Calling Revisited: The Perspective of the Church Fathers

One of the first topics I addressed on this blog was that of calling. I looked at questions about the nature of calling, what we really mean when we use the term, and whether we use it as it is used in the Bible. Feel free to take a look at the two earlier posts on the subject if you would like (I Hear Jesus Calling Part 1I Hear Jesus Calling Part 2).

In my church history class, as we’ve zoomed through important figures in the early eras of the church, an interesting theme has surfaced regarding calling. Someone in class mentioned it, and professor Marc Cortez gave us some helpful clarifying comments.

Among the figures we’ve looked at, there has been no indication of viewing calling as  a deep, personal feeling given by God. In fact, in looking specifically at the calling to pastoral ministry, or to the ordination as a bishop (which would have been the rough equivalent), almost universally, the church fathers did not want to be ordained, or at least did not seek it out for themselves. Calling to “ministry,” or in this case, church leadership, was not between a person and God, but was mediated either through the community of the church, or through the leaders of the church, or both. It would have been unheard of at this time for a Christian to approach their church leaders and tell them that they had been called to be a bishop or elder. What a radically different picture than what we see today!

Neither Chrysostom nor his friend Basil wanted to be ordained as bishops and even considered running away. John avoided it for a time by tricking his friend into being ordained without him.

In my previous posts, I suggested that what we usually term “calling” is more aptly described along the lines of “what God has prepared me to do for him” as opposed to an external, explicit call from God to a very specific task, such as was given to Paul or Isaiah. It would seem that in the early church, a call to church leadership was viewed as coming from God through the community rather than an individual feeling or leading from God. But is this the biblical way of things, and we have gone astray, or is it the other way around?

Almost certainly, the correct answer is not one or the other, but something between the two, as we are almost always out of balance one way or another. However, on first glance, I lean rather forcefully towards the model practiced by the church fathers.
It seems to follow the biblical model more closely (choosing of Matthias to replace Judas, choosing of Stephen and the others, etc.), and would also seem to swing the pendulum away from an overly individualized Christian life, which I think we suffer from in Western Christianity. I think that it would also lead to fewer Pastors who are entirely ungifted for the task. Unfortunately, in part due to the way we talk about calling, there are plenty of Christians who want to follow Jesus more closely and radically dedicate their lives to him, and they feel that the only way to really do that is to be a pastor or missionary. Thus they may head off to seminary with the best of intentions, but little gifting for the office to which they think they have been called. I tell you, as a seminary student, this seriously gives me pause.

This has been a bit of a ramble, but it is far too late for me to be writing, so you’ll have to forgive me. There is a great deal more to be explored here, and I must certainly do so soon, providing I can make the time.

Please share your thoughts with me.

When you think of the call to ministry, do you lean towards a call by the community, or an individual leading from God? Should those who have offered themselves up as candidates for church leadership take a step back? Is it proper for them to nominate themselves, or would it be better to love God with all you are, serve him with all your heart, and participate in leading the church only if you are called to do so by God, through the community, directed by the leadership of the church?

Can you think of any counter-examples from early church history that would speak to this discussion?

 

Pastor for Life

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:

Canon 15
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?

Pastor for Life

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:

Canon 15
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. It’s clear that there were those who did not have this conviction, or the law would not have been necessary, but the leader’s of the church did decide that staying put in one place was best. 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?