Surplices Are for Sissies

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So imagine for yourself the sweetest little boy in the church, one whose mind turns naturally to edifying themes—the kind of meditative theme inspired by reflections on a porcelain figurine of the infant Samuel at prayer. Suppose further that this boy has plump cheeks, with kind of a rosy tint or glow, and those cheeks have been routinely pinched by all the pious church ladies, and they have been telling him for ever so many years that a face so cherubic should really be blessing the professors at some select seminary.

This boy is also most careful about his appearance, and in the summertime he is not to be found with his cousins gigging frogs in the swamp. He has a bookish turn, and a gentle frame. His glances turn naturally upward, to things above.

I hope it is obvious by this point in my description that the canoe of this young gentleman’s masculinity is kind of wobbly in the water. Rocking back and forth, as it were. Now imagine that the climax of this small set up is that he is eventually ordained in a communion that fits him out first thing in a white surplice. Think of that white surplice as a couple of effeminate cinder blocks thrown into that already wobbly masculinity canoe. Such an event is gonna sink that boy right to the bottom of the great pond of Gay. And please don’t chafe—metaphors that don’t kill us can only leave us stronger.

For those new to this mincing little deal, a surplice is a fetching little ecclesiastical number, with lacey-like accents.

For a number of centuries now, clergymen have been thought of as the third sex. There have been exceptions here and there, but the eras in which the most masculine, the most talented, the most aggressive men have been attracted to the ministry have been rare. It is far more common to have that happen with the most dutiful, the most fastidious, the most likely to have two halos in heaven.

Getting Some Jokes Out of the Way:

Jokes work for a reason, and one of those reasons is the collective wisdom of crowds. The people generally know what is going on, with “the people” defined as those who laugh. This is why jokes are often the object of various political correctness recriminations—they go right to the point, and they don’t mess around.

And they are impossible to answer.

So why can’t Episcopalians play chess anymore?
They can’t tell the difference between a bishop and a queen.

So how do you get a nun pregnant?
Simple. Dress her up as an altar boy.

So an archbishop was walking down the aisle of the cathedral, swinging a smoking thurible. As he passed a homosexual parishioner, the comment was, “I love your outfit, darling, but your purse is on fire.”

All these jokes point to the plain and obvious connection between sexual deviance and a certain kind of signaling of that deviance. The problem of sexual signaling exists outside ecclesiastical circles, of course, and there are effeminate things a guy can put on that have nothing whatever to do with any ostensible apostolic succession. But there has also been a long tradition of allowing effeminacy a place in the church—and not only a place in the church, but a place of honored leadership in the church.

So . . . dress all the boys up in choir robes, with ruffs for collars, and teach them sing beautifully, with sweet pure tones, and surround them with a bunch of men who have no lawful sexual outlet. What could go wrong?

Some Deep Structure Here:

In the religion He was founding, Jesus taught no one should be called father (Matt. 23:9-10). He prohibited disfiguring your face when you fast (Matt. 6:16). He warned against the characters who liked flamboyance, pointing to the nature of their bling (Matt. 23:5) and their flowing robes (Luke 20:46). He mocked their lengthy prayers (Matt. 6:7). So there is a particular kind of showboating and parading around that Jesus despised. We together so far?

So it is worth pointing out that we ought not to be attracted to worship, however “historic,” that embodies every last one of those things. Tall decorated hats. Elegantly styled flowing robes. Embroidered stoles. Ash on your forehead to let everyone know you are fasting in Lent. Doing it all because the father said it was okay.

This is actually the way these things have to go. Showing off is always a sin, but it is not always an effeminate sin. But it very hard to prevent a pious show-off from becoming effeminate. If there was some tough guy competition, or a weight lifting competition, a guy could compete in it with all the wrong reasons, and be up to his neck in sinful show-offy motives, and yet the sin would still not be an effeminate sin. But when a man is showing off his devotion to God, or his excellence of character, or his gentleness to the poor, the mental dashboard inside somebody’s head ought to be blinking danger danger danger.

Showing off is always diabolical. But showing off your piety is diabolical and gay.

So religious hypocrisy necessarily veers into effeminacy. There is a reason why sexual deviants are attracted to the church. “And he broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes who were in the house of the Lord, where the women wove hangings for the Asherah” (2 Kings 23:7, ESV).

Of course the devil wants to corrupt the church, and makes a special target of it, and that is one of the reasons these bad things happen in the church. But it also happens because when devotion to God becomes a matter of display, the whole thing is a perfect seed bed of effeminacy. If you show off your biceps, you are just being a boor. If you show off your rotund vowels as you approach the thaaarone of graaace, something far worse is about to go down.

In the Luke passage cited above, Jesus doesn’t castigate people for wearing robes (Luke 20:46). Jesus wore a robe. Everybody wore a robe. Find me somebody who wasn’t wearing a robe. But still He tagged it. So there were two other things going on there—desire and showiness.  

“Beware of the scribes, which desire (thelo) to walk in long robes (stole), and love greetings in the markets, and the highest seats in the synagogues, and the chief rooms at feasts” (Luke 20:46).

So when it comes to things ecclesiastical, we have to be aware of a standing temptation, ever present to a certain kind of churchman, which is the temptation to look fabulous.

Looking Like the Bride:

One of the names for a prophet in Scripture is man of God.

“And there came a man of God, and spake unto the king of Israel, and said, Thus saith the Lord, Because the Syrians have said, The Lord is God of the hills, but he is not God of the valleys, therefore will I deliver all this great multitude into thine hand, and ye shall know that I am the Lord” (1 Kings 20:28).

And this prophetic mantle is taken up in the New Testament by the minister of the Word.

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16–17).

And not to belabor the obvious, but one of the foundational duties of every man of God is to be a man. You can’t be a man of God unless you are a man first.

In a well-structured worship service, the people of God are meeting with their God. There is communion between them, and this communion consists of conversation. God speaks, and then we speak, and then God speaks again. We speak in the confession of sin. God speaks in the assurance of pardon. We speak in the psalm of praise. God speaks in the Scripture reading. Our congregation meets every week with God, for an hour and a half, and we talk about things with Him. He says something, and then we say something in response.

Now obviously, the Lord Jesus is not physically present with us, but He is present in the person of His Spirit. And He is also present in the office of His representative—the man of God.

When a man prays during the congregational prayer, presenting our petitions to God, he is representing the congregation to God. But when I declare the assurance of pardon to the people after we have confessed our sins, I am representing God to them. When I read the text to be preached, I am representing God to them. When I give the final benediction, I am representing God to them.

Now when a man of God is down in the front of the church discharging his office, it is crucial that he be a masculine presence there. He is supposed to be representing the groom. He has no business being down in the front of the church, looking sweet and virginal like the bride.

“But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses” (Matt. 11:8).

Soft raiment is always going to be a thing for somebody. But out of all the places you might be able to find it, church should be the last place you would look.

I Was Told There Would be Free Books:

Perhaps the reasons are too obvious, but the free book today is Future Men. It is on how to bring up boys who would rather be dead in a ditch than to put on one of those choir ruffs and sing pretty for the congregation.