Last week I attended a funeral for the mother of one of the members of our Bible School’s committee. When I arrived, I was positioned front-and-center between two bishops in pope hats. Sparkling attire has also been the major preoccupation of our committee as we prepare for the Bethany Bible School graduation in November. Because we now have students who, upon testing, will have completed our curriculum, it seems right to reward their efforts with stoles at graduation. For our students, however, even stoles are not enough; in spite of their limited resources, they are quite willing to open their pocketbooks for robes, mortarboards, and pins with the school logo affixed. Though most of our students, hailing from African-Initiated Churches, already have church robes, something unique for the occasion is apparently in order.
In the opposite direction, I spent significant time with a pastor in a quite different context in South Africa from the one in which we work who shuns all type of priestly identifiers because, in his view, they send the wrong message about the meaning of Christianity. In our conversations he also raised serious questions about Christians who do dress up for church, insinuating that those who are concerned with dress betray a deficient spiritual state, these being convinced that proper dress or the right performance of rituals will get them into the kingdom of God.
Though I sympathize with the pastor’s concern for spiritual health, neither have I been able to avoid conforming, where conscience permits, to the mores around me. Wearing a suit and tie to teach has been an important show of respect for my students’ culture and, at least initially, a factor by which I gained a hearing. So too, I believe, was the move I made in 2009 to begin wearing a robe and my seminary hood for graduation. It simply seemed like a step I needed to take in the direction of respect for the students, the Bible School, the occasion, and my role as teacher.
So while the recurring focus on dress sometimes—hopefully not too often—leads me to despair of a breakdown in the communication of my witness to the gospel, for the sake of Christ’s humility (Php 2:1-11) I continue to be led down paths not of my own choosing.