to eschew “garb different from that of the laity,” a condition that should be rectified rather than justified. Clyde Kilby calls it “the aesthetic poverty of Evangelicalism.” Remember, the holy garments of the Levitical priests were “for glory and for beauty,” which is repeated twice in the text: at the beginning and at the end of the sartorial instructions (Exodus 28:2, 40). Aesthetically impoverished Evangelicals misconstrue “for glory and for beauty” as “for glamor and for beauty.” When fashion is designed for glamor, the audience is many. When fashion is designed for glory, the audience is One, hence the Levitical priest wore a turban with a plate of shining gold on which were engraved the Hebrew words for “Holy to YHWH” (Exodus 28:36).
Let’s begin this fashion “make-better” modestly. Fruit of the Loom should produce linen boxer briefs to the cover the naked flesh of the clergy, as the Lord instructed Moses (Exodus 28:42-43). The other garments will need to be fashioned in the closet of our imagination.