Saturday, November 6, 2010

On Clergy

I have been thinking recently about the role and status of ministers.  This is what I came up with.  Treat it as an on-line sermon.  For those who are not particularly drawn to Christian writings - take the readings for their inherent truth and power, not for their source.

Philippians 4:8
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things that are of good report; if there be any excellence, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
Romans 12:3-8
For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.
For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function,  so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
Matthew 5:13
You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.
Joshu's Koan
A monk once asked master Joshu, "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" Master Joshu replied "mu."

The Essay
At 8 AM in the morning, in the first minute of the first hour of class in my first year of college, the professor in world literature came into the room and wrote the word "arête" on the blackboard. We were about to start reading the Iliad and we needed to understand this concept that was central to ancient Greek culture. Arête is translated to English in several ways: virtue, excellence, or goodness. In Paul's letter to the Philippians, the word "excellence" is the Greek arête. Recall that both Jesus and Paul were speaking in a culture that had been immersed in Greek thought for 300 years. In this essay I want to talk about arête and the clergy.

Historically we have two different kinds of clergy. One kind is a priest. A priest performs religious rites and is an intermediary between God and people. The ancient Jews had priests who made offerings and sacrifices in the Temple. Other religions also have priests with similar special status, including the special status of Catholic priests to perform the Mass. Post-Reformation, we have clergy who are titled minister or pastor.

Protestant clergy are not priests – they do not have a special role with respect to God. In Jewish tradition, there was and continues to be another role besides the priest – the rabbi. The rabbi can be an interpreter of Jewish law; or an active teacher. Jesus was referred to as rabbi.

All occupations have expectations of what the person in the role provides. In The Republic Plato asks what is the virtue or excellence – the Greek arête – of a tool, artifact, or occupation. A shovel is supposed to be able to dig; and if it has too short a handle, or a dull blade, we judge it to be a poor shovel. A good attorney uses their analytical powers and special knowledge to benefit their client. A physician heals the sick. A farmer is expected to provide food that is nourishing and pleasing, and a plumber is supposed to keep the water in the pipes and not on my floor.

To the degree that we view the role of each occupation to be more important to us personally or to society in general, and the degree of self-sacrifice, we accord a higher social respect (if not necessarily money – "they have their reward") to that occupation.

Clergy, whether ministers, priests, or rabbis, occupy a special cultural position. It is not just a profession; they are accorded respect and deference because we expect that they have taken on special responsibilities. They are not the only profession with a special position of social respect. For example, firemen are respected because they have taken on the responsibility to risk their life to save us from a horrible fate.

But the clergy have a very high respect level (even up to the point that our government gives them special recognition in the tax code and other law.) So we as society must associate them the some very special arête.

So we ask, "What is the special arête of the clergy?" There are two responses.

1. Demand the Clergy be Exemplars
Given that society grants a special role to clergy, then what is the arête of the clergy? Is it that they are learned? That cannot be it, for there are many learned professions, and while we grant them some respect, it is not like that of the clergy. Is it that we may speak to them in confidence and receive counsel? We can speak in confidence to an attorney or a therapist, but they are not accorded the position of the clergy.

Paul lists various spiritual gifts, and it is these we expect in the clergy: prophecy, teaching, exhortation, discernment, or pastoral care. These gifts vary between people. We would not expect a minister to have a full measure of all of these. But we do expect them to have a spiritual call and capacity for one or several.

I assert that the arête of the clergy is to be focused and connected to the divine – righteousness, justice, mercy, eternal truths about the human condition, and awareness of the arc of the universe. And it is not just knowledge of these things. If I have knowledge of being a fireman, but don't fight fires, I am not a fireman. If I merely study righteousness, but act the same as everyone else, then I am not acting in the role to which we have given the social respect.

This is a high standard. If a member of the clergy does not have this arête, then we have two choices. Like the shovel with a short handle, we can try to fix it, or we can give up and throw it away. But it is not useful as a shovel, and we should not try to keep using it as such.

2. Reject the Special Status of the Clergy
Picture Paul as a first-century church consultant.

Paul uses the parable of the body in both the letter to the church in Rome and in Corinth. He would not have included the same analogy and warning in letters to two separate churches unless the issue had come up multiple times. What is the issue? It does not take much reading between the lines to understand that some members of the church consider themselves special and separate because of their gift, and that it happened in more than one place.

Luther denounced the doctrine of sacerdotalism – the special status of one who can make offerings to God – arguing for the "priesthood of all believers." So most Protestant denominations have ministers who are not "priests", but still hold a special position and are styled "reverend." But several strains of Christianity before and after Luther went even farther. In England, a century before Luther, the Lollard followers of John Wycliffe rejected the office of priest or minister entirely. A century and a half after Luther the Quakers came to the same conclusion; and in the early nineteenth century, the Plymouth Brethren also.

This leads me to a new understanding of the Quaker use of "thou" and the usage of "brother" and "sister" in some other churches. It emphasizes that all members are equal members of the same body. With this understanding, we would abolish the status of minister as a leftover relic of the priesthood. We would recognize the different gifts of our members, but not raise any member to a higher status because of their particular gift. The answer to the question "what is the special arête of the clergy" is "mu" -- every person has their own special arête.

Gifts of the spirit and parable of the body: I Corinthians 12.

The Republic: - search for physician

Plymouth Brethren: Conservative Christian Evangelical church, started in Dublin c. 1827, first English assembly was in Plymouth. No ministers, officially no name for the church.

Quakers: Reject sola scriptura, believe in continuing revelation, had a Universalist split in N. America 1827, the two sides rejoined in 1955.

A Christian view on gifts:


  1. Found your blog today through Scott Wells' blog. I was raised in the Plymouth Brethren, became a Presby minister, and am transferring to the UUs. In the past few weeks, I have come to realized how my PB upbringing shaped my passion for "shared ministry," as the UUs call "the priesthood of all believers." Thanks for this post.

  2. That's quite the journey, both theologically and organizationally. I hope you bring an actual practice of the shared ministry to the UUs. My interaction and observation of some ministers led me to look favorably on the PB lack of formal ministers (not that I've been around a PB congregation.)

  3. Because he (the dog) has the nature of karmic delusions