COC #47: COC Objection #3: “Beware of Robes”

(3) The Protestant Church of Christ often objects to the Catholic Church’s use of vestments (robes), and believes that its use of vestments is an indication that it is a body that Christians should “beware of.”

This particular objection is more superficial, but it is popular, and often presented within the context of Matthew 23:9, so I will quickly address it.

Fundamentalist elders and preachers do not wear “robes” during their services. And from a Fundamentalist’s perspective, Catholic priests do in fact wear robes. And when a verse such as Mark 12:38 is read, which reads, Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, the anti-Catholic bias (and tendency to avoid scriptural context in favor of proof-text) within the Fundamentalist’s mind draws a quick conclusion: We do not wear robes, we are right, they wear robes, the Bible says to beware of people who wear robes, so therefore, they are wrong.

The outer “robe” Catholic priests normally wear during Mass is the chasuble, which is a kind of Roman overcoat that was popular in the early centuries. In other words, it was a suit—a garment that was simply the fashion of its day. The Catholic Church is old and the Protestant sects are young, and it makes sense that an old Church would still resemble its youth in some way, even as a young sect might think that its older brother does not know how to dress.  

But what does the passage mean? Clearly, the passage means exactly what it communicates: Beware the scribes. . . . Jesus was illustrating how people who are bloated with spiritual pride parade themselves, how they put on their finest clothes to impress their audiences and draw attention to themselves. Catholic priests do not “dress to the nines”, nor do they try to draw attention to themselves by donning the vestments. In fact, one result of a priest’s attire is a diminished emphasis on the man, and a greater emphasis on the office; the world does not recognize a well-dressed person, but rather, it recognizes that the man is a priest; or as St. John the Baptist might have worded it, He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30).

The lesson and application of such warnings do not indict the Catholic Church and her anonymous servants, but rather, serve as warnings against preachers who provide ample fodder for people to stereotype segments of the religious world: men who wear righteousness on their sleeves, socialite silk suit-wearing preachers, GQ-worthy fashionista “health and wealth” advocates, spiritual snobs, and the like. The Catholic Church’s vestments are holdovers of an era that viewed them as normal, not extravagant, attire; the world changed around the Church. Your tradition, young and with no memory, has no anchor to that era, and it tends to judge what it does not understand.