John Ploughman on robes and gowns...

[This is contributed by Pastor Jacob Mentzel. It's been in the queue awaiting publication for many weeks, now, and I've delayed at least partly out of respect for the dead. I've not wanted the Prince of Preachers to get his comeuppance when he's nowhere able to to defend himself. But then there are some things here worth considering. Note particularly his urgency against Rome. We have none of that, now. Also his dig at the effeminacy of it all. He's right on both counts.

Please don't be offended by Spurgeon's vehemence. We need more of it in our day when the Gospel preaching most admired by Reformed men is hedge words, suggestions, and drab tonality in the service of grace patter. - TB]

. . . Forever away with surplices and gowns and all those nursery doll dresses—men should put away childish things... A cross on the back is the sign of a devil in the heart; those who do as Rome does should go to Rome and show their colors. If priests suppose that they get the respect of honest men by their fine ornamental dresses, they are much mistaken, for it is commonly said, "Fine feathers make fine birds," and "An ape is never so like an ape, As when he wears a Popish cape."

Among us dissenters the preacher claims no priestly power, and therefore should never wear a peculiar dress. Let fools wear fools' caps and fools' dresses, but men who make no claim to be fools should not put on fools' clothes. None but a very silly sheep would wear wolf's clothing. It is a singular taste which makes honest men covet the rags of thieves. Besides, where's the good of such finery? Except a duck in pattens, no creature looks more stupid than a dissenting preacher in a gown which is of no manner of use to him. I could laugh till I held my sides when I see our doctors in gowns and bands, puffed out with their silks, and touched up with their little bibs, for they put me so much in mind of our old turkey when his temper is up, and he swells to his biggest. They must be weak folks indeed who want a man to dress like a woman before they can enjoy his sermon, and he who cannot preach without such milliner's tawdry finery may be a man among geese, but he is a goose among men.

- C. H. Spurgeon, John Ploughman's Talks

Jacob Mentzel

Jake has led Clearnote Church's ministry on the campus of Indiana University since 2008, and has served as the college pastor at Clearnote Church since 2010. He also teaches systematics at the Clearnote Pastors College. In his spare time, he acts as editor of the Warhorn, Clearnote Fellowship's quarterly publication.

Want to get in touch? Send Jake an email!


The idea that dress associated with an office is only legitimate when exercising a sacerdotal ministry would be news to those of us who've been in the armed forces (or police, firemen, etc.).

   We moderns are bad at dealing with symbols of authority. They're useful, but they have to convey one' role properly. I'm a professor. If all professors were required to wear fancy gowns and all students to wear simple black ones, that might be a good thing, but I'd just look silly if I were the only one. What I do is to wear a jacket and tie, but not a suit, which sets me apart from secretaries and students. (I'm in a business school, so students often wear suits, for interviews, but less commonly wear merely a jacket and tie.)

    Clerical collars are useful that way. They are not fancy, but they indicate who's ordained and who's not. Nametags are helpful, too, and can let the congregation know who its officers are.

Speaking of Spurgeon bringing the heat, here is a great example of courgeous sermon. The title is "'Thus Saith the Lord' or The Book of Common Prayer Weighed in the Balances of the Sanctuary.

I was taught in Lutheran confirmation instruction (in junior high) that the reason that clergy wore vestments and stoles corresponding to the current season of the church year was so that we would not pay attention to the way they were dressed that day. But I was raised Lutheran and am now Anglican, so many of the readers of this blog were not probably taught in the same way. And the clerical collars make Lutheran ministers and Anglican priests visible to the public that they are clergy.

As a side note, our choir wears robes for the same reason -- so we can listen to their anthem and not be distracted by a myriad of styles and colors of clothing.

Don't think it's wrong to do otherwise, though.

Spurgeon is parrotting a Puritan polemic that goes back to the 16th century. The argument is that a minister should not look different from other men.  However, which men?  Lawyers, doctors, plumbers, carpenters?

Does this rule apply to other professions as well?  Do you Puritans attack the distinctive dress of nurses, doctors, and tradesmen?  Why not?  We should all dress in our Mao suits, yes?

Do you also condemn the brightly coloured dress of the priests and Levites, the special robes that God commanded them to wear?  Why not? Did this principle suddenly appear in the New Testament?  And if it did, where is it written?

This is yet another example of the new Presbyter is old Priest writ large.  It is the invention of a new law of Moses invented by men to bind men's consciences.  We are free men, and are free to wear the clothes of our profession should we choose to do so.

Dear Roger,

First, the argument is not simply that ministers should avoid looking peculiar. Spurgeon began his polemic with the rather obvious point that ministers should avoid looking Romish and Massish and sacrificialish.

>>Which men?

The New Testament answers that. "Unschooled, ordinary men" who have been with Jesus.

>>Does this rule apply to other professions?

No. Professions are free to set the boundaries of their union. Pastors are not professionals. That may be one of our disagreements. Pastors are to be all things to all men. Maybe pastors who serve a congregation of judges should wear wigs, but I think not.

>>We should all dress in our Mao suits, yes?

Well sure--if we're Maoists and the Chairman will have our head if we refuse.

