2007-05-10

Coaches and Parents, Body and Bones.

Coaches and Parents, Body and Bones.
A Theological Sermon on Ordered Ministry and the Structure of the Church
Copyright 2007 © Nathan L. Bostian

[1] Our Cultural Problem with Authority.

In an age when many consider putting on a belt and a button-up shirt "dressing up", it an be quite a culture shock to walk into a sacramental church and find a priest wearing a tab-collar, a robe, and a stole that drapes down off of her neck. If a bishop is present, wearing his flame-shaped, miter hat, and carrying his large shepherd's staff, it can be an even greater shock.

Our natural reaction, as folks living in a consumer culture with a democratic government, is to ask: Why on Earth are they wearing THAT? Why are they standing up front, preaching, teaching, and praying? Who do they think they are?

Now, the shock is not really because what they are wearing is strange. We are tolerant people living in an accepting age, and we see actors on TV and teenagers at the mall wearing much stranger things. The shock is actually due to what the clothing represents, not what the clothing is. The clothing represents something we are not. It represents a certain authority.

For the priest, the tab-collar says that she has a different vocation- a different calling in life- that her neck is yoked to. Her identity is yoked to Christ, serving Him as an elder in His Church. That is, after all, what "priest" means. It comes from the Greek word for "elder": pres-byoo-ter-os. Her stole reminds us of the towel ancient servants would hang around their necks, with which they would wash their master's feet and house. It means that she is a servant of the servants of God.

For the bishop, the pointy, flame-shaped miter represents that he is anointed with the same Spirit of flame that descended upon the Apostles [1]. It means that he is a successor of the Apostles, and he shares in their authority [2]. Likewise, his large shepherd's staff says that he is "chief shepherd" of the Church in his region (which is usually called his "diocese") [3].

And, one of the reasons this disturbs us is because, in a distorted way, our assumptions about authority and social position come from the Bible. In several places the Bible makes the astonishing claim that everyone in Christ is a "priest" of God [4]. It says that being baptized into Christ erases structures of social oppression so that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female", but we are all one in Christ, and equally God's children [5].

Our culture has erased the need to be "in Christ", and declared all people equal, period. From this flows many good gifts: Civil rights, freedom, and democracy. But, this non-Christian concept of freedom forgets that we have rights because we are made in God's image. Thus we forget that God has the right to order our lives. So, we do what we want, completely forgetting Who makes us free and why.

[2] Structure flows from the Identity of the Church.

Yet, the idea of authority and ordered ministry does not flow from our rights, but from God's. It is God's right to define how His Church functions. This makes sense if we remember the foundational images of the Church.

Scripture often speaks of the Church as something like an army [1]. Armies have a definite authority structure. If everyone was a general, the army couldn't march! A similar analogy is a team. Football teams have to have a coach to lead players with separate positions. There may only be one quarterback and six linemen, but they will loose if the linemen keep trying to pass the ball! Every position is an equal member, but all have different functions.

The Church is also called the Family of God [2]. We are God's "children", and Christ's "bride" [3]. And even in this family, the Bible calls some "fathers" and others "little children" [4]. And while the organization of a team or an army is somewhat arbitrary (after all, a lineman could sub-in as quarterback if he really had to), the organization of a family is not.

By age, origin, and DNA, some are grandfathers and grandmothers, some are fathers and mothers, some are older siblings, and some are children. You can't sub-in mom for granddad, or your brother for your mother. All are equal members, with different places.

Finally, the Bible says the Church is the "Body of Christ" [5]. This does not mean that we are simply a group of free individuals who got together to form a club, and then called it a "body". It means that there is a Reality, of which Christ is really the head, and into which we are incorporated by faith and baptism as individual "cells" or "members" [6].

This means that just like any body, the Body of Christ has different organs which contribute to the health of the whole. And Christ has made one of these organs into something like a skeleton, which gives form to the Body, which the muscles attach to, to do the work of the Body. All organs are equal members, but they need the skeleton to work.

[3] From Apostles to Bishops, to Priests, to Deacons.

When Christ ordained and commissioned his apostles, he was beginning this skeleton [1]. He sent them out to grow His Body by bringing new members- new cells- to be part of His life. These apostles, in turn, ordained overseers to continue their ministry around the world [2]. The Greek word for overseer- "e-pis-ko-pos"- was later changed to the Latin "bis-co-pus", and then became our English word "bishop".

These early bishops were given whole cities and regions to oversee, which later developed into a system of dioceses. And, as early as Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus, we find bishops ordaining elders to be extensions of their ministry in local congregations within their diocese [3]. Also, following the Apostles' example, early bishops ordained ministers to take care of the physical needs of God's people, such as teaching and leading the Church in acts of charity [4].

The Greek word for "minister" is "diakonos", from which we get "deacon" [5]. So, when we see bishops, priests, and deacons, we are seeing the growth and continuation of Christ's structure for his Body. And, there are not three skeletons. Bishops, priests, and deacons all share in same skeleton that holds the Church together. It is this ordered, ordained skeleton that the other organs and muscle cells attach to, so Christ's Body can reach out to the world.

And Jesus only ordained one organ of leadership: His Apostles [6]. These Apostles gave their authority and function to the bishops that they ordained [7]. This is why one early bishop wrote "where the bishop is, there the Church is" [8]. The bishop is a sacrament, who re-presents Christ to his people, and represents his people to Christ [9]. Priests and deacons only exist as extensions of the bishop, performing local functions that he cannot do because of the size of the diocese.

[4] The Roles of Clergy and Laity.

