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Don’t Make Me Lead the Church?

As I look into the annals of our church family, I stumbled upon this obvious, yet profound, theme.

downloadPachomius (d. 348), after being discharged from the military, found his way to a life of solitude in the desert. He and his followers were committed to never holding church office.

St. Anthony of the Desert (d. 356) committed himself to a life of solitude and prayer. He avoided church leadership issues, but his fame led to gossip about his doctrinal beliefs. His only involvement in local church life in the city ended up being him having to clear his name.

Athanasius (d. 373) was a church bishop, but chose to order his life by the rhythms of the monastery. Whenever he was in trouble in church politics, he would run to the desert for spiritual and relational peace. 

Basil the Great (d. 379) was ordained an elder against his will! Conflict drove him back to the monastic life. But then he was elected bishop, which was followed by direct conflict with the Roman Emperor. As a bishop, he championed (you guessed it) the monastic life of solitude!

st-gregory-nazBasil’s friend Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390) was forced to become a bishop by Basil. He didn’t want the job – he preferred a life of contemplation. Gregory was so sad being a pastor that he left his local church. But, he was such a great thinker that his influence became known in the high places of power in the Empire. He was then called by Theodosius to become bishop of Constantinople. He didn’t want that job, either…and, sure enough, as soon as he assumed that role other church leaders started hammering him on some policy and procedure issues. So, he resigned yet again, and went back to little Naziansus to be a song-writer at his original local church.

Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394), Basil’s younger brother, was an introvert. He enjoyed anonymity and solitude. His big brother Basil forced him against his will to become a bishop (why do these guys keep doing that?). But major conflicts ensued, so he went into hiding. Emperor Theodosius found him, read his amazing theological writings, and obliged him to travel all over the empire teaching doctrine. Gregory always felt this was a huge distraction to what he really wanted – a life of solitude.

Martin of Tours (d. 397) was also a military man. After he was released from the army, he, too, settled into the monastic life. When Tours needed a bishop, the people elected Martin to the post. But even though he took the position, he chose to live his life like a monk, not like a prestigious church leader. He eventually felt the need to move out of the city.

Ambrose (d. 397) didn’t want to be a bishop, but one night the crowd in Milan demanded that he take the job! He tried hard to dissuade the people. He then tried to escape. Finally, the Emperor himself let it be known that Ambrose would be bishop, like it or not. So, begrudgingly, he accepted the role – all this before he was even baptized!

John Chrysostum (d. 407) was a lawyer-turned-monk who happened to be a great preacher. He was so good that people couldn’t accept the fact that he wanted to live in simple solitude. He was preaching in Antioch when he was kidnapped and taken to Constantinople, because the Emperor wanted him as the bishop there. As a monk committed to poverty, the glitz of the Roman capital turned his stomach…and he preached about it. More conflict! From there he was turned on by other bishops, banished from the city, and even exiled, where he died from failing health.

Jerome (d. 420) was a monk, who then became a church leader. He did incredible work as a Bible translator and theologian. But his work in the church drove him to depression. He made a lot of theological enemies, and spent the last 10 years of this life lonely, in a lot of pain, and surrounded by controversy.

Augustine (d. 430), from the time he became a Christian, wanted a life of solitude. He was on that path when he was ordained in the church of Hippo against his will.

Obvious, isn’t it? Everyone craved solitude! The great leaders of the Imperial church all realized something: Following Jesus is the one thing to be desired above all else … and being a leader in the local church is huge distraction to that simple pursuit! And their experience was that church leadership worked against that desire, not for it.

I’ve been a Christian now for 39 years. I went to Christian college and graduate school. I’ve been pastoring for over two decades. In my lifetime, I have never met another man or woman who shares this ancient conviction. “I would much rather live a life of solitude than be a leader in the church.” No, what I experience instead is an almost insatiable desire to be in the throes of church life, preferably as the senior leader of the church.

I’ve also experienced in my ministry career that local church life is fraught with peril, especially for the pastors. When church conflict is at its peaks, rich community life and shared spirituality ebb. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.

I truly believe that, if I could get all these “great uncles” together in my living room, they would tell me, “Bill, don’t let life in the church keep you from the main thing of knowing Jesus deeply. Leave ministry leadership if you have to. Don’t lose it! Because it’s the best.”

I wish I could have heard from you guys sooner.

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Uncle Augustine – Unity of the Church

Uncle Augustine – Unity of the Church

As an orphan searching for his family, I was pointed to one old uncle who everyone seems to like. I thought that would be a safe way to begin.

