The Priest’s Underpants

Got your attention with that topic heading, did we?  Well, you’ll find nothing salacious here, but rather an excuse to talk about decorum in worship.

When the ancient Hebrews were led out of slavery in Egypt, they had been living with idolatrous influences for several centuries and had only the vaguest idea of who the True God is and what He expected of them.  So they spent the next forty years (!) wandering in the Sinai desert getting “re-educated” to prepare them for their occupation of the promised-land of Palestine.  It was during this time that God gave them the Ten Commandments and other instructions to govern the way they were to live, including detailed instructions as to how they should appropriately worship Him.

God appointed Aaron (the brother of Moses) to serve as the ‘high priest’ who was authorized to offer sacrifices for the people, and his sons (and their descendants) were also to continue in this office.  The 28th chapter of the book of Exodus describes the special clothes they were to wear.  As verse 2 states: “Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron to give him dignity and honor.”  These special garments are described in considerable detail and involved a lot of elaborate embellishments symbolic of the high office.  Clearly God wanted the appearance of these men, charged with being the interface between Him and His people, to set the tone for what they were doing.

So it seems a bit incongruous when the instructions for the “sacred garments” ends with this wardrobe detail:

Make linen undergarments as a covering for the body, reaching from the waist to the thigh.  Aaron and his sons must wear them whenever they enter the tent of meeting or approach the altar to minister in the Holy Place, so that they will not incur guilt and die. (Exodus 28:42-43)

Really?   Wearing the wrong underwear is a mortal offense?  What gives with that?

The practical relevance of this detail becomes apparent when we realize that when the priests conducted some of their worship functions they were on a raised platform, elevated above the worshipers in flowing robes.  Even without allowing for the occasional “wardrobe malfunction” it’s easy to imagine that this vantage provided opportunity for glimpses of hairy priestly limbs that weren’t particularly edifying.  Now we’re probably not talking about obscene displays here, but rather about distracting from the dignity of the worship – introducing snickers into what God intended as reverent proceedings.

When God instituted a New Covenant through the sacrifice of His Son, he did away with the need for animal sacrifices and the priesthood who conducted them – together with all of the other elaborate rituals described in such detail in the Old Testament.  In fact, the New Testament books of the Bible provide no instructions at all about how to dress our worship leaders, how to decorate our worship space, or even how we are to organize our services.  But, though we don’t adhere to the Old Testament worship practices, we can still learn from them.

Which brings us back to clothing.  Clerical underwear is a detail of liturgical vestments which (thankfully) isn’t subject to scrutiny anymore.  However, we still do adhere to the principle that the things we do (or allow) in worship should convey reverence and not be distracting.   The nature of what people find distracting, of course, has varied a lot as fashions have changed over the centuries.   But we still think it important to show respect for our God and His children in the way we present and conduct ourselves in our worship.

Our practice is to attire our worship leaders in vestments that both obscure their own fashion tastes and indicate respect for the ministry that they are providing.  This doesn’t make our worship ‘holier’ but we hope it does give it a dignity that honors God and minimizes distractions for the worshipers.

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