Tilling God’s Field

THE LARGEST GREEK CITY OF ITS DAY, Corinth was a kind of crossroads connecting mainland Greece and the Peloponnese peninsula to the West. It had two harbors and therefore a good deal of maritime and commercial activity. It contained a thriving Jewish colony; a number of the Jews expelled from Rome in AD 49 had made their way to Corinth (Acts 18:2). There were believers in Jesus among them and Paul stayed with them, bringing the Gospel of Jesus to them, to the Jews at large and, when they rejected him, to the Gentiles.

When Paul left Corinth after 18 months there, he took his first collaborators there, Priscilla and Aquila, with him to Syria. It has been suggested that the departure of these pioneers paved the way for the dissentions that would attack the Corinthian Christians. Part of the community looked to the leadership of Apollos, its current elder. Others preferred the way things were when Paul was in charge and longed for the return of those days. Paul tries to end their conflict by stressing that both he and Apollos were only servants of the God who called them to believe. He challenged them with images meant to take their focus off the personalities of their pastors and put it back where it belonged: on the Lord.

Paul’s first image is of the Church as a field, with the pastors as its farmers. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6). The second image is that of a building under construction: “I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it.”

Individual workers at a construction site know that the result of their labors is greater than any individual one of them has achieved. The final product – the structure – is their work plus the underlying vision of the architect. The builders work together to realize, not their own ideas, but the planner’s concept of what the building should be.

When Visions Complete

To this day local communities suffer when a change of pastors results in a change of vision. The vision may change because the circumstances have changed. Thus a parish made up of third-generation members who all know one another finds itself with an influx of new immigrants. The old neighborhood may change and the parish find itself amidst people who might be brought to the church were the church more open to them and their culture.

The vision may also change because the new pastor simply prefers things a certain way, a way that contrasts with the parish’s existing practice. These may be small things, such as the new pastor wanting flowers behind the holy table rather than on it (or vice versa). They may be things that impact a larger number of people, such as when and where baptisms may be celebrated. Whatever the issue, the basic principle remains the same: what does the Architect want? Does what we want agree with what the Lord wants for His Church or are there other visions at work here? Do clergy and the parish council have conflicting visions of what they church should be? While we may think we are building the church with “gold, silver and precious stones” we may in fact be using “wood, hay and straw” (1 Corinthians 3:12).

Vision for a Local Church

A healthy local church as described in the New Testament is basically one in which everyone is exercising the Royal Priesthood to which we have all been admitted through our chrismation. In it there should be two distinct types of service, which since the first Church in Jerusalem have been sacramentalized in the orders of presbyter and deacon (Acts 6:1-6).

The first dimension is described in Acts 6:4 as “prayer and the ministry of the word,” essentially the ministry of the presbyter, but not limited to him. The traditional “spiritual works of mercy” are, in fact, all aspects of the priestly ministry of prayer and the word:

  • Admonishing the sinner.
  • Instructing the ignorant.
  • Counseling the unsettled.
  • Comforting the sorrowful.
  • Bearing wrongs patiently.
  • Forgiving all injuries, and
  • Praying for the living and the dead.

In the church, the pastor’s role is to insure that the members of the community have the opportunity to worship God and to prepare some of them to assist more actively in it as singers, altar servers, greeters, ushers, etc. “The ministry of the word” includes all forms of proclamation: preaching, evangelizing, catechizing, and publicizing the life of the Church. Here, too, members of the community may be prepared to take part in these activities. As with the liturgical ministries, the priest’s role is that of an enabler, “equipping the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12).

In addition to prayer and the ministry of the word, serving one’s neighbor has been an important task in the local Church since the beginning. The order of deacon was instituted to assume this ministry. The traditional “corporal works of mercy” are aspects of that ministry open to all, extending Christ’s compassion to the needs of this world:

  • Feeding the hungry.
  • Giving drink to the thirsty.
  • Sheltering the homeless.
  • Clothing the naked.
  • Visiting the sick.
  • Visiting the imprisoned, and
  • Burying the dead.

As the Church grew and acquired buildings and land, the deacons assumed care of these assets as well. There is an ever greater range of activities which can be developed under these umbrellas of serving one’s neighbor and care for the material resources of the Church.

The Royal Priesthood can be exercised in a local community when:

  • Opportunities to serve are afforded to all;
  • Those who wish to explore these ministries are welcomed and encouraged;
  • Those who seek to serve are trained to do so according to the norms of the eparchy.

What is the Vision of Your Church?

When the vision of a local community and the pastor support the scriptural vision outlined above, it is likely that they will build with “gold, silver and precious stones.” But what if:

  • There is an ethnic, social or economic clique dominating the parish?
  • People don’t want to serve but to be served?
  • Those who do want to serve are excluded or made to feel unwanted?
  • No one is willing to invest time to train or be trained for a particular ministry?

Then we can expect the results St Paul described: “…each one’s work will become clear” (1 Corinthians 3:13), but we don’t have to wait for “the Day” to reveal it. It will be obvious when people are not spiritually growing, when some people look for another church where there is a more vibrant spiritual life, when the young people in the community only show up for Pascha and family occasions.

Paul concludes his appeal to maintain unity with a warning: “If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (1 Corinthians 3:17). Factionalism in the church, pitting the followers of one leader against another, causing division where there should be an ever-deepening unity is a kind of sacrilege which cannot be ignored.