The Unholy Distinction
It happened again three weeks ago at an outdoor wedding 10,000 feet high on a mountain in Colorado when one of the guests saw me fiddling with a battery-powered mike, there being no electricity as far as the eye could see. She came up and said, “Are you the…..uh…..you know, the…..what do I call you?” We had such a mix of religions up there that day that I could almost see her brain clicking through the possibilities — Rabbi? Father? Reverend? Pastor? — before she gave up on titles and simply picked a descriptive term she thought would be safe: “Are you the Minister?” When I confessed, she asked for some information, I gave it, and she melted back into a brave crowd of people who had almost destroyed their 4-wheel drive trucks on a 45-minute scramble up a rocky trail to witness a marriage. Her brief struggle with titles was a minor moment in an afternoon of marvelous moments, and I quickly forgot about it….until it came to mind again on the drive back to Wichita.
I remembered that in July and August I had delivered three sermons from this pulpit on how some of our traditional religious vocabulary can be misleading — the original meaning of the word saint , for example, and the word church , and what the real temple is in which God dwells — and I realized that there was one more left to complete that series. It has to do with the descriptive term the woman at the wedding finally settled on, still another word we now use quite differently from the way the early church used it. The distinction we now make between clergy and laity, the way we use the word minister to refer to one special class, was unknown among the earliest Christian churches.
When Paul speaks of becoming a “minister” of the Gospel, the Greek word he uses is (diakonos) and it means simply servant . [Col.1:23] The word is still non-technical, a descriptive term and not yet an official title. An early church did not have a single person who bore the title of The Minister; all the members were ministers or servants. Timothy was a minister who preached, Nympha was a minister when she opened her home as a meeting place. I squirmed one day when I heard a seminary president tell a group of graduating preachers that they were “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation….” He was quoting from a New Testament epistle (1 Peter) but the words were written to people like you, not to a select few who had chosen to preach.
Everywhere in the New Testament the idea is the same: the church is not an organization served by one or two ministers, but a collection of ministers (that is, believers who serve). Because we don’t know this, or perhaps because we so easily forget it, we often talk about what we call a “lay” ministry, a word which is used to describe a non-ordained, non-seminary-trained preacher. But there is no ministry other than lay ministry, because the word laity comes from laos , meaning “the people,” and those like Gary and me who preach are of the people and not separate from them. It’s true that given a very different tradition and theology, a Roman Catholic priest can properly talk about a layperson. We probably shouldn’t if we remember how the church was meant to function at first.
Newspapers write about a “ministerial shortage.” The early church could not have imagined such a problem because every member of the church was a minister. I read only yesterday about a church that is “currently without a minister.” In terms of early Christian usage, that would be like saying “a congregation without a member.” I understand, of course, that words come to have different connotations as people use them over long periods of time, and that only a terribly naive person would suppose it possible to turn back the clock, but I do think it can be useful to revisit a time in Christian history before professionalism changed the face of the church.
I know a Methodist minister who identifies the congregation in his bulletin’s responsive readings as “all the ministers of this church,” and then identifies himself as “the pulpit minister.” In other words, one of the many — the one called to serve with his mouth. He has the right idea, although his crusade is as quixotic as this sermon, and not likely to change Christian vocabulary or practice. He does, however, have support from some of his peers, and I feel a little more comfortable this morning to know that I am not alone in my sense of how rhetoric can affect reality. There isn’t time to read supporting statements from J. B. Phillips, John Stott, Michael Green, the late C. S. Lewis, and others who have known the Scriptures so well, but here is a short summary of their views from an Anglican church official who spoke these words to a congregation in Coventry, England: “All orders are holy. Plumbers are as much in holy orders as the clergy, serving god and their fellows. Electricians, parkkeepers, doctors and typists are all working as much with the things of God as the priest with the sacrament.” I’d love hearing that confession made more often. This man is not of our church, but he speaks a classic Congregational idea.
And another Anglican, in the country where Congregationalism was born, writes a stinging paragraph of support in the London Church Times. Here is Bishop Stephen Bayne: “There is nobody stuffier than a parson who is acutely conscious of the privileges of his order, of his monopoly of theological learning, liturgical authority, general sanctity, and so on. The worst of it is that the laity so often believe in all this nonsense, and put the sacred ministry on a pedestal, until they feel that the only way a [person can serve God is by being ordained.” I think Mr. Bayne was not quite ready to give up his title, but he came close to saying that ALL believers have EQUAL access to God, that HIS prayers have no more clout than YOURS — but that is not a popular idea.
One of the small token gestures I use to make from time to time toward implementing this idea of the priesthood of all believers, the ministry of all the saints was a request to Board presidents, and the church Moderator, and the program directors for Cooks Night Out and other special functions, that they not invariably call on me to open meetings with prayer, but invite other ministers around theroom to address God. They have humored me at times — bless them for their tolerance and good will — and the result has been some prayers of simple eloquence by male and female servants of God — diakonoi, ministers — whose sincerity and devotion blessed us that day. But someone always worries that perhaps the preaching minister will feel slighted if we do not make him or her the Professional Prayermaker, and so again and again we fall back on the convention of turning automatically to that person. I shall wish it were not so as long as I live, because it deprives the other member-ministers present of a chance to shape their heart’s desire in words, and by doing so, to grow in spiritual leadership.
