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Complete Confidence and Godly Grief: Leadership for the Presbyterian Future

Most scholars agree that after Paul's painful second visit to the Corinthians, during which he was bitterly attacked by someone about something, he left to cool off, then decided not to pay another visit right away and wrote a letter instead, the so-called letter of tears that is either lost or preserved only in fragments in what we now call second Corinthians.

He sent this letter, which among other things apparently sought reconciliation with the one who wronged him, to Corinth with Titus, who reported back its healing effects. In second Corinthians, Paul writes as follows about the whole experience and his delight at the outcome. Most of these words are from ch. 7 (9-16); a few I’ve added from parts of the second and third chapters that are closely related:

Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief [overwhelms with excessive sorrow (2:7) and] produces death.

We rejoice still more at the joy of Titus . . . . His heart goes out all the more to you, as he remembers the obedience of all of you, and how you welcomed him with fear and trembling. I rejoice, because I have complete confidence in you. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ, in God (3:4).

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I want to take a hard look at the Presbyterian Church’s model of ministry, both the theory our denomination announces and the practice it displays. Many claim that our current model is firmly anchored in Reformed theological tradition. I’m not sure that our favored conception of ministry does draw on the best Christian and Reformed understandings, so I will use Second Corinthians and a bit Calvin to examine our image and practice of ministry and perhaps to correct them.

What is our dominant image or idea of ministry? In a recent public statement, our section of the Formula of Agreement, we declare what is the Presbyterian stake in the ordering of ministry by quoting from the Confession of 1967:

A presbyterian polity recognizes the responsibility of all members for ministry . . . and seeks to protect the church from every exploitation by ecclesiastical or secular power ambition. Every church order must be open to such reformation as may be required to make it a more effective instrument of the mission of reconciliation.

I know C67 contains other, positive statements about ministry, though, interestingly, they are shorter than the disclaimer section quoted in the Formula, and their language, compared with other parts of the confession, is pedestrian. I think that the differences are significant: the prevalent Presbyterian theory of ministry is dominated by the conviction that it is a calling that no one can be trusted to handle. Our reasoning goes like this. The church is a great gift. It was established by God to expedite salvation, to be the means by which the covenant made with one people is offered to all people, joining them into one household, growing them into one body. Churches, in Reformed tradition, are constituted by the word rightly divided and proclaimed and by the sacraments properly administered. For the church to function, indeed, for it even to exist in a particular place and time, someone has to carry out this saving work. Unfortunately, only human beings are available for the job, and they are imperfect, perversely inclined to use God’s gifts, including the gift of their call from God, against God’s purposes. These propensities combined with the fearsome power that ministry entails to constitute the church create the danger, even the likelihood, of abuse. It is from such abuse, such “exploitation by every kind of . . . [evil] ambition” that the polity and the administrative and judicial systems you operate are supposed to “protect the church.”

This view of ministry as a necessary evil from which the church must protect itself gives life in the Presbyterian Church today a regulatory quality that is most evident in the ferocity with which we hunt down and prosecute sexual offenses. The left and right wings of the church have different prime targets, but we are united in our certainty that those who deviate from what we understand to be the highest standard of sexual behavior must be barred or removed from office, lest they infect the rest of us with what we seem to think is the deadliest form of moral corruption. Fear of the harm that ordained persons, especially ministers, might do pervades many other facets of church life in other ways that are just as deep if less immediately obvious. We have adopted iron-clad systems of rotation that almost guarantee a high level of amateurism in key functions, such as the supervision of candidates for ministry, because we are not willing to risk the accumulation of power that might result from leaving people in place long enough for them to develop expertise. We send signals that long tenure, especially in the pastorate, is unhealthy. We assign executive staff heavy responsibilities but no religious authority, no place at all in the system of ordained offices.

Many would argue that our defensive posture toward the ministry is simply the reformed way, features of the pattern of polity laid down by Calvin. Those who think this point to the portions of the Institutes in which Calvin denounces the results of permitting those who run the church system also to exercise religious authority and to the sections in which he rails against the priests, and especially bishops and pope, who hold their double roles, religious and administrative, for life. We forget, however, that before Calvin embarks on his tirade against the Roman church and its leadership, he gives a very different account of ministry, one of the most beautiful and moving in all of Christian literature. He reminds his readers that God did not have to make us agents in each other’s salvation. God has the power to act directly to save us. Or God might have employed the angels to that end. Instead, God chose human beings to proclaim the word and to distribute God’s gifts to God’s people.

Why? Calvin gives three reasons. To make us holy: the word of God proceeds from us, Calvin writes, as from a sanctuary. The word makes the body that participates in proclaiming it a holy temple. A second reason: to teach us humility, because the word of our salvation comes from others like ourselves, or “it may be,” Calvin says, “from our inferiors in worth.” And most of all, God has done this to unite us to each other in love. Nothing is “fitter to cherish mutual charity than to bind [persons] together by this tie, appointing one of them to be pastor to teach the others” (Book IV, Ch. III [1]). Calvin concludes that ministry is “the principal bond by which believers are kept together in one body…. For neither are the light and heat of the sun, nor meat and drink, so necessary to sustain and cherish the present life, as is the apostolical and pastoral office to preserve a Church in the earth” (Book IV, Ch. III [2]).

I want to lift up an alternative conception of ministry to the one that now dominates the life of our denomination, the picture of ministry as a necessary evil that the church must constantly police, constrain and purge. Our worldly grief about ministry is overwhelming us with excessive sorrow. It is, in Paul’s terms, killing the ministry and paralyzing the church. The alternative model is infused with a very different spirit, one evoked by Calvin’s eloquence: ministry is indeed a necessity, but not a tragic or regrettable one. It is necessary, Calvin says, to “sustain and cherish [our] life…and to preserve a church in the earth.” Ministry is God’s providence, and our proper first response is not fear, suspicion or vigilance. Our first response should be gratitude and joy.

