Monday, March 30, 2009

Lenten Reflections

Many people give something up for Lent. A few years ago a friend suggested that instead of giving something up we commit to a spiritual discipline. We committed to taking photographs each day. Over the years, this practice grew so that our photos became a reflection on Lenten themes and texts. I have been posting the photos and my reflections each day on my facebook page, but I will also be including some here over the next few weeks.

Our first photos focused on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.

Matthew 6:5 And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others...

I doubt that I am in danger of proclaiming my piety too loudly on street corners... It seems that for me standing in the church and praying can be way of hiding from the world rather. I am in danger of hypocrisy not for my public proclamations but rather for my silence. Perhaps I need a little more street corner prayer in my life.

Matthew 6:6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret....

Matthew 6:19 Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust consume...

This seems even more pertinent given our current economy where homes and retirement accounts are no longer places of financial security...

The Pastor as Administrator

Following Chrysostom, over the next several decades a high view of the priesthood would continue to develop in the work of Ambrose and Augustine. Priests were called to separate themselves from the world. They were not to participate in affairs of state, in business, or in the military. They were to remain firmly rooted in the heavenly realm. With the rise of the Middle Ages however, all this would change. While the priesthood was still held in high regard, responsibilities shifted towards more administrative duties. The barbarian invasions threw the entire world into chaos, including the church. The church was forced to become self-sustaining financially and so became involved in business and land management. The church gained significant material resources and power. Priests began to serve as civic leaders involved in government and the caring for the material needs of the people. When regional governments did not have power, the Pope was often able to step in and provide order.
Gregory the Great’s work The Pastoral Rule reflects the changing responsibilities of the priesthood and the concern for order. His work draws on the rule of St. Benedict that structured the life of monastic communities at the time. He concern was for order and balance in the pastoral office. In particular, he was concerned that priests were becoming overwhelmed with civic duties and losing sight of their roles as spiritual leaders. He recognized the difficulties and challenges inherent in the work of the priest, including the temptation to focus on immediate and pressing needs among the people. He called priests to the practice of consideratio, an attempt to balance body and soul through reason and reflection. Priests were to attend to their own spiritual lives, balancing contemplation and action. They were to attend to the material and spiritual needs of the people. For Gregory, the priest was to be a neighbor of all in compassion, but to remain exalted above all others in thought.
While balance is a central theme in his work, a majority of the text focuses on issues of pastoral care. In particular, The Pastoral Rule calls priests to care for each parishioner individually providing care that fits their station, their character, and their immediate emotional state. He provides specific unique instructions for the care of men, women, slaves, masters, rich, poor, those in mourning, those rejoicing, those remorsely, and those unpenitent. He presents dozens of case studies and the appropriate response. His focus is on attending to the spiritual needs of the people and he may be accused of overspiritualizing pastoral care. This is in part due to the worldview of the day with its emphasis on the supernatural as a real and present reality in the day-to-day workings of the world. It may also have to do with his focus on calling pastors who were consumed by material needs back to the care of souls.
Gregory’s work was considered one of the seminal texts on pastoral leadership for almost 1,000 years. There would be significant debates in ecclesiology with the Great Schism in the 11th century and the development of the Eastern Orthodox Church, yet the high view of the priesthood and the central role of the Eucharist remained. Many consider the work of Martin Luther in the 16th century as the next major shift in pastoral theology. The next entry will look at two of his texts, “Concerning the Ministry” and “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.”