Uncle Augustine (St. Augustine) is a very smart African Christian who lived from 354-430. Everyone seems to love him – Protestants, Catholics…even the Eastern church venerates him as a “saint”. He was a late-in-life convert at 32. He had a Christian mom (Monica, e.g. Santa Monica, the city in the Los Angeles area), but his dad was pagan. His was a well-to-do family, so a good education was made available to him. He loved literature, philosophy, and rhetoric. He also liked the ladies, a had a baby out of wedlock during his teen years.

He became a rhetoric teacher in Carthage, and eventually moved to the big city of Rome to teach there. In Rome, and then in Milan, he was encouraged by his mother and some friends to check out Christianity. He was inspired by some writings from Church history. He heard the preaching of the Bishop of Milan, Ambrose, which was very influential to him. But what put him over the edge was his reading of the book of Romans. Ambrose baptized Augustine, and the 44-year ministry career was on!

So much more to say – but for now, I want to share with you one of Augustine’s ideas that shines some much-needed light on our contemporary family – and on me.

Augustine and the Donatists

In Augustine’s day, the church had a problem: It was splitting. The issues were intense. There was a group that had broken away from the one, unified church because they thought that some of church leaders had disqualified themselves by what they perceived as the sin of apostasy – of denying Christ when the heat was on. They said that, since these leaders were defiled, they could not lead communion services. So they ordained their own leaders, and started “doing church” on their own, apart from the one, internationally connected church.

Fast forward to 2013. Whatever, right? This happens all the time in the Christianity we know today – it couldn’t be more “normal.” Any idea of some sort of single, universal church is long gone. New churches start every day, with new leaders being “sent” by whichever local church organization with whom they happen to be connected. No one cries “foul”. How can we? Our politically-induced freedom of religious expression has translated to the total freedom of Christian expression. There seem to be no rules, and – by virtue of our contemporary world view – we are obliged to honor all such expressions.

Augustine takes issue, and turns the whole leadership/sacraments argument on its head. See if this makes sense to you:

Ancient Eucharist“Although this sacrifice is made or offered by man [cf., communion], still the sacrifice is a divine act … The whole redeemed community, the congregation and fellowship of the saints, is offered as a universal sacrifice to God by the great priest who offered himself … that we might be the Body of so great a Head … so the Apostle exhorted us to ‘present our bodies as a living sacrifice’ … we ourselves are the whole sacrifice … this is the sacrifice of Christians; the ‘many who are one body in Christ’.” (City of God 10:5-6)

I’ve always understood communion as God giving me the body of Jesus. Jesus is the sacrifice, and I’m the recipient of it. Nod with me if that’s what you’ve always thought…

But Augustine says we are the sacrifice at the table. Not that we are broken and bleed for the sins of the world – that would, of course, be heresy. But Jesus said “This is my body” about the Eucharist. He also says “This is my body” about us, His people.

“The reason why these are called sacraments is that one thing is seen in them, but something else is understood … listen to the repeated teaching of the Apostle; for he says, ‘We are many, but we are one loaf, one body’ … So the Lord has set his mark on us, wished us to belong to him, has consecrated on his table the mystery of our peace and unity.” (Sermon 272)

I’ve never thought this way before: That celebrating communion is a celebration of our unity as a people! He goes on to say,

“If a man receives the sacrament of unity, but does not ‘keep the bond of peace’, he does not receive a sacrament for his benefit, but evidence for his condemnation.” (Sermon 272)

In other words, if people celebrate a unity they aren’t actually doing, it does you more harm than good.

Yikes.

a plate full of small, individual “loafs” – an icon of our times?

Every Sunday, hundreds of thousands of tables are set with versions of the Lord’s Supper. People take for a variety of reasons. Some believe it is the transubstantiated host which fills them with grace. For others, a mystical encounter with Jesus. Others see it simply as a memory device to remind them of the crucifixion. For others, it is truly a mindless act of religious ritual. Christians have split numerous times over the interpretation of this sacrament…

Which makes Uncle Augustine’s insistence all the more ironic in our day. Communion is a “sacrament of unity.” When we hold that bread, it is a piece of the one loaf – the one “body of Christ” – of which we are a part. But the Protestant world, like the splitters in Augustine’s time, live in conscious, active division. Our many denominations are a testimony to the fact that we are not one body. And that our communion is not universal. And that there is not one loaf.

Now, I walk to the table, and see that bread there. The body of Christ. Am I a part of it? Or, as a spiritual orphan, am I and my church tradition so hopelessly severed from the unified body of Christ that the bread’s conveys to me a word of judgment, not of benefit?

I’ll be spending more time with Uncle Augustine. But one thing I’ve learned from him already is that there are those from our past who took the unity of the church way more seriously than we do today. I wonder what he would think if he could see our modern church. If his heart and convictions are right, what should we do?

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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