Calvin’s model of ministry, which is firmly rooted in his strong sense of its dignity and grace, draws on the most powerful theological themes in what has come to be called Reformed tradition, but Calvin did not invent the model. This is the same picture of Christian life and leadership that Paul projects to the Corinthians. Its center is confidence, complete confidence in others and in their promise for ministry. Paul wrote his lament, his letter of tears, trusting in the power of Christ not only to repair the breach between him and the Corinthians, but also to enable them and the offender to forgive each other. Seeing their faithfulness, the earnestness of their repentance, he is overcome with pride in them and joy for them. The community that was estranged from him has, with God’s help, become his minister. Its actions confirm for him the total confidence he has in Christ, and he is delighted.

Paul’s and Calvin’s model of ministry is rooted in trust — trust that God equips for ministry and God gives others the grace to minister to us. Paul and Calvin, in sharp contrast to most of us today, expect the best of their fellow church leaders, look first for the good they will do, and are grateful in advance for the gifts they count on receiving from them. It is not that they think that all Corinthians or all ministers are smart, cool and competent and hold correct opinions. Paul had been attacked by an out-of-control Corinthian member or hanger-on. Calvin is quite clear that some ministers are “inferiors in worth.” It is not human beings in their natural state, but God’s power, and God’s decision to confer it on human intermediaries, beginning with God’s son, that Paul and Calvin trust: Such, writes Paul, is the confidence that we have through Christ, in God.

Paul and Calvin were confident in others’ God-given capacities for leadership, but they were also famously unsentimental about human potential. Both had incontrovertible evidence that human beings are disposed to take God’s most generous gifts and turn them into idols that then compete with God for human loyalty and love. They found this evidence, first and foremost, in themselves. “All of us,” says Calvin, “have that within which deserves the hatred of God.” “I am chief among sinners,” writes someone on behalf of Paul. If these towering leaders are inescapably depraved, what about the rest of us? Isn’t the church in real danger of being corrupted by the corruptible nature of its ministers?

Yes, it is, and sorrow and fear are a fitting response to the awful truth about the sinful tendencies of even the best ministers. But both Paul and Calvin advise that the first focus of our alarm and our sadness must be ourselves, not others. The Corinthian community was restored not by worldly grief that accuses and punishes others, cutting them off so that the purity of the body may be restored, but rather by self-directed godly grief that lead to repentance and salvation. Calvin applies this principle to the ministry: a key ingredient of the inward call, what certifies that it does not arise from avarice, ambition or selfish feeling, is the fear of God — “religious fear,” he calls it. A call to ministry, he says, is a compelling order to “edify the church.” We must identify in ourselves, and seek the grace to repent and change — cut out, cut away — anything that prevents us from doing that (Book IV, Ch. III [11, 12]).

Trust God’s goodness in others; fear and grieve your own sins. That is the radical approach to church leadership proposed by Paul and Calvin — radical in the sense that it inverts our current model, which requires us to pour most of our energy into proclaiming our own correctness and righteousness and then to spend the rest of our efforts exposing the error and misconduct of others; radical also because it is as deeply rooted as it can be in Christian and Reformed tradition.

Before I conclude, I want to add a personal note. Because I am known to hold liberal views, some may be tempted to interpret the model I have been advocating as traditional liberal advice to the rest of you to loosen up. Nothing could be further from my intention. It is true that I think that the efforts of many in the church, including a lot of conservatives, to regulate the ministry into excellence are theologically misguided and doomed to fail. But in promoting this model I am also criticizing my own liberal habit of sidestepping the question of holiness and the self-discipline it requires — indeed, of avoiding the topic of sin except in the most general and collective sense. The reform of ministry along the lines of God’s intention for it will, in my view, require profound changes in attitudes and practices on all sides.

What difference would it make for the future of the church if we were to adopt this radical old model as our ideal of leadership? I do not want to claim too much. The deck of social and cultural trends is heavily stacked these days against mainline success in ministerial recruitment and other areas that involve measurable amounts of people, money or social power. Yet real advantages might be gained by revising our attitudes toward ministry. On the negative side, perhaps fewer young people would turn away from ministry. It surprises me that no one has advanced the plausible hypothesis that the current atmosphere of fear and mistrust hurts our efforts to attract people to the profession. Whether or not Presbyterian young people agree with the detailed sexual ethic we have turned into official doctrine, they may be reluctant to assume leadership positions that require them not only to live by that doctrine but also to impose it harshly on others.

Much more important are the positive benefits that the model I have sketched offers all who accept a call to lead in the church. Imagine, friends, just imagine, what it would be like to be part of a company of church leaders who routinely look for, learn from, even expect the best from each other, not because they know their fellow ministers to be wonderful people, but because God continues to call people to ministry and to give the charisms for it. Imagine what it would be like to be part of a community whose members regularly impose on themselves the discipline of clearing their conscience, not because they fear humiliating exposure, but because they want to avoid something far worse, separation from a God who lavishes on them saving grace through forgiveness.

Imagine offering young people, caught in a culture that crushes them between the deadly twin pressures of self-aggrandizement and self-protection — imagine offering them instead this winning combination, complete confidence in each other in Christ, plus the opportunity for honest grieving of sins that leads to salvation. Profound, generous trust in the faithfulness of others, and deep, searching honesty about one’s own failures in faith. I would like to live in a church that offers that dignified and graceful image of ministry to its leaders and members, and I suspect that many, many others would too.


BARBARA G. WHEELER is president, Auburn Seminary, New York City.