Tim Bayly is fond of saying that sexuality is the battleground issue of our era, and he is of course quite right. But the way this is unfolding should show us this is just another way of saying that everything is the battleground of our era — this is a time of worlds in collision. We have two rival cosmologies — the faith described in Scripture, and the other side of the antithesis — and all the premises and assumptions present in both worldviews show up in stark relief when it comes to human sexuality. One sees the image of God present and presented in mankind, male and female, and the other sees our flesh as malleable clay through which we may create, according to our own whims, pleasures, and lusts, anything we please. Faithful Christians are essentialists, and those outside the Word are, on this issue, existentialists.
Since worship is the most important thing that human beings do, I want to take a moment to talk about the relationship of sexuality and worship. It is not possible for this issue of sexuality to be as prominent as it is in our day without the noise of battle spilling over into our assumptions about what ought to be going on in a worship service. That is why many churches are roiled with nonsensical battles about women’s ordination, same-sex mirage, the pressing issue of cis-bishops, the hand-wringing of the sob cisters who sometimes write me letters, and so on. Now it really ought to be going the other direction. The church ought to be submitted to Scripture, teaching men and women to live their lives together as the apostles of the Lord instructed us, and this consecrated reconstruction of human nature, under the tutelage of faithful churches, ought to become the model of true sexuality for a lost and pagan world.
So this issue is the real dividing line in the real worship wars. The issue is not directly related to what we wear in the course of the worship service, but it is not entirely distinct from it either. The problem of ministerial effeminacy – the central problem, the glaring problem, the perennial problem of the third sex – can be decked out various ways. Some soft-spoken seminary professor types dress like I do, jacket and tie, but their sermons are full of tsking and on the other handing, preaching with all the authority of an uninspired and day-old chocolate eclair. Some low church beta-male worship leaders in torn jeans and a T-shirt, all gritty and authentic, lead the song with eyes closed while slapping their chest. They look like they’re just one chord change away from climax. And still others decide to wear a white dress up front, trying to look like a virginal bride, and in some lamentable cases, succeeding. They pick up a loaf of bread and for a second there you thought it was the bouquet. Now I trust that I’ve given offense to all in an equitable and evenhanded way here.
Having done so, here are some qualifications. I have seen heard some contemporary worship bands that play nothing but God-honoring scriptural music. And some of the most masculine men I know wear white robes in the course of the worship service. That doesn’t mean that I think – given the nature of the world, the state of our cultural battles, and so on – that such things are good idea. I don’t, but I can nevertheless tell the difference between my general concern about fops in the pulpit and the specific and manly counterexamples that I could name. Some magnificent writers could put 17 exclamation marks into a couple paragraphs too and not seem like they were shouting. I can admit that this can be done without wanting to teach it as a cool technique to junior high students in their English classes.
In the course of the English reformation, there was a vestments controversy between John Hooper and Nicholas Ridley, with Hooper spending a little time in the slammer. They wanted to make him a bishop with vestments, and he didn’t want to become a bishop in vestments. Hooper wanted to be finished with vestments that he believed smelled too much like Rome, and Ridley did not want the pace of reform in the church to be seized by the most zealous among the reformers. It was a long drawn out controversy, which Ridley eventually won, but both men involved in it were men, and both of them were burned at the stake by Bloody Mary.
And so here is the conclusion. The issue should not be evaluated at the level of the cloth. Ministers are known as men of the cloth, but the cloth is not the main thing. Ministers who are men of the cloth must be men of the cloth.
The Church is the bride of Christ, and therefore the Church must be feminine. This means that the Church should model submissiveness. Since God requires that all authoritative leadership in the Church be male, it is feminine and submissive for us to be collectively obedient. The Church is most feminine when its leadership is truly masculine. Since this is lovely in the sight of God, we should strive to make that one of the most obvious characteristics of our services. If that is what you are trying to accomplish with your vestments, torn jeans or white robes, then we are on the same team, even if you are calling a play I wouldn’t call.
But if you are trying to look like the bride, or you actually are going for that Rod Stewart empathetic pastor look, then you are a central part of the problem.