Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Much has been made of the wearing of stoles of late, particularly rainbow stoles worn as a statement concerning the ordination of gays and lesbians. There has been criticism and support. In this highly charged climate it might be helpful to consider the wearing of stoles and by whom over the history of the Church. Most of this information comes from a delightful site called “nerd country.”   If the information is wrong please blame the folks at nerd country or me if I have failed to interpret them correctly.

“The word stole derives via the Latin” as a word borrowed (as often happened) stola, from the “Greek . In its ancient form, it is the language of classical ancient Greek literature and the New Testament of στολη (stolē), "garment", originally "array" or "equipment".  (The word is used eight times in the New Testament in each case referring to "a loose outer garment for men extending to the feet, worn by kings, priests, and persons of rank.")

The stole was originally a kind of shawl that covered the shoulders and fell down in front of the body; on women they were often very large indeed. (My note: the stola therefore was originally a garment for women. What might that say about “clergy?”). After being adopted by the Church of Rome about the seventh century (the stole having also been adopted in other locals prior to this), the stole became gradually narrower and so richly ornamented that it developed into a mark of dignity. Nowadays, the stole is usually wider and can be made from a wide variety of material.

There are many theories as to the "ancestry" of the stole. Some say it came from the tallit.  A tallit (taleth or talet in Sephardic Hebrew and Ladino) (tallis in Ashkenazic Hebrew and Yiddish) is a Jewish prayer shawl worn in the synagogue on Shabbat and holidays, and while reciting morning prayers (Shacharit), as well as afternoon (Mincha) and evening prayers (Ma'ariv) by many Sephardic Jews. The tallit has special meaning because it is very similar to the present usage (as in the minister puts it on when he or she leads in prayer) but this theory is no longer regarded much today. More popular is the theory that the stole originated from a kind of liturgical napkin called an orarium. In fact, in many places the stole is called the orarium. Therefore it is linked to the napkin used by Jesus of Nazareth in washing the feet of his disciples, and is a fitting symbol of the yoke of Christ, the yoke of service.  (the word stola is not used in the John 13 to describe the cloth Jesus used to wash the feet of the disciples.)

The most likely origin for the stole, however, is to be connected with the scarf of office among Imperial officials in the Roman Empire. As members of the clergy became members of the Roman administration, they were granted certain honors, one specifically being a designator of rank within the imperial (and ecclesiastical) hierarchy. The various configurations of the stole grew out of this usage. The original intent then was to designate a person as belonging to a particular organization and to denote their rank within their group, a function which the stole continues to perform today. Thus, unlike other liturgical garments which were originally worn by every cleric or layman, the stole was a garment which was specifically restricted to particular classes of people based on occupation.

(The above is mostly from the nerd community with some editing. The following is my comment.)

In other words the stole is NOT a symbol of humility or a follower of Christ. It is a symbol of one’s place and office in the Roman Empire and the Church. It is a symbol of separation between laity and clergy. One could argue then as is often done, that a stole should be worn only by ordained clergy. (Deacons in the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions wear a stole in a different configuration, over the left shoulder, across the chest and the back to the right side of the body.)

In the early Church, however, those who read, preached and celebrated the sacraments wore everyday clothes like everyone else attending worship. It was only as Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire that clergy began to wear stoles as a sign of office.

One could argue therefore that the wearing of stoles by clergy is a statement about the Church, that there is not true equality in the Church between those called to serve as Ministers of Word and Sacrament and the so called “laity.” If we Presbyterians truly believe that the laos, the people includes all Christians pastors either should not wear stoles or all Christians should.

As to the wearing of stoles as a political or religious statement by one or more groups in the Church the stole should not be worn by as a symbol of difference but rather as a symbol of unity. That, I believe is one of the intended messages of those who wear rainbow colored stoles at meetings when the issue of ordination of gays and lesbians is to be voted upon. All should wear the stole or none unless of course we believe that Ministers of Word and Sacrament are somehow more important or to be elevated above other members of the Church. I hope we are past the Roman days at least in the Presbyterian Church. If not I will gladly stop wearing a stole.


Alan said...

I'm pretty sure the stoles were given out to laity and clergy alike. They certainly were in our Presbytery when we wore them for the last amend-B vote.

The wearing of rainbow stoles also stems partially, I believe, from the Shower of Stoles project, which is about the people who have been excluded from the denomination because of bigotry. Thus wearing the rainbow stole is a living testament about those who cannot be ordained.

But you're right about the separation that stoles used to signify between the laity and the clergy. That attitude is still obviously prevalent, even in the PCUSA today among our so-called "classical" brothers and sisters, whose Catholic views of the clergy are why they get so bent out of shape about lay people wearing a few bits of rainbow colored yarn.

