April 2019 Credo
In the past three decades, a number of Christian writers have commented on the way in which the role of the minister has morphed in modern evangelical Christianity.
In 1934, William Adams Brown and Mark A. May conducted a major study on clerical roles, the results of which were published in four volumes. In the main, the study identified five major roles of the minister: teacher, preacher, worship leader, pastor and administrator.
About fifty years later, in 1986, another major study was conducted which saw the minister’s roles expand from five to fourteen. What is even more alarming is that for many evangelical churches, technical and managerial competence are deemed to be more important than traditional ministries like preaching, teaching and pastoral care.
In addition, the pastoral ministry is being increasingly professionalised. As David Wells puts it, ‘It is being anchored firmly in the middle class, and the attitudes of those who are themselves professionals or who constantly deal with them are increasingly defining who the minister is’.
As a result, the minister is no longer regarded as a pastor-theologian and spiritual guide. He is now seen as a CEO.
The twin dangers of secularisation and professionalization must be addressed if the biblical and theological vision of the pastoral ministry is to be preserved. How are we to do this?
One way to do this is to return to the authoritative sources of the Christian faith, an approach that the Roman Catholic Church calls ressourcement. In this brief article, I turn to the writings of two of early Christianity’s most illustrious theologians to see what might be gleaned from them that would serve as correctives to the modern distortions of the ministerial office.
The first is Gregory of Nazianzus’ Second Oration (also known as De fuga) that was preached shortly after Easter of 362. And the second is John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood (De sacerdotio), a document that many scholars date between 388 and 390.
These two treatises represent very different genres and were written with very different purposes in mind. De fuga is an apology that was preached before a liturgical assembly, while On the Priesthood is a dialogue between Chrysostom and a friend.
Even a cursory reader of these treatises would be struck by the high view of the office of the priest or the minister they espouse and present. Priests, according to Chrysostom, ‘are entrusted with the administration of things which are in Heaven’. Referring to Matthew 18:18, he argues that priests have been given an authority that ‘God has not even given to angels or archangels’ – the authority to ‘bind and loose’.
The ministers in God’s Church, he adds, are superior even to the Jewish priests. The latter only has the authority to examine a physical body and pronounce it to be free from leprosy. But Christian ministers and priests ‘have authority to deal, not with bodily leprosy, but spiritual uncleanness – not to pronounce it removed after examination, but actually and absolutely to take it away’.
The early theologians’ exalted view of the office of the minister is clearly premised on their understanding of the priesthood as spiritual vocation.
According to Fr Joseph Carola SJ, the early fathers of the Church understood the function of the priestly or pastoral office in terms of the triple munera: the munus regendi, the munus docendi and the munus sanctificandi.
Gregory describes the munus regendi (the duty of pastoral governance) as the ‘art of arts and the science of sciences’. Now, when the fathers speak of governance they do not have in mind the management of the Church in the way we moderns understand it. Rather pastoral governance for them has to do with spiritual healing, with the cure and care of souls.
In a splendid passage in the Second Oration, Gregory describes what the munus regendi entails. ‘The scope of our art’, he writes, ‘is to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, and to watch over that which is in His image, if it abides, to take it by the hand, if it is in danger, or restore it, if ruined, to make Christ to dwell in the heart by the Spirit: that in short, to deify, and bestow heavenly bliss upon, one who belongs to the heavenly host’.
The munus docendi has to do with the teaching responsibilities of the Christian minister. All the fathers of the Church see this sacred duty of expounding the word of God as at once the minister’s highest honour and his greatest responsibility.
According to Gregory, the minister is the teacher of the faith and the defender of the truth. It is by humbly fulfilling this role that the minister truly serves the people of God.
The counsel that these ancient spiritual writers give to Christian ministers has a surprisingly modern ring to it. Chrysostom instructs ministers not to be populist, that is, not to be swayed by the cultural currents of the day or threatened by criticisms, especially those from the ‘outside world’. ‘Let, therefore, the man who undertakes the strain of teaching never give heed to the good opinion of the outside world, not be dejected in soul on account of such persons’, writes the golden-mouth Preacher.
The minister should instead be his own harshest critic, as he measures his ministry against the high standards set by God himself. In his quest to fulfil this great responsibility, the sole aim of the minister must be to please and honour God: ‘For a sufficient consolation in his labours, and one greater than all, is when he is able to be conscious of arranging and ordering his teaching with a view to please God’.
Finally, the minister exercises the munus sanctificandi (duty of sanctification), chiefly through the administration of the sacraments. To the minister or the priest is given the authority to ‘bring down the Holy Spirit’, says Chrysostom. The priest ‘makes prolonged supplication, not that some flame sent down on high may consume the offerings, but that grace descending on the sacrifice may thereby enlighten the souls of all’.
Because the work of the minister and priest has to do with administering the sacraments – the means of God’s divine grace – he must apply himself to the pursuit of holiness and godliness. ‘How could I dare to offer to him the external sacrifice, the antitype of the great mysteries, or clothe myself with the garb and name of priest’, writes Gregory, ‘before my hands had been consecrated by holy works … before my ear had been sufficiently opened to the instruction of the Lord’.
This brings me to the most consistent and undoubtedly the most important emphasis of the early Church fathers regarding the Christian ministry, namely, the holiness of the minister. Christian ministry has to do with more than the skills and competence of the minister. It has to do more crucially with the virtuous life of the minister.
As Christopher Beeley puts it in his excellent study of Gregory of Nazianzus, ‘Priestly virtue is … the single most important element of pastoral ministry, above education, eloquence, and social status’. In fact, Gregory explicitly says that ‘to undertake the training of others before being sufficiently trained oneself … seems to me to be excessive folly or excessive rashness’.
Only the minister who is pure in heart will be able to understand the depths of Scripture, ‘rise from letter to spirit’, and penetrate the mysteries of God, writes Gregory. Thus, the Christian minister must continuously train himself in godliness. ‘He should know no limits in goodness or spiritual progress’, insists the Archbishop of Constantinople and theologian, ‘and should dwell upon the loss of what it still beyond him’.
The writings of these ancient theologians contain an uncommon wisdom that every Christian minister in the modern church badly needs, regardless of his ecclesiastical tradition. They provide a compass that would enable those whom God has called to be his servants to navigate the confusing labyrinth that is the modern world, to avoid its insidious trappings, and to be the faithful embodiment of God’s truth which is genuinely counter-cultural and liberating.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.