>>Do you also condemn the brightly colored dress (of the priests in the Old Testament)...

Why no, certainly not. Nor do we condemn their daily sacrifices, nor the circumcision of their sons.

>>Why not...

Well, ahem; something about not being under the Law...

>>Where is it written?

Yes, precisely. We find priestly garb for ministers of the Gospel leading worship nowhere commanded or even hinted at in the New Testament, and therefore forbidden. And we'll leave Lutherans and Anglicans to find priestly garb nowhere forbidden, and therefore permitted. We're comfortable with that distinction between non-Reformed and Reformed Protestants and we believe, here as everywhere else, clothing should show one's true colors.

Which is to say we have not objection to Lutherans and Anglicans, like Romans, making their code clear. We're simply opposed to Reformed ministers of the Gospel trying to cloud the issue.

Collars may be helpful in hospitals and prisons, and necessary for Anglicans and Lutherans on Lord's Day morning. Geneva gowns are dour and therefore maybe proper for those of us of Scotland origin.

But otherwise, let us wave our colors and not try to sneak behind enemy lines by means of a change of uniform. Let Lutherans be Lutheran, I say. And Anglicans Anglican and Romans Romish.

It used to be understood that Reformed were reformed. I dream of a return to that diversity. In matters of Lord's Day worship, what Scripture doesn't command is forbidden. There, I feel better now.


Yes, we don't need Reformed ministers in collars, that isn't the Reformed tradition and it confuses identities.  When you see a minister in a collar and find he is Reformed you wonder why is he in a collar?  Even Baptists traditionally used the Genevan gown, the minister at Duncan Street Baptist in Edinburgh wore it when I worshiped there back in the 1990s. 

The Genevan gown though should be in general use.  It reminds us that the function is about the office, not the man.  It is about Word and Sacrament (sorry Spurgeon, they do matter) not the man.

When you spend this much space and time on it, you sort of lose your argument, which, I think, includes the idea that it's not worth all the fuss & feathers.

Brother Tim

This is not an argument that you should be having because it concerns the adiaphora.  Clothing is a matter of Christian freedom, and those ministers who wear vestments have the right to do so conferred by the NT freedom of the Christian man.  In this area of freedom neither permission nor the lack of it is relevant at all - which is why it is a freedom.

The polemic you posted will, without a doubt, strongly prejudice your flock against other godly Reformed men who wear the traditional REFORMED vestments, and so break the peace and unity of the church of Christ.

The vestments worn by John Calvin and his fellow ministers included a white surplice!  The Reformed churches at the time of the Reformation all wore vestments, and it was the English Puritans a whole generation later who made it into a big deal.  IOW this anti-vestment thing is an innovation.

The fact is that it turns peoples hearts away from other Reformed churches for a trifle, and must therefore be a sin.  Why argue about cloth?

I agree wholeheartedly that sacerdotal vestments must be shunned on principle, but vestments are not wrong in themselves.

Dear Brothers, I do not want to create disrespect of other Reformed ministers who wear collars or simple black gowns. I've worn the gown myself and think it relatively innocuous and sometimes helpful.

That said, I consider the gown and plain collar a world apart from surplices, doillies, stoles, etc. The shepherd of a flock should look like a shepherd--not Little Lord Fountleroy. And in our postmodern world where everyman thinks he can make himself over by updating his FB page and every woman shares with the world when precisely she's trimming her toenails, we need to remind ourselves of the dangers of affectations. They're everywhere today and they often do the very opposite of what we claim. If only the little boy can see the emperor has no clothes, only the mechanic can see the shepherd is a wannabe priest and wishes he had altar boys beside him.

If you reply this is not--absolutely not ever and nowhere--your own experience of ministerial garb within the Reformed church, we must travel in different circles.

So I repeat: affectations are disastrous to pastoral ministry. Souls wants their shepherds to be in earnest. Zealous. Serious men dealing in eternal matters. Not effeminate dandies. And if you claim not to know what effeminate means, that's maybe the problem.

Still, I don't want to discourage anyone from submitting himself to a Reformed minister who wears a collar or robe. Truly not. Problem is, some posts are not for the pew but rather the session and pulpit.


I think any Reformed pastor who wants to wear robes and cites Calvin as his example must first be required to publish and disseminate a pamphlet/blog post which warns congregants and fellow pastors, in no uncertain terms, of the dangers of the Roman heresy. I mean, if you want to claim Calvin as your example, you should imitate his actions before you're allowed to imitate his wardrobe, right?

I'm kind of joking here. Kind of. :-)

And any reformed minister who wants to avoid the Genevan gown must publicly echo Calvin's jeremiads against the re-baptizers.

As a result of popular media, normal folks will always associate gowns and collars with pedophiles priests. 

On a side-note: How do you leave a link to your homepage? Everything I stick in there gets rejected. 

Heaven forbid! Where does that leave Anglican, Lutheran, and clergy of other denominations who wear robes and stoles for worship and clerical collars with (usually) black shirts and sweaters in public settings? Maybe they can wear Land's End or L.L. Bean chinos in beige or blue instead of black pants. 

Add new comment