Guest commentary by Suzanne DeWitt Hall
Icons are images that are meant to act as windows through which we look to see God. Often pictures of Jesus, they are included in the faith practices of various Christian denominations. During the Protestant Reformation, images like these were destroyed in an effort to stamp out a worship of things other than God. This action of tearing down and rejecting perceived heresy is called iconoclasm, and in an era when the church universal is so desperately in need of reformation, it seems like it’s time for a new form of the practice.
Here’s what I think needs to be destroyed: the view of pastors as mini-gods.
We can’t seem to help it; we want our ministers to be pure, spotless and holy — or at least holier than us. We also want them to align with our individual views of what holiness means, and our views vary greatly, which makes an already impossible task even more ridiculously unachievable. If our pastors don’t live up to our image of mini-godliness and we see the cracks that let their humanity out, or when we realize their view of sanctity differs from ours, we either scream “off with their head!” or flee, finding a new god to better match our desires. We crave a better idol to hold up as neo-Emmanuel.
Without digging deeply into the historic roots of the problem, we can get an incense-tinged hint from Roman Catholicism. In Roman Catholic teaching, priests are believed to be standing “in persona Christi” (meaning “in the person of God”) when they offer communion, forgive sins, preach, teach and shepherd. The understanding in this teaching is that the true minister is Christ, as long as the priest was ordained through approved sacramental apostolic success. In Roman Catholicism and other high church traditions, clergy are garbed in ornate robes (and for bishops or higher, hats shaped like imperial crowns), which shine a spotlight on the idea of exalted holiness. They glow in white and gold, burn in red, exude royalty in purple and promise life in green. In the Presbyterian tradition, pastors typically pare vestments down to stoles, sometimes worn over a simple robe, as if trying to shake off the overwhelming weight of the miter. But we are endlessly eager to elevate our ministers to omniscient omnipotence even without the glittering raiment.
And we grumble or shout “crucify him!” when the tarnish shows.
This humans-as-idols model wasn’t what Jesus demonstrated. The apostles served together with the disciples, and their flaws were on display for all to see (and for Jesus to point out). Jesus never preached an episcopal structure or a priesthood of them-versus-us. But we mirrored the Jewish system that existed at the time, creating a royal structure of priests and elders, scribes, Sadducees, Pharisees and Sanhedrin, with each group scrawling slightly different words in the dirt about what it means to be holy. And so we have precarious pastors all over the country, like a Great Wall of Humpty Dumpties, preparing their Sunday sermons and awaiting their fall.
When a new shepherd arrives in a congregation, there’s usually one circle of people who work hard at pretending they are perfect — draping the wunderkind in the emperor’s new clothes and sublimating disappointments as they inevitably come. Another circle immediately begins counting the flaws, waiting for them to accumulate to a pile big enough to use as stones. Neither approach leaves space for the poor servant of God to be real or feel whole.
In Matthew 16, Jesus rebukes Peter for demanding God could not be weak and vulnerable when Peter tried to tell him he should not be crucified. Jesus responded that such a view was human rather than divine. If this is true for the Christ himself, how much more true must it be for the humans who seek to serve him as ministers in the world today? Why do we expect superhero endurance, wisdom and performance?
Having an expectation of superholiness is dangerous for pastors vulnerable to temptations of pride and power, and negligent of those who struggle with emotional, familial or personal issues and could use the support of the congregation. Hyper expectation discourages everyday folk who want to love and serve God but feel they aren’t good enough, and causes ministers to be banished or quit because they can’t meet an impossible standard.
What if instead of deifying pastors, we welcomed them in our churches as flawed co-laborers, fully human and charged with specific tasks for a congregation, but no more responsible for Christ’s ministry than you and I?
What if we could truly call these ministers friends as Jesus did with his full knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses, looking across to see them rather than up?
What if they were allowed to share their areas of brokenness with us as freely as we share ours with them?
What might Christianity become if we destroyed “clergyolotry” and instead served together with transparency, truth and freedom?
It’s time to smash some idols and reveal the full beautiful humanity within.
Who’s with me?
SUZANNE DEWITT HALL is a member of Grace Presbyterian Church in Crystal City, Missouri, where she co-leads a weekly meal ministry for people experiencing food insecurity. She is the author of the “Where True Love Is” LGBTQI+ devotional series and the “Rumplepimple” adventures. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.