Learning to Minister: John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood

The past year has been an interesting one for pastors in North America. A series of colossal moral failures from famous pastors is matched only by the rash of recent pastoral suicides. The heartbreak on one side and the outrage on the other leaves many pastors simultaneously sympathetic and disappointed. In that dark valley, pastors, too, search for answers to pressing questions. Why has this happened in our day and time? Is something devastatingly wrong with our models of ministry or conception of the church? At the most basic level, what is ministry really all about?  More personally, how can I make it as a pastor in this day and age?

In the midst of questions like these, we need sane guides for pastoral ministry in our current milieu. We need voices that can speak about the pastoral vocation with a clarity and sensibility that is hard to find. I confess that it is hard to find because there are not many pastors writing about pastoral ministry today. Don’t misunderstand me. There are pastors writing today, but, valuable as some of their writing is, most of it has very little to do with the ministry of the pastor.

To find sane guides for pastoral ministry, we will need to look elsewhere, to other times and places. For the last year or so I have been searching out those voices. One of those I recently listened to was St. John Chrysostom through his brief work entitled On the Priesthood. John Chrysostom, whose life stretched from 349-407, was the renowned Patriarch of Constantinople, dubbed “the golden mouth” for his power as a preacher. His writings take up six volumes of the first series of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (outmatched only by St. Augustine of Hippo’s eight volumes), mostly due to his extensive homilies on the Scripture.

His small work On the Priesthood is an apology for the serious nature of pastoral (or priestly) ministry, particularly elevation to the calling of the bishop. The book is structured around a dialogue between Chrysostom and his friend, Basil, based around an event centering on Basil and John’s election and forced ordination to the bishopric. While foreign to us, such a situation was more common in their time. John eludes elevation while Basil, thinking that John had given in to ordination, submits and becomes a bishop, only to find out later that John had avoided it entirely. Some scholars debate whether the dialogue structure and situation are historically true or a fictitious creation or literary device to discuss the heart of the book, which is all about “the pre-eminent dignity, and sanctity of the priestly officer and the peculiar difficulties and perils which beset it.”

While I have no desire to summarize it, one particularly interesting aspect of the book is just how much effort Chrysostom gives to describing reasons why someone might want to avoid pastoral ministry. Since the situation giving rise to the book is a justification for Chrysostom’s avoidance of forced ordination to the bishopric, he makes a strong case for how one might avoid the calling to ministry due to the difficulty and dangers of ministry, significant pressures of caring for the flock, the requirement of a excellence of spirit, and even love for Christ. If only we had more frequent mention of these warnings before entry to ministry today, we may have warded off some who entered ministry more for the sake of their own reputation or personal gain than for the sake of Christ.

When discussing the temptations that come upon the pastor, Chrysostom does not hold back. The minister is to be a person of high character with “a healthy, robust soul” (83). The minister must always be alert and attentive. “A priest must be sober and clear-sighted and possess a thousand eyes looking in every direction, for he lives, not for himself alone, but for a great multitude” (82). It is not merely the activities of ministry that are required of the minister, but deep attention to their own soul, for ministry will reveal all that we are  not just what we can do. “The priest’s shortcomings simply cannot be concealed. On the contrary, even the most trivial soon get known” (85).

Again, it is to the character of the pastor that Chrysostom returns again and again, even when discussing the necessary tasks of ministry, such as visiting widows or the sick, enforcing church discipline, and preaching. What sort of character should the pastor have?

Consider, then, what qualities a man needs if he is to withstand such a tempest and deal successfully with these obstacles to the common good. He must be dignified yet modest, impressive yet kindly, masterful yet approachable, impartial yet courteous, humble but not servile, vehement yet gentle, in order that he may be able calmly to resist all these dangers and to promote a suitable man with full authority, even though everyone opposes him, and reject an unsuitable man with equal authority, even though everyone favours him. One thing alone he must consider: the edification of the Church. (93)

Chrysostom holds up a weighty list that may feel overwhelming to pastors. But he does not stop there. He also holds up the eternal rewards and punishments for the pastor who does or does not undertake his ministry well, referencing more than once the words of the Apostle James: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).

It is understandable that the book ends with significant attention to the ministry of the Word. This is a primary responsibility of the pastor, but also a primary interest for John Chrysostom himself, whose renown is largely linked with his powerful ministry of preaching. In another place on my blog, I shared a passage from Chrysostom’s call for the preacher to seek to please God more than pleasing humans, which is one example of his dual attention to the craft of preaching and the character of the preacher.

If you read this short work you will feel at times like it has arrived from another planet, whether due to the situation that gave rise to writing it, comments on women in the church, or other cultural uniquenesses. However, other passages come across just as relevant to our own day as if they were written by an astute pastor observing the struggles of the twenty-first century North American church in its crisis of ministry. As contemporary pastors, may God give us ears to hear the old voices, like that of St. John Chrysostom, echoing strong and sturdy with time-tested truths about pastoral ministry. And may we not only hear it, but heed it as we live out our calling in a confused time.

2 thoughts on “Learning to Minister: John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood

  1. Thank you for your courage in openly sharing the standards that you strive for without regard to the focus it may bring to your ministry, disregarding whether human opinion as to your success or failure the goal. Please know that the feeble feedback you may experience when you preach is deceptive. Your congregation is cheering you in our hearts and gaining insight and knowledge from your style of preaching.

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