Friday, March 06, 2009

Holy Fear in the Priesthood

The last post focused on a text from the first decades of the church. Over the next two centuries, the church would formalize its structures becoming more institutionalized and centralized. Aspects of the ministry formerly held by the entire congregation became focused in the office of the priesthood. Bishops took on the central roles of presiding at the Eucharist and baptism, preaching, teaching, providing pastoral care, and judging the soundness of teachers and prophets. Bishops generally served as leaders of large churches while presbyters served at smaller parishes and reported to the local bishop.
The writings of John Chrysostom, especially his Six Books on the Priesthood reflect many of these significant changes in the ministry and the church. Chrysostom’s work begins with the story of his fleeing from those who had come to elect him bishop while at the same time tricking his best friend into assuming the role. There is little remorse in his work, for he feels his actions were justified. He sees his friend as far more worthy of the position than he is. Chrysostom holds an extremely high view of the priesthood and approaches such work with fear and trembling. He sees the office as working itself out in this world but equal to the angelic offices. The basis of his fear is grounded in his understanding of the priest’s role in the sacrament of communion. For Chrysostom, the priest holds the physical body and blood of Jesus in his hands during the Eucharist and it is the priest who calls forth the Holy Spirit’s presence. The priests offer the sacrifice of Christ to God on behalf of the people.
To hold the body and blood of Christ, the priest must be worthy. For Chrysostom, the priesthood almost transcends human nature. It is as if the priest has already entered the heavenly realm. To demonstrate their worthiness, Chrysostom calls priests to a rigid asceticism. He argues that any who seek the position should be immediately seen as unworthy because they are seeking glory rather than to serve God. He warns of the dangers inherent in the priesthood and warns that the priest must be above suspicion. They must not listen to envy or slander. They must not believe praise and so give in to pride. They must avoid the temptations of women. It is clear by this time that any female leadership that might have been present in the early church is no longer operative.
While the priests hold absolute authority in the congregation, their ministry to the people should not be characterized by the exercise of power but rather by grace and love. For Chrysostom, Christ’s call to Peter, “If you love me, feed my sheep” is the central image of ministry. In Christ’s call, Christ demonstrates his love for his sheep. In Peter’s response, Peter demonstrates that ministry is an act of love towards God as well as towards the people. Chrysostom calls for a priesthood characterized by patience and compassion. Rather than an exercise of power, discipline and teaching should take place by persuasion since no one, not even a priest, can truly judge the heart of another. Punishment for sin should not be characterized by the sin but instead by the character of the sinner. What will persuade the sinner to repent and change their ways? The priest, while almost situated in the heavenly realm is to be approachable to the people.
The priest’s main responsibility was care of souls through teaching, preaching, and administration of the sacraments. Teaching was particularly important in a time of great theological debate. The priests were called to preserve the orthodox faith and pass it on to their people. There is much we can learn from Chrysostom’s work, however his work also illustrates the great chasm that developed between the priests and the laity. Ministry and orthodox were placed in the hands of a few set apart by ordination to the priesthood. Lost was the priesthood of all believers.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Controlled Chaos... The Early Church

For several of my last posts I’ve focused on congregational studies and practical theology, the first of four major areas that served as the focus on my doctoral exams. This next set of posts will focus on the second area: ecclesiology. Ecclesiology focuses on the nature of the church and pastoral leadership from a theological perspective. These first posts will focus on some key historical texts for pastoral theology. They will be followed by posts that focus on contemporary approaches to ecclesiology and then some possible directions for a contemporary ecclesiology for my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church. We begin with one of the earliest documents written regarding the nature of the early church, the Didaché.
Written in the first century, the Didaché reflects a nascent community not yet formed into any one definitive structure. The community met in homes for worship and teaching and was united in its common faith in the gospel message as handed down by the apostles. The apostles, those who had been eye witnesses to the life and teachings of Jesus, provided leadership and guidance to the local churches. They generally did so at a distance, making visits and writing letters. They would form a council in Jerusalem to adjudicate issues arising in the interpretation of the gospel as the home churches lived out their faith.
The Didaché reflects the centrality of the gospel message for shaping the early Christian communities. Their mission focused on preserving and passing on the gospel through preaching, teaching, evangelism, and worship. The Didaché focuses on preparing Gentile converts for full participation in the life of the community through a program of mentorship and discipleship. Each convert was assigned a mentor to teach them and walk alongside them. It is assumed that men mentored men and women mentored women, though there is no mention of this in the Didaché. Mentors held no specific office in the church. Rather, mentoring others was seen as a function of the priesthood of all believers. These mentors, as bearers of the gospel, were to be highly respected, but they were also to be tested, along with prophets, to assure that their message remained true to the apostolic witness. Mentoring and other ministries were a function of the gifting of the Spirit as recognized by the local community. For these early house churches charismatic and institutional forms of leadership overlapped.
Ministry was seen as the work of the entire community. All were called to teach, to pray, to serve. They were called to share their goods with one another. They were called to judge the soundness of teaching. The sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist were seen as the work of the entire community. The Didaché calls the community itself to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Leadership of baptism and the Eucharist was shared among many members of the community. Mentors often presided at the first baptism of those they were mentoring. There is debate about leadership of the Eucharist. Some suggest that mentors also presided at this rite, but others suggest that prophets and/or bishops served in this role. Bishops at this time were often tied to the administrative functions of the church, but would soon move into more liturgical forms of leadership.
The Didaché reminds us of the excitement of new church plants. But within it we see hints of things to come. Structures that would eventually be put into place. Offices that would eventually centralized authority. The desire, whether in these early days of controlled chaos or in the first years of centralized authority, was to preserve the gospel. How do you preserve the message when you no longer have the eye-witnesses among you? How do you sustain ministry for the long haul? The next few historical texts will show how the church eventually structured to sustain the faith. It will also illustrate the ways that very structure can at times get in the way of the message itself. In our efforts to preserve the gospel, we at times hide it behind layers of bureaucracy and find ourselves separated from the very God we seek to worship.