This explains the difference between "clergy" and "laity", and why one cannot be Church without the other. Clergy comes from the Greek word "kleros", which means "specially chosen". Clergy are those specially chosen by Christ, through His Church, to be this skeleton [1]. Laity comes from the Greek word "laos", meaning "people" [2]. The clergy give the Body form, so that the laity can function as Christ's muscles and organs.

You cannot have a healthy Body without both. Without the clergy, the Body is a blob. Without the laity, the Body is a dead, dried up mummy. So we can see why ALL Christians are priests in one sense [3]. In English, the word "priest" represents two Greek words. One word means "elder", but the other word means "one who mediates between humans and God through sacrifice" [4].

Because we are ALL cells in the Body, we all function together as Christ's hands and feet doing His work, sacrificing ourselves to help others. We are ALL priests in the second sense, and we all act as mediators between Christ, who is our head, and humanity, who He is reaching out to save. But, only some are chosen as priests in the first sense to be part of His "skeleton".

Now, if we look at the Church as God's Family, we also understand a few other things about the difference between clergy and laity. At family meals, it is the parent who sits at the head of the table and presides over dinner. It is usually the parent who resolves conflict and has the authority to discipline. And it is the parent who is the primary teacher.

When one of the children becomes the "elder sibling", then parents often delegate responsibilities to them. They may help younger siblings, or do chores for the parents. Thus, in God's Family it is the "elder" or "parent" who has the responsibility of presiding over the family meal of communion. They have the duty of teaching and discipline as well. And deacons act as "elder siblings" by serving God's children, and helping them serve the world.

This is why we often call our priests "mother" or "father" [5]. It is healthy as long as we remember that their parenthood and teaching flows from our Father God, and our Teacher Christ, and is not their own. An unhealthy view of clergy comes when we forget that they are merely mirrors of God's authority and organs in Christ's Body, and we begin to "idolize" them as THE Father or THE Teacher [6].

Clergy are also our "shepherds" or "pastors" [7]. They have the responsibility to lead God's sometimes-stubborn flock to healthy food and living water, to defend them from wolves, and rescue the lost sheep. By seeing clergy as parents and shepherds, we can understand the self-sacrificial lifestyle, and God-given authority, that comes with God's call to ministry.

[5] The Roles of the Bishop, Priest, and Deacon.

Thus, the bishop is our "grandparent" in the faith, responsible for guarding the unity, discipline, teaching, and mission in the regional family of a diocese. Within that diocese, priests are our "parents" who celebrate communion, teach, and shepherd local Church families (usually called parishes or congregations). And deacons are our "brothers" and "sisters" who teach God's children to live as Christ, and help them reach into their communities to serve the needy [1].

And, if the Church is a team, then the clergy are our "coaches". It is not the coach's job to play the game, but to empower the team to play together effectively. Thus, clergy are not supposed to DO everything- or even most things- in the Church. Rather, it is their job to teach us and "equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ, until we all come to… the full stature of Christ." [2]

If there is a problem in a parish, the local priest generally handles it. If that problem grows larger, it is the responsibility of the bishop. And, if a problem affects the Church nationally or worldwide, then bishops follow the early Church who called a council of "apostles and elders" to decide tough issues [3]. Led by the Holy Spirit, bishops will meet together in regional or worldwide councils, and make decisions that are binding on the faith and life of the Church [4].

[6] Identifying clergy.

Now, the question becomes "Who can become clergy?" And the answer is both personal and communal. Personally, someone may feel specially called by God, and they may have individual experiences which lead them to feel like God made them to be clergy. But since clergy are members of the Body, it takes the whole Body to recognize this call [1].

Thus, the Body, led by our bishops, will often look for people to become clergy who have Christlike character, who believe in Scripture and the teaching of the Church, and who exhibit special gifts, such as preaching, teaching, counseling or administration [2]. These three categories- character, doctrine, and ministry gifts- are the primary indicators someone may be called to be clergy.

Some traditions say that only unmarried people may become clergy, but the early Church had ministers and even apostles who were married [3]. And while being unmarried may help some clergy focus solely on ministry [4], it is evident that there are many situations where married clergy can more effectively minister, such as family and marriage counseling.

Also, many traditions exclude women from ministry on the basis of Biblical passages that seem to prohibit women from speaking in Church, teaching, or holding authority over men [5]. But a quick look at the original languages shows that these texts speak specifically about marriage problems between husbands and wives. When Scripture speaks of men and women in general, it uses more generic words for "male" and "female" [6].

Thus in Genesis, men and women are equally made in God's image [7]. In Romans, we are equally infected with sin [8]. And in Galatians, we are equally redeemed in Christ [9]. Several passages make it clear that women taught, preached, ministered, led local Churches, and were "among the apostles" in the early Church [10]. It just makes sense that if the Church reflects redeemed humanity, it should embody the fullness of God's image through male and female leadership.

Thus, men and women, married and unmarried, are identified by the Church as potential clergy. After much training and interviewing, these people can be ordained into the "ordered ministry" as deacons. If they continue to show a calling and ability to be a priest, they may be ordained to that order. And, if the Church recognizes that a priest has unique gifts which indicate God has called them to shepherd a diocese, they may be ordained as bishops.

At this point it becomes personal. What ministry are YOU called to? It is not a question of IF you are called. We all are called. It is a question of who God has made you to be. Where do you fit in the Body? Are you a muscle? An organ? Part of His skeleton? How will you fulfill your vocation as a Christian- a "little Christ"? May Christ Himself guide you in prayer and discernment as you ask yourself, and your Church, this question.

[Endnotes in comments section]
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.