At the Council of Nicea, the gathered leaders of the church agreed upon a number of canon laws in addition to the Creed that they formulated. Canon number 15 is particularly interesting and reads as follows:
On account of the great disturbance and discords that occur, it is decreed that the custom prevailing in certain places contrary to the Canon, must wholly be done away; so that neither bishop, presbyter, nor deacon shall pass from city to city. And if any one, after this decree of the holy and great Synod, shall attempt any such thing, or continue in any such course, his proceedings shall be utterly void, and he shall be restored to the Church for which he was ordained bishop or presbyter.
As we discussed this in class, we weren’t sure exactly what kind of disturbance and discords were happening at the time, although we came up with a number of good ideas. However, regardless of the events that necessitated this kind of a law, we were taken aback by the vast difference between this and normal Christian practice today.
Have you ever known a pastor who stayed at the same church for the entirety of their ministry career? They certainly exist, but rarely. It seems much more common for pastors to move from one church to another after a few years, or even to take a job at a small church to get their feet wet in order to eventually move on to a larger congregation.
My professor, Marc Cortez, suggested that the church at this time took very seriously the relationship between a pastor (or bishop as they were called at the time) and their congregation. So serious, that once they accepted the call to lead a church in a particular city, they were committed there for life, for better or worse. There is something about this type of radical commitment that resonates very deeply in me. I wouldn’t want to make it a rule, and would not be entirely sure of how to practice it today, but a deep commitment to proclaiming the gospel to and shepherding one group of people in one place for a lifetime sounds like an incredibly rich situation for growing in following Jesus in community.
I wonder what this would look like in American evangelicalism today. If this kind of commitment to a particular group of people was THE choice for pastors, or for those who wanted to minister and lead in the local church, how many would take the plunge?
Obviously there are a great many differences between the church then and our churches today. A great many factors would stand in the way of this kind of rigidity. However, if this is one side of the spectrum, are we not far on the other, and not in a place of tension in between two extremes? At best, pastors look to the Holy Spirit for direction and discernment when the question of moving on to another church or opportunity, while at worst, a pastor might feel no commitment to a congregation whatsoever, and seek only personal advancement. However, for those pastors who are seeking to follow Jesus in all that they do and to be faithful ministers of the gospel, it doesn’t seem like staying with one congregation for their entire ministry career is seen as much of a priority.
So, at it’s best, is the current model an example of people more in tune with the Spirit moving them from one ministry context to another, or is there something more to this idea of longevity of service in one context? Has the pendulum swung too far from this sort of radical commitment so that pastors might up and take a position at a new church in a new place because of better weather, higher pay, or more skilled musicians?