IN EVERY AGE believers have stressed one or another aspect of the Christian experience. In the last hundred years we have seen increasing emphasis on the Church as community. It is the Body of Christ one in many members. It is the People of God, the new Israel, the fellowship in the Holy Spirit. The Church is no longer primarily identified with physical structures or with the clergy. Rather in our day we are continually reminded that “…you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you” (1 Corinthians 3:l6).
One aspect of this re-emphasis on the teaching of the Scripture and the Fathers has been that more and more people have been drawn into service in the Church. Some ancient ministries, such as deacon, subdeacon, or cantor, have been revived or received greater emphasis. Other, newer roles have taken on greater importance: catechist, youth minister or ministers to the sick or the aging.
The New Testament witnesses to an abundance of ministries in the apostolic Churches. St Paul encourages people to use the gifts they have been given in oneness of love: “he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness” (Romans 12:8). Clearly St Paul is not speaking about “Church professionals” here – there were none. Everyone, he taught, has a gift and therefore everyone has a ministry.
The revival of such practices in the modern Church dovetails with our post-Enlightenment stress on democracy: everyone has a say, everyone votes, everyone serves. While our “volunteer army,” however, has a rigorous boot camp, people often have assumed tasks in the Church or been given them by their pastors without any adequate preparation. Because adults know more than children, for example, it is sometimes assumed that any adult can be a catechist. Because a person is “nice” to their friends or relatives, it may be taken for granted that he or she would make a good doorkeeper or greeter. In some communities the resulting distorted practices have become “traditional.”
While some clergy have encouraged people to assume responsibilities without preparation, others still refuse to let laypeople assume any significant duties in the church. It is easier, they say, to do things themselves since they will have to do everything over anyway. Neither of these approaches will lead a parish to the Scriptural model of a mature congregation. In spiritually strong Churches, preparation for ministry is essential. It is not enough to say “come and do.”
“Equipping the Saints”
St Paul indicates the goal of parish life and the proper course of action to be taken to achieve it. “[Christ] Himself gave some to be prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the Body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God…” (Ephesians 4:11-13). The goal is “the unity of the faith,” for which we also pray in the Divine Liturgy. The means by which this is achieved is the work of ministry exercised by the “saints” (in Biblical terminology, those who have been made holy by their Baptism).
The saints, however, have to be equipped for the work of ministry and this is the task of the “pastors and teachers,” those we call the clergy today. To “equip” for the work of ministry means more than giving praise and encouragement, or even providing the basic materials required for the service in question. To equip the saints for the work of ministry means to form them in the spirituality of the Church and the place of their ministry in its life.
Repentance and Ministry
The first aspect in any formation of the saints is the same first step Christ used in the formation of His apostles: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Many people have a loyalty to their parish based on their family or ethnic connection or on their own investment of time and energy over the years. Their connection to their parish may be stronger than their connection to the Church or to Christ. For a mature service, oriented to developing the unity of faith, more is required.
Anyone ministering in the Church – anyone serious about their faith – must be a person committed to spending the rest of their life in peace and repentance, as our liturgical prayers indicate. In English and other European languages repentance suggests looking backwards: doing penance for the wrongs you have done. Not so in Greek, the language of the New Testament. There to repent means to change the focus of your life, to look ahead with a new vision. St. Paul, for example, urges, “…do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our lord Jesus Christ…” (Ephesians 5:18-20). Do not simple regret your old behavior: replace it with new behavior in Christ.
Repentance, “the discarding of the old, earthly man, and on the other hand, the ‘putting on of the new man who is restored by the energy of the Most Holy Spirit” is nothing other than the life of baptism renewed each day. Each time we receive the Eucharist we in effect revive our baptismal commitment. A life spent in peace and repentance renews that commitment every day.
Ministry in the Church is not simply another task in our life. People in the Church looking for spiritual leadership should expect that those in ministry are serving out of a deeper than ordinary faith. Sometimes this does not seem to be so. Church service is too often marred by the presence of the “old, earthly man” in us. The result is frequently a clash of personalities or a partisan spirit leading to cliques or even splits in the community. Instead of leading to unity in faith, Church service becomes fertile ground for the Enemy. Only when Church servants are striving to put on the “new man” every day can such conflicts be avoided.
Service in the Church, then, is for all believers, for all have received gifts which have been given to build up the Body of Christ. And the bedrock of any service in the Church for all believers is repentance, adopting the outlook on life of a “new man,” a person united to God in Christ.
St. Symeon the New Theologian