But just because that's what they used to mean doesn't mean that's what they still have to mean, eh?

Beloved Spear said...

That's why I stopped vesting at my current church. Just as the stole symbolizes authority, the robe represents education...meaning, I know more than you, so nyah. As we moved to a more contemporary style of worship, having that affirmation of my separateness just seemed counterproductive.

One interesting counterpoint is the wearing of the tallit at my wife's synagogue. It's not limited to worship leaders. Anyone who wishes to wear one into shabbas services is welcome to do so...so many men and women do as a sign of the sacredness of the worship.

Pastor Bob said...

@ Alan Part of my point is that the stole or stola is a symbol of separation of "clergy" and "laity or "lay" people. But if we really believe what the New Testament says and what the Reformation says about the priesthood of all believers there are no clergy. There is only the "laos" the people of God. There is no clergy class or rank. Such rank denies the radical equality of the people of Christ in the Body of Christ. Thus there we shouldn't use the word "clergy." Pastor is the appropriate word as it define function and not status. All get stoles or no one gets a stole.

@ Beloved If the stole came from the wearing of the tallit and all wear them then the wearing of a stole would be a symbol of equality. Curiously there is a massive debate about this at the Western Wall. Some men seek to deny women the right to wear tallit (tallitzim?) and they do so with violence.

Also curiously members of the congregation I serve insist that I wear a robe although I don't think they care about the stole. I also don't think they see the robe as a symbol of education but rather of rank. BUT they don't expect me to wear it during the summer!

Alan said...

" There is no clergy class or rank. Such rank denies the radical equality of the people of Christ in the Body of Christ."

Sorta makes these ordination fights a bit meaningless, eh?

"All get stoles or no one gets a stole."

Not a bad slogan for Amend-B electioneering.

Pastor Bob said...

@ Alan We Presbyterians say that ordination is to function but there is at least one problem with that idea.

1. Why do we ordain elders and deacons for life and not for terms of service but if a MWS is not currently serving in a validated ministry s/he could ultimately be removed from the rolls of presbytery. Why for life for elders and deacons but for function or out for MWS? And why are retired pastors who no longer function in according to their office considered ordained MWS?

Maybe a more radical question would be (and should be) why do we ordain? And why do we ordain to some ministries in the Church and not to others? What does ordaining elders, deacons and MWSs and not Sunday School teachers say about ministry in a congregation?

Maybe if we aren't going to ordain Sunday School teachers we should at least give them stoles? LOL

Alan said...

You're preaching to the choir. I rather prefer the notion of commissioning instead of ordination. We commission people to do a certain job (ie. MWS, elder, Sunday School teacher, etc.), rather than ordain them for life. As we do for commissioners to GA, for example.

Maybe it would just end up as word games and semantics instead of any real change. After all, most folks in the PCUSA have had a few hundred years since the Reformation to get over the Catholic notions of a special status for a clerical class, and they still don't get it. Hence the special requirements for ordination vs. membership. (If I were Jungian, I could blame it on their need for an archetype. If I were cynical, I'd blame it on a need for job security. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and just assume they don't actually know anything about the Reformation.)

Funny that the BFTSs constantly complain that commissioners to GA aren't representative of the membership as a whole, but then argue for a special clergy class separate from the laity. But then, I've long ago given up looking for consistency in their positions.

But then, what do I know? I still haven't found the verses in the Gospels where the Apostles were asked to take an ordination exam and/or swear allegiance to "essentials of Reformed doctrine." It's got to be in there somewhere, right?

Pastor Bob said...

@ Alan The Holy Spirit told them all they needed to know.

Seriously the Presbyterian Church here in America split over the issue of education in - I think - 1803. There weren't enough educated clergy for all the new congregations springing up on the frontier. Presbyterian congregations in Kentucky wanted and needed preachers. When the GA told them come to Princeton and get a degree those congregations split off and formed the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. They needed pastors NOW not in 10 years.

And the PCUSA which was the largest denomination in English speaking America at the time quickly dropped behind the Methodists who weren't requiring preachers to go to college (no seminaries back then) and we have been smaller than the Methodists ever since.

Curiously when the PCUSA voted for commissioned lay preachers (and later pastors) I heard no discussion or debate about what happened back in 1803! Does everybody forget history so fast?

But look at the title: commissioned (not ordained to this function although they must be ordained elders) lay (there is that word that connects to laos again) pastors (function). And at the present time they are not commissioned lay pastors unless they are serving a congregation!