I heard a young man speak the other day of his plans to “enter the ministry.” He is a teacher, and I wanted to say, “You are already in the ministry,” but I try to save remarks like that for Sunday mornings when there’s a chance I may be understood and forgiven for peculiar idealism. I believe absolutely that it takes far more of the patience and wisdom and love of Christ to teach Middle School students than to hire out to an upper-class church in the suburbs or dash off to Switzerland as a missionary. It’s much harder, in my view, to be a Christian minister of medicine or politics or the environment, than it is to deliver sermons in a church where most people in the audience already share your views and love you and want you to succeed.
And to pick one more kind of ministry, think what a marvelous opportunity the Christian nurse has to serve her faith. She can say to patients when she tucks them in at night, “God bless you and give you a good night’s sleep, and I shall remember you in my prayers,” and it can be extraordinarily comforting simply because she is not a religious professional and such mercies are unexpected. Years ago, when I was recovering from surgery, it was fine to have the chaplain fulfill the obligations of his profession and stop by to say Hello, but I’ll tell you what was really impressive and unforgettable. That was when Dr. John Kiser, who had not been my surgeon, took time from his very busy schedule to go buy a book he thought I would like and to bring it to my hospital room. I was formally ordained, he wasn’t, but in that moment he was as truly a minister of the Gospel as the most eloquent preacher you have ever heard.
I have to believe Jesus was thinking in this vein when in the middle of a scorching sermon he said of the professional clergy of his time, “They love to be greeted with respect in public places and to have people call them Rabbi.” That was a coveted title among his own people, but here is the radical young reformer warning his little band how religous titles make artificial distsinctions about importance in God’s sight. “Don’t let people call you Rabbi or you may forget that there is only one. In religion, don’t call any man on earth your Father , because only God deserves that title.” Question: Would he now mention some of those other titles that woman at the mountain wedding ran through while trying to figure out what to call me?
When my daughter was a student at KU she used to join a thousand other students on Sunday mornings to hear the Rev. Ron Sundbye preach in his Methodist church. On those rare occasions when we could be in Lawrence on a Sunday, Billie and I would go with her. He said one day that he often felt his title cut him off from real life. “Once people find out you’re a Reverend ,” he said, “they begin acting differently. They think they have to discuss religion, or ask for a prayer, or be very nicey-nice, or — and this is more common — get away from you as soon as possible.” He said, “I shall never forget a call I made when I was at my church in Topeka. I went to see a famly about joining the church. The man, apparently, was expecting someone else and had forgotten all about our appointment. After I rang the doorbell, he came to the door with a beer can which he shoved in my face as he shouted, ‘Hi!” When I said, ‘Hi, I’m Reverend Sundbye,’ he shouted, ‘O my god!’ and leaped back into the house. It was a full five minutes before he could bring himself to let me in.”
This exceptionally capable Methodist minister said he would like to live for a while without a title that even when it is spoken with deference or affection can have an alienating effect on some of the people one would like to know. I can sympathize with that. There is a clerk at Home Depot who knows that I preach and who intends to compliment me when I show up in a line by shouting, “Good morning, Reverend!” He only means to be friendly and to make me happy, but I can feel a physical spasm hit hard-working customers with whom I’ve been talking while we waited in line. They stiffen slightly and get a little more cautious in their speech, not quite sure how to relate to someone just revealed as a professional holy man. In the perceptive words of Emerson, my title, my calling, had had the unfortunate effect of disfranchising me from the real lives of ordinary people. As a wise old preacher told me once, long ago, it is one of the hazards of the profession.
You will misunderstand what I’m saying, completely, if you think my words are meant to diminish the importance of sincere and well-informed men and women who minister from a pulpit. I love what I do. I love the reading and the challenge of trying to shape a message that might be useful to you. I like the feel of interaction with an audience, the psychology of our special kind of relationship. What I do here, I tell myself, has some value. But I cannot treat a heart patient or write a legal brief or use an electron-scanning microscope, and when members of this church do these things in service to others they, too, are Christian ministers. I am only one among many, and it is my deepest conviction that we fulfill the dream of Christ when on each Sunday morning what we have in this church is a gathering.of ministers.
Anone who stands in a pulpit should remember often the declaration of Jesus that it is not those who say his name over and over in public places who are the truest of ministers, but those who actually do in the mundane daily business of life the will of God. St. Francis knew how the best sermons are preached, how deeds are more dependable than pious talk. He said something like this once: You should preach the gospel at all times. Sometimes you may even use words.“
Gracious Lord, as we separate now to minister in all our different ways,
strengthen our resolve to make quiet but effective testimony to the
power of love. Amen.