This post is part of an assignment for a Church History class. All quotes are from:
John Chrysostom, Graham Neville, and T. Allen Moxon. Six Books on the Priesthood. London: S.P.C.K., 1964.
St. John Chrysostom’s apologetic writing Six Books on the Priesthood is a pretty frank discussion concerning the vocation of ministry. In short, it is a lengthy dialogue about all the reasons someone should not answer such a call lightly…actually, it is a pretty scary look at the many, many, many challenges faced by those entering the priesthood. Don’t get me wrong, St. John holds the vocation of the minister in very high esteem which is exactly his reasoning for highlighting all of the reasons he is not worthy of it. Sure, we might be tempted to say, “Well, that was eons ago and so much is different now.” Is it though? Even the lightest skimming of this work would reveal that the challenges of ministry, personal and political, have not changed all that much. We, as a priesthood of many, still find ourselves navigating tricky political waters and we are often overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility and expectation that comes with faith leadership. All of this is highlighted in Six Books on the Priesthood; but, there is a powerful component to a minister’s qualifications that jumps off the page when I read through this work and it is profound, purifying humility.
St. John makes it clear that anyone entering into ministerial leadership should probably have no desire to do it or, at least, no desire to be famous for doing it. He compares ambition to slavery and explains, “I think a man must rid his mind of this ambition with all possible care, and not for a moment let it be governed by it, in order that he may always act with freedom.”  The idea here is that when we are motivated by ambition, we are also motivated by the fear of losing our authority or power and that is the recipe for slavery to ambition. Without ambition, the minister is more able to make choices and engage others with a fearless dedication to God’s will and not to the political manifestations of personal ambition. What does this mean for us in 2016? Well, we are living in a time of mega-churches, sparkly prosperity gospel, and political leadership that is directly linked to religious affiliation and all of these are the shackles of modern, ambition-driven, faith. If you don’t believe me, take a moment to look at the ways religiously motivated political leaders bend their standards to maintain power or even overlook blatant actions by those in power that are best labeled, “What would Jesus NOT do.” On a pretty large scale, we are witnesses to the damage ambition is doing to our faith and its leaders.
 John Chrysostom, Graham Neville, and T. Allen Moxon. Six Books on the Priesthood. London: S.P.C.K., 1964. Page 81
On a smaller scale, we can look at how the slavery of ambition is stealing the freedom of congregational ministers. I should offer the disclaimer that I am going to be Presbyterian specific here; but, I wager you can all generalize this out to other denominations. In the Presbyterian church, anyone who wants to enter ordained ministry has to jump through a multitude of hoops and each hoop is held firmly by human hands. As we seek to progress through the steps, there is always a very real possibility that a group of people who simply don’t like us, our views, or our identity itself could block the progress. So, the dilemma begins to take shape. We want to progress (ambition) and we know that we need to achieve majority votes to do so (slavery). So, can we be true to our faith, our call, or even our understanding of the Gospel without rocking some people’s boats? I doubt it. I am pretty convinced that St. John Chrysostom would doubt it also and would go so far as to imply that the judgement of those who find themselves on the receiving end of boat rocking can be pretty fierce.
Again, we find ourselves in an atmosphere that is ideal for imposing the slavery of ambition upon those in church leadership if only to maintain our own sense of predictable calm. When you combine the total weight of the macro-political environment and the micro-political, you get a paralyzed leadership afraid to speak to current events that may be risky and even more afraid to awaken the anger of those in power who disagree. In the complexity of this environment, St. John offers a path forward that is amazingly simple; it would seem that the antidote to all of this is purifying humility and a true distaste for fame. Political religion is a home to those who seek power and fame, and continually seek to preserve both, and that is the basis for their inability to remain consistent. In St. John’s mind, “…if he does not want to achieve fame in this position of authority, he will not dread its loss either.” That’s right, the ultimate freedom is the willingness to lose everything in glorifying God’s truth. This is the freedom that unchains the minds and the mouths of ministers and leads to an altruistic engagement between leaders and those they lead. Alas, St. John reminds us just how difficult this really is when he writes, “I don’t know whether anyone has ever succeeded in not enjoying praise.”
Of course, there is also the constraining way that we have come to view ministers themselves that leads us to counterproductive engagement. We want ministers to be famous. Many up and coming ministers view self-promotion and notoriety as an expectation. Many congregations have decided that the perfect, charismatic, preacher is the key to their survival. We have made humility a vice and taken it away as a possibility for ministers. To complicate things even further, we hold ministers and faith leaders to a set of oppressive standards that are land mines of disappointment waiting to explode at the slightest mistake. “Everyone wants to judge the priest, not as one clothed flesh, not as one possessing human nature, but as an angel, exempt from the frailty of others,” is St. John’s way of expressing the burden of expectation we place on religious leaders. Anyone who undertakes the journey toward spiritual leadership is likely to experience a dissonance between the reality of humanness and the expectations placed upon them by others. I am fearful, based on my own experience, that this may be the catalyst for a sense of unworthiness that drives a wedge between the minister and his or her faith. We simply cannot exist in a sinless purity, only one has ever been in that state and he would seek to remind us that we are recipients of God’s grace for this exact reason. Again, it is the presence of humility that offers the answer here. Humble leaders know that they are imperfect and capable of wrong, that is what binds them to those they lead in a mutual understanding of grace. However, we would do well to begin embracing the imperfection of our leaders before we rip them away from their sense of self-worth.
One other item that gives this aspiring minister pause is the weight of responsibility that comes with accepting God’s call. In his apologia, St. John makes an observation about his own fears that is as terrifying as it is eloquent:
I am afraid that if I receive the flock from Christ plump and well-fed and then damage it through ineptitude I may provoke against me God who so loved it that he gave himself for its salvation and redemption.
No pressure right? When we are called to ministry, we are called to a responsibility for the entirety of the flock God entrusts to us and that is an overwhelming thing to think about. Who would want that? This is exactly the point; it seems the height of arrogance to think for a moment that we are capable of such a daunting task. So, is this yet another of St. John’s impossible job duties? Perhaps; but, it may also be yet another place to inject humility in an effort to overcome the challenge. In fact, I can’t think of a greater lesson in humility. Earlier, I referred to a “priesthood of many” and this is one of the great virtues of Reformed faith. We understand the task of feeding the flock as a collective effort and not simply the task of one person. Of course, this only works when a minister is humble enough to admit that this task cannot be accomplished alone. The very presence of human beings in the work of caring for the flock make it prone to error and ineptitude. I think the open question that is left unanswered by St. John in this statement is whether or not God’s grace is bigger than any mistake we are destined to make. I like to think so.
It is not possible to cite every point or explain every idea we find in Six Books on the Priesthood and I, in a burst of humility, admit that I have barely scratched the surface here. However, this is a work that offers guidance to those who seek to become ministers as well as those who work with, listen to, and support ministers. For me, and for this post in this moment, I think the points that are most challenging and illuminating are a need to lack ambition, to not want the job as a matter of speaking, and a powerful need for humility in both approaching the role of the minster and the work of the minister. You have to not want it and you have to be sure that you are not going to be perfect at it. In my mind, the calling from God outweighs our sense of “why me” or “please not me.” I mean, how arrogant is it to refuse the call of God? Even that moment, the first instance of call, has to be met with every ounce of our humility.