So the commissioned lay pastor is part of the laos even though ordained as an elder but the MWS is not?

But the presbyteries are supposed to do some lengthy training and teaching for commissioned lay pastors.

One last thing: the issue of educated pastors came up in both the first and second great revivals in the USA. The Old Lights in the colonial Presbyterian Church wanted all who would be pastors to go back to Northern Ireland or Scotland to get educated. The New Lights (after saying that the Old Lights were unconverted clergy) formed the College of New Jersey in a log cabin. In the second great revival there were churches springing up everywhere on the frontier because of the revival and that's when the Cumberland folks split off.

Pastor Bob said...

@ Alan: I'm not sure that the wearing of stoles and robes can be limited to those on the right in the PCUSA. Those who lead contemporary don't wear any liturgical garments. Many MWSs on the progressive side of the denomination also wear robes and stoles. They insist upon it. I think it is one of those things that cross over between groups in the PCUSA.

Alan said...

Certainly. Which is why it's hilarious that it's the BFTSs who have been whining over the wearing of rainbow stoles at GA.

Pastor Bob said...

Well anyway, wait for my next blog. It will ask the question: is ordination Biblical?

Alan said...

Looking forward to it. Unfortunately we've been fighting over it for 30 years and no one's stopped during that time to ask the obvious question. I suspect that's because, if someone (at least on the pro-gay side of the battle) had dared to raise such a question, they'd have been immediately shouted down as heretics, apostate, and/or anarchists by the BFTSs.

Pastor Bob said...


There was an attempt to write a report on ordination back sometime in the 1990's. I don't remember if it was published or not. I do remember writing something to the committee at the time but am not sure what I said.

Alan said...

A PCUSA study report that got ignored and then forgotten?

I'm shocked. :)

Pastor Bob said...

I know. It's my long term experience that the PCUSA appoints a committee or a task force to study something, receives the report and then the denomination thinks we have taken care of the problem, as if writing a report fixes everything.

This happened back in the early 1980's about the issue of world hunger.

Alan said...

Yup. And PUP and the marriage report, etc., etc., etc. Waste of time and resources, but these "studies" are great stalling tactics.

Perhaps you and I should propose an overture to form a study committee to study study committees and their studies. :) I'd bet money no one would get the joke.

Pastor Bob said...


The weird part is that OGA and GAMC are both in the red. GA is supposed to balance the budget.

Christine Kooi said...

I tend to think of stoles in more liturgical than clerical terms. The pastor wears a robe and stole because worship is a solemn event and she leads that worship. In purely aesthetic terms there is a pleasing sense of gravitas in seeing the vestments worn (maybe that's why your congregants want you to wear a robe, Pastor Bob!).

On the other hand, my grandfather, a Dutch Reformed minister, wore a black suit every time he stood in the pulpit. I suspect he would have found a stole far too Roman Catholic.

Interesting post. I look forward to your thoughts on ordination.

Kattie W. Coon said...


Sorry for going off topic, but I have a message to send to Christine.

I'm also looking forward to what you have to say concerning ordination. Stoles, robes... not a big deal to me either way.


I'm sorry if my adversarial relationship with Viola Larsen has spilled over onto you. I can't understand why she thinks you are me, our writing styles, personalities, and educational backgrounds seem quite different to me.

Christine Kooi said...

Katie: Ah well, perhaps the double o's in both our surnames have led some to think we are one and the same.

Bob: The question of how "biblical" something one is a perenially interesting one to us Reformed ones, no? Sola scriptura has led us down so many garden paths. One thinks of infant baptism, for example...

Kattie W. Coon said...


The o's might have a little to do with it, but I think it goes deeper than that. You're not the only other person she has claimed was me. She claimed you were me from the way you wrote. Personally I think her conscience is bothering her. She banned me from her blog for a pretty lame reason (I recommended a book to her). Now she thinks I’m jumping out from behind every rock.

You are far more eloquent that I am, and seem to have a far more level temperament too.

I think the question of Biblicality isn’t just perennially interesting to us, it’s also perennially frustrating. Freedom of conscience seems to get trampled on far too often. We are led by some to believe that the interpretations of our forefathers are infallible and that the Spirit couldn’t possibly be leading elsewhere. I reject this. We are constantly being reformed according to the Word of God.

Pastor Bob said...

Ladies I appreciate your concerns and hurts. But could you talk about them elsewhere? Thanks.

tallit said...

The tallit is a four cornered prayer shawl with fringes on all the corners.

Pastor Bob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pastor Bob said...


Yep. the idea that the stole that clergy wear comes from the tallit is another attempt at Christian ripping off the Jews. And it is in fact